In this 1997 essay, contemporary educational reform is offered as an illustration of not only the destructive effects of capitalist modernization, but also of the ambiguity of a “libertarian” concept of progress (exemplified by “the recuperable side” of May ‘68) that often only serves to facilitate and justify capitalism’s elimination of traditional structures of human society (customs, family, etc.) that once shielded humanity from the noxious effects of the ongoing realization of capitalism’s “negative utopia” (an “anthropological impossibility”) that reduces humans to “monads” of “enlightened self-interest”.
The School of Ignorance and Its Modern Conditions – Jean-Claude Michéa
“Nowadays we everywhere seek to propagate wisdom: who knows whether in a couple of centuries there may not exist universities for restoring the old ignorance.”
“If there is any chance we can make others listen to us, it is by making our discourse as emphatic as possible. That is why we are so emphatic here. The fortunate era when we can do without this method, when we can avoid exaggeration and act soberly, has not yet arrived.”
Günther Anders, "The Bomb" (1956)
These days, when an author departs from the dominant version of reality with respect to two or three important points, he is often exposed not just to the malevolence of the mainstream critics, who are only doing their jobs, but also to a certain degree of incomprehension or misunderstanding on the part of the public. Therefore, in order to minimize the impact of this inconvenience, he is obliged to multiply clarifications, references, and explanations, that is, in practice, to multiply the number of footnotes, a practice that is not always well received by the reader. In order to simplify the latter’s task as much as possible, I have established two distinct types of notes. First, those that are followed by a superscript numeral (1) should be read concurrently with the text. The others, which are followed by superscript capital letters in brackets ([A]), are to be found grouped together at the end of the book and are designed to be read separately. This is undoubtedly an imperfect solution, but I think (perhaps incorrectly) that it is motivated not so much by my own manias as by the current epoch.
In 1979, Christopher Lasch, one of the most penetrating minds of the twentieth century, described the decline of the U.S. educational system in the following terms:
“Mass education, which began as a promising attempt to democratize the higher culture of the privileged classes, has ended by stupefying the privileged themselves. Modern society has achieved unprecedented rates of formal literacy, but at the same time has produced new forms of illiteracy. People increasingly find themselves unable to use language with ease and precision, to recall the basic facts of their country’s history, to make logical deductions, to understand any but the most rudimentary written texts, or even to grasp their constitutional rights.”1
Twenty years later, we have to admit that a good part of these critiques could be applied to our own situation.2 It is obvious that this is not just a coincidence. The crisis of what used to be called the “Republican School” can no longer be separated from the crisis that is affecting contemporary society as a whole. This crisis is undoubtedly part of the same historical movement that is also disintegrating families, degrading the material and social existence of towns and neighborhoods,3 and in general is gradually destroying all the forms of civility that, even up until a few decades ago, still conditioned a large part of human relations. Ultimately, this observation, totally banal in itself, might not have any consequences (or might even entail ambiguous consequences), if it did not permit us to grasp in addition the nature of this modern society, that is, to understand the logic that rules its movement. Only then will it be possible to ascertain the degree to which the current progress of ignorance, far from being the product of a deplorable dysfunction of our society, has become a necessary condition for its own expansion.
The pages of this book are intended to serve as a brief corroboration of this hypothesis, although I am fully aware of the fact that many people will consider it to be totally implausible.4
At the beginning of Capital, Marx defines modern societies as “those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails”. This definition is valid if one adds a few qualifications that are, it is true, hardly Marxist.
The attribution of a precise date to the birth of the “capitalist mode of production” is one of the common points of disagreement in contemporary historiography. Braudel summarizes the problem by claiming, humorously, that the date should be situated “somewhere between 1400 and 1800”. In fact, the existence of mercantile classes with a high level of development—sometimes sustained by extremely sophisticated financial techniques—is by no means the exclusive property of modern Europe. Ancient Mesopotamia, Iraq during the Abbasid Caliphate and China during the Song Dynasty, to cite only the classic examples, underwent phases of economic expansion that in many respects anticipated the capitalist system.5 Nonetheless, the conditions of the modern West have proven to be the only ones capable of giving birth to and further developing the idea of “capitalist society”. Without the gradual internalization of this idea—and of its corresponding imaginary—on the part of an increasing number of economic agents and political leaders, the capitalist systemization of previously existing mercantile activities would never have become a complete philosophical program: beginning with the methodical and patient effort of “disembedding” (Polanyi), homogenizing and synchronizing the various types of existing markets, an effort that was devoted to the practical implementation of the hypothesis, which up until that time had been a purely theoretical one, of a unified and self-regulating Market. The definition of such a philosophical program, however, as Hirschman6 convincingly argues, is not only linked to the political problems that confronted the European monarchies of the era; its intellectual implementation would have posed an impossible task without the existence of a theoretical configuration that only the West possessed: the ideal of the experimental natural sciences. For the intellectuals of the 18th century, the greatest example of this ideal, which had been elaborated during the previous century, was the rational mechanics of Newton.
The invention of Political Economy, that is, the “science” of the wealth of nations which ultimately sought to provide an indisputable political basis for the decisions of Princes (and this is just how they viewed it), is what effectively constitutes the principal symbolic condition without which no capitalist system could have been put into practice.7 Similarly, the absence of a founding myth for these characteristics explains why the other societies,8 regardless of how highly developed their commercial relations were, had no knowledge of the exclusively western concept of the Rational State (the future scientific government of the positivists). This idea was in fact the only one that could serve as a basis for the political decision to gradually construct the empirical conditions of the economic hypothesis, that is, of the capitalist “system”. This is why the latter would not begin its long and much-resisted history until the 18th century, and was able to do so only because of the specific contradictions which, during that era, characterized the state apparatus of the European monarchies.9
The theoretical apparatus of Political Economy is based on an idea that is at once simple and ingenious: in order to automatically guarantee Peace, Prosperity and Happiness—the three immemorial dreams of humanity—all we need to do is abolish everything that, in the customs, habits and laws of existing societies,10 acts as an obstacle to the “natural” play of the Market, that is, to its unrestrained functioning without dead time. To develop this hypothesis and to formulate the “laws” that have the apparent rigor of those announced by Newton, the economist was compelled, in one way or another, to describe men as “social atoms” (or “monads”), in constant movement and driven by only one consideration: that of their enlightened self-interest.11 Thus, the theoretical and practical validity of this premise depends, naturally, on the real propensity of individuals to function in the way required by the theory, that is, as nomadic and atomized beings.12 That is why the establishment of the liberal economy (this term is a pleonasm) first paradoxically requires the a priori institution of a political authority with enough power to boldly eliminate all the obstacles that religion, right and custom oppose to the “disembedding” of the market and its unification across all borders. It also requires that a practical existence be conferred upon the corresponding anthropological form: that of the completely “rational” individual, that is, one that is egotistical and calculating, and therefore free of “prejudices”, “superstitions” and “archaisms” which, according to the liberal hypothesis, inevitably generate every type of relationship, sense of community and sense of belonging that exists in practice.
As we can observe, the project of economic “science”—as Paul Lafargue calls it in "The Religion of Capital"—cannot be considered in isolation from the modern representations of reason as the privileged instrument of egotistical calculation, in other words, as a natural authority that is capable of orienting the subject with regard to “what is useful to him” (Spinoza) and ordering the tempest of his passions to his advantage. It is this philosophical idea—one that is very different from that of the ancient “Logos”—which allows us, for example, to understand the disturbing observation made by Hume, who said that “`[t]is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”.13 This could serve as the motto of the financial markets. This also explains why Engels could view the triumph of this kind of reason as the “idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie”.14 [B]
“It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for. Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase…. And if we didn’t get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.”
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1845)
Now we understand the terrible originality of the capitalist paradigm, to whose empire all the communities of the world must submit. Egoistic interest, which Political Economy tends to perceive as the sole rational motivation for human conduct, is precisely the only form of activity that by itself will never be able to constitute what Nietzsche called a value. For a value (whether honor, friendship, devotion to a craft or community and, more generally, any kind of solidarity or civility)15 is, by definition, something in the name of which an individual can decide, when the circumstances require it, to sacrifice all or part of his interests and even, in certain conditions, his own life. In other words, the readiness of man to sacrifice, to renunciation, and to the gift, is the principal condition for granting a meaning to his own life, which, otherwise, would only be defined by the codes of biology. Similarly, as everyone knows, unlike animals, “man is not born with the sense of his life already laid out”.16 This necessarily implies that human society is not possible unless it has previously imagined and instituted “the normative frameworks by means of which the individuals of successive generations attain the status of humans”.17
Thus, it is mostly structural reasons that prevent a “capitalist society” in the real meaning of the word from existing, or from ever existing. It is an authentic anthropological impossibility. A system whose ideal conditions of functioning refer exclusively, by definition, to enlightened self-interest, is constitutionally incapable of elaborating the core meanings that any human community needs to exist.18 [C] In fact, the capitalist system has only been able to historically establish itself in practice in western societies, and then developed in the way we are familiar with, thanks to the fact that in each stage of its history it extracted the values and the habits it needed from an entire treasure trove of civil attitudes—ancient and modern—that it was incapable of creating by itself. As Castoriadis correctly reminds us, “capitalism has inherited these anthropological types from previous historical periods: the incorruptible judge, the Weberian civil servant, the teacher devoted to his task, the worker whose work was, in spite of everything, a source of pride. Such personalities are becoming inconceivable in the contemporary age: it is not clear why today they would be reproduced, who would reproduce them, and in the name of what they would function.”19
Thus, a capitalist system is only historically viable—and is even capable, in this respect, of generalizing throughout all of society certain indisputably emancipatory effects of commodity exchange [D]—if the communities where it imposes its power are strong and vital enough to contain within themselves the anthropologically destructive effects of the autonomized economy. If, however, some type of historical power should really be capable of imposing something other than partial and limited applications, in other words, if the economic hypothesis ceases to be what it essentially was, that is, an ingenious utopia, then humanity would have to prepare itself to face an unspeakable life20 and infinite evils.
The history of the last thirty years is precisely the history of the Promethean efforts made by the new global elites to bring about such an impossible society at any price.
Now that it is disappearing from our lives, and soon from our memories, we shall have a somewhat better understanding of just what the modern world was up until recently. What configured its complexity, beyond the ritual simplifications of ideology, was precisely that permanent contradiction between the universal rules of the capitalist system and the civility native to the different societies in which the capitalist system had been put into practice.
It was, then, a world where the “capitalist mode of production” was far from reigning absolutely.21 A vast ensemble of ecological, anthropological and moral conditions subsisted alongside it where, undoubtedly, the worst could be found together with the best. It was, however, a world in which, from our current perspective, we may perceive that if these conditions made possible a higher degree of capitalist production this is because of the extent to which, in their different ways, they made it possible to limit or cushion the blow of its most destructive effects. In essence, this complex historical set of conditions is what allows us to understand the constitutive ambiguity of most of the institutions of the epoch, beginning with the Republican School itself.
One of the decisive functions of the Republican School was obviously to subject the youth to the imperatives of the New Order, that is, to the nascent reign of commodity universality and its technical and scientific conditions. We shall cite the example—there are many others—of the obstinate struggle of the secular school against the patois (regional dialects) and against the distinct popular and local traditions which, from a capitalist point of view, are always archaic and irrational by definition. It was also a place where—this time for reasons that were essentially derived from the distant historical origins of the institution—forms of authoritarian discipline, surveillance and control were all too frequently exercised, and which were undoubtedly incompatible with what was required for the dignity of modern individuals. At the same time, however, this Republican School really was concerned, and sincerely so, with transmitting a certain set of knowledge, virtues and attitudes which, in themselves, were completely independent of the capitalist order. So, for example, we would be hard pressed to deduce the teaching of Latin, Greek, literature or philosophy, from the demands imposed by the accumulation of Capital. In reality, everyone knows that truly assimilated classical culture, nourished, for example, on the models of classical value or the works of universal critical intelligence, has at least the same possibilities of creating people like Marc Bloch or Jean Cavaillès as it does of creating spectators without any intellectual curiosity or consumers ready to offer their complete collaboration with the seductive empire of consumer goods.22
This fragile historical compromise, upon which, with greater or lesser success, all the different modern societies were based, is the same one that was being steadily shattered during the course of the unforgettable sixties.23
“Hurry, comrade, hurry: the old world is right behind you!”
In the French context, it was undoubtedly the events of May ’68—considered from their recuperable side, that is, their dominant aspect24 —that represented the privileged and emblematic moment of that aggiornamento of modern society. It was the Great Liberal-Libertarian Cultural Revolution (according to the excellent expression coined by Serge July, although for him this was praise) which provoked the total and absolute delegitimation of the multiple expressions of precapitalist sociality. In truth, these expressions, due to their nature and extremely diverse origins and their unequal importance, formed a historical and cultural whole that cannot possibly be simplified. By universally decreeing their identical archaism, the intellectual arms were forged that were necessary for demanding their immediate identical disappearance. [F] It was as if, by way of one of those all too visibly prodigal ruses of commodity reason, the abolition of all the cultural obstacles to the unanswerable power of the Economy was paradoxically presented as the principal duty of the anti-capitalist revolution. It must be pointed out that the marvelous sensation of happiness that came from all of that, in which the whole world was invited to cast off its most bothersome past, guaranteed some of its participants various psychological benefits that had a very real appearance. By piously submitting to the most sacred mandates of the modern Tablets of the Law—it is forbidden to forbid—the youth of the new middle classes, who in their majority played the leading roles (and who are still doing so after the passage of so many years), effectively discovered a liberty that was made to measure: the liberty to radically break—at least in the consciousness they had of things25 —with all the obligations that are implied by relationships, belonging to a community, and more generally, any linguistic, moral or cultural legacy. This is obviously the intoxicating feeling, the one we want to eternally experience, the one that, at first, is always associated with this type of break.
It was in these radically new conditions, and based on the metaphysics of desire and the corresponding kind of happiness, when Consumption, which had previously only been a particular moment of human activity, could finally become what it currently is everywhere: a complete way of life—the obsessive and pathetic quest for the always-deferred enjoyment of the Object that one lacks—demanded as such in practice and celebrated in fantasy as an emancipatory counterculture: I want it all and I want it right now! Take your desires for realities! Enjoy without limits and live without dead time! and thousands of other Oedipal stupidities that were soon converted into the raw material of the advertising agencies.
If we were not already so well acquainted with the shocking power of alienation, we would still be wondering—after so much time has passed—how anyone could not have seen right up to the end what could not fail to be constructed on this magnificent tabula rasa.26 Obviously, the latter constituted the ideal basis upon which the great predators of industry, the media and finance, with the complicity of their international institutions (World Bank, IMF, OECD, G7 and then the WTO, etc.) and the collaboration, more or less enthusiastic, of all the western political classes, could undertake, with complete intellectual tranquility, the construction of a synthetic cyber-society, whose only serious command is the very ancient slogan of the Intendant of Commerce, Gournay (1715-1759): Laisser faire, laisser passer.
Now we can understand, in all its sad historical truth, the movement that, for the last thirty years, has transformed the School in the same way. Simultaneously invoking the “democratization of education” (an absolute lie27 ) and the “necessary adaptation to the modern world” (a half-truth), what is being built by way of all these equally bad reforms is the School of total capitalism, that is, one of the decisive logistical foundations on the basis of which the major transnational corporations—once its process of general restructuring is complete—will be able to prosecute, with all the desired efficacy, the economic world war of the 21st century.
If you were to still harbor the least doubt in this respect, or if you think that what I have said here is an exaggeration, you need only—in accordance with the recommendations of Machiavelli—adopt for a moment the enemy’s point of view and ask yourself what this enemy is condemned to desire given its condition. This effort of verification is fortunately simplified by the fact that the warlords of the warring kingdoms of the world economy, with all their armies of jurists and lawyers, must constantly meet to coordinate their rival strategies and to see to it that what they quite correctly call the governability of this world is never threatened. Hence the existence of a certain number of reports, documents, minutes, special reports, memoranda or mere testimonials which, although they hardly ever reach the general public, are still, at least for now, partially accessible to curious minds and stubborn researchers.28
This was the case, for example, in September 1995, when, under the aegis of the Gorbachev Foundation, “five hundred leading politicians, businessmen and scientists”29 who considered themselves the world’s elite, met at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to share their points of view on the destiny of the new civilization. Given its purpose, the forum was governed by the desire to achieve the most rigorous efficiency: “There are strict rules designed to minimize rhetorical ballast: those introducing a subject for debate are given just five minutes, and no contribution is supposed to last for longer than two.”30 Once these ground rules were established, the assembly began by acknowledging, as an obvious fact that did not merit discussion, that “in the next century, 20 percent of the population will suffice to keep the world economy going”. Starting from such a sincere foundation, the forum was able to strictly formulate the main political problem that will confront the capitalist system over the next few decades: how will the world elite be able to continue to govern the eighty percent of surplus humanity, whose uselessness has been programmed by liberal logic?
After the debate, the solution that was finally imposed as the most reasonable was the one proposed by Zbigniew Brzezinski31 under the name of tittytainment. This portmanteau word simply defines a “mixture of deadening entertainment and adequate nourishment [to] keep the world’s frustrated population in relatively good spirits”. This scornful and cynical analysis32 possesses the obvious advantage of defining, with all the clarity that could be desired, the specifications that the world elites assign to the school of the 21st century. Starting from the basis of this analysis, one can deduce, with a minimal margin of error, the a priori forms of any reform destined to reconfigure the educational apparatus exclusively in accordance with the political and financial interests of Capital. Let us take a quick look at this game.
First of all, it is obvious that a system with these characteristics will have to preserve a sector of excellence, devoted to the training of the various scientific, technical and managerial elites at the highest levels. These will become increasingly necessary as the world economic war intensifies.
These poles of excellence, with necessarily very selective conditions for access, will have to continue to rigorously transmit (that is, essentially, they will probably follow the model of the traditional school33 ) not just sophisticated and creative knowledge, but also (regardless of the hesitations of one or another defender of the system) a minimum of culture and critical spirit without which the acquisition and effective mastery of that knowledge would lack meaning and, above all, any real usefulness.
As for the average technical skills—the European Commission estimates that they have “a lifespan of approximately ten years, and that intellectual capital depreciates by 7% per year, which is conjoined with a corresponding reduction of the efficiency of labor power34 ”—the problem is somewhat different. They definitely come under the rubric of disposable knowledge, and are just as disposable as the humans that temporarily wield them, insofar as, due to the fact that they are based on routine proficiencies that are adapted to a specific technological context, they lose their relevance as soon as their context is superseded. However, as a result of the communications technology revolution, these routine skills involve abilities that, from a capitalist perspective, only present advantages. A kind of skill that is utilitarian and of a primarily algorithmic nature, that is, a skill that necessarily does not demand either autonomy or the creation of the tools that are used in its practice, is a skill that, under extreme conditions,35 can be learned alone, that is, at one’s own home, in front of a computer with the corresponding educational program. More generally, in the case of intermediate skills, thanks to the use of remote multimedia education, the ruling class will be able to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the major corporations (Olivetti, Philips, Siemens, Ericsson, etc.) will dedicate their efforts to “sell their products on the market of continuing education governed by the laws of supply and demand”.36 On the other hand, tens of thousands of teachers (everyone knows that paying for them represents the main part of the costs of the budget for education) will be rendered completely useless and can therefore be fired, which will allow the state to invest the money thus saved in operations that are more profitable for international corporations.
There remains, of course, the most numerous class: those whom the system destines to continuous unemployment (or employment in a precarious and flexible form, in various dirty jobs, for example), in part because, in the carefully chosen words of the OECD,37 “they will never constitute a profitable market” and because their “social exclusion will become more acute to the extent that the others continue to advance”. It is at this point that tittytainment will have to enter the fray. For it is obvious that the expensive transmission of real, and therefore critical, knowledge, along with the learning of elementary civil behavior or even simply the encouragement of integrity and honesty, is under these circumstances of no interest to the system. In fact, in certain political circumstances, they could even present a threat to its security. It is obviously in this school for the majority where ignorance in all its possible forms must be taught. This is not an easy task, however,38 and up until now, except for some instances of progress, traditional teachers have not received adequate training in this respect. The school of ignorance will require the reeducation of the teachers, that is, it will force them to “work in a different way”, under the enlightened despotism of a powerful and well-organized army of experts in “educational sciences”. Obviously, the main task of these experts will be to define and impose (by every means at the disposal of a hierarchical institution for guaranteeing the submission of those under its tutelage) the pedagogical and material conditions of what Debord called the “dissolution of logic”:39 in other words, “the loss of the ability immediately to perceive what is significant and what is insignificant or irrelevant; what is incompatible or what could well be complementary; all that a particular consequence implies and at the same time all that it excludes….” Debord adds that a student who is educated in this manner “puts himself at the service of the established order right from the start, even though subjectively he may have had quite the opposite intention. He will essentially follow the language of the spectacle, for it is the only one he is familiar with; the one in which he learned to speak. No doubt he would like to be regarded as an enemy of its rhetoric; but he will use its syntax”.40
As for the elimination of all common decency, that is, the need to transform the student into an uncivil, and if necessary, a violent consumer, this is a task that poses infinitely fewer problems. In this case, all that is needed is to prohibit all effective civic instruction and replace it with any kind of citizens education,41 a conceptual potpourri all the more easily disseminated because, in short, it merely reinforces the dominant discourse of the media and the world of the spectacle. Thus, consumers of rights will be able to be mass produced, intolerant, litigious and politically correct. Therefore, they will be easily manipulable at the same time that they present the indisputable advantage of helping to swell the ranks of the lawyers in accordance with the U.S. model.
Naturally, the goals assigned to what will remain of the public school will presuppose a decisive dual transformation over the more or less long term. On the one hand, there will be a transformation of the teachers, who will have to abandon their current status as subjects who are supposed to know something, in order to become so many facilitators of various value-based or transversal activities, educational field-trips or discussion forums (evidently conceived according to the model of television debates); in order to make their use profitable, they will also be given the responsibility of performing various material and psychological support services. On the other hand, the school will be transformed into a living space, democratic and cheerful, simultaneously a citizens nursery school—in which the organization of parties (the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, Victor Hugo’s birthday, Halloween…) can be entrusted to the parents associations that are so very eager to get involved, with the resulting cost savings—and a place that is liberally open to the representatives of civil society (militants from associations, retired military personnel, entrepreneurs, jugglers or circus performers, etc.) as well as to all the technological or cultural commodities that the major brands, transformed into explicit collaborators in the “educational project”, will judge to be suitable for being sold to the various participants. I also think that the idea will be conceived of placing at the entrance to this great school amusement park a few very simple electronic devices to detect the presence of metallic objects.
You do not have to be a specialist in the history of educational institutions to recognize in the negative utopia that we have just sketched the very principle of the reforms that, for the last thirty years, have been implemented in most of the countries of the West42 —in different forms and at different rates depending on the local context. If we must concede some originality to French capitalism in this respect, it is solely with regard to the degree that, in its war against the popular classes, it has known how to exploit, with singular intelligence, the ideological clichés that have pervaded the market since May ’68.43 In the words of Alain Finkielkraut, “the contestatory slogans of yesterday are the government directives of today. In France, thirty years ago it was the student action committees that proclaimed that, in order to fight inequality, the professors must not be content to transmit the culture they possessed, but had to awaken the personality of every student and teach him to educate himself. Now, it is the Inspectors of the school districts that express themselves in these terms”.44 In practice, this reform movement naturally constitutes a complex process, subject, as is normal, to the unforeseen concatenation of multiple relations of forces. Therefore, it also includes certain partial setbacks, which are rapidly compensated for by sudden and stunning advances. In the political context of the era, it was the liberal right which had the honor, which appeared to be a paradoxical one, of applying the first wave of reforms derived from the events of May ’68. From the 1972 directives concerning the teaching of French literature and language45 to the implementation of the consolidated high school curriculum in 1977, the right emerged from this historical affair smelling like a rose.
The problem of this liberal right, however, is that, due to historical reasons, a significant number of its voters still belong to that rural and Catholic France that, for generally contradictory motives, is very reticent with regard to the integral modernization of its ways of life. Despite its programmed decline, this incoherent faction of the right, whose supporters, according to the famous formula of Russell Jacoby, “worship the market and bemoan the education it engenders”, is real enough to constantly oblige its leaders to dissimulate certain aspects and sometimes even to moderate or suspend part of their ultra-modernizing program.
Obviously, the modern, pluralistic or pluralistic-libertarian left, has nothing to offer these people since it defines itself as the Party of Progress and Movement, that is, the party that is always in the vanguard of everything.46
We can therefore understand why it is almost always a left wing cultural force that imposes the total modernization of the school and ways of life on the popular classes—which, ever since the 17th century, has constituted the very essence of the capitalist program—in the most coherent and effective manner. In fact, one need only examine with a minimum of critical spirit the constant proposals of Mister Allègre and his faithful lieutenant, Inspector Geismar, implemented with the excuse of “trimming the fat from the mammoth”, that is, the public system, and opening up the school to all the products of the communications technology industry, even the most useless ones, in order to discover without much difficulty the main watchwords that the masters of the planet are broadcasting to their political employees in their discreet strategic meetings. It is true that these political employees must always present these watchwords in “pedagogical” and “egalitarian” terms, which obviously continues to fool the most imbecilic militants.47
Thus, the current “crisis of the schools”, concerning which the public is becoming aware, must be fundamentally understood as the prolongation of a contradictory situation. On the one hand, the school, given the fact that it was the key piece of the “republican” mechanism—that is, of an era and a system in which the self-regulating market was not yet capable of subjecting everything to its laws—constitutes one of the last official places where authentic remnants of the non-capitalist spirit still survive, together with totally absurd structures and customs, as well as some possibilities of transmitting knowledge and imparting those virtues without which a decent society cannot exist. On the other hand, however, under the influence of the disorienting wave of liberal-libertarian reforms,48 the school is tending to mechanically be transformed into the integrated totality of the different material and moral obstacles that must be confronted by a teacher if he is unfortunate enough, by some strange perversion, to seek to transmit something of an enlightened spirit or of civility.49
“… the sham humanity of the modern economists hides a barbarism of which their predecessors knew nothing….”
Frederick Engels, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1843)
So we should not be surprised that the students pour into the streets at regular intervals to display their rejection of a school with these characteristics. No matter how you look at it, this is not just a rite of passage, destined to replace the marches and processions of the past. We should be even less correct to think of it as a simple consequence of the manipulations that are inevitably unleashed by the rival factions of the Nomenklatura, although the latter always extracts from these movements some of the “tender sprouts” (in the words of Lionel Jospin) that it needs to reproduce. Anyone who is familiar with school-age youth knows for certain that its dissatisfaction with and anger at the current conditions are eminently authentic. But the question lies in knowing from what point of view this youth comes to contest these conditions. Is it really, as the dominant interpretation maintains, a case of young civic militants who are rebelling against the lack of opportunities and consideration that the capitalist system sets aside for culture and human beings? Or, to the contrary, are they now, in an increasing number of cases, simple consumers, fussy and hard to please (in a word, “citizens”), who above all else want to obtain the commodities that the system offers to them at the best price, and are exclusively concerned with the quality of the presentation?50 If we have to pose this curious question it is because an important problem has been deliberately left unaddressed in the analyses contained in the preceding pages.
As we have seen, from its point of view, terminal capitalism—that is, the capitalism that, for the first time in its history, has set itself the coherent goal of realizing the utopia that gave birth to it (that is, the harmonization of all human interests by means of the invisible hand of the globalized market51 )—can only achieve its goals if it constantly expands the audience for tittytainment. In this domain, moreover, the machinery has been set in motion for quite some time now and on a vast scale, and it is quite obvious that, in the sabotage of basic learning, the capitalist school has played a perhaps irreplaceable role. As modern as we may imagine it to be, however, this school will never be able to compete for even one minute with the dazzling and constantly renewed mechanisms of the ubiquitous youth culture. If, for example, in the context of any given strategy, the youth are ordered to celebrate Halloween or to participate on a mass scale in Love Parade,52 the school does not need to perform this task. Obviously, businessmen and communicators of all kinds will assume responsibility for this with much greater motivation, means and effectiveness. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that compels capitalism, in its liberal-libertarian phase, to abolish compulsory military service in every country. For some time now, this compulsory military service has lost all meaning and any properly military purpose. Since, however, what is necessary is, above all, to lead the modern youth to generalized consumption (to forge, if you will, these komsomols who will constitute the organization of the youth of the One Big Market), it is obvious that Biba or Vingt Ans, Fun Radio and NRJ, Doc Gynéco or Joey Starr, Hélène et les Garçons and Kassovitz, the Fête de la Musique or Gay Pride, or for the less critical spirits Nulle part Ailleurs and Libération,53 are infinitely more suited for this purpose than the most experienced officer corps. In the same way, they also perform their services at a price that is much more advantageous for the budget of the state. The worldwide organization of tittytainment, whose principle target is, logically, the youth, has definitely entered its industrial phase. According to Yves Eudes, since 1995 MTV, the planetary music channel, has spread to “most of the inhabited regions of the planet, thus becoming the number one television station in the world”.54 This spiritual complement of financial power, the “fruit of a terribly effective commercial strategy”, is defined as the synthesis of the “rebel spirit of rock, of hedonistic consumerism and normalized liberal thought”. In other words, for the purpose of obtaining the support of the under-thirty market for the established order, MTV, which, as is to be expected, presents itself as a “citizens channel”, constantly strives to offer, on a world scale, that modern tone, laid back and irreverent with regard to tradition. In France, it is this tone that, for example, the former Compagnie Générale des Eaux (now known as Vivendi Universal) imposes on the docile employees of programs like Nulle Part Ailleurs. It is therefore not at all surprising to discover that “on the occasion of the elections for the European Parliament in 1994, MTV Europa launched a campaign to incite the youth of the European Union to participate in the elections—Vote Europe”, imitating the method of “Choose or Lose”, but with a more serious aspect, in which the participation of many candidates and political figures was obtained, among whom was Jacques Delors. This type of analysis and event, which can be multiplied to infinity, considerably modifies the contours of the problem. If, according to the claims of Debord, it is true that for the first time in its history “the spectacle's domination has succeeded in raising a whole generation molded to its laws”,55 we have to conclude that, in the war that confronts humanity, capitalism appears to have acquired a great advantage over the last thirty years. It is as if all the masters of the planet had accepted as a watchword an upside down version of the famous words of Max Planck:56 “the lie never triumphs, but its opponents eventually die”. If this is its strategy, and if, besides, affairs have reached the state that we have described, then the task of man is revealed to be really complicated. On the one hand, it is evident that with every passing day we are conscious of the fact that the “movement that destroys the existing conditions”—that is, the capitalist system—is leading humanity to a world that is ecologically uninhabitable and anthropologically impossible. On the other hand, however, we also know that it will only be possible to oppose this suicidal historical movement—that is, to undertake something as simple as saving the world—if, and only if, the coming generations agree to accept this responsibility. This implies that if tittytainment has indeed already achieved the goal that it set for itself—and here each person must judge for himself—then we run the risk that we may very soon be confronted, regardless of the fate of the school, with a problem that, up until now, humanity has had the luck not to have to face (or the intelligence to avoid). In my opinion, no one has formulated this unforeseen historical problem as lucidly as Jaime Semprún,57 who, in L’abîme se repeuple (The Abyss Repopulates Itself), made the following claim: “When the citizen-ecologist attempts to pose the most disturbing question and asks, what kind of world are we going to leave to our children?, he avoids posing this other question, which is really disturbing: to what kind of children are we going to leave this world?”
Thus, right now, this is the surprising question that we must ask ourselves.
ON THE DESTRUCTION OF THE CITIES IN TIMES OF PEACE
A classical error of certain radical analyses is to consider that all the decisions of a government of capitalist ideas (which is today a pleonasm) are dictated exclusively by the goal of increasing the profit margins of the enterprises or institutions that ordinarily direct it. But this entails overlooking the fact that all these decisions necessarily have another dimension. Actually, they must always possess the ability to inscribe themselves into the general political conditions for the continuation of capitalist rule.58
It is even possible that this political dimension has more importance than any other consideration and that it can itself explain the measures that have been adopted.59 Hence, the current destruction of the cities would be a somewhat incomprehensible phenomenon if we stubbornly persist in viewing it as a simple consequence of the laws of real estate speculation combined with a touch of local variations of the megalomania of elected representatives. Indeed, by definition, modern urbanism cannot be separated from an autonomous political project. And, as the capitalist system extends its rule, it becomes more obvious that this project must include the necessity of destroying the old political capacity of the popular classes, guaranteeing the material conditions of their atomization (which, in fact, calls for an entire cultural politics) and therefore the dismantling—generally referred to as urban renewal—of their traditional neighborhoods and their corresponding ways of life. This is where the various tribes of graffiti taggers, muggers and drug pushers naturally play their role, together with their associated certified defenders. As for the concrete motives that force the modern powers to accelerate the destruction of the cities, these are derived from a very simple contradiction. On the one hand, in the context of their modernization mission, these powers must organize the generalized urbanization of life, with all that implies, principally with regard to vehicular traffic and the destruction of the environment. On the other hand, however, this programmed generalization of urban life must never entail the extension and spread of the emancipatory effects that, ever since the Renaissance, have been associated with the urban spirit, effects characterized by a spirit of contestation, as well as by the different forms of civic behaviors motivated by the life of the neighborhood.
This contradiction therefore leads to the strange modern obligation to simultaneously produce ever more urban space (in the core, the periphery, the technopolis and other marvels that will undoubtedly be invented by experts) while shrinking the city in the sense that the word had preserved right up until recent times, a word that had become a magnificent synonym for liberty.60
THE AXIOM OF INTEREST
“Religion is one thing and Trade is another.”
Mandeville, Recherches sur la nature de la société (1723)
In agreement with Alain Caillé, we may designate the “axiom of interest” as the basic proposition of political economy. One of the principal consequences of this axiom is to impede the creation of any anthropology or psychology worthy of the name.61 From the perspective of a consistent liberal, only two possible ways of studying man besides the “economic sciences” are conceivable. It is either simply a matter of cataloging the pathological behaviors or curious vestiges that prevent individuals from acting normally, that is, in accordance with their enlightened self-interest; in this sense, the human sciences can only define the prehistory of the human spirit or its teratology. Or else one accepts the axiom of interest as the effective general structure of all human conduct and therefore all that remains to be investigated, in each case, is the concealed economic truth of apparently non-economic activities. The crippling ingenuousness of this procedure possesses its historical model in Mandeville’s An Enquiry Into the Origin of Honour and the Usefulness of Christianity in War (1732) and its most caricatured forms are found in the work of the economist Gary Becker.62 Thus, as soon as a theoretical study is undertaken to ensure the intelligibility of certain economic facts that must become part, in one way or another, of aspects of the human phenomenon that economics does not take into account (the unconscious, mimetic appropriation, the cycle of the gift, complex genealogical systems, the imagination, symbology, etc.), this study immediately ceases to belong to the field of political economy. The terrain on which it operates is, in fact, that of the critique of political economy (this is, in fact, the subtitle of Capital63 ).
Another consequence of the economic paradigm is the uselessness of morality. The mechanism of enlightened self-interest, when it functions without restraints, is in theory sufficient to guarantee the order required by a community. In his Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, Kant came to acknowledge that a just society could exist that was composed of “a race of devils”. This must be our starting point in order to understand the genealogy of the amorality that defines the conduct of the modern consumer.64
Actually, however, we must go even further. In the conditions of the totally entrenched Economy, it is evident that, in fact, “vice” will always be more profitable than “virtue”. At least this is the great lesson taught by the secret Bible of all political economy: The Fable of the Bees. As Mandeville claims, “it is, without doubt, that among the Consequences of a National Honesty and Frugality, it wou’d be one not to build any new Houses, or use new Materials, as long as there were old ones enough to serve. By this three Parts in four of Masons, Carpenters, Brick-layers, &c. would want Employment; and the building Trade being once destroy’d, what wou’d become of Limning, Carving, and other Arts that are ministring to Luxury, and have been carefully forbid by those Lawgivers that preferr’d a good and honest, to a great and wealthy Society, and endeavor’d to render their Subjects rather Virtuous than Rich.”65 But you have to admit that the logic of economic calculation still has some unique consequences: “. . . I shall be ask’d what Benefit the Publick receives from Thieves and House-breakers. They are, I own, very pernicious to Human Society, and every Government ought to take all imaginable Care to root out and destroy them; yet if all People were strictly honest, and no body would meddle with or pry into any thing but his own, half the Smiths of the Nation would want Employment; and abundance of Workmanship (which now serves for Ornament as well as Defence) is to be seen everywhere both in Town and Country, that would never have been thought of, but to secure us against the Attempts of Pilferers and Robbers.”66
These lucid analyses confirm in their own way the subversive role that Orwell attributed to common decency. They also explain why all the powers of the 20th century were capable of uniting in a new holy alliance to liquidate this value: the left and the Stalinists with State intervention; the right and the liberals with the play of the market; and the fascists simply as a matter of principle.
CRIME AND ITS INTEGRATION
“The search for a form of morality acceptable by everyone in the sense that everyone would have to submit to it, seems catastrophic to me.”
“The school of rehabilitation has led us to make no distinctions between a criminal and an honest man.”
The difference between a society—which, regardless of the variety of its forms, cannot abolish the moment of the gift67 —and a capitalist system—a metaphysical hypothesis transformed into the basis for a partially realizable political project—allows us to reassess the usual perception of certain problems denominated as “social problems”. For example, to determine the real political meaning of the behavior of the Lumpenproletariat or the Caillera.68 Must we understand this phenomenon, in accordance with the presentations of the media and the usual sociologists, as a normal sign of difficulties attendant on the “problem of integration”? If we formulate the problem in these terms, it is obvious that this question is ineptly posed, that is, it is ambiguous. For if we speak of integration into a society, that is, of the ability of an individual to inscribe himself in the different domains prescribed by symbolic exchange, it is obvious that this modernized fraction of the Lumpenproletariat69 is not “integrated”, regardless of the concrete reasons (family and others) that explain this lack of integration. If, however, we are referring to integration into the capitalist system, then evidently the Caillera is infinitely more effectively integrated into that system (it has perfectly assimilated the praise that the spectacle offers it on a daily basis) than the native and immigrant populations, whom it in fact controls in the experimental neighborhoods that the state has abandoned to their rule. By assigning all human activity exclusive goals (dough), models (the violent transaction or bisnes) and anthropological patterns (to be a real vulture), the Caillera restrict themselves to recycling, for the use of the periphery, the practice and the imaginary that are defined by the core and summit of the system. Certainly, the ambition of its members never presupposed an act of negation of the ruling economy. To the contrary, they only aspire to become the golden boys of the underworld, a strategy that is anything but utopian. As J. de Maillard observes, “right before our eyes, the economy of crime is completing the last stage of the process: finally profiting on the criminality of the poor and marginalized, which previously constituted the dark side of modern societies, and which were kept isolated from them. The criminality of the poor, which was once considered unproductive, is currently connected with networks that produce profits. From the neighborhood drug pusher to the banks in Luxembourg, the circle is complete. The criminal economy has become a by-product of the global economy, which has integrated social marginalization into its circuits”.70
To the question that we posed ourselves above we must therefore respond that if the Caillera is not visibly ready to integrate itself into society, this is because it is already perfectly integrated into the system that is destroying that society. This is what fascinates the intellectuals and the filmmakers of the ruling class, whose constitutive bad conscience renders them always prepared to hope that there is a romantic way to appropriate surplus value. This intellectual fascination with the “generous fever of crime” (Foucault) would not be possible without the well-intentioned participation of state-sponsored sociology. For this strange sociology, in an attempt to confer upon the legal or illegal practices of the system a “rebel” connotation, which would make them both politically correct and economically profitable at the same time, resorts to two basic procedures that, if one gives it a little thought, are incompatible.
In the first place, an effort is made to include what Orwell called “modern crime” as a continuation of the crimes and delinquencies of the past. But these are two very different universes. The honorable bandit of traditional societies (the case of piracy is more complicated) derives his power and his historical legitimacy from his belonging to a particular local community; and, in general, he acts primarily against the state and the various owners. The modern criminal, on the other hand, coherently lays claim to the cold logic of the economy to plunder and ultimately destroy the communities and neighborhoods from which he comes.71 To define his activity as “rebellion” or a “moral revolt” (Harlem Désir) or even, for the most vivid imaginations, as an “awakening, an appeal, a reinvention of history” (Félix Guattari), therefore implies granting the prestige of Robin Hood to the shakedowns carried out by the Sheriff of Nottingham. There can be no question that this hardly honorable activity defines well enough the terrain of operations of politically correct sociology.
As for the second procedure, it consists in presenting the appearance of the paradigm of modern crime, and concretely its specific relation to violence and the pleasure it provokes, as the automatic consequence of poverty and unemployment and therefore as a legitimate response of the excluded to their situation. However, although it is obvious that poverty and unemployment can only accelerate the generalization of the model of modern crime, no serious or even simply honest observer can ignore the fact that this model was first celebrated in the domain of culture, at the same time that it discovered its practical foundations in the economic prosperity of the “thirty glorious years”. In France, for example, all the statistics confirm the fact that the greatest increase in modern criminal practices, as well as the creation of the mythology of drugs, took place around 1970, while in Germany, Denmark and Holland, it could already be discerned by 1964-1965.72 Explaining the development of modern criminality (a development that, from the very first, was considered by mainstream sociology as a mere “fantasy” of the popular classes) as a conjunctural result of unemployment is clearly a procedure that redounds to the advantage of the capitalist system. On the one hand, it manages to present “economic recovery”, that is, increasing state aid to the major corporations, as the main solution to the problem; on the other hand, it avoids asking what, within the logic of consumer capitalism itself and in the corresponding liberal-libertarian culture, determines the symbolic and ideological conditions of a new relation of individuals with the Law.73
ON THE AMBIGUITY OF COMMODITY EXCHANGE
“There is, then, a concealed relationship between these two words: freedom and commerce.”
There is a historical relation between the advent of modernity—that is, of consciously self-instituted societies—and commodity exchange,74 one result of which is always to produce liberty or, what amounts to the same thing, a certain mode of dissolution of what Alain Caillé calls primary socialization. For the anthropological foundations of this society are defined by the triple obligation of giving, receiving, and giving back.75 In other words, what personally connects the subjects (what causes them to have a history in common, that is, a relation that is inscribed in time), in the last instance, is always a symbolic debt and, therefore, some form of fidelity that must be honored. The magic of money, as the general equivalent, therefore resides in the possibility it offers the subject of freeing himself from a debt contracted with someone who gives at the same time that the service offered is paid76 for in the act. This explains why commodity exchange organizes not only the economic circulation of things. It simultaneously defines a new metaphysics of human relations. By paying in the act what I owe, I am also buying the time implied by the traditional obligation of waiting to give back. In this way, I also buy the right not to maintain a relation with those who have done me a service.77 Commodity exchange therefore allows one to take liberties with one's neighbor.
This structural consequence of economic logic is indisputably positive for individuals, because a world in which symbolic debt is the sole basis for the social bond leaves, by definition, very little space for the individual in himself, that is, for the possibility of experiencing solitude and privacy (especially sexual and amorous), probably the most valuable contribution of modernity to the history of man. In fact, this was the principal advantage that Descartes adduced for moving to Amsterdam: “In this great city where I am the only man who does not engage in commerce, everyone is so focused on their own profit that I could pass my entire life here without anyone ever noticing me…. Is there any other country where one can enjoy such complete liberty?”78 The problem, however, resides in the fact that a liberty with these characteristics is susceptible, if it is not self-limiting, to Kant’s paradox of the dove, that “in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space”. This is so true that, for us who are the contemporaries of the destruction of the cities, there is already something disturbing about the observation of Descartes, who did not hesitate to add to the advantages of Amsterdam the possibility of considering its men as “trees you see in the forests or the animals that graze in them”.
As a result, the second merit of western modernity is not the fact that it so soon understood the humanly destructive possibilities of commodity logic (in reality, since Theognis, this is something that all societies have known), but that it had the intelligence to oppose to this logic, together with the traditional counterweights based on the principle of the gift,79 a whole series of modern inventions, such as the ethical tendency, civility and, more generally, all the representations of urbanity, that is, of the obligation without reciprocity (or unconditional obligation) towards one’s neighbor, regardless of who he may be.80 Ultimately, what we may call, following Orwell, common decency, is nothing but this mixture, constituted by history, of traditional civility and the modern tendencies that up until now have allowed for the neutralization of a large part of the economic horror.
We must deduce from all this, on the one hand, that western modernization cannot be characterized by the exclusive rule of the economy and that its definition must also include the role of the practical tendencies which have constituted a critical response to that rule;81 and on the other hand, that modernism, as the religion of capital, once it reaches a certain limit, necessarily tends to dismantle, as we have already pointed out, not only the anthropological foundations of socialization (the permanency of the gift), but also, and increasingly so, all the forms of compensatory or critical civility that modernity itself had the wisdom to invent.
CONCERNING MAY ‘68
“Distrust the dreams of your youth, because they always end up coming true.”
“A dialectic whose course is not entirely foreseeable can transform a man’s intentions into their opposite and yet one has to take sides from the very start.”
Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror (1947)
The idea that modern capitalism does not represent the betrayal of the ideals of May ’68, but rather their fulfillment, usually provokes very understandable indignation due to the major intellectual and psychological effort entailed by its mere proposal.
For such a proposal obliges, on the one hand, the desanctification of what has become one of the founding myths of political modernity; on the other hand, it contradicts the natural tendency of men to idealize their youthful rebellion. In this case, there is also a peculiar cause that further complicates the problem. This is the fact that, from the very beginning, various important aspects of the events were denied or reinterpreted with regard to their real significance by those who, with the blessing of the media, sought to embody the official truth of the movement: I am referring to the youth of the new middle classes and its student vanguard.82 It is evident that if we adhere to this perspective, the subsequent political careers of the main protagonists of the “student revolt”, as well as the recycling of its principal ideas to the profit of Capital, present no mystery at all. This can be explained by the fact—which the innocently amazed Marc Kravetz revealed at the time—that “a class discovered with shock the image of its defeat in the revolt of its children”83 , so that it found itself “on both sides of the barricade” and was condemned to “deny its own reasons to exist in order to … save its legacy and its heirs”. Although this tendency of the revolt, whose oedipal aspect cannot escape notice, was really one of the decisive aspects of the events, it is hard to reduce May ’68 to a banal question of family relations. Nor would it be legitimate to present what took place as the great rejection by the insurrectionary youth and their fertile “imagination to power84 ” of all the ways of life that had up until that time belonged to the world of their parents. In reality, despite the fact that some tend to forget this fact, May ’68 was also when the biggest strike in the history of France took place. It is true that, in the political conditions of the time, this strike could not aspire to go beyond the limits that the trade union directives had established in advance.85 Nonetheless, it does imply that, during those magical weeks, when resignation to imposed life ceased to be in evidence, other historical possibilities became apparent. Not all of these possibilities were capable of being summarized as the preparation of a world where the little desiring machines, organized in multi-colored tribes, would pathetically agitate in the narrow and permitted universe of the spectacle, fashion, or communication. Thus, in many enterprises, regions, towns or neighborhoods, a multitude of strange ideas and behaviors arose or reemerged that, as they showed with the passage of time, were revealed to be definitively contrary to the new order desired, each in his own way, by Milton Friedman, Jacques Delors or Daniel Cohn-Bendit. We shall venture to suggest a frankly scandalous hypothesis: that which, since 1984, the communications media have stigmatized with the label of populism (for purposes of the ideology in question, it has been amalgamated with two or three themes of an entirely fascist origin) constitutes, essentially, the entire set of ideas and principles which, in May ’68 and over the course of the next few years, had guided the popular classes in their various struggles to reject, in advance, the consequences of the capitalist modernization of their lives that they knew (or had a presentment) would be destructive. These ideas, regardless of the form they assumed, were therefore too radical to be integrated into the liberal-libertarian paradigm of the new elites of globalization.86
This kind of analysis undoubtedly clarifies the general dynamic of events. But it is still insufficient (and can even be a caricature) if, on the other hand, we try to explain the concrete cases of real individuals. In other words, how could the “libertarian” rejection of the capitalist order (since the vast majority of the protestors of the era, in their alienated understanding, sincerely perceived themselves as inveterate enemies of that order), without a solution that provided an apparent continuity, transform itself so rapidly into the liberal approval of all the achievements of modernity?87 If we allow ourselves to proceed with the necessary simplifications, we can probably explain what happened by means of two principal factors.
The first factor, of an intellectual nature, is, of course, the old belief in the myth of a “meaning of history” and in the inevitably positive role of all technological and scientific progress. In fact, this belief was still very pervasive among the insurrectionaries of May ’68. Besides a few minority currents, generally influenced, to one degree or another, by the Frankfort School, all the era’s critiques of the capitalist system were based on the idea that the latter, by continuing to develop, would also develop the “material basis for socialism”; in this manner, time was on the side of the revolutionaries and, over the long term, according to Lenin’s famous expression, one only needed to add “the power of the soviets” to the already realized electrification of the whole country (or even, for more advanced spirits, its nuclearization). Naturally, once the positivist idea that one must “take the side of the forces of progress” in every circumstance was raised to the status of a Pavlovian reflex, for a mind accustomed to such arguments it was almost impossible to not express an a priori enthusiasm for all the innovations that the spectacle never ceases to offer. This reflex is made all the easier insofar as modern propaganda and advertising naturally encounter their basic rhetoric in the imaginary of May ’68, thus celebrating each step towards the perfection of orthodoxy as a marvelous achievement of the heretical mentality.
The second factor, however, is of a moral nature. It confers upon the desire for liberty its effective content and, with it, its authentic political meaning. For the refusal to submit to an authority that is considered to be unjust can be translated into two very different attitudes. In one case, it discovers its reason for existence in what Orwell called “generous anger”. The mechanism of insubordination and disobedience thus constitutes common decency. This implies that we are rebelling because we have to protect our own personal humanity, perhaps by solidarity with others, since we cannot bear the fact that a particular power should mistreat, humiliate, exploit or oppress them; this is therefore a solidarity that is first of all88 directed at the immense cohort of the humble, the weak, and the disregarded. The refusal to obey, however, could also have its psychological origin in resentment, that is, in the desire, full of hatred and envy, to take revenge for all the humiliations (real or imagined) one has suffered, exercising this power on one’s own account. We do not have to say that it is only in the first case that a rebellion can be legitimate and immune from all the recuperations that could divert it from its principles. An upright and honorable revolutionary, like those Orwell takes such pleasure in describing in The Road to Wigan Pier or Homage to Catalonia, who possesses a little common sense (and these traits usually go together), might not be able to construct the more just and decent world that he dreams of. On the other hand, a concentration camp guard or someone who informs on his brothers will never be able to create such a world. This is why the main concern of all Stalinists has always been to take all necessary measures to make the common decency of the militants and the population impossible.89
Thus, when an individual clearly demands his liberty and his right to self-determination according to his own views, we still do not comprehend the meaning of his revolt or what kind of man he really is. Reworking a distinction made by Thoreau, perhaps he is not such a bad person if he is a good neighbor and a friend of the people. Then, we could apply to him that haughty definition coined by Camus: “He is a free man, he serves no one.” Perhaps, however, what he rejects so ostensibly, with his perpetual invocation of liberty, is the existence of all power that he does not himself exercise personally. In this case, his rebellion undoubtedly constitutes an imposture and is nothing but the philosophical disguise of the will to power and of the most miserable passions.
Starting from these elementary considerations, it is possible to reconstruct, without too much difficulty, what kinds of miserable lives people like Serge July, Claude Allègre, Alain Geismar or the thousands of individuals like them, and those who can only be distinguished from them in minor details, have led.90
ANTICAPITALISM AND CONSERVATISM
“What incites us to go back is just as human and necessary as what impels us to go forward.”
The capitalist hypothesis, as we have defined it, is one of the many variants of the metaphysics of Progress shared by all modernist or developmentalist ideologies. Just like the other variants, it, too, assumes that History has a meaning and that the road that men are destined to tread leads them inexorably, according to the terms of Saint-Simon and Comte, from the theological-military state91 to the industrial-scientific state. The only point that constitutes the specific difference of the capitalist hypothesis is the idea that the determinant principle of History is, in the last instance, the dynamic of the economy, and therefore technological progress as the basic material condition of that dynamic. Starting from this premise, it is not hard to foresee what will be the embodiment of the privileged form of political evil in the capitalist imaginary, that is, in the economic imaginary. Anything that is opposed to society’s progress by way of the modernizing tendency of the economy will inevitably be considered as an unacceptable archaism, which we must not cling to (this is the famous theory of the “timorous retreat into oneself”) so that we do not have the misfortune of being a “conservative spirit” or, worse yet, “reactionary” (in Saint-Simon’s terminology, “retrograde”). Thus, it is logical that, in the language imposed by the spectacle, these two words designate the two politically incorrect characters par excellence. These are the two words that everyone, with fear and apprehension, attempts to prove their innocence of at all costs. On the other hand, a critical spirit, that is, a spirit that, as a minimum, is not afraid of words, will arrive at the conclusion that an anti-capitalist struggle incapable of clearly integrating its conservative dimension, has no chance of coherently developing and therefore of delivering well-aimed blows at its declared enemy.92 Thus, one of the first philosophical concerns of those who seek to oppose the despotism of the Economy must be to start by questioning all the discourses that celebrate “progress” and “change” without subsequent clarifications.93
It is obvious, however, that, according to Marx’s terminology, “the antiquity of the knout” is not a sufficient argument to justify its respectability. We must therefore briefly present some observations to clearly specify just what conditions compel us to distinguish between an indispensable tactical withdrawal and an unacceptable regression.94
Man’s tendency to be curious and engage in innovation is one of the least disputable attributes of human nature (we purposefully employ this term that is so disturbing to our modern ways). The idea of “immobile societies” is therefore a myth or a fantasy. Thus, what must be rejected is not the principle itself of change—as the philosophy of Julius Evola eventually does—but the fact that its rate is exclusively defined and imposed by the laws of Capital and its accumulation.95 And if, as the paid mourners of modernism are constantly complaining, the popular classes usually display hardly any diligence in “adapting their mentality to the necessary evolution”, it is not because they are ontologically incapable of dealing with change; it is only due to the fact that they have a tendency, which is certainly annoying, to advance more slowly when they are under pressure and with much less enthusiasm and conviction than the new middle classes or the brilliant intelligentsia.
On the other hand, the genius and capacity for innovation of the popular classes are two of their most enduring historical characteristics. It is precisely these virtues that always allow them to neutralize part of the capitalist strategies, as well as to invent whenever necessary those attitudes that maintain or reproduce civility and the social bond where the iron logic of capital tends to destroy them. Thus, for example, we need only read the interesting analysis that Serge Latouche devotes in L’autre Afrique to the informal economy of Dakar, to the “family strategies in Grand-Yoff” or to the system of solidarity of the blacksmiths of Soninké, in order acquire some idea of the vitality of the popular intelligence and to assess just how powerful the will to preserve a form of human life often is, which leads, both among individuals and communities, to the constant invention, based on customs and traditions, of new forms of relations and new rules of the game, which are sometimes revolutionary. From this point of view, the development in the Anglo-Saxon countries and now in France as well of the LETS (Local Exchange Trade System) undoubtedly represents an exemplary form of this kind of critical response to capitalist modernization proposed on the ground by individuals themselves. If these systems of local exchange help to keep ultraliberal desocialization at bay, it is to the extent that they manage to reconstitute (in the “reactionary” interpretation) or preserve (in the “conservative” interpretation) the “primacy of the bond as opposed to the merchandise”, which, according to Caillé and J. Godbout, defines the very essence of the traditional gift.
Even though, for any critique of Capital, the critique of the ideals of the Enlightenment is a necessary precondition, as Adorno already pointed out, this does not imply that one must deny everything signified by the notions of Progress or universal Civilization. Marcel Mauss said that “the best characteristics of civilizations will become the common property of increasingly more numerous social groups” and “this notion of a common basis, of a general heritage of societies and civilizations corresponds, in our opinion, to the notion of Civilization”.96 As he mentions immediately afterwards, however, this process does not imply the disappearance of the need for a “local flavor”. In reality, many complicated debates about the dialectic of the universal and the particular or of modernity and tradition, could have been considerably truncated or even rendered useless if the participants in them had taken into account the correct meaning of the precise formula of the Portuguese writer Miguel Torga: “the universal is the local without walls.97 ” This statement means that a human community progresses and becomes civilized not when it destroys or abandons its identity (for example, its language or its accent), but, to the contrary, when it successfully opens itself up to other groups, that is, when in the relations that it maintains with them, it replaces its initial scorn and violence with distinct variants of symbolic exchange. Obviously, it is inevitable that this commitment to the complex dialectic of reciprocity gradually causes each community to set aside everything that, in its usual way of living and feeling, is opposed in principle to the mutual recognition of individuals; in other words, everything that in their own culture that, while preserving the indispensable aspect of the game and the joke, cannot be universalized without generating contradictions. But this legitimate progress of universality—insofar as it preserves as a basis precisely the lasting historical and cultural particularities that are the preconditions for symbolic exchange—does not have much to do with the accelerated homogenization of the planet carried out by the capitalist market. In this sense, the touristic view of the world and the pseudo-cosmopolitanism of “Show Business” and the business class constitute the grotesque and pathetic rendering of this process of homogenization.
Finally, we shall recall that, with regard to these matters in which we touch upon the very foundations of human nature, we should be very careful about wielding the sword of Right and Reason. Kant himself, who was so little susceptible to the seduction of the concrete, claimed that the “wood from which man is made is so crooked that you cannot make anything straight with it” (Ideas for a Universal History in a Cosmopolitan Key, "6th Proposition"). Given the fact that the modern spirit exhibits such a marked tendency towards the tyranny of the straight line, we might think that a solid sense of the customary and of the subtle games that allow creation at every level98 represents one of the principal psychological forces that each individual still possesses to free himself from the power that Capital exercises over his life and thus to attempt to be as free and as happy as possible. In fact, there is very little difference between this sense of custom and what we commonly call conviviality.
Translated in September-October 2013 from the Spanish translation:
Jean-Claude Michéa, La escuela de la ignorancia y sus condiciones modernas, tr. Isabelle Marc Martínez, Acuarela & A. Machado, Madrid, 2002.
Spanish translation available online at:
Originally published in French under the title, L’enseignement de l’ignorance, Éditions Climats, Castelnau-le-Lez, 1999.
- 1Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1979, pp. 127-128.
- 2Liliane Lurçat (a former student and then the colleague of Henri Wallon, one of the few serious French specialists in educational science) says that: “In 1983, the school district of Nice carried out a survey of approximately 12,000 high school students. 22.48% did not know how to read and 71.59% were incapable of understanding a new word based on its context.” According to the author, since that time, “like an ocean swallowed up by the sand, the problem has disappeared, thanks to the labors and the silence of the communications media and political propaganda. On the ruins of teaching reading and writing, the massified school is being hastily constructed, utilizing the bait of a Bachelor’s Degree for everyone.” (Liliane Lurçat, Vers une école totalitaire?, F.-X. de Guibert, Paris, 1998.) The latest achievement of this “political propaganda” is, of course, the book by Christian Baudelot: Et pourtant, ils lisent, Paris, Seuil, 1999.
- 3From this perspective, as anyone can see for himself, we have entered a really new era: the epoch of the destruction of the cities during peacetime. Taking the city of Los Angeles as the preferred model for all the modern city-destroyers, we recommend the excellent study by Mike Davis: City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Verso, London, 2006. For an application of this model to the French case, one may consult the pamphlet by Sophie Herszkowicz: Lettre ouverte au maire de Paris à propos de la destruction de Belleville, Encyclopédie des Nuisances, Paris, 1994 [A].
- 4Some observations on the concept of ignorance:
By “progress of ignorance” we mean not so much the disappearance of indispensable knowledge, in the sense in which it is usually denounced (and, quite often, justifiably), but the continuous decline of critical intelligence; that is, man’s basic ability to simultaneously understand the world that has given him life as well as what conditions make rebellion against this world a moral necessity. These two aspects are not completely independent, insofar as the exercise of critical judgment requires minimum cultural foundations, beginning with the ability to engage in argument and the mastery of the elementary linguistic requirements that all “neo-language” is devoted to destroying. It is necessary, however, to differentiate between the two kinds of ignorance, since everyday experience shows us that an individual can know everything and understand nothing. This is undoubtedly what Orwell had in mind when he wrote in his War Diary: “Where I feel that people like us understand the situation better than so-called experts is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in.” The epistemological basis of this distinction is, naturally, the manifest impossibility of reducing the critical activity of Reason to the simple use of a database through which one can freely navigate. Because it does not take this distinction into account, Ministerial sociology has no qualms about claiming—by means of the usual methodological errors—that “the level (of education) is increasing”. And they make this assertion when all the available data indicate that, in the industrialized countries, schoolchildren are increasingly more prone to accept the various products of superstition (from ancient astrology to modern New Age); when their capacity for intellectual resistance against media manipulations or advertising bombardments is alarmingly diminished and when they are being taught with admirable effectiveness to display a stolid indifference towards reading the critical texts of the classical tradition.
- 5Obviously, this does not imply that commercial exchange—not to mention the fable of “the propensity to truck [and] barter”—is a natural relation. Many societies never experienced this type of relation or else deliberately restricted it to a peripheral status. From this point of view, the most extreme case is that of the Inca Empire. With regard to this question, the pioneer works were those of Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi. At the present time, the research works that currently have the most significance for political philosophy with regard to this issue are basically the studies produced since 1982 by the “Anti-Utilitarian Movement in the Social Sciences” (MAUSS), under the direction of Alain Caillé and Serge Latouche.
- 6See Albert O. Hirschman: The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1977; and Vers une économie politique élargie, Minuit, Paris, 1986.
- 7The influence of the Newtonian ideal on the thought of Adam Smith has long been recognized. But it is an entirely different matter to ascertain whether the epistemological model to which the Scottish philosopher refers (like the majority of the thinkers of the era) really corresponds to the effective praxis of Newton: Jan Marejko does not think so, based on arguments seem convincing to me (see Cosmologie et politique, L’Âge d’homme, Lausanne, 1989).
- 8In the case of China, Joseph Needham (see Science and Civilisation in China, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1954) carried out an admirable study of the cultural obstacles that stood in the way of experimental science and the corresponding concept of a “law of nature”.
- 9In France, the first attempts to put the capitalist hypothesis into practice (the deregulation of the grain trade) took place between 1764 and 1770. There is an excellent analysis of this founding experience in Michel Barillon’s preface to Diderot’s L’Apologie de l’Abbé Galiani (see Apologies, Agone, Marseille, 1998).
- 10 With reference to trade between France and the United States, Brissot—who shortly afterwards would become the perfect example of a revolutionary corrupted by the bankers—thus invites us to “destroy all the obstacles that our ways of life, our laws and our customs place in the way of this trade” (Étienne Clavière and J.-P. Brissot, De la France et des États-Unis (1787), CTHS, Paris, 1996).
- 11 “If the physical universe be subject to the laws of motion, the moral universe is equally so to those of interest.” (C.-A. Helvétius, De l’esprit, Durand, Paris, 1758.)
- 12 “A merchant, it has been said very properly, is not necessarily the citizen of any particular country. It is in a great measure indifferent to him from what place he carries on his trade; and a very trifling disgust will make him remove his capital, and, together with it, all the industry which it supports, from one country to another.” (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations). As for the ideal wage laborer, the corresponding virtue is evidently “geographical mobility”, that is, the readiness to sever, immediately and without any regrets, all the connections that can unite a man with a place, a culture and other human beings. With a certain amount of university training, it is not at all difficult to present this incapacity to love and this aptitude for ingratitude as the very essence of “freedom”.
- 13 David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature.
- 14 Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring. Everyone is familiar with the famous analysis of Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love”, etc., op. cit.
- 15 From a modern point of view, these values correspond closely enough to what Orwell called, starting with his essay on Dickens, common decency, that is, the ensemble of dispositions towards kindness and integrity, which for him constituted the indispensable moral infrastructure of any just society (“working for the establishment of a new kind of society in which common decency will again be possible” is the essential political choice, as he claimed in 1941). The anthropological foundations of this common decency, as we shall see below, can be explained in part in the light of the Essay on the Gift by Marcel Mauss. We may also discover somewhat different, although equally necessary, approaches in the works of René Girard and Pierre Legendre. Finally, we must call attention to a notable attempt to philosophically develop the Orwellian concept of common decency: Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1996.
- 16 Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, Polity Press, Boston, 1987.
- 17 Pierre Legendre, Le crime du caporal Lortie, Fayard, Paris, 1989. In France, the work of Legendre is one of the principle intellectual monuments of the last thirty years. The best introduction to the difficult thought of this author is undoubtedly Sur la question dogmatique en Occident, Fayard, Paris, 1999.
- 18 A capitalist society that conformed faithfully to its principles would philosophically correspond to the new state of nature that, according to Rousseau, would be the necessary consequence of a society of total inequality. “There is here a complete return to the law of the strongest, and so to a new state of nature, differing from that we set out from; for the one was a state of nature in its first purity, while this is the consequence of excessive corruption” (Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men). We must nonetheless point out that, in the anthropological literature, there is at least one case of a community where desocialization is particularly advanced: the case of the Iks, expelled from their home territory by the Ugandan state. Their process of desocialization was masterfully described by Colin Turnbull in 1972. At the end of his difficult investigation, Turnbull does not reject the hypothesis that some day we could become “like the Iks, nomads, mobile, exclusively concerned with what is useful” (Les Iks: survivre par la cruauté, Plon, Paris, 1993) [A corresponding quotation could not be located in the original English edition of the book by Colin Turnbull, The Mountain People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972. Turnbull says, on page 289 of the original English edition, after summarizing the decline of Ik society, that “the symptoms of change in our own society indicate that we are heading in precisely the same direction [as the Iks]”—American Translator’s Note].
- 19 Cornelius Castoriadis, El Avance de la insignificancia: las encrucijadas del laberinto IV, EUdeBA, Buenos Aires, 1997. [This quotation is derived from an interview with Castoriadis that was translated into English and reproduced in part at: http://www.notbored.org/RTI.pdf (Translator’s Note).] Similar analyses can be found in Lucien Goldman: Le Dieu cache, Gallimard, Paris, 1959, p. 42.
- 20 See Michel Bounan, La vie innommable, Allia, Paris, 1993; and Baudouin de Bodinat, La vie sur terre, Encyclopédie des Nuisances, Paris, 1996.
- 21 The principal error of Marx and his successors (perhaps with the exception of Gramsci) resides in the fact that they always overestimated the degree of effective penetration of capitalist relations in the societies that they studied. This overestimation is, furthermore, as we shall see below, one of the reasons for the permanent inability of the left to understand the essence of capitalism and therefore to combat it intelligently. We can get some idea, although quite a vague one, of the actual extent of this overestimation, in the works of Ahmet Insel. This author, by way of a series of ingenious calculations, has been able to estimate that the non-commercial circulation of goods and services still represents “a value approximately equal to three-quarters of the GDP of contemporary French society” (see Ahmet Insel, “La part du don”, La Revue du MAUSS, no. 1, 1st semester, 1993, p. 221). With regard to this issue, one may also consult A. Caillé (“Comment on écrit l’histoire du marché”, Splendeurs et misères des sciences sociales, Droz, Genoa, 1986), Serge Latouche (L'Autre Afrique: Entre don et marché, Editions Albin Michel, Paris, 1998) and Arno Mayer (The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War, Verso, London, 2010).
- 22 On the other hand, all that was necessary was to reduce the study of these humanities to a simple symbolic capital, the necessary emblem of bourgeois distinction (a job that was entrusted to the naïve Bourdieu during the sixties), in order to offer Capital the ideological pretext to abolish them as soon as the requirements of profitability and political considerations made this indispensable. This is the first consequence (or the first function) of the overestimation that we mentioned above: first of all, it is proclaimed that the School is no longer anything but a tool at the service of the reproduction of Capital. Then, thanks to this apparent radicalism, one can demand in the name of anti-capitalism itself the disappearance of everything that, in reality, had constituted the obstacle to the extension of the realm of the market. This is the constant procedure of the red guards of Capital.
- 23 Where did the unforgettable magic of the Hollywood musical comedies, the Westerns of John Ford or Howard Hawks, the movies of Lubitsch and Capra, come from? Where did the enchantment of the jazz of Duke Ellington or Count Basie come from? Simply from the fact that these works were capable of translating the privileged moment of equilibrium between the necessary madness of liberty and the still acknowledged obligation to respect the common decency that all modern societies experienced, in concrete circumstances in each case. It is obvious that this historical moment does not represent an ideal society but, in a way, it does represent a society that had the ability to idealize itself because liberty still did not really have the opportunity to show its negative side. This explains the reason why the popular art of that era still exercises over us—to recall the formula of Marx—the “eternal attraction” of a “forever vanished phase”.
- 24 The dominated—and unrecuperable—aspect of May ’68 forms part of another history, which is far from having been totally written.[E]
- 25 It is obvious that this consciousness can often be illusory. When they simply reject the prohibitions explicitly designed by a culture and when their declared transgression became the principal way of accepting them (Chesterton said that these days it does not occur to anyone to blaspheme against Thor or Odin), the kind of life we are plunging into is by no means the happy Arcadia announced by the most simple-minded disciples of Reich, but, to the contrary, the tyranny of the unconscious which can transform a human being into the worst kind of slave.
- 26 This tabula rasa was made even more evident when, a few years later, the principle Leninist empire collapsed. An empire that, in its effective reality, had never ceased to be an imitation of a State and therefore necessarily more cruel and clumsy, one in which the most harmful social consequences of commercial modernization converged, beginning with the destruction of all civility.
- 27 Even Antoine Prost has finally admitted that “the forms designed to guarantee equal opportunity have had the opposite result” (L’enseignement s’est-il démocratisé?, Presses universitaires de France, Paris, 1992). For example, “the percentage of students of popular origin in the National School of Administration, the Ecole Normal Superior and the Polytechnic School (the three major institutions of higher learning in France) declined from 15.4% between 1966 and 1970 to 7% between 1989 and 1993”.
- 28 After certain NGOs revealed the secret deals made at the WTO negotiations, some of the warlords complained about the leak and promised to take measures to prevent it from happening in the future. Everyone knows that, in the world of the communications media, this is the job of people like Alain Duhamel (here I use the name in a general sense, as one would use that of a Tartuffe or a Quisling): to conceal from the public the existence of such documents and, if they are made public, to calmly lie about their real meaning. We should recall that the real Alain Duhamel (journalist and political commentator, a representative of “pensée unique”) is one of the leading members of Siècle, that is, of “one of the most exclusive French clubs where the elites of the worlds of politics, finance, industry and the media hobnob” (Pierre Bitoun, Les Cumulards, Stock, Paris, 1998, pp. 44 and 230). The way things are going, citizens will need more than just curious minds in order to discover the decisions made in their name; they will literally have to have secret agents.
- 29 See Hans-Peter Martin and Harald Schumann, The Global Trap: Globalization and the Assault on Prosperity and Democracy, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997, p. 2. The quotations that follow are taken from this book.
- 30 Ibid., p. 3. In fact, it would seem difficult indeed to be more concise than John Gage, a top manager at the U.S.-based Sun Microsystems: “We hire our people by computer, they work on computers, and they get fired by computer.”
- 31 Former advisor to Jimmy Carter and founder, in 1973, of the Trilateral Commission, “a club that is even more impenetrable than the Siècle, which in 1992 had about 350 American, European and Japanese members” and which constituted “one of the places where the ideas and the strategies of the capitalist international are elaborated” (P. Bitoun, op. cit., p. 44).
- 32 In this analysis it is easy to identify the image that the intellectual and media elites have of the common people (of that “scruffy France”, as the elegant Sollers put it): a world populated by nonpersons and John Does, the everyday target of Cabu’s comic sketches [Cabu is a famous French caricaturist] or of Les Guignols de l'info [News Puppets]. In this connection we must call attention to the surprising power of recuperation displayed by the system: in the 19th century, the guignol was one of the few weapons possessed by the common folk with which they could ridicule their masters. Today it has become the heavy artillery used by the elite to make fun of the people. We can only imagine what would happen to Robin Hood if, to boost ratings, Vivendi or Prisa were to ask their employees to give him a new, televised existence.
- 33 Capital doesn’t monkey around with pedagogy whenever it is a matter of serious business and real results are required. For example, when sports is no longer a game and a festival and is instead an industry where only victory is profitable, the future winners are handed over to trainers like Foucambert or Meirieu. In the words of Liliane Lurçat: “Pedagogical rigor has disappeared from the classrooms in order to be established in the places where sports are practiced. Curiously, in these places, it is not constructivism that is practiced, nor is pedagogical strictness considered to be an obstacle to spontaneity” (La destruction de l’enseignement élémentaire et ses penseurs, F.-X. de Guibert, Paris, 1998, p. 25). Furthermore, it is quite odd that, in these cases, the popular origin of most of the players is never considered to be an impediment to this traditional pedagogical strictness.
- 34 “Report of May 24, 1991”. Cited in Tableau noir (Gérard de Selys and Nico Hirtt, EPO, Brussels, 1998). This indispensable little book reproduces an abundance of texts that the European Commission, the OECD, and the European Round Table (one of the most discreet and effective EC lobbies, whose indefatigable Pasionaria is Édith Cresson) have devoted over the last few years to the question of defining the “structural adjustments” required by the capitalist reform of the school. Since these reports were not intended to be read by the sovereign people, the authors express themselves with a really shocking cynicism.
- 35 “Let’s add a parenthesis about teaching. One prattles on and on about the teaching crisis. Each Minister produces his reform proposal while leaving aside, and for a very good reason, what is essential. As Plato already said two thousand five hundred years ago: At the basis of all acquisition and transmission of knowledge, there is eros: passionate love for the object being taught, which necessarily goes by way of a specific affective relationship between teacher and the one being taught.” (C. Castoriadis, “De la fin de l’histoire’, Actes des Rencontres de Pétrarque, Montpellier, 15-17 mai 1991, Félin, Paris, 1992.) [From an interview that has been translated into English and reproduced at: http://www.notbored.org/PSRTI.pdf (Translator’s Note).] These basic facts remind us of the a priori limitations of all education at a distance. In the best case, what the machine can inculcate is a knowledge that is cut off from its affective and cultural foundations and, consequently, knowledge that is deprived of its human meaning and its critical potentials. As for its principles, they are no different than those that a skillful trainer can “teach” an animal. But we all know that “thousands of Bill Gates, among others, have been born from this imbecilic will o’ the wisp which ignites in the mind of a Minister whenever someone says the words, computer, communications technology or modernity to him” (Philippe Val, Charlie Hebdo, September 17, 1997). We need not mention that this article is devoted to Mister Allègre (former Minister of National Education in the government of Lionel Jospin).
- 36 European Commission, Tableau noir, op. cit.
- 37 “Report of the Philadelphia Round Table”, February 1996. Tableau noir, op. cit., p. 43.
- 38 If one tells a student that “Socrates is a man” and that “all men are mortal”, then under normal conditions it is much more difficult to prevent the student from drawing the conclusion that “Socrates is mortal” than it would be to allow him to draw that conclusion. The role of the educational sciences is precisely that of destroying these normal conditions in order to bring about a situation where the student will develop a politically useful illogical way of thinking.
- 39 Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Verso, London, 1990, p. 27. We should point out that this involves an authentic cultural revolution since, as Debord indicates, up until quite recently “almost everyone thought with some minimum of logic, with the striking exception of cretins and militants….” In this sense, it can be said that, from the capitalist perspective, the ideal school reform would therefore be one that would be able to transform, as quickly as possible, every high school student into a cretinous militant.
- 40 Ibid., p. 31.
- 41 At a time when the ruling class took the trouble to invent a word (“citizens” employed as an adjective) and impose its use, when there was already a synonymous term in ordinary language (“civic” or “civil”), whose meaning is totally clear, anyone who has read Orwell will immediately understand that this new word, in practice, will have to mean precisely the opposite of its predecessor. For example, helping an old lady to cross the street was, up until now, an elementary civic action. Now it will be possible for the act of knocking her down to take her purse to represent (with a little sociological good will) a form, although somewhat naïve, of protest against exclusion and social injustice, and therefore, it will constitute a model citizens gesture.
- 42 Given its status as the classical theater of capitalism, the United States experienced most of these reforms long before the European countries. This explains the unfortunate state of the public schools of that country. And it also proves that these pedagogical methods that have brought the American schools, as everyone knows, to the verge of collapse, were deliberately introduced in France. As L. Lurçat reminds us (Vers une école totalitaire, op. cit., p. 144), “the methods of reading recommended by Meirieu as scientifically correct are contributing to the generalization of illiteracy in the United States where, according to Jacques Barzun, sixty million functional illiterates owe their inability to read to the look and say method.” This does not mean, however, that the first pedagogical reformers were conscious agents of capitalism. By destroying as a matter of principle everything that derives from tradition, they were only trying to extend what they considered to be the domain of liberty and that, obviously, this liberty was nothing but the spirit of consumption and free trade translated into pedagogical terms. But this is why every advance of the reform was inevitably condemned to liberate more spaces for the capitalist dynamic, which, in turn, helped to consolidate the mythologies of the new education. Generally, it was not until 1988, with Lionel Jospin and Claude Allègre in power, when the various pedagogical utopias were updated, but this time consciously and deliberately, in the service of the “European structure”, that is, of the preparation of the European brands for the world economic war. For those who are interested in understanding the passage of pedagogical reform from “libertarian” naiveté to liberal cynicism, it would be interesting to analyze the role played by Inspector Foucambert (we have our own version of Lysenko) and his famous army of fanatics (see L. Lurçat, La destruction de l’enseignement, op. cit.).
- 43 We must not forget that in order to impose this Americanized destruction of education, the ruling classes have always relied on the unconditional collaboration of a very strange organization existing within the ranks of the teachers themselves: the SGEN-CFDT. Concerning this organization, J.-C. Milner was able to prove that it was “a rarity: a teachers trade union that systematically called for the material and moral impoverishment of all teachers” (De l’école, Seuil, Paris, 1984, p. 30). Undoubtedly, the key to this predilection for martyrdom and crucifixion must be sought in the Christian origins of the CFDT.
- 44 L’ingratitude, Gallimard, Paris, 1999, p. 153. In fact, the relations that currently prevail within the Republican School are quite curious if we are to judge them by the Bulletin of “Force Ouvrière des Lycées et Collèges” dated November 10, 1998: “The following are some of the declarations of the regional teaching inspector that should be noted: ‘Mister X is working in accordance with the lines laid down by the Ministry. Mister Y limits himself to just teaching his classes’.”
- 45 Beginning in 1972, literary culture, stigmatized as bourgeois, ceased to be the central axis of teaching French literature and language. For the psycho-pedagogues of the era, heavily influenced by the scientism of Bourdieu, it was a matter of opposing “the cultural use of reading, the formative role of the texts, to the importance of the literary patrimony in the training of the spirit, the idea that reading is for training and obtaining information” (L. Lurçat, op. cit., p. 87). The first thing that comes to mind is that character in the early works of H. G. Wells, James Holroyd, who “had read all of Shakespeare and seemed quite deficient with regard to his knowledge of chemistry”. Of course, under the still somewhat foolish leftist varnish, it is easy to discern the premises of the cult of profitable enterprise and the communications media that would soon begin to wreak havoc. In this respect, it is significant that for the disciples of Inspector Foucambert, publicity, that is, the declared propaganda of Capital, can now be presented as one of the privileged foundations for learning how to read, as opposed to the texts of classical literature, which are considered to be bourgeois.
- 46 In left wing (progressive or modernist) culture, every closed door by definition amounts to an intolerable provocation and a crime against the human spirit. So from this point of view, to open all doors and leave them open is a categorical imperative, even those that lead to indisputable mistakes. In the final instance, this is the metaphysical basis of the terrible panic at the idea of prohibiting anything; the fear that defines so many parents and educators, who, for their own intellectual convenience, strive by all means to “continue to be leftists”. It should be added that, according to the classical circuit of unconscious compensations, this fear of prohibition is rapidly transformed into an inviolable necessity of prohibiting everything that is not politically correct by means of petitions, street protests or legal proceedings, among other means. We see this trend as confirmation of the unfortunate and contradictory psychology of these new middle classes for whom the progressive left, once its popular roots were eliminated, has become the preferred political refuge.
- 47 The proposals of Masters Allègre and Geismar are nothing but the truth of the previous proposals. The only difference is that the formulation of this truth becomes increasingly more cynical as the relation of forces becomes more disadvantageous for the people. And when both of these persons—whose total absence of scruples and whose absolute disdain for the people make them so valuable to their superiors—have been transferred to positions that are less sensitive, electorally speaking, it would be really naïve to believe that their successors could do anything but rigorously develop this same truth.
- 48 In this respect, the point of no return was reached in 1990 when Lionel Jospin, following the model invented by American capitalism, formed the Instituts Universitaires de Formation des Maitres (I.U.F.M.) [Teacher Training Institutes]. In the words of L. Lurçat, these institutes are a “terribly effective enterprise. They allow for the destruction of the university training of the future teachers in the various disciplines” (op. cit., p. 120). Evidently, they are also the general police barracks for pedagogical thought and its all-powerful missi dominici.
- 49 Such tenacity is not only explained by the proven need to carry out an ever more arduous and exhausting labor. Also, in a world in which the spectacle is the highest symbolic authority, a teacher can only aspire to obtain the approval and attention of his students-telespectators if he increases the inherent portion of theatricality in the activity of teaching, with the risk that he will be transformed into an exclusively spectacular personality.
- 50 In the terminology of the European Round Table and therefore in the practice of the European Commission, the student has become a “customer”, and classes, “a product”. Numerous parents have now perfectly assimilated this modern idea.
- 51 To avoid a series of misunderstandings, we must point out that the financial markets, which have been transformed into the real rulers of this world, are exclusively managed by what they believe are their own interests. Only in the official poetry of the Attalis and the Mincs is this banal quest for profits and power presented as a splendid odyssey of the human spirit and a radiant march towards the promised Cyberia. Nonetheless, even the least intellectually gifted of the golden boys, no matter how strictly their existence is limited to their computer screens, must always be convinced of the rationality of their actions; this is only achieved because, in some necessarily prestigious school of management, they were taught to believe in the fundamental dogmas of the economic utopia, such as they were basically formulated by Adam Smith. It is even hard for me to deny that, behind their cynicism, openly declared in the best Hollywood style, in some hidden corner of their poor minds a kind of religious hope survives in which their own rapacity will be revealed, in the last instance, as useful for the human species.
- 52 The motto of Love Parade, “One world, one future”, might seem to be the optimistic inversion of the “No future” of the punks of the past. At bottom, however, they are identical messages. They are both about the idea that the forms of the future do not depend on the free choice of the people; it is the idea that tittytainment must reactivate in each new “generation”, that is, in each new music trend imposed by the culture industry. One may thus obtain a more accurate understanding of the tireless crusade of the capricious Jack Lang (sometimes the official Minister of tittytainment, but always the unofficial one) in favor of Love Parade and all those technologically equipped Spartacus revolts. For a description of this aspect from the interior of tittytainment, one may read the excellent novel by Éric Lentin, Rave (Climats, Castelnau-le-Lez, 1995).
- 53 This list is, of course, endless. For the aficionados or the curious, this is a totally contemporary demonstration of that “politics of the delirium of fun” (according to the expression of J.-F. Bizot, author of the article with the same title and someone who knows what he is talking about): “The individual, and only the individual, reinvents his liberty. The legalized raves died with NRJ and M6 (radio station and television channel, respectively, devoted to disseminating the music of youth culture). The party crowd is going to hunt in packs. You can find them anywhere: in ships with ephemeral parties, on a bus, in the search for some fashion detail, with five agendas, inventing their own party, renting a Congolese taxi, seeking an oriental journey, always being close on the heels of the trends, creating fun at home. Without a big surprise, there cannot be a party. Who can be afraid of this?” (Nova Magazine, April 1999.) We must not forget that for someone who is subject to tittytainment, it is inconceivable, for example, that on any given night in Paris, he will not automatically assume the mindset of a romantic and rebellious adventure. This is the beginning of all alienation.
- 54 Yves Eudes, “MTV: Planetary Music, Television and Profits”, Le Monde Diplomatique, August 1995 (all the following quotations are from this article).
- 55 Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, op. cit., p. 7. Debord adds: “The extraordinary new conditions in which this entire generation has effectively lived constitute a precise and sufficient summary of all that, henceforth, the spectacle will forbid; and also all that it will permit.”
- 56 Max Planck, founder of quantum theory, said that in the sciences, “[a] scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die….”
- 57 Jaime Semprun, L’abîme se repeuple, Éditions de l'Encyclopédie des Nuisances, Paris, 1997.
- 58 In France, if no government has made the decision to abolish paid vacations this is not, as we might suspect, because some government minister thought it over or because the entrepreneurial class was firmly opposed. Evidently it is because, for the moment, no power can allow itself to even suggest, even in the form of a rumor, this very wise abolition without automatically endangering the political conditions of the rule of Capital. As for pensions and social security, however, they seem to have a more sanguine outlook.
- 59 Thus, we know that in the context of the cold war, U.S. administrations often had to subordinate economic considerations to those of geopolitics, and did so even with regard to trade agreements.
- 60 Already in the 18th century, John Millar, who, together with Adam Smith was one of the principal representatives of the Scottish school of economics, offered an excellent description of the political importance of modern urbanism:
“. . . when a set of magistrates, and rulers, are invested with authority, confirmed by ancient usage, and supported, perhaps, by armed force, it cannot be expected that the people, single and unconnected, will be able to resist the repression of their governors; and their power of combining for this purpose, must depend very much upon their circumstances. . . . In large kingdoms, the people, being dispersed over a wide country, have seldom been capable of vigorous exertions. Living in petty villages, at a distance from one another, and having very imperfect means of communication, they are often but little affected by the hardships which many of their countrymen may sustain from the tyranny of government; and a rebellion may be quelled in one quarter before it has time to break out in another. . . .
“From the progress, however, of trade and manufactures, the state of a country in this respect is gradually changed. As the inhabitants multiply from the facility of procuring subsistence, they are collected in large bodies for the convenient exercise of their employments. Villages are enlarged into towns; and these are often swelled into populous cities. In all those places of resort, there arise large bands of labourers or artificers, who by constant intercourse, are enabled, with great rapidity, to communicate all their sentiments and passions. Among these there spring up leaders, who give a tone and direction to their companions. The strong encourage the feeble; the bold animate the timid; the resolute confirm the wavering; and the movements of the whole mass proceed with the uniformity of a machine, and with a force that is often irresistible.
“In this situation, a great proportion of the people are easily roused by every popular discontent, and can unite with no less facility in demanding a redress of grievances. The least ground of complaint, in a town, becomes the occasion of a riot; and the flames of sedition spreading from one city to another, are blown up into a general insurrection.” (Quoted in Hirschman, op. cit., pp. 89-90.)
- 61 After he finished his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith logically had to abandon the principal psychological ideas that he had presented in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. We must also point out that in current programs of secondary education there is not one single instance of an authentic introduction to the serious part of anthropology and psychology, without which the human world is condemned to remain largely unintelligible to the students. On the other hand, nothing prevents a liberal from attempting to base economics in the neurosciences or, for that matter, from finally having discovered the biological determinants of commercial behavior.
- 62 Gary Becker received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992 for research of this type with regard to family life and marriage. Although it might seem odd to some people, it is support for this liberal paradigm (according to which all human behavior, however complex it may seem on the surface, is in reality nothing but an effort to accumulate and valorize “symbolic capital”) that constitutes the intellectual foundation of the sociology of Bourdieu and his followers. This idea has been excellently examined by Alain Caillé in his “Esquisse d’une critique de l’économie générale de la pratique” (Cahiers du LASA, no. 12-13, 1992, pp. 109-219; reprinted in Don, intérêt et désintéressement, La Découverte, Paris, 1994). The book by Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Convergences: Inventories of the Present) (tr. M. B. DeBevoise, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2007), praised by all the mainstream critics for its daring and iconoclastic theory, only represents from this point of view the most recent attempt to reduce the literary exception to the general laws of economics. In a way, it is a sociological complement to the GATT agreements.
- 63 One may read an introduction to some of these unorthodox currents in the book by Richard Swedberg, Principles of Economic Sociology, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2003.
- 64 Obviously, we must not confuse the modern ethical disposition, that is, the denial by utilitarian metaphysics of the possibility that a man can fulfill a duty, by engaging in resistance, for example, without being motivated by any self-interest, with the various representations of the sanctimonious spirit, as they are programmed by the capitalist system according to its needs at each stage of its development: for example, the moral order in times of historical compromise between the capitalism of accumulation and that based on land rent; or with the politically correct in the era of the destruction of everyday civility by generalized consumption and the corresponding tyranny of Right. As for the idea—which Spinoza was one of the first to formulate—that commercial exchange would naturally lead to the establishment of an environment of trust with pacifying political consequences (this is one of the origins of the theory of “sweet commerce” of Montesquieu), a quick glance at modern realities is sufficient to confirm that, to the contrary, it is not necessary to be honest to effectively do business and to be successful. It is simply a matter of giving the appearance of or having the reputation of being honest. Actually, it could be that the image of a butcher or a serial killer would be the best introduction, in such a hardly peaceful world, to contemporary business.
- 65 Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (1714), Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1970, p. 234.
- 66 Ibid., p. 118. This is the meaning of the subtitle of The Fable of the Bees, “Private Vices, Publick Benefits”. This is still the most perfect summary of liberal dogmas. It should also be pointed out that, according to Mandeville, the first reason to accept the lack of civility is to protect ourselves from unemployment. Thus, the modern economy has been brilliant enough to discover a way to combine both concepts.
- 67 According to the terminology of A. Caillé, the cycle of the gift (that is, the triple obligation, analyzed by Mauss, of giving, receiving and giving back) constitutes the anthropological basis of primary socialization. From this perspective, economic exchange and the juridical relation represent secondary structures, without a universal existence. Naturally, the cycle of the gift exhibits an infinity of forms in the historical process. In fact, some of them could found a negative or an “agonistic” relation. For example, such is the case with regard to the Vendetta or primitive warfare according to the analysis of P. Clastres. With respect to this often overlooked matter, one may find interesting information in the following two books: J.-L. Boilleau, Conflit et lien social, La Découverte, Paris, 1995; and D. Temple and M. Chabal, La réciprocité et la naissance des valeurs humaines, Harmattan, Paris, 1995. Concerning the impossibility of abolishing the realm of the gift, see J.-C. Michéa, “Peut-on ramener la société à la raison?”, La Revue du MAUSS, no. 6, 1995.
- 68 This is the name given in France to violent gangs that, having emerged from the ruins of the politically organized destruction of popular cultures, rule by means of drug trafficking and terror over the native and immigrant populations in the neighborhoods that the legitimate state and capitalism have abandoned. As the collective “Stop à la violence” reminds us, these gangs “impose a reign of terror to facilitate their business. Then these losers make a deal with power. At our expense. These losers mean the death of the neighborhoods.”
- 69 We shall recall that, for Marx, the Lumpenproletariat—which in our time, together with the Caillera, also includes the different gang factions whose social origin and use by the established order call for a separate analysis—due to “its conditions of life”, is always likely to play “the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue” (See The Communist Manifesto). In his 1870 "Preface" to The Peasant War in Germany, Engels is even more emphatic: “The lumpenproletariat, this scum of the depraved elements of all classes, which established headquarters in the big cities, is the worst of all possible allies. This rabble is absolutely venal and absolutely brazen. If the French workers, in every revolution, inscribed on the houses: Mort aux voleurs! Death to thieves! and even shot some, they did it, not out of enthusiasm for property, but because they rightly considered it necessary above all to keep that gang at a distance. Every leader of the workers who uses these scoundrels as guards or relies on them for support proves himself by this action alone a traitor to the movement.” Give these “traitors” a statistical handbook and some state subsidies and you will have what the journalists call modern sociology.
- 70 J. de Maillard, Un monde sans Loi, Stock, Paris, 1998, p. 84.
- 71 This is the gradual and complicated cultural revolution that Orwell sought to depict in "Raffles and Miss Blandish" (1944), a literary essay on the genre of detective fiction.
- 72 All the relevant statistical data may be found in the book by Charles Szlakmann, La violence urbaine, R. Laffont, Paris, 1992.
- 73 We need only consult the dates they were released, to observe that A Clockwork Orange—which, together with More and Easy Rider, became one of the cult films of the young people of the new middle classes of that era, because it succeeded, with indubitable talent, in impressing nobility on “modern crime”—can by no means be interpreted as a result of the “oil crisis” or the “economic crisis”. In fact, it is the purely “gratuitous” tendency of the violence that was employed to break the law that rubbed the critics the wrong way. H. M. Enzensberger, in Die Große Wanderung [The Great Migration], emphasized the degree to which this tendency constituted the other side of the “business” of modern crime. In this connection, many interesting clues may be found in the description of the Jamaican ghetto in London written by Victor Headley in Yardie (X Press, London, 1992). This militant novel, first published by the author himself and then sold in “the barbershops and grocery stores of Brixton”, vigorously breaks down the intellectual and psychological mechanisms of the Jamaican underworld of London and warns the youth of the ghetto against the capitalist dream and its sociological rationalization. Finally, with respect to the fascination exercised by the figure of the “bad boy” on bourgeois intellectuals, from Georges Sand to Victor Hugo (this variation on the Oedipus Complex could be called the “Lacenaire Complex”), one may refer to the valuable contributions of Varlam Shalamov in his Essais sur le monde du crime (Gallimard, Paris, 1993). Sixteen years spent in a Stalinist prison with people arrested for common crimes allowed Shalamov to accumulate sociological experience on this topic that is just as valuable as any that could be obtained in the Collège de France.
- 74 Although I have omitted the question of the different historical forms of commodity exchange, it is necessary, at least, to distinguish the “administered trade” (Polanyi) of the old kingdoms and empires, the traditional commercial exchange linked to status and a relatively stable way of life (the artisan in a village, for example), the “chrematistic” market (Aristotle) where one seeks the accumulation of wealth, and, finally, the abstract Market of the economists which is the fundamental presupposition for the scientific politics that capitalism is attempting to realize.
- 75 See M. Mauss, “Essay on the Gift” (an article originally published in Année sociologique, 1923-1924) and the following volumes of the MAUSS Journal: “Le don” (3rd trimester of 1984); “Le don contre l’utilité” (4th trimester of 1989); “Donner, recevoir et rendre” (1st trimester of 1991); “Le don perdu et retrouvé” (3rd trimester of 1991); “Ce que donner veut dire” (1st semester of 1993) and “L’obligation de donner” (2nd semester of 1996).
- 76 In Latin, “to pay” is pacare, which means “to pacify”, to prevent any possible conflict.
- 77 Another serious question is to discover whether, in history, commodity exchange is the only possibility individuals have to distance themselves from the obligations of the gift. For example, an interesting topic of study would be to investigate the techniques by which war booty was allocated in archaic Greece. For, since the works of Gernet, we have known that the fact that the trophies of the chief were symbolically placed in the circle of the warriors automatically transformed these goods into res nullius and allowed them to be redistributed “without any obligation on the part of the beneficiary to give a counter-gift” (see Marcel Detienne, The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1998, Chapter V). What we must emphasize in this example is the fact that it produces an effect of liberty that does not proceed from commodity exchange but from a political and religious mechanism.
- 78 Letter to Balzac, dated May 5, 1613. Reading the biography by Colerus, we may also observe in Spinoza a similar obsession with indebtedness and the threats that weigh on individual autonomy.
- 79 In L'Autre Afrique (op. cit.), S. Latouche shows that traditional witchcraft in Africa functions as a mechanism that protects the community from the dissolving effects of modernity. For example, the man who, out of greed, ingratitude, or simply from a desire for western-style “prosperity”, takes the liberty of breaking the symbolic chains of the gift and does not give in return for what he has been given, always finds himself under the threat of a “curse” directed at him by his creditors (relatives, neighbors, etc.). Because the feeling of guilt that is often linked to all the forms of ingratitude can produce in the real life of the individual all the effects of unconscious self-punishment that psychoanalysis can imagine, the threats of witchcraft are very dissuasive for the embryonic individualist. In light of this hypothesis, it would also be interesting to determine if any historical links can be established, at the end of the Middle Ages in the West, between the acceleration of the process of modernization and the massive outbreak of witch-hunting. In this respect, some elements for an answer may be found in the passionate work of Robert Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society (Blackwell, Oxford, 1987).
- 80 In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (one of the texts that most clearly established the basis of modern ethics), Kant presents the honesty of the merchant who scrupulously returns the change and does not misrepresent his commodity as the example, par excellence, of behavior that must be explained in its totality by the logic of enlightened self-interest and which therefore has no moral value. Defining the ethical tendency as a will to comply with duty regardless of the cost is therefore clearly a critical response on the part of Kant to the doctrines of Mandeville, Helvétius and Adam Smith.
- 81 The clear distinction of the western contrast between the domains, perfectly visible, of interest and disinterestedness might even lead one to think that, paradoxically, it is in the modern European context where it has been perhaps possible to carry out totally disinterested acts for the first time in history. This is, at least, the plausible hypothesis that S. Latouche does not hesitate to uphold (op. cit., p. 61).
- 82 “These new middle classes are the end result of the demographic and cultural overlap between the traditional bourgeoisie and the working class. They represent either a social ascent or a definitive decline, but, in any case, they need to be reoriented. The problem of this reorientation was resolved with a permissive ideology. Thus, essentially, there is a denial of the moral values of the repressive order of the bourgeoisie or the working class. Another one of its preconditions is the need for the boss, i.e., authority, to authorize it. What is required is the ratification of permissiveness, an operation of a mythical kind, a referential event, a whole institutional donative of permissiveness by political authority itself. It must be a theatrical, solemn, definitive event, an authorization of the state, the supreme father. May ’68 was all of these things.” (Michel Clousçard, Les métamorphoses de la lutte des classes, Temps des cerises, Pantin, 1996, p. 32.)
- 83 Marc Kravetz, L’insurrection étudiante, Union Générale d’Éditions, Paris, 1968, p. 17.
- 84 In this era of youth culture, it is fitting to recall one basic detail: youth has never been a class. It is a moment of life, transformed into a market.
- 85 In fact, to a lesser extent by the CGT (Conféderation Générale des Travailleurs), which for the most part attempted to preserve the conditions of Stalinist domination over the workers, than by the CFDT (Conféderation Française Des Travailleurs), which, with the excuse of combating this domination, and with the pleasant façade of its discourse concerning “self-management”, was already working to adapt the working class to the new conditions of modernized capitalism and its “quality circles”. This is why only the most simple souls are still wondering what enigmatic causes lie behind the fact that the most advanced trade union (according to the expression of the media) in the struggles of ’68, can, barely thirty years later, embody class collaboration in its most Platonic perfection.
- 86 To cite only one example, it is hardly likely that the slogan, “Volem viure al pais”, which was, as many may have forgotten, the rallying cry of the peasants of Larzac, would be perceived by a young telespectator as anything but a “poujadiste” appeal to join the foul beast. To understand how we could have reached this point, it is necessary to recall a few facts. As everyone knows, it was in 1983-1984 when the French left had to officially renounce (in practice, this renunciation was implicit for a long time) presenting the break with capitalism as the central axis of its political program. As a result, it was during that same period intellectually obliged to invent for the voters, especially the young ones, a substitute ideal that was both plausible and compatible with the globalization of free trade that was then all the rage. This was the famous struggle “against racism, intolerance, and all forms of exclusion”. This struggle required, obviously, the programmed creation of various “anti-racist” organizations and the methodical construction of the political conditions (for example, during election campaigns, the proportional system) designed to allow the indispensable semblance of a “National Front” in the new political panorama. It was thus precisely during this period, which was so curious and full of upheaval—it was truly a “Mitterrandist” time—when the mainstream media had to gradually begin to present the word, populism, which up until then had belonged to a valuable revolutionary tradition, with the meaning that it currently has in the realm of uniform thought. For the necessary rehabilitation of this concept, one may read the interesting book by C. Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995) and the valuable article by Serge Halimi, “Le populisme, voilà l’ennemi”, Le Monde Diplomatique, April 1996.
- 87 For example, what turning points in the history of the French daily newspaper Libération mark the passage from leftist appearances to liberal appearances? There are none. The topological model of the evolution of this newspaper is the Moebius Strip.
- 88 The idea that the virtue of justice is manifested primarily in the impulse that leads us to help the weak usually makes the modern intellectual laugh. The idea seems a little Christian to him and, from a personal point of view, he much rather prefers to ostensibly identify himself with the manly muscular Worker of the Stalinist imagination or with the marginal youth of the ghetto, on the condition, however, that the latter has the tact to adopt the intimidating postures of the popular rap artists in the music videos. These fantasies are perfectly logical. In a text from 1944 ("Raffles and Miss Blandish"), Orwell points out that what fascinates the modern intellectual, and what is usually enough to explain his “revolutionary” rhetoric, is, above all, physical brutality: “the struggle for power” and “the triumph of the strong over the weak”; hence his very modern tendency “to tolerate crime [and] admire the criminal”.
- 89 We know that the Stalinist policy for selecting leaders has always privileged their willingness to utilize informers and to practice outing.
- 90 How can one unerringly recognize, thirty years later, one of these petit maîtres who formed the bulk of the general assemblies of May ’68? By their inimitable habit, which is still their trademark, of denying everyone the opportunity to speak, in every circumstance of life, monopolizing it so as only to say later that they are going to give it back. And if we have to find a symbol of these two ways of having “practiced ‘68” or, at least, of having drawn its consequences, we should reflect on the fact that, while Serge July, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and so many other practitioners of pensée unique have since then proclaimed on all fronts of the spectacle their complementary eulogies to modern capitalism, another major figure of the combats of ’68, René Riesel, a former member of the Situationist International, was found guilty, amidst almost universal indifference, together with two of his comrades from the Farmers Confederation, of having opposed the various maneuvers of the Novartis corporation to discreetly introduce into the human food supply “maize” that has been genetically modified by the experts of that same capitalism. Riesel dared to proclaim before the judges that “in the current suicidal version of capitalism, each step towards Progress is nothing but a step towards catastrophe” (see his “Declaration before the Tribunal of Agen on February 3, 1998”). One thing, however, is certain, and that is that not one journalist, whose profession is always prepared to disseminate the propaganda of the former Dani the Red, will ever risk besmirching his democratic honor by publicizing declarations that are so visibly mistaken and so clearly contrary to the meaning of history. Concerning the decisive importance of Riesel’s struggle, it is of urgent importance to read the text published by the Encyclopédie des Nuisances: Remarques sur l'agriculture génétiquement modifiée et la dégradation des espèces, Encyclopédie des nuisances, Paris, 1999.
- 91 This is why the Church and the Army became the privileged targets of every modern paradigm. This implies that anti-clericalism and anti-militarism, however legitimate they may be, can be something else besides anti-capitalist positions. This is probably another key to interpret the strange political universe of the caricaturist Cabu.
- 92 This idea, that will not surprise the readers of Orwell or William Morris, should not surprise the real friends of ecology either, or all those who are forced to confront Capital and its politicians whenever it is a matter of preserving some natural wilderness or restoring its lost qualities (for example, in the struggle to clean up the pollution in a river or to protect the food supply from adulteration). If one carefully considers examples of this kind of struggle, it is obvious that they are totally conservative, and even retrograde; so that an intelligent modernist like Alain Roger has proposed the necessity of creating a theory of the landscape (as well as a corresponding artistic genre) that would permit us to put an end, once and for all, to the “conservative and naturalist concern for the environment”. This curious synthesis of Art-Press vanguardism and the esthetic of real estate speculators has been masterfully dismantled by Jacques Dewitte (see “L’Artificialisation et son autre”, Critique, June-July 1998).
- 93 Everyone knows that the system has already successfully imposed on the most susceptible sectors of the youth the idea that progress is in itself a perfectly defined and necessarily virtuous activity. In practice, it is quite likely that a city that is “happening” in the eyes of the youths who watch Canal+ is actually a city destroyed by tourism and real estate speculation, where the mafia owns numerous discotheques and where cell phones get excellent reception.
- 94 I am employing the valuable distinction set forth in the text by J.-P. Courty, “En arrière tout! Lettre ouverte à la Revue Actuel 48 à propos de la Lozère et son entrée dans le XXI siècle”, Actuel 48, December 1997.
- 95 This is the point upon which the entire difference between a culture and a fashion is based. A culture is still, without a doubt, always in development, at least as long as it is a living culture: but this development entails a rhythm that confers, both upon the culture and its unconscious, a necessarily “transgenerational” structure, which implies that it always defines a common space for various generations, thus allowing for, among other things, encounter and communication between the young and the old (as, for example, at a football match, a popular festival or in the everyday life of a real popular neighborhood). Fashion, on the other hand, is an intragenerational attitude, whose incessant renewal principally obeys economic considerations. Organizing the systematic confusion of, on the one hand, enduring cultures created by the people at their own rhythm and, on the other hand, transient fashions imposed by industrial strategies, constitutes one of the basic operations of tittytainment. This is an art in which the ubiquitous Jack Lang is unrivalled.
- 96 M. Mauss, “Les Civilisations: éléments et formes” (an article originally published in 1930, included in Oeuvres, Vol. II, Minuit, Paris, 1994, pp. 456-512).
- 97 M. Torga, L’universel: c’est le local moins les murs, William Blake, Bourdeaux, 1986 (this text is a transcript of a speech delivered in Brazil in 1954).
- 98 “Une fois n’est pas coutume” (“Once a year won’t hurt”), as the popular saying goes. It is this constitutive flexibility that distinguishes the requirements of custom (for example, celebrating a birthday) from the impositions of law (for example, respecting the traffic laws). Naturally, as Latouche shows so well, this flexibility of custom entails the risk of giving way to “agreements” with the law that could give free reign to corruption. That is why, although, in principle, the distinct requirements of custom are supposed to be subordinated to the legal imperatives of the law, the latter must only be conceived as, on the one hand, the general framework of concrete human relations and, on the other hand, as the last instance to which one resorts when disagreements and conflicts cannot be resolved at the primary levels of social existence. As a result, when the law ends up always functioning as the normal way of solving problems, even in advance—in other words, when the threat of reciprocal judgments is transformed into a contemporary form of civility—then we enter the domain of litigious individuals and the tyranny of the law. This is precisely what always takes place whenever the commodity modernization of life advances. By systematically destroying the traditions and customs that constituted the horizon of historically constituted everyday transactions, the system tends progressively to limit individuals to the exclusive possession of two major modalities to resolve their disputes: violence and the systematic resort to the courts. This is the way of life that the United States has been experiencing for a long time and to which, therefore, we must quickly learn to submit; at least, if we do not do anything to preserve the power to decide our own destiny.