“Less possessions, more connections!”
Thirty years of “crisis,” mass unemployment and flagging growth, and they still want us to believe in the economy. Thirty years punctuated, it is true, by delusionary interludes: the interlude of 1981-83, when we were deluded into thinking a government of the left might make people better off; the “easy money” interlude of 1986-89, when we were all supposed to be playing the market and getting rich; the internet interlude of 1998-2001, when everyone was going to get a virtual career through being well-connected, when a diverse but united France, cultured and multicultural, would bring home every World Cup. But here we are, we’ve drained our supply of delusions, we’ve hit rock bottom and are totally broke, or buried in debt.
We have to see that the economy is not “in” crisis, the economy is itself the crisis. It’s not that there’s not enough work, it’s that there is too much of it. All things considered, it’s not the crisis that depresses us, it’s growth. We must admit that the litany of stock market prices moves us about as much as a Latin mass. Luckily for us, there are quite a few of us who have come to this conclusion. We’re not talking about those who live off various scams, who deal in this or that, or who have been on welfare for the last ten years. Or of all those who no longer find their identity in their jobs and live for their time off. Nor are we talking about those who’ve been swept under the rug, the hidden ones who make do with the least, and yet outnumber the rest. All those struck by this strange mass detachment, adding to the ranks of retirees and the cynically overexploited flexible labor force. We’re not talking about them, although they too should, in one way or another, arrive at a similar conclusion.
We are talking about all of the countries, indeed entire continents, that have lost faith in the economy, either because they’ve seen the IMF come and go amid crashes and enormous losses, or because they’ve gotten a taste of the World Bank. The soft crisis of vocation that the West is now experiencing is completely absent in these places. What is happening in Guinea, Russia, Argentina and Bolivia is a violent and long-lasting debunking of this religion and its clergy. “What do you call a thousand IMF economists lying at the bottom of the sea?” went the joke at the World Bank, – “a good start.” A Russian joke: “Two economists meet. One asks the other: ‘You understand what’s happening?’ The other responds: ‘Wait, I’ll explain it to you.’ ‘No, no,’ says the first, ‘explaining is no problem, I’m an economist, too. What I’m asking is: do you understand?” Entire sections of this clergy pretend to be dissidents and to critique this religion’s dogma. The latest attempt to revive the so-called “science of the economy” – a current that straight-facedly refers to itself as “post autistic economics” – makes a living from dismantling the usurpations, sleights of hand and cooked books of a science whose only tangible function is to rattle the monstrance during the vociferations of the chiefs, giving their demands for submission a bit of ceremony, and ultimately doing what religions have always done: providing explanations. For total misery becomes intolerable the moment it is shown for what it is, without cause or reason.
Nobody respects money anymore, neither those who have it nor those who don’t. When asked what they want to be some day, twenty percent of young Germans answer “artist.” Work is no longer endured as a given of the human condition. The accounting departments of corporations confess that they have no idea where value comes from. The market’s bad reputation would have done it in a decade ago if not for the bluster and fury, not to mention the deep pockets, of its apologists. It is common sense now to see progress as synonymous with disaster. In the world of the economic, everything is in flight, just like in the USSR under Andropov. Anyone who has spent a little time analyzing the final years of the USSR knows very well that the pleas for goodwill coming from our rulers, all of their fantasies about some future that has disappeared without a trace, all of their professions of faith in “reforming” this and that, are just the first fissures in the structure of the wall. The collapse of the socialist bloc was in no way victory of capitalism; it was merely the bankrupting of one of the forms capitalism takes. Besides, the demise of the USSR did not come about because a people revolted, but because the nomenclature was undergoing a process of reconversion. When it proclaimed the end of socialism, a small fraction of the ruling class emancipated itself from the anachronistic duties that still bound it to the people. It took private control of what it already controlled in the name of “everyone.” In the factories, the joke went: “we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.” The oligarchy replied, “there’s no point, let’s stop pretending!” They ended up with the raw materials, industrial infrastructures, the military-industrial complex, the banks and the nightclubs. Everyone else got poverty or emigration. Just as no one in Andropov’s time believed in the USSR, no one in the meeting halls, workshops and offices believes in France today. “There’s no point,” respond the bosses and political leaders, who no longer even bother to file the edges off the “iron laws of the economy.” They strip factories in the middle of the night and announce the shutdown early next morning. They no longer hesitate to send in anti-terrorism units to shut down a strike, like with the ferries and the occupied recycling center in Rennes. The brutal activity of power today consists both in administering this ruin while, at the same time, establishing the framework for a “new economy.”
And yet there is no doubt that we are cut out for the economy. For generations we were disciplined, pacified and made into subjects, productive by nature and content to consume. And suddenly everything that we were compelled to forget is revealed: that the economy is political. And that this politics is, today, a politics of discrimination within a humanity that has, as a whole, become superfluous. From Colbert to de Gaulle, by way of Napoleon III, the state has always treated the economic as political, as have the bourgeoisie (who profit from it) and the proletariat (who confront it). All that’s left is this strange, middling part of the population, the curious and powerless aggregate of those who take no sides: the petty bourgeoisie. They have always pretended to believe that the economy is a reality-because their neutrality is safe there. Small business owners, small bosses, minor bureaucrats, managers, professors, journalists, middlemen of every sort make up this non-class in France, this social gelatin composed of the mass of all those who just want to live their little private lives at a distance from history and its tumults. This swamp is predisposed to be the champion of false consciousness, half-asleep and always ready to close its eyes on the war that rages all around it. Each clarification of a front in this war is thus accompanied in France by the invention of some new fad. For the past ten years, it was ATTAC and its improbable Tobin tax -a tax whose implementation would require nothing less than a global government-with its sympathy for the “real economy” as opposed to the financial markets, not to mention its touching nostalgia for the state. The comedy lasts only so long before turning into a sham. And then another fad replaces it. So now we have “degrowth“. Whereas ATTAC tried to save economics as a science with its popular education courses, degrowth preserves the economic as a morality. There is only one alternative to the coming apocalypse: reduce growth. Consume and produce less. Become joyously frugal. Eat organic, ride your bike, stop smoking, and pay close attention to the products you buy. Be content with what’s strictly necessary. Voluntary simplicity. “Rediscover true wealth in the blossoming of convivial social relations in a healthy world.” “Don’t use up our natural capital.” Work toward a “healthy economy.” “No regulation through chaos.” “Avoid a social crisis that would threaten democracy and humanism.” Simply put: become economical. Go back to daddy’s economy, to the golden age of the petty bourgeoisie: the 1950s. “When an individual is frugal, property serves its function perfectly, which is to allow the individual to enjoy his or her own life sheltered from public existence, in the private sanctuary of his or her life.”
A graphic designer wearing a handmade sweater is drinking a fruity cocktail with some friends on the terrace of an “ethnic” café. They’re chatty and cordial, they joke around a bit, they make sure not to be too loud or too quiet, they smile at each other, a little blissfully: we are so civilized. Afterwards, some of them will go work in the neighborhood community garden, while others will dabble in pottery, some Zen Buddhism, or in the making of an animated film. They find communion in the smug feeling that they constitute a new humanity, wiser and more refined than the previous one. And they are right. There is a curious agreement between Apple and the degrowth movement about the civilization of the future. Some people’s idea of returning to the economy of yesteryear offers others the convenient screen behind which a great technological leap forward can be launched. For in history there is no going back. Any exhortation to return to the past is only the expression of one form of consciousness of the present, and rarely the least modern. It is not by chance that degrowth is the banner of the dissident advertisers of the magazine Casseurs de Pub. The inventors of zero growth-the Club of Rome in 1972-were themselves a group of industrialists and bureaucrats who relied on a research paper written by cyberneticians at MIT.
This convergence is hardly a coincidence. It is part of the forced march towards a modernized economy. Capitalism got as much as it could from undoing all the old social ties, and it is now in the process of remaking itself by rebuilding these same ties on its own terms. Contemporary metropolitan social life is its incubator. In the same way, it ravaged the natural world and is driven by the fantasy that it can now be reconstituted as so many controlled environments, furnished with all the necessary sensors. This new humanity requires a new economy that would no longer be a separate sphere of existence but, on the contrary, its very tissue, the raw material of human relations; it requires a new definition of work as work on oneself, a new definition of capital as human capital, a new idea of production as the production of relations, and consumption as the consumption of situations; and above all a new idea of value that would encompass all of the qualities of beings. This burgeoning “bioeconomy” conceives the planet as a closed system to be managed and claims to establish the foundations for a science that would integrate all the parameters of life. Such a science threatens to make us miss the good old days when unreliable indices like GDP growth were supposed to measure the well-being of a people-for at least no one believed in them.
“Revalorize the non-economic aspects of life” is the slogan shared by the degrowth movement and by capital’s reform program. Eco-villages, video-surveillance cameras, spirituality, biotechnologies and sociability all belong to the same “civilizational paradigm” now taking shape, that of a total economy rebuilt from the ground up. Its intellectual matrix is none other than cybernetics, the science of systems-that is, the science of their control. In the 17th century it was necessary, in order to completely impose the force of economy and its ethos of work and greed, to confine and eliminate the whole seamy mass of layabouts, liars, witches, madmen, scoundrels and all the other vagrant poor, a whole humanity whose very existence gave the lie to the order of interest and continence. The new economy cannot be established without a similar screening of subjects and zones singled out for transformation. The chaos that we constantly hear about will either provide the opportunity for this screening, or for our victory over this odious project.
“The environment is an industrial challenge.”
Ecology is the discovery of the decade. For the last thirty years we’ve left it up to the environmentalists, joking about it on Sunday so that we can act concerned again on Monday. And now it’s caught up to us, invading the airwaves like a hit song in summertime, because it’s 68 degrees in December.
One quarter of the fish species have disappeared from the ocean. The rest won’t last much longer.
Bird flu alert: we are given assurances that hundreds of thousands of migrating birds will be shot from the sky.
Mercury levels in human breast milk are ten times higher than the legal level for cows. And these lips which swell up after I bite the apple – but it came from the farmer’s market. The simplest gestures have become toxic. One dies at the age of 35 from “a prolonged illness” that’s to be managed just like one manages everything else. We should’ve seen it coming before we got to this place, to pavilion B of the palliative care center.
You have to admit: this whole “catastrophe,” which they so noisily inform us about, it doesn’t really touch us. At least not until we are hit by one of its foreseeable consequences. It may concern us, but it doesn’t touch us. And that is the real catastrophe.
There is no “environmental catastrophe.” The catastrophe is the environment itself. The environment is what’s left to man after he’s lost everything. Those who live in a neighborhood, a street, a valley, a war zone, a workshop – they don’t have an “environment;” they move through a world peopled by presences, dangers, friends, enemies, moments of life and death, all kinds of beings. Such a world has its own consistency, which varies according to the intensity and quality of the ties attaching us to all of these beings, to all of these places. It’s only us, the children of the final dispossession, exiles of the final hour – the ones who come into the world in concrete cubes, pick our fruits at the supermarket, and watch for an echo of the world on television – only we get to have an environment. And there’s no one but us to witness our own annihilation, as if it were just a simple change of scenery, to get indignant about the latest progress of the disaster, to patiently compile its encyclopedia.
What has congealed as an environment is a relationship to the world based on management, which is to say, on estrangement. A relationship to the world wherein we’re not made up just as much of the rustling trees, the smell of frying oil in the building, running water, the hubbub of schoolrooms, the mugginess of summer evenings. A relationship to the world where there is me and then my environment, surrounding me but never really constituting me. We have become neighbors in a planetary co-op owners’ board meeting. It’s difficult to imagine a more complete hell.
No material habitat has ever deserved the name “environment,” except perhaps the metropolis of today. The digitized voices making announcements, tramways with such a 21st century whistle, bluish streetlamps shaped like giant matchsticks, pedestrians done up like failed fashion models, the silent rotation of a video surveillance camera, the lucid clicking of the subway turnstyles supermarket checkouts, office time-clocks, the electronic ambiance of the cyber café, the profusion of plasma screens, express lanes and latex. Never has a setting been so able to do without the souls traversing it. Never has a surrounding been more automatic. Never has a context been so indifferent, and demanded in return – as the price of survival – such equal indifference from us. Ultimately the environment is nothing more than the relationship to the world that is proper to the metropolis, and that projects itself onto everything that would escape it.
It goes like this: they hired our parents to destroy this world, now they’d like to put us to work rebuilding it, and – to top it all off – at a profit. The morbid excitement that animates journalists and advertisers these days as they report each new proof of global warming reveals the steely smile of the new green capitalism, in the making since the 70s, which we waited for at the turn of the century but which never came. Well, here it is! It’s sustainability! Alternative solutions, that’s it too! The health of the planet demands it! No doubt about it anymore, it’s a green scene; the environment will be the crux of the political economy of the 21st century. A new volley of “industrial solutions” comes with each new catastrophic possibility.
The inventor of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, proposes shooting millions of tons of metallic dust into the stratosphere to stop global warming. NASA, frustrated at having to shelve its idea of an anti-missile shield in the museum of cold war horrors, suggests installing a gigantic mirror beyond the moon’s orbit to protect us from the sun’s now-fatal rays. Another vision of the future: a motorized humanity, driving on bio-ethanol from Sao Paulo to Stockholm; the dream of cereal growers the world over, for it only means converting all of the planet’s arable lands into soy and sugar beet fields. Eco-friendly cars, clean energy, and environmental consulting coexist painlessly with the latest Chanel ad in the pages of glossy magazines.
We are told that the environment has the incomparable merit of being the first truly global problem presented to humanity. A global problem, which is to say a problem that only those who are organized on a global level will be able to solve. And we know who they are. These are the very same groups that for close to a century have been the vanguard of disaster, and certainly intend to remain as such, for the small price of a change of logo. That EDF had the impudence to bring back its nuclear program as the new solution to the global energy crisis says plenty about how much the new solutions resemble the old problems.
From Secretaries of State to the back rooms of alternative cafés, concerns are always expressed in the same words, the same as they’ve always been. We have to get mobilized. This time it’s not to rebuild the country like in the post-war era, not for the Ethiopians like in the 1980s, not for employment like in the 1990s. No, this time it’s for the environment. It will thank you for it. Al Gore and degrowth movement stand side by side with the eternal great souls of the Republic to do their part in resuscitating the little people of the Left and the well-known idealism of youth. Voluntary austerity writ large on their banner, they work benevolently to make us compliant with the “coming ecological state of emergency.” The round and sticky mass of their guilt lands on our tired shoulders, coddling us to cultivate our garden, sort out our trash, and eco-compost the leftovers of this macabre feast.
Managing the phasing out of nuclear power, excess CO2 in the atmosphere, melting glaciers, hurricanes, epidemics, global over-population, erosion of the soil, mass extinction of living species… this will be our burden. They tell us, “everyone must do their part,” if we want to save our beautiful model of civilization. We have to consume a little less in order to be able to keep consuming. We have to produce organically in order to keep producing. We have to control ourselves in order to go on controlling. This is the logic of a world straining to maintain itself whilst giving itself an air of historical rupture. This is how they would like to convince us to participate in the great industrial challenges of this century. And in our bewilderment we’re ready to leap into the arms of the very same ones who presided over the devastation, in the hope that they will get us out of it.
Ecology isn’t simply the logic of a total economy; it’s the new morality of capital. The system’s internal state of crisis and the rigorous screening that’s underway demand a new criterion in the name of which this screening and selection will be carried out. From one era to the next, the idea of virtue has never been anything but an invention of vice. Without ecology, how could we justify the existence of two different food regimes, one “healthy and organic” for the rich and their children, and the other notoriously toxic for the plebes, whose offspring are damned to obesity. The planetary hyper-bourgeoisie wouldn’t be able to make their normal lifestyle seem respectable if its latest caprices weren’t so scrupulously “respectful of the environment.” Without ecology, nothing would have enough authority to gag any and all objections to the exorbitant progress of control.
Tracking, transparency, certification, eco-taxes, environmental excellence, and the policing of water, all give us an idea of the coming state of ecological emergency. Everything is permitted to a power structure that bases its authority in Nature, in health and in well-being.
“Once the new economic and behavioral culture has become common practice, coercive measures will doubtless fall into disuse of their own accord.” You’d have to have all the ridiculous aplomb of a TV crusader to maintain such a frozen perspective and in the same breath incite us to feel sufficiently “sorry for the planet” to get mobilized, whilst remaining anesthetized enough to watch the whole thing with restraint and civility. The new green-asceticism is precisely the self-control that is required of us all in order to negotiate a rescue operation where the system has taken itself hostage. From now on, it’s in the name of environmentalism that we must all tighten our belts, just as we did yesterday in the name of the economy. The roads could certainly be transformed into bicycle paths, we ourselves could perhaps, to a certain degree, be grateful one day for a guaranteed income, but only at the price of an entirely therapeutic existence. Those who claim that generalized self-control will spare us from an environmental dictatorship are lying: the one will prepare the way for the other, and we’ll end up with both.
As long as there is Man and Environment, the police will be there between them.
Everything about the environmentalist’s discourse must be turned upside-down. Where they talk of “catastrophes” to label the present system’s mismanagement of beings and things, we only see the catastrophe of its all too perfect operation. The greatest wave of famine ever known in the tropics (1876-1879) coincided with a global drought, but more significantly, it also coincided with the apogee of colonization. The destruction of the peasant’s world and of local alimentary practices meant the disappearance of the means for dealing with scarcity. More than the lack of water, it was the effect of the rapidly expanding colonial economy that littered the Tropics with millions of emaciated corpses. What presents itself everywhere as an ecological catastrophe has never stopped being, above all, the manifestation of a disastrous relationship to the world. Inhabiting a nowhere makes us vulnerable to the slightest jolt in the system, to the slightest climactic risk. As the latest tsunami approached and the tourists continued to frolic in the waves, the islands’ hunter-gatherers hastened to flee the coast, following the birds. Environmentalism’s present paradox is that under the pretext of saving the planet from desolation it merely saves the causes of its desolation.
The normal functioning of the world usually serves to hide our state of truly catastrophic dispossession. What is called “catastrophe” is no more than the forced suspension of this state, one of those rare moments when we regain some sort of presence in the world. Let the petroleum reserves run out earlier than expected; let the international flows that regulate the tempo of the metropolis be interrupted, let us suffer some great social disruption and some great “return to savagery of the population,” a “planetary threat,” the “end of civilization!” Either way, any loss of control would be preferable to all the crisis management scenarios they envision. When this comes, the specialists in sustainable development won’t be the ones with the best advice. It’s within the malfunction and short-circuits of the system that we find the elements of a response whose logic would be to abolish the problems themselves. Among the signatory nations to the Kyoto Protocol, the only countries that have fulfilled their commitments, in spite of themselves, are the Ukraine and Romania. Guess why. The most advanced experimentation with “organic” agriculture on a global level has taken place since 1989 on the island of Cuba. Guess why. And it’s along the African highways, and nowhere else, that auto mechanics has been elevated to a form of popular art. Guess how.
What makes the crisis desirable is that in the crisis the environment ceases to be the environment. We are forced to reestablish contact, albeit a potentially fatal one, with what’s there, to rediscover the rhythms of reality. What surrounds us is no longer a landscape, a panorama, a theater, but something to inhabit, something we need to come to terms with, something we can learn from. We won’t let ourselves be led astray by the one’s who’ve brought about the contents of the “catastrophe.” Where the managers platonically discuss among themselves how they might decrease emissions “without breaking the bank,” the only realistic option we can see is to “break the bank” as soon as possible and, in the meantime, take advantage of every collapse in the system to increase our own strength.
New Orleans, a few days after Hurricane Katrina. In this apocalyptic atmosphere, here and there, life is reorganizing itself. In the face of the inaction of the public authorities, who were too busy cleaning up the tourist areas of the French Quarter and protecting shops to help the poorer city dwellers, forgotten forms are reborn. In spite of occasionally strong-armed attempts to evacuate the area, in spite of white supremacist lynch mobs, a lot of people refused to leave the terrain. For the latter, who refused to be deported like “environmental refugees” all over the country, and for those who came from all around to join them in solidarity, responding to a call from a former Black Panther, self-organization came back to the fore. In a few weeks time, the Common Ground Clinic was set up. From the very first days, this veritable “country hospital” provided free and effective treatment to those who needed it, thanks to the constant influx of volunteers. For more than a year now, the clinic is still the base of a daily resistance to the clean-sweep operation of government bulldozers, which are trying to turn that part of the city into a pasture for property developers. Popular kitchens, supplies, street medicine, illegal takeovers, the construction of emergency housing, all this practical knowledge accumulated here and there in the course of a life, has now found a space where it can be deployed. Far from the uniforms and sirens.
Whoever knew the penniless joy of these New Orleans neighborhoods before the catastrophe, their defiance towards the state and the widespread practice of making do with what’s available wouldn’t be at all surprised by what became possible there. On the other hand, anyone trapped in the anemic and atomized everyday routine of our residential deserts might doubt that such determination could be found anywhere anymore. Reconnecting with such gestures, buried under years of normalized life, is the only practicable means of not sinking down with the world. The time will come when we take these up once more.
“We are building a civilized space here”
The first global slaughter, which from 1914 to 1918 did away with a large portion of the urban and rural proletariat, was waged in the name of freedom, democracy, and civilization. For the past five years, the so-called “war on terror” with its special operations and targeted assassinations has been pursued in the name of these same values. Yet the resemblance stops there: at the level of appearances. The value of civilization is no longer so obvious that it can brought to the natives without further ado. Freedom is no longer a name scrawled on walls, for today it is always followed, as if by its shadow, with the word “security.” And it is well known that democracy can be dissolved in pure and simple “emergency” edicts – for example, in the official reinstitution of torture in the US, or in France’s Perben II law.
In a single century, freedom, democracy and civilization have reverted to the state of hypotheses. Our leaders’ work from here on out will consist in shaping the material and moral as well as symbolic and social conditions in which these hypotheses can be more or less validated, in configuring spaces where they can seem to function. All means to these ends are acceptable, even the least democratic, the least civilized, the most repressive. This is a century in which democracy regularly presided over the birth of fascist regimes, civilization constantly rhymed – to the tune of Wagner or Iron Maiden – with extermination, and in which, one day in 1929, freedom- showed its two faces: a banker throwing himself from a window and a family of workers dying of hunger. Since then – let’s say, since 1945 – it’s taken for granted that manipulating the masses, secret service operations, the restriction of public liberties, and the complete sovereignty of a wide array of police forces were appropriate ways to ensure democracy, freedom and civilization. At the final stage of this evolution, we see the first socialist mayor of Paris putting the finishing touches on urban pacification with a new police protocol for a poor neighborhood, announced with the following carefully chosen words: “We’re building a civilized space here.” There’s nothing more to say, everything has to be destroyed.
Though it seems general in nature, the question of civilization is not at all a philosophical one. A civilization is not an abstraction hovering over life. It is what rules, takes possession of, colonizes the most banal, personal, daily existence. It’s what holds together that which is most intimate and most general. In France, civilization is inseparable from the state. The older and more powerful the state, the less it is a superstructure or exoskeleton of a society and the more it constitutes the subjectivities that people it. The French state is the very texture of French subjectivities, the form assumed by the centuries-old castration of its subjects. Thus it should come as no surprise that in their deliriums psychiatric patients are always confusing themselves with political figures, that we agree that our leaders are the root of all our ills, that we like to grumble so much about them and that this grumbling is the consecration that crowns them as our masters. Here, politics is not considered something outside of us but as part of ourselves. The life we invest in these figures is the same life that’s taken from us.
If there is a French exception, this is why. Everything, even the global influence of French literature, is a result of this amputation. In France, literature is the prescribed space for the amusement of the castrated. It is the formal freedom conceded to those who cannot accommodate themselves to the nothingness of their real freedom. That’s what gives rise to all the obscene winks exchanged, for centuries now, between the statesmen and men of letters in this country, as each gladly dons the other’s costume. That’s also why intellectuals here tend to talk so loud when they’re so meek, and why they always fail at the decisive moment, the only moment that would’ve given meaning to their existence, but that also would’ve had them banished from their profession.
There exists a credible thesis that modern literature was born with Baudelaire, Heine, and Flaubert as a repercussion of the state massacre of June 1848. It’s in the blood of the Parisian insurgents, against the silence surrounding the slaughter, that modern literary forms were born – spleen, ambivalence, fetishism of form, and morbid detachment. The neurotic affection that the French pledge to their Republic – in the name of which every smudge of ink assumes an air of dignity, and any pathetic hack is honored – underwrites the perpetual repression of its originary sacrifices. The June days of 1848 – 1,500 dead in combat, thousands of summary executions of prisoners, and the Assembly welcoming the surrender of the last barricade with cries of “Long Live the Republic!” – and the Bloody Week of 1871 are birthmarks no surgery can hide.
In 1945, Kojeve wrote:
“The “official” political ideal of France and of the French is today still that of the nation-State, of the ‘one and indivisible Republic.’ On the other hand, in the depths of its soul, the country understands the inadequacy of this ideal, of the political anachronism of the strictly “national” idea. This feeling has admittedly not yet reached the level of a clear and distinct idea: The country cannot, and still does not want to, express it openly. Moreover, for the very reason of the unparalleled brilliance of its national past, it is particularly difficult for France to recognize clearly and to accept frankly the fact of the end of the ‘national’ period of History and to understand all of its consequences. It is hard for a country which created, out of nothing, the ideological framework of nationalism and which exported it to the whole world to recognize that all that remains of it now is a document to be filed in the historical archives.”
This question of the nation-state and its mourning is at the heart of what for the past half-century can only be called the French malaise. We politely give the name of “alternation” to this twitchy indecision, this pendulum-like oscillation from left to right, then right to left; like a manic phase after a depressive one that is then followed by another, or like the way a completely rhetorical critique of individualism uneasily co-exists with the most ferocious cynicism, or the most grandiose generosity with an aversion to crowds. Since 1945, this malaise, which seems to have dissipated only during the insurrectionary fervor of May 68, has continually worsened. The era of states, nations and republics is coming to an end; this country that sacrificed all its life to these forms is still dumbfounded. The firestorm caused by Jospin’s simple sentence “the state can’t do everything” allowed us to glimpse the one that will ignite when it becomes clear that the state can no longer do anything at all. The feeling that we’ve been tricked is like a wound that is becoming increasingly infected. It’s the source of the latent rage that just about anything will set off these days. The fact that in this country the obituary of the age of nations has yet to be written is the key to the French anachronism, and to the revolutionary possibilities France still has in store.
Whatever their outcome may be, the role of the next presidential elections will be to signal the end of French illusions and the bursting of the historical bubble in which we are living – and which makes possible events like the anti-CPE movement, which was puzzled over by other countries as if it were some bad dream that escaped the 1970s. That’s why, deep down, no one wants these elections. France is indeed the red lantern of the western zone.
Today the West is the GI who dashes into Fallujah on an M1 Abrams tank, listening to heavy metal at top volume. It’s the tourist lost on the Mongolian plains, mocked by all, who clutches his credit card as his only lifeline. It’s the CEO who swears by the game Go. It’s the young girlchchases who chases happiness in clothes, guys, and moisturizing creams. It’s the Swiss human rights activist who travels to the four corners of the earth to show solidarity with all the world’s rebels – provided they’ve been defeated. It’s the Spaniard who couldn’t care less about political freedom once he’s been granted sexual freedom. It’s the art lover who wants us to be awestruck before the “modern genius” of a century of artists, from surrealism to Viennese actionism, all competing to see who could best spit in the face of civilization. It’s the cyberneticist who’s found a realistic theory of consciousness in Buddhism and the quantum physicist who’s hoping that dabbling in Hindu metaphysics will inspire new scientific discoveries.
The West is a civilization that has survived all the prophecies of its collapse with a singular stratagem. Just as the bourgeoisie had to deny itself as a class in order to permit the bourgeoisification of society as a whole, from the worker to the baron; just as capital had to sacrifice itself as a wage relation in order to impose itself as a social relation – becoming cultural capital and health capital in addition to finance capital; just as Christianity had to sacrifice itself as a religion in order to survive as an affective structure – as a vague injunction to humility, compassion, and weakness; so the West has sacrificed itself as a particular civilization in order to impose itself as a universal culture. The operation can be summarized like this: an entity in its death throws sacrifices itself as a content in order to survive as a form.
The fragmented individual survives as a form thanks to the “spiritual” technologies of counseling. Patriarchy survives by attributing to women all the worst attributes of men: willfulness, self-control, insensitivity. A disintegrated society survives by propagating an epidemic of sociability and entertainment. So it goes with all the great, outmoded fictions of the West maintaining themselves through artifices that contradict these fictions point by point.
There is no “clash of civilizations.” There is a clinically dead civilization kept alive by all sorts of life-support machines that spread a peculiar plague into the planet’s atmosphere. At this point it can no longer believe in a single one of its own “values”, and any affirmation of them is considered an impudent act, a provocation that should and must be taken apart, deconstructed, and returned to a state of doubt. Today Western imperialism is the imperialism of relativism, of the “it all depends on your point of view”; it’s the eye-rolling or the wounded indignation at anyone who’s stupid, primitive, or presumptuous enough to still believe in something, to affirm anything at all. You can see the dogmatism of constant questioning give its complicit wink of the eye everywhere in the universities and among the literary intelligentsias. No critique is too radical among postmodernist thinkers, as long as it maintains this total absence of certitude. A century ago, scandal was identified with any particularly unruly and raucous negation, while today it’s found in any affirmation that fails to tremble.
No social order can securely found itself on the principle that nothing is true. Yet it must be made secure. Applying the concept of “security” to everything these days is the expression of a project to securely fasten onto places, behaviors, and even people themselves, an ideal order to which they are no longer ready to submit. Saying “nothing is true” says nothing about the world but everything about the Western concept of truth. For the West, truth is not an attribute of beings or things, but of their representation. A representation that conforms to experience is held to be true. Science is, in the last analysis, this empire of universal verification. Since all human behavior, from the most ordinary to the most learned, is based on a foundation of unevenly formulated presuppositions, and since all practices start from a point where things and their representations can no longer be distinguished, a dose of truth that the Western concept knows nothing about enters into every life. We talk in the West about “real people,” but only in order to mock these simpletons. This is why Westerners have always been thought of as liars and hypocrites by the people they’ve colonized. This is why they’re envied for what they have, for their technological development, but never for what they are, for which they are rightly held in contempt. Sade, Nietzsche and Artaud wouldn’t be taught in schools if the kind of truth mentioned above was not discredited in advance. Containing all affirmations and deactivating all certainties as they irresistibly come to light-such is the long labor of the Western intellect. The police and philosophy are two convergent, if formally distinct, means to this end.
Of course, this imperialism of the relative finds a suitable enemy in every empty dogmatism, in whatever form of Marxist-Leninism, Salifism, or Neo-Nazism: anyone who, like Westerners, mistakes provocation for affirmation.
At this juncture, any strictly social contestation that refuses to see that what we’re faced with is not the crisis of a society but the extinction of a civilization becomes an accomplice in its perpetuation. It’s even become a contemporary strategy to critique this society in the vain hope of saving this civilization.
So we have a corpse on our backs, but we won’t be able to rid ourselves of it just like that. Nothing is to be expected from the end of civilization, from its clinical death. In and of itself, it can only be of interest to historians. It’s a fact, and it must be translated into a decision. Facts can be conjured away, but decision is political. To decide on the death of civilization, then to work out how it will happen: only decision will rid us of the corpse.