In China, if you really hate someone, the curse you address at him is: “May you live in interesting times!” In our history, “interesting times” are effectively the times of unrest, war and power struggle with millions of innocent by-standers suffering the consequences. Today, we are clearly approaching a new epoch of interesting times. After the decades of the (promise of) Welfare State, when financial cuts were limited to short periods and sustained by a promise that things will soon return to normal, we are entering a new period in which the crisis – or, rather, a kind of economic state of emergency – with the need for all sorts of austerity measures (cutting the benefits, diminishing the free health and education services, making jobs more and more temporary, etc.) is permanent, turning into a constant, becoming simply a way of life.
These shifts cannot but shatter the comfortable subjective position of radical intellectuals in the West. One of their favored mental exercises throughout the XXth century was the »catastrophization« of our predicament: whatever the actual situation, it HAD to be denounced as »catastrophic.« Recall the figures of Adorno and Horkheimer in the West Germany of the 50s: while denouncing the »eclipse of reason« in the modern Western society of consumption, they AT THE SAME TIME defended this society as the lone island of freedom in the sea of totalitarianisms and corrupted dictatorships all around the globe. It was as if Winston Churchill’s old ironic quip about democracy as the worst possible political regime, and all other regimes worse that it, was here repeated in a serious form: Western »administered society« is barbarism in the guise of civilization, the highest point of alienation, the disintegration of the autonomous individual, etc.etc. – however, all other socio-political regimes are worse, so that, comparatively, one nonetheless has to support it… One is tempted to propose a radical reading of this syndrome: what the unfortunate intellectuals cannot bear is the fact that they lead a life which is basically happy, safe and comfortable, so that, in order to justify their higher calling, they HAVE to construct a scenario of radical catastrophy? Back in 1937, in his The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell perfectly characterized this attitude when he pointed out “the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed”: radicals invoke the need for revolutionary change as a kind of superstitious token that will achieve its opposite, prevent the change from really occurring. If a revolution is taking place, it should occur at a safe distance: Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela… so that, while my heart is warm when I think about the events far away, I can go on promoting my academic career.
The “interesting times” we are entering undermine such security. In a psychoanalytic treatment, one learns to clarify one’s desires: do I really want what I think I want? Take the proverbial case of a husband engaged in a passionate extra-marital affair, dreaming all the time about the moment when his wife will disappear (die, divorce him, or whatever), so that he will then be able to fully live with his mistress – when this finally happens, all his world breaks down, he discovers that he also doesn’t want his mistress. As the old proverb says: there is one thing worst than not getting what one wants – to really get it. Leftist academics are now approaching such a moment of truth: you wanted real change – now you can have it!
However, our new situation in no way demands that we abandon the patient intellectual work with no immediate “practical use.” On the contrary: today, more than ever, one should bear in mind that Communism begins with what Kant called the “public use of reason,” with thinking, with the egalitarian universality of thought. When Paul says that, from a Christian standpoint, “there are no men and women, no Jews and Greeks,” he thereby claims that ethnic roots, national identity, etc., are not a category of truth, or, to put it in precise Kantian terms, when we reflect upon out ethnic roots, we engage in a private use of reason, constrained by contingent dogmatic presuppositions, i.e., we act as “immature” individuals, not as free human beings who dwell in the dimension of the universality of Continue reading »