| Part of Me Cheered Too: The Western
Left, Moral Universalism and Hatred
By Sebastian Job
It is like looking at pictures which are too near or
First the bad news: the 'international community' is a tiny bit lost. The good news, meanwhile, is that in the post-September 11, 2001 period, the reigning myopia, greed and mercenary hypocricy are evident to a far greater number of people. Today you only have to utter the words 'Tony Blair' to conjure up the contradiction between the humanitarian posturing of the West and its lethal practice. Once again the bad news, however, is that typically even those westerners who perceive the situation in all its bleakness lack the moral courage to kiss it goodbye.
In the West, two responses to the attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre quickly set the terms of the debate. While everyone agreed the event was a 'wake-up call for America', for the neoliberal Right, 'waking up' translated into the imperative: 'Post more security guards around the empire so America and the Free World can sleep soundly again!'. Such was the all but explicit reasoning behind inventing a worldwide 'War on Terrorism'. Meanwhile, and intrinsically more interesting if far less influential, Left-liberals were persistent in demanding: 'America must begin to ask itself why such a thing could happen.'
These original positions, roughly speaking, went on to shape the subsequent arguments over the US led bombing of Afghanistan, over domestic surveillance and restrictions on civil liberties, and so forth. But it is not my intention to add to those arguments. Rather, I want to revisit the first minutes and days following the terrorist strikes so as to focus on the flawed moral terms in which September 11 continues to be interpreted on the Left.
What were the usual terms of that interpretation? Against the predictable Rightwing 'security state' response, Left-liberals responded on the moral plane by absolutely condemning the attacks and by calling attention to the double standards of American foreign policy. ‘Nothing does, nothing can, justify the brutal terror attack that may have killed thousands of innocent civilians’, wrote the American political analyst Rahul Mahajan in the immediate aftermath of the attack (see the website Commondreams.org). He nonetheless then went on to wonder: ‘Where was the justified rage of commentators’ when the US killed roughly four thousand people, mostly civilians, in the invasion of Panama City? Where was it when a quarter of a million were killed with US backing in Guatemala? Where was it during the not-so-covert war against Nicaragua?
You've heard it before. And it's quite right. Where was the outrage on such occasions? In fact, is it even possible these questions are so important that they deserve to be more than just rhetorical questions? Wouldn’t it be true to say, without exaggeration, that nothing less than the future of civilisation as a global project inclusive of all people hangs on the answer to such questions?
Sadly, the spirit of the opening declamation ('Nothing can justify the killing of innocent civilians'), already finishes off any sober inquiry into the issues before it has begun. It would be hard, of course, to find a single political commentator today who would disagree with Mahajan's (absolutist, Christological, deontological...) way of framing the meaning of the deaths in New York and Washington. But this fact merely tells us just how irreal our public moral self-understandings have now become.
Universal moral regard does not exist in practice -why not? Why does the death of a US citizen weigh far heavier on the scales of Western moral concern than that of a Guatemalan citizen? Why, in practice, are they actually incomparable quantities? And under what conditions might the Guatemalan have a chance of balancing the scales?
As a point of entry to these issues, consider the circumstance that apparently all civilised members of Western societies were unambiguously horrified by the attacks in America. So ubiquitous was this reaction to television-mediated terrorism that we might speak, in fact, of ‘horrorism’. In this way we would register the dividing line between the trauma of the terrified - that is, of those directly and personally implicated - and the publicly expressed trauma of those spectators who were relatively unwounded. Horror is already in itself a sympathetic reaction.
There were, of course, other responses, including fascination, disbelief, fear, shock, excitement, numbness, wonder, sadness, depression, rage, paranoia, grief, and perhaps states that lack names. But the feelings which most people expressed conformed overwhelmingly to this public horrorism. Now by virtue of exerting such a powerful hegemony over our emotions, over our affective responses, horrorism tended to operate at the same time as an automatic moral, and even political, judgement on the attacks. And the judgement, naturally, was condemnatory.
For numerous reasons - including experiences of momentary horror - I support this moral and political judgement. I do, however, wonder what might have been excluded when we all spoke in unison about our horror. Take those infamous Palestinians, the ones who apparently met the news of the September 11 attack with cheers. By now any number of progressive thinkers have instructed us, quite correctly, on how we have to try to understand how such a reaction was possible. Future acts of terrorism, they tell us, will surely proliferate unless an attempt is made to comprehend the roots of the widespread hatred for America, and/or capitalism, and/or the West. Moreover, it is the hight of idiocy to mistake the search for explanations for the hatred with justifications for it.
Alright. But is it so sure we can get anywhere near 'understanding' or 'explaining' that hatred, that desire for vengeance, that 'inhumane' happiness at the suffering of others, while operating under a pervasive self-censorship concerning our own emotional reactions to the attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre? How interesting, how unconvincing, that, for reflective writers at any rate, the feelings of hatred invariably belonged to others.
No doubt this sort of polite ventriloquism has the advantage, for the author, of leaving their own moral, political, and emotional position unthreatened and unexamined. But it is my argument that the wholesale rush to self-idealisation (‘I had all the correct reactions to the attacks in America, I was as horrified as the rest of you, I affirm myself as a good citizen!’), is at one with the collective inability of Western citizens to engage in a lucid evaluation of their own society. The fear of speaking honestly, and in one's own name, about one's reactions to mass murder, helps to conceal deeper sources of our society's hypocrisy and incapacity to transcend itself.
Against this background, I find myself thinking: 'Okay, I'll be the bunny'. In other words, I volunteer to break with this compulsion to express the 'right' reactions to the attacks and appear to be good. If I affirm the necessity of such a gesture, one moreover that may further distress the grieving, it is because the stakes are extremely high. Boxed in as we are between homicidal adversaries and fearful publics, just about the only weapon the rest of us have left is our will to tell the truth. The pertinent aspect of my reaction (which also included not a few of the emotions already listed above), was this: a quiet but irrepressible sense of gleeful satisfaction. I'm not sure there was any clear form of words in my head, but expressed nonetheless in words my thoughts on hearing the news on the radio included something like: Yes! Finally those pricks are getting a taste of their own medicine! Then, especially as I saw more of the television coverage, I was harrassed by guilt for having had such thoughts. And yet those disturbing ideas did not consent to evaporate. Away from the television, they returned –largely drained of emotion, but present all the same. It felt like a failure of imaginative empathy. The upshot was a sense of moral confusion.
From conversations with others, on the Left and beyond, it became clear that these reactions were not merely my own. Although many chose to expel the bad object of their ‘incorrect responses’ on to those convenient cheering Palestinians, as a defensive manoeuvre this had its limitations. Moral confusion consistently left unaddressed is politically disabling. Countering any such tendency towards political paralysis would already be enough reason, then, for publicly addressing the moral confusion. But it goes further than that. Not only is the Leftist political project grounded in ethical concerns, the ethical ambivalence reported above is an indispensable clue as to what that political project must be.
This essay began its life as a troubled meditation on my own responses to the strikes in New York and Washington, and no doubt it still bears some trace of those origins. But the more I considered the issues, the more I came to suspect there was nothing in my ambivalent feelings to warrant feeling guilty about. To express this idea more exactly, and at the risk of appearing sophistical, I would say that the element of pleasure I got from this dreadful crime was involuntary and I do not like this pleasure (it is, without a doubt, an unlikeable response), but I affirm its necessity. Unless that necessity is acknowledged and considered, I doubt there can be any prospects of equal moral regard for the Guatemalans of this world, or anybody else.
In the aftermath of a huge ‘culture shock’, such as happened in September 2001, Western citizens (and many others of course), invariably seek to knit their sense of cultural normality back together by judging events, and behaviours, in moral terms. The social and psychological importance of being, and being seen to be, ‘good’, is one of the reasons moral and ethical theory (I will not distinguish these terms here), is indispensable for political analysis. Now without attempting any fundamental inquiry into the idea of the Good, it is still possible to go some distance by investigating, as if for the first time, the slipperyness of our most common moral categories.
Following the attacks in America, the sense of horror was invariably articulated in terms of the ‘injustice of killing innocent civilians'. It is therefore to those categories - innocence, justice, and, not so much civility as civilisation itself - that we must turn. Analysis here proves difficult because in this context those categories are not exactly false. They are, to speak crudely, half false; which also makes them half true, and therefore all the harder to question.
The reason our 'mixed feelings' should have been attended to, rather than suppressed, was that they alone responded to this mixture of truth and falsity. What then was the basis of those confused feelings? They seem, in the first instance, to have reflected the way in which strangers in peril are necessarily split to our regard. At a ‘personal’ level of imagined intimacy, we know other people for what we know ourselves to be: precarious bags of skin stuffed full of fragile hopes, embarrasing fears and improbable memories. Responding at this level, the thought of thousands of people suddenly robbed of their lives is extremely oppressive. We are sure, most of us at least, that these murders were cruel and deeply wrong.
But what if those lives themselves are built on, presume, and in some non-negligible way participate in, periodic mass murder and ongoing cruelty? This is where our view pans back and we comprehend these strangers as symbolic beings, as involuntary ‘representatives’ of their professions, their cities, their nations, their countries, their civilisations. And the wealthier and more powerful those strangers are, the more we tend, probably accurately, to regard them as ‘responsible’ for what they ‘represent’.
Now, as we know, the civilisation they 'represented' happens to
be setting the tune globally. How then to convey something of the character
of that civilisation? Will a few statistics do it?
- It is estimated that in the ‘developing countries’, ‘the additional cost of achieving and maintaining basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and safe water and sanitation for all is roughly $40 billion a year.’
These estimates comes from United Nations Human Development Reports for 1998 and 1999. Scepticism about UN figures, as we know, is widespread. But no amount of scepticism can deliver us from acknowledging that we consent to treat as civilised a form of society in which the richest person on his own is worth more money than the money all those people urgently need, and he can spend that money on renovating his twelfth or thirteenth mansion if he so chooses.
The situation, it should be acknowledged, is not without nuance. After all, everything, ethically speaking, depends on the historical dynamic, right? It may be tough out there, but if it is getting better, what’s to whinge about? According to the UN, ‘In about a hundred countries incomes today are lower in real terms than they were a decade or more ago.’ Some other countries, it is true, have done better. The generalised removal of restrictions on money making (a.k.a. neoliberalism), has been conducive to growth in quite a few developing countries -mainly, to be sure, in Asia, where many were careful not to carry out the International Monetary Fund recipes. However, even where the IMF ‘structural adjustment programmes’ have led to growth, they have often gone hand in hand with increasing absolute levels of poverty and the contraction of domestic markets. As Michel Chossudovsky comments in his The Globalisation of Poverty, ‘In the logic of the structural adjustment programme, the only viable market is that of the rich countries.’ If you think about it, that comment alone says it all.
The overwhelming trend has been for inequality inside almost every country, rich or poor or in-between, to massively increase. In contrast to the 1960s and 1970s, when internal inequality trended down in many countries (and growth was generally higher), over the next two decades, on the careful analysis presented in James K. Galbraith and Maureen Berner's Inequality and Industrial Change, liberalisations ‘have almost always made inequality worse’.
There is nothing surprising about all this, since increased inequality is intrinsic to the whole operation. What is surprising is just how much the rich are getting away with. Today, in the USA, for instance, ‘The top 1 percent of households have more wealth than the entire bottom 95 percent’ (see Chuck Collins et. al., Shifting Fortunes). Meanwhile, even as, on UN statistics, the chasm between the wealthiest 20% of countries and the poorest 20% of countries has more than doubled in size in the last thirty years, arguments for equalising global wealth and incomes have been sidelined. The call by the Group of 77 developing nations, for a new international economic order aimed at redressing global disparities of wealth and power, is heard no more. What we have instead is 'poverty alleviation' and 'debt rescheduling'.
Let us also remember something else: as of 1989-91 the capitalist system has been virtually the lone player on the field, able to strike out in any direction it wanted. The way truly has been open to prove just how humanitarian a capitalism left to its own devices could be. And indeed this is what it has proven.
So where is capital taking us all? In their book of the same name, the American economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook speak usefully of the emergence of a Winner-Take-All Society. A society, in other words, divided into the ‘stars’ and the rest. Though they write about America, the model, as we know, has been widely exported. The dual labour market familiar from rock music, movies and professional sports, now applies to authors, models, company executives, business consultants, academics, vice chancellors, opera singers, software programmers, public servants, and just about everyone else.
What this means is that the incomes of those on the lower and middle floors are kept under strict control so as to stop inflationary pressures and to increase profitability and competitiveness. Meanwhile, for the same reasons of profitability and competitiveness (‘we must be able to attract the best’), the winners on the top floor are allowed to award each other seven figure annual remuneration packages.
Now if the Pentagon protects this monstrous global racket, and the World Trade Centre lately epitomised it, how to believe that an attack on these institutions did not occasion any pleasure? After all, in its main outlines, the situation I have just been describing is well known to every 'progressive' thinker. How is it possible to spend a lifetime criticising and fighting injustice and be moved only to horror when two of the central institutions perpetuating that injustice take a blow?
It is another matter entirely that institutions are by no means destroyed by destroying buildings. And of course people died in those buildings. What about them? They were ‘innocent victims’ were they not? The idea of the ‘innocence’ of people would have us believe that the line of moral judgment runs neatly and conveniently between people and institutions. It is only the institutions which are ‘guilty’. But is that so? Doesn't that line run within people themselves?
Some, like not a few in the Pentagon, were so inhabited by the spirit of those institutions that they were quite prepared to kill on their behalf. The question of ‘innocence’ in such cases is therefore debatable. What about the others? Leave aside for now the vast majority who died: the passengers on the planes, the firefighters, office workers, maintenance staff, tourists, police, bystanders and neighbours. What of the top bankers, insurance executives, consultants, stockbrokers and other ‘stars’ -the ones, in short, those buildings were preeminently designed to house: were these people ‘innocent’?
No doubt we do need the talisman of this word 'innocence' in order to protect all people, the stars included, from arbitrary murder. It is necessary, whatever theory might be appealed to for the purpose, to be clear that attacks of the kind on New York are a moral abomination. No one ceases to exist on a ‘personal’ level just because they are ‘representatives’ of an abhorrent system.
But - despite what we are supposed to believe and feel - the reverse is also the case: no one ceases to be a ‘representative’ just because they have a ‘personal’ existence. And for that reason there is a sense in which it is simply a patronising insult to those high-rollers to call them ‘innocent’. In climbing to the highest echelons of power and wealth which this world makes available, those people took it upon themselves to partake in collectively administering the lives and deaths of millions upon millions of other people. They quite evidently did so, as a rule, with mind-numbing indifference to the fate of all that human flesh. Whether you want to see it or not, in a world hell-bent on putting a price on everything, such administering, and such indifference, is what is generally entailed in accumulating vast sums on the market.
So that is only for starters. But it is already enough to explain, if explanations were needed at all, why the idea of the death of such people, viewed as ‘representatives’ of their, of our, system, was not actually cause for unambiguous sorrow, no matter what everyone may have felt compelled to say.
It is of course extremely difficult to sustain even a shred of contempt for anyone when you are exposed to the stories of last moments, to the heartbreaking detail of death. So, we are mercifully ‘blackmailed’ into compassion. Distanced comprehension of how at least some of these people were top-level functionaries in the machinery of workaday Western evil makes way for empathy and sorrow. There is a tension here, but it is a tension belonging to the thing itself; namely, to the split between people’s ‘personal’ existence and their ‘symbolic’ existence due to what they do. It is no more incorrect to 'give way' now to empathy and horror than it was to do your contempt the honour of acknowledging it. In fact, as we shall see later, both responses are crucial to any viable attempt by humanity to break out of the global racket.
In the meantime we encounter the final discordant note. Why, we must ask, were we confronted with the details of these deaths? The cameras in New York reminded us that the death of loved ones is almost more than a human can bear. But do they bear it easier elsewhere? Why did the grieving New Yorkers have six billion shoulders to cry on, while the world barely registered the 30 000 who slid under the mud in Caracas two years ago? What, in short, is the answer to Rahul Mahajan's questions?
It is almost redundant to 'prove' that we have very differential regard for the lives, and thus the deaths, of different sorts of people. In this, Western citizens (who routinely voted for neoliberal governments over the last two decades, for example), are probably not markedly worse than most other populations ever to have existed on the earth. Not every other population, however, had the audacity to conceive the idea of all people as moral equals. This idea has always been a standing accusation against the civilisation which hatched it and meanwhile took to subordinating all other people to itself. But the fault lies not only with the civilisation, it lies also with the form of the idea: to it corresponds simultaneously what is greatest and what is most self-delusory about the West.
To delve a little into the workings of our allegedly universal moral regard, let us turn from the obscenities of world wealth and poverty - which can always be shafted home to supposedly anonymous market forces - to cases of human suffering where Western culpability is harder to dodge. Let us recall the situation of the Iraqi children. I mention only the children to make the case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre, we will, like Ivan Karamazov, say nothing.
What happens to our standard attitude of absolute moral regard for the lives of the New Yorkers (‘Nothing can justify the horrific murder of thousands of innocent civilians’), when our attention is rudely directed, say, to the half a million Iraqi children who, thanks in large measure to the UN embargo, are now dead (see the 1999 Unicef Child and Maternal Mortality Survey)? In this latter case, it will be found that the vast majority of us simply 'look the other way'. Or, when compelled to confront what is happening, we come out with something like this: ‘Yes, it is terrible, but Sadam Hussein is extremely dangerous, he invaded Kuwait, he cannot be trusted not to use weapons of mass destruction, so what else is to be done?’
Fine. Let us for once forestall all the counter-arguments and simply suppose it is true. Nothing else can be done. The children must die. But take note: our moral absolutism has disappeared, to be replaced by some species of consequentialism (the consequences for us of not letting them die could be worse).
The widespread popular acceptance, then, that large numbers of other people (children not excluded), have to be periodically ‘sacrificed’ for our own good, is the deep crack that runs through the alleged ‘innocence’ of the victims of September, whether they were ‘stars’ or not. We paper over that crack to the benefit of self-idealisation and to the detriment of elementary realism. Not to speak of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’.
The universally expressed and unproblematic ‘horror’ at the deaths in New York and Washington likewise supported this self-idealisation, this placing of ourselves as Western citizens under the sign of the Good: those killings were unambiguously horrible because, just like us, those people were ‘innocent civilians’. But are not the Iraqi children also 'innocent civilians'? Where is the socially paralysing horror and moral absolutism here? Unarguable at a visceral level, the ideological task of the general horrorism of September 11 nonetheless became that of swamping all sober thought about the real price we make others pay for our way of life.
The idea of the simple ‘injustice’ of the deaths in the US is part of the same will to ignorance. Our 'moral confusion', however, begins to will something else. For what it alerts us to, if we consent to feel it, is that we are actually responsive to at least three different dimensions of justice, and they pull us in different emotional directions.
First, we recognise correctly that the deaths on September 11 were unjust: Why should that passenger on that plane have been killed, rather than that one; rather than me? This is a judgement, then, at the level of moral absolutism, which in turn presupposes moral universalism: it is wrong that those people were killed because no individual, no matter where they live or what their nationality or what they ‘symbolise’, should be arbitrarily and perfunctorily killed. But then, if we have the stomach for it, we recognise the treachery and murderousness of the state which hitherto guaranteed the historical viability of those lives. Indeed, which continues to guarantee the viability of a great many lives, in so far as America can plausibly style itself as the ‘defender of the Free World’.
What consequences follow? The trick is simply not to forget that ‘defender of’ invariably means ‘killer on behalf of’. Now imperatives of 'defence' and 'security' are typically discussed on the Left and elsewhere as if they were the very opposite of morality, as if they were simply a matter of 'cynical realism', of 'realpolitik'. The situation becomes clearer if we recognise, on the contrary, that this 'realism' makes a moral claim on us. We are all called upon to recognise the killings done on our behalf as necessary, as serving the good, as somehow ‘just’. Whenever these killings come to the foreground, then, we are tacitly supposed to revert to a second and wholly different calculus of justice, one that prioritises not human life in general, but ‘reasons of state’. At this point 'our collective security' becomes an overriding value. Our lives overide their lives, whoever they may be. In effect, contrary to the usual claim, something does justify the brutal killing of thousands of innocent civilians. Over and over again.
Most of the time most Westerners are happy to make their peace with this double standard in their moral calculus. But unfortunately there is a catch. And the catch is? Two can play this game. And why not? If we refuse to be consistent in our absolutist regard for the value of human life, if we choose to treat other lives as (regretfully) expendable, it really is a bit much to be so ‘shocked’ and ‘horrified’ when others make the same calculations with regard to us. More: we are forced to admit the 'justice' of their calculations.
We thereby generate our third dimension of justice. Having placed ourselves firstly on the plane of moral universalism ('all lives are equally precious'), there is nothing we can do to prevent our reversion to moral particularism ('sorry, due to our society's particular interests, your life is expendable'), from being judged in terms of opposed particular interests ('here, have a little of the nice cherry pie you've been serving us'). The standpoint which recognises the justice of this reply once again returns us to the universal ('all lives are equally expendable, even those of Westerners').
Let us now remind ourselves of just a few occasions when a murderous ‘defence’ against other people, including countless ‘innocent civilians’, was deemed warranted: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the napalming of Vietnamese villagers, the funding of helicopter gunships and death squads in El Salvador, the bombing of Belgrade, and not forgetting that other September 11, the overthrow of the Allende government and the installation of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. With only these examples in mind - there are too many to choose from - we can see how those three thousand people in America were on this occasion unlucky enough to become 'collateral damage' in a kind of 'rough justice' -this being the main kind of justice in which history deals.
The upshot is that there certainly is a contradiction in this judgement as to the justice of those murders in September (on the one hand ‘unjust’, on the other hand ‘rough justice’). But once again it is crucial to grasp how this judgmental and affective ambivalence, this ‘moral confusion’ inside us as to whether they did or did not somehow 'get what they deserved', is merely the expression of a contradiction immanent to social reality itself. It is grossly unfair that those people in America died as they did. It is an unfairness matched only by the deaths of all those who died so that they could live as they did.
On hearing this, it will not do to jump into ‘justifications’ for Hiroshima, Vietnam, and so forth, since whether or not it really was 'just' to murder all those people is beside the point. Even if it were thought to be sufficient excuse, the relative superiority of American culture over some or many or all of its real or imagined enemies would be immaterial at this third level of the quid pro quo of competing lives and competing societal projects. What we simply have to register is the brute fact that we kill, regularly and in huge numbers, so as to live as we do; and that the friends and relatives of those dead people are not likely to agree with us that those killings were either necessary or ‘just’. That is all you need admit in order to get the point about September as ‘rough justice’.
For the same reason, it is imperative to distinguish the emotional response of 'glee' and ‘satisfaction’ to the news of an attack on symbols of American power, from political or moral support for the attackers. They are not the same. The hijackers were probably dying and killing for a reactionary, authoritarian, philistine, fantastically unsustainable and hyper-misogynistic vision of the world; and, quite predictably, the immediate effect has been to make the world a nastier place, and not only for New Yorkers and Washingtonians. But none of this could prevent the attacks themselves from being correctly felt around the world as ‘pay back’ for American crimes.
There is no shame in admitting that this 'Old Testament' feeling ('an eye for an eye') cannot be called a 'nice' feeling. Intrinsic to it is pleasure in revenge, pleasure that for once 'they are hurting too'. And yet, speaking for myself and for most others I'm sure, there was also horror and sadness at the thought of any given person dying on that day. Moreover, the idea of any further attacks fills me with unambiguous disgust: shock can only elicit involuntary feelings of vengeance once. Repetition adds nothing on a symbolic level, and just multiplies the suffering.
All this allows us to suppose that the unpleasant feelings activated in September were less an indication of cruelty than they were an indication of pleasure at the restitution of a kind of moral law. This was not, to be sure, the non-existent law that universally protects all the more-or-less innocent from arbitrary murder, and not the all-too-real law which murders more-or-less innocent others so that we the civilised can get some sleep, but rather the law of reciprocity of punishment -the law, usually silent, which says: Thou shalt not get away with it forever.
Right and (Domesticated) Left
We have barely scratched the surface. But the best that can be said is that our public moral debate about September barely registered these issues, preferring to satisfy itself with standardised talk of ‘innocent civilians’. To some extent the blame for this must lie with the equally standardised positions the majority of the Western Right and Left fell into in interpreting the attacks. Their secret pact was and remains that the third dimension, the one where the West's particularist chickens come home to roost, is unthinkable as 'justice'.
What is the disposition of opinions? On the Right, we have a moral absolutism only in regard to one's own, which collapses into brutal geopolitical consequentialism when considering inconvenient others. Here the hypocritical double standard in valuing different lives usually does not bother to remark itself.
To the other side, weakened by numerous defeats, forced onto the sidelines of political life, most Left intellectuals today fall easily into the moral stance endemic to observers rather than political practitioners. Careful not to stray into the territory we have just been exploring, these Left-liberals prefer to go on throwing their cry into the face of Power: the killing of innocent people is always wrong! And yet at the same time most of them have renounced and even denounced the struggle for the thoroughgoing political and economic changes which might begin to remove the necessity for the periodic slaughter of innocent people. They give voice, then, to a consistent moral absolutism extended to all people, but they do so inconsistently as supporters of a social system that cannot treat all people consistently. They act, in other words, as morally pure ‘beautiful souls’ who refuse to legitimise the 'hard decisions’ genuinely forced upon those who guarantee the safety and prosperity of the form of life these intellectuals share and no longer fundamentally challenge.
To these people I can only say: look again at your pleas for 'compassion', for 'humanitarianism', for 'respect for the Other'. Regular mass murders by the major imperial powers - most recently the USA - are not an optional extra that can be declined the way you or I might decline freshly-grated pepper on our Caesar salad. Capitalism as we know it is inconceivable without support for the ongoing violent domestication of populations who do not always accept that God or Fate has consigned them to meekly servicing their local and international exploiters. Similarly, it is inconceivable without overt and covert wars, without torture, lies and embargos, directed against those same populations when they succeed nonetheless in forming 'uppity' governments actually interested in their fates. Likewise, it is inconceivable without the attempt to pressure these progressive nationalist or socialist governments into devolving into corrupt, militaristic and violent oppressors of their own people. For similar reasons, it is inconceivable without occasionally hatching local Right-wing 'monsters' who 'get out of control' and threaten the interests of their Western paymasters. Or rather, capitalism can be 'conceived' without all these things, but those edifying 'conceptions' are pleasing mainly to their owners. The fact is, we have to kill regularly and in large numbers to maintain the life we live.
Our humanitarian moral absolutists don't want any of this of course. 'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind' they intone. So too does putting your head in the sand. Well practiced at denouncing the reigning moral hypocrisy, our absolutists are not so accomplished at avoiding it. Importantly, the ethico-political stand-off between the existing Right and Left is also a social one. In reactionary periods, such as the one we are now privileged to live in, the first (opportunist 'realist') camp, will typically involve a coalition of the powerful alongside the 'common people'. Together they are quite sure they want to be defended by all necessary means against brutal external attack. Moreover, the less they know about the way this 'external threat' indexes the internal fault of their own society the better -such knowledge, after all, would endanger the coalition and thereby the defence. As for the existence of such coalitions, take a look at the 90% approval rating now enjoyed by president Bush. Or take a look, for that matter, at the popularity of Sadam Hussein throughout the Arab world. In the second ('consistent' absolutist) camp, we typically have representatives of the middle layers, usually wealthy enough in intellectual capital to discern the way the interests of the most cynical and dangerous profiteers are advanced through the Trojan horse of ‘national security’.
The first step in nutting out this situation is to comprehend, as Hegel would put it, the ‘speculative identity’ of these contrary positions. In other words, this opposition between opportunistic ‘realism’ - whose unsurpassed spokesperson is Machiavelli - and moral absolutism - whose most influential spokesperson is Jesus Christ - is actually a division of ethical labour. Each is dependent on the other. Without the moral absolutists and their tireless promotion of the illusion that the current leaders of the current system could pursue a consistent human rights policy, Western 'reasons of state' would stand exposed as little more than expressions of 'our might is right'. Without the 'dirty work' of those opportunists looking after the state, the absolutists would have no lunch.
In sum, the ‘double standard’ of moral regard, quite rightly decried by absolutists like Mahajan, turns out to be an expression of two entirely necessary but counterposed images of the good (for a recent statement of this point, see Stuart Hampshire's cogent argument in Innocence and Experience). The contradiction between the absolutist 'good of all' and 'our particular good', merely expresses in moral form the geopolitical contradiction between 'our civilisation' and 'the rest'. That is, the contradiction between the norms of behaviour which can exist within the more or less internally pacified wealthy societies, and the necessity, if that wealth and internal civility is to continue in its present capitalist form, of meeting all serious challenges to the priorities of the West with merciless repression.
The conclusion is obvious: it is only a relatively equal global society that could begin in practice to bring the good of the interests of powerful nation states together with the good of all people's interests. Short of this, the contradiction between the absolutist and the realist dimensions of the good - a contradiction inevitably resolved in favour of ‘our civilisation’ at the expense of ‘those expendable others’ - is completely intractable.
In this context, it is only fair to acknowledge that there is a constitutive ambiguity about the role of the moral absolutists. As we know from the history of the twentieth century, capitalism certainly can be 'humanised' to a significant extent. And any further 'humanisation' will surely depend upon those determined to pursue a 'principled' politics. The problem then is not the desire of the absolutists to be 'principled'. The problem is simply whether they take their principles seriously or not. Which is to say, the idea of the 'moral reform' of the present order is not necessarily a complete illusion. It is just that it generally takes a revolutionary opposition to force it to reform.
Corpses and Capital
How to find an exit from this labyrinth? Shall we document, once again, the depressing mendacity of the powerful? For a change, let's trace the beginnings of a way out by acknowledging the specifically affective hypocrisy of those who stand resolutely for moral absolutism. That is to say, what Western Left-liberals invariably omitted from their public responses to September, was something else they might with some justification have felt guilty for, namely the fact that even for them, the violent murder of several thousand New Yorkers and Washingtonians was almost certainly far more disturbing, in an immediate affective sense, than the violent murder of, say, several hundred thousand Cambodians.
Why? The ‘outpouring of sympathy’ of anglo and/or Western populations for the dead and grieving in America cannot only be a matter of shared culture or history or race, as we usually hear. This forgets the sympathy expressed by the rest of the world. Nor is it enough to simply invoke relative television time. Rather, electronically mediated over-exposure to the details of ‘ground zero’ only expressed what we already knew: these lives, these deaths, and the manner of their dying, were objectively more important than almost any others.
It is important to set aside for a second the issue of the extraordinary manner of their deaths. Before we come to that, we need, it seems to me, to conceptualise something like an international political economy of affect, and thus of moral regard. In an asymmetrically integrated global system, nobody can remain un-affected by the socially determined differential valuation of human lives.
At a basic level this hierarchy would seem to be a matter of the global and intra-national pattern of wealth and poverty. That is to say, of capital accumulation. Here we may appeal not only to a generic Marxist, but also to a roughly Bourdieuian conception of capital. It is capital ('wealth') of various kinds - economic, cultural, symbolic - which forms the background to the objective significance accorded to any given death.
In addition to this, in order to make sense of the actual world situation, we should observe how the global hierarchy of human significance is by no means an evenly graduated one. The continuum from poorest and least mourned to richest and most mourned is interrupted by several qualitative leaps. When we cross the border into the relatively 'civilised' states we simultaneously cross from those lives which the ‘international community’ views in practice as more or less expendable, to those lives which, at least juridically and diplomatically, it treats as really having 'absolute value'. When, already inside the civilised countries, we cross from the realm of average civilian nobodies to the realm of the stars, we make the same shift again -which is to say, here the 'absolute value' of human life is finally enforced with all the resources civilisation can muster.
From this vantage we can suggest a fairly sober explanation as to why September 11 was so traumatic worldwide, even for those who had no fear of losing a loved one in the rubble. People usually die the deaths allotted to them by their society, just as they live lives commensurate to their place and trajectory within it. But on this occasion a reverse logic was at work. Whatever ideas the perpetrators may have had, the choice of target on this occasion was surely governed by the fact that America is the star country among countries, and New York is the star city among cities, and the WTC towers and Pentagon were star buildings among buildings, and they were built for star earners and defenders among star earners and defenders. Put otherwise, America, and above all New York, had, and has, a fantastic relative over-accumulation of every kind of capital. The shock was that for once these modern kings, these ‘supermodels’ of human being on which we are all in some way dependent, did not die the deaths properly allotted to them by their system. They died due to a convulsion of that system.
The Australian anthropologist Jadran Mimica relates a story about an encounter with Greenpeace members in London in the mid 1980s which illustrates, by contrast, what it means definitively not to be a star in this global system. It also reveals how even the most morally refined Westerners may find themselves subscribing unconsciously to these ‘capitalist’ valuations of human life. At the time, a shoot-to-kill policy had been instituted in central Africa in order to try to save endangered elephants from the predations of ivory poachers. The Greenpeace members supported this measure, and Channel Four even flew down a documentary team who duly filmed several poachers getting shot dead. Mimica asked them pointedly why they didn't support the same policy elsewhere. Why, if breaking the ivory trade called for such drastic measures, didn't they do something far more effective, namely, take their guns to all the well known ivory retailers in cities like London and Hong Kong, and carry out their executions there? The answer of course was predictable: Are you crazy, that would be barbaric! There you have it then, the objective-affective hierarchy of human life and death.
At variance to all this is the universality testified to in the ‘incorrect’ feelings that I, and no doubt millions of others, felt on hearing the news about the attacks in September. The paradox not to be missed here is that it was precisely those ‘hateful’ reactions which gave expression, in this context, to ‘universal love’. That silent cheer, if it happened, was not evidence of ‘inhumanity’ but of care for humankind. I would guess that, in the main, it said something like: 'All you uncounted mass who have died under American bombs, you are not unmourned. You millions who suffer now in no small part due to the monstrous indifference of the rich world, you are avenged.' And it would have involuntarily said and felt all this even though it knew very well that in reality this was a useless vengeance and a disastrous day not only for America, but for all America's victims yet to come.
Hatred and Vengeance
It is significant, of course, that the cheering was largely silent. Caught on the prongs of conflicting ethical entreaties - from, on the one side, the ocean of people thereby symbolically avenged; from, on the other, those three thousand people crushed in a symbolic conflict - most of us swallowed that cheer. Out of decency it remained stuck in the throat. Decency, however, is sometimes the enemy of virtue, not to speak of truth.
Why were so many quick to express the ‘correct’ sentiments, even if their actual feelings were more complex? Public horrorism became so dominant, I now realise, because it was actually an outcome of horror squared. Those of us living in the West today do not grow up in the midst of the humiliation, murder and martyrdom of an Intifada. Nor do we any longer resemble medieval knights, pledged, as Norbert Elias puts it in The Civilising Process, to 'cruelty and joy in the destruction and torment of others'. Subjected to the mental image of an office worker torn apart by metal and concrete we literally recoil in horror. Later, should we peer under a corner of this horrified somatic reaction and catch sight of any 'ambivalence' which might threaten in some way to make us feel like apologists for such an act, we experience a second recoil. This time it is what might be called a 'superegoic horror'; that is, an explicitly moral horror, and we ourselves with our 'incorrect' reactions are its object.
The upshot is that on that day, even before any ambivalent feelings could be analysed, we were driven back by our horrified superegos into the arms of our first, 'instinctive', 'humanistic' horror. Here, strange to say, we felt much safer. Here, we supposed, we reaffirmed our own humanity. Hatred, callousness, and vengeance, we told ourselves, are uncivilised, barbaric, inhumane emotions. And even if we did actually feel them, we told ourselves that we could not express them, that civility means knowing when to lie for the sake of others' feelings, for the sake of social peace. But what peace is this? What humanity, what civilisation is this? In truth the civilised only have the right to disdain revenge when their laws render revenge redundant.
'The world is what it is;' wrote V.S. Naipaul, 'men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.' Feelings of indignation and revenge express the resolute refusal to be nothing. They imply and they demand an equality of dignity with the rich and powerful. This is why the 'moral ambivalence' of some was in fact less 'confused' than was the obedient participation in the wholesale horrorism of others. If, on the one side, horror and sadness at the deaths even of one's enemies is indispensable for keeping violence in check, on the other side, hatred towards those who use violence to sustain their oppressive rule is indispensable for ending that oppression. Without hatred and feelings of vengeance, resistance is inconceivable.
All this - let it be said - is far from being motivated by generalised 'anti-Americanism': the greatness of America is hardly in dispute, only its ability to live up to its own greatness. Likewise - and let it be said once again - all this is far from implying an apology for the terror of September 11. Paradoxically, it is not only because of horrified disgust at the indiscriminate killing of people in New York and Washington that I condemn those attacks. I condemn them equally because they squander the feeling of revenge. Capitalism's crimes against humanity are so extensive that the only fitting punishment it can receive is to be left behind by history. This is where the energy of vengeance ought to be directed.
That said, the experience of being nothing for others, the perception that as concerns what the powerful of this world do (as opposed to say), you are indeed an excrement worth less than the petrol in their cars and the aerosol in their hair sprays, all this is in fact an irreplaceable source of clarity about the human social and existential situation. Or, more likely, in the absence of political possibilities, it is a source of disavowal and ludicrous relations of transference with the stars. Their magnificent lives magnificent exactly because they provide imaginary compensation for your benighted life. Their spectacular deaths an occasion for such mourning that you can imagine your death too will be mourned.
Here is where we encounter deeper reasons for self-censorship on the part of Western intellectuals. For surely the decision to express only the authorised emotional reactions was taken due to fear of not being seen as ‘good’; that is, in the end, due to fear of not being loved, of being hated, of being unprotected and unmournable, of being cast symbolically among those of the 'uncivilised' whose lives are worth nothing.
Why is there a danger of being hated? A society that does very unlovable things (including mass murder), will not thank you for telling it so. But nor will it care very much. It will mostly ignore you. After all, it vaguely admits it does nasty things, and thinks it has its justifications. It will understand your calls for it to be more generous and morally upstanding are nice, but ‘unrealistic’. You will be a ‘good’ person, but a na?ve one.
However, if you refuse to agree that your only feeling is horror when the pinnacle of that civilisation, for once, gets hurt; if you ‘confess’ that part of you experienced this vicious crime as, at the same time, a well-deserved counter-blow, then… Well, it seems you cross a certain threshold. Most likely you will be morally identified with the enemy and lose the precondition for the attribution of goodness. That is to say, you will 'lose your innocence'.
This is why, then, the decision to express only a properly purified ‘horror’ concerning September 11, purchased the appearance of goodness at the expense of encountering, and making available for scrutiny, something significant, namely the location of the boundaries of 'civilisation'. Western capitalist civilisation is also a psychological system, a social field of emotional allegiances which, in turn, are comprehended in moral terms. Fear of being ‘a bad person’, an unloved person, guilt at the prospect of being seen to be 'uncaring', helps keep the great majority of Western citizens tethered to a social system which, in their hearts, they know to be deeply rotten.
Western 'innocence' and 'goodness' turn out therefore to be curious things. We each must be seen to possess these attributes in order to enjoy our rights as members of this civilisation. And the bottom line here? It is not exactly a willingness to restrict what one says. It is a willingness to say what one says from the proper place. 'Freedom of speech' is mostly tolerated -so long as, at moments of great social stress, certain indications are given of emotional allegiance to ‘our civilisation right or wrong’. You can feel for the oppressed other, but you cannot feel as they feel. When the chips are down, everyone wants to know they can count on you too to defend the indefensible. It doesn't really matter whether, in some enlightened publication, you discuss the possibility that the hatred of others for the USA or the West could have some rational basis. What counts is that you tacitly display, as a Western citizen, that such an attitude towards your own society is incomprehensible. That way they know they've still got you.
For this reason, whatever you may say of our stars when they are alive, at their dying you are compelled to view them only at a 'personal' level. They have become innocent victims to be lined up next to all those they trod on while still alive. At these somber moments you are compelled to forget what they collectively stood for and what they were collectively involved in doing. Which means you must instantaneously forget all the rage you ever felt on behalf of those whose exploitation they organised, whose needs they ignored, whose suppression they financed, whose killing they legitimised. Which means you must immediately forget all the bitter frustration you ever felt at being trapped as an accomplice in their system. Or at least you must pretend to. Our civilisation needs too badly to be sanctified by the pathos of their deaths.
In the political dust cloud raised by the collapse of the World Trade Centre, one thing at least is clear: the Left has been wounded. The spectre of Terrorism haunts the land. The momentum of the forces working for 'globalisation from below' has been checked. Finding itself the weaker party in a classic three-cornered ideological struggle, the Left is unsure which way to turn. Veering one way, it risks association with terrorism and an abhorrent version of Islam. Veering the other way, it risks disappearing into the ranks of the 'defenders of the Free World'. It tries to solve the problem by making itself the champion of moral absolutism. It thinks this gives it an independent position.
Despite appearances, the question of the health of the Left is by no means an in-house concern. In the wake of the September attacks, and in the midst of the ensuing ‘war’, it is to be hoped that thoughtful conservatives, liberals, postmodernists, and others, will now begin to recognise how acutely the weakness of the Left over the last twenty five years has weakened Western society itself.
Everything depends on not underestimating the mess we have got ourselves into. The bubble in which the West thought it was living turns out to have been a boil. It has now burst. It will heal again, of course, but for the time being the complacency has gone. On September 11, 2001, the symbolic fabric of the society of global injustice, rampant inequality, make-believe money, commercial inanity, scientific breakthroughs and democratic values was abruptly torn open. We are told it was torn open from the outside. It was not. Globalisation really is a two-way street. Everything that was supposed to remain confined to the poor countries, from the militarised state and pseudo-democracy, to widespread racism, mass migrations of displaced peoples, impoverished underclasses, economic collapses, unchecked ecological disasters, and acts of terror, is gurgling up through the drains of the rich countries.
Against this it will be said that the Islamic world's own internal development should not be reduced to some version of the West's historical exfoliation. This is true. But it is also true - and elements of the story are by now well enough known - that the Western powers have done just about everything they could to encourage the rise of the murderous and self-annihilatory approach of an al Qaeda or a Taliban.
Whoever it may have been who carried out the attacks, the essential political lesson of September is clear: the price Western citizens themselves must pay for maintaining the borders around their own, and above all their stars', uncommonly comfortable lives, is going up. They are to pay this price in fear, anxiety, and a steady loss of illusions about having clean hands.
The Right wants to defend the existing boundaries of comfort and lawful protection; or rather, to narrow them de facto to the corporate stars and their pillow fluffers. The rest of us in the West persist in various indeterminate realms; disposable (as any sacked worker knows), but not valueless, like some African poacher.
For all that, the Right is quite correct in believing that Western civilisation is worth fighting for. Nor, as some on the Left suppose, is it always necessary to surround that word with quotation marks. What simply needs to be understood, as Boris Kagarlitsky argues in his New Realism, New Barbarism, is that it is Western civilisation itself which turns ‘primitives’, and indeed parts of other civilisations themselves, into 'barbarians'. And as is now demonstrated anew every day, the dialectical complicity at work entails that the more ferociously civilisation defends itself against the incursions of its barbarians, the more barbaric does civilisation itself become.
To put it as clearly as possible: If you want to live on islands of prosperity surrounded by oceans of poverty, you'd best be prepared to roll out the razor wire and send up the fighter planes. And even then you will only succeed in making your long term problems worse. Nonetheless, this is what the dominant coalition of Western leaders and led evidently now desire. Most of the led, the ‘ordinary punters’, are drawing short straws, but are yet to grasp how disposable they really are. Or perhaps they sense it all to well, and therefore fight all the harder to remain within the narrowing circle of the ‘lucky ones’.
However, if you genuinely don't want to live on such islands surrounded by such seas? Then admit that abstract moral absolutism is of limited utility! No doubt it has some utility -otherwise it would have been abandoned long ago. But the double standard of emotional response, and thereby of ethical concern, cannot be cured with an extra dose of moral salts (for a valiant attempt, see Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die). It is impossible to avoid confronting the age-old paradox of means and ends: in an unlovely world, you cannot effectively stand for universal moral regard without opposing those particular people who snuff it out. Today it is necessary to really challenge the astronomically unequal distribution of capital which undergirds the differential value attributed in practice to different lives and deaths. In sum, it is necessary both to destroy your psychological allegiance to the capitalist calculus of the worth of a life, and to examine its hypocritical absolutist 'humanitarian' supplement, so as to take up once again the complex, difficult, and - let us face it - sometimes violent struggle for socialist economic relations. The idea of universal moral regard, that is, the idea of global civilisation, presupposes those relations. They will not be achieved merely by playing the role of capitalism's conscience.
Naturally, the historical lesson of the Soviet type societies is entirely to the point here, but it does not teach what many suppose it teaches. With the exception of countries which came to Communism on the end of a Red Army bayonet, those societies emerged as responses to the simple incapacity of capital to offer a tolerable form of life to millions of people. This, once again, is our situation.
Humanity, of course, got very badly burnt by the Communist experience (for those who need reminding, see St?phane Courtois et. al., The Black Book of Communism). It has every right to be cautious. This too goes for its attempt to orient itself morally. I am far from supposing that the sorts of considerations ventured above amount to any kind of 'solution' to the dilemmas of moral action. Even 'moral absolutism' of a sort would deserve consideration if it could promise somehow a way beyond the fate of the Christological beautiful soul. Certainly, as the writings of Trotsky, Brecht, Merleau-Ponty and others in the Marxist tradition reveal, the whole realm of resistance to injustice is a moral quagmire. But the point is we humans are in this quagmire. This is our condition, and if we count ourselves as ethical beings we better start by admitting it.
Overwhelmingly today's Left wants to set all this aside. It thinks it can get away without the 'bad' emotions because it dreams it can get away without violence. But it is no more possible in fact to choose against hate than it is to choose against violence. This is so because the consequences of the rule of capital are hateful for so many, and because, unfortunately, the capitalist class always abandons its absolute respect for human life when that more important absolute - its money - is in danger (for documentation, see James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Globalization Unmasked). It is legitimate, then, to hope that the struggle will not come to violence; it is prudent to try wherever possible to avoid it; it is tantamount to capitulation to base the coherence of one's position on its renunciation.
All this matters now, and is not some bridge to be crossed when we come to it. There is, thankfully, no immediate prospect of widespread political repression in the West. The Left is currently no real threat to the powerful, so it benefits, as it were, from its own weakness. But the real question is whether it stays weak or can begin to think again about itself as an alternative means of human self-governance; that is, as a real contender for power. How can Western Leftists even contemplate the tasks which history has placed before them when they are so preoccupied with being well thought of, with being good citizens and beautiful souls?
That said, anyone who does choose to take responsibility for what is entailed in briefly occupying a few square feet of this earth, must also transcend the 'bad emotions’ even as they are utilised as indispensable instruments for cutting loose from imaginary reciprocity with the stars. This transcendence is mandatory: obsessive hatred traps you in a suffocating space without beauty or solace or insight. In the end it implies uncontrolled self-hatred since it presupposes a rampant idea, an internal object, which is hated.
These are among the issues that have to be wrestled with, and which increasingly will be wrestled with. The dominance of neoliberalism, and its crises, will guarantee it. As the show rolls on, there is every chance that Western citizens, noticing the blood building up on their hands, will decide they may as well risk getting their hands dirty for a worthy cause. This dynamic will favour the Left -simply because the Left will be needed. It will be needed on condition it radicalises itself alongside the radicalising situation.
Ironically enough, the catastrophe in New York and Washington is ultimately to be read as definitive proof that the old anti-Communist arguments must once again be resurrected, only this time with a shift of focus. For it is remarkable how many of the Soviet era problems capitalism itself has now begun to exhibit. Virtually unfettered by either historical (traditional) or prefigurative (socialist) constraints, the result is a system with very few endogenous sources for preventing its own headlong plummet into social and ecological disaster.
As with the politburos of yesteryear, the origin of the curious impotence of the world neoliberal elite is actually its overweening power. Even as it presides over a system in acute need of radical reform, the basic unanimity on economic questions among all governing parties prevents it from even contemplating the necessary steps.
The problem, meanwhile, goes way beyond ideology. Today, corporate executives regularly trade jobs back and forth with upper level bureaucrats. Representatives of industry take over government regulatory bodies designed for policing those industries. Cabinet ministers are shareholders first and public servants second. Knowledge generated in the universities which happens, perchance, not to be tied to the corporate dollar, is most likely tied to 'market demand' and thereby to the Ferris wheel of fashion. So caught up in the circuit of accumulation are our modes of cultural self-representation that even novels have started to include product placements.
Some of the consequences are not difficult to locate. The Rio Earth Summit of ten years ago is a monument to futility. The Kyoto protocols on climate change, laughably inadequate in any case, will only be met by making them even more laughable. The chance offered by the end of the Cold War to bring about universal nuclear disarmament was not even considered. Unsatisfied with its sublunar opportunities, the world’s richest nation thinks fondly of turning space into a battleground, eager, no doubt, to take on rogue planets.
Of course, the main response of the state to those activists trying urgently to put these and other equally serious issues on the political agenda is to pay more spin doctors and bring out the riot police... Is it not clear that even as it continually surpasses its own most triumphant technological achievements, even as it calls objectively for ever larger numbers of educated workers, capitalist society is renouncing its capacity, so hard won, for even the most minimal critical self-reflection? Caught in a narcissistic hall of mirrors in which virtually every source of analysis is distorted by ideological timidity, psychological incorporation, or commercial interest, the Western regimes are producing leaders ‘innocent’ not only of moral vision but of any sense of the reality principle.
All of this, to repeat, is reminiscent of nothing so much as the
twilight years of the Soviet Union. The internal methods of that regime
were very much crueller, but there you also had a ruling clique who were
rather too clever at neutralising opposition. There you had another system
which liked to carry out ritual elections having little bearing on the
actual course taken by government. In that earlier case, without the operation
of exchange values, the system had no way of knowing the real cost of anything.
Utterly dominated by exchange values, the Western system today has no way
of knowing the real cost of anything. True, it could be that the 'real
cost' has no independent meaning. But independent or not, it sends out
representatives all the same. Sometimes shockingly brutal ones. Everything
then depends on whether the shock makes you ‘wake up’. If you want an instructive
historical analogy for the catastrophe of September 2001 it is not Pearl
Harbor, it is Chernobyl.