After the attacks in Paris on Friday, for some reason I keep thinking back to Sarajevo circa ’92. Maybe because of the sudden intrusion of extreme violence in a relatively peaceful place. Maybe because I’ve been to Paris, walked its streets, have friends who live there or are from there. And maybe also because, unlike previous incidents of this type, the targets chosen by the attackers are not the edifices of power and privilege, or the transport networks, nor the source of any specific provocation - but seemingly random targets in the less privileged multicultural, multi-ethnic and anti-establishmentarian neighbourhoods of Paris. They have no particular strategic value (relative to other potential targets), unless the attackers’ aim (or that of their commanders) was precisely to attack that multiculturalism, to sow discord and hatred where there was none before, to tacitly collude with the political forces of the Right and the military-industrial complex to close Europe’s borders and stem the flow of refugees fleeing ISIS on the one hand, and stimulate increased military expenditure on the other.
There is such violence in the world all the time of course, most notably in recent days in Beirut - ironically, a city once nicknamed the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. Yet some of the accusations of racism in the outpourings of solidarity after the Paris attacks seem misplaced. On one hand, because many of us did speak out en masse against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Palestine, etc - even before they happened in some cases. Some key figures in the French government at the time did so too. We all know about the root causes. And I’ve spoken much more about those than about this.
On the other hand, major violence in a place that you have a connection to (material and philosophical), especially if it’s a short train ride away, affects you more on a personal level. I know people there, I’ve been there, I could have been there. I even had a strange sense of foreboding on Friday morning - maybe just because it was the 13th. (It also happens to be a few days before what would have been the birthday of my late dad, from whom I inherited a certain appreciation for Foucault, Deleuze, and other French post-structuralist philosophers whose spirit very much imbues those multicultural and anti-establishmentarian neighbourhoods of Paris.)
There may be an element of self-interest involved in all this, but not racism (unless you’re a supporter of the Front National) - especially since the victims, according to reports, are of at least 15 different nationalities from all over the world. It's not so much about how we value the lives of others, but about how close to home the violence gets, or how connected we are to it.
I won’t pray for Paris because, as one French artist pointed out, on average Parisians aren’t really into religion. Except one, I might suggest - Religion of Love, Church of Rock n’ Roll. In the words of one famous adherent and inhabitant of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Jim Morrison (aka the Lizard King):
Do you know how pale and wanton thrillful
comes death on a strange hour
unannounced, unplanned for
like a scaring over-friendly guest you've
brought to bed
Death makes angels of us all
and gives us wings
where we had shoulders
smooth as ravens’ claws
I will not go
Prefer a Feast of Friends
To the Giant Family
Sunday, 15 November 2015
Monday, 13 July 2015
"The whole of the Mediterranean now finds itself in the wrong currency, and yet virtually nobody in the political arena has the courage to stand up and say that. I feel that the continent is now divided from north to south. There is a new Berlin Wall and it's called the euro."
I find myself surprised to report that these incisive and insightful words were uttered recently before the European Parliament by none other than Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain's far-right Euroskeptic party, UKIP - though I'm not sure the label 'far-right' is really appropriate any more. For in the charged political climate of today's Europe, it is perhaps an indication of just how acrimonious and divisive the politics of the eurozone have become - how irrational, fanatical, and hegemonic the policies of certain of its members - that Farage comes off sounding like the Voice of Reason. The eurozone seems to be in the grip of an economic neo-fascism far more extreme than anything UKIP could drum up.
I now officially count myself among the Euro-skeptics - not just with regard to currency union (that was the case before) but with regard to the EU project as a whole. I am not going to fault the UK or anyone for wanting to hold a referendum on EU membership in the future. All the worst fears about the EU, so far mostly peddled in the tabloid press - about surrendering national sovereignty and decision-making to faceless technocrats in Brussels, and EU politicians unaccountable to the people over whom they exercise enormous power - have been fully confirmed. And even worse - it would be bad enough if we were simply ruled by technocrats and bureaucrats in Brussels, but that would suggest at least a commitment to rational, data-driven policies. This is far worse. The latest rumblings over the Greek debt in Brussels - deal or no deal - suggest a political union driven by an irrational, sadistic, vindictive, fanatical and divisive neo-fascist politics of domination and hegemony, a conspiracy against the public, a conspiracy against democratic politics, led by politicians who are prepared to punish voters in a member country for their choice of government, for demanding rational economic policy, for making choices that their EU overlords dislike.
Economist Tim Worstall, writing in Forbes (hardly a lefty political rag), is more-less in line with Krugman, Stiglitz, and any number of award-winning economists: "It’s very difficult indeed to design plans for Greece that are actually worse than the one the European Union is trying to impose upon that benighted country. Decades of enforced poverty in order to maintain a currency (and possibly even a political order) that the country should never have embraced, should never have been allowed into, just isn’t one of those things that would win you a gold star in your high school economics class. Everyone from Milton Friedman to Paul Krugman, with a few insignificant bag carriers like myself bringing up the rear, has been screaming that the problem is the euro and while that remains so will the problem...However, amazingly, the German finance ministry seems to have managed to come up with a plan that is even worse...As has been pointed out, those who don’t [study history] are doomed to repeat it."
Paul Krugman in The New York Times calls the Eurogroup's demands "madness...This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief. It is, presumably, meant to be an offer Greece can’t accept…" And while Chancellor Merkel is harping on about trust, Krugman insists - "Who will ever trust Germany’s good intentions after this?...In a way, the economics have almost become secondary. But still, let’s be clear: what we’ve learned these past couple of weeks is that being a member of the eurozone means that the creditors can destroy your economy if you step out of line...even a complete Greek capitulation would be a dead end...The European project — a project I have always praised and supported — has just been dealt a terrible, perhaps fatal blow. And whatever you think of Syriza, or Greece, it wasn’t the Greeks who did it."
Joseph Stiglitz, another Nobel-winning economist, also insists that the real problem is Germany, which has benefited greatly under the euro. While he believes the eurozone should stay together, he notes that most economists (including himself) hold that "the best solution for Europe, if it's going to break up, is for Germany to leave. The mark would raise, the German economy would be dampened...and Germany would find out just how much it needs the euro to stay together...and possibly be more willing to help out the countries that are struggling...There's a whole set of an unfinished economic agenda which most economists agree on, except Germany doesn't."
"If Greece leaves," Stiglitz adds, "I think Greece will actually do better...There will be a period of adjustment. But Greece will start to grow."
Even on this side of the Atlantic, Wolfgang Munchau, associate editor of the Financial Times and former co-editor of FT Deutschland, writes that Greece's creditors "have destroyed the eurozone as we know it and demolished the idea of a monetary union as a step towards a democratic political union...In doing so they reverted to the nationalist European power struggles of the 19th and early 20th century. They demoted the eurozone into a toxic fixed exchange-rate system, with a shared single currency, run in the interests of Germany, held together by the threat of absolute destitution for those who challenge the prevailing order...This brings us back to a more toxic version of the old exchange-rate mechanism of the 1990s that left countries trapped in a system run primarily for the benefit of Germany, which led to the exit of the English pound and the temporary departure of the Italian lira. What was left was a coalition of countries willing to adjust their economies to Germany’s. Britain had to leave because it was not...Once you strip the eurozone of any ambitions for a political and economic union, it changes into a utilitarian project in which member states will coldly weigh the benefits and costs, just as Britain is currently assessing the relative advantages or disadvantages of EU membership. In such a system, someone, somewhere, will want to leave sometime. And the strong political commitment to save it will no longer be there either."
In fact, I have yet to read a credible, independent expert opinion that has anything positive to say about Greece's creditors and their role in this debacle. One financial analyst, Marc Ostwald of ADM Investor Services, claimed the latest deal offered by the creditors was worse than the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that crushed Weimar Germany with debt and paved the way for the second world war. The creditors, he added, seem to be trying “to completely destroy Greece”.
Even Jeffrey Sachs, one of the infamous 'shock doctors' much-maligned by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine (he is in fact credited with having coined the term 'economic shock therapy'), has effectively cast his lot with Syriza, writing that "Europe’s demands – ostensibly aimed at ensuring that Greece can service its foreign debt – are petulant, naive, and fundamentally self-destructive. In rejecting them, the Greeks are not playing games; they are trying to stay alive...The Greek government is right to have drawn the line. It has a responsibility to its citizens. The real choice, after all, lies not with Greece, but with Europe."
Already in the lead-up to Syriza's election several months ago, Sachs wrote: "The leftwing party Syriza is no anomaly; it is telling the financial and political truth in the runup to Sunday’s elections, however unpleasant that may be to politicians in Berlin and Brussels."
What is becoming increasingly clear, given the near-consensus of eminent international economists - Nobel laureates and esteemed economic thinkers all - on the utter fallacy of the Eurozone creditors' position, and the correctness of Syriza's demands, is that Syriza is really not very radical at all. As Slavoj Zizek put it in a recent article in New Statesman, "if one looks closely at the proposals offered by Syriza, one cannot help noticing that they were once part of the standard moderate social-democratic agenda (in Sweden of the 1960s, the programme of the government was much more radical). It is a sad sign of our times that today you have to belong to a 'radical' left to advocate these same measures..." The label 'radical left', as I've said before, only has meaning in a charged political context where the 'centre' has become the technocratic neo-fascism currently gripping the imaginations of many eurozone leaders. If Syriza are radical, it is only as radically rational pragmatists.
In light of all this, the account given in a recent interview by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, of the past few months of negotiations, makes a lot of sense:
...[T]he inside information one gets...to have your worst fears confirmed...To have “the powers that be” speak to you directly, and it be as you feared – the situation was worse than you imagined! the complete lack of any democratic scruples, on behalf of the supposed defenders of Europe’s democracy. The quite clear understanding on the other side that we are on the same page analytically...To have very powerful figures look at you in the eye and say "You’re right in what you’re saying, but we’re going to crunch you anyway."
It’s not that it didn’t go down well – it’s that there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank...You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on – to make sure it’s logically coherent – and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken.
Schäuble was consistent throughout. His view was "I’m not discussing the programme – this was accepted by the previous government and we can’t possibly allow an election to change anything..." So at that point I had to get up and say "Well perhaps we should simply not hold elections anymore for indebted countries," and there was no answer.
My constant proposal to the Troika was very simple: let us agree on three or four important reforms that we agree upon, like the tax system, like VAT, and let’s implement them immediately. And you relax the restrictions on liqiuidity from the ECB. You want a comprehensive agreement – let’s carry on negotiating – and in the meantime let us introduce these reforms in parliament by agreement between us and you...And they said "No, no, no, this has to be a comprehensive review. Nothing will be implemented if you dare introduce any legislation. It will be considered unilateral action inimical to the process of reaching an agreement." And then of course a few months later they would leak to the media that we had not reformed the country and that we were wasting time! And so... [chuckles] we were set up, in a sense, in an important sense.
The palpable hysteria with which European elites met Syriza's mere election a few months ago, with talk of markets tumbling and predictions of general mayhem, is reminiscent of C.P. Cavafy's famous poem, 'Waiting for the Barbarians', in which he describes a 'civilized' society in decline, preparing for an imminent invasion by barbarians who never, in the end, turn up - and ends with these lines:
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
The eurogroup's disappointment with and consequent resentment of Syriza amounts precisely to this - Syriza are the barbarians who never materialized, who turned out to be in fact the rational, pragmatic and moderate antidote to the irrational, German-led neo-fascist economic extremism driving the poorer European economies into debt servitude - Syriza made them look bad, simply put. Syriza as extremist barbarians would have been 'a kind of solution' - they would have justified harsh measures, in the eyes of creditors. When Chancellor Merkel talks about 'trust', this is probably what she is getting at, or where these sentiments come from. As some commentators have pointed out, the Germans have shown themselves to be less trustworthy than anyone - but they are nonetheless fanatically, obsessively, hysterically convinced that behind these rational, pragmatic moderates in Syriza, the barbarians still lurk, in wait.
What is also clear is that, even if Syriza has lost the political battle - for now - it has clearly won the rational argument. The forces of Reason and Rational Economic Policy are clearly on its side. And the development of science, even economic science, isn't subject to socio-political fluctuations, market movements, and special interests quite as much as the political field is.
During negotiations in Brussels yesterday, it emerged that one of the creditors' demands (specifically a German idea), as a condition of the Greek bailout, was to transfer 50 billion euros of 'valuable Greek assets' as collateral to a shady Luxembourg-based 'Institution for Growth'. This entity, as later reported, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of German KfW, chaired by none other than Germany's finance minister Wolfgang Schauble. Quite apart from the cronyism and conflicts of interest - this, dear reader, is tantamount to me giving you a loan to help you repay your debts, but in return demanding that you, say, sign over the mortgage on your house to me as collateral - which in the long run makes you poorer, as you are giving up an asset that will appreciate in value, and less likely to be able to repay your debts, including your debts to me. This is just another example of how fantastically stupid the austerity regime imposed on Greece for the past 5 years has been, and goes a long way in explaining why economists around the world are railing against it. Even if this idea was watered down in the latest form of the agreement - the assets now will be transferred to an entity based in Athens - the principle is the same: the Greek government is somehow expected to achieve major budget surpluses while at the same time making itself poorer in the long run (by selling off assets), and growing the economy, and repaying its debts, and making those debts more sustainable.
As for the cronyism and conflicts of interest in the suggested version of the plan, we should remember that Schauble, Germany's finance minister and chief EU moralizer in the Greece debt crisis, resigned from office as party chairman back in 2000 due to his role at the centre of a massive corruption scandal in Germany involving illegal campaign financing and "a labyrinthine network of secret slush funds fed by millions of Deutsche marks in undeclared - and therefore illegal - campaign contributions." Schauble, by his own admission "personally ran the slush-fund system during his 25 years as party chairman...At first the chairman insisted that he had only briefly met Karlheinz Schreiber, the fugitive weapons dealer who regularly handed bags of cash to CDU officials. Then last month Schauble was forced to admit that he had personally accepted a 100,000 Deutsche mark donation from Schreiber - in cash."
Well, I guess that makes it kind of easy to stay solvent and lecture others about financial responsibility, when you get regularly handed personal 'donations' of millions in cash by dodgy weapons dealers on the run from the law. And then, to have the cheek to talk about 'trust'…With this in mind, I suspect that Schauble hates Syriza so much precisely because they have no links to previous Greek governments, to the corrupt political elites with whom he did deals in the past and who, like him, had a penchant for failing to declare moneys (received or spent), which ultimately led to their demise, and the demise of the Greek economy once Wall Street imploded. Schauble, in other words, prefers to deal with corrupt neo-fascist stooges like himself. With his wheelchair and irrational intransigence that leads to disaster, he actually seems a great fit for the role of latent Nazi Dr Strangelove, director of weapons research and development in Kubrick's epic film - a man willing to risk everything, including the fate of the world, for the sake of his own misguided intellectual obsessions...
In the Guardian's reporting on the talks in Brussels last night, there was mention that the Eurogroup, among other things, wants "rigorous review of collective bargaining" - as if collective bargaining rights and unions caused the financial crisis, not corrupt banks propped up by the same corrupt politicians who are now trying to get rid of Greece's first non-corrupt government in at least a decade. Nice try. This clearly has nothing to do with constructive, rational economic policy. In negotiations described by one senior EU official as an "exercise in extensive mental waterboarding" of the Greeks (for those unaware this is a form of torture favoured by CIA interrogators), the new terms reached "are much stiffer than those imposed by the creditors over the past five years." This, said the senior official, was payback for the emphatic no to the creditors’ terms delivered in the Greek referendum last week. “He was warned a yes vote would get better terms, that a no vote would be much harder,” said the senior official.
Greece, in other words, is being collectively punished for voting 'no' in the referendum. Quite literally - punished. This really is terrorism, as former Greek finance minister Varoufakis put it. According to the BBC's Paul Mason, "in Greece large numbers of people – on all sides of politics – believe the Europeans are trying to force the elected government to resign before a deal is concluded." I'd say that's been pretty clear for a while now.
So here's hoping that the Greeks will have the courage to resist, and perhaps take the plunge out of the euro zone themselves. There are some signs of fierce opposition to the latest deal from within Syriza itself, not least the President of Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, who delivered these blistering words to Greek legislators yesterday:
After the Second World War, Germany enjoyed the greatest remission of debt [in history], so as to allow it to get back on track. This was done with the generous partnership of Greece...And yet Germany is behaving as if history and the Greek people owe a debt to her, as if she expects to receive a historic payback for her own atrocities…
The artificial and deliberate creation of conditions of humanitarian disaster so as to keep the people and the government in conditions of suffocation and under the threat of a chaotic bankruptcy constitutes a direct violation of all international human rights protection treaties, including the Charter of the United Nations, the European treaties, and even the statutes of the International Criminal Court. Blackmail is not legal. And those who create conditions that eliminate freedom of the will may not speak of "options." The lenders are blackmailing the government. They are acting fraudulently, since they have known since 2010 that this debt is unsustainable. They are acting consciously, since their statements anticipate the need for humanitarian aid in Greece. Humanitarian assistance for what? For an unexpected and inadvertent natural disaster? Is it an unpredictable earthquake, flooding, a fire?
Humanitarian aid [would be required] because of their conscious and calculated choice to deprive the people of the means of survival, closing the tap of liquidity in retaliation for the democratic choice of the government and the parliament to call a referendum and to turn to the people to decide their own future...
NO to blackmail
NO to ultimatums
NO to the Memoranda of servitude
NO to the repayment of a debt they did not create and that is not attributable to them
NO to new measures of impoverishment and exhaustion
. . .
It is important to keep reminding ourselves in all this that the global financial crisis that started in 2007-08, and which reverberates to this day in Greece, at its root has nothing to do with 'lazy Greeks' or the welfare state (as Paul Krugman pointed out many times) or poor people living beyond their means, and very little to do with Greece - it is the direct result of catastrophic incompetence, greed and corruption among top executives in the biggest banks in the richest country in the world - the United States - who were bailed out unconditionally with funds many times greater than the money merely funneled through Greece (and back to foreign banks in the form of loan payments). Some of the reasons why Greece is suffering to this day:
- In a global financial crisis, the weakest economies are hit hardest (especially in a common currency zone, which goes back to the argument why Greece should never have joined the euro);
- Years of mismanagement by previous Greek governments (i.e. hiding their debts), made up of the same corrupt politicians favoured and propped-up for years by equally corrupt foreign (mainly French and German) banks, and today supported by corrupt Eurozone and Troika officials who want to get rid of Syriza; they were effectively hiding structural weaknesses in the Greek economy which were exposed when global financial markets slid into recession;
- Failure by Troika and Eurozone officials to acknowledge their failures and follow rational economic policy in relation to Greece, making the crisis there far worse through austerity measures that led to record unemployment levels and even deeper recession since 2010…
As one commentator notes in the Washington Post, "This latest melodrama playing out in Brussels as European finance ministers meet to discuss whether or not to approve a new Greek bailout, appears so nonsensical that it can be hard to believe these people are deciding the future of Europe."
I would even go so far as to say, we have here an entire currency union run by a cabal of incompetent, sadistic, fanatical neo-fascist buffoons and stooges - instead of obsessing about cutting Greek pensions, these people should be pensioned off and locked up in a care home somewhere where their senile babble will be muffled behind sound-proof doors instead of shaping policies that affect millions of people.
I have coined a new word: Oxi-mandias. In reference to the Greek 'Oxi' in the referendum, and Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias' - this is the impending fate of the European project, so long as it remains in the hands of its current fanatical, irrational, neo-fascist architects:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!"
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Or, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late."
When asked about the Versailles analogy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded: “I never make historical comparisons.”
How ironic, cynical, and loaded a statement for a German head of state to make. As Louis Armstrong 'Satchmo' put it, "Denial ain't nothin' but a river in Egypt." And indeed, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If Karl Marx is to be believed - that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce" - this one could well end in tragedy. A Greek, or Greco-German tragedy, no less.
Tuesday, 7 July 2015
A friend asked me to explain what's happening in Greece "in a nutshell"...So as a more practical follow-up to my previous post on this blog, here is a slightly edited version of what I wrote to her, in case anyone else needs a primer (pretty accurate nutshell summary I think) -
In a nutshell? How about, an epic struggle between inhuman, irrational, world-destroying neoliberal capitalism and an authentic, democratic politics of hope? I don't know how much you know, but it all goes back to the 2008 financial crisis and the subprime mortgages in the U.S., which caused the Great Recession. Greece, like other European countries, had a lot of debt, due to years of mismanagement by corrupt governments backed by equally corrupt French and German banks. But what made things worse was that, in order to keep the government budget deficit within eurozone limits (to be able to join the euro currency), starting in the 1990s Goldman Sachs helped them 'cook the books' by hiding part of their debt. Keeping the debt off the books basically allowed them to keep borrowing without growing the budget deficit. When a new government was elected in 2010, they revealed this hidden debt, and revised deficit figures - the budget deficit effectively skyrocketed from around 6% to 15% of GDP overnight. As this meant that any further borrowing (and financing the government) was going to be very difficult, Greece was about to default on its debt. So in 2010 the Troika of creditors - the European Central Bank, the IMF and Eurozone countries (represented by the European Commission) - loaned all this money to Greece, in order to help them keep paying their debt - but most of the bailout money went right back into French and German banks in the form of loan payments, not into the Greek economy. And in return for those loans, the creditors demanded 'austerity' cuts from Greece, which were ostensibly meant to bring the deficit back down and make Greece's economy more efficient, but in reality (as many economists predicted) caused an even deeper recession because it reduced the amount of money going into the economy and therefore the amount of revenue (due to pension cuts, lowered wages, unemployment due to public sector job losses, etc), which led to three general trends:
1. more debt for Greece to repay
2. less revenue/income for repaying that debt
3. even less growth, income, productivity, deeper recession, etc
Greece effectively merely functioned as a conduit for European taxpayers' money to be funneled into French and German banks, who were the real target of the bailout. From the viewpoint of sound economics, this is either a colossal policy failure on the part of the EU and Troika, or a cynical conspiracy against the public on an equally colossal scale. It's kind of like if I were to lend you a bunch of money so that you can keep making interest payments on your debt to my friend Jeremy, but in return I demanded that you close your small business selling oysters because you're spending too much money on it (in my opinion), and take a minimum-wage job instead, and use most of the money I gave you to pay Jeremy - meaning you now owe more money (to me and Jeremy) and have less income from which to repay it - and less opportunity for growth and financial stability/sustainability.
What's happening now is that the creditors - Eurozone leaders, ECB and IMF - are essentially demanding that Greece continue in more-less the same fashion as it has for the past 5 years, and even implement further austerity cuts - against the advice of virtually every credible economist in the world - in exchange for further loans/credit from the creditors. The Greeks, who a few months ago elected a left-wing anti-austerity government unconnected to the previous corruption, are saying no - we need to grow our economy, we need debt relief (i.e. part of the debt to be forgiven), job creation, we need to get on a sustainable path that will allow us to actually repay our debt, which means stimulus spending, not further cuts... The irony is that back in 2012, there was a leaked report suggesting that the Troika's own internal review believed that “even under the most optimistic scenario, the austerity measures being imposed on Athens risk a recession so deep that Greece will not be able to climb out of the debt hole.”
Since they couldn't come to an agreement, the current programme expired, and Greece was about to default on its debt again as the ECB refused to provide emergency funding to Greek banks - and they cannot print their own money (in euros), being part of the common currency - some of the creditors were insisting that if the Greeks reject the bailout terms (further austerity cuts with no debt relief) in the referendum, they would have to leave the Euro (currency), meaning start printing their own money, or drachmas, which was the Greek currency before they joined the euro.
Bear in mind also that in both Europe and the US, it wasn't just struggling economies but the banks themselves - the ones who caused the global crisis in the first place - that were bailed out with taxpayers' money...But no structural reforms or 'austerity' cuts were demanded of the banks in exchange for those bailouts, which in some cases were even greater than the bailouts received by Greece or Ireland, amounting to trillions of dollars. In one notable case, AIG executives were reported to have received bonuses of up to a million dollars (per head) a year or two after the bailouts, taxpayer-funded...
Varoufakis, the controversial but in my view awesomely cool former Greek finance minister (he resigned right after the referendum as a tactical move), explaining some of the issues:
Monday, 6 July 2015
In a seminal essay titled 'Plato's Pharmacy', Jacques Derrida engages in an extended discussion of one of Plato's less well-regarded dialogues, the Phaedrus, expounding on the ambiguity of one word - pharmakon - which is repeatedly used as a metaphor in the text. Often translated simply as 'drug' or 'medicine', to the ancient Greeks pharmakon could in fact mean either medicine and/or poison:
Pharmacia (Pharmakeia) is also a common noun signifying the administration of the pharmakon, the drug: the medicine and/or poison. "Poisoning" was not the least usual meaning of "pharmacia." (p. 70)
But the ambiguity evoked here is not merely linguistic or semantic - it goes to the very heart of nature itself, and distills to its very core the famous slogan attributed to the ancient Greeks - 'everything in moderation'. Every medicine can be a poison at a given dosage or formulation, and vice versa - some of the deadliest venoms on the planet are today the subject of ground-breaking research into a wide range of potential therapeutic uses, for instance - new drugs derived from venom for everything from heart disease and diabetes to autoimmune diseases, cancer, and pain could be available within a decade. “We aren’t talking just a few novel drugs but entire classes of drugs,” according to one researcher. And the properties that make venom deadly are also what make it so valuable for medicine.
Taken metaphorically in the economic arena, fiscal discipline is a pharmakon; fiscal austerity, on the other hand, is fiscal discipline taken to a level where it becomes poison - where it kills, rather than heals. When fiscal discipline becomes an ideological end in itself, rather than a means to an end, it becomes toxic. And it becomes all the more dangerous when those who administer it, failing to distinguish between the divergent effects of this pharmakon at different dosages, are utterly, fanatically convinced of the purity of their cause.
Contrary to the widely propagated (in the West, at least) perception of 'lazy Greeks' living off the welfare state and so forth (more on that here and here - Greeks work longer hours than Germans and the Greek welfare state takes up a smaller percentage of GDP), a closer examination shows that it is in fact the Troika and the Eurozone finance ministers who are the epitome of intellectual laziness and incompetence, and ideological fanaticism - like a doctor who fanatically believes in a particular drug or form of therapy and administers it recklessly with no concern for dosages or formulations and no interest in the finer points of fine-tuning treatment, in the process killing or seriously harming his patients. Or as Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman put it, "Europe’s self-styled technocrats are like medieval doctors who insisted on bleeding their patients — and when their treatment made the patients sicker, demanded even more bleeding." Greece didn't even get a real bailout or any kind of stimulus in exchange for being forced to undercut its own growth (and hope of recovery) through austerity measures - as economist Mark Blyth points out, most of the bailout money ostensibly loaned to Greece simply went right back into French and German banks, who were the real target of the bailout - Greece merely served as a conduit for European taxpayers' money to be funneled into European private banks. This is either a colossal policy failure or a cynical neoliberal conspiracy against the public on an equally colossal scale.
By contrast, it is precisely the Greek Syriza government, and perhaps most of all its controversial finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, that emerge as thoroughly modern (or even post-modern) proponents of intellectual rigour, method, and rational economic discipline - insisting on precise policies that produce the right outcomes, and which are supported by measurable evidence as well as a democratic mandate. Varoufakis' economic background is in cutting-edge academic game theory, and he has worked for several years as a consultant for Seattle-based video game developer Valve Corporation (incidentally, on scaling up virtual economies and linking multiple economies together on the Steam digital delivery platform, looking at exchange rates and trade deficits). And he has, according to BBC's Paul Mason "templated a style of politics that may be equally adaptable for the right as on the left, for those with the will to try it: operating from principles, being as open as possible with information, engaging the public in language they can understand, and putting his entire persona on the line." Last but not least, the Greeks have been more adept than any current European political figure at using technology and social media.
Even Varoufakis' resignation, following the insistence of Eurozone finance ministers and despite Syriza winning the popular mandate by a landslide in the Greferendum, is not only a brilliant tactical move (unsurprising given the game theory background), but shows just how serious Greece's new government is about doing right by its people. They understand the momentum of the crowd, the dynamics of the herculean task in front of them, and the discipline required to complete it - Varoufakis is like the star football player who has scored a potentially game-changing goal (in calling the referendum) but must now be sent off the pitch in order to preserve the lead as he is disliked by the petty referees. He walks off the pitch smiling and upbeat, having served his purpose - no arguing with coach Tsipras - and writing on his blog: "I shall wear the creditors' loathing with pride."
And it is interesting to consider where this loathing comes from. I cannot help thinking that there must be a component of jealousy involved - seething, burning jealousy. Syriza enjoy popular support of a kind that most European politicians can only dream of - and I don't mean simply that they won an election. They walk into packed crowds on busy public squares to heartfelt hugs and kisses from throngs of supporters. They are for the people, of the people. And despite their casual attire, which only makes them that much cooler and more approachable, they are in fact the rigorous, methodical, rational moderates - there is nothing especially radical about what they are pushing for - while the eurozone finance ministers and the Troika are the incompetent, petty, bumbling ideological fanatics in suits and ties, advocating policies that virtually every credible economist in the world has declared unsustainable and lacking economic sense - and admitting at the 11th hour before the referendum that they were, after all, mistaken. We should not be misled by Syriza's name, either - Coalition of the Radical Left - which only has meaning in a specific historical and political context where the 'centre' has become a morbid and inhuman techno-capitalist normativity. And anyway - moderation, after all, in the sense in which the ancient Greeks meant and practiced it, is less about substance and more about form - it is not about your choice of pharmakon so much as how you take it, in what dosage, and how it relates to the symptoms you are treating.
But Syriza is about chemistry in more ways than one - it is "a coalition whose colours are red for socialism, green for ecology and purple for feminism." It is a united left front that has managed to rally over 61% of Greek voters in the referendum behind it, in a leap of faith into an uncertain future, in a country in crisis, on the brink of collapse, experiencing food and medicine shortages, caught between a rock and a hard place - no mean feat, given the internal fractiousness of leftist movements in general, and the external pressures acting against this one in particular. To accomplish this kind of synthesis, and go on to win an election, and a referendum (by a landslide) in a maverick negotiating move, and quite possibly overcome overwhelming odds against an army of international creditors led by hard-line pro-austerity conservative governments to win a better deal for Greece, and without actually compromising one's political ideals - this requires a very delicate yet bold balancing act.
In the wake of the Greferendum, the latest word from London-based bookmakers William Hill (as reported on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme this morning) is that they have 'closed their market' on whether Greece will leave the Eurozone before 2016 - a spokesman for the company said that "in such a volatile situation, in which events can move very quickly, it is very difficult to be confident that our odds are accurate."
In other words, all bets are off - quite literally. The Greek referendum has introduced a genuine state of exception, something genuinely new into politics, where 'what comes next' is so unpredictable that even the world's biggest bookmakers, seasoned professionals who make a living from betting and setting odds on everything under the sun - from sports matches and horse races to election outcomes and royal weddings - are holding their breath. This is a ball balanced on a knife edge, a chemical reaction at the quantum level that calls to mind the Heisenberg uncertainty principle - it could go either way.
"Syriza does not have a mandate to take Greece out of the eurozone, nor does it have a mandate to apply unworkable austerity," says Euclid Tsakalotos, Syriza's new finance minister. Everything hangs in the balance, and something's gotta give. But despite his posh British accent and Oxford training, creditors and Eurozone finance ministers will be disappointed if they expect this man to be a pushover - unlike Varoufakis, he is from the more radical Marxist branch of Syriza and a bit of a Euroskeptic. (Also, he was drawn to the euro-communist left during his student days at Oxford largely on account of Britain's bloody postwar betrayal of the Greek left, their wartime allies.)
It is worth remembering here that the Greeks have a long tradition of questioning the status quo and arguing the exception, going back to the ancients. As classics scholar Edith Hall, writing in the Guardian, reminds us (in a piece unrelated to the current political situation):
The Greeks, more even than the Romans, show us how to question received opinion and authority. The earliest myths reveal mankind actively disputing the terms on which the Olympian gods want to rule them, and the philanthropic god Prometheus rebelling against Zeus in order to steal fire – a divine prerogative – and give it to mortal men. Sophocles’ Antigone refuses to accept her tyrannical uncle’s arbitrary edict, draws crucial distinctions between moral decency and contingent legislation, and buries her brother anyway. Aristophanes, in his democratic comedies, subjected politicians who wielded power to satire of eye-watering savagery. Socrates dedicated his life to proving the difference between the truth and received opinion, the unexamined life being, in his view, not worth living. No wonder Hobbes thought that reading Greek and Roman authors should be banned by any self-respecting tyrant, in Leviathan arguing that they foment revolution under the slogan of liberty, instilling in people a habit "of favouring uproars, lawlessly controlling the actions of their sovereigns, and then controlling those controllers".
Whatever happens next, unpredictable as it is, even if Greece buckles under and bows to the demands of creditors - for Greek history is rife with both victories and heroic defeats against vastly superior opponents (one never can tell), fought by vastly outnumbered Greeks - this is surely an exceptional moment, which may well signal decisively the beginning of the end of capitalism, in the long run. Perhaps as some on the French progressive left have been saying, nous sommes tous des Grecs européens.
Everything in moderation, as the ancients had it - even a dose of Varoufakis, antagonizing and divisive as he may be for some, has its place and time, like every good good-cop-bad-cop routine. And in all things we must - in the words of Walter White of Breaking Bad fame (a.k.a. Heisenberg) - 'respect the chemistry.'
Wednesday, 25 February 2015
I. The 'China price' on Freedom
There is a certain kind of inertia that leads people to rehash old tropes and repeat worn-out formulas of political thought, applying stale or long-past-expiry date cookie-cutter critical approaches to new and emerging political problems. In the wake of the tragic shooting of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris a few weeks back, a range of responses emerged on the left. Some simply condemned the shootings, some condemned the shootings but expressed some concern about Charlie Hebdo's allegedly 'racist' cartoons, suggesting that perhaps there should be some limitations on free speech or that we should use our rights 'responsibly', while some condemned the shootings unconditionally but nonetheless felt the need to invoke any number of things as a possible 'explanation' - the history of colonialism, 'Western' foreign policy and involvement in the Middle East, French racism and the marginalized status of French Muslims, and so on. And of course they all express concern about the far-right backlash against Muslim populations in Europe and the West.
The thing that strikes me about leftist or critical school constructions of 'The West' and 'The Muslim World', such as this one, is that they are no different from the ones that underpin contemporary right-wing and neoliberal political thinking. All the while that leftists decry the 'war on terror' and the grand narrative of 'a clash of civilizations', many of them subliminally incorporate its basic assumptions into their thinking - that there even are monolithic cultural entities such as 'the West' or 'the Muslim world', for instance. Thus even in leftist thought the battle here is between 'Western' liberal values of 'free speech' and democracy on the one hand, and the religious sensibilities of the 'Muslim world'. Because, naturally, all the people living under despotic regimes in that 'Muslim' world, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia and Morocco and Mali, presumably have no interest in free expression and other 'Western' values and human rights. It's their culture.
Meanwhile, a Muslim Saudi blogger recently received a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashings for the crime of 'insulting Islam', Boko Haram slaughtered another 2,000 people in Nigeria (their deadliest massacre to date), journalists are routinely sent to jail in Egypt, and a Saudi cleric just issued a fatwa against building snowmen. (In addition to 'idolatry', the crimes punishable by death in Saudi Arabia include apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, sorcery, witchcraft, adultery, and drug use.) In Afghanistan, as a folio in last month's Harper's magazine reports, women routinely run away from their families to escape being forced into arranged marriages, as well as abuse including facial disfigurement by acid or severed lips and noses, forced prostitution, and honour killings. And in Bangladesh this week, an atheist writer was hacked to death by a group of machete-wielding extremists who took exception to his views on religion - he wasn't drawing or mocking the Prophet, he was Bangladeshi (so it's not like this is about the history of colonial repression), and his attackers weren't members of a marginalized ethnic minority in Bangladesh - just a bunch of fascist whackjobs.
Also, let's not forget that the most famous fatwa ever issued was against Salman Rushdie, an Anglo-Indian writer born to Muslim parents in India, for writing The Satanic Verses - a novel seen as a grave insult to Islam, punishable by death. This is not a coincidence.
But even more to the point, one of the most significant events in the world in the past decade, if not the most significant, has been the wave of spontaneous uprisings and revolutions throughout the Arab world collectively known as the Arab Spring, which has seen governments forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt (twice), Libya, and Yemen; civil uprisings in Bahrain and Syria; as well as major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Israel and Sudan, along with minor protests in Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Western Sahara, and Palestine. Primary motivating factors have included dictatorship and state repression, human rights violations, political corruption, and economic inequality. Many of these movements were notable in their effective use of social media to organize uprisings, in the face of state attempts at repression and censorship.
So, what about all that?
Some responses on the left seem to be on the right track, pointing to the hypocrisy of 'Western' states in selectively protecting free expression, but they too somehow miss the bigger point here - or fail to make one at all. For just as they ascribe (or condemn) free expression to the pantheon of 'Western' values, they seem to disown it in a way, guardedly, as leftists - with some absurd outcomes on occasion, such as a recent petition in a debate between two feminist camps, under the banner 'Student political protest is under threat, not free speech' - as if these are two totally separate things. Formulating a discourse that sees the 'right to protest' as an independent right, not derived from the right to free speech, the left thus undermines its own prospects - in the long run, any official limitation on free speech will wind up being used to clamp down on protest, as one of the most 'outspoken' forms of speech.
So what is the point exactly, of those who emphasize that 'this isn't about free speech' or that Western governments don't consistently protect free speech? Does this mean that we should give up fighting for freedom of expression? That we should allow free speech to be curtailed in cases such as that of Charlie Hebdo, even insist on it, since the position of Western governments is inconsistent? Why should the behaviour of governments influence my position at all, other than to oppose any and every curtailment or infringement of fundamental rights, by government or by terrorists?
Surely, the point here is that these aren't simply 'Western' values we are talking about at all. Of course Western governments routinely attack freedom of expression, there is nothing surprising or categorically hypocritical about this. These are not rights that somehow culturally belong to us 'Westerners', or that our governments impose on us. It is all too easy to forget that even in the so-called West these are hard-won political rights, the product of bloody and violent struggles, the result of revolutions and fierce battles against the state, and they still have to be protected and watched and fought for at every turn, at all costs. Giving up one inch can cost us all dearly.
It is no coincidence that, for instance, France, which happens to be the home of this most outrageous and offensive satirical magazine, is also the country that most vocally opposed the US war in Iraq, a war fought against the will of the majority of people in the nations involved. This is not to the credit of the French government, but the French people above all. This is the legacy of May '68. How, one might ask? Or even better, what was May '68?
Of course, there were protests around the world in 1968. But the level that they reached in France is unprecedented in history, and dwarfs even the largest popular mass movements today. A protest that began with a few students occupying the Sorbonne, it culminated in the largest general strike in history, with a wildcat walkout of 10 million workers - two-thirds of the entire French labour force at the time - the occupation of universities and factories across the country, and so on, bringing the French economy to a standstill, and a government to its knees. This movement may not have achieved all its political goals in the immediate aftermath, but it was a turning point that resonates in French politics to this day. Its legacy means that any French government will think twice before going head-to-head with the will of its people. And Charlie Hebdo, whether anyone likes it or not, is a part of that legacy.
Greece's new leftist finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis, writing in the guardian about how he became an 'erratic Marxist', reminds us of this tension in leftist political discourse - the leftist movements of the 20th century, in his view, "failed, to their detriment, to follow Marx’s lead in a crucial regard: instead of embracing liberty and rationality as their rallying cries and organising concepts, they opted for equality and justice, bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals. Marx was adamant: The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational…"
"Having failed to couch a critique of capitalism in terms of freedom and rationality, as Marx thought essential, social democracy and the left in general allowed the neoliberals to usurp the mantle of freedom and to win a spectacular triumph in the contest of ideologies."
In Marx's (and Engels') own words, from the Communist Manifesto: "in a communist society, the free development of each must be the condition for the free development of all."
The emphasis (with or without my italics) is clearly on 'free' and 'each' - individual freedom. Collective freedom, the free development of the whole, cannot but be premised on this backbone - the free development of each individual unit. It is, after all, precisely neoliberal capitalism, despite all the sermonizing and lip service to freedom and individual rights by its acolytes, that in practice demands the sacrifice of individual and social interests for the abstract notion of the market and its needs, which in reality means the interests of the wealthy few - those who appropriate surplus value and accumulate capital.
It is worth remembering that in the early 20th century, the term 'libertarian' - today associated broadly with fringe right-wing anti-statism - was broadly applied to a range of left-wing anarchist and communist movements, especially in Europe. What many leftists seem to have forgotten, somewhere along the way, is that even communism only truly comes into its own as the state 'withers away', as societies become more capable of direct democracy or self-governance, and that the state form known as 'socialism' only marks the transition from the capitalist state to a communist society.
It is in this sense that Soviet and Chinese constructions of 'communism' rely precisely on a neoliberal conception of freedom and equality, coupled with authoritarian politics and some vaguely socialist ideas about the redistribution of wealth. In today's increasingly globalized and yet ever more restrictive world, this divergence is becoming even more clear - the global 'free' market means the free movement of capital, not of human beings. And China, communist or not, is more eager than most to take advantage of this situation, imposing restrictions on the freedom of its citizens while allowing capital to flow across the border in all directions.
There are however glimmers of hope, and other enlightened responses have emerged on the left - again, if not to Charlie Hebdo specifically, then to the broader issue(s) of human rights and freedom - even among committed Marxists, such as a recent piece by Nina Power.
(I would only add a couple of points or 'derogations' to her contribution, on my part - individual rights as discussed by Marx are not human rights in the modern sense, strictly speaking - private property rights, for instance, are legal rights but not typically mentioned or universally recognised in international human rights documents, as fundamental human rights. Even international instruments such as the ICESCR which protect 'economic rights' as human rights don't mention property rights as such, at all, to my knowledge, but rather the right to decent work, housing (for all, not as an individual property right, but in the sense of 'having a roof over one's head'), social security, healthcare, forming/joining a labour union, etc. Such distinctions are important, and formulating a truly Marxist or leftist approach may be a bit more complex. Also, rights aren't only against the state (i.e. union organising), nor are they strictly speaking 'part' of the state as Power's piece seems to suggest. What has always made human rights both problematic and enduring is precisely their claim to the status of 'natural' or universal rights that exist independently of any legal mechanism or document.)
II. 'You're with us or against us'
Still, my question to those on the left who continue to regurgitate the aforementioned worn-out 'critical' tropes on the hypocrisy of the West is - what do you want? Because that other long-standing problem with leftist discourse seems to be very much in play here - formulating demands. What is your point? These things are never made clear. One big mistake in all this 'monolithic' circle jerk groupthink on the left is the refusal to take an absolute, unequivocal stance against Islamic extremism, or Islamo-fascism, for instance. It's as if you can't do that on the left, it's just not the done thing, because, well, it would be taking sides with this mythical, monolithic 'West' we hear so much about. It's an imperial war. Best not to get involved.
But isn't this precisely the type of neocon-Bush-'war on terror'-type thinking that leftists supposedly abhor? Doesn't this amount to forcing us into a neutral or at best mildly critical stance towards something we should absolutely and unequivocally oppose - what amounts to Islam's version of far-right fascist politics - simply because certain 'imperial' powers are also involved in that fight? It's the old 'you're with us or against us' type of thinking, or alternately 'the enemy of my enemy isn't really my enemy'?
Yet if we struggle against this religio-fascism does it really have to be as 'Westerners', rather than as human beings, as Muslims, as Kurds? Isn't their struggle also our struggle? And isn't our struggle also their struggle? Aren't the same or similar forces at play here?
Recognizing with Deleuze that the greatest difference is always internal to a system - to an Idea - allows us to establish the proper relation here - the real fight is never between systems, between Ideas, civilizations, but between versions of one and the same, between different actualizations of the same Idea, between the Idea and representation, between a system and its shadow.
Or as Freud suggests, the struggle between 'civilization' and 'barbarism' is internal to civilization itself. The choice we are continually forced into - between, for instance, saying that the crimes committed by Islamic fundamentalists 'have nothing to do with Islam' on the one hand (as the liberal left insists), and on the other hand holding Muslims in general somehow 'responsible' for these crimes (as some on the right claim) - is a false choice. Both of these claims are wrong. Of course this Islamo-fascism has 'something to do' with Islam; but this does not mean that Muslims in general are in any way 'responsible' for it, any more than liberal democracy or Christianity or Science or any other discourse is responsible for its appropriation by fascists, or its excesses.
The discourse of 'political correctness' on the left is itself a kind of proto-fascist 'thought police' that panders to a disguised, latent racism. Leftists, in their barely disguised apologia for Islamofascism, perpetuating the narrative of victimhood that the extremists themselves use to drive recruitment, end up being ‘circle jerk’ apologetics for the very things they claim to hate the most - racism, sexism, fascism, oppression, and the slaughter of civilians. Or they simply fail to take up a coherent position on the issue - and this plays very neatly into the hands of the far right, the military-industrial complex, and our neoliberal oligarchs. But especially the racist far right, as an account in the Guardian by a formerly radicalised Muslim suggests.
So I don't quite follow the logic of those who say that the Paris shootings were "totally unjustifiable, but…let’s talk about how the shooters are part of a marginalized group dealing with French racism, etc". If the killings are totally unjustifiable, then what exactly is the point here? Well, since it's being thrown around, let's talk about racism and marginalized groups. As a kid I lived for several years in Egypt, where I witnessed first-hand the racism of Egyptians toward African black people - incidentally, most of my friends at school were black. And this is not a fringe phenomenon, it was rife. Imagine if the sentiments felt by the very fringe far-right in Europe towards minorities and immigrants were seemingly felt by the majority of people, and more pronounced. Systemic. That's what it's like to be black in Egypt, and most Arab countries.
And let's not even talk about sexism, homophobia, and anti-semitism. Anti-semitic cartoons, for instance - not the Charlie Hebdo 'equal opportunity satire' variety but rather more of the Nazi Der Sturmer type, exploiting a range of racist myths about Jews like the 'blood libel' - are a regular feature in mainstream media throughout the Arab world. It is common, it is seen as totally acceptable by vast numbers of people, and nobody does a damn thing about it. As may be obvious from previous posts on this blog, I am a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights, for instance, and opposed to militant Zionism - but racism and racist myths have no place in that debate. While it may be understandable for Palestinian rage to turn racist on occasion, it isn’t quite so for those who aren’t exactly suffering under the yoke of Israeli occupation.
What it comes down to is that there is a lot of hypocrisy here all around. And while most Muslims would certainly distance themselves from the violent extremists who brutally killed the French cartoonists in Paris, there is a broader problem of racism in the Arab world that the whole community needs to recognize and deal with, just like Europe has to deal with its own racism. In that respect – I have to say this – Europe is in many ways doing better, at this point in time. And Charlie Hebdo, in my view, in its own twisted way, belongs to a venerable tradition of free expression that, for better or worse, helped us get to this point – by destroying old values and outdated social codes, breaking taboos, taking aim at all forms of power and prejudice, profaning the sacred, disturbing the establishment, ushering in the new, and bringing about revolutions.
III. The Menagerie of Civilization and its Contents
There is also a historical reality that adherents of the 'clash of civilizations' idea and leftist cultural relativists alike seem to have missed - the way in which these civilizations that are supposedly clashing are actually far more intertwined than many today suppose, and form a continuity in fact - a sort of Moebius strip.
Long before the modern era and the means of sharing information we have today, before the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Europe went through the Dark Ages - ruled by the Church and by Christian kings who enforced their faith by the sword. Freedom of thought and expression was at such a low that the bulk of what we see today as the heritage of 'Western civilization' - the literature, philosophy, and science of Greek and Roman antiquity - was deemed contraband by the Church, and lost to history. For a time, at least - a good several centuries longer than our modern age has lasted, to put things in perspective. Books were burned and banned (as well as people), and the only way to get an education at all was through the Church.
It turns out, however, that many of the 'pagan' texts from European antiquity long thought lost in the Dark Ages were in fact preserved - by Muslim and Arab scholars who acquired their own copies from the Greeks and Romans, translating and expanding upon them during what is commonly known as the 'Islamic Golden Age' - an era of scientific, economic, and cultural flourishing that lasted for about 500 years, from the 8th to the 13th century.
Starting with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 8th century, where scholars from all over the world sought to gather all the known world's knowledge into Arabic, Islamic scholars built upon Persian and Indian mathematical systems, astronomy, algebra, trigonometry and medicine. This is why, for instance, along with our Latin alphabet, we use a numeric system based on Arab numbers, rather than the cumbersome Roman numerals. It is also why we use algebra - the name itself comes from the Arab word 'al-jebr', meaning "reunion of broken parts". Symbolic, that.
Later, as Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, Arab traders and scholars brought this knowledge back to Europe, in works of their own along with copies of the Greek and Roman originals. And in Europe, the rediscovery of this ancient heritage ushered in the Renaissance, and later the Enlightenment.
Today, sadly, it seems it is ISIS militants who are looting libraries, and burning the very same ancient texts that their ancestors preserved while they were being burned by the Christian Church in the Middle Ages. The only upshot here is the suicidal nature of such acts, as one might expect from extremists, I suppose - in the long run, as history has shown time and again, any political movement or institution that destroys knowledge undermines its own credibility and viability. The most successful empires in history, for better or worse, and for all their faults and crimes, thrived in large part thanks to their multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, and fell when they abandoned or moved away from these principles.
Incidentally, one work of ancient philosophy particularly reviled by the Church fathers in the Dark Ages and long thought lost in Europe (its story partly dramatized in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose), though preserved and later brought back by the Arabs, was Aristotle's Poetics - a work in which the famed Greek philosopher discusses, among other things, comedy and laughter. In the same way in which modern Islamic fundamentalists don't like being ridiculed, not to mention having their Prophet portrayed in any way, the Church fathers of old considered laughter itself immoral. Comedy was contraband - as was Aristotle's work on the subject, for merely suggesting that it had a legitimate role in human intellectual life.
As a matter of fact, it is very likely that Aristotle and Plato would be totally unknown to us today, were it not for the work of one Averroës (his name is the Latinized form of Ibn Rushd), an influential 12th-century Andalusian Muslim thinker who wrote on a range of scientific and philosophical subjects, including logic, Aristotelian and Islamic philosophy, theology, psychology, music theory, geography, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and physics.
Avicenna (Ibn-Sina), another one of the most important thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age, was an 11th-century Persian scholar who has been described as the "Father of Early Modern Medicine".
Most interesting of all perhaps (for the present discussion), Averroës sought to reconcile Islamic philosophy with Aristotelianism and Platonism, along with a form of proto-humanism - among other things, he was a proponent of women's equality with men, going so far as to suggest that women should be educated and allowed to serve in the military, and could even become philosophers or rulers. This from an influential 12th-century Muslim scholar, writing long before the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and women's suffrage - centuries before gender equality was even mentioned in the West, let alone considered a valid political discourse.
And Averroës certainly wasn't importing 'Western' values or ideas on gender here, either, in any meaningful sense - Aristotle and Plato both held fairly conventional views on the subject, typical of patriarchal ancient Greek societies, while the status of women varied widely between Greek city states. Among the ancient Greek schools of thought, only the Stoics and the Cynics were known to espouse gender equality, but few of their writings survived and there is no indication that they had any influence on Averroës.
Of course, the views of a philosopher by no means reflect those of his social milieu, and many are in fact lone voices in the wilderness. Nonetheless, even if Averroës is merely an early harbinger of modern liberal humanism - a voice that inspired and predated Voltaire and Montesquieu by several centuries - it is telling that this voice is of an Arab Muslim scholar.
It is however also notable that, even after the Islamic Golden Age was over, Arab and Muslim societies as a whole were nonetheless far more progressive when it came to religious and racial tolerance. When Jews, Muslims, and Christian heretics were driven out of Europe during the Spanish Inquisition - those who weren't forcibly converted or burned at the stake, that is - they all found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, of all places, where they thrived and freely practiced their religion.
But it hardly stops, or begins there. If we go far enough in time and space, we find that these so-called 'Western' values - of modern liberal humanism - are rooted in traditions and schools of thought that span the globe. Early European humanist thinkers drew on or were influenced by a whole range of ideas, from Averroës to the Stoics, from Taoism and schools of Buddhist thought to the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia.
It should be clear that the broader historical context allows us to view the modern-day schema of 'civilizations' in a totally different light. Iran in the 1950s, for instance, was a far more progressive society than today, where women didn't wear the veil and achieved greater gender equality than many European societies at the time - before their democratic socialist government was overthrown with the help of British and American agents who installed the Shah. The Iranians weren't simply adopting 'Western' attitudes, and even surpassed much of the West in terms of social progress - and as already pointed out, they discovered the ancients centuries before the West did. The return of Islam several decades later was precisely that - a return, a reactionary force that sprung up as a result of British and American meddling in the region.
Even today, there is rumour that among the Iranian Ayatollahs there are adherents of various 'Western' schools of thought, including at least one Kantian. It is perhaps precisely the distortion of Hegelian dialectics in our 'Western' thinking, combined with historical ignorance, that leads to the conceit of Western uniqueness and progress, and a linear view of history. Forgetting, as it were, that history is full of throwbacks, regressions, cul-de-sacs, diversions, digressions, schisms, and that these sometimes last centuries, like the Dark Ages.
IV. The Internal Contradictions of Politically Correct Fundamentalism(s)
Of course, it is not enough to say that liberal humanist values are not uniquely 'Western', historically or philosophically. We should also recognize the inverse - the historic contingency of the despotism, extremism, sexism, mysogyny and other ills commonly associated with the Muslim world. Just like the 'clash of civilizations' discourse, the leftist cultural relativism that speaks of 'Western values', merely disguises a latent cultural racism under the banner of political correctness and cultural sensitivity: it is a racism that, deep down, thinks 'let them have their different (read: 'backward') culture, why should we impose on them our 'Western' values of democracy and humanism, equality and rights? It is a cultural racism that, despite its best intentions, deep down sees the autocratic, fascist, misogynist Islamism of a state like Saudi Arabia as somehow representative of the Islamic 'other' in its own historic milieu - when it is in fact representative of nothing more than one form of Islamic modernity, informed by patriarchal misogynist fascism - a thoroughly modern, atavistic fascist monarchism. Which just happens to have, in this case, instrumentalised the Muslim faith for its establishment - a religion no more susceptible to such appropriation, on its face, than any of the main monotheistic faiths.
It is an open secret, for instance, that the very Saudi elite who maintain this Islamic regime at home - who forge ties with the neocons and Bushes in America while funding terrorist organizations, who own prime real estate across the globe and control major multinational corporations - make regular trips to less restrictive neighbouring countries like Egypt, where they do their whoring and boozing. All under the eyes of their Prophet. Which is not to say that they don't do these things back home, too - child sex slaves, often trafficked from neighboring countries or Africa, are common among the Saudi elite. And even ISIS (with whom the Charlie Hebdo attackers are apparently affiliated) recently published a magazine, which appears to justify taking women and children as sex slaves.
The nuance, subtlety and complexity of well-crafted and provocative political or social satire often gets lost in the turmoil of political violence. In the wake of the Paris massacre, much has been made of Charlie Hebdo's latest literary cover star, Michel Houellebecq, and his latest work, Soumisson, a satirical novel about an Islamic party winning presidential elections in France in 2022, and instituting Sharia law across the country. Many people assumed, without reading the book or even a substantial review, that it was an 'islamophobic' tract that panders to far-right fears of an Islamic takeover.
Yet a review in The Guardian, of all places, suggests that something very different is at work here. "The real target of Houellebecq’s satire – as in his previous novels – is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man." There is no violent takeover, but a thoroughly democratic one, and many French happily go along with the new Sharia system - including the narrator, a middle-aged academic who looks forward to his own conversion and a future of endless sexual gratification through polygamy, with wives of varying ages.
What Houellebecq is suggesting, in other words, quite apart from any criticism of Islam or religion, is that the lecherous misogyny on display here is by no means limited to Muslims. As to what really lurks beneath the surface in the psyche of some 'Western' men, real-life examples abound - from the white American college frat boys we see in Sacha Baron-Cohen's Borat film, making racist and sexist remarks and yearning for the days of slavery and women's subordination to men, to American televangelist Pat Robertson advising a man whose wife 'refuses to submit to [male] authority' to move to Saudi Arabia, among other things.
Far from pandering to right-wing fears, Houellebecq's fiction very much seems to furnish Borat's project, suggesting that the European far-right and Islamic religious extremists have far more in common than they realise. And once you strip away the cultural veneer, what's left, really?
It is interesting to contemplate Houellebecq's work alongside another novel where a fictional religious regime comes to power in a Western country, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In this far more dystopian work of speculative fiction, it is a totalitarian Christian theocracy that overthrows the United States government. It is far more brutal, and Atwood's target is primarily fundamentalism and religion. Her plot is arguably even more far-fetched, as it involves a coup d'etat (rather than a democratic election) and, despite some fundamentalist leanings in the U.S. political establishment, no Christian theocracy exists in the world today - modern Christianity has not quite found its political dimension the way Islam has, most notably in the form of wealthy and powerful states like Saudi Arabia.
Despite all this, the book has made its way around the world and into high school reading lists, even in god-fearing Texas, despite being frequently challenged as 'anti-Christian' and 'pornographic'. Ironically, it has even at times been challenged for portraying brutality towards and mistreatment of women, and alternately, for being 'anti-Islamic'. (The Christian theocrats in the novel mandate women to wear the veil, and allow polygamy).
V. Cartoonish Racism
As to the alleged racism of Charlie Hebdo, it seems many people here missed the point. For starters, out of the two or three cartoons bandied around the internet as examples of Charlie Hebdo's 'racism', one of them is a cover published in 1980 - 35 years ago - satirizing a papal visit to France. That fact alone is telling - that even to find an example of a non-racist cartoon that in today's context is being misrepresented as racist, Charlie Hebdo's accusers had to search far and wide, all the way back to 1980. And what does the cartoon say? It shows the pope greeting his French supporters, with the headline: "The Pope in Paris: The French are Cunts Just Like Negroes." It just so happens that the pope's historic visit to France in 1980 came on the heels of an extended tour of Africa - thus the words are presumably Charlie Hebdo's take on what the pope might be thinking.
Another of the handful of allegedly racist Charlie Hebdo cartoons portrays Boko Haram kidnap victims as French welfare queens saying 'Ne touchez pas nos allocs!' ('Don't touch our welfare payments!') This is clearly a jab at the anti-Muslim rhetoric of right-wing politicians who actually see French Muslim women in this light. By taking the claim to an absurd extreme - suggesting the same of Boko Haram kidnap victims/sex slaves (who are neither French nor on welfare) - Charlie Hebdo is satirizing this view point, in much the same manner as Baron-Cohen's Borat (who has been sued and/or accused both by minority groups and by the racist misogynists he exposed); or, even better, Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report. Colbert, in fact, was not only accused of racism on various occasions, but numbered among his fans, at least in the early days of the show, many conservatives or right-wingers who didn't quite catch on to the satirical aspect of his talk show.
Another example in the English-speaking world, perhaps more relevant because it also involves cartoons, is the TV cartoon series South Park - which has itself been involved in a number of controversies over the years due to its particular brand of 'equal-opportunity' satire. A running theme of the show, apart from ridiculing everyone and everything under the sun (including Canadians), is that one of the main characters, 4th grader Eric Cartman, while repeatedly making racist statements, has a particular penchant for calling out and casually insulting his friend and fellow 4th grader Kyle as a Jew. Also, the only black kid in their school is named 'Token' - another frequent target of Cartman's casual racism, rage and fear.
I have no doubt that the thought police of political correctness would see much of South Park as racist - but to me it seems a fairly obvious jab at the deeply ingrained and institutionalized racism of Middle America in all its whiteness, its pretense to racial equality, its political correctness (which only serves to disguise racism and white privilege), and the struggles of four ordinary fourth-graders in coming to terms with all this in small-town Colorado. We cannot confront institutional racism - in fact we only affirm it - by pretending it doesn't exist. And that is precisely what 'political correctness' amounts to - a ruse, a disappearing act that masks and affirms latent institutional racism by purging our language and cultural production of its forms, satirical and otherwise.
As for depictions of Muhammad, it should be noted that aside from any explicitly offensive content, the prohibition in Islam relating to any depictions of the Prophet (positive or negative) is by no means universal. It is primarily a precept of Sunni Islam, it does not actually appear anywhere in the Quran, and - like similar prohibitions in ancient Judaism or Christianity (pertaining to 'idolatry' or the 'making of graven images') - it is addressed to believers of the faith, mainly Sunni Muslims. (Images of the Prophet are quite common in Iran, I am told, where the majority of Muslims are Shia. Yep – Iran.)
At its radical origin, this commandment is not about forbidding anyone depicting the Prophet, it's about believers themselves not making or worshipping images ('false idols') because it taints or weakens true faith. In principle, there is no reason why a Muslim should be offended by any and every depiction of the Prophet by a non-Muslim, any more than they should be offended by a non-Muslim eating pork, or violating any other religious rule. So this relatively modern and extremist take on it, where the prohibition becomes absolute and applies to all non-Muslims too, crosses the line between practising faith and imposing one's religion on others. And that is especially the case if in the process of imposing your religion on others, you violate someone else's belief system, which in this case includes freedom of expression, pluralism, and the right to life as fundamental tenets. As the slogan goes, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.
Let’s also not forget, as we affirm the complexity in all this, that the very point of the cross-cultural dialogue, the insight that no community is monolithic, that there are violent extremists of all stripes – that it is precisely for this reason we cannot see these particular killers simply as members of a disadvantaged minority group. They are not killers because they are Arab, and they are not killers because they are Muslims, so by extension they are not killers because they are members of a disadvantaged minority in France. If you want to distance their extremism from the larger community, then don't rationalize their act as in any way expressing the marginalized status or the interests of that community. If anything, their group affiliation is primarily with the likes of ISIS (a recent target of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and likely motivation), which in those parts of the world where it operates is certainly not a repressed minority, but an oppressive scourge on the face of the earth – primarily oppressing other Muslims. Throughout history, fanatical religious extremism has taken many forms, from the Spanish Inquisition to modern-day cults – and its motivation or driving aim, more often than not, is some form of domination over others, not liberation from oppression.