Thursday, 25 October 2007

Praxis and Prognosis: Notes on Zizek Lecture Tuesday, Biopolitics, and the New Fascisms in the News

Some notes and ideas, new directions, junctures, commentary...

Mr Slavoj Žižek gave a lecture Tuesday at the BIH (Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities) - 'Kouchner in Lampedusa, or The Two Faces of Humanitarianism'. One is humanitarianism 'proper' (if one may call it that) which, in the guise of Bernard Kouchner (the chosen target of the lecture, precisely because he is meant to be a 'true' humanitarian, unlike American neocons and British Blairites) is telling us that 'we' should prepare for war with Iran; the other, Žižek claims, is exemplified by the bringing to trial in an Italian court in Lampedusa of a crew of African fishermen - their crime, rescuing a group of African refugees from certain death on the high seas. We should read these two events together, Žižek tells us - 'the "we" who should prepare for humanitarian war is the same "we" who enjoins us to let the helpless refugees drown.'

Is there not another way to 'read' these two events together though - not as the 'two faces of humanitarianism', but as two perfectly consistent sides of the coin of the biopolitical or 'biopower' - what Agamben, following Foucault, refers to as biopolitics and thanatopolitics, respectively. On one hand, the ancient sovereign power of the state as the power over life and death, the power 'to make die and let live' (thus concerning life only indirectly, as abstention from killing, what Isaiah Berlin might call 'negative freedom') which in our time, in the modern liberal-capitalist ('humanitarian') state, is progressively transformed into the inverse formula - the power to make live and let die ('positive' freedom)... "now death instead becomes the moment in which the individual eludes all power, falling back on himself and somehow bending back on what is most private in him."(Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: the witness and the archive, p 83) There are moments when, however, this modern biopolitics paradoxically coincides with thanatopolitics.' This is a result of the necessity felt by biopower to 'fragment the biological domain whose care power had undertaken' by the 'opposition and hierarchy of races, the qualification of certain races as good...' Racism, in other words, which allows biopower to reintroduce "a principle of war into the system of 'making live'". Is not the radically different treatment of Turkish and Iraqi Kurds by the West (the former being on the CIA's list of 'terrorist organizations'), despite their common goals and nearly identical methods with respect to their nation states, the best example of this, and of the cold, technical absurdity behind it? Or, take for example the difference in 'humanitarian' terms in the value of the life of a European, an Iraqi, and a Congolese - the latter being the worst off, given the West's 'humanitarian' indifference to the perishing of 4 million human beings there, and its obssessive concern with places like Iraq and Afghanistan. An even better (or more disturbing and directly indicative) example came to us in the news just yesterday, with DNA biologist and Nobel Prize winner James Watson's scandalous declaration that Africans are genetically less intelligent than Europeans. (The Independent article) Notably, he even explained the difference in IQ levels between black Africans and African Americans (!) in evolutionary terms. The real tragedy, however, isn't that some racist old white fart had the guts to say this publicly, or even that he happens to be a Nobel Prize winner. The real tragedy is how this is processed in the media - that it becomes an acceptable topic for debate - no harm in talking about it, right? And what's more, on BBC's 'The Moral Maze' last night, someone - I don't believe it was Watson himself (the webstream is unavailable from the website 'due to unforeseen circumstances' - defended at least the 'validity' of research comparing IQ levels between different races on account of the poverty and instability plaguing the African continent, for instance - a 'humanitarian' crisis, to put it in those terms - and that this might help us explain why - why the poverty, the fighting. And that is not yet the real tragedy. The real tragedy is that in response to this, no one - not even the host of the programme - made even a passing suggestion as to the fact that Europeans may have had something to do with not only the immediate problems afflicting Africa, but even with IQ levels - for instance, the fact that not so long ago, in the 1930s, during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (a decade ago, if not still, Africa's poorest country), the newly-established colonists executed - shot, point blank - an entire generation of Ethiopian schoolteachers, intellectuals, professors, etc; anyone with high IQ, in other words. Or the fact that, around the same time, or in the two or three decades preceding, the native population of the Belgian Congo was reduced to about one-quarter of its size. How long does it take, and what does it take, for a continent to recover from such ravages? Mind you, there was no Marshall Plan for Africa. Nice way to go - you whack someone on the head with a sledgehammer and then give them an IQ test. Conclusion: genetically stupid. It just proves that Nobel Prize winning scientists, radio announcers and public intellectuals are no better than football managers - the game is rigged.

Biopolitics - Thanatopolitics. What we are witnessing is precisely the transformation of biopolitics according to Foucault's pattern, its intersection with thanatopolitics, the stabilizing of a 'caesura of a biological type inside a domain that defines itself precisely as biological'. But most disturbing of all perhaps is where the intersection and integration of these two powers may lead, on a historical reading - "In Hitler's Germany, an unprecedented absolutization of the biopower to make live intersects with an equally absolute generalization of the sovereign power to make die, such that biopolitics coincides immediately with thanatopolitics."

I don't think I am being paranoid here. Take PM Brown's new 'Business Council for Britain' as reported in Tuesday's Guardian ("Brown gets down to business with his captains of industry") - is this not a decisive step towards fascist 'corporatism'? The council, which will 'advise the government on business issues' and whose advice will be 'private', excludes from its membership representatives of small businesses, or the Federation of Small Businesses - on the ground that 'self-made tycoons such as Sir Alan and Sir Richard would have an affinity with the interests of small entrepreneurs." The FSB replied, naturally, that many small business owners have no interest in growing into large 'Virgin-like empires.' But the Mind of Capital does not concern itself with such contradictions - everyone wants to grow big, naturally, whether we admit it or not. And just to quell our fears, we are told that the council "'is not a lobby group, like the CBI..."It is more of a thinktank of senior business leaders to advise ministers about policy issues. This body is designed to have a long-term dialogue with the government and to shape its policy."' Great. Phew - what a relief. So long as it's not another lobby group...

So we have another indication that the democratic electorate is becoming increasingly superfluous - that the conduit for expressing choice is increasingly becoming the market, and our role reduced from citizens and voters to consumers. The inclusion of Richard Branson is especially moving - the very one who spoke of his project as transmitting to the consumer a 'set of values' through the product, exemplary of what Naomi Klein describes as the shift in modern corporate culture from producing 'things' to producing 'images' or 'brands' - described by one corporate mogul as 'helping corporations find their soul' - coupled with the consequent rise of outsourcing and the decline of manufacturing in the developed world. Elsewhere I have argued that this process situates the modern corporation in what Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) calls the carceral archipelago, the network of institutions - schools, prisons, hospitals - that, by instilling a 'soul' in the subject (a 'set of values'), "transports the penitentiary technique from the prison to the entire social body". And just to drive the point home and quell any signs of protest we are reminded of China's 10% growth rate and blasted with a massive photo (Guardian article) of a superbly futuristic Shanghai.


Which brings us to another topic of Žižek's lecture on Tuesday - that Chinese capitalism, rather than being an 'oriental perversion', is the wave of the future - capitalism without democracy, in other words. I did raise the point that the culprit may be the state itself - that analogous to Marx's vision of the modern corporation without the 'increasingly superfluous' owners as a socialism within capitalism, the modern state, without the increasingly superfluous electorate (think of the dropping turnout rates, for instance) can be reduced to the effect of a capitalist corporation enveloping whatever political programme it claims to represent. Now, I don't want to sound like an anarchist or libertarian: Žižek also mentioned Naomi Klein and her new book on 'Shock capitalism', and incidentally I am just reading her article in this month's Harper's which arrived yesterday, where the idea is re-tooled as 'disaster capitalism'; and since in the immediate present context one has to take sides, I will qualify all my anti-state comments by saying that in the struggle against privatization and for preserving the public sector and the welfare state, I am for the public sector and the welfare state, even if it is a losing battle. What worries me, however, and what I don't think enough attention is being paid to (even by the likes of Žižek and Klein) is that even this battle - for the state, for state power, for the 'public' sector - has to be fought and is being fought outside the state, and has to be organized from out side as such - through trade unions and other (perhaps new, or supplementary, and more intensive) forms of social organizing - through our power (if we have any) as 'consumers'...That we have to (among other things) put pressure on government in all its forms through channels other than the ballot vote...

Klein's 'distaster capitalism' (in the Harper's article) also brings up the issue of 'racialization', here in the context of security and disaster relief, connecting seamlessly with the notion of biopower and thanatopolitics. From Iraq to Hurricane Katrina (and one could now add the recent fires in California, perhaps, although it looks like things aren't quite so bad over there - yet), the theme behind the various forms of outsourcing of government functions is: those who can pay, get relief - in the form of security, disaster assistance, and so on. (Just as an aside, after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA - the diaster relief agency - had to hire a private contractor to perform the function of awarding contracts to contractors. Hey, these people even have a sense of humour.)

In the article Klein cites a report published last year by the Council on Foreign Relations (and peopled by corporate moguls) which in arguing for privatization of emergency relief states, "...the compassionate federal impulse to provide emergency assistance to the victims of disasters affects the market's approach to managing exposure to risk...if people know the government will come to the rescue, they have no incentive to pay for protection."

Well, that's it folks, we're screwed. I think it's time to pack our bags and look for another planet.

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