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Thursday, February 4, 2010

THE WALLS OF THE CITY

by C. G.

Prison is only apparently the exception to the rule: crime given vent to or innocence punished is in fact the totality of society where everyone punishes each other for the offense of being there and where anyone who thinks is pierced by this question at least once a day: “Why have they put me here? What have I done?” and the terribly obsessive desire for escape is just like that of prisoners. Maybe even more intense.

The evolution of the penitentiary system with the construction of so many new spaces for punishment has a significance beyond that of “more humanity and reeducation” rather than retributive suffering. The distance, the separation between the city and its prison—which has always been very great—decreases, because the inhabitants of the city increasingly resemble (through work, family, universities, hospitals, discotheques, theaters, stadiums) prisoners of a model prison who are granted occasional leaves (weekends, holidays, “white” weeks) with the obligation of returning on specific days with no room for error.

Even the “promenade” is a mirror of the city within the prison and of the prison within the city. The people guarded on their pedestrian islands, enclosed by flowering bushes as walls, going sadly and monotonously in and out of shopping centers, loaded with useless but obligatory purchases. The people watched by video cameras in the shops and outside, forced to pass through metal detectors to enter a bank, constrained to stamp a railway ticket, whispering at every instant that ignoble secretion of personal identity that is the fiscal code, invention of the gulag. Do you believe this is very different from a prison?

I can see the courtyard of Newgate—where the prisoners in pajamas march around in rows in a circle in the famous Doré incision—once again every time I walk through any pedestrian island, special project of mayors preoccupied with having an aromatic aroma, an edenic glade, within the immense urban prison they administer. Have we really emerged from the courtyard of Newgate? Have we completely given it up, or only taken that marked pajama to the laundry?

The edenic model inspired the providential inclusion of parks—which in name still carry the memory of Paradise (park is a contraction of paradise, Persian pardesh =garden)—in the emerging urban hell. These parks would later be degraded with the name of “green zone”. But what did these deceptive patches of paradise really change anyway? The urban glade (avenue or public garden) is not forest, freedom, refuge, free play of the spirit among lives different from the human; it is nothing but human images and, in an increasingly brutal manner, human images signify that which we most abhor: walls that enclose and constrain, jail.

The new prison construction (less somber, sometimes more breathable) was begun by the fascist regime (experimentally, in small cities) in order to reduce the distance between city and prison, destined to form a single, compact, totalitarian poison. We see the prison of Orvieto, built in 1936, the year of the greatest fascist triumph, no different from the Italian Bar, the University of Rome or any youth hostel…But the model totalitarian city, with urban envoys lined up in exchange for liberation from malarial anopheles, was Littoria (Latina) where the prison, built in 1939, is an anonymous service building, a true and proper outpost of the future outskirts. And a modern condominium on the outskirts endures widespread prison conditions. From the ground floor to the penthouse, the cooking is the same everywhere: spaghetti—steak—salad—dessert, just like in a regular prison.

The difference is that the family in the condominium doesn’t throw away much food, preserves the leftovers, cooks with more intelligence. The prison, like the barracks or the hospice, wastes a great deal and cooks the same things in a vile manner. No one would ever lick those plates, so often returned full.

Among the traits of liberal democracies at the beginning of this century, this marvel still exists: though specific prison conditions may change in any possible way, in the unstoppable degradation of life in common and of sociality in general on the outside, in the abandonment of the city to degenerative cities, nothing can be done to impede this inevitable transformation of the totality of the urban environment into a prison that has been immersed in the electronic for sometime, filled with typical prison slavery like rape, sexual extortion, the exchange of favors that ends up being more important than monetary exchange.

At any place in the city, at any hour of the day, millions of urban prisoners watch the same things on television as those prisoners who have been sentenced in a trial and those who are held in custody awaiting trial. The judges themselves do the same, cheering in the same way for a goal by their soccer team.

Today all urban space is watched, controlled, patrolled, feared, distrusted, perpetually threatened. In the name of security, it has gradually reached the point of the creation of an absolute technological-military prison. One can say that this long war will only cease in order to abandon its place to a kind of monstrous prison as an extreme form of “necessary” protection. And this is happening under a democracy that tries to appear powerless, under the egalitarian rhetoric with which it cloaks itself, to prevent—since this is what it wants and needs in order to conserve itself—every city of its dreams from becoming a maximum-security prison space (thus without respite) where the circulation of individuals increasingly resembles the circling of the prisoners round and round that courtyard with the high windowless walls where the poor exhausted footsteps resound in cadence.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

ELSEWHERE

by
H.T.

“Real life is absent. We are not in the world.”—A. Rimbaud

Existence is elsewhere. By now, we know this much too well. We cannot find the fullness capable of giving any meaning to our time on this earth either in a job that sends us traveling along through the crossroads of the career or in a daily life from that no longer holds any wonder for us. We may be able to have, but we no longer know how to be. All the things that surround us and are within our reach in the form of disposable merchandise to be accumulated are only scented balms for mortal wounds, for festering open sores caused be the renunciation of the vital minimum. The vital minimum is the possibility of creating and acting with authentic meaning, in other words, autonomy.

The critique of the miserable daily life that people lead today cannot be separated from the critique of the social order that determines it: capitalism. Our whole world has been shaped by exchange value; it has been built according to the principles of interchangeability, of quantity, of passivity, of irresponsibility. Our thoughts retrace the commonplaces dear to public opinion. Our desires are measured in terms of what can be realized thanks to a current bank account. Our dreams pursue models taken on loan from television and movie screens. Our words are inspired by advertising slogans. The very environment that surrounds us is constrained to assume the form most suited to the needs of the market as metropolitan architecture or the massacre of the surroundings brought about for industrial purposes shows. This has reached the point that soon, the very boundary between what is natural and what is artificial will dissolve.

Our identification with a world constructed to the measurement of the bank that even the project of an other world doesn’t seem to escape the blind alley into which we are forced. Even the activity of one who wants to put an end to a social system based on money doesn’t manage to avoid prolonging it, crashing against the reef of social reproduction.

Against a politics that was always a tool in the hands of the ruling class, a new parliament (however alternative) is elected. Against an economy preoccupied exclusively with its profits, new credit institutions (however ethical) are founded. Against a technology that does not facilitate life but rather renders it superfluous, one demands its mass distribution (however democratic). Against work that does not realize the individual but rather alienates her, one asks for its multiplication (however minimal). Against a power that causes infinite harm, one calls for its renewal (however revocable). Against this world one demands…this world (whatever small changes may be made).
Round and round in circles. The intolerable world in which we live is also the only world that we know, the only one we have experienced. Every project of social transformation is based on knowledge—on that with which we are familiar. Starting from these premises, we analyze, we criticize, we denounce every sort of social poison present on our planet. But even though we are aware of the necessity to spew the poison out of our organism, we are seized with doubts: will we survive such a drastic treatment? What will become of us afterwards? In order to avert the risk that such an eventuality allows, we go in search of the formula for a painless antidote. Medical science rushes to our aid: the antidote to poison is a minimal dose of the poison itself (and the “cure” very quickly reveals itself to be not only useless but harmful, because it has no other effect than that of rendering the poison itself still more virulent). Thus, the critique of this world ends by proposing its models once again. Round and round in circles. But this is the surest way not to bring this world down.
Until recently, it seemed certain that the realm of freedom could find no place within the realm of necessity. The latter was limited to predicting and preparing the conditions for the advent of the former (from this we derive all the eulogies to the “development of the productive forces” and other pleasantries that favored “the mysterious identification of the capitalist economy with social revolution”). Under the rule of capital, happiness is elsewhere; this is impossible to doubt in view of the chains that leave their mark on our flesh, but its seed still had to hatch under the snow and one only needed to wait for the end of winter to see it blossom. This was what we were taught until recently. But now this certainty in the spontaneous succession of seasons has frozen to death along with the sporadic swallow that was occasionally seen on the horizon. And the weather becomes ever harsher. One cannot keep waiting for the spring. It is necessary to create this spring, but the task is not easy. So why not just say that it has already started?

This is the way that some frozen victims of the social ice age have decided to get around this obstacle. A new ideological creed has replaced the old one; it is decided that the realm of freedom no longer comes after the realm of necessity, but rather flanks it, exists together with it. Freedom is no longer built on the ruins of the palaces of power, something that would first require their toilsome destruction. Instead it is built on their margins. The elsewhere in which one can finally be oneself is no longer an absent totality that is realized in the future, as soon as possible, but a partiality, already operating in the present. The state is not destroyed, but ignored, deserted, abandoned in favor of a “bipolar society”—in the stalinist version—or a “non-state public sphere”—in the libertarian version—into which one can enter, passing through the “crevices” of the capitalist mega-machine.

It is only by hearing these two bells—the stalinist bell and the libertarian bell—at the same time that one can clearly perceive the identity of their ringing. Here the first one tolls: “It is necessary first of all to tend to the construction of these experiments in liberation, rather than tending to the organization of the proletarian masses to the end of the rupture or supercession of the general arrangements of the system, because it is possible to carve out spaces of liberation even in the absence of this rupture or supercession, or precisely because liberation will come to pass through the gradual, molecular and interwoven expansion of these spaces. Thus, in this case, the state and the market would not be ‘overthrown’, but rather ‘marginalized’, ‘extinguished’.” And now let’s listen to the second: “Self-government submerges action tending to organize moments of collective participation extraneous to the presence of the state starting with a simulation in effect: 'as if’ it were not there'. The erosion of the aspects of existence ruled by the state mortgage can become a collective practice that makes participation trenchant if these moments are really laboratories of unheard-of resolutions for problems tied to social life…the spreading of moments of self-government acquires a sense of opposition that, from a phenomenon that is antagonistic or subordinately reactive to a temporary lack of institutional services, is posed as an unpublished rough draft of projected organizations of society.” The prose varies in its range of expression, but isn’t the refrain really the same?

And so the smaller one’s desires are, the greater the possibility of satisfying them. The successes obtained through a realist politics cannot hide the naked reality that they have been paid for with the coin of renunciation. The “happy isle” carved out by an ocean of denials is not a free world. The “socially useful” job carried out in a small enterprise (no matter how collectively it is run) is not communism. The life passed inside the walls of “self-managed” spaces is not anarchy. Whatever their colors may be, flowers cultivated in an artificial hothouse are not the spring. The “experiments in liberation”, the “moments of self-government”, all these instances in which we feel that we are protagonists can certainly take place and perhaps even increase, but only to the extent to which they are granted. Only to the extent to which they would not constitute a danger to the social order that they would like to weaken. Only to the extent to which they represent the crumbs that fall at our feet from the table of those who rule us. A warning to insurgents: the state is not going to fade away on its own and it certainly has no intention of killing itself.

Until recently, revolutionary hope expressed the secular disguise of a messianic vision. The great dusk represented a kind of Final Judgment capable of splitting history in two, with the world before the revelation quickly disappearing as freedom, which has finally been acquired, erases the last traces of original sin. The disappearance of such millenarian assurances will never be adequately toasted. Only now we would be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire if we were to replace it with the old Marxist idea of a freedom that “can only bloom on this reign of necessity.” With its blackmail, necessity renders only the terrain of constraint fertile, certainly not the terrain of autonomy. If freedom is elsewhere, we cease to experience shame when we do not know what will arise on the ashes of the prison in which we are presently enclosed.

If we want to be realists, we are finally such at bottom. A utopia cannot exist with both feet on the ground. What makes utopia subversive is the tension that it generates, the insatiability that leads it to never be contented and to never be resigned. To not look where one is going because one does not want to remain where the gaze reaches. On the other hand, the utopia that claims to be concrete, the one of modest practical reason, the one that is revealed in the contrast between the grandiosity of the ends and the cringing mediocrity of the means, the utopia of shopkeepers who want to subvert the world while still remaining at peace with every Christian neighbor, this utopia is only a reformist lie.

What else could reformism be if not the endeavor to find an artificial bridge—parties, conferences, social centers, nonprofit enterprises, rural communes, municipal lists…—capable of uniting means and ends, a supposedly unchangeable reality and the designated ideal, after having abandoned the real forces of revolution? Is not its psychological origin perhaps exposed by observation of the partial possibility of modifying social organization? Isn’t its stimulus possibly born from the need for victory, the need to say goodbye to the long trail of defeats that the revolutionary idea has known? Couldn’t its fortune derive from the radical opposition to extremism? It is of little importance to know whether its supporters sit in parliament in double-breasted suits or march in the streets in white overalls.

It is a cliché, but one worth remembering: the world in which we live is one. It is the world of authority, of money, of the market, of the state. It is the realm of necessity. Today in its pervasive presence, there is no elsewhere. There is no realm of freedom, miraculously preserved from the genocide in course, in which to find refuge. So if we are persuaded that existence is elsewhere, then we must realize that elsewhere here. Without deluding ourselves that the process of social becoming is automatic and irresistible, and that it will spontaneously understand all of the obstacles blocking its interests. On a practical level, this delusional perspective would work itself out in the renunciation of all active and conscious intervention aimed at fighting against the activities of domination. Without deluding ourselves that those who built this world in their image and likeness will turn it over to us without a fight in the face of our supposed greater “technical competence” in formulating adequate solutions to social problems. The nightmare in which we live will not end in a peaceful sunset.

Although the idea is no longer fashionable, the great game of freedom cannot do without a radical break, a social upheaval. Simply because its realization has all the characteristics of a wager: it is a risk that depends to great extent on chance. On her behalf, the player only has the passion for the game and the determination of his will. We leave the reassuring promises to advertisements. It is true that we may never experience the enchantment of being in the world. It is true that we may never live our existence here, feeling instead that it is elsewhere. But why not try it? Is there really anything better for which it is worthwhile to take the trouble of living?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

THE MERCHANTS OF LIFE

by
Val Basilio

Thirty years ago, a Belgian situationist—whose decayed radical subjectivity is now in an advanced state of decomposition—noted in his most famous work that: “Power, if only it were human, would be proud of the number of potential encounters it has successfully prevented.”

One of the encounters that was avoided according to the suggestive proposition of the author was that of the French anarchist Albert Libertad with the Italian artist Giorgio di Chirico. The former—burning his identity documents—the latter—drawing heads without faces. Both are understood as denouncing the operation of organized annihilation carried out by the social order in its confrontations with the individual. Better not to have a name or a face than to be a mere reflection of social conventions. The refusal of the identity that is assigned to us by the state is the first step to affirming our individuality. Starting from completely different experiences and presuppositions, the anarchist and the artist had arrived—each in his own way—at analogous conclusions.

But this play of affinities never came together and the encounters missed on the terrain of the reappropriation of our existence does not stop at this single case.

Anyone who might be interested in curbing the process of commodification that is transforming all of our life into a vast supermarket—where adventure is booked in a travel agency, the appetite is satisfied with pre-cooked meals ready in five minutes, creativity serves only to decorate advertising posters and play consists more than anything else of operations of exchange—will certainly find the correspondence of aims between deeds and persons from the same era, but different continents, interesting.


Argentina,1927. Here, as in many other parts of the world, the night of August 22 is a night of vigil. On the plaza and in the houses, thousands of people are waiting. They wait to find out if the United States has effectively executed Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the two Italian anarchists accused of robbery and murder and condemned to death on the electric chair. Never had such an act produced so many repercussions in the world. Arrested in May of 1920, the two anarchists were tried and condemned in July of the following year in spite of the alibi that excused them and the numerous witnesses brought forward by the defense. An impressive campaign in favor of their liberation was begun through out the world involving thousands and thousands of people with very different ideas. In Argentina as well, protest demonstrations, meetings and direct attacks were not lacking: against the US embassy, against the monument to Washington and against American enterprises such as Ford. And, of course, the initiatives in favor of the two anarchists multiplied with the approach of the prophetic date.

The dawn of August 23 found thousands of people still awake, thronging the newsstands in order to read the morning papers. The news flowed from mouth to mouth between the general disbelief and dismay. The law had won. Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed. The announcement of their murder would provoke protest demonstrations everywhere with clashes and incidents. In Argentina, a general strike is called by the central workers on this day. People pour out into the streets as incidents break out on all sides. The names of the two anarchists have become a symbol of the struggle against the outrages of power throughout the world.

This is the situation in which a businessman from Buenos Aires, one Bernardo Gurevich, head of the tobacco firm “Combinados”, gets the idea to put a new brand of cigarettes on the market at an economical price intended for the workers. In order to draw attention to the product and attract sales, Gurevich has the brilliant notion to call the cigarette “Sacco and Vanzetti”. The business initiative is not appreciated. Speculating on the death of the two anarchists? Mingling the smoke of their bodies burnt on the electric chair with that of cigarettes? Transforming the tears shed for their death into ink for fattening a bank account? Enclosing the rage of others between the dusty lids of a snuff-box? Making an advertising gimmick of the symbol of the struggle against the state? On November 26, 1927, a powerful charge of dynamite destroys the establishment of “Combinados”. The attack is attributed to the same anarchist who was held responsible for other dynamite attacks in support of Sacco and Vanzetti, namely Severino di Giovanni. The damage caused by the explosion is huge. That very day, the businessman who came up with the original idea decides to withdraw the brand of cigarette called “Sacco and Vanzetti”.


France, 1930. About a half a century has passed since the publication of the Chants of Maldoror by Lautreamont, a book which has subsequently been greeted as “the most radical book of all western literature”. This book had gone through many changes of circumstance and might have been destined to fall into oblivion if it had not attracted the attention of the surrealists who get the credit for the recovery and recasting of its author. Already in the spring of 1919, even before building the surrealist movement, Andre Breton had edited the publication of the Poesies of Isadore Ducasse (Lautreamont’s given name). In 1927, another surrealist, Philippe Soupault, had edited the first edition of the Complete Works, which would stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy. The surrealists would make a kind of precursor, an extreme model, of Lautreamont. For the young in search of a new existence, the work of Lautreamont had nothing to do with literature. The torrential imagination of the “man of Montevideo”, his iconoclastic fury, could only constitute an incitement to revolt, the overcoming of this world, an affirmation of one’s individuality. Lautreamont sits at Sade’s side on the peak of the Black Olympus of the surrealists.

Thus, it is not at all surprising if they don’t seem to take pleasure in the news of the imminent opening of a new Parisian nightspot, the “Bar Maldoror”. The shopkeeper enterprise wanted to make a menu of Evil, to serve blasphemous imprecations at its tables. It wanted to satisfy the customers’ stomachs rather than consume them with doubt. It wanted to quench the fire that burned in the throats of the clients rather than set it to their hearts. It wanted to make people pass a pleasant evening rather than making them all go into a rage. It wanted to make many instead of overturning the world. It was too much.

Already, a few years earlier—in that same 1927 which was shaken by the news of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—the surrealists had sent an open letter to the committee for the reconstruction of a monument to the poet Rimbaud (a monument that had been destroyed during the first world war) in Charleville, the city of his birth. In that letter, one could read: “Hypocrisy extends its dreadful hand toward the people that we love in order to make them serve in the conservation of that against which they have always fought. It is evident that we are no longer deceived about the range of such enterprises of confiscation, we do not alarm ourselves ore than is necessary at your shameful and habitual maneuvers, persuaded as we are that a force of total fulfillment animates everything that has truly been inspired in the world against you. To us it matters little…that some profit is drawn from the most subversive intelligences, since their marvelous poison will continue to penetrate into the minds of the young in order to corrupt or expand them.” Three years later, this literary outpouring of fatalistic wrath would fortunately give place to an action stripped of aestheticism. At the opening of the “Bar Maldoror”, Andre Breton and his comrade were there and the completely laid waste to the place. The owner had no choice but to change the name of his business. The name of Lautreamont was saved from the slime of commerce.

* * *
In the face of this determination to prevent money from realizing its commerce over individuals desiring only to see it disappear, in the face of this strenuous defense of the spirit of revolt against the assaults that have come from the shopkeepers’ spirit, in the face of these vigorous attacks against mercantile logic, chance does not dwell on how much separated the protagonists of these actions. It is better to leave all the pathetic demands for improbable property rights to the militant and artistic rabble. It is enough to know that, in spite of appearances, the communicating vessels of dream and action have met on the terrain of hatred for all commodification, even if only for a moment. It doesn’t matter what it is: the memory of two executed comrades, the work of a writer, the taste of a meal, the natural environment, an idea. That which is from the heart is an expression of life. And it is never too late to recall that life cannot be reduced to an object of commercial exploitation. It has no price, it only has the claim of having a meaning. Today we are so thoroughly surrounded by commodities, adapted to the act of perpetually putting our hand in our wallet in order to get what is already ours, that nothing seems to touch us any more, nothing seems to come from our hearts. One cannot be filled with love for a plastic wrapped object. We remain with only our indifference, every emotion in us extinguished. When all human expression has been brought back inside the boundaries in which commercial exploitation is possible, when nearly nothing that could not be an object of lucrative activity has survived, when the amount in one’s bank account is the best calling card, it is time that brutality takes the upper hand over indifference and resignation.

Christ drove the merchants out of the temple with violence. We know his reason: only god had the right to establish the price of life.

Contrarily, what happened in Argentina and France during these years cleared the board of both the merchants and the temple. It is only a question of taking the advise of a German philosopher and starting to stretch out a hand.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

MONEY AND LOGOS

By
M. D. P.

Is there a relationship between the birth of the rational mentality and the development of commercial economy? In the 7th century B.C.E., a whole series of tightly connected social changes took place in the Ionian Greek cities of Asia Minor. It is precisely during this epoch that the rational mentality arose, at the time when maritime commercial culture began to experience its first great development.

In a short period of time, things moved from tribal social structures and ancient monarchy to the political form typical of the Greek city-states. The kinship and religious ties of the landed aristocracy gave way to a new kind of social ties in which the individual was valued above all on the basis of his property: luxury very quickly becomes a political institution. The same aristocrats who had formerly based their power on land ownership and warrior virtue began to acquire wealth first by rigging pirate ships for sea robbery and later by rigging merchant ships for commerce itself. The aristocrat started to invest his property on the sea.

A new form of domination arose, a plutocratic aristocracy that began to concentrate political power and the administration of justice in itself. The wealth that came from the land allowed it to arm merchant ships which reached the farthest ports of the Mediterranean. The usurious loan was developed to a high degree increasingly immiserating the peasant class. Class struggle developed between the peasants and the aristocrats. A third class soon intervened as an intermediary, namely, the merchant class. They were the ancient demiurges, that is to say, the first master artisans who were accustomed to taking their work from city to city, who acquired power through commerce. They were the cadets of the noble class who had been excluded from hereditary rights and therefore began to acquire wealth on the sea. In short, it was about a new wealthy class that rose with the development of maritime commerce. This new class at times sided with the aristocracy and at times with the people, increasing or moderating the class conflicts in accordance with it’s own interests.

The dominant regime is thus political particularism, the spirit of competition taken to the highest degree, the domination of the census and of wealth. The ruling oligarchy was forced to take an ever-increasing interest in the political events of the city. It gradually lost its nobility and superiority of descent as personal wealth increased; the importance of family and birth diminished in the face of the individual and of money. Class struggles sharpened to such a degree, particularly in the commercially wealthiest cities, that at a certain point a new form of mediation intervened in order to annul it: legislation. Written law (nomos) to which citizens were subject and to which they could turn in order to demand their rights became necessary. The right is separated from politics. This is a fact of enormous historical importance that was developed to the fullest extent not so much in the Greek colonies of Asia Minor as in the western colonies of the Greater Greece. We will see that it was really here that mathematical thought developed and that the philosophical school that had Parmenides as its greatest representative arose.

The domination of the dynastic oligarchy became political domination; the aristocracy of money replaced that of birth; power was not protected by the traditions of nobility but by written laws that sanctioned the power of money. Wealth became an essential factor for having political rights and participating in the public thing. The aristocrats converted the harvests of their lands into money and assembled slaves for their mines. They gave up piracy for commerce which was more secure. Piracy was the response of the warrior aristocracy to the new merchant class. At first the aristocrats defended their privileges by fighting the sea traders, but later they found it more useful and profitable to become merchants themselves. On the other hand, the new wealthy class, who were at first despised by the nobles in the same way that a pirate chief despises the captain of a merchant ship, acquired ever greater prestige and invested their money in land so that soon there was nothing to distinguish them from the nobles and the warriors. The aristocrats who became merchants and the merchants who became landowners are the trustees of a new form of power, the plutocratic oligarchy.

Beneath the rich nobles and the new rich, a middle class formed that enriched itself through marriage or auspicious speculation or was forced into agricultural or manual labor through impoverishment. Below this middle class were the peasants and artisans. The former were subjected to the usury of the rich and forced to sell the products of their land at low price in order to buy manufactured objects at a high price. The latter, the urban population—consisting of artisans, tradesmen, manual laborers and mercenaries—formed an urban proletariat mainly concentrated in the markets and ports. It was not strong enough to impose its will, but was strong enough to form a troublesome element.

From the 7th century B.C.E. on, Greek history—and not just that of the Ionians of Asia—was characterized by a continuous succession of class struggles. These were precisely what led to the application of written and democratic laws which served the new rich class as a powerful weapon for combating the divine and hereditary rights of the aristocrats on the one hand and the demands of peasants and artisans on the other. The aristocrats lost the privilege of creating and interpreting the rules of social life according to the tradition of blood. The collective responsibility of the ghenos and of the family gave way to that of the individual and of the citizen before the city-state. The power of tradition gave way to the power of law.

Another institution of fundamental importance arose in this period of major historical transformation. The coining of money with its value guaranteed by the state was actually invented in the 7th century B.C.E. in Asia Minor to facilitate trade between the Ionian cities and the most important cities of Lydia. The latter had already accumulated considerable wealth in trade with Mesopotamia, so much so that in that period the Lydians were considered the most capable merchants by way of land. The Ionians offered the merchants of the interior an opening to the sea. The Greeks of Asia Minor became the indispensable intermediaries in the trade with all the people who could not be reached by land. The naval power of the Ionians would rapidly increase replacing the older power of the Phoenicians.

Among the many innovations of those times, two factors in particular distinguished Greek commerce from that of the Phoenicians and were the source of it s supremacy. The Greeks did not limit themselves to trading slaves or refined products like spices, jewels, precious cloth and the like by sea like the Phoenicians, but traded items of primary necessity and low cost such as oil and wine, ceramic jars, metals, fabrics and utensils, and they traded these things in great quantities. It is easy to understand how this type of commerce established completely new exchange relationships between people. Attention is not paid to the quality of the material, but to the quantity. Trade not only serves rich and powerful monarchs and aristocrats of the more "civilized" people, but the widest range of social classes. Every people whether civilized or barbarian, every individual whether of the highest or lowest rank, is a potential buyer or seller of goods according to the Greeks.

There is another substantial difference. The Phoenicians, who could be considered the most daring navigators of the time due to their navigation skills and courage, faced the sea with tiny ships and built commercial trading centers on the coasts where they stopped as bases for their most distant dealings. The founding of trading centers is a characteristic aspect of Phoenician commerce. There are only a few exceptions to this, and the most important of these is the founding of a city such as Carthage, which quite quickly became economically powerful by being able to rebel against the Phoenicians and constitute itself as an independent naval power. Unlike the Phoenicians, the Ionians of Asia Minor established a sort of sea-based commerce with an essential characteristic that is completely new: the establishment of colonies.

It is not easy to enumerate all the causes of Greek colonization, but the most important of these could be considered the scarcity of tillable topsoil that led to the search for new territories; rising overpopulation connected to the increase in wealth; class struggle between rival factions within a single city and between cities that forced entire groups of citizens to make their exodus by sea. This last factor in particular must be taken into consideration since it is the typical expression of the establishment of new forms of social relationships, of the breakdown of ancient feudal kinship ties following the rise of a new social class of wealthy merchants, of the political and social instability that derives from it and of the political particularism of the polis.

IN SEARCH OF STABILITY

The invention of money had a revolutionary effect on a whole series of planes, accelerating a social process of which it was itself one of the basic effects: the development of a maritime commercial sector within the Greek economy that even extended to products for common consumption, the creation of a new type of wealth that was radically different from landed wealth and the development of a new wealthy class whose activity was decisive in the social and political restructuring of the city. A new mentality and a new morality were born. The entire traditional conception of human excellence based on nobility of birth and warrior virtue were called into question and later destroyed by the power of money. Money became a social mark of value: it gave prestige and power. Emerging as a fitting human strategy to guarantee the ease of exchange between trading people, Money established a common denominator and a common measure between use values that are qualitatively different. The goods had to be made comparable to each other in order to be traded; they had to be made equivalent to one another through a process of abstraction that ignores the difference in order to find the uniformity, that abstract and quantitative element that is exchange value. Every commodity came to be like every other; thus one person valued another because he possessed the same amount of money. The written law confirmed the process of quantification established by the circulation of money in its process of abstraction—all citizens were equal before the law just as they were before money; all could participate in the public thing and the government of the city with powers proportional to their wealth and everyone could acquire wealth through saving, commerce and speculation, independently of family relations, ancestral religion and the customs of birth.

The process of abstraction and quantification was manifested not only in money and law, but in other areas as well: the adoption of alphabetic writing, the promulgation of a civil calendar responding to the needs of public administration, the division of the city into zones defined on the basis of criteria of administrative convenience, the birth of mathematics and philosophy and, lastly, the concept of the polis itself. The city was not identified with any particular group, privileged family or specific activity; it was simply the ensemble of all the citizens whose social relationships, freed from ancient personal and familial bonds, were defined abstractly in terms of identity, interchangeability of roles, equality before the law.

The mathematical, rational, logical mentality arose in the Ionian colonies of ancient Greece at the same time as sea-based mercantile economic structures. The quantitative and abstract aspect of mathematics was joined with the process of abstraction and quantification implicit in commodity exchange.

The social transformation that marks the transition from the ancient monarchic and feudal regime to the city-state is connected to the analogous transformations in the fields of ethical and mythico-religious thought.

The ancient religious prerogative, through which those of royal and noble birth secured their power over the masses, lost its privileged character, expanding and spreading out until it was integrated almost completely into political institutions. A knowledge formerly prohibited and reserved for a privileged few became public domain; it was discussed in the circle of brotherhoods of sages that at this point no longer imposed any restrictions of rank and origin. The opening of common discussion on topics of a general order that were previously the subject of supernatural revelation, such as the origin of the cosmic order and the explanation of natural phenomena, led to the rise of philosophy.

The philosopher was no longer the ancient priest, trustee of a mystery at the service of royal power, but an individual belonging to a brotherhood in which free discussion had opened; later he would argue his opinion directly in the crowded agora, making them subjects of public debate in which contradiction, dialectical reasoning and "proof" would have definitively gained the upper hand over supernatural revelation. The basic problem of the philosopher and the sage was the diffusion and publication of his ideas, placing them in dialectical relationship with his predecessors and successors. He had to take the potential rebuttals of his adversaries into account and was constrained to think in relationship to them. His task was to create schools of thought, teach and transmit ideas and knowledge while perpetually keeping the possibility of discussion open. Through words and writings he addressed himself to all citizens and all cities. The philosopher no longer had a homeland or traditions; rather one could say that he was a "world citizen". He traveled from city to city to discuss his ideas, to learn different things, to counterstrike, to argue. It was much more difficult to keep track of the city of one’s origin than of the "school" to which one belonged; in fact, this was one of the small elemental gestures that characterized him. As Heracleitus asserted, the philosopher had to take hold of that which is common to every human being; he had to base himself on logos just as the city is based on law; the only law the philosopher obeyed was the law of reason. But the Heracleitean logos, the normative principle of nature, started to separate from nature; the original unity between being, becoming and norm was already damaged. The logos was not so much the normative natural principle as the normative human principle, that which ruled the behavior of people, their relationships among themselves and with nature. But nature was subjected to a law that it did not itself create that was no longer immanent in it, a law that was imitated in the social order of the city-state that imposed its rules of conduct in all relationships of a person with himself, with other people and with nature, just as money, universal exchange value for all goods, imposed its law on the goods themselves and ruled the relations of people with each other in the realm of commercial exchange.

The same basic needs were also found in poetry before and during the time philosophy developed, starting with Homer. The sense of the transience and inconstancy of life and human destiny, the discomfort and restlessness of those who experienced a world turned upside-down and in continual transformation, appeared frequently in the poetry of this period, expressed in a very lively way. In the midst of such instability in life, the Ionian felt the urgent need to catch hold of anything firm and stable, the necessity of conceiving a unitary principle and permanent law of change. Therefore, he turned to the abstract concepts of Fate, Necessity, Justice, that served him as an anchor. These ethical concepts arose in the sphere of social life in response to the harsh struggles of cities, parties and classes and came to constitute not only the channel between the social sphere and the individual, but also between this and the surrounding natural world. And since long and dangerous sea voyages increased the awareness of the changeability and instability of all natural things even more, the problem of the search for stability and permanence acquired cosmic dimension; in other words, it became a philosophical problem. Speculation on the natural world, aimed at the search for a unitary law applicable to every transformation, found a basic point of reference in the earlier ethical conception and in the abstract concepts of Necessity and Justice. In the Ionian philosophies of the 7th century B.C.E. and consequently in Heracleitus, Parmenides, Empedocles and Democritus, the concepts of Fate, Necessity and Justice established the permanent, unitary principle of a universal and eternal law in the multiple varieties of phenomena. The word cosmos itself was derived from the military-political field, referring to an ordered arrangement. It would give birth to the term cosmology and reflected the mental sphere of philosophy.

The notion of a universal and stable law that rules human life first appeared in Greece in the Ionian epic poetry of the Homeric narratives. This notion was connected with the transition from a more ancient form of morality exalting the violent passions and warrior courage typical of the aristocracy to the more recent one in which courage and force were considered dangerous passions and surrendered their place to prudence and intelligence. The morality of the merchant replaced that of the warrior; the violence of reason and language replaced that of physical force, the calculated risk of the shrewd trader replaced the manifest risk of the noble warrior. Thus, a completely new mentality and ethic arose.

FATE, NECESSITY, JUSTICE

Though always understood as the supreme regulator of all natural and human events, Fate was interpreted in two substantially different ways within the sphere of Ionian thinking. Sometimes it appeared as a dark mysterious force that blindly distributed the good and the bad among people. At other times, it appeared as a normative law, a rational and ethical principle of conduct that a person had to follow so as not to provoke punitive sanctions through the violation of a prescribed order. The first conception recalls the blind natural forces to which the seafarer was subjected and the uncontrolled, destructive forces liberated in the first bloody class struggles that marked the advent of a new society. In the lyric and tragic poetry of the more ancient era, the clear awareness of the misery of the human being who was subjected to a power that was greater than her and that he was utterly unable to control appeared continually. Thus, the original moral precepts of moderation arose. These did not so much draw attention to a need for measure and proportion as is frequently claimed, as to the awareness of the limited and dependent conditions of the human being of the time. But later, when the first written laws arose with the aim of annulling social differences and affirming the abstract power of money, the ancient decrees of Fate were definitively transformed into norms of moral conduct, a need for order and justice the violation of which inevitably led to sanctions aimed at restoring its validity. From this time on, it was no longer the blind violence of nature, but rather the human passions, the human passions that were considered the original source of the violation of the law of order and justice. Rebellion against the law of Fate could be considered reckless and still rouse a sense of secret admiration; rebellion against the norms of justice was simply considered pride and foolish arrogance and was punished as such. Only at this point did the transition to the new ethical perspective of mercantile society in which control of the passions, prudence, the use of reason and the insidious hidden violence of laws and norms of social conduct gain the upper hand over the open expression of desires, over violent emotion, over the force of arms and over recklessness seem fully evident. At this point, the power of the abstract value of exchange over ancient ties and social relationships was clearly manifested.

In the same way, the principle of Necessity, which corresponded to the primitive social situation in which the individual was completely at the mercy of great political upheavals and natural forces that the seafaring merchant was forced to face on the sea in extremely precarious conditions (leading to nostalgia for a more stable world and, thus, to reaction in the face of new historical events), gradually gave way to the principle of Justice. This occurred when a new social order began to be built, when instability and uncertainty began to give way to stability and permanence, in other words, when a balance based on the common denominator of exchange value was established between the old and new social classes in struggle, a balance which accepted the power of money as law and established individual worth on the basis of wealth. But the new social stability was achieved abstractly through the promulgation of written law and the quantification and rationalization of all civic life. Even though social organization in general was subject to an abundance of stable laws, perpetual unending becoming, the game of changing fortunes and circumstances in which nothing is truly fixed or stable, ruled in the realm of concrete daily life. Only in the realm of the administration of justice and power did the abstract principle of permanence and immutability appear, that principle according to which the social world seems to be ruled by a single, inflexible law, the law of profit. This social situation found its correspondence in philosophy. From the 8th through the 6th century B.C.E., attention began to focus on permanence and on the laws of necessity, measurement and justice; the need to bring the multiple back to the unitary, becoming to being, became increasingly urgent. But no longer in the form of an inclusive, organic conception of nature according to which being is devoid of reality unless it is the principle of becoming and becoming is not acceptable if it cannot be traced back to being, but rather at first in the realm of a dialectical conception that relates being to becoming in the endeavor of a reciprocal justification and tries to bring the multiple back to the unitary, and later in the realm of being itself that, after denying the reality of all becoming, can only relate to itself. This evolution of philosophical though can be easily followed, because it retraced the paths of the evolution of commercial capital.

DECEPTION AND PERSUASION

The merchant exchanged goods in order to make money. In doing so, he gave up the violence of arms to make use of a more subtle and refined method, the violence of language. The merchant gave up the spoils of war, easy to acquire but short-lived, for a more lasting profit even though it was more difficult to conquer. He gave up the Dionysian activities of pillage and war for the Apollonian activity of commerce. While warrior people got the upper hand through the immediate violence of their strength, merchant people were too weak and cowardly and had to have recourse to cunning in order to survive. So they renounced the risk of adventure, put off their greed for a time, shunned open violence in order to take advantage of the hidden violence of cunning.

Cunning is the art of deceptive persuasion, and the art of deceptive persuasion is diplomacy. A superiority of language is needed; one has to be coherent in order to persuade with reasoning; one needs to explain, that is to say, to make it plain, through language, that things cannot possibly be different from what one wants them to be. Explanation is the act of convincing violently with language; it is persuasion through which one can convince oneself of the truth of an argument; it is the facility for convincing oneself. To explain is thus to persuade the opposing party that the behavior one is trying to secure is advantageous to them. The merchant must persuade in order to sell his goods at a profit, and in order to accomplish this he must play on the desire of the eventual buyers. He must swindle through persuasion. The art of persuasive deception is typical of the merchant.

The powers of thought and language over reality are guaranteed only by the separation between language and reality; but power over reality can only mean taking possession of it. There is a paradox in the fact that this power, which is only guaranteed by separation, must at the same time be a possession. This leads to an endless process in which language and thought continually try to take possession of reality, while continually reestablishing their distance from it. This is appropriate for the activity of expressing themselves as the thought and language of alienated power. The absurdity is the will to take possession of reality in the moment and in the very act in which separation from it is established.

"EARNING" REALITY

In order to better understand the relationship between the development of Greek philosophy and the parallel development of the commercial economy, it is useful to compare the conception of nature held by the earlier Ionian philosophers with the philosophical speculations of Parmenides in order to understand the substantial difference between them.

When the Ionian philosophers spoke of natural reality, they used the word ta onta, which means the things that exist, because they perceived reality in its concrete multiplicity. However it may have been interpreted, the essence of the world showed itself to them under the visible form of a plurality of things, rich in all their qualities. Being appeared as singular for the first time in Parmenides and was designated by the term ta on which meant that which is. The essence of the world was no longer a variegated plurality of qualities, but rather one single abstract and general quality. The change of language revealed the advent of a new conception of reality. It was no longer made up of the multiple things gathered from sensory experience or speculative reflection, but was the intelligible object of rational reflection (the logos) that was expressed through a language that, critically reflecting on itself, found its basic requirement in the principle of non-contradiction.

The Being of Parmenides is One, identical to itself; it cannot be other than itself, but can only grow into itself. The Being of Parmenides is intelligible, the object of logos, that is to say of reason. It is the object of rational language. Or rather, it is formed in the sphere of this rational language that is common to all human beings, the general abstract element of their reciprocal relations of communication. However, the Being of Parmenides is not immediately visible in reality. It must be acquired through a difficult conquest: the investigation of the philosopher. The essence of reality must be "earned".

The connection between the Being of Parmenides and exchange value in the form of money, a pure abstraction that is identical to itself, should be evident. Money is accumulated in order to buy goods in one place and resell them in another with the aim of getting money. But the exchange of money with money seems absurd, since exchanging things which are identical to each other makes no sense. The sense in this process actually comes from the fact that money is not exchanged for an equal amount of money, but for a greater amount, thus increasing its value. This happens because the goods are bought at a low price so that they can be sold at a higher price. Thus money can be exchanged with itself; it can represent the unchangeable being that has reason to exist only in itself. At this point, reality becomes One in the qualitative sense. Its only quality is "exchangeability", exchange value.

"The doctrine of Parmenides marks the moment in which the contradiction between the becoming of the sensory world, this Ionian world of the physis and the genesis, and the logical requirements of thought are proclaimed," Vernant states. In other words, it marks the moment in which the contradiction between the differing qualities of goods and the single quality of money is set forth. This single quality is known as exchange value, interchangeability, that which all things have in common, that which is the essence of all thins, that which makes all things comparable, that which places them in relation, that which constitutes their ratio, their rational, intelligible, logical aspect. Vernant goes on: "After Parmenides the task of philosophy would be that of restoring the link between the rational universe of discourse and the sensory world of nature through more subtly shaded definitions of the principle of non-contradiction." In Parmenides this link—that is to say, the link between the exchange value of things and the things themselves—is destroyed. The exchange value of things replaces them, representing them in the same way as the rational world of discourse represents the sensory world of nature.

Greek reason is commercial reason. Commerce can take place only in terms of linguistic fraud, and this language is built on deception. This language must persuade, must offer evidence for persuasion, must explain. This language, like the Being of Parmenides, must find its own verification in itself.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

ON BEHALF OF THE BARBARIANS

by

Bleu Marin


If I don't know the meaning of a language, I will be a barbarian to the one who speaks it, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me -.Paul, First Corinthians


Civilization ends when the barbarians flee.

Karl Krauss


In the heart of the city


The history of a civilization is simultaneously the history of the transformation of its language. A society develops around its knowledge, which is articulated through its language, which makes thinking itself concrete. Humans act on the basis of their desires, they desire on the basis of their knowledge, they know on the basis of their thoughts, they think on the basis of their language. The form and content of the last are thus at the same time the condition and result of the totality of social relations. The dominant language of an epoch is therefore always the language of those who dominate socially in that period.

If there is a concept that clearly expresses the relation between language and society it is that of the barbarian. For the Greeks the barbarian was the foreigner. At the same time he was also the “stutterer” since anyone who couldn't master the language of the polis, of the city, was defined with contempt. The origin of the word referred to being deprived of logos, i.e. of discourse. If one considers that Aristotle defined man alternately as a “political animal” and as an “animal endowed with logos”, it follows from this that, by confirming the identity of language with politics, the barbarian is excluded not only from the city, but from human community itself. The barbarian is a non-man, a monster.


The logos of work


The logos is not only discourse or language, but also science, law, reason, order (both in the sense of a regulative principle and of the weft that connects and expresses the multiplicity of the real). All of these meanings are present at the same time in the word logos, which is veritably untranslatable (the English term that comes closest to it is perhaps “expression”). Only by keeping all of these in mind can one grasp the meaning of the Aristotelian definition of man, as well as the nature of its opposite, the barbarian. The earliest evidence of the word logos is found in the fragments of Heracleitus (4th to 5th century B.C), which from time to time, and simultaneously, point to a cosmic principle, the order of reality with its multiple expressions, the human understanding of this order and Heraclitan discourse itself. Already in these fragments the element common to men is identified in the logos.

Since the times of Homeric poems common space is the assembly in which the warriors availed themselves of both the collective goods, the loot of war, and of discussion. This relationship between the center and that which is common was transferred to the agora, that is to the city square, the place of political decisions. The categories of public discourse precisely point out the act of bringing words down (kata) into the midst of the assembly (agora) to be submitted for general approval. The barbarian is thus the one who is outside categories, the one who, not having access to the center of the assembly, is excluded from public life. The stranger in his own house, the stutterer in the language of the city, will thus join the foreigner outside. The woman and the slave, those banished from discourse (that is order, reason and law), these inhabitants of the internal colony, represent two steps of the staircase that ends in the worst cruelty permitted and committed toward the barbarian, the inferior, the enemy.

The power of assembly belongs to the one who knows the art of rhetoric, the techniques for ingratiating oneself for the favors of the powerful goddess Persuasion. The more one has time to gain its possession, the more one can exercise its force, imposing one’s own discourse as common by eliminating the reason of others as private. “The power of the logos over the mind of the one who persuades is like that of the master over the slave; with the difference that the mind is reduced to slavery not by force but by the mysterious pressure exercised on its consent.” Thus Plato wrote in Philebus, illustrating the dominating force of language well. But it is important not only to recognize that, in politics, discourse is a weapon of war, but also to question the relationship that links this weapon to all others. Only one who has slaves that work for him can chain others with his discourse. The activity of individuals is already specialized because a hierarchical and superior role is attributed to the word. The division between manual and intellectual labor, in the meantime makes the activity of slaves accumulate in objects (and then in money and machines) for the master, increasing the logos of the latter. “This is the fate of verbalized logic; where the word has all meaning, the dominant meaning loses no time in taking hold of all the words.” (G. Cesarano). But the “mysterious pressure” exercised on the consent of the slave would not be possible if the language of his body were not reduced to the coercive rationality of work. It is in producing work that the economy has produced its own language. So, one understands better why controlling the language of the exploited has always been a project of the exploiters. To first give discursive logic all the power (at the expense of the barbaric reason of the body) is subsequently to give to the powerless an increasingly reduced logic. The “I” that speaks is the figure that represents the body of the individual (corporeality that is first of all labor-power) as the state, the holder of public Discourse, represents the whole of society. The more the inner dialogue of the individual – his consciousness – conforms to the dominant language, the greater his consent, his submission will be. In this sense, capital, the dead labor of a life constrained to survival, is “discourse”, “the organization of fictitious meanings, mechanical logic, the fictitious game of representation” (G. Cesarano). It makes the language of that which extinguishes passions speak to the passions.


A flight backwards


But let's return to our barbarians who tell us the history of civilization, this land of logos and politics, better than anyone.

If the acceptance of the concept of barbarians bears witness to a meaning that is that of progressive ideology (the barbarian is the opposite of a reasonable, scientific, and democratic society; it is monstrosity, menacing silence, irrational violence, superstition, gloomy withdrawal etc), there is a whole tradition of thought that has seen the barbarians as more vigorous beings than the civilized because they are closer to nature. From Polibio to Cioran, passing through Tacitus and Giucciardini, Machiavelli and Montesquieu, Rousseau and Leopardi one can once again go over the idea that the illusions, copiously distilled from nature, are what push men towards generous action, while reason, the product of civilization, makes them calculating, turning on themselves, eternal doubters. Leopardi said that a people comprised of philosophers would be the most cowardly and wretched of all, precisely because it would be the most civilized. The fall of Rome and “Hellenist decadence” are brought up by Montesquieu in particular, as examples in this sense. From the Germans of Tacitus to the modern Unni of Cioran, the conducting wire of this tradition is the connection between the affirmation of the body, the imaginative faculty, bold virtue and desire for action. Quite often within this conception of history, the time of civilization repeats in a cyclical manner; because of an excess (and not due to a lack) of civilization, the barbarian is born, this counterstroke which puts civilization in the bag, then the cycle begins again. The development of a civilization is compared to that of living organisms, in which childhood is followed by maturity and then old age and death, stages characterized by a different passionality and reflexivity. Language itself would bear witness to the various degrees of vitality of a culture (it is not by chance that one speaks of the “becoming barbarian of language”).

If the criticism of the progressive conception of civilization has been guided for the most part by a reactionary point of view (like for example in Spengler and Schmitt), with an abundance of biological and hierarchical metaphors about the struggle for survival, the attacks on the ideology of progress in the name of an other enlightenment are not however lacking (for example in Sorel and Adorno), or launched from the shoulders, with the eyes of the Greeks like in Leopardi himself, in Holderlin, in Burkhardt and in Nietzsche; or yet, from the angle of an artistic-craftsman know-how that mechanized work has destroyed (for example in William Morris).


Barbarism and nihilism: the demon of analogy


The case of Leopardi is particularly significant. In him we find a Greco-Vician vision of history (everything repeats itself, but we don't ever know for certain at what point we are in the repetition) a work of revealing – materialist but not dialectical – the dominant political and religious lies (in its style, if you will, of truth), and a radical affirmation of the vital illusion on which modern science along with the other manifestations of calculating reason, has wreaked havoc. The concept of barbarian is taken up by him with ambivalence. He expresses what civilization would be at its highest degree of evolution (for it is not sleep, but rather the totalitarian wakefulness of reason that gives birth to monsters), that vitality and that natural force that is not unharmed by the deadly sophistication of the civilized, and is thus susceptible to wonder and virtue. His concept of barbarian recalls the Nietzschean concept of nihilism, which indicates at the same time an enemy and a necessity, typical Christian resentment in the confrontations between life and the tragic and the creator – tabula rasa – of given values. These secret wiles of the demon of analogy should not surprise. Can one say that nihilism and barbarian are not two words that, in the mouths of the conservatives as well as in those of the revolutionaries, often change places in this way? How many times have the state and capital been described as nihilist? And couldn’t they also, these two forbidding monsters, deny all values? Obedience, competition, reasonable resignation, fussy fatalism, can one say that they are not values? In the same way, that which passes for barbarian is not only the delirious short circuit of this civilization, the flip side of its dreams bottled by psycho-pharmacy and electronic narcotics. On the other hand, what is there outside the present civilization of authority and the market? The barbaric is, very often, that which we are not accustomed to and it is for this reason that it appears to us as the enemy.


Around four corners


Maybe the ambivalence of the concept of the barbarian is an indispensable fact, above all if one wants to conserve that intuitive sensibility towards the social fires that burn beneath the judicial, bureaucratic and mercantile officialdom of an era, that is if one wants to understand what the forces on the field are.

If the barbarian is a being deprived of logos, it is the nature of this logos to clarify what its deprivation means. In the logos, repressive order and human possibility are confused, being at the same time reason, discussion, law and community. The critique of progressive ideology cannot consist of a banal overturning of values (for which everything that seems to oppose civilization becomes a positive position) since this would only make us postpone approaching the other four corners of the problem.

It is more fruitful to know how to distinguish that which is hypercivilized from that which is decivilized. Hypercivilization is the fulfillment (in the double sense of realization and conclusion) of civilization, the totalitarian display of its technical power; the “barbarism” of a world that passes without respite from “amusements” to the purges of the masses, from domestic commodities to catastrophe. Decivilization on the contrary is all the material and spiritual autonomy that individuals manage to attain by escaping this robotized society: an anarchy of passions that shakes off domestication. Just because a river is free from cement dams this does not mean that it will not let itself be subdued by other rocks that put its waters into currents which are not its own. But it will never be an artificial lake. To return again to the logos, the silence of the one who has no more words because electronic alienation has taken them away from him is hypercivilized; the one who feels a richness inside himself that he doesn't allow to be trapped with the word is decivilized. The disorder of the one who does not accept any more orders is decivilized; the damage caused by the one who carries them out with too much zeal is hypercivilized. It is about two opposed ways of transcending misery, two inimical forms (of hybris, as the Greeks used to say). A society is recognized above all by the way in which it represents arrogance, the de-measuring that frightens it.

Hypercivilization – which civilization calls barbaric with the goal of justifying itself – is at the same time a radical distancing from nature and the swamp of a rationality that is shown to bring always more coerced madness. The logos at the service of power has made law and reason coincide, therefore it has defined submission as reasonable. Discourse has extended its breath of death on all that which does not speak its language; it has leveled the differences, to return finally to monologue, only in the terrible silence of technics.

The “absolute persuasiveness” of technological language is nothing more than the landing place of a culture that has definitely banished its own barbarians, in this way making each one a barbarian to the other. The possessors of technical knowledge, necessary to the authoritarian administration of society, strategize to become increasingly fortified against the masses of “stutterers” – foreigners of the outside and inside – that endure their new language without understanding it. Discourse has won, since everybody is silent, or they repeat the 100 words that they possess, among them the most recurrent are over, super, zero, and mythic. Through the logos of the market and of instant efficiency, the civilized make entreaties against the monsters that besiege the city, addressing their appeals for peace and civic education to them. But the polis is in pieces, and Persuasion has a club in its hand.

Just as the techno-bureaucrats reduce the whole of social life to the demands of the economic and administrative inorganic structure, defining everything that blocks its way as barbarian, in the same way fragmented and mechanical reason joins with technological constrictions driving out the untrained impulses and voices that still inhabit social life like barbarians. And they are really barbarians, as soon as they set themselves free. No invitation to calm enchants them anymore.

When there is no common language, there is no community, just as, reciprocally when common space dwindles, language can no longer exist. The most important and most obvious consequence of such a condition is that it becomes impossible to come to an agreement. Master Dialogue is no longer among the invited. A collision without protocols or codes is thus the only way, and the contours become those of civil war.


Civil War


The only thing the civilized oppose to war is the ideology of dialogue and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. But in order to dialogue, one still needs to have common values, just as in order to have common values a sharing of places and practice is necessary. What is morality, today, if one indeed looks beyond to where the social fabric is born and dies, namely beyond political officialdom? They claim and proclaim so-called universal values at the very moment of their disappearance.

Human and civil rights wishing to pacify all of society don't pacify anything anymore. The ideology of the two blocks that contest the global scene and the hopes of individuals have collapsed together with that of belonging to a working class capable of taking power (“social” if not political) and of reorganizing the world. The certainties with regard to the future offered by science no longer warm the tepid hearts orphaned by religion. All that is finished.

Exploitation remains, but the “community” created in order to concentrate the exploited – and their images – explodes. Production, thanks to computer technology, is atomized in structures increasingly peripheral and spreads across the territory, in the same way that the identities of wage earners are atomized, tied to competence and to pride for that vanished renown that is the craft. Memory vanishes before the eternal present which is fabricated in the mass media (only the news counts the rest does not exist). Human communication (in the sense of common engagement) is subsequently reduced to the continuation of an impoverishment of that which is called culture that grows deeper everyday. Technology recuperates scientific doubt in its favor and makes programmed uncertainty a new ideology able to justify any frenzy of control over species and planet. “As long as it lasts”, this is the motto of the powerful. And the existence of the exploited is more a holding out than really living. From the school to the workplace, from the family to the shopping mall, only one ability is required: that of adapting oneself. It is civil war: a cohabitation without common values or assurance for the future, an order that unites individuals in their very separation.

And if war is always occurring, there is not much need to declare it – as the case of the recent military intervention in the Balkans shows – in order to emphasize the separation between “times of peace” and times of war” with formal gestures. Permanent war brings new social relations to the international level, just as the old diplomacy of sovereignty of governments extended the borders and agreements between the state and the representatives of its exploited further. The clash is no longer between national oligarchs, but between finance or Mafia groups (two interchangeable and fundamental forms of money making) that traverse the frontiers and the state apparatuses and to which the brutal atomization of society provides a copious and implacable labor. Businessman or gangster, these are only two modes of organizing into economic bands, the only difference is that in the second case the road to riches is richer and shorter.

But this clash without respite permeates the whole of society and its individuals. The conflict sharpens between institutional order – the ever more perfect guillotine of civilization – and the ferocious implosion of the relations beneath the burden of constraints. At the same time the tension between the spontaneous activity of the human organism and the preeminence of the external stimulus characteristic of mechanized modern activity is exacerbated; abstract organizing reason engages a battle without precedents with the profound impulses of the individual. The quagmire that the logos has proposed to reclaim, to take back the images with which Freud symbolized the civilizing action of the I on the unconscious, is revealing itself to be more extensive and muddy than ever. The class struggle widens to frighteningly new territories.

It's a question of a tendency, it is clear; it is not already uniformly accomplished in fact. Here the civil war is larval; elsewhere it is terribly manifest. But this elsewhere is nearby. Like a former Yugoslavia.

Nationalisms, and ethnic and religious demands are the authoritarian and hierarchical response to the collapse of values, the result in their turn of the decline of ancient communitarian forces. Integralisms of various natures are first of all communitarian ideologies, attempting to restore the identity of the logos (that is language, laws, and order) while common space diminishes. It's about the hypercivilized reaction to the virtual community that is everywhere supplanting real mutuality between individuals. The instruments of civilization – technological “welfare”, democratic dialogue, parliamentary legality, humanitarian and mercantile universalism – are impotent since they are part of the problem.


Destroy everything to remake everything


Capitalism, in its historic development, unified the exploited in work and in alienation, determining them as a programmatic class, that is, capable of political and social programming. The struggles of the dispossessed have found themselves linked (through places, instruments, class-consciousness) through the very structure of capital. The awareness that the worker “can destroy everything because he can remake everything” responded to his concrete possibility of making the society without masters function. It's not interesting to explore further which ideologies (determinism, productivism, reformist gradualism, scientism etc) had produced that condition, nor in which forms of self-organization of the exploited (worker's councils, agrarian collectives, etc.) it had already come to life. What is worth noting is that an entire project of emancipation, in its bureaucratic and authoritarian falsifications as in its libertarian authenticity, depended on it; and this is part of the vision of a future society, and the methods of struggle (union activity, general strike as a cause of insurrection, armed party, etc) to destroy capitalist society. Today all that has finished, and with it also its illusions.

The problem, as it is customary to say, is complex. It would be attacked from both sides of the social barricade: from the side of a capital that is extended to all social relations and that wants to valorize the whole day of the exploited; and from the side of the dangerous classes that no longer have political or union programs. Considering these first reflections it will be enough to say that the places of production no longer contain resistance to capital, which is becoming directly social. If that makes daily life itself the authentic place of social war, and can therefore increase the knowledge that nothing of these social relations is worth saving, the consequence is at the same time the disappearance of practical unification--the logos of class--from beneath the feet of the exploited. Where to meet and begin such change? Will it be a case that, wherever injured life explodes, the isolated riots are thus often replacing the old general wildcat strikes? But how can revolts dialogue at a distance, in order to snatch away how much more possible time and space as inevitable institutionalization waits?

Without direct relations there is no communication, without communication there is no social utopia. In this sense, there are more and more barbarians in the world.

But not only in this sense. Authentic community is one which is based on the autonomy of individuals, the community of difference, in which everyone wants to know the thoughts of the other as different from ones own. It is the feeling that one universal reason does not exist, that pushes people to communicate, to enrich with the game of proximity and of the subtleties of their language. A language dies when thoughts, now all desolately identical, no longer deserve to be communicated, when they lose the dreams which nourish its poetry. Only a diverse and singular life gives birth to diverse thoughts.


To decivilized hearts and minds


Vitality is found today in the least civilized conditions. The “barbarian” of technical reason destroys great illusions, these eternal forces of confusion, attacking the very source of life. But illusions that push to outbursts of passion are born for the most part wherever humans conserve the instinct of the herd, that the atomized multitude has modified. For this reason nationalism and integralism offer two false solutions to lead social dissatisfaction by hand, with a mixture of ideals of purification, rituals of atonement and millenarian expectation. What is there in the greatest of ethnic and religious conflicts to create artificial enemies and in this way lock up every protest against the established order? The difference of the immigrant, of belonging to a different ethnicity, is visible and comprehensible, unlike the difference of the exploited, which don't have a nation. In their computerized fortress, they are speaking one single Esperanto: that of the market, that does not. However, inflame the old ardors of faith. If it is necessary, the new propaganda can wave the old patriotic and divine rags to continue its own monologue eliminating the restless and numerous exploited. In the name of civilization naturally. But the illusions are always of the door of the barbarians, those that ruthlessly transform the violence with which they are expelled.

More and more, from such a situation of civil war – that is not an all against all but an all against an interchangeable and whole one – there are only two possible exits: ethnic and Mafia wars or the social tempest of class struggle. The nationalist or religious lie, in certain areas carefully prepared by the mass media, is only the last card that domination can play in face of the danger of a generalized revolt. In fact, contrary to the determinist fable of the end of history, or all the reformism of revolutionaries in step with the times, the possibility for immense popular uprisings does not wait for the occasion to explode. Recent examples, even those two steps away from us, are not lacking.

In face of the feeling of dispossession that many individuals experience towards a mercantile standardization that constricts everyone to dream the same lifeless dream, humanitarian universalism is as much a liar as the “differentialism” – hierarchical and interclass – of the new right. Real differences are thoroughly affirmed (well beyond those of cultural and linguistic belonging) only in the free and reciprocal game of singularity. Real equality (not legal) is the sharing of that which we have most in common: the fact of being all different. A community of unique individuals without a state or classes, or money: that is the utopia of decivilized hearts and minds. A utopia that, like each conquest of the marvelous, will be born only from destruction and filth.


The wind of thaw


To once again take up the thesis of the Barbarians as the men and women closest to communism today, would not brighten the powerful intuition that the anarchists Coeurderoy and Dejaque had in the last century, but would be first of all tranquilizing, a simple turning on its head of the ideology of progress. Civilization is ripe, supercession is about to hatch – this determinism would make us take sparks for fire, without this making us more determined. But perhaps this is not the point. We are not partisans of democratic integration nor of legal and reformist battles, this is certain. We foresee only free accord in the anarchic movement of social forces, in the barbaric assaults against all domestication. And still. Are we not at bottom the last civilized people, with our values, other, individual, but still values? Is not the search for perilous virtues, for us, the source of the marvelous?

It is useless to hide from ourselves that social explosions scare everyone, including the subversives. They also scare us. Above all when there aren't expectations for a different life, when popular uprisings mix with the worst communitarianisms or with the disconnected outbursts of a moribund society. The flip-side of calculating reason is found in the collective dreams and in the reality the salvific myths of sacrifice and self-destruction keep under cover. The “liberation of customs” after having modernized morality, transmits directly to technology, this power on this side of good and evil, the control of consciousness. All this certainly does not make us grieve for the old political programs and the orthopedics of their civilization, capable of averting violence in only one way: by institutionalizing it. But this does not push us towards hidden certainties of regeneration. We do not swear on decadence. Capital – and not the revolutionaries – has liquidated all the programs, carrying great possibilities of liberation and lamentable centralist illusions to the same tomb. As the terrorism of progress says, it does not turn back. But even to turn oneself around backwards, along the dead tracks of this senseless production of commodities and of dependence, it is necessary to find the right path. And then where to?

What is lacking today are adequate projectual hypotheses – ideas and methods – for the new conditions of the conflict; but maybe above all what is lacking is that sense of defiance that is ethical tension and dreaming combined, that great passion for free discussions and for resolute action.

If from one side one doesn't believe that History (or Wild Nature) acts in one’s place, from the other one can see only the social freeze on the horizon that feels the powerful blowing of the wind of thaw.


A faraway whisper


In 1870 facing the invasion of France by the Prussia of Bismarck, History seemed at the crossroads; and the revolutionary movement was divided. Marx and those who shared his analyses saw in the Prussian victory, the most developed strengthening of capitalism in Europe and therefore, by virtue of the incantations of dialectics, the consolidation of the historical conditions for that inevitable birth of communism which lacked only the forceps, that is, a united and disciplined urban proletariat. Bakunin and other libertarians saw in militarism and the bismarckian bureaucratic order the forecast of dozens of reactions in Europe, after France appeared to them by its tradition, as the birthplace of every revolutionary hope. For the brightest to defend France did not mean to collaborate with the state and with the French bourgeoisie against the enemy invader but to transform the military conflict into social insurrection, passing from armed proletarian defense to the creation and the federation of revolutionary Communes. Bakunin, engaged shortly afterwards in an insurrectional attempt at Lyon, wrote one of his best analyses about that disastrous situation of civil war, concentrating on the union of workers and peasants and on the necessity to everywhere substitute the deed for the revolutionary right, popular anarchy for the Jacobean terrorism of political decrees and administrative officialdom. For him it was a matter of “the unchaining of bad passions”. But it is not that story, and its lessons that we want to talk about. (To ask ourselves now what could bring forth the spontaneity of the masses of young people born in the cybernetic age would bring us far). That which returns to our memories of those days is only a whisper. The same that led Bakunin to write that the French proletariat could count on only one desperate force: that of the devil in the body. A few months later, against the predictions of the same Russian revolutionary, the devil was on the barricades of Paris.

Civil war, the “barbarian”, this spectacular antithesis with which the masters of the world and their servants have always justified themselves; this blackmail that has extorted the capacity of the dispossessed, becomes more and more our condition. The federation of revolutionary Communes seems to move further away, while the “bad passions” stay with us without any pretence of organizing the unleashing. The demon does not let itself be programmed, even less so today.

The Italian word imbarbarimento means both the process of becoming barbarian and corruption.