The invisible elbow

9 February 2011
Only in en
Blätter sees the lie of the nation persisting in Europe; Reset speaks some home truths about Italy; Glänta shows how the dead are (ab)used by the living; Res Publica Nowa scents political necrophilia in Poland; Multitudes claims its right to the city; dérive welcomes the illogic of signs; Merkur gets to the bottom of homo economicus; Dialogi is not amused by Slovenian political rhetoric; and NLO sides with Platonov’s revolutionary animals.

“Europe per se does not exist, there is only Europeanization, understood as an institutionalized process of permanent transformation,” writes Ulrich Beck in Blätter. “Europe is another word for variable geometry, variable national interests, variable impact, variable internal and external relations, variable statehood, variable identity. This also goes for Europe’s core: the European Union.”

Yet despite de facto Europeanization, the German-French go-it-alone reaction to the Euro-crisis shows that, in times of emergency, it is nations that decide Europe’s course. “What we’ve got at the moment,” writes Beck, “is a German Euro-nationalism that breaks with the premise of multilateralism underlying the success of German policy in a post-war period.”

The ubiquitous lament that Europe lacks representative legitimacy might in many ways be correct, argues Beck, but not when it is based on the principle “no nation, no democracy”. “Advocates of this view fail to recognize that the democratization of Europe cannot take an identical route as it did for nation-states; even the concept of democracy must be different for the EU”. The “absolutization” of the nation-statist concept of democracy is a product of a “nostalgic lie”, according to Beck. “As the EU shows, in the global era, national politics can only regain credibility in the form of transnational cooperation. National sovereignty cannot be retrieved nationally, but only through world-domestic policy.”

More of the same, only stronger: The common “economic governance” being mooted in Berlin and Brussels must indeed take place, writes Michael Krätke. The crucial question, however, is what kind of policy the EU would operate. So far, the Lisbon Treaty has stimulated competition between Euro nations for the benefit of financial markets and encouraged tax reductions to attract mobile capital. If the German government has its way and pushes through a “more of the same, only stronger” approach, writes Krätke, then it is above all the German export economy that stands to benefit. In the long term, however, a continuation of the same neoliberal course makes no sense, even in terms of the national economy.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 2/2011

Reset publishes a discussion about the extreme personalization of Italian politics that replaced the old party system at the beginning of the 1990s. The four-decade long dominance of the partitocrazia can be attributed above all to Italy’s weak democratic institutions, say the contributors (editor Giancarlo Bosetti, political scientists Mauro Calise and Alessandro Campi, and opinion researcher Renato Mannheimer). When de-ideologized and personalized parties took over, power was passed not to the citizens but to oligarchic groups and well-organized minorities. A responsible politics in Italy today, all agree, must aim at strengthening democratic institutions.

Corruption: Allesandro Ferrara speaks an unpleasant truth about his homeland that no politician would openly express: “Our country is corrupt, more corrupt than any other comparable country.” Widespread micro-illegality, from unofficial employment to tax evasion, creates its own political market, one that above all demands exemption from prosecution. Its guarantor is Silvio Berlusconi. Ferrara blames this situation on the culture and tradition of Italian Catholicism. “Five hundred years ago, a northern European such as Luther was scandalized by the sale of indulgences on St Peter’s Square; today, a visitor would have an even greater choice of reasons to be outraged.”

Starting from scratch: For thirty years, first under Craxi, then under his legitimate and direct successor Berlusconi, cultural conformism has ruled Italy, writes teacher and critic Goffredo Fofi; today, Italy is more provincial than any other country in Europe. Fofi blames the decline of society on a caste of corrupt journalists and a generation of leftwing politicians who destroyed the political inheritance of the Communist Party. The quintessence of this “active nihilism”: “We have to start from scratch.”

Tribute: Giuseppe Cognetti pays tribute to the recently deceased Catalan theologian and philosopher Raimon Panikkar. In Panikkar’s ethical pluralism, the “great truth” consists in the “unity of differences” and “dialogue between the diverse”.

The full table of contents of Reset 123 (2011)

Published shortly after Sweden’s first suicide bomber blew himself up in Stockholm in December, the new issue of Glänta focuses on “victims and martyrs”. In a gripping article on the “politics of death”, Michael Azar writes a philosophical history of the idea of martyrdom, showing how the dead are used to serve the living: from the disciples’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection to the role played by the killing of the German student Benno Ohnesorg for the radical Left in the 1960s and 70s.

Who has the right to administer and interpret the significance of the death of the dead?” asks Azar, taking as an example the mass beatification of 498 Catholics killed by the leftwing government at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Carried out by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, this act should be seen in the light of the attempts by Spain’s socialist government to introduce a law (“Ley de Memoria Histórica”) aimed at rehabilitating and acknowledging the victims of the Franco regime and getting rid of the remaining symbols celebrating the dictatorship, writes Azar. “Who shall decide who’s the victim of history and who’s its butcher?

Victim-claiming and victim-blaming: “Blaming the victim”, originally a phrase intended to critique the attribution of social disadvantage to what were seen as the inherent faults of black Americans, has since come to mean something else, observes Alyson M. Cole: the condemnation of self-designated victims as manipulative and self-indulgent.

Anti-victimists develop a gradual line of attack. They maintain, first, that most who claim to be victims are imposters. They do not experience discrimination, nor are they deprived by any sensible standard. Second, those who are disadvantaged in some way, exploit their victim status to achieve gains incommensurate with their actual circumstances. Third, apart from the veracity or proportionality of the victim’s claim, making victimization a central theme of group or individual identity undermines the victim’s character and is otherwise harmful to society. Indeed, anti-victimists expose victimists not by their self-designation as ‘victims’, but by their tendency to blame others (often society as a whole) for their plight.

Interestingly, these victim-critics – from Shelby Steele and Charles Sykes to Camille Paglia and Naomi Wolf – themselves claim victim status: “victimization by ‘victim politics'”.

The full table of contents of Glänta 3-4/2010

Polish political culture focuses on the voting process but fears direct participation by citizens, write Lech Mergler and Kacper Poblocki in Res Publica Nowa: “We live in a system that is 50 per cent democratic.” Meanwhile, the “invisible hand of the market” has been superseded by an “invisible elbow”. Those who cope well in the tussle gain from links between the authorities and business. Crony capitalism impacts on urban development as developers make inroads into the political fabric of city life, undermining the evolution of institutional democracy. In Polish cities, write Mergler and Poblocki, the “transformation” is over. It is time for an open and transparent discussion on new solutions to the problems of urban living.

Unmediated discussion or “consultation” can also have its pitfalls, observes Artur Celinski. “We become pawns in a game, the purpose of which is the organization of ‘consultations’, while no thought is given to the continuity of discourse.” The principle of consultation should reflect “the empowerment of citizens through debate in the public space, in order that our right to the city expands to its full dimensions and is not dependent on the benevolent disposition of the authorities.”

Political necrophilia: Since 2005, rituals and media reports surrounding the exhumations of Mikolaj Kopernik (Nicolaus Copernicus), General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Stanislaw Pyjas, Krzysztof Olewnik and Father Jerzy Popieluszko have all sought to contribute to building the body of the nation. The April 2010 air crash in Smolensk has prompted calls for the exhumation of the bodies of victims returned from Russia. The likelihood that the mortal remains of Pope John II will be dug up soon is also high. Is this “political necrophilia”, asks Marcin Moskalewicz, or an obsession with historical truth gone mad? “Perhaps our life, especially our political life, is merely ruled by the laws of ritual, the logic of which escapes the opposition of madness and reason.”

Also: It’s not the Internet that is responsible for the “crisis of the press”, but subordination of journalism to the market, writes Süddeutsche editor Heribert Prantl; and Dragan Klaic assesses the value of “regeneration through culture” and challenges some conventional assumptions.

The full table of contents of Res Publica Nowa 11-12/2010

“The city is our factory,” writes Andrej Holm in an issue of Multitudes devoted to the creative and productive role of urbanism. “Cities are spaces of production and of contact, but also of conflict and rebellion. The transition from an industrial to a cognitive economy is not only shifting the lines of conflict, but fundamentally transforming relations of production.” This development gives added urgency to political battles over urbanism, writes Holm. The liberal case has been made by Richard Florida, who argues that cities must compete to attract an elite “creative class”. On the other side stand egalitarian movements that demand a universal “right to the city”:

For dissenting groups, the appeal of the concept of a right to the city lies in its flexible, rebellious and utopian character, not limited to individual rights in the classical legal sense. The right to the city sketches a vision of a good life, feeding the imagination of social movements while giving legitimacy to more concrete reforms.

If Holm is interested by the city in relation to the economy, Thierry Baudouin concentrates on its growing political importance in comparison to the nation-state. As economic and social activity becomes dependent on the characteristics of each city, so the important political battles come to be contested at the urban rather than the national level. As a result, cities are increasingly collaborating across national boundaries. Alexander Neumann explores this in the case of the “SaarLorLux” region, the transnational urban cluster of Saarland, Lorraine and Luxemburg, while Saskia Sassen describes more generally the nature of “global cities”:

Neoliberal politics have created new closed transnational spaces that give firms and markets new rights to penetrate national economies, while remaining impenetrable spaces for non-participants. This movement from old state frontiers towards transnational barriers is creating more formal rights for global economic powers than for citizens or migrants.

The full table of contents of Multitudes 43 (2011)

Why, asks Peter Wendl in dérive, do we need signs and icons in public spaces in addition to those that are purely functional? Why is it that our cities are covered in symbols, some generally comprehensible such as advertising, others decipherable only for insiders, such as graffiti and other encrypted messages?

It seems that human beings are not satisfied with a purely logical information system implanted in space. Apparently, they need other resources to oppose the absolutism of reality. Even the ‘modern’ human being returns to the instrument of myth. Roland Barthes remarked that photography, film or advertising can embody myths. […] The main message in these figures is not ‘Believe!’ or ‘Buy!’ but rather: something is looking at you and is located in a higher dimension. [They] communicate that there is a superior power that cannot be explained rationally. By producing such messages, human beings embed themselves into a wider context, which makes the environment more reliable.

Billboard city: Anthony Auerbach tells the story of the changing icon on Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the statue of Lenin was replaced by a giant cross, which was later replaced by a large video screen. This screen was rented out and used to relay live videos of wedding parades held on the square.

A private, commercial transaction on the screen authorized the occupation of the square in front of it and underlined the family’s claim on public space, with the approval of Church and State. While the wedding guests watching themselves formed the principal audience of the show, the screening advertised the public celebration – marriage – which affirms the regulation of sexual relations and the institution of the private realm of domestic patriarchy.

The full table of contents of dérive 42 (2011)

In Merkur, Dietmar Voss traces biopolitics from its beginnings – the rise of hygiene movements and the introduction of public health policies in the late nineteenth century – to today’s transformation of the individual, frail body into a shining, seemingly immune and immortal part of the “species body”.

“Make die and let live”, was Michel Foucault’s formula for the “basic principle of the patriarchal sovereign power”, Voss explains, while “make live and let die” has become the basic principle of the new bio-power. This shift reflects the replacement of heavy industry as the central manufacturing sector by health industries as a vital branch of production.

As politicians, mass media and the advertising industry incessantly push people to eat healthily, do sport and have regular preventive checkups, so the ideal subject is created: “As a homo economicus in new neoliberal shape, as entrepreneur of his own life, he perceives his own life as capital to be optimally invested. The economic form of life becomes the model for the individual relation to the self, for existence itself. Lifetime, acquired skills, education and pleasure, understood as capital, have a single purpose: self-investment, self-increase of imaginary life-capital.”

De-politicization: Michael von Prollius asks where politicians’ current loss of credibility and general disenchantment with politics originates – and concludes that politics itself is as much the problem as the solution:

Politics is, in principle, not responsible; advocates of political action must first make this claim. The task of the state is to make sure that various people’s ideas of happiness and wellbeing can exist alongside one another. […] No one has the right to force someone to be happy in one particular way or to improve his wellbeing – no person, no group, no democratically elected majority, no government and no state.

The full table of contents of Merkur 2/2011

In Dialogi, Boris Vezjak recounts how former Slovene Minister of Finance Matej Lahovnik explained in a round table discussion what was wrong with the country: “There is no pilot in the cockpit of the government plane, most likely he is off in the toilet being sick. The flight attendant has left, the co-pilots are praying to God for help, others are looking for parachutes and realizing that there are none, and still others are waiting for the journey to come to an end, however long it takes.”

The simile is so oversimplified and inappropriate that it is banal, writes Vezjak. “Humorous descriptions are not merely an innocent gesture of populist-style entertainment, but an important aspect for the formation of public opinion. Unfortunately in a direction which should not be to our liking.”

Also the title of the round table – “Rebooting Slovenia?” – was questionable:

There would be nothing controversial about invoking this phrase were it not for the fact that ‘rebooting Slovenia’ is complete conceptual idiocy: surely no one can think of and consequently wish for the complete undoing of Slovenia and its return to its original state, even if that were possible.

The full table of contents of Dialogi 11-12/2010

In NLO, Artemy Magun and Oxana Timofeeva discuss the “socialist tragedy” of Soviet writer Andrei Platonov. Platanov’s extraordinary writing was forgotten twice: first, because of Stalinist censorship, which rejected Platonov’s deviation from socialist realist parameters, and later because his complicated prose was seen as yet another allegory of real socialism. While Magun sees Platonov using literature to uncover new forms of revolutionary subjectivity through anguish, melancholy or anxiety, Timofeeva analyses the figure of the animal in Platonov’s prose via the Heideggerian notion of “poor life”.

“Poor life in Platonov is a life of animals and plants, but also of people, who build happiness and communism out of this life,” writes Timofeeva. “Poverty describes a certain condition, a universal substance of existence. Everything that is great, revolution included, is to be produced of this poor, weak substance.” For Heidegger, humans belonged not to life but to the order of Dasein, hence their ontological superiority over animals. Platonov, on the other hand, “is clearly on the side of those small poor and weak living beings” and attributes to them an “inner virtue of existence”.

Life is poor in the world, but the world itself is even poorer, and needs the energy of this life to resist the forces of entropy. Such a resistance happens through labour: animals, plants and poor people are constantly working hard to live and to enjoy their life.

Platonov’s animal is a hidden man tortured by his unrecognized intellect, imprisoned in his natural body, writes Timofeeva. “Bolsheviks or communists are revolutionary animals, human animals consumed by revolutionary passion. As humans, they are ascetic, denying immediate satisfaction of sexual and other needs. But they deny these precisely because of their unbearable and overwhelming desire: the desire for communism.”

The full table of contents of New Literary Observer 106 (2010)

Published 9 February 2011

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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