The posterboy of postmodernity

26 September 2012
Only in en
Merkur debates the power and powerlessness of experts; Res Publica Nowa locates Poland’s middle class; La Revue nouvelle takes populism seriously; Blätter wants to re-politicize Europe; Mute refuses to make demands; Multitudes revolts; Akadeemia celebrates 100 years of Estonian film; Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais reads street papers and self-help literature; and Samtiden asks what created Breivik.


Since the financial crisis broke, economists have been the most public – and publicly fallible – of experts. In Merkur‘s special issue on the “power and powerlessness of experts”, economic historian Werner Plumpe proposes a deceptively simple definition as to what constitutes expertise: conformity with the economic conjuncture: “As long as expertise appears confirmed, or at least not disproved, by economic reality, then politics makes use of it with gusto. If the real frame of reference changes, then the choice of expertise changes.”

Economic theory out of sync with reality doesn’t disappear, writes Plumpe, but “is placed in storage, in other words in university seminars, where it awaits rebirth. This might not be a bad thing, so long as its proponents use the time for tuning.” Sure enough, the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen a regular rotation of neo-Keynesianism, neo-Marxism, neo-liberalism, neo-Ricardianism, neo-mercantilism… “What seems certain for the moment is that neo-liberalism, itself a variant of old-fashioned liberalism, is in storage – from whence it will, at some point, emerge retuned.”

A conspiracy of experts? Fear of being called a conspiracy theorist causes many to doubt that conspiratorial elites exist at all, writes Wolfgang Streeck. Take, for example, “the strange symbiosis between Goldman Sachs and the American state”. Where exactly does the company derive its expert status? “After all, Goldman was the flagship of the same armada that almost accidentally sank financialized capitalism. […] Could it be that, in the ‘information society’ of the financial markets, it’s not about value creation at all, but rather value destruction, and that, when it comes down to it, it’s not fashionable mathematical wizardry that counts, but the time-honoured arts of politics, including the art of electoral sponsoring and the obstruction or evasion of the law?”

Architecture: Critics love to rage at architectural “abominations” and anyone who accepts or even likes the ugly object is accused of “aesthetic illiteracy”, writes Merkur editor Christian Demand. But on what criteria is critics’ damnation based? Recalling that the architect, art-theorist and Nazi Paul Schultze-Naumburg collected evidence against architectural “crimes” with before-and-after photographs, Demand argues that claims of “collective taste” are always made ex cathedra. We should “learn to tolerate the world where it doesn’t intersect with our own aesthetic preferences,” he concludes.

The full table of contents of Merkur 9-10/2012


“In the West, the middle class has been all but relegated to a bygone age,” writes Marcin Moskalewicz in Res Publica Nowa. “Instead we are witnessing the expansion of a mobile, fluid, technologically literate minority that is independent, powerful but also ill-defined. […] It is hard to call them a new oligarchy because they are too numerous and open. It is also difficult to predict whether they will introduce greater fragmentation or the start of a new integration process, and whether they will dissolve in the face of protest or petrify into a new orthodoxy. It is only certain that they have brought a new beginning and are shaping the image of the coming age.”

Middle class rising: Alongside notions of mediocrity and the commonplace, the idea of middle-class life is widely derided in Poland, notes Wojciech Przybylski. “Even though we are keen to acknowledge the legacy of Solidarity, we scorn our condition as a group.” Now that the Polish middle class has sensed itself threatened, however, “it is getting off the sofa, switching off the TV and unfurling the banners. […] It doesn’t have a clear agenda. Its role in the political arena isn’t yet clearly delineated. But this is a group that wants to play a part in politics and is testing its strength.”

Alternative ideals: Given the impossibility of “unlimited consumer growth”, writes Aleksandra Bilewicz, what kind of life or value system could substitute the unrealized ideal of the middle class? “Few realistic proposals are being put forward. The Occupy movement and equivalent groups in Europe seem, for the present, to be dying. They have proved unable to formulate concrete demands in the name of grass roots democracy because, in practice, unlimited individual autonomy makes collective action impossible. […] This individualism, born of a justifiable resistance to power and hierarchy is, in fact, just another element drawn from middle-class culture.”

History: Tomasz Zarycki considers the social legacy of the nineteenth-century Polish partitions, the inter-war period and the communist era. As the new middle class seeks to establish its own identity and to break with the traditional ethos of the central European intelligentsia, it may find a model for integration with the broader international community through the experience of merchants once based in the Polish sector of the Russian empire.

The full table of contents of Res Publica Nowa 18 (2012)


Democracy is endangered when citizens become “consumers of the political spectacle” that elect “politic personalities” and then sit back to passively observe the “merciless fight” of politicians. Introducing a dossier in La Revue Nouvelle on “Why democracy must take populism seriously”, editor Luc van Campenhoudt expresses anxieties about European politics: “Will social movements, the incessant activity of multiple interest groups, the many different public demonstrations and discussions, turn out to be futile agitations, a smoke screen hiding the reality of concentrated power?”

Progressive Europe: A European society with a “regressive affiliation” to “neo-nationalism, eurosceptism and xenophobia” provides fertile soil for populism, while a progressive European society recognizes the necessity of “universal integration”, writes Albert Basteiner. Democracy has no given, “natural and eternal” definition, he argues, but is embedded in an ongoing historical process. “It’s in the frame of the incomplete that we must try to understand the role played by populism in the political arena of contemporary European societies.”

Il populismo: Nearly all leaders of Italy’s traditional parties have, at one time or another, been qualified as populists, notes Guiseppe Santolindo. Tracing a line from Andreotti to Berlusconi to Beppe Grillo, he also points to differences in their populism. During the First Republic, a period marked by “ideological antagonism, both communist and clerical”, a populist leader like Andreotti was reproached for maintaining a complex dialogue with his electorate; during the Second Republic, populism was accompanied by demagoguery. Berlusconi, Bossi and Di Pietro have become “the new tribune of the plebs”.

Immigration: Two recent deportations from Belgium illustrate the need felt by European governments to show that they have got immigration under control, argues Thomas Dechamps. The emergence of the European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors is proof of “the oppressive climate” that rules in Europe regarding immigration. “Literally speaking, it’s an ideological problem with the logic of our viewpoint, with our thinking as a group.”

The full table of contents of La Revue nouvelle 9/2012


Europe must be re-politicized, writes Albrecht von Lucke in Blätter. The empowerment of the ECB is a purely economic strategy: “What is lacking in all of this is the real political question about ends: in other words, about the whole meaning of the European Union. In its place comes economically forced communitization in order to preserve monetary union, at the expense of the Union’s political-democratic basis – in the form of participation of European citizens and their national parliaments.”

Von Lucke misses a strong, common policy among European social-democratic parties that might further solidarity and offer an alternative to Merkel’s “competition nationalism”. Germany would have to abandon its politics of “wage dumping and underselling” in order to give its competitors a chance: not only would this introduce a very different concept of Europe, it would also mean a return of real conflict – and thus of politics.

How to save Greece: “What would happen if Greece really did become insolvent very soon?” For Greece, this is far from the worst scenario, writes economist Gerd Grözinger; bankruptcy would provide the country with the chance “to act autonomously, to defy the Troika’s brutal strategy of impoverishment, and still to remain in the eurozone and the EU.”

The only way out, Grözinger argues, is a package of four elements, all put to the test in the Americas. First: stop – for the time being – paying foreign debts (test case: Argentina). Second: introduce a parallel currency in order to boost the regional economic cycle (test case: California). Third: introduce higher taxes on earnings (test case: the US after WWII). Fourth: make citizens pay taxes, regardless of where they live (test case: the US).

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 9/2012


Mute publishes sociologist Nick Thoburn’s February 2012 speech at Occupy London’s “School of Ideas”, in which he looks at Occupy through the lens Deleuze and Guattari. Covering minor politics and the 99 per cent, myth and fabulation and the problem of the collective agency, Thoburn defines the quality of Occupy as the refusal to make demands:

“A demand is a mechanism of seduction into a grid of democratic politics, a means of channelling the political breach with capital right back into the institutions that perpetuate it. In contrast, the grid that is constituted by the slogan ‘We are the 99 per cent’ is very different. Rather than the mechanism of seduction into the status quo it is a means of multiplying points of antagonism.”

Gender and radical politics: P. Valentine takes a closer look at how communities can be divided by gender, critiquing the male-dominated radical politics of Théorie Communiste: “Women experience an entirely different realm of oppression and exploitation than men, so that whenever they rise up, this rising up calls into question the differential positions of men and women – namely, that men do the appropriating of women and women are those who are appropriated by men (even and especially the men who are supposed to be their ‘comrades’).”

Alternative currency: “The wine and cheese appreciation society” and Scott Lenney discuss the Bitcoin phenomenon, a decentralized digital currency based on voluntary exchange. Issues such as double spending, forgery and decentralization aside, the question remains: How is Bitcoin different from any other money? “Systematic enmity of interests, exclusion from social wealth, subjection of everything to capitalist growth – that is what an economy looks like where exchange, money and private property determine production and consumption. This does not change if the substance is gold or Bitcoin.”

The full table of contents of Mute 19 (2012)


“The articles in this collection can be read as road maps on the long lines of struggle against oppression, just as they offer reflections on the issues and options, inadequacies and promises of this fight,” writes Yves Citton, introducing the fiftieth issue of Multitudes, devoted to “uprisings”. Asking whether individual protests are intelligent or ambivalent, Citton invites reconsideration of the scope of protest in the context of uprising in the wider sense. A mix of analysis and activist testimony, contributions discuss what it means to “rise up”, enquiring into the rights of the body in the public sphere, through movements and beyond Facebook.

Public bodies: “European collapse is not the effect of economic or even financial crisis, but a crisis of the social imagination”, writes Franco Berardi. The bearer of a new political imagination is the “cognitive worker”, he writes, whose precarious position is equivalent to the fractured body of Marx’s general intellect. “In its present configuration, the general intellect is both fragmented and deprived of any collective perception of itself. Only the conscious emergence of cognitive labour as a perceptible and social incarnation of the general intellect will allow for the recomposition of our common scientific, technical, affective knowledge and interest.”

Uprising of the stomachs: “In the wake of the Arab Spring, new modes of action through art, activism and political discourse have risen up to create a new political space”. Sylvaine Bulle describes the individual protests that have emerged in Palestine, including the “uprising of the stomachs”, the term for the hunger strike of 1600 Palestinian prisoners detained without charge in Israeli prisons. “The force of indignation and curiosity enables the creation of community-based mobilization and critical awareness in an environment that is less physically accessible, but readily traceable on social networks.”
Anonymous: Ariel Kyrou analyses the relations between names, masks, fictions and uprisings through comparison of the digital activist group Anonymous and the nineteenth century Luddites.

The full table of contents of Multitudes 50 (2012)


Estonian film is celebrating its centenary this year. For the country’s film branch, it provides an occasion to restore Estonia’s cinematic heritage and raise awareness of national film history at home and internationally. Akadeemia joins the initiative with an issue devoted to Estonian film, opening with an appeal from Peeter Torop, professor of semiotics at the University of Tartu: “Film art is part of Estonian culture and research into it and better organization of filmmaking is not only a problem of filmmakers but of Estonian culture as a whole”.

Popular film culture: Why do television serials get a better reception in Estonia than films? The poor reputation of Estonian film is due to their “art house” tag, argues screenwriter and TV executive Ilmar Raag. Although this a false perception – there are also Estonian-produced comedies, detective films and films for children – it is true that TV series, which depend on ratings for their survival, connect more closely with viewers. There are no fixed categories for financing films, however, and “this naturally influences filmmakers’ thinking”.

Literary adaptations: Looking back at screen adaptations of literary works from the first era of independence through the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, Maarja Saldre notes that “the choice of underlying texts for Estonian screen versions has served the strengthening of national identity in one way or another: during the Soviet occupation it concentrated on the originality and roots of our culture; since re-independence, however, common elements with other European cultures have been sought.”

Documentary: Film critic Jaan Ruus writes about two exceptional Soviet-era Estonian documentaries – Pikk Street and The Secrets of Tallinn – tourist films about the medieval Old Town of Tallinn by Lennart Meri. Breaking from the typical Soviet documentary format – dull advertisements for the achievements of communism – Meri’s films enjoyed carte blanche to combine literary scripts with the experimental soundtracks of composer Kuldar Sink.

The full table of contents of Akadeemia 9/2012


In Revista Crítica (Portugal), Viviane de Melo Resende asks whether the claim of Lisboan street paper Caís to be a “voice for the homeless” is justified. Looking behind the scenes, she tries to understand “to what extent this initiative enables the self-representation of a social group that in general is portrayed negatively in the media”. Analysis of an interview with the editor is revealing. Despite the paper’s declared objective to “raise awareness of social ills”, he stresses that Caís‘ intention is not solely “to insist on the painful questions of homeless life”, but to also show “the bright side of things”. Not even the regular feature on a vendor is written by the person represented, but by the editor, who bases the article on what the vendors tell him. They might be represented, but the voice is not theirs.

Self-help literature: Fernando Ampudia de Haro points out that the Portuguese translation of Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic, How to win friends and influence people (1936), along with other similar titles, coincided with a new wave of controlled liberalism under the Salazar dictatorship in the 1950s. At first glance, he writes, the self-help genre appears to have little to do with the ideas of the Estado Novo; however parallels emerge through a neo-Foucauldian re-reading, which reveals the “new behavioural and emotional culture of self-help as a complex product of authority and liberty”.

The full table of contents of Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais 94 (2011)


When Anders Behring Breivik was sentenced to 21 years for the killings in Oslo and on Utøya, many Norwegians hoped that the nightmare that had haunted their country for over a year was finally over. The new issue of Samtiden, dedicated to the Breivik case, shows that they might have hoped for too much too soon: “Open narratives have no simple endings, there’s no simple way to translate the individual into the collective,” writes Tonje Vold in an essay that makes clear that Norwegian society will still have to relate to and deal with the many personal stories told during the trial for years to come.

A product of late capitalism: If postmodernity is the cultural superstructure of late capitalism, as Fredric Jameson argued, then “the mass murderer from Norway is the poster boy of the postmodern”, writes literary theorist Toril Moi. Breivik’s manifesto shows that he is more concerned about selling a concept than he is about life and death, much like his “fictional brothers” Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) and Gordon Gekko (Wall Street).

Moi notes that, on the first day of the trial, Breivik declared that “deconstruction is the key word”. How did this concept get from Derrida to Breivik? Breivik seems to be obsessed with “the academic discourse of people like myself”, writes Moi, “people who work with feminist and literary theory, cultural studies and gender studies, but without understanding anything of it.”

Though Guardian journalist Andrew Brown has found three times as many references to European nationalists than to American conservatives in Breivik’s manifesto, Moi is sure that it is the latter that have influenced him most. With its roots in the so-called “cultural wars” fought in and around US universities in the 1980s and ’90s, it was this conservative ideology that provided Breivik with his anti-feminist and anti-theory jargon and, above all, with the enemies that he set out to kill on 22 July 2011: the “cultural Marxists”.

A product of society: How many lone wolves does it take before we admit that there’s a pack? Gellert Tamas compares Breivik to John Ausonius and Peter Mangs, who shot and killed numerous “immigrants” in Sweden in the 1990s and 2009-2010 respectively. “The theory about the ‘lone madman’ is problematic not only because it suggests that some perpetrators […] appear in a kind of vacuum, beyond and outside the social context, but above all because the theory is almost exclusively applied to perpetrators with a ‘European’ background, thereby reinforcing the stereotyped image of ‘the other’,” writes Tamas.

The full table of contents of Samtiden 3/2012

Published 26 September 2012

Original in English
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