Take the example of Saint Benedict of Nursia, who founded the Order of Saint Benedict in Monte Cassino in the year 529: When he was escaping through the ruins of the Roman Empire – did he consciously experience his times as the »end of a civilization« or, more probably, did he view this chaos as a kind of »overtime« in the game of life, a scenario that heralded while also delaying Christ’s inevitable return? We don’t know. Uncontroversial is the assertion that Christianity – unlike the Greeks’ circularity or Gnostic verticality – untangled and stretched time, converting it into a continuous line that, displaced from the sphere of salvation to that of society, gave rise to both the Enlightenment and capitalist conceptions of History as such in distinct ways. For the Christians, History was a constant regression; whereas for modernity, beginning politically with the French Revolution and economically with the Industrial Revolution, time constituted a process of constant progression. In both cases, however, time rolled on, whether upward or downward, towards its consummation. Ever since Hegel systematized this idea in 1807,1 Western humanity has experienced every crisis and every war as a necessary step towards a better future. The fact that our years ascend numerically from the current era’s »year zero« is spontaneously perceived as a gain, an irreversible increase in our temporal bank account. It is impossible to imagine 2017 as less than 2016, rather than more. We spent two millennia accumulating years – getting into debt, sacrificing ourselves and submitting – in order to finally exchange them for a chocolate bar or a mobile phone.
This idea of History as Progress, shared by Marx and his followers, was only questioned by a handful of pessimists: Hermann Lotze2 in the 19th century, Walter Benjamin3 and Louis Althusser4 before and after the Second World War. Their analyses of ruin and defeat, lost irredeemably with no possible compensation, seemed to challenge the common sense constrained since 1945 by the acceleration of consumption, the second Industrial Revolution, and the defeat of the USSR in 1989 – the utopian threshold of a definitive fusion, outside of History, between peace and democracy. In the last ten years, this illusion has been brusquely shattered, just as globally as was its flight. The crisis of 2008, the turn from technological optimism towards the threat of automatization, the retreat of the welfare state and of social and civil rights, the return of war with its accompanying displacements and terrorist metastases, have also transformed the awareness of time, which now appears stuck, coagulated, and halted in its tracks. There exists a generalized perception of the »end of civilization« as well as of regression, as the title of this volume indicates. Christian-Enlightenment linearity has once again been replaced by Greek circularity or the disruptive verticality of the Gnostics, as historian Henri-Charles Puech explained in a celebrated 1978 study.5 In contrast to the more or less stable, or zigzagging, current of continuous Progress, History now returns to the limes of the Roman Empire or the interwar period of the 20 century: it forms a loop, gets into a circle, falls suddenly – spinning around – into the most tragic of pasts. In contrast to »Change« as an accumulating transition from quantity to quality – that of former revolutions – today’s transformation is sudden, striking, falling from the sky without preparations or precursors; Badiou’s »event« as counter-historical contingency is the obverse face of the terrorist attack that may occur at any place and time. The history of the human species, like Cuvier’s palaeontology, is experienced as a random succession of catastrophes. Capitalism, the most destructive and most optimistic of systems, has suddenly turned ashen and pessimistic. In a sense contrary to that of the liberal prognoses of 1989, the time of the Third World may be said to have overtaken the time of the capitalist core. Now, practically everything is periphery, and the race to define and reinforce borders has accelerated accordingly.
The countdown and the recommencement of everything
2017 is probably a lesser figure than 2016, or even 2011; less, even, than 1945. The 20th century ended in 2016 with the death of Fidel Castro, a political leader who converted the little island of Cuba into the uncomfortable centre of the Cold War, and combined in his undeniable grandeur all the vices and the virtues of geopolitics in the second half of his century. At any rate, with his death the bloodiest century in human history in some ways began anew; the 20th century returned to its beginning. It is true that only the sea always returns to itself – everything else flows, erupts, capsizes, overflows, mixes, stagnates. Nothing repeats, not even as farce or caricature; everything returns in the new consciousness of bodies without history. If we are recommencing the 20th century, as I believe us to be, it is nonetheless worth pointing out both the historical affinities as well as divergences in our current epoch.
We are recommencing the 20th century because the last two decades have suppressed the political, legal, and moral cement with which the (not particularly just) international order prevailing since 1945 was originally constructed. The superpower balance characteristic of the Cold War evaporated first, followed by the hegemony of the United States as the geopolitical backbone of global stability – triumphantly proclaimed yet never realized on the ground. The collapse of these two successive pillars (the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the defeat of the United States in 2003) generated what the French periodical Esprit defined in 2014 as »a new global disorder«,6 an order without a centre and simultaneously without alternative, in which American decline opens the door to a bevy of neo-imperialist powers, devoid of perspective and open to all kinds of alliances, which now dispute both territory and, more importantly, symbolic vacuums left by Washington over the last twelve years. The current war in Syria undoubtedly both reveals as well as reinforces this new »disorder«, in some ways returning to the inter-imperialist conflicts of 1914 – albeit without the prospect of colonial spoils, as many of the former European colonies now engage in the scramble for resources and influence themselves.
To put it another way: the end of the Cold War, which left the United States without any serious rival and allowed the European Union to dismantle the welfare state granted to Europeans as a way to counter Soviet influence without resistance, also called forth a diffuse and transversal popular demand for democratization outside the purview of governments and classical left movements. In the former USSR, now fragmented into a series of republics, legitimate anti-Communist sentiment gave way to a chain of protests, the belittlingly labelled »colour revolutions« (Ukraine, Georgia, Yugoslavia, Kyrgyzstan) subsequently co-opted by the US and its allies. But from 1994 onward, the absence of the USSR also facilitated the emergence of what has been called the »Pink Tide« in Latin America, which broke with both the heritage of 20th century socialism and Washington’s neo-colonial influence on the continent. This »thawing of the Cold War«, linked to a certain general democratic impulse, made a final reappearance in 2011 when the peoples of the »Arab world« rose up against the dictatorships of North Africa and the Middle East, the last survivors of the old bipolar world order.7 The so-called »Arab spring« – which was not just Arab and lasted more than one season – rekindled a »global democratic revolution«, of which one focal point was the 15M movement in Spain, but which also threaded its way across Europe, Turkey and the United States.
This is not the place to explain the reasons for its failure, but six years on it is clear that this democratic impulse has mutated into its opposite. The war in Syria is vitally important for three reasons: firstly, it has enabled Russia to return to the international stage; secondly, it is the ferocious expression of a second First World War, now between powers emancipated from Washington’s tutelage; and thirdly, the survival of the Assad dictatorship – the final remnant of a moribund world – has not only revived the regional autocracies, but has, by way of jihad and population displacement, justified a European and global contraction in the name of anti-terrorism and individual security. Six years after the hopeful shock of the »Arab spring«, the illusion of a general democratization beyond ideology has been definitively inverted into an inter-imperialist war accompanied by a trend towards planetary de-democratization. American decline has not given rise to greater social justice and increased rights and liberties, but to a return of the »Age of Empire« – to evoke the title of historian Eric Hobsbawm’s famous work8 – by virtue of which the conflict between states, newly de-ideologized, is simultaneously, as in 1914, the revelation of what we can call a »global Weimar«, similar to the 1920s and early 1930s. Democracy’s declining prestige is a global trend, together with a renewed return to identitarian affinities and conflicts. The recent victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election ushered a tendency into the leadership of the former world hegemon that has steadily imposed itself across the globe: the authoritarianism of a Putin, the return of dictatorship in the »Arab world«, Erdoğan’s drift after the failed coup d’état of August 2016, the end of the »Pink Tide« in Latin America, the English Brexit, the growth of right-populist and neo-fascist forces in Europe, some of them now in or very near to government. If we also take into account the transformations of the economy and of work – both consequence and cause of the crisis at once – and the return to forms of pre-Fordist exploitation associated with the surplus character of a large part of the world population, we find many reasons to think that 2017 is closer to 1917 or 1930 than to 2018.
What is left of the 20th century?
But just as it is impossible to return to an idealized past – the felicity of the disciples or the first Islamic caliphates – so it is also impossible to return to the same evils of the past. All similarities aside, today’s evils are ultimately new. Even if the two pillars upon which the post-war order was built really have disappeared, and we have thus returned in some sense to the era of the First World War, the 20th century did not run its course in vain. The second half of the century in fact left some elements and added others to this serpentine return to 1914 and 1930, with its inter-imperialist conflicts, its global Weimar, and its economy of waste.
What has been added? Four elements.
The first is a globalization more decisive and innovative than the initial wave of economic globalization dating back to 1870. The Second World War, in fact, marks a historical break we often ignore and the nature of which we often mischaracterize, but which is impossible to forget. I refer, of course, to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the negative matrix of a »species consciousness« that did not exist before the first nuclear explosion. Today there is only a single Humanity, because for the first time in history Humanity can be destroyed in its totality in a single stroke. The fact that this consciousness is permanently repressed facilitates everyday life while also making it more dangerous. As we know, the famous Nuremberg Tribunal, also established in August 1945, condemned the Nazi death camps but neglected to pass judgement on the aerial bombings, which have since been converted, in the words of jurist Danilo Zolo,9 into a »customary right« – a right of the air that suspends earthly criminal law’s presumption of innocence and guarantees of due process, and has even emancipated itself from the burden of physical responsibility in the form of drones. In a world of »global disorder«, in which, along with inter-imperialist war and right-wing populism, the old horizontal exterminations have returned (think of Assad’s prisons or Duterte’s street executioners in the Philippines), Humanity’s negative globalization by way of total destruction from the air is always within reach as either temptation or mistake. Those who died in the trenches of the First World War could at least console themselves with thoughts of the survivors – the Second World War gave us the prospect of a post-war aftermath without any survivors whatsoever.
The second element, related to this, has to do with the consumerist imaginary consecrated in the United States beginning in 1950s and spreading to the rest of the world in successive waves. When using the word »imaginary«, I do so to untie its consequences from real and material access to cheap markets and commercial gardens of Eden. The citizens of the world are consumers, even in the midst of crisis and even in its most disadvantaged sectors. Those unable to consume are – as Zygmunt Bauman said – »failed consumers« in the sense that, with the dismantling of Fordist production, the globalized subjects see themselves (in terms of their self-perception and class position) in the sphere of consumption rather than that of work; and because hyper-industrial capitalism has moved to exploit free time more than production time, with the »proletarianizing of leisure« (Bernard Stiegler)10 and concomitant loss of tradition, collective memory, and idiosyncratic variety as a consequence. This »proletarianizing of leisure« is in turn inseparable from ecological destruction, which the famous Club of Rome report was already aware of in 1972. Two centuries of intensive capitalism and 30 years of consumerist hyper-commercialism have left very little room for our descendants in terms of both cultural resistance and distribution of resources. Anyone who contemplates rates of polar ice melting in 2016 can measure with horror what the second half of the 20th century has »added« to this new 1917 or 1930 in which we find ourselves: the most radical insecurity conceivable, eroding the essential components of life and their spontaneous renewal that make human life possible in the first place.
The third element, inseparable from the consumerist imagination and the proletarianizing of leisure, are new technologies, the anti-social dimensions of which have been sharply depicted by philosopher César Rendueles in his book Sociophobia.11 The so-called »social networks« have revolutionized human connections, displacing »reality« and »life« away from bodies, into a space incapable of distinguishing interior from exterior, private from public, before from after, and make thick memories and strong commitments increasingly tenuous and fragile. These networks bring to the fore what in bodies remains in the background: impulse and occurrence – all the contents of the »mind« – as uninterrupted actualization of what Massimo Recalcati calls a »man without unconscious«.12 The second half of the 20th century has left us this »man without unconscious«, who will never be »fascist« for the same reasons that he will never be »morally Kantian«, and who gives new colour to the return of the interwar period and its global de-democratization.
The fourth element is the globalization of terrorism, conceived as a homeopathic and decentralized radicalization of the Second World War, the majority of its victims being civilians. It is not that terrorism did not exist at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, but terrorism today can be said to intimately constitute the social order – it is, if you will, one of its supports, incrusted in the heart of our penal and ethical codes as a function of economic and moral reproduction. Since 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and much more in the context of global de-democratization referred to above, our political regimes have in some ways come to live in symbiotic relation to terrorism. Nestling in the most intimate places, dormant and invisible, terror constructs a fidelity to the post-democratic order in turn fuelled by responses to this terror, culminating in the abolition of Enlightenment law and common ethics. Terrorism gives bodily form to threats in a world of abstract wealth, and is for this reason inseparable from borders, racialization and identitarian contractions, as well as from the emergency laws that naturalize the loss of rights. What the second half of the 20th century added to Humanity and bequeathed to our era, then, is a de-universalization of social contracts and collective defences.
The absent alternative
Of the four elements »added« to this regression in the second half of the 20th century – from 2017 to 1917 and 1930 – it is easy to deduce the elements »eliminated«. We again have inter-imperialist wars, a global Weimar, and a general trend towards de-democratization. At the same time, we have the construction of an »enemy within« in Europe that this time assumes the form of Islamophobia (rather than the classical anti-Semitism). Consequently, we face the prospect of a social majority emerging that seeks to hierarchize populations around xenophobic and right-populist conceptions of belonging. We are experiencing a kind of neo-fascism, in the strict sense of claiming and legitimizing the necessity to restrict the enjoyment of civil and economic rights to one part of the population: »French – or English, or Spanish – first«.
What is missing in this repetition? In the first place, polarization or, what amounts to the same thing, an alternative. The 20th century has eliminated the possibility (and desire) for Communism, which mobilized millions of people and gave rise to governmental forms whose existence alone, although of questionable internal legitimacy, served to de-legitimize the capitalist system and its policies. Contrary to the situation in 1917, 2017 has no Russian Revolution on the horizon; unlike 1930, 2017 has no organized left with an independent role of its own in conflicts to serve as a counterpoint to and brake on neoliberal capitalism’s sudden and surprisingly grim prospects. Defeated from both outside and within, Communism today is beyond recovery for civil and democratic resistance and the construction of a progressive and republican majority. As for Social Democracy, its enthusiastic willingness to do the European Central Bank’s and the International Monetary Fund’s dirty work by enforcing austerity from Brussels has removed it as a viable option in the political game: its electoral collapse across Europe reflects and facilitates the growing rightward drift of social majorities. The left/right dichotomy has disappeared not into a globalized and transversal democracy, but rather into an unprecedented victory for the right, which now occupies veritably the entire political space. The left, which often looked down on what Jean-Claude Michéa calls the »conservative little people«13 – left this path open.
In this post-revolutionary Europe with its failed consumers and its proletarianized leisure caught in the »id« of the social networks, the popular alternative to the social damage caused by neoliberalism is not the »left« in any of its possible forms, but rather what writer and activist Amador Fernández Savater very rightly describes as the »anti-elite elites«, or »anti-oligarchical oligarchs«. The case of Trump and his surprising electoral triumph is the most blatant example. Billionaires have taken over the social discourse of the left – businessmen and financiers who, on top of benefiting from the capitalist excesses they denounce, preach neo-machismo, racist populism, and an identitarian status hierarchy. If there is a polarization, it is not as in the 1930s between the left and fascism, but rather one that opposes a very conservative and clearly »nationalist« right-wing populism to a capitalist liberal class that prepares the way for it with every measure it passes. Along with this we have another, »cultural« polarization confronting two mutually reinforcing »fascisms« (if I may abuse a term that does not strictly apply to our era), secular and religious, the frictions of which constrict the margin for non-aligned positions – in other words, for positions which claim only to uphold democracy and human rights. If the electoral choice is limited each time to choosing between the right and the far right (Clinton/Trump, Fillon/Le Pen would have been another example), then life choices are reduced in just as asphyxiating a way to »mine« and »someone else’s«.
The case of Spain
Confronted with this rapid swerve away from the hopes kindled in 2011 (»sinister« in a Freudian sense), southern Europe offers a fragile but striking exception. I refer to the three countries (Greece, Portugal, Spain) that remained dictatorships until the late 20th century, later joined the EU with great enthusiasm, and where the consumerist imaginary fully imposed itself parallel to the austerity policies that seemed to challenge or at least erode it.
The case of Spain is particularly striking. Why is the country most Catholic in the world in 1975 the least homophobic today? Why is the country whose failed »national project« was founded on the basis of the exclusion of the Other now the least racist and xenophobic? Why, as Sergio del Molino recalls, is the country most atrociously fractured by civil war eighty years ago the least violent and most tolerant today? Why, in some ways, is Spain the only country in which neither right-wing populism nor cultural »fascism« are on the rise, at least comparatively speaking?
I would say that, as in Greece and Portugal, this advantage has to do with a defect or a lack: the total eradication of historical memory. In order to explain the cultural consequences of franquismo, I have sometimes cited the Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun (died 1406), who asks in his Muqqadimah »why God made the Hebrews wander for forty years in the desert«. Ibn Khaldun explains that these forty years, the lifespan of an entire generation, were needed to wipe out »the memory of slavery«. In the case of Franco, on the other hand, forty years were needed to forget the memory of freedom. Spain joined the EU and plunged itself into the consumerist imaginary with very little memory, and, forty years after the dictator’s death, has for better or worse preserved no roots from its past, as shown by the fact that even the Spanish patriotic right, the actual Francoist heirs, have abandoned the word »patria« as an identitarian catalyst, in favour of »brand Spain« – a liberal-commercial shopkeeper logic that left the term »patriotism« free for recuperation »by the left« years later in the form of Podemos.
The truth is that Spain, shook by the crisis with cataclysmic force and in which the bipartisanism that had arisen from the so-called »democratic transition« noisily lost its legitimacy, was already a country shorn of memory, without traditions or flag – »reformatted«, as it were, by a combination of repressive consensus and what Pasolini called »mass hedonism«. A country without memory is a country at the mercy of the winds, fickle and in a state of post-truth; a country in which anything can happen. What ultimately happened was the most unexpected, or at least the most contrary to the other European countries, which remain victims of their own national histories: the 15M movement, an occupation of public places in the style of the »Arab spring« which symbolically destroyed the »regime of 1978« and its political parties of right and left in May 2011, inoculating at least half of all Spaniards against any kind of economic right-wing populism and cultural neo-fascism. It did so by naming those responsible for the crisis: not immigrants but banks, not economic cycles or working-class largesse, but politicians and their anti-social measures. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of young people with no memory of either the civil war nor the tricks of the transición, who neither questioned the legitimacy of the monarchy nor had any links to the militancy of the left, spent several weeks on the streets decrying the legitimacy of the regime of 1978 – »they don’t represent us« (»no nos representan«) – and demanding »democracy«.14
According to polls, up to 85 per cent of Spanish citizens supported or expressed sympathy with the demands of 15 May, in turn explaining the tremendous success of the new Podemos party in the European elections of 2014 three years later, hastily founded to take advantage of the growing social divide and (with a programme that was of the left, but with no label other than that of common sense and transversal revulsion against homicidal austerity) position itself as an alternative to the PP and the PSOE, the parties that had alternately held power since 1982. After a dizzying electoral cycle (the municipal and regional elections of May 2015, the two general elections of December 2015 and June 2016), Podemos and movement organizations allied with it obtained an unprecedented level of institutional representation, albeit one insufficient to take over government, constitute a southern alternative to France and Germany, or press the EU to change its economic policy in favour of the crisis’s victims (or, more precisely, of its destructive »ideological« management).
Spain continues, in any case, to be a »fragile exception« to the de-democratization that has overpowered most European societies. It is an »exception« because the half of the country deprived of memory has rediscovered politics by way of »democracy«, rather than through the old »workerism« or xenophobia. On the other hand, it is »fragile« because not only is this half opposed to the other half, with its manipulated memory frozen in the »regime of 1978«, but it is also opposed to the general tendency in Europe and the whole world. Moreover, the defeat of the forces of change, whether entropic or induced, would leave this »forgetfulness«, disenchanted amid the ruins, at the mercy of the »right-populist revolution« and its authoritarian alternatives.
We are returning, definitively, to the inter-imperialist wars of 1914 and the authoritarianism of the 1930s – but with nuclear weapons, a commercial imaginary, social networks, climate change and structural terrorism, and without an organized left or systemic alternative. The awareness of a Great Regression or an »end of civilization« – the sense that capitalism no longer guarantees order, not even a bad one, and that nothing exists outside of it beyond a void and Mafioso feudalism – favours the authoritarian options currently imposing themselves on all sides. Ultra-liberal freedom is receding in favour of protectionist and security-driven despotism. Democracy, both political and economic – so exceptional in history and without which civilization is lost – will again be the loser. It is hard to think about the consequences of this development without growing anxious about our shared future.
Translation David Fernbach
1 The year of publication of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
2 »[I]n opposition to the willingly accepted doctrine that the progress of humanity is ever onwards and upwards, more cautious reflection has been forced to make the discovery that the course of history is in spirals; some prefer to say epicycloids; in short, there have never been wanting though but veiled acknowledgements, that the impression produced by history on the whole, so far from being one of unmixed exultation, is preponderantly melancholy. Unprejudiced consideration will always lament and wonder to see how many advantages of civilization and special charms of life are lost, never to reappear in their integrity, when any form of culture is broken up« (Hermann Lotze, Microcosmos: An Essay Concerning Man and His Relation to the World, vol. 2, Hansebooks, 2017 , p. 144).
3 See his well-known »Theses on the Philosophy of History«, 1940. In »Zentralpark«, a collection of fragments he penned down in 1938/39, Benjamin states: »Der Begriff des Fortschritts ist in der Idee der Katastrophe zu fundieren. Daß es ›so weiter‹ geht, ist die Katastrophe« (Charles Baudelaire. Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus, in: ders., Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. I.2, S. 683).«
4 In a recently published work, Althusser stresses that materialist philosophy specifically accepts that »the world is full of things that are ›of no use at all‹ […]. It is a matter of recognizing that there are losses that are absolute (that will never be made good), failures without appeal, events without meaning or sequel, undertakings and even entire civilizations that come to naught and vanish without a trace in the nothingness of history, like those big rivers that disappear in the desert sands« (Louis Althusser, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017, p. 34).
5 Henri-Charles Puech, En quête de la Gnose (2 vols), Paris: Gallimard, 1978.
6 »Le nouveau désordre mondial«, available online: http://www.esprit.presse.fr/tous-les-numeros/le-nouveau-desordre-mondial/2014_08/09 (retrieved April 2017).
7 Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, London: Saqi, 2013.
8 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, London: Abacus, 1989.
9 Danilo Zolo, Victors’ Justice: From Nuremberg to Baghdad, London: Verso, 2009.
10 Bernard Stiegler, Symbolic Misery (2 vols), Cambridge: Polity, 2015.
11 César Rendueles, Sociophobia: Political Change in the Digital Utopia, New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
12 Massimo Recalcati, L’uomo senza inconscio, Milan: Raffaello Cortina Editore, 2010.
13 Jean-Claude Michéa, Les mystères de la gauche, de l’idéal des lumières au triomphe du capialisme absolu, Paris: Flammarion, 2013.