To be a stranger in this world – an Archimedean point for radical politics

“Whoever obeys the laws lives as a stranger here on earth. Thus we read in Psalm 119:19: “I am a stranger in the earth: hide not thy commandments from me.” Staying true to the law means living as a stranger on earth, even in the Promised Land. The law circumscribes a counterfactual order that compels its people to dwell in the world without entirely being assimilated to it. Monotheism fosters an existential unhomeliness. This estrangement from the world is what is meant by “progress in intellectuality.” (1)

“Modernity has no foundation, since it emerged in and through the destruction and deconstruction of all foundations. In other words, modernity is founded on freedom. There is nothing new in this thought, for in fact all representative modern thinkers and all modern foundational documents (for example, constitutions) confirm and reconfirm it. What I wish to do is to interpret it. The modern world is based on freedom: that is, freedom is the arche of the modern world. Yet freedom is entirely unfit to serve as an arche, because it is a foundation that does not found. As a Grund – to speak with both Hegel and Heidegger – it opens the Abgrund: that is, the ground opens the abyss. And since the modern world is based on freedom, on an arche that cannot found, it remains a world without foundation, a world that continuously has to reinvent itself. This is one of the main reasons why all the constructed models of the modern world are abstract, in the Hegelian sense of the word, and by definition counterfactual, and why all coherent narratives ring true for no more than a few decades.” (2)


Paul Delvaux, Landscape with Lanterns (1958)

There is a common argument that says that the problem of the recent decades is the eclipse of class struggle politics (from the left) and the rise of cosmopolitanism, ‘identity politics’ (left and right of the political spectrum) and struggles for legal recognition of minority groups. It suggests that a majoritarian resentment has generated a backlash (true) in which forms of majoritarianism – from the resurgent nationalism, to populism and even a crass racist secularism – have arisen. Indeed, this argument is often presented as a form of conspiracy that saw global ruling class power defeat the nation state and/or working class organization and, incidentally or intentionally, promote these ineffectual new politics. However, it might be more true to say that ‘class struggle politics’ fell into meaninglessness following a titanic struggle when the system reconstituted itself while those that identify with this majoritarian resentment are not the victims of power but rather the ensnared in an infantile drama that occasionally serves constituted power and might be the handmaiden to a terrifying resurrection of the basest forms of politics that modernity has precipitated.

In light of 1968 and the various ‘movements of the sixties’ the more advanced representatives of capitalist power understood that a renovation of the apparatus of legitimation was needed. This meant sweeping away the fusty old order of censorship and ‘moral’ watchfulness – succinctly illustrated in France where the cinemas that could not show the banned Vivre Sa Vie ten years before now played Contes Immoraux– while allowing the logic of commodification to colonise growing parts of social life. A mercurial intervention that expanded the horizon of freedom while distorting its meaning and praxis. The economic shocks of the seventies signalled the need to reconstitute the economic foundations of the old order as well.

So, this reconstitution had a number of fronts that are interrelated but not determinate of each other. The end of the social democratic era and the turn toward cosmopolitan capital under American hegemony took place at the same time as the struggles for recognition fought the political representatives of economic transformation. Despite Thatcher and Reagan being socially reactionary, society, including to some degree the future stewards of the system, ultimately decided in favour of the struggles for recognition (minimum programme). How much the ideology of cosmopolitan capital and the notion of human beings as anonymous, fungible and autonomous economic agents dovetailed with the social movements demanding the prising open of the closure of inherited identities, is a moot point that deserves further investigation.

With the fall of the consumerist dream that replaced the social democratic one, some have taken cosmopolitan capital and the struggles for recognition as not only allies but as essentially synonymous. With the end of these dreams and the certainty of an unknown future and the possibility it will not be pacific but malign and tempestuous, the desire for a ‘genuine’ place in the world not threatened by the Other arises from the infantile interior of the self. Due to a general crisis of meaning and ends in modern society, people on the right and left overwhelmingly  look for some kind of monolithic power to take them in hand.

No quarter must be given to this tendency. Democracy was forged by working class struggle because the impoverished masses knew they were strangers in this world. The bureaucratisation of the workers movement ended its revolutionary role in so far as it found a place in the world for significations created by a movement of people that were not so much practicing a rejection of the world as were rejected by the world. Similarly, in repudiaing inherited identity, the struggles for recognition of the post-68 era intimated that they were strangers in a world who needed to reconstitute or found themselves as subjects anew. Our groundlessness in this world, the fact we don’t know why we are here, and that we have to give meaning to our own lives, ends and projects, is the very condition of freedom. If being a stranger in the world led in the Axial age to a progress in intellectuality, it also stands for an opening of possibilities.

Letting traditional forms of identity circumscribe us smothers freedom and leads to its opposite, a harsh regime that imposes society’s goals and its subject’s identities from above (and ultimately in heteronomy). The project of human autonomy must always include the struggle for economic equality but economic equality in itself is not the project for human autonomy, as the human personality has needs that overshoots the bodies requirement for decent sustenance and shelter.

The revolutionary project has more than once been broken by an abstract rejection of the world and the concomitant danger of millenarianism. Thus, we cannot reject the world as constituted in toto. A conceptualization of ourselves as strangers in a world that is not our own, and as human beings who can only make good this baffling situation by creating society as autonomous individuals, a situation that cannot be naturalized or justified, nor escaped or overcome, but can only be worked upon is the Archimedean point for the project of human autonomy.

By Joe R.

(1) Jan Assman, The Price of Monotheism (2010, Stanford University Press).

(2) Agnes Heller, The Three Logics of Modernity and the Double Bind of the Modern Imagination (May 2005, Thesis Eleven Volume 81).


Escape From Brexit Island

“The island and the enclosed town therefore form a representation to which historical factors have given a form and a substance but which are nonetheless linked to the unconscious fantasy, which is non-historical and which we seek to uncover…

The island and the enclosed gardens within it constitute a representation of the maternal womb in which the child finds an immediate satisfaction of his needs. So a return to the uterus and a new fusion with the mother are experienced. The inhabitants of the enchanted islands are therefore a horde of brothers who have taken possession of the mother, having banished the father.”(1)

Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel


Ithell Colquhoun, Decoration for a Childrens Waiting Room (1936)


Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead (1886)

Origins of Brexit?

Many reasons have been given for Brexit – reasons that when aggregated might account for why a slim majority of the British people backed Leave in the June 2016 referendum (a majority of the 72% of eligible adults who actually voted). Yet we think there was one significant reason behind the Leave vote and it was identified by most observers shortly after. That reason was racism – and it enabled the Leave campaign to effectively turn a referendum on continued EU membership into a plebiscite on immigration and stoke Islamophobic fears about Turkey’s ‘imminent’ accession to the EU.

Many commentators searching for the longer term factors behind Brexit have invoked a political backlash against Britain’s ruling elite and political class. Only recently Will Hutton pointed to the role of the 2008 financial crash in eroding public confidence in the economic system and polity. The economy was radically reshaped in the 1980s via financial deregulation, privatisation and the removal of regulatory safeguards in the banking sector that would have prevented the risk and speculative excess that laid the ground for the financial crash. Instead the state was compelled to step in and nationalize the banks bad debt and liabilities at the eye watering cost of unknown billions to the British taxpayer and households.

Yet the global financial collapse might have been more severe – remarkable given its effects are still apparent in the hit taken by incomes and living standards in Britain, a decade later. As noted, the state – or rather its treasuries in the US, the UK and elsewhere decisively intervened by quarantining risk and bad debt and by reducing borrowing costs to zero and providing almost limitless liquidity (quantitative easing) and other measures. In 2010 Cameron and Osborne squeaked into government with the aid of the Liberal Democrats, formed a coalition and declared the necessity for vicious belt tightening and austerity. The diagnosis was profligate state spending and it was dubiously suggested this was the root cause of the 2008 meltdown rather than the unregulated avarice of the financial sector. As a confidence trick it displayed real chutzpah. When Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats ‘swallowed’ this bogus fable, students and households were thrown under the bus as the price for their ministerial posts and Cameron and Osborne’s credibility received a great boost. The 2008-9 national mood music that firmly blamed a footloose banking system was shredded in 2010.

But does this Brexit explanation hold water? Leave voters were supposedly the most distrustful of experts, elites and Westminster’s political class but otherwise displayed remarkable trust in the establishment – accepting Cameron’s argument that excessive state expenditure on services and welfare had to be drastically reined in. Cameron and Osborne had in mind the relatively discreet spending undertaken by Blair’s New Labour government on tax credits, Sure Start, eliminating the NHS waiting list (spending that was hugely popular), though it’s hardly likely they believed their own economically illiterate propaganda that Blair and Brown were somehow responsible for the global financial crash (the Tories had supported the measures Brown took to stave off the financial meltdown).

Finally such explanations not only err in their economic determinism or in elevating the economic above the political, social and cultural but obscure the fact the ‘economic’ is itself mediated by the ideological, cultural and the political. If the ‘economic’ was experienced immediately or as the dominant factor of experience, then economic shocks would be apprehended with lucidity. No two economists can fully agree on what the ‘economy’ is doing, why should ordinary citizens be of one mind? In principle we reject the primacy of the economic – a prejudice of Marxism and historical materialism, which is guilty of reductionism because the assumption everything flows from the material production and reproduction of social life, also assumes aspects of the social imaginary of society, the cultural or religious for example, are secondary or nugatory because the ‘economic’ is their truth, when instead in many instances its clear they have their own autonomous logic.

Neither is the idea of social inequality as an underlying driver of Brexit, particularly credible as an explanation. Social inequality might be an important factor but only in complex ways via the social and cultural significations and representations of individuals and social groups, meaning they are contested and admit of different views.

Struggles for recognition can strengthen or lead to the formation of social groups, fostering collective political will formation that refer in a feedback loop to common ethical or political horizons. So, a careful analysis of complex social reality is always necessary. Scotland demonstrates this point well. Every region of Scotland voted Remain in contrast to the far more sceptical English and Welsh. This suggests – to simplify greatly – that different political or cultural factors were shaping the ‘economic’ in Scotland to those operating in England and Wales. Also it is clear that Britain’s ruling elite and state managers care little for Scottish opinion or welfare and arrogantly assume Scotland will ultimately submit to the likely painful separation from the EU. Unionist disregard for Scottish wishes is likely to provide extra impetus to a second independence referendum. An establishment Unionist campaign that tried to repeat ‘Project Fear’ (jobs, industry and investment lost if Scotland separated from the rest of the UK) would mark a monumental hoax, blatant hypocrisy and ‘bad faith’ and yet it is hard to imagine the British establishment taking another course. As a possible hard Brexit looms possibly with a potential ultra-Thatcherite government, opinion in Scotland may favour steps to escape the dysfunctional relationship with the British state, and gain independence.

Yet there are some limits to the formation of solidaristic social groups via struggles for recognition, at least those modelled after more traditional collective struggles. The waning of worker’s struggles with the reorientation of the labour market away from the types of employment that provided a heuristic environment for the productivist centred ideologies of Social Democracy and Labourism (for myriad reasons not all determined by the strengthening of British capital vis a vis labour as is often assumed) has paralleled the all but total dominance of the ‘culture industry’ in mediating reality for most people. Indeed, as is often the case, it has been those excluded from the social imaginary’s normative horizon as mediated by the ‘culture industry’, that have proved the most effective partisans keeping alive the struggle for recognition. For example, the struggles of Black and LBGT peoples and other oppressed groups, have achieved the most conspicuous success stories of the last few decades, by prising open the closure of inherited social relations and opening up a space for the creation of new identities that allowed more autonomous, less psychically painful lives. We would argue that Brexit (like the Trump camp in American society) is a reaction against these struggles by those who cannot accept the legitimacy of new identities anymore than they can tolerate seeing Polish shops in their locality or overhearing Romanian in the local shopping precinct.

We have left aside the actual conduct of the referendum by both the Leave and Remain campaigns – for example, is clear now the Leave campaign illegally overspent, used Facebook data to micro target racist messages, accepted billionaire donations and still unknown sources of funding while Russian state social media avatars, also promoted Leave. Clearly all these factors impeded open, transparent and informed debate – a minimum for authentic, democratic will formation to take place. However one pivotal reason influenced the way people voted and that reason was racism. It was the rocket fuel of the Leave campaign, an ugly reality starkly underlined when the fascist Thomas Mair killed the Labour MP Jo Cox outside her constituency surgery a week before the poll.

Racism and Brexit

Much of the commentary leading up to the EU referendum sought to assure us the campaign debate would focus on prosaic constitutional arguments but as anyone who really understood British society was aware even before the campaign began in earnest, racism was likely to dominate. The general tendency to see racism as a moral failing or, as on the left, a tool of the powerful to maintain class rule by dividing the body politic and creating a constituency resistant to radical reform and supportive of the status quo, is of some relevance perhaps but if we were to end our argument here, we wouldn’t go any deeper than the surface of the referendum while the subterranean drivers of the issue would remain obscured.

Racism in Britain has deeper roots that prefigure the political. As we noted at the time of the campaign, long before the murder of one of the country’s most impressive anti-racist MPs, the referendum was a straight thumbs up or down to sanction more racism. This view was confirmed immediately after the result with many interpreting it as legitimising racist opinion. For these individuals when racism reaches a certain threshold and is seen as everyday doxa, it is no longer even racism. After all what is a referendum if not the ultimate act of legitimising a form of political speech and making the unreasonable seem reasonable? The referenduresult enabled bigots who would have previously hesitated, to openly air their prejudices. Private and not so private whispers desiring amplification and those who believed the right to be openly racist, had been won back by the conduct of the national ‘debate’ and its result, therefore felt empowered.

This should be honestly acknowledged as sections of the left have floundered getting to grips with the hatred that underpinned the referendum and the post-referendum political conjuncture. This left – supporters of the so-called Lexit – has been in denial about the racist furies unleashed by the referendum. Brexit demonstrated that the established political parties do not automatically represent the views of economic power or straightforwardly ‘privilege’ the material interests of the dominant elite. The left often assumed Tory leaders would never endanger the economy, that despite the Little England mentality of its members and some of its MPs, a combination of Tory pragmatism and the Tory-Business troika would prevent the ‘lunatics’ taking over the asylum. Some leftist claims that EU migrants immigration status would be secure due to the functional needs of the economy echo capital’s own ideological claims about its inherent rationality.

Perhaps David Cameron shared this calculation and believed he could deliver a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, simultaneously winning for the Remain campaign and exorcising the demon of Britain’s EU membership as a toxic issue within the ranks of the Tory party. However the whole referendum campaign and subsequent events have demonstrated that economic interest by definition is not homogenous and that what constitutes economic interest is also selectively shaped by aspects of the social imaginary, by politics or ideology and the latter is not identical with former. A startling example was Boris Johnson – still Britain’s Foreign Secretary at the time – reportedly remarking “fuck business” to restive audience of policy experts and anxious representatives of capital reluctantly pushed into publicly lambasting the government’s failure to reassure business, home and abroad, that their needs – a relatively smooth transition to post-Brexit arrangements with the EU that didn’t endanger their markets, their supply lines, raise costs or threaten their bottom line – were uppermost in negotiating Brexit with the EU. There was a broader cultural matrix of significations at work overriding ‘economic’ concerns while incidentally disclosing that politics was not “concentrated economics” as Lenin had once said. Rather, politics legitimises certain ways of being in the world, politically articulates the categorisation of meaningful significations on the level of social power and regulates the boundaries of acceptable opinion/action.

We have seen that political power can stake out social coalitions based on significations and representations cutting across social and class divisions. Brexit like Trump’s US triumph on a platform that pitted ‘America First’ against the forces of globalisation championed by most sections of US capital and the return of exclusionary nationalism, represent the destruction of the idea of capitalism as a total system. Indeed, the ‘rationality’ of capitalism is itself a fiction, a truth strikingly confirmed by the warming of the planet. What is evident here is not the logic of the system running out of control – the orthodox opinion – but the anonymous aggregation of various power structures and the ultimately blind, partially successful pursuit of power projects (including those with a popular component) producing unintended consequences that instrumental reason could not foresee (domesticated as ‘side effects’ from the dominant perspective). When the ‘rational’ illusion cannot be sustained any further as has happened several times in several places in the history of capitalism, then the potential for a terrifying interregnum appears. As Claude Lefort argued:

“…when power appears to have sunk to the level of reality and to be no more than an instrument for the promotion of the interests and appetites of vulgar ambition and when, in a word, it appears in society, and when at the same time society appears to be fragmented, then we see the development of the fantasy of the People-as-One, the beginnings of a quest for a substantial identity, for a social body which is welded to its head, for an embodying power, for a state free from division” (2).

In capitalism, where the dominant operational perspective is instrumental reason the criterion of success is simply economic growth and preventing society collapsing, rather than realising the ends of goal orientated action. ‘Things’ only tend to fall apart when they are too heavy to be caught, while the creativity of society remains capitalism’s enabling condition preventing social collapse. Indeed contra accelerationist opinion, the torpid pace of daily life creates spaces for countless makeshift solutions from below demonstrating that social collapse is rare though entropy might yet be the fate awaiting us all. In any case this only captures the zone of rational action. The Marxist critique famously acknowledges the possibility of social collapse as the mutual ruin of the contending classes but, as always with Marxism, we are given a projection of the problem into the economic-functional realm and here social crises are ultimately a disturbance of material life which can either end in progression to a higher level of economic rationality or collapse to a lower level.

It is a characteristic of capitalist ideology (including that prisoner of capitalist rationality, Marxism) that mass psychology is seen as a reflection of socio-economic trends and social crisis as an epiphenomenon of the economy. We have today what Cornelius Castoriadis identified as the collapse of meaning in society. The phantasm of everlasting growth and Progress resting on this premise, is a historical shipwreck but what ran aground was not the economic trend per se but an ontological vision.

The articulation of ontological visions that order social life more generally and where we derive our understanding of who and what matters has had to deal with the collapse of the capitalist future of eternal growth (and the socialist future of material abundance). Today a cultural ordering that is ultimately values based and excludes the Other, is uppermost. It is clear now that a historical analysis of political power in capitalism as an instrument of economic power is itself an untenable ideological construct. The encroaching entropy of capitalist modernity in the absence of a new ontological vision of what society’s means and ends – or fundamental raison d’etre – are, leads to a collapse into a metastasising universal hatred and scapegoating of the Other(s) which springs from the most archaic levels of psychic life.

Why Racism?

“Racism is the offspring, or a particularly acute and exacerbated avatar – I would be tempted to say a monstrous specification – of what, empirically, is an almost universal trait of human societies. What is at issue is an apparent incapacity to constitute oneself as oneself without excluding the other, and this is coupled with an apparent inability to exclude others without devaluing and, ultimately, hating them(3).

Cornelius Castoriadis

Famously Castoriadis revised Sigmund Freud’s argument in ‘The Future of an Illusion’ that many aspects of social life reveal a tendency to lean on the desire to return to an unmediated state of self-representational pleasure before socialisation. Misoxeny (or the hatred of strangers), Castoriadis argues is a form of self-hatred projected outwards. The pre-self and socialised self dichotomy is transferred from a psychic to a social relation, first as self and others, and later, when socialisation is more or less ‘complete’, as ourselves and others. The archaic self of limitless representative pleasure despises the socialised self for its compromise with reality – the domain of non-pleasure. The perfect ‘I’ (or ‘I’-mother) that needed no one else, at least as far as itself alone was concerned, here re-emerges to claim that our group needs no others as the Other is calamitous, evil, ignorant, the lazy and so on. The others – those who speak different languages or have different cultural traditions, must be devalued. If this obloquy was not directed at the Other, it would represent a tremendous narcissistic wound to the archaic, perfect self. This self would have to tread the painful path of becoming another and adopt a democratic, cosmopolitan worldview that essentially derived from the recognition of the Other. Patently this is a difficult, painful path for many.

It is surely no coincidence research often indicates that racism in Britain is strongest where there are fewer black or brown people, migrants or East Europeans. ‘Distance’ would appear to exacerbate racist and xenophobic anxieties while any reminder of the reality of urban Britain, of its multicultural cities, is a rude intrusion on the archaic, narcissistic self. Also the Tory party has long relied both explicitly and implicitly on racism to form a reliable social base and voters. Only recently it was revealed that Tory ministers suppressed many different academic studies since 2010 demonstrating that migrant workers didn’t impact the wages and employment of ‘native’ workers. Again we see two contradictory imperatives clash: the Tories requirement for an unenlightened electoral base and business’s need for access to cheap, flexible labour. But there are pockets of Britain like Boston in Lincolnshire where a relatively rapid influx of East European workers into a monocultural area has fuelled support for the right. An interesting aspect of this racism is that competition for employment can hardly be the ‘cause’ of local hostility and racism. Castoriadis’s psychoanalytical conception of the hatred of strangers, the projection of self hatred (misoxeny) is far more convincing as an explanation – ‘local’ people suddenly have to ‘tolerate’ Polish shops or hearing the Romanian language in town. Also the question of work retains some relevance but not how the left might imagine – competing for the same employment, effecting wages and conditions and so on, but rather the presence of migrant workers living both among and apart from ‘locals’, breaks a spell because it is an unwanted disclosure that the fruit and vegetables found in the local supermarket is derived from the low paid labour of Eastern European migrants.

The Far Right Rises

The voyage to Brexit Island is only a tendency of the psyche but like the appeal of Viktor Orban’s Fortress Hungary, the AfD’s weird mix of German nationalism, Nazi apologia and Stalinist nostalgia, and Matteo Salvini’s migrant and Roma free Italy, it is a path that many people across Europe are increasingly gravitating towards. Salvini claims the escalating violence against migrants and refugees is an “invention” of the left and declares the “good times” are over for “illegals”.

In successive national elections across Europe, parties of the populist right, many emerging from the fringes of the far right and neo-fascism, have appeared on the political scene. One aspect of the right’s renascence is how the logic of electoral participation has dictated a degree of convergence with more traditional elements of conservatism, leaving the ‘post-fascist’ far or populist right looking little different from the ‘respectable’ mainstream electoral parties, in their business suits. At least this is the picture on the continent where fascist street movements exist but where ‘post-fascist’ right populist electoral parties enjoy far greater presence in town halls and local or national parliaments, than is the case in Britain.

The latest advance for the far right is Sweden after the populist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats (SD) won 17.6% of the popular vote for the Riksdag in September 2018. The SD was founded in 1988 but didn’t break through the 5% threshold to give it seats until 2010. Some commentators have suggested the poll indicates a polarisation between the left and right in the electorate rather than an unambiguous triumph for the far right. Formally this might be so but part of the gloom felt by many relates to the fact that a party rooted in neo-Nazism won increased support though it did not do as well as some commentators had feared. Since the last election 163,000 migrants and refugees arrived, many of them Muslims, and the SD painted these migrants as an existential threat to Swedish life, social peace, language, culture and identity but also a drain on the already tight resources of the welfare state. In contrast though Sweden’s Social Democrats (SAP) are still the largest party (28.4%), a feat pulled off in every national election since 1917, the poll result was SAP’s lowest vote share for a century. All the parties constituting the Left bloc and the Right bloc have won support hovering just above 40% mark and that means the SD which doesn’t currently belong to the Right bloc could potentially play the role of political kingmaker though potentially weeks of negotiation separate this election from final agreement on a viable coalition or minority government.

This latest breakthrough for the ‘post-fascist’ populist right happened in the same week Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, defied the EU in the European parliament in Strasbourg which is on the verge of triggering article 7 that sanctions a member state for violating EU principles by removing its voting rights. Hungary is charged with undermining an independent judiciary and media and discriminating against the Roma community, asylum seekers and refugees. Orban’s response was to attack EU hypocrisy on the migrant and refugee issue and suggesting Hungary, a “member of the family of Christian nations for a thousand years”, was being punished for refusing to become a “country of migrants.” Unsurprisingly Orban vowed to continue ‘defending’ Hungary’s heavily policed borders.

Across Europe political recidivism is growing as populist parties of the right stoke hostility to migrants and refugees. A grand rapprochement of all the most base, backward, reactionary political views and instincts is taking place. In France Marine Le Pen pushed the Front National to the next electoral level after losing the Presidential contest against Emmanuel Macron a year ago. The Front National has now been rechristened the Rassemblement National (National Rally) in a move to increase the party’s electoral influence. Marine Le Pen has downplayed the anti-Semitic, anti-Arab roots of her party in a tactical bid to gain more respectability’, a key to winning votes beyond the support the party already enjoys but elsewhere ‘post-fascist’ populist parties of the right are ramping up the anti-migrant, anti-refugee and Islamophobic rhetoric.

Significantly the ‘post-fascist’ populist and far right’s advocacy of an undifferentiated nativist heimat eliminating difference and erecting walls against the Other, is mirrored in the peculiar odyssey undertaken by sections of the left across Europe that has started to repudiate multiculturalism as a flawed imposition of the liberal centre and so on. While the right sees migrants and refugees as carriers of lawlessness and miscegenation, and wants to police and discipline the Other as a prelude to expulsion from Fortress Europe, the left appears warm and welcoming. Yet though the left often attacks Islamophobia when it rears its ugly head in Europe, it has turned its back on the ‘Arab Spring’, the revolts of the ordinary people across the MENA, against authoritarian, kleptocratic and – in the case of Syria – genocidal rulers. These revolts have been denounced as US, Saudi or Israeli inspired regime change, or led by Salafist jihadis, against anti-imperialist or secular governments.

In other words a major part of the left has denied the people of the MENA their agency and is guilty of the most egregious orientalism and Islamophobia. Yet as we noted on the domestic front the left’s Islamophobia isn’t so apparent. At present a majority of the left wishes to ‘integrate’ refugees and migrants into social life in Europe but also complains of the strain on the welfare state (though it remains true that most of its fire is directed at austerity) and the threat migrant workers pose to ‘native’ workers wages and conditions. In Britain a decade ago Gordon Brown talked of British jobs for British workers, prompting considerable criticism from the left. Today Jeremy Corbyn, who in his heart believes the EU is a bosses club, has coquetted with abandoning the free movement of labour (one of the EUs four pillars – free movement for goods, labour, capital and services) and decried low paid migrant workers under cutting the wages, conditions and employment of ‘British’ workers though the extensive research undermines this staple of the right.

The logic of a powerful subterranean desire to return to the pristine intra-uterine realm of the womb exemplifies the nativist fantasies of the ‘post-fascist’ populist right but also has its analogue on the left which decries globalisation, neoliberalism, the EU as a 
bosses club, and suggests an exit from this world is possible for a simpler, undifferentiated utopia or community. So social equality is a desirable good for many reasons not least because it is a reciprocal condition for the autonomy and democracy to flourish but for large sections of the left, social equality is explicitly or implicitly thought to be a higher good than autonomy or democracy because it is an unconscious place holder for a political community where difference has been eliminated. Globally there is a rising almost irresistible majoritarian sense of entitlement – a coalescing determination to build a social order fundamentally based on the exclusion of the Other. In many ways this reactionary “politics of fantasy” (Carl Schorske) marks a collective psychotic break with reality. For example, Brexit was more popular among the older people who were energised to vote for it in 2016 and who desire a pristine faux Britain that supposedly existed somewhere in the past. The return to the womb is simultaneously restorative and phoney.

The only answer to this baleful new ontological vision is a critical position that rejects both the unconscious fantasy of a pure place in the world and the hatred of others it often engenders and, also, the capitalist vision of unlimited growth (and its counter-cultural echo in Marxism). Rather, we need struggles for recognition within the open framework of democratic political and economic arrangements that firmly push back against the archaic psychic drives that are increasingly surfacing from the depths after the collapse of meaning in late capitalism. Also a commitment to accepting the future is fundamentally unknowable is necessary to replace the rose tinted backward looking reactionary gaze or the determinism of the grand future orientated historical narratives, that either mark fantasies of ‘purer’ times or ideological constructs, promissory notes for a utopia, that in reality would only deliver suffering, violence and murder.

by Joe R and Jules Etjim



(1) Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, ‘The Archaic Matrix of the Oedipus Complex in Utopia’ in Sexuality and Mind (1989, Karnac Press).

(2) Claude Lefort, ‘The Question of Democracy’ in Democracy and Political Theory (1988, Polity).

(3)Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘Reflections on Racism’ in World in Fragments (1997, Stanford University Press).

Notes on Syria and the Coming Global Thanatocracy

gericault 4

Theodore Gericault – from the preparatory paintings for The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819)


The Coldest Monster

In Thus Spake Zarathusta, Nietzsche called the state the coldest monster and we might add there is no state as cold as a thanatocracy. At present few genuine thanatocratic regimes actually exist but even using the most stringent definition (we use the loosest here), Syria unambiguously qualifies. Syria is a thanatocratic state whose kleptocratic ruling elite have tried to maintain their rule by freely resorting to genocide, systematically torturing and killing people on an industrial scale while using death, directly and indirectly to husband the populace in an escalation of governmental strategies to winnow targeted demographics and destroy those social ecologies felt to nourish rebellion. The genocidal destruction or disaggregation of some social groups by the thanatocratic state is accompanied by efforts to hothouse other demographics seen as compatible with the one overriding imperative: survival of the ruling elite.

Of course in the largely pacific global North and elsewhere many would look askance at the suggestion that Assad (and his allies) are responsible for the estimated half a million or more Syrian’s killed since 2011 as Assad certainly is. That is over half a million people killed out of a population of 22 million people while 5.6 million people have fled the country creating a grim refugee crisis with millions forced to live in sprawling camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and millions more displaced inside Syria. In his war to crush the revolt of the Syrian people, Assad and his allies have used tanks, fighter planes, rocket attacks, barrel bombs, white phosphorous, chlorine gas, sarin and other weapons, besieging towns, suburbs and villages – and their civilian populations.

Thomas Hobbes in Damascus

In a brief article ‘The Danger of a ‘State of Nature’’ written in September 2011 only months after the ‘Syrian Spring’ began, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the veteran activist who spent many years in Baathist prisons under pere Assad, Hafez, first voiced alarm about the degeneration of the popular rebellion against Assad. Saleh traced this dangerous turn to the revolution’s defensive militarisation – a shift that was itself a reaction to Assad’s pitiless counter-revolution (1).

The Syrian revolution (and the ‘Arab Spring’) is the most important historical event since the collapse of the Soviet Union but has received little of the attention it deserves. This is perhaps because the ‘Arab Spring’ whose ground zero was Tunisia, encountered powerful headwinds after the early period of rising struggle between 2010-11. The Egyptian revolution was fatally thrown back when the country’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi was removed after only a year in office, in a counter-revolutionary coup d’etat staged by Egypt’s military. Another reason for the Syrian revolution’s neglect is the failure of the global left, especially in Europe and North America, to build a solidarity movement in its support. Rather insofar as solidarity was extended to any party in Syria, Assad’s thanatocracy has been the main beneficiary. The global left has been largely indifferent to the crimes of a regime where life is subordinated to death and biological precarity is the rule – with physical, social and cultural death imposed on incomprehensible numbers of people.

Despite the suffering of its people, Syria is commonly observed through the prism of post-truth and nihilistic scepsis. Much of the global left has joined the burgeoning ranks of cranks on social media peddling conspiracy theories promoting the demonstrably false view that Assad’s murderous regime was the target of attempted US regime change while viewing Assad’s revolutionary opponents through the spectacles of orientalism and Islamophobia. This diabolical consensus omnium parroted Assadist propaganda portraying Assad as an embattled secularist fighting opposition dominated by Salafist jihadis. In seven years of Assad’s brutal struggle to smash the ‘Syrian Spring’, few have tried to acquaint themselves with what is actually happening in Syria or listened to the voices of ordinary Syrian’s – people who despite their suffering are literally either invisible or ciphers for the paranoid fears and anxieties of the global North’s citizens.

In an arresting appropriation Yassin al-Haj Saleh invoked the seventeenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes to grasp the danger that faced the Syrian revolution, the morbid signs it was descending into a “primordial” ‘state of nature’ because of the brutal counter-revolution of Assad’s ‘neo-Sultanic’ state (as Saleh later characterised the Baathist state). Ominously, Saleh believed the revolution had begun to mirror the counter-revolution in the course of defending itself. Adversity engendered a struggle dominated by the “politics of survival” while the ‘state of nature’ was in principle antithetical to reason – the foundation of any politics. The fall into the ‘state of nature’ foreshadowed the destruction of politics and politics was the lifeblood of any revolutionary struggle as it embodied the autonomy and self-determination of the people (2).

Descent into the ‘state of nature’ indicated society was “losing its self-control” and the crystallisation of a social trend present in the revolution itself. Within months the open, “civic minded” nature of the revolution’s early days apparent in the role of a variety of civil society groups, the visible activism of women and so on, started to erode as the people fought Assad’s “brutal power.” Saleh argued the degeneration was apparent in the readiness to resort to arms for self-defence and the growth of religious influence that saw inherited identities displace more inclusive, secular identities within the anti-Assad camp. Inevitably there was a transition from slogans repudiating Salafism while underlining the democratic aspirations of the revolt to slogans with more traditional Islamic or religious connotations. In the revolution’s early weeks, the street protests were “civil, emancipatory, and humanist” but quite rapidly the revolution’s “public face” began to speak the “language of Islam” (3).

In subsequent years Saleh revisited the changing role of violence in Syrian society – the atomisation of the populace brought about by Assad’s ‘torture state’ and the problems the revolutionary camp faced as violence as self-defence became more indiscriminate and threatened to demoralise and undermine the revolution itself with the transition to “ultraviolence” or “militant nihilism” as Saleh would characterise it, in particular connecting the latter to the millenarian goals of religious fundamentalism in his own evolving evaluation of the political role of Salafism.

Reflecting on Assad’s “killing machine” Saleh pointed to the impact of earlier military and civil conflicts in the region, the civil conflict in Lebanon and the coalition invasion and occupation of Iraq, to illustrate the elective affinity between civil war and sectarian war or what Thomas Hobbes called the ‘war of all against all’ – the ‘state of nature’ where hatred fed hatred and killing led to more killing in a mimetic cycle similar to the cycle of violence and bloodletting Rene Girard thought defined the periodic sacrificial crisis that visited any society. As Saleh observed:

“This is the supposed ‘natural condition’ of mankind, in which everyone is at war with everyone else, much as Thomas Hobbes described in his ‘Leviathan’, during the middle of the seventeenth century. But the state of nature is not in fact a ‘natural’ condition; it is a historical conjuncture” (4).

Intriguingly the political and social backdrop to Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’ (1651) was the English Civil War, a significant upheaval in what was an emerging capitalist society. The exact death toll from the three different phases of the civil war is not known though many historians estimate casualties as high as 180,000 dead from fighting and disease – about 3.6% of the population. A large proportion were combatants though about 40,000 civilians were among the dead. About 2% of the population are estimated to have been displaced. In comparison 2.6% of the British population was killed in the First World War though it must be conceded the English Civil War simply doesn’t compare with the modern mass fratricidal conflicts of either the C20th or our present century, where the nature of war and conflict clearly occupy an entirely different level altogether.


Detail from the title page of  Leviathan (1651)

In a recent, astonishing article ‘Love, Torture, Rape…and Annihilation’ written in exile, Saleh explores the relationship between hate, torture and rape against the backdrop of the Syrian experience. Saleh begins by noting how generally love unites humanity, especially the exclusive erotic love of lovers – it unites by separating ourselves from ourselves and so allows us to find ourselves. Love is revelation, mutual recognition and love as intimacy blurs boundaries as one becomes two or One of Us. In utter contrast torture annihilates boundaries in a quite different way, so as to pursue its victim into herself. Unlike love, torture is not a relationship but rather a non-bond of destruction that is brutally invasive and is conducted with a variety of goals and motivations by a torturer or the “torture state.” Saleh’s discussion is subtle and evidently derived from the experience of having spent many years in Baathist prisons. Yet the interest of Saleh’s analysis is its apprehension of certain global arguments about the nature of our age. Saleh distinguishes between three types of torture or violation. The first interrogatory or investigatory torture broadly aims to create a civil war within the individual victim so they betray themselves. In this circumstance an individual’s survival instinct and their commitment to a “higher obligation” or “social being”, are pitted against each other. In Syria before 2011 such objectives of torture might also include the destruction of proscribed opposition groups without necessarily aiming at the physical destruction of individuals. The second type of torture is retaliatory torture that aims to humiliate its victims and lead to either the physical or psychological destruction of the individuals. According to Saleh, Hafez Assad’s Tadmor prison and Bashar’s Saidnaya prison both aimed to “create an unforgettable memory, addressed far beyond the tortured person” to intimidate and deter the populace against rebelling. Thus, the tortured body was a “billboard” for obedience. The third type of torture, exterminatory, was self-explanatory.

The transition from death under torture to death by torture was consequential. It was a symptom of the systematic killing of people en masse on a regular basis over a more or less extended duration of time. In his essay on ‘necropolitics’ (discussed below) Achille Mbembe invoked the work of the Italian historian of the origins of the Holocaust Enzo Traverso who explored the affinity between the Nazi’s extermination camps and the industrial like processes of the production line characteristic of Fordist modernity. In 2013, a photographer employed by the Assadist state, known as ‘Caesar’ released 53,000 photos that constituted a routine bureaucratic catalogue of the emaciated waxy cadavers of those who had died under torture. In doing so ‘Caesar’, who fled Syria, provided a bleak glimpse of the state as organised killing machine – or as we contend, a thanatocracy. Saleh himself notes that all three types of torture have in practice blurred into the other two types while at a more general level pointing to a historical transition from one form of torture to the adoption of another form. For example, from the early 1970s until the early 1980s Syria may be said to have overstepped certain long established social boundaries or solidarities with the normalisation of torture. The ‘lesson’ of torture was intended to be internalised by everyone including the torturer who was transformed into a willing instrument of the ‘torture state.’ The transition to exterminatory torture – in our terms the transition to thanatocracy – was part of a genocidal continuum that disclosed the state had obtained “absolute freedom” to overstep human standards and boundaries without any normative or ethical limit other than the practical limit (5).

An important question arising from the Syrian tragedy is how much of what has unfolded in the last seven years encapsulates wider global trends in social conflict and war and how much events derive from trends immanent to Syrian society, to the specific nature or psychopathology of the Baathist state and its singular historical evolution? The answer to that question must surely be that a great deal is specific to the nature of what Saleh calls Assad’s ‘neo-Sultanic state.’ Yet it is also clear that Syria has a global significance in a variety of ways. For example, as Saleh argues in an interesting passage:

“There is a strong international dimension to the Syrian genocide that is almost unmatched in history and that could be linked, with further investigations, to emerging Islamophobia, as the most prominent form of racism in today’s world.”

Elsewhere in the same article Saleh pointed to the existence in Syria of a “permanent ‘state of exception’” specifically in relation to the fate of victims of torture. Also Saleh was alluding to an important debate about the contemporary nature of sovereign power (the state) in the globalised era especially the relations between the state, violence, the citizen, nomos, biopolitics, power and the state of exception. It was the Italian thinker and political theorist Giorgio Agamben who prompted this key debate about the nature and trajectory of sovereign power and the global state of exception in a number of works, particularly ‘Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life’ (1995) and ‘State of Exception’ (2003). Agamben did this by bringing together the threads of two different contributions to political theory in two different eras. Firstly, there was the subterranean debate between the conservative juridical thinker Carl Schmitt, who occupied important positions in the German legal establishment under the Third Reich, and Walter Benjamin about the ‘state of exception.’ The other strand drawn on by Agamben was Michel Foucault’s account of the biopolitical, biopower and governmentality.


Borrowing a neologism Achille Mbembe used in his influential essay ‘Necropolitics’ (2002), Assad has created “death-worlds” – deploying his “war machines” (6) in spaces or ‘zones of exceptions’ characterised by a unique form of social existence that has proliferated in the globalised era of late capitalism where whole populations become the object of the destruction unleashed by untethered or autonomous “war machines.” Populations are scattered, made “stateless”, exterminated, brutally subjected to resource or wealth extraction, deprived of the ability to make a living, besieged, subjected to “invisible killing” through starvation, coerced into becoming soldiers of the “war machine” and so on. Mbembe cited a Zygmunt Bauman article from 2001 suggesting sovereignty had become blurred in the era of globalised and asymmetric war. The emergence of martial non-state agents blurred the division between public and private and in some zones of the world overthrew the state’s monopoly of violence. This development was apparent with the appearance of “war machines” that could be said to function like private free booting mercantile organisations similar to the East India Company in the late eighteenth century. Often these “war machines” were at one remove from the state, or an extension of the state like a contractor able to work hand in glove with the state though this was not always so, and the relationship could be adversarial with the “war machine” fighting one or more states. The “war machine” might exploit transnational links and networks while operating in lawless crisis zones where the authority of the state was either weak or had broken down in a new age of ‘uncivilised wars’ as it was characterised by John Keane (7).

The collapse of formal economies or the struggle for resources or wealth might reinforce the dominance of the “war machine” or create the conditions for their rise such as the “militia economies” in civil war-torn parts of Africa. In some of these dystopian scenarios the “war machine” might aspire to displace or takeover the state and constitute itself as the sole sovereign power occupying a demarcated territory, effectively becoming a putative state. But in ‘New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in the Global Era’ (1999), Mary Kaldor observed that in some of these zones of conflict, the state encouraged the formation of armed groups or militias that would essentially operate at one remove from the state but on its behalf. For Kaldor the anatomy of war and conflict had been reshaped by neoliberalism and globalisation challenging the old Westphalian model of the inviolability of the state’s sovereignity and territorial integrity by bringing to the fore new transnational forces, potentially destabilising identity politics, the globalised war economy and the decentralisation of violence (8)

In this age, the coming age of thanatocracy as we will describe it, biological precarity was generalised as it touched more groups and populations. Also “governmentality” (Michel Foucault) is reshaped as contemporary forms of the subjugation of life to death – Mbembe’s necropolitics – change and populations become the object of the imposition of new techniques of policing and discipline. Mbembe’s overall argument strongly echoes Agamben’s own reworking of Michel Foucault’s account of modernity and biopolitics that Foucault sketched in his late 1970s College de France lecture course (9).

Agamben was interested in how biopolitics as a distinct aspect of sovereign power (the state) excluded certain groups, how the state or governmentality was characterised by a growing tendency to intervene in the lives of citizens to maintain a homogenous, racial identity. So how biopolitical strategies of sovereign power shaped the body politic with sovereign power capturing or promulgating ideological-imaginary narratives of racial and national identity and helped determine who was ‘inside’, a part of the citizenry, and who was ‘outside’, became a central issue of contemporary political thought (10).

Like Foucault’s biopolitics, Mbembe suggested the origins of necropolitics could be traced to the evolution of the modern state with its extension of the dispotif pouvoir underlining the powerful formative relevance of racism, colonialism, imperialism on necropolitics. The necropolitics of the state precipitated whole groups into the status of the “living dead” or placed particular groups outside of a population – literally as a foreign body. Groups like migrants and refugees were “becoming-object” and regarded as less than human. The modern state as the dominant sovereign power in most parts of the world, determined who mattered and who did not, who was a citizen and who should be cast outside the charmed circle of citizenship, who, finally was “disposable” (Mbembe). Populations who were marginalised or rendered invisible, could also be deprived of the full ability to make a living, forced to occupy an economically liminal space. An obvious example was the siege strategy of the IDF in Gaza and the West Bank, a peculiar combination of medieval and modern. Here we literally have a state of siege that is permanent, an indefinite form of the ‘state of exception’ whose end is hard to imagine or conceive. Whole populations were deliberately cut off from the possibility of pursuing any normal daily life in what was effectively a late colonial occupation where three powers overlapped and were condensed in sovereign power: disciplinary, biopolitical and necropolitical – with the power to give (shape) and withhold life.

Mbembe oddly claims that a weakness of Foucault’s conception of biopolitics was its failure to address the central issue of racism; that a population could be racially hierarchised. Elvira Basevich levelled a similar charge at Agamben claiming that the latter’s conception of the modern state retained a normative element because while the state qua sovereign power tacitly presupposed a legitimate citizenry invariably defined by the exclusion of the Other, so far as Basevich was able to judge Agamben hadn’t fully appreciated the degree to which the Other was identified on the ideological-imaginary grounds of ‘race’ or ethno-nationalism (11).

Necropolitics or thanatocracy?

Mbembe’s necropolitics thesis was a provocative reflection on war and conflict in the globalised era but there was a danger of downplaying the continued relevance of the state as sovereign power, of inadvertently proposing a normative understanding of the state when in fact the history of the state with the arrival of modernity, indicated the state to be a much less stable, more fluid entity than a dichotomy between state <> “war machine” would suggest. The state was still fundamental in the neoliberal, globalised era. It was a common misconception that the ‘neo-liberal turn’ of the 1970s meant a major scaling back of the state’s influence whether it was at the expense of transnational institutions or the world market. The picture of the changing role of the state – from the start the state was at the heart of the ‘neoliberal turn’ – was a great deal more complex than some of the misleading narratives of the state’s retreat. In addition, a defining axial feature of the global system was that it was still an ever shifting competing hierarchy of states though this wasn’t the only defining axial feature of late capitalism. This cautionary note proposing the state’s continued salience is not meant to imply Mbembe has radically misread the state’s fate but simply highlight that Mbembe’s understanding of necropolitics explicitly assumes the field of necropolitics is not exclusive to the state, that a non-state agency aspiring to sovereignty including exercising law making and law preserving violence as a manifestation of power (Walter Benjamin) in specific demarcated territories, could also practice necropolitics. Even so taking these strictures to heart and granting the relevance of necropolitics in the globalised era, we need to make clear what follows focuses on modern thanatocracy: loosely a state that regularly, systematically and actively puts significant numbers of its people to death (12).

The Assad State as Thanatocracy

To suggest the Assadist-Baathist state is a full blown thanatocracy doesn’t necessarily imply that it emerged from an unfolding internal logic defining all states or that thanatocracy merely occupies an identifiable location on a spectrum or typology of the modern state. Abstractly we may grant that any state could become a thanatocracy but of course in reality this is an extremely unlikely scenario for most states. That does not mean the Assadist-Baathist state as a thanatocracy is wholly singular or unique but recognising the Assadist-Baathist state as a thanatocracy merely takes us to the threshold of the analysis. Clearly all nation states claim a (territorial/defensive) monopoly of legitimate violence and ultimately that legitimacy refers not to the limits of violence any state might conceivably exercise but instead relates to the question of sovereignty: what power or authority is it that is able to exercise violence to maintain the social order and security of the state? The implication is that there exist no theoretical (or ethical) limits or boundaries to the violence that a state as sovereign power, might unleash, only practical limits. Ultimately, this is what makes a nuclear holocaust and humanity’s extinction, eminently possible. Exterminism was perhaps the reverse side of the coin of Jacques Camatte’s belief that global rebellion or social revolution was dead because capital had escaped the dance of death with its notional proletarian nemesis while humanity was undergoing a process of ‘domestication’ in late capitalism. Death and genocide were the heart of the state’s secret nature and this fundamental reality of the modern state was difficult to fully comprehend without the most sober of senses (13).

Sovereign power (the state) might appear to accept the ethical imperative or the popular will of the people (democracy and so on) or even diplomacy (international treaties and obligations) as limits or checks to the exercise of legitimate violence but this is deceptive because what sovereign power can apparently accept one moment, it may repudiate the next. Within the state, sovereignty ultimately resides in the cockpit of the executive, more or less insulated from any external popular pressure or influence. Therefore, in the final analysis, sovereign power will always resort to violence to safeguard itself as sovereign power. Leviathan would never repudiate itself.

When did Syria become a thanatocracy? Clearly Assad’s ferocious counterrevolution mobilised to crush the ‘Syrian Spring’, marked a qualitative step change in the murderous activity of the state’s extensive repressive apparatus but equally we might argue Syria had already crossed that Rubicon and become a ‘mass murder’ or “torture state” (Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s characterisation) at some point in the preceding four decades of Baath party ascendancy. This is the argument we favour because while it’s obviously true the killing has massively escalated since 2011 due to a scorched earth defence of Assad’s rule, a large proportion of those deaths would still have happened in the ‘normal’ course of Assadist rule but within the security and prison apparatus as they did before 2011 (14).

Global Thanatocracy?

Perhaps Syria is the only fully fledged thanatocracy within the global system today though a country like North Korea with its extensive if recently rationalised chain of gulags, that annually claims the lives of unknown thousands through starvation, shooting, disease and being worked to death, must be also be a candidate for this exclusive club. Yet there are other countries that are potential candidates for being classified as a thanatocracy. Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines is a marginal candidate and another – perhaps – less marginal candidate is Myanmar that has pursued the genocidal ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya Muslim minority. Yet while this brutal onslaught against the Rohingya Muslim’s is grave and horrific, it has been a temporally delimited act in terms of the military’s escalation of violence and terror whose chief objective is driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims into neighbouring Bangladesh while encouraging other ethnic groups to settle in the Rakhine region. However, we concede that as a borderline case this interpretation of Myanmar is open to dispute and invites further investigation. However, there should be no doubt the fate of the Rohingya people is not one whit less horrifying whether or not Myanmar is labelled a thanatocracy. Significantly, the Rohingya people have been denied citizenship in Burma/Myanmar since a 1982 Citizenship Law was introduced that extended citizenship to many different groups and ethnicities that are treated as part of the multi-ethnic social fabric of the country. This Citizenship Law was reinforced in July 2012 – only two years after the widely acclaimed arrival of democracy and return to civilian rule – when the civilian government released a list of the groups and ethnicities taken to be legitimate parts of Myanmar’s population. The Rohingya were omitted from the list.

Globally the subterranean biopolitical logic that assumes specific groups of citizens are discrete ethno-nationalist demographics belonging to a particular territory organised by this or that state, is increasingly visible and becoming an explicit theme of discourse across the political spectrum. In relation to Syria Yassin al-Haj Saleh traces the degeneration of the ideology of Pan Arabism, a faux radical ideology of the post-war years linked to anti-colonial, anti-Zionist radicalism, into its offspring Absolute Arabism of the 1970s. The telos of Absolute Arabism was paranoid, coercive uniformity and hostility to internal and external enemies (the former were the agents of the latter). After Hafez Assad’s seizure of power in 1970, Absolute Arabism eventually degenerated into a sectarian suspicion of the Sunni majority in Syria who were the object of a determined attempt to marginalise them and hold them down. The ‘official’ culture of the Assad ruling clique was seemingly secular and modern, supposedly setting its face against traditionalism. But this appearance (often intended for the consumption of the West) was extremely deceptive and in reality the ruling elite’s Absolute Arabism was profoundly contemptuous of the Syrian masses – racist and elitist and an echo of the West’s Islamophobia. In Syria, the ruling elite determinedly blocked genuine social mobility and operated like an internal First World complete with orientalist discourses. They sought to bolster their rule, wealth and power by favouring their own sects and allied clans. In Assad’s Syria, the sect has become a new form of fate – in Mbembe’s terms, the elite were practising a form of necropolitics by imposing a form of “invisible killing” on the marginalised masses (15).

In this context it is hard to deny that while the state as thanatocracy is relatively novel as a contemporary development, globally thanatopolitics is increasingly visible with the inflation of racism, nativism and nationalism in the context of social, economic and political crisis and arrival of decentralised war and conflict. As thanatopolitics metastasises the defence of the ethno-nation or its citizens defined against the Other becomes increasingly shrill, as Italy’s new coalition government of the Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement indicates. This newly elected government has wasted no time in attacking the Roma and refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe. The Other becomes a placeholder for all social ills of society, real and imaginary and the target of various moral panics that foreshadow the coming eco-malign emergencies and catastrophes of tomorrow. One ideological-imaginary technique that reinforces the faux ethno-nationalist identity, the imagined homogenous community where difference is eliminated, is to create a division between us and the Other that reflects the discursive bifurcation of inside/outside. The Other belongs outside not inside. If the Other somehow finds itself inside it is identified so it can be policed and administered and therefore eventually expelled or removed. The parabola of this logic is ultimately totalitarian.

Today Fortress Europe exemplifies this malign political logic as the refugee and migrant are painted as the socially disorientating carriers of disease, crime, unemployment, embodying reviled, unwanted religious faiths and cultures. Migrants and refugees are rarely regarded as potential citizens or the citizen elect as the disturbing drift of political tides in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Austria and elsewhere indicate. In Germany, which welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees many of them from Syria, Angela Merkel’s political capital is all but gone as her Coalition partners compel her government to row back on recent generosity toward migrants and refugees. Yet the free unfettered movement of labour – though a significant progressive social gain without any doubt – only existed within the borders of the European Union between its member states. Recently the Europe wide United for Intercultural Action (a network consisting of 550 antiracist groups), issued a report compiling the names of all the 34,361 refugees and migrants known to have died trying to reach Europe since 1993 of whom 27,000 of those named drowned in the Mediterranean. The UIA group admits this is a gross underestimate as many more unknown, unnamed refugees and migrants have died trying to reach Europe. Since 1993 European governments, of whatever political complexion, have adopted draconian, repressive and racist measures against migrants and refugees while diverting more resources to stopping this tragic human exodus reaching Europe (16).

The growth of nativism and racism across Europe is a barometer of the metastasisation of thanatopolitics or necropolitics as the defence of the citizen against the Other, who is a cipher for the coming eco-malign emergencies, a presentiment of catastrophe that increasingly colours global politics. As thanatopolitics spreads throughout political discourse and the national and global conversation, it threatens to extinguish all politics. The coming global thanatopolitics is inseparable from renascent fascism and comprehension of their malign troika is a precondition of effective resistance to them.

by Jules Etjim


(1) Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s article ‘The Danger of a State of Nature’ pp.65-76 appears in a ollection of his writings on the Syrian revolution ‘The Impossible Revolution: The Making of the Syrian Tragedy’ (2017).

(2) Ibid.p.65.

(3) Ibid. p.68.

(4) Ibid. p.75. Interestingly C.B Macpherson has queried the traditional, near universal reading of what Hobbes was arguing with his ‘state of nature’ hypothesis – suggesting that it wasn’t intended as an actual historical account of pre-state societies or proposing that a ‘war of all against all’ was inevitable in the absence of a sovereign power (the state) to “overawe” all ‘men.’ This is an argument we intend to revisit in the near future. See C.B Macpherson ‘The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke’ (1979 edition) pp.19-46.

(5) Yassin al-Haj Saleh ‘Love, Torture, Rape…and Annihilation: A letter to Samira’ is online.

(6) The coinage “war machines” originally belongs to Deleuze and Guattari but is adopted by Mbembe. Typically provocative but also loose in Deleuze and Guattari’s hands, the concept of free booting, autonomous “war machines” while insightful, should be treated with care and properly contextualised. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari ‘Nomadology: The War Machine’ (2010 translation).

(7) John Keane ‘Reflections on Violence’ (1996).

(8) Mary Kaldor ‘New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era’ (1999) p.138.

(9) See Achille Mbembe ‘Necropolitics’ (2002), Giorgio Agamben ‘The State of Exception’ (2003) and Michel Foucault ‘The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-79’ (2010).

(10) Also see Giorgio Agamben ‘Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life’ (1998).

(11) In defence of Foucault contra Mbembe, Foucault explicitly identified racism as a central and formative ideological narrative co-opted by the newly coalescing “governmental rationality” of the modern state. Racial homogeneity was the normative assumption underpinning the modern state’s definition of the ‘legitimate citizenry’. The racially defined citizens indicated the arrival of the biopolitical model of governmentality. For Elvira Basevich’s critique of Agamben see ‘Agamben on Race, Citizenship and the Modern State’ (2012).

(12) Walter Benjamin made the distinction between law preserving and law making violence in ‘Critique of Violence’ (1921). Benjamin considered law making and law preserving violence to be “rotten” because it derived from the phenomenal realm of law, power and violence, the profane realm of the state or ‘what is’ as opposed to the kingdom of justice.

(13) Jacques Camatte’s essay ‘On Domestication’ (1973) is collected in ‘This World We Must Leave’ (1985) pp.91-137.

(14) In fact the repression meted out by the torture prisons acted as a spur to the rebellion once the demonstrations and protests in Syria had already begun as people took to the streets inspired by the social unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. For example, on the 25 May 2011 the mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb from Deraa, an early hotspot of revolt against Assad, was returned to his parents. Hamza had been picked up by Air Force Intelligence on a protest march and tortured: he suffered castration, broken bones, cigarette burns and gunshot wounds. The pictures his parents posted on social media caused outrage. See Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’ (2016) p.49.

(15) Yassin al-Haj Saleh discusses this sectarian, orientalist underpinning of the Assad elite’s rules at some length in ‘The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy’ (2017), see pp.98-113 and 213-287.

(16) See The Guardian Special Issue published on World Refugee Day that carried the names of all 34,361 refugees and migrants who are known to have died since 1993.

Forgotten nations at the end of the Russian Empire; their meaning for the history of the revolutionary project


Free Idel-Ural Movement proclaimed at a press conference in Kyiv, March 21, 2018

A few months ago, in Kyiv, an event of rare interest took place. The Free Idel-Ural movement was proclaimed. The location was symbolic, parts of the territory of Ukraine has been occupied by Russia for the past four years. Idel-Ural relates to the ‘Republics’ of the Middle Volga: Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, UdmurtiaMari El and Mordvinia which have been occupied for far, far longer. Supposedly autonomous religious and cultural entities they are closely controlled from Moscow. These territories are populated by Muslims and other groups who follow indigenous religions.

The prison house of nations that the February revolution of 1917 put on last notice was never torn down. The reasons for this are indissociable from modernity itself. A modernity that first conquered others to make them the same, then made them the others with no value and then dreamed up super theories that universalized history so that difference would become a thing of the past automatically. With the failure of these modern utopias we now find them at the mercy of cynical ideologies of power that pick and choose from the detritus of past imaginaries.

The fall of the Russian Empire unleashed a massive movement toward the autonomy of peoples. It was provisional, rife with problems related to traditional social forms transitioning in the face of modern technique and imported values. It is necessary to understand the events that led to these movements being physically destroyed and later forgotten by the world at large as implicit in a conception of revolution tied to an messianic telos of instrumental progress. An investigation into the democratic institutions that arose at the periphery of the Russian Empire at its fall is not really possible here, the information is scattered, lost and in languages that the author will never know. But we can note how these nations were expected to fold into the imaginary of those who now held the power of the Russian state, play the social roles (worker, peasant, bureaucrat) assigned in a schema and how the signification of rational mastery justified the Communists crushing those who they considered falling outside of their rationalizing anti-democratic project. They thought they put in train an inevitable historical transformation that followed structurally determinate laws but their actions now stand as evidence of the endless contingency of human affairs. Actions that reconstituted the Russian Empire which they had once taken as their project to abolish.


Blessed Be the Host of the Heavenly Tsar, a massive iconic depiction of the siege of Kazan in 1552. Now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


Last November, a little-noticed centenary of a little-known event occurred. On 26th November 1917, the Tatar population of Crimea established the Qurultay, a national parliament. Apparently, ten thousand people gathered in Bakhchysarai to attend its sessions. Its Chairman was Noman Çelebicihan, a poet, and lawyer.

Later, on 23rd February 1918, Çelebicihan was executed on a vessel of the Anarchist-dominated Black Sea Fleet. Afterwards, his body was dumped overboard. These actions were likely in concert with the Soviet government who had seized the Crimean peninsula six weeks earlier, disbanded the Qurultay and suppressed the Tatar national movement.

Crimea, like in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Northern Caucasus and in innumerable places across the Russian Empire 1917 was the year in which, because of the fall of the Imperial Monarchy, democratic ideas blossomed. Some, like in Georgia, were committed to a democratic socialist transformation, others, like in Crimea, were finally throwing off the imperial yoke and trying to marry modernity, self-government and the transition to statehood. We can look to some of the little-known events in Ukraine and the Middle Volga using the framework of a modernity split between rationalizing and democratizing strands.

Both the Crimean and the Volga Tatar’s considered themselves as the progeny of the Golden Horde, the Mongol occupation of the Western part of modern Russian and Ukraine. The Crimean Khanate and the Kazan Khanate had periods of independence, 1452-1588 and 1445-1552 respectively. Later, Crimea became an Ottoman vassal, then a Russian protectorate and later still was incorporated into the Empire proper. The Kazan Khanate was conquered much earlier, in 1552 by Ivan IV with much brutality over the civilian population.

The early Russian state was tutored by the Mongols, and the Islamic communities that they left behind became formal subjects of Tsar, while their internal affairs were generally a matter for their own elites. The Old Tsardom of Moscow saw Muslims and Steppe Nomads as “basically peers, albeit as heretical members of other high cultures”1. The Petrine revolution changed all this, European models were pursued that would lead to a wholly new state-led project of absolutist development.

The Muslim nobility were forced to convert or lose their lands in 1713. A military policy of the destruction of Mosques and forced Christianisation begun in the 1740s and was only abandoned after the Pugachev rebellion, when poll tax and military service grievances were added to the masses complaints. State building required rationalized tribute. Pugachev recruited from Tatar and Bashkir communities en masse. From the Eighteenth century onwards the Russian state intelligentsia took from these European models a ‘civilizing mission’. The idea of the nation-empire under one faith – another rationalization of difference into unity –  became a state goal,  albeit one, as previously noted, that was adhered to pragmatically. It meant the State backed down rather than risk outright revolt. The ‘Holy Wars’ of the nineteenth century were deferred.

The ‘memory’ of the Tatar states and the consequences of their conquest by Russia was key to the emergence of a national consciousness under the influence of Jadidism. The development of literary language and the idea of a Tatar nation arose in the nineteenth century. The more radical Jadidists sought to rid Arab and Persian words from the Turkic Tatar tongue altogether. The most famous figure in the Crimean Tatar movement was Ismail Bey Gaspirali, who advocated autonomy for Russian Muslims whom he thought formed a distinctive cultural complex.

The Young Tatar’s group helped found a distinctive Tatar identity their newspapers called for a break with Turkism, while textbooks, dictionaries, prose and poetry broadened the notion of a national culture. A unique language, form of Islam and the ‘memory’ of the two Khanates fed into a Tatar political imaginary that soon blossomed into a national movement calling for citizenship and popular sovereignty. By the late nineteenth century, both the Volga and Crimean Tatar communities had a far more literate population than the overwhelmingly peasant Russian speakers. 90% of Tatar schools ran on Jadid principles.


The Muslim congresses at the fall of the Empire still debated whether cultural autonomy or independence was the most judicious path for Russian Muslims. With the proclamation of the Crimean national party, Milli Firka, and later a Crimean Peoples Republic in 1917 it seemed that events had pushed independence as the answer to modernity’s call. Similarly, after the Bolshevik coup against the provisional government the National Assembly of the Muslims of Inner Russian and Siberia proclaimed the Idel-Ural republic (December 1917), with its capital in Kazan. But as Azade-Ayse Rorlich noted

“The dream never became a reality. A large Tatar-Bashkir republic whose borders would have been too similar to the Khanate was not an acceptable political alternative for the Bolshevik leadership”2

Like the Crimean Peoples Republic, the Tatar-Bashkir state was overthrown by the Red Army. In March 1918 after a hastily assembled ‘Soviet’meeting in Kazan that excluded peasants and the indigenous intelligentsia from attending, two individual ‘autonomous republics’ were set up by the Russian Communist Party.

The expectation of the Communists was that they formed the vanguard of a global revolution. The wage relation would render traditional social bonds as irrelevant and the undifferentiated masses would seize power in the name of generalized equality and technological progress. The values of a society were provided by the nature of its productive infrastructure, the ideas in peoples head were determined by this. This, needless to say, was an illusion.

In contrast, our argument that the values human beings hold and the ideas that motivate us are actually the creation of human collectivities, independent from and not determined (though no doubt influenced) by the functional-economic aspect of life (the instrumental).

The ‘rational’ and the naïve notion of our species as agents of maximization is as mythical as the idea that history is a process which moves toward an end independent of the ideas that motivate people. These ideas we should designate as relating to ‘rational mastery’, they suggest that human beings are, or at least should strive to be, computational machines in which the desire to gain more value from less effort (our own or others) is the everlasting mimetic object of activity. Nature is not a plain of existence, a particular locale or where we live but, rather, resources. The increase of outputs is the road to salvation, regardless of the means engaged to pursue this end or its effect on the human beings tasked as executants or the broader synergy of social relations. Not so dissimilarly, with the marketisation of the whole of society after the end of the social democratic era, the domain of rationalisation has now expended to bodies, leisure time and cognition itself in new ways. Employees are expected to style and train themselves to better serve the symbolic orientation of social power – the ultimate corroboration that we are dealing with an imaginary not the systemised ends of rational action.

To know and master nature is a key part of this idea. Rationalisation, as Max Weber saw it, marked the birth of a new type of praxis in which economic calculation, of space, materials, time and the self,  dominated our ‘operational’ behavior. The new system of production slowly finesses these ideas to turn a worker from a skilled craftsman to a tool which carried out the same activity innumerably. This became intrinsic to the new autonomous economic system of capitalism. The workers’ movement, from its inception, battled this rationalising project and its tendency to turn human beings into fungible objects. However, with the dominance of productivist ideology and the bureaucratization of the workers’ movement such struggles were relegated to the shop floor and the edges of oppositional ideologies.

Johann Arnason has convincingly placed in this rationalizing process in the broader context of European modernity and its intellectual heritage

Eighteenth-century thinkers envisaged a new international order that would reflect the liberation of humankind through knowledge and mastery of nature (Condorcet’s work on the progress of the human mind is a case in point). The utopian imaginary that is at work in such constructions has a historical background: it responds to European expansion by elaborating alternative images of a more harmoniously unified world, and the direction which it takes is determined by the Enlightenment’s critique of the old order within Europe, in this respect, as in many others, Marx’s early writings constitute a major turning-point in the history of the Enlightenment. The global frame of reference for his radical critique is perhaps most visible in the Communist Manifesto. It is here that we find a particularly ambitious and influential interpretive synthesis of the three dimensions of the globalizing process: the development of the capitalist world economy is expected to lead to a political revolution on international scale, and the latter will be guided by a theoretical project (or, as we must in retrospect call it, an ideological construct) of universal validity. A closer examination of Marx’s argument suggests that the cultural ideal of global human emancipation and self-realization – transfigured into a teleology of history – came first, and that the analysis of other levels is tailored to its demands. . Classical Marxism – that is, above all, the thought of the Second International – can be seen as an attempt to fuse this intellectual heritage with the strategy of the workers’ movement.”3

The Leninist,  later Stalinist, state was itself a utopian and authoritarian mutation from Second International Marxism, very much influenced by Russian populism and the idea of redemptive revolution. Its leaders thought themselves at the head of an enormous wave of rationalisation, which in this iteration would first – using the methods of war and Taylorism – turn society into a huge factory, then later, by way of a hugely unlikely Hegelian negation – these methods and means become their opposite, a free association of humanity. From the beginning of their rule the Bolsheviks would claim that only they had the expertise to govern toward this end, and no election – whether the ones they campaigned for in the factories committees, Soviets or by universal suffrage (the Constituent Assembly election of November 1917, convened in January 1918 and closed down the same day) had the right to deprive the party of its right to rule in the name of the working class and Marx’s historical construct. Revolutionary theory here becomes a form of heteronomy far more closed than any of the great world religions.

As early as March 1918, Lenin (in The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government) would justify turning workers into passive receptacles of orders, shooting those looking for local or national autonomy and bringing terror to bear against communities who would dare to protest their absolute control of the slave camp state they would soon begin to construct.

There is a large and convincing literature of workers and peasants struggles against the Bolshevik regime. Across the colonial periphery of the Russian Empire, there were other movements, based not on class but national oppression, that also attempted to found a new order. Like the worker-militants that considered the end of workplace and soviet democracy a barefaced power grab, they protested taking the role of objects in somebody else’s schemata that they never accepted or agreed to being subject to. Unlike workers they did not even have fictional rights; they existed outside of the historical drama – a reflection of alien class interests, non-historic peoples or reactionary dead-enders.

For us, the struggle for democracy is not an epiphenomenon of rationalization or modernization but the best way to create societies in which human beings, always plural and divided, can come to recognize each other as equals. The attempts by the Tatar congresses of bringing new polities into existence were stalled, problematic and sometimes had contradictory goals. They nevertheless knew there were limits to revolutionary voluntarism and they did not believe they could found a social peace on violence and oppression. In short, they recognized the other’s right to choose and speak and that the state and society were not the same thing. Bolshevik fanaticism lacked these qualities and proved no guard against the horrors of totalitarianism that engulfed the former Empire for seven decades.

For those of us who believe in the equality of people(s) without wishing to impose models of sameness on them, the question of democracy looms large. For those of us who believe that the dominant strain of modernity which makes consumption and ever expanding technical mastery the criterion of progress is incompatible with either the good life or a habitable planet a change of values is a prerequisite.

Politics is a symbolic space where power speaks. It speaks to orientate and organize, to dominate and master. It also speaks of its ends and goals. We shall follow Lefort in arguing that in democratic societies there is an open space where the social can speak, manage social division and make power account for itself. Power still speaks but it now knows it cannot hold a monologue. In dictatorship it may speak constantly, usually in the name of the people or history or fate (or fate as it is known by its modern moniker – necessity). It speaks to instruct, to warn or to sentence.

The modern state is part of the drive to rational mastery, it is a form, a container. Its contents may be more or less structured by the strictures of exclusion that are any forms purpose. In general, the modern counter-systemic movements has been riven between Jacobin conceptions of a future order based on utopian premises and more pluralistic visions that take into account social division as a fact of human societies.4 That division has to be worked through and cannot be overcome by fiat is really the basis of a truly democratic politics.

In Shmuel Eisenstadt’s sociological vision of the basic premises of different type of societies he noted that

The central core of civilizations is the symbolic and institutional interrelation between the formulation, promulgation, articulation, and continuous reinterpretation of the basic ontological visions prevalent in a society, its basic ideological premises and core symbols on the one hand, and on the other the definition, structuration and regulation of the major arenas of institutional life, of the political arena, of authority and its accountability, of the economy, of family life, social stratification, and of the construction of collective identities. Such definitions and regulations construct the broad contours, boundaries, and meanings of the major institutional formations and their legitimation and greatly influence their organization and dynamics”5

Our desire should be social forms which allow these different ontological visions of the world to have expression as part of the creative nature of world-building that is the most conspicuous aspect of human life. Doing this while allowing individuals and social groups broad autonomy and the ability to act on their thoughts, feelings, and desires is the challenge of the democratic strand of modernity. The productivist image of the working class as objectively revolutionary and the workplace as the most important heuristic arena and location of social struggle ultimately failed because the voices of individuals meant less than the ontological vision of Marxism that gave workers an identity from without, determined by theoreticians, party leaders or state managers, while giving others no identity at all. As we know from psychoanalysis speech precedes the creation of new relations, it gives them forms with which to start to posit the new. In this sense, Marxism as a total theory was always primed to become a ruling class ideology which provided society with its identity, goals, and meaning from the outside. The Marx of The Civil War in France was nowhere to be seen, replaced by pure heteronomy.

The development of a new revolutionary theory should proceed on the basis that the institutions, the values, goals, and meanings, of freer societies come from within societies, from the interior of individuals and from the dialogue and decisions of collective bodies the individuals together create. These bodies must be provisional and democratic, open to all, they would need to be capable of continuous re-articulation and re-evaluation of their own principles with the aim of understanding new circumstances and better fostering equality and autonomy.

We need not pretend that the small states or republics that arose at the end of the Russian Empire would have been any more likely to create free societies than countless other examples of small nations whose democratic experiments failed. Questions around class exploitation, gender oppression and differing ends of the always plural commonality may well have had them flounder or prey to internal authoritarianism. Nevertheless, their extinction at the hands of fundamentalist and imperialist heteronomy in the form of Bolshevism extinguished the possibility of the recognition of the other than is the foundation of the democratic experience.

By Joe R



1 Andreas Kappeler, “Muslims of the Russian Empire” in Muslim Communities Reemerge: Historical Perspectives on Nationality, Politics, and Opposition in the Former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia Editors: Andreas Kappeler, Gerhard Simon, Gerog Brunne.
2 Azade-Ayse Rorlich . “One or More Tatar Nation?” in Ibid.

3 J.P. Arnason. “The Soviet Model as a Mode of Globalization” Thesis Eleven, May 1995.
4 S Eisenstadt, The Civilisational dimension in Sociological Analysis.
5 Ibid.

Fascism, Populism, Nationalism, Closure and ‘the Politics of Fantasy’


The recent ‘Day for Freedom’ rally in Whitehall may mark a qualitative change in far-right politics in Britain. Under the banner of ‘protecting free speech’, the rally drew a crowd consisting of more than the football hooligans and drunken racists that have been the mainstay of far-right street politics in Britain over the last decade. Somewhere between 2000-4000 people may have been present at the event – which was addressed by various ‘alt-right’ internet personalities, UKIP leader Gerard Batten and ‘headlined’ by former EDL leader ‘Tommy Robinson’.

Ostensibly a protest against the ‘political correctness’ of those that wish to censor criticism of Islam and denigrate ‘white Christian culture’. The participant quoted in The Guardian who also mentioned ‘cultural Marxism’ was closer to giving the game away. When political life in the UK is log-jammed by the commitment of both major parties to a patently irrational withdrawal from the EU in fidelity to a referendum based on lies, shamefaced misinformation and imperial nostalgia, it isn’t altogether surprising that the far-right is getting a shot in the arm. I would argue that both Brexit and the modern far-right in Europe exemplify the same phenomenon – ‘the politics of fantasy’ (a term coined by Carl Schorske1).

‘Robinson’, also quoted in The Guardian, claimed “The people of this country have been silenced for 20-30 years with the tag of racists. They have managed to silence people so that they are too scared to speak up when they see things that are wrong.” It’s a curious argument when the disgustingly Islamophobic and racist Daily Mail, Express, Sun and Star newspapers are available in every high street in the country – plus the most racist government in years deporting people in flagrant breach of the law.

The event was supported and promoted by RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin’s English language news channel which specializes in disinformation and apologia for Russian state war crimes as well as those of its allies (particularly the Syrian Regime’s genocidal war on its own population). RT itself mixes unconvincing polemics against neoliberalism with hard right ‘analysis’ that promotes conspiracy theories and justifies the Kremlin’s expansionism as a response to Western Imperialism.

In Europe, the Russian state’s policy, outside of states that are available for ‘capture’ like Bulgaria and Greece2, is not so much the promotion of itself as a civilisational vanguard or even a maligned actor but the destabilisation of liberal democracy. For instance, (just to give a few examples) from funding parties such as the French National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik to the despicably cynical stirring up of religious and ethnic animosities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the aim is contributing to the hollowing out of democratic values through the spread of misinformation and ethnic nationalism.

The fascist Generation Identity group were apparently present at the Whitehall rally. According to The Intercept they are “a far-right youth movement that originated in France, campaigns against what it calls the “great replacement” – a theory that white European countries are going to be taken over by Muslim migrants. According to the group, “Islamic parallel societies” and mass immigration will lead to “the almost complete destruction of European societies within just a few decades if no countermeasures are taken.”

Repackaging fascist ideas in the language of civilisational struggle against Muslims is a strategy of various ‘post-fascist’ hard right electoral parties across Europe. With its clean-cut image, Generation Identity is trying to do the same with a pan (white) European fascist street politics. That Muslim immigration to Europe has been driven by the outcomes of European colonialism in the past or by the violence of post-colonial states in the present is neither here nor there, neither is the fact that Muslims remain subject to state harassment and oppression across the continent  – this ‘politics of fantasy’ has to project that situation in reverse in order suggest a highly libidinised spectacle of Majority victimhood.


Warsaw: 60,000 people participated in a demonstration against Islam and refugees in November 2017

Prevalent in all these arguments, whether fascist or nationalist and populist (like Brexit), is the idea that a weak-willed, blind or treacherous elite are allowing ‘the nation’ be destroyed by immigration and foreigners. Similarly, a minority but politically influential civil society (liberals and the left) which apparently favours foreigners over the ‘indigenous’ culture (Britishness, Englishness, whiteness) are a fifth column within ‘the nation’. This is ‘the politics of fantasy’ in Britain today.

Peter Homans, in his fantastic book on the origins of psychoanalysis3, draws on both the Amercian psychiatrist Robert Lifton4 and the German psychoanalyst (and member of the medical commision at the Nuremberg trials) Alexander Mitscherlich’s work5 on Nazism to suggest that for the Nazis – unlike the psychoanalytical movement which faced up to it in a depth psychological way – the loss of a (at least partially fictive) common culture of the past with the advent of modernity was considered so psychologically painful because it suggested the irreversible loss of a genuine place in the world that could neither be mourned or accepted. Instead, we find a rejection of reality and the projection of a delusional fantasy which blames some (inevitably racialised) ‘other’ for the ‘loss’.

Homans is worth quoting at length

“…by denying the painful psychological consequences of the social and historical changes that were taking place – in other words by refusing to mourn – the German Nazis became intolerant of chaos. Instead they sort to reinvent with great rapidity and astonishing creativity a total common culture in which a sacred symbolic structure overcame time, the sense of transience and diachrony… For them, the manic defence and persecutory activity successfully energised a new cosmology which abolished the ability to mourn and what I would call “the ability to be depressed.” It was if they had said, There has been no loss at all.”6

The persecution then later murder of the Jews while embarking in a total war for land and resources became the starting point for a fantasy future with a newly secure and righteous place in the world for the men and women who became the movement behind Hitler and his close subordinates. It was a venture to remake the world in the image of their own fantasy projection when the ‘loss’ of their own paramount place in the world was too painful to face. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel wrote7 about how totalitarian regimes abolition of otherness – racial minorities especially – leaned on a desire to recapture the monist perfection of pre-oedipal life, where there is no difference or ‘imperfection’ (the ‘I’ being perfect). It is important to note here that while the fantasy of a ‘pure’, ‘clean’ and undifferentiated country may lean on the universal desire to return to the womb, this in no way mitigates the actions of racists and fascists. The fundamental fact of their hatred and inhumanity cannot be excused by this. Indeed, it is that a universal wish finds itself expressed in this way that designates fascists and fascist ideologies as special dangers to society. This same wish in mediated form has often been expressed in art, music and in political struggles for equality. All this proves is that human beings do need to feel at home in the world or else develop psychological frameworks for dealing with the groundlessness of modernity (Jan Assman has suggested that development of monotheism and the associated articulation of transcendental and mundane orders that replaced cosmotheism in the Axial Age was a similar sort of historical shift from one way of being in the world to another8).

While a squalid shitshow like Brexit or a racist hooligan mob in London seem a bit of a bathetic comparison to the baroque evil of the National Socialists, it is important to appreciate that the imperial nostalgia of Brexit and British fascists does ultimately rest on the desire to dominate and control others. It is not ‘freedom of speech’ wished for here but freedom from free speech, from hearing the reality of the modern world, different tongues, different accents and those of us who have an open attitude to a new historical situation where identity is not determined in a heteronomous manner but is mediated and informed – at least partially – by the autonomy of the person. Real freedom means being an autonomous subject that can fight for the values one believes in while dealing with disappointment. What Brexiteers and the fascists want (no matter how they might differ in other ways) is freedom for their delusional fantasy of domination, closure, separation, and national-racial superiority. It’s the fear of the condition of modernity – that we live in a groundless world not a sacred or determined order – that motivates them.

Whether by constitutional means or otherwise they wish to have their investment in this fantasy endorsed and legitimised. Whether its a white Britain where the British were a ‘people-as-one’ (in the sense used by Claude Lefort) or a reinvestment in the most backward ideologies of the past – empire, conquest, and domination – their quest of hatred is a quest for place and meaning. Across the world, we see a similar phenomenon, white Americans voting Trump out of a nostalgia for a time when blacks were passive victims or the curious phenomena of right-wing populists in Eastern Europe wistfully looking back at the Stalinist monoculture.

I would argue at the current juncture the rise of a fascist street movement in Britain that unites genuine neo-nazis with the racist hooligans of the former EDL is a bigger danger than the post-fascist populism of the electoral type seen on the continent. This is because the thing that the EDL and its associated splinters were lacking was ideological clarity and an effective centre (essentially leadership). It’s clear from the Whitehall rally the online savvy ‘alt-right’ and neo-fascists like Generation Identity are making a genuine attempt to capture this street movement. This must not happen.

The most effective recruiting grounds are the Brexit heartlands – as anyone who knows them the de-industrialised smaller towns and decaying monocultural seaside resorts are ripe for a right-wing social movement that would allow the psychic boredom, hatred, and lust for violence of white men to merge into something greater, more powerful and find that ‘place in the world’ that their desperate fantasies are about. Mass politics is always a question of psychological merger, where the isolated and alienated individual can find a social whole that transcends unpleasant individual circumstances and makes identity a group phenomenon.

This has to be countered on the streets with a vision of freedom that promotes individuality, freedom, diversity, and love. This cannot be a bureaucratic movement but a democratic one that will work through its difficulties in public in meetings and demonstrations. The politics of fantasy is a result of the failure of introspection. Where it is too painful to come to terms with the mess of our own lives and the way we have been thrown into the world in often extremely difficult circumstances. Psychoanalytic theory, as a hermeneutics of love, can be helpful here. To renounce omnipotence, to be just another – no better or worse than anyone else. To value oneself as a subject striving to grow wiser. To value the opinions of other individuals and groups. To identify with groups but hold off – to the extent it is ever possible – complete psychological merger. All these things are an important means of creating an anti-racist and anti-fascist politics.

Thinking of fascism and right-wing populism as the politics of fantasy is useful. Liberal and Marxist accounts of these phenomena fail because they cannot grasp the radically non-functional nature of fascism, which finds its power in the space between the internal world of the individual and the social world of reality proper. The politics of love that counters the politics of hatred is one where we are together for each other not as ‘us’ against the world of others but as ‘us’ in a world of otherness. Mourning our lost omnipotence (the pre-oedipal) and facing a world where our own societies, identities, and futures are an undetermined ‘open book of the essential powers of man’ if in that phrase we can decouple Marx’s radical humanism from his communism and economic-functionalist view of wo/man and history. That is the politics of freedom.

by Joe R


1 Carl Schorske,  Fin-de-siècle Vienna (1979)

2 Mark Galeotti, Controlling Chaos: How Russia manages its political war in Europe (2017)

3 Peter Homans, The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis (1989)

4 Robert Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986)

5 Alexander Mitscherlich & Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn (1984)

6 Homans, ibid

7 Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, The Archaic Matrix of the Oedipus Complex in Utopia (1986)

8 Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism (2010) 

Some Remarks on Hannah Arendt’s On Violence In the Age of the Syrian Revolution and Counter-Revolution




Lo Miasmo, from The Disasters of War by Francisco Goya


Much can be gleaned revisiting Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Violence’ (1970), both about Arendt’s intellectual journey – it is very much an extended footnote to the earlier ‘On Revolution’ (1962) – and her opinion on a variety of topics that retains some value in our global moment today especially after the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution. The latter has ground on now for seven years while the most frightful counter-revolution unleashed by Bashar al-Assad and his allies, appears on the threshold of triumph. Below we touch on Syria and briefly explore Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s commentary in his important work ‘The Impossible Revolution: The Tragedy of the Syrian Revolution’ (2017) that traced the parabola of revolution and counter-revolution, especially Saleh’s novel use of Thomas Hobbes concept of the ‘state of nature’ (1).

‘On Violence’ (1970) was a coda to Arendt’s thinking about the relation between organized violence (war, revolution) and politics. Its backdrop was the glacial stasis of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race and the US’s changing geopolitical status from young revolutionary Republic to imperialist colossus bestriding the globe. The more immediate backdrop was provided by the revolutionary nationalist struggles in the Third World and its echo in Europe and North America with the New Left radicalism and the non-violent civil rights movement that shortly metamorphosed into Black Power as the ghettos of the US northern cities combusted.


Arendt acknowledged Lenin’s prognosis the C20th would be the epoch of wars and revolutions but with one fateful proviso: the technological development of the means of destruction had reached such a point that achieving political goals by violence (for example, inter-state warwas fraught with danger. Arendt was apprehensive about Cold War, the arms race and the potential mutual nuclear annihilation – a logic EP Thompson dubbed exterminism. For a period after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 it seemed this prospect had receded with history apparently expiring and talk of the coming American century and the definitive arrival of Pax Americana globally. A quarter of a century later the landscape is entirely different with largely unforeseen US senescence in sharp contrast to the irresistible rise of China and Russia injecting unexpected instability into the international order at the moment the US is helmed by an ‘America First’ proto fascist President who is readily repudiating the post-war global order that the US erected to secure Pax Americana.

Returning to the postwar Cold War it’s worth reminding ourselves nuclear weapons never entailed the obsolescence of war. Plenty of ‘proxy’ wars were waged at distance (at least from the perspective of the superpowers) while the proximate causes of conflict often involved home grown insurgencies trying to throw off old colonial powers or their superpower benefactor. In Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the US, long admired by Ho Chi Min, took over the reins hardly suspecting the blood and treasure it would expend trying to prevent the reunification of north and south Vietnam. Despite the nuclear standoff there were many ‘hot wars’ across the globe in the post-war decades. Similarly after 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, war and genocide (Rwanda, Darfur, Myanmar) bloomed like poisonous weeds revealing a novel landscape in war and organized violence that Mary Kaldor argued reflected the advent of globalisation including the emergence of significant non-state actors utilising violence for political or avowed religious goals, decentralised violence and a tendency that blurred the distinction between combatants and non-combatants (2).


Arendt argued violence and war had long stimulated technological change and that as the pursuit of political goals was shaped by means-end logic, the technological development of the means of destruction threatened to overwhelm ends. In fact such means were often more salient in shaping the world than the ostensible end justifying those means (3).

The Second World War revealed that old verities about war as the continuation of politics by other means (Clausewitz and Engels) had become redundant in the age of ‘total war and the military-industrial complex. There was a Weberian even neo-Marxist flavour to Arendt’s view, her vision of modernity echoing Weber’s ‘iron cage’ that suggested the social universe was dominated by logics eluding people’s control. In fact the US had blazed the trail as pioneer and the “heritage of the American Revolution” had been “forgotten” as the US was drawn into the geopolitical fold and back toward the ancien regime Europe (4). Incipient senescence was obscured by the US’s arrival at the apex of global domination but thermonuclear war threatened the death of politics and suicide.

Arendt’s reflection on violence’s role in global politics clearly had a Eurocentric bent with a definite global hierarchy simply assumed. Perhaps this was partly because the US’s role as a dispenser of violence globally (and at home) placed it centre stage given its status as first among the imperialist superpowers. Yet Arendt did grant the Third World agency and demonstrated prescience about the changing balance between power and violence foreseeing a time when “small groups of individuals” could upset the strategic balance. More conventionally Arendt saw “poor countries” as less vulnerable to violence than powerful countries whose technological superiority could be liability especially in “guerrilla wars” (5).


Arendt’s reading of Marx’s attitude to violence and revolution reads like the pre-1914 Social Democratic orthodoxy defended by Karl Kautsky in debates against Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek in Die Neue Zeit and elsewhere. So Marx’s stress on the transition from one social order to another, the role of revolution as midwife considered secondary to the deeper structural transformation that was the indispensable precondition of the former, were all emphasised. Arendt sought to deflate the New Left’s elan and its adventurist celebration of violence citing their embrace of Sorel, Sartre and Fanon. According to Arendt, Sartre, author of the preface of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth went further than Sorel’s praise for the general strike half a century earlier, in his “glorification of violence” but seemed unaware of the gulf separating him from Marx on violence’s efficacy. For Sartre violence had the potential to anneal. Arendt strongly objected and she disdained the faddish elevation of lumpen-proletarian violence as virtuous that clearly had no foundation in Marx (6). Yet the distinction between Marx and Sartre was perhaps not as profound as Arendt believed. A century of revolutions and national liberation struggles separated Marx and Sartre (7). Also David Macey defended Fanon as more nuanced than Arendt allowed. Fanon wasn’t simply a detached apostle of the purgative effect of revolutionary violence but heavily involved in the struggle against French colonialism in Algeria while France’s ruthless prosecution of the war ensured that violence was everywhere (8).

Yet the New Left adventurism Arendt identified was real and as the 1960s unfolded the credibility of non-violence among radicals in the US waned. Non-violence had been central to the strategy of the black civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King in the South, though the strategy’s raison d’etre was broader than a simple ethical commitment to Gandhian pacifism. Rather the cool calculation was that the billy clubs, teargas and dogs of the white local power structure appearing on national TV, would provoke the intervention of the Federal government and the National Guard (9). 

The largely symbolic embrace of violence by the campus left was partly nudged by the repressive intolerance of the police. Arendt judged that this was a clash of generations rather than opposed “tangible interests” though the student rebellion was also part of a global phenomenon that reflected a growing apprehension about the future (technological development, exterminism). Beyond the campus the emergence of militant Black Power especially in the Northern ghettoes exposed the polarisation of US society. As Rick Perlstein illustrates Nixon exploited the anxieties about ‘law and order’ (racism, authoritarianism) and canalised the white backlash to secure victory in the Presidential race in 1968 (10).


Arendt decried the black militancy and violence and in doing so betrayed a distinct lack of sympathy for the struggle against racism. Exercised by concessions to militant black students by university authorities Arendt assumed academic standards were threatened. These self interested (ultimately self harming demands) of black students were a contrast to the “disinterested and usually highly moral claims of the white rebels” whose default strategy of eschewing violence through “participatory democracy” won them no favours with the authorities who only seemed to respect violence and coercion (11). Arendt’s lament is ironic in light of the severe repression black militancy faced beyond the campus and across the country including the FBI’s clandestine COINTRELPRO program of provocation, assassination and incarceration of black activists and revolutionaries. Pace Fanon slave rebellions were rare, they rarely triumphed though they encapsulated the age old dream that the last would finally be first. The violence and rage they mobilized was an index of the misery, a wish of the oppressed to raise themselves to the seat of the oppressor. Essentially nothing benign sprang from humiliation, nothing but a “mad fury” that no one could possibly benefit from. It is hard to overlook Arendt’s condescension toward Fanon but to dwell on the futility of slave rebellions in the past was beside the point and smacked of mandarin elitism. What did Arendt think the national liberation struggles blazing like wild fires across Africa and Asia, were? Arendt was on firmer ground rebutting the idea the Third World was monolithic social reality rather than an ideology but her negative demystifying critique was not accompanied by any awareness of the global import of the national liberation struggle (12).


Overall Arendt was determined to pour the iciest water on the sentimental illusions of the New Left, exposing their ideological regression and – at least in this domain – counterposing the realism of Marxism to their castles in the air. Not that Arendt wished to pen encomiums to a Marxism that rested on a foundation constructed from nothing more than a metaphor: that each age, stage or mode of production was the child of the age, stage or mode of production preceding it and that history’s direction was progressive. As a philosophy of history (Hegel turned the right side up), Marxism was clearly superior to many rival conceptions of history such as the circular eternal recurrence or decadence that presupposed an irretrievable Golden Age. Arendt claimed the concept of progress and thisworldly perfectibility of man (perfectible but never perfect) was unknown before the C17th though it had become a dogma by the C19th with Marx’s version marking a secularisation of Christian eschatology. The pathos at the heart of historical materialism wasn’t appreciated in the first bloom of optimism but as defeats accumulated and history revealed a crooked line of march it became apparent this was a detached, “melancholy” vision of history. The deferred hopes and most intimate desires of past and present generations would only be realized for future generations. In this spirit Arendt cited Alexander Herzen who observed that later generations benefitted from the labour and sacrifices of earlier generations (13).

Something of this pathos, the mourning for the suffering and lost possibilities of past lives attached itself to Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on The Philosophy of History’ (1940), whose powerless spectator, the Angel of History, looked back at the destruction wrought as it was blasted forward in history, blind to the future. Benjamin’s celebrated Theses looked askance at the illusions of progress and the idea the German working class had Progress in its pocket. Fundamentally the C20th was a grim refutation of any optimism about the inevitability of historical progress. Arendt argued science’s advance no longer meant progress but instead destruction and threatened humanity’s future. In the post-war years the young generation revolted against science and the banalities of progress that could no longer feasibly serve as a ground for revolt partly because of the accelerated rate of technological and social change but also because revolt’s nature was that it interrupted the course of the predictable. War and revolution was not the only the means of interrupting the inevitable – all action had this character (14).

Arendt challenged the consensus of the entire political spectrum, that supposed violence was a manifestation of power. Both Marx and Weber had similar definitions of the state linking power and violence – essentially armed bodies of men in Marx’s case and possession of a monopoly of legitimate violence in Weber’s case. C. Wright Mills opined that the ultimate manifestation of power was violence. But Arendt considered this consensus in political thought “strange” and baffling – and idiosyncratically insisted that violence in its myriad forms was the result of the failure, absence or loss of power. It was false to paint the superstructure of society including law as simply a mediated expression or effect of the power of the state whose heart was violence. Basically Arendt objected strongly to viewing violence as a synonym for power – it was a too reductive and conceptually loose. Arendt cited Bertrand de Jouvenel’s Power to support her contention. De Jouvenel enquired whether the state would disappear if war itself vanished or, put another way, whether inter-state violence had always accompanied the existence of states (15). Interestingly contemporary debates among anthropologists and ethnologists about the origins of war point increasingly to evidence of violence that looks like war between pre-state bands or groups before the emergence of the state, contradicting Marxist influenced anthropologists who equated the rise of class society with the emergence of the state, organised violence and warfare proper, a state of affairs that supposedly supplanted matriarchal or ‘primitive communism’ (16).


Crucially power was not reducible to force, coercion or violence though power clearly rested on violence in many circumstances. When force was qualified by say, the law, force was no longer force. For Arendt we lived in the age of Nobody, an age when the domination of humanity had reached its most formidable level because of the bureaucratisation of the state that encroached on the life world and marked a mutation in the nature of power. Rule by Nobody was perhaps the most tyrannical rule of all because no one was answerable to the decisions that were made. Arendt saw this development both in terms of a specific social logic but also against the larger historical backdrop of what made civilization possible. Thus according to Arendt (without any reference to Freud) there was an “inborn instinct” for dominance and aggressiveness but another corollary of human psychology was obedience, an innate inclination to obey authority or the ‘strong man.’ Yet Arendt also appealed to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty and the human propensity to resist domination (17).


Law wasn’t necessarily shaped by power and relations of domination-obedience. Both the Greek city states and Roman civitas aimed to end the rule of ‘free’ man over ‘free’ man (notwithstanding the fact these polities rested on the unfree labour of slaves). Thus antiquity was a great inspiration to the republican tradition of the C18th and C19th. The rule of law rested on the consent of citizens, it was a safeguard against violence and insofar as obedience to the law was an established fact it was antithetical to the tutelage of man to man (18). Yet all political institutions and relationships were subject to decay and the institutions of representative democracy were no different – once a vigilant citizenry fell asleep they were no longer the masters of those who governed. Still something like “majority support” existed just as it did in a monarchy for the reign of the sovereign did not simply rest on inertia or coercion but mainly opinion or “majority support”. Power always needed numbers or mass support – no matter how grudging or how that support was imperfectly measured (19).

In contrast violence always needed weapons as the example of Assad’s ability to retain power in Syria demonstrates – in the absence of mass or popular support, Assad was compelled to resort to the terror of arms to crush the popular rebellion against him. His lack of popular support meant a chronic lack of manpower that translated into heavy reliance on Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah manpower and weaponry to maintain his rule. Finally Arendt also itemises the fine distinctions between power, strength, authority and violence though the distinctions were not watertight the “real world.” We shall not repeat that argument here except to note Arendt’s observation that no single individual ever really exercises sovereign power alone, that power is the property of a group and that insofar as the individual (King or Queen, Dictator, President and so forth) is “in power” it is because they have been entrusted with power and authority, and these possess proximate limits and are transitory (term, death, removal and so forth).


So Arendt’s position on power, law and violence and their shifting social and historical relations can simply be summarised: violence isn’t a synonym of power and law isn’t a form of, or mask for violence. In addition the exercise of power always implies a degree of support or consent though this support can be quite tepid, coerced and difficult to ascertain. Although Arendt certainly doesn’t explicitly argue this the sense of her overall case is that ‘popular’ support or consent is quite conceptually elastic. ‘Popular’ support may rest on the ‘manufacture of consent’ or apathy or both. Thus ‘popular’ support wouldn’t necessarily win any plebiscites and it can always be withdrawn in a number of different ways, most dramatically by revolution. A coup d’etat, military overthrow and so on, by contrast implies an elite action that doesn’t wish to overthrow power per se but remove some of the governing personnel and reshape the modalities of governing. There are clearly some affinities with Antonio Gramsci’s exploration of the logics of class rule in capitalism and the nature of hegemony – and both thinkers share a common interest in the tradition of political thought. Arendt acknowledged the seductions of the traditional notion that violence is power’s last resort or power is a “velvet glove” sheathing violence and that violence is only a special case of power. But for Arendt revolution refuted such an equation (20).




Hannah Arendt

Though Arendt believed the means of destruction and the violence in the hands of the state had grown immeasurably in the course of the C20th, she disputed whether such trends nullified revolution. According to Franz Borkenau considering the Spanish revolution, fascism’s advent made counter-revolution international but also ensured that revolution would face the most modern, ruthless destructive power available. Crucially the revolution would not be able to unfold according its own internal logic as it had in the past. That age was now over (21).

Arendt’s defence of the continuing potential for revolution in modern times admirably exemplified the best of the radical humanist, liberal tradition. She pointed to the thirty years that elapsed between the defeat of the Spanish revolution and 1970 and the mixed record in terms of the revolutionary balance sheet and argued that revolution had always faced daunting odds:in the contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute” (22). Ultimately violence and arms rest on the “power structure of the government” and when this collapses so does the coercive power of the forces of the status quo. The course of the Hungarian revolution demonstrated her view – Molotov cocktails against guns and tanks but still governmental authority collapsed allowing arms to fall into the hands of the revolutionaries. However the example of the Hungarian revolution was not as unambiguous as Arendt believed as Russian tanks decisively crushed the revolution allowing authority to regain control. Also Borkenau didn’t argue revolution was an impossibility per se but that developments in the devastating power of violence and the internationalization of counter-revolution, now impinged on the internal logic of revolution.


Is it possible to reconcile Arendt and Borkenau’s views? The short answer is no, or rather to concede the contradiction exists in real life. The relevance of Borkenau’s argument has clearly grown as Assad’s merciless scorched earth war against the Syrian people tragically indicates. The unfolding of the Syrian revolution has also revealed the destructive power of counter-revolution whether national or geo-political has grown immeasurably posing a grave danger to the success of any revolution today. Unsurprisingly a major theme of Yassin Al-Haj Saleh’s important book ‘The Impossible Revolution: The Making of the Syrian Tragedy’ (2017), was its focus on the rise of the counter-revolution. Saleh addressed problems similar to those Franz Borkenau who grappled with the fate of revolution in the C20th through the prism of the Spanish revolution and the defeat of the Republic. As early as September 2011 Saleh warned the Syrian revolution was reverting to what he called, appropriating Thomas Hobbes concept, a primordial ‘state of nature: the increasing nullification of politics marked by the inflation of a nihilistic politics of survival, the proliferation of sectarianism all arising from the brutal character of the conflict. Assad’s violent counter-revolution has strangled politics in Syria and on the verge of triumph today, threatens to spread throughout the global polity like a virulent cancer. There are some intriguing parallels between Saleh’s urgent analysis of the ‘state of nature’ and Giorgio Agamben’s theorisation of the ‘state of exception’ that the Italian thinker believes increasingly dominates life today. There is no space to examine Saleh’s argument any further here (we do that in a companion piece), other than to note Assad’s counter-revolution casts an even longer shadow than it did in 2011 when Saleh first faced the problem, and offer the observation that once we have allowed even allowing for the specificity of the Syria tragedy, aspects of that tragedy anticipate our collective global future.



Returning to Arendt – the revolution also demonstrated that superior organisation and the issue of consent is at the heart of ruling power’s authority and the question of violence is secondary. Arendt suggested May ’68 supported her point – the essentially non-violent student rebellion, a rebellion mainly directed at France’s creaking higher education sector (Arendt doesn’t mention the workers occupying their factories) led to the “disintegration” of power before the astonished students (De Gaulle even fled to West Germany though he was attempting to rally the High Command of the army). This classic “textbook” example of the “revolutionary situation” was exemplary in revealing how power (and authority) marked the essence of government, the ultimate horizon of society and that violence in contrast could only ever be a tool. As Arendt pithily summarised the case against the violence-power equation: what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything. Violence can be justified as a means to achieving a goal but it is never regarded as legitimate (23).

Another proof of Arendt’s argument that power ultimately rested on consent was the case of totalitarianism. Stalin’s Great Terror had only a limited efficacy and the whole apparatus of the police state and the gulag, eventually undermined power as the Terror ate its own children, creating a self-defeating paralysis at every level of society. Violence couldn’t build power it could only destroy power. Violence was the resort of power when power was threatened or lost sight of the necessity to carefully husband violence. This apprehension about violence’s inherent limits eventually helped trigger the process of de-Stalinisation (24).


A notable aspect of Arendt’s ‘On Violence’ (1970) is that it appeared when the subject of violence and the sources of human aggression was ‘hot’ topic among the American public, the recipient of research in the universities and the subject of think tank summits (mentioned by Arendt in passing), to the Federal Commissions on civil rights, racism and the riots that indirectly addressed violence, to the antiwar movement and finally the slew of paperbacks that foregrounded human aggression and its roots in humanity’s animal inheritance – popular titles by the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris among others.

Arendt was sceptical about behavioural and zoological approaches to human aggression not because she denied humanity was a part of the animal kingdom but because of the banality such claims. Also natural and social scientific research on aggression made human aggression more of a natural phenomenon than Arendt would willingly concede and she dismissed any move to assimilate aggression as an instinctual impulse to hunger or the sexual instincts a position that also entailed a rejection of ‘hydraulic’ theories suggesting aggression was a manifestation of an instinctual drive composed of quanta of energy that could become dammed up if not discharged. This approach treated man like an animal with the addition of reason – in fact this is what made man dangerous; an “aboriginally instinctual being”, a toolmaker able to devise ever deadlier weapons that were ever more efficient at killing more and more people (25).


Importantly, not all human violence was irrational or pathological. Rage and anger were not the automatic reactions to hunger, dehumanization or poverty and this fact indicated the complexity of human aggression. It was not always automatic and when violence occurred it was often deliberate, reasoned – a course of action considered first or imagined among other possible scenarios before it was pursued as a course of action. People possessed a sense of justice and that faculty was greater than the self, it was social and didn’t simply pertain to an injury or wrong to done to them but also encompassed others – their family, their community and so on. Empathy was a part of reason and rationality and their absence for detachment, sang froid was potentially dangerous – to act rationally comprehension was necessary and that implied the capacity to be moved, the faculty of empathy (26).

Arendt also took aim at anger as irrational outburst but once again demonstrated how insensate she was about racism in the US. Thus Arendt complained about the uselessness of white guilt (if all whites were guilty then no one could be guilty), how it was exploited by Black Power whose representatives were guilty of “reverse racism.” Clearly the militant politics of Black Power evinced weaknesses not least romanticism, adventurism, machismo and idealism but while conceding grievances were legitimate Arendt claimed black people risked descending into a “fantasy” – a position that smacked of white privilege. What of black people’s endless capacity for restraint in the face of white racism? What of their stoicism? (27)

There is an intriguing, passage on death that recalls some of the themes of Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958). In her earlier work Arendt introduced the concept of “natality the idea humans as embodied, mortal beings were thrown into the world, they appeared and disappeared (were born and died and between that beginning and end, they lived). Death as life’s horizon added to the vitality and intensity of life and there was nothing as intense as the “practice of violence.” Arendt shrewdly observed that collective violence whether war or revolution transcended individualism, they both created an in-group, a community or a bond made through violence – the brotherhood of the battlefield. In fact the group, community or collective conferred a sort of immortality on people – an intensified form of the sort of meta-identity that nationalism that provided. Death was the loneliest possible event of anyone’s life; an abrupt coda but as part of a collective enterprise like war this prospect could be transformed. Yet death obviously was still overwhelmingly a negative. The Greeks saw mortality as a spur to immortality in works and deeds. Politics was a means to escape the equality of death (and oblivion), for distinction and some kind of immortality (28).


With the signal exception of Thomas Hobbes no philosopher or political thinker had built their theoretical or political position around death Arendt claimed (for Hobbes the equality of fear derived from the universal ability of each to kill, driving the denizens of the state of nature into the commonwealth). But death was no real basis for a political community pace Fanon and Sorel who painted violence as a necessary part of life and life by extension as an analogue of struggle. For Sorel (heavily indebted to Bergson) violence was essential to the elan vital and when the struggle ended, decadence reigned – a diagnosis that constituted part of Sorel’s critique of an enfeebled bourgeois civilisation (29).

In contrast the values embodied by a revolutionary working class who as society’s “producers” were the opposite of a dispirited bourgeois and both recapitulated the ideals and promise of an earlier age (honour, glory, idealism) heralding the coming social order. So violence in the form of the proletarian general strike had a purgative function: cleansing souls and renovating social life. Yet fidelity to such a vision of social transformation and championing a radical working class that literally produced bourgeois society (Sorel), couldn’t credibly be sustained for various reasons according to Arendt, not least because of subsequent changes in the nature of capitalism, the role of technology in elevating productivity, the expansion of other classes and social layers and other trends, all conspired to introduce heteronomy into the working class. Insofar as such radical ideologies survived they did so because small groups like student militants tenaciously clung to ideas that were ultimately anachronistic. The working class had been politically and socially incorporated into capitalism; it was no longer an alienated, helot class while the promotion of violence as a “life-promoting force”, an irreplaceable spring of creativity owed more to Nietzsche and Bergson than Marx (30).


If this is how matters stood with violence in Arendt’s eyes what of its close relation revolution? Arendt strongly rejected identifying revolution with violence via organic metaphors depicting a “sick society” or likening revolutionary violence to surgical procedures and so on, because it suggested that violence was a cure all for social maladies or that violence was the inevitable backstop of the struggle for social justice. Organic metaphors proposing an elective affinity between revolution and violence also covertly twinned the social and natural worldsthus reifying history. Yet Arendt banalised an interesting objection to the conceptually loose use of organic metaphors in social theory by allowing her anxieties about Black Power’s uncompromising rhetoric to surface. Arendt believed such confrontational stances threatened to deflate any potential alliance between blacks and whites against racism. Yet it was to Arendt’s credit she knew that the non-violent tactics of the civil rights movement couldn’t possibly survive contact with the realities of life in the ghettoes of the North. Yet the neuralgic anxiety surfaced when she accused James Foreman of a Black racism that could stoke a white backlash and even aid the articulation of a full blown anti-black racist ideology that could underpin a ‘law and order’ crackdown on black radicalism. This was an astonishing patrician argument from Arendt. Was the widespread racism black people suffered something less than racism because it wasn’t coherently articulated? Similarly Arendt bluntly dismissed “ill-designed integration policies” because “their authors” (elites) easily escaped their consequences and suggested the racist backlash against such policies was the “rational reaction of certain interest groups” protesting against having to pay the price” (31).


Yet Arendt did detect the white backlash looming on the horizon led by Richard Nixon and the Republican Party and grasp the significance of Nixon’s law and order jeremiads. In opposition to the campus radicals, Black Power and the Democrats, Nixon would invoke the ‘Silent Majority’ and as Johnson’s Democrat administration sank, torpedoed by domestic challenges at home and the war in Vietnam, Nixon surged to power in November 1968. Of course Nixon’s triumph as head of the Party of Order was rooted in white racism that underlined the profound divisions in US society. The very depth of fractures prompted a typically Arendtian consideration of the stubborn intractability of conflicts between opposed groups. The interests of the individual weren’t amenable to modification by persuasion or appeals to longer term interests or supra-individual interests. This was partly a feature of “natality”, thrown into the world as a discrete individual and partly because of the absence of any widespread appreciation of res republica (these two facts were no doubt related) (32).

There was a certain irony in the fact that though violence was ultimately ineffective as an instrument of revolutionary or global change, it could nevertheless foreground a glaring but hitherto ‘hidden’ injustice and therefore securing reform or certain short term goals. Yet violence used for short term goals might just as easily lead to bad laws and ill advised reforms, hurriedly enacted to appease certain interests or groups and in Arendt’s worst scenario, simply lead to a more violent world. Arendt detected a certain convergence between East and West. In the East they demanded freedoms the West took for granted. In the West, government was being transformed into administration and republics into bureaucracies while the public sphere withered. Party machines were supplanting the public and opinion formation was choked by media concentration. What made ‘man’ a political animal was action and the capacity to unite with others to act together and achieve change. But certain social trends were nullifying that democratic process. In Arendt’s philosophical anthropology no feature of humanity was so central in defining humanity as the capacity to act (including consciousness and language). The corollary of the capacity to act was creating something new but Arendt feared that in an increasingly bureaucratised, administered social universe, this capacity was endangered. Arendt suggested that blockages preventing effective action arising from “progress” might be the cause of recourses to violence? So exalting violence might simply be a symptom of the decadence and the degeneration of representative democracy. Similarly calls for violent action were a form of ersatz action. Arendt diagnosed the declining resilience and eroding authority of public institutions. In north America the main trend was towards the centralization of power in the executive branch at the expense of the legislative branch of government and of the government at the expense of the people. Inevitably Arendt believed such trends would produce a backlash as the decay of government and public authority in a society that had fallen under a peculiar spell where the impossible such as the moon landing could happen on condition that the possible – “everyday needs” – would never be delivered. Insofar as this was true in contemporary society then power was a more diminished currency and the circumference of action narrowed while the seduction of violence grew (33).


It was a bleak prognosis that fifty years later after the ‘neoliberal’ turn of the late 1970s, the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the brutal demonstration of American power in Iraq and Afghanistan, the visible decline of that power, the rise of authoritarianism and populism globally, the rise of nihilistic organised violence perpetrated by non-state actors, climate change become visible and the rest, seems to find many confirmations in the hollowing out and retreat of democracy before these myriad challenges. Yet it remains the case that action of a kind similar to that envisaged by Arendt, action of the greatest number, action united to reason and abjuring nativism and racism, action allergic to violence as a means to an end, is still the best, in fact the only course, for any radical politics that aspires to enlarge realm of freedom and autonomy. But this is a case Paths and Bridges will return to make again soon.


This commentary on Arendt, power, violence and perhaps the leitmotif of our age – the state of emergency follows on from the themes of the previous post on Revolution and Military Repression. A companion piece to this essay will soon follow to discuss Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s book more explicitly.


By Jules Etjim



(1) Yassin al-Haj Saleh The Impossible Revolution: The Making of the Syrian Tragedy (2017) – probably the most significant contribution to understanding the nature of contemporary revolution, written in recent years.
(2) Mary Kaldor New and Old Wars; War in the Era of Globalized Violence (2004 edition).
(3)Arendt (1970), p.4.
(4) Ibid. p.6.
(5) Clearly Arendt has the Vietnam war in mind.
(6) Arendt (1970), p.20.
(7) Ibid. pp.12-13.
(8) David Macey Frantz Fanon: a Biography (2012), pp.470-71
(9) See David Garrow Bearing The Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Conference League (1988).
(10) See Rick Perlstein Nixonland (2012).
(11) Arendt p.18.
(12) Arendt pp.20-21.
(13) Arendt pp.26-27.
(14) Arendt pp.30-31.
(15) Arendt p.36.
(16) For opposed views concerning whether warfare occurred before the rise of states and inter-state violence see Lawrence Keeley War Before Civilization (1996) and Ken Otterbein How War Began (2004).
(17) Arendt pp.38-40.
(18) Arendt’s gendered language is deliberately retained for a variety of reasons. Firstly it underlines the historical context of Arendt’s essay. Secondly, it unwittingly points to an invisibility that often reflects a real obstacle preventing women from fully participating in the social world.
(19) Arendt p.41.
(20) Arendt p.20.
(21) Arendt pp.47-48. Also see Franz Borkenau The Spanish Cockpit (1937).
(22 Ibid. p.48
23) Arendt pp.48-52.
(24) Arendt pp.55-56.
(25) Arendt pp.59-62.
(26) Arendt p.63.
(27) Arendt p.65.
(28) Arendt p.68.
(29) Arendt pp.72-74.
(30) Arendt p.74.
(31) Arendt pp.77-78.
(32) Arendt pp.82-83.
33 Arendt pp.80-87.

Revolution and Military Repression – a question for the left


“Before these latter years, counter-revolution usually depended on the support of reactionary powers which were technically and intellectually inferior to the forces of revolution. This has changed with the advent of fascism. Now, every revolution is likely to meet the attack of the most modem, most efficient, most ruthless machinery yet in existence. It means that the age of revolutions free to evolve according to their own laws is over” Franz Borkenau

“The men of the European Resistance were neither the first nor the last to lose their treasure. The history of revolutions – from the summer of 1776 in Philadelphia and the summer of 1789 in Paris to the autumn of 1956 in Budapest – which politically spells out the innermost story of the modern age, could be told in parable form as the tale of an age-old treasure which, under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again, under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana.” Hannah Arendt

“Every revolution is a throw of the dice”  Straub/Huillet, after Mallarmé

The quotes that preface this article touch on two crucial issues relating to revolution in the modern world. The first, written during the Spanish Revolution, finds its confirmation in many popular revolutions since then. Budapest, Prague, Egypt and, of course, Syria spring immediately to mind. If a regime is wielding enough firepower and has sufficient counter-revolutionary resolve, it can likely annihilate almost any revolt within its territory.

The case of Syria is especially instructive. Even when all the classic signs of a revolutionary situation appeared: open revolt in the cities, towns and villages, the popular masses questioning the established social relations and large swathes of a conscript army going over to the side of the people; with enough outside support and firepower counter-revolution seems the most probable outcome.

The Arendt quote reveals something else about revolution in the modern world. Once the left thought that revolution was almost guaranteed. It was objectively required by the telos of historical progress. The infrastructure of a society outgrew its political forms. These forms would be swept away in order for a new social regime to properly develop. It produced both new freer social relations and, especially, a more productive and rational organisation of the economy. The Third International claimed it was the ‘epoch of socialist revolution’ and expected many successful working class uprisings to capture state power (even as its own bureaucracy came to direct working class politics from above).

The C20 has shattered this, it has shown it to be a myth. Revolutions now appear like Arendt’s treasure – of course, these events arise off the back of suffering, oppression, and exploitation but considering the constancy of these causes, and the rarity of revolution, they cannot be reduced to them.

The entry of the masses into the political sphere is the only possibility of establishing freer more autonomous societies. Like Lefort, we must posit that democracy is an empty space that can foster a diversity of opinions underwritten by broad but firm principles. We should not situate power or truth in a leader, party or ideology. If the old idea of revolution is dead then we should posit another, merely as a contribution to revolutionary theory. Revolution is the opening of a psychological closure, torn open by rage and sickness of fear. It prises open the closure of established social and political relations, works against obedience and conformism. In drawing open this closure new forms of political speech and action are born, new social forms may appear that work toward less hierarchical institutions. Like how an analysand must speak through free association whatever comes to mind, and reflect on the course of her life with a new perspective using the material uncovered, might the process of revolution work in a similar fashion? Any student of the history of revolutions (rather than political activity in service to an ideology) knows the immensely creative and therapeutic effects of revolt can create new worlds. New forms, significations, and modes of being were born in the revolutions of the modern age. Even when they were lost, the meanings and forms they created were transmitted to the world as models and sources.

So the questions those of us who believe in social revolution must ask ourselves – an open question but with a current imperative of the utmost urgency – if revolution is an event irreducible to empirical factors, not guaranteed by a telos but rather a unique potentiality in the endless open page of human history.

What chance does revolution stand in the age of mass aerial bombardment and overwhelming firepower?

As popular revolts in an unconcerned wider world, very little. Syrian revolutionaries have repeatedly called for defensive equipment from aerial bombardment and later a ‘No Fly Zone’. We know that the intervention in Libya allowed the revolutionary forces to overthrow the old regime without the destruction of entire cities and the death or exile of their population. It has given a society recovering from a brutal four-decade dictatorship the chance to develop in the direction of freedom. One does not have to trust the motives of those intervening. Every revolution is a role of the dice, we should listen to those who take the risk. No successful revolution has ever faced mass repression from a militarily and technological advanced enemy. With the fall of the Soviet Empire, the most recent wave of revolutions before the Arab Spring, the ruling classes knew their system was dying, and aside from the party gerontocracy, the cadre of the system saw a brighter future without party badges on their lapels. In a situation where the ruling class is likely to lose their privileges and wealth rather than set their eyes on new ones, the result is likely to be a counter-revolutionary fightback on the Syrian model. If revolutions are histories rare treasure we as revolutionaries should consider solidarity over ideology and listen to those involved, not prioritise our own everyday struggles while they die or preserve the ‘established facts’ of our long-held positions so to be deaf to the treasure of their experience. Moreover, to retain our own humanity solidarity must come first, as any ends are determined by the means employed, if we devalue their lives and deaths we may find ourselves in the situation of many who started out as revolutionaries but ended somewhere quite different, as having a hand in creating a mountain of corpses.

by Joe R.

Rene Girard’s Gospel Truths: On Violence and the Origins of Society



Three hundred years since the Enlightenment began and who would question that violence as an inheritance of humanity’s past appears to be an ineradicable feature of our agonistic age? 1 The realism of antiquity that “man is a wolf to wolf” (Plautus) might not have wholly colonized the consensus omnium but it is finding increasing favour.

The role of violence in civilization’s emergence is a topical question and one thinker who proposed an indissoluble link between violence and the emergence of society, culture and the sacred, was the social theorist, literary critic and philosopher Rene Girard (1923-2015). In recent years Girard’s once unfashionable but ambitious project has attracted growing attention. Indeed rebarbative wars and stalemate civil wars, ethnic cleansing and genocidal conflicts have bloomed like poisonous flowers across the globe in recent years with this age old reality displaying many new sociological features exemplifying globalisation and post-modernism.2 This is a historical moment where the confluence of a variety of forces and events – the continuing fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the continued economic turbulence since 2008, the palpable decline of US imperial power after ill-starred adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring’ (revolutions of new type that ‘perplex’ the traditional left) and their subsequent faltering in the face of barbarous counter-revolution – have added some plausibility to Girard’s argument.

Stepping back to consider the parabola of pre-history and history, violence was at the centre of the humanity’s hominization in Violence and the Sacred (1972) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978). Surprisingly for a French thinker Girard was never particularly fashionable though his dogged reflection on violence as generative catalyst drew on anthropology, psychoanalysis, archaeology, ethnology, ethology and literature. But a number of factors distinguished Girard from post-war French social theory, primarily the fact Girard was essentially a Christian thinker, a sophisticated defender of the faith who unabashedly utilized science to elaborate the logic of mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism. In a notable 1978 review of Violence and the Sacred (1972), Hayden White assaulted Girard’s supposed desire to roll back the Enlightenment and the disenchantment of the modern age and thus reawaken Judeo-Christian religious consciousness.4

Yet arguably Girard’s posture was more complicated than White’s hostility warranted. Though Girard proposed in THStFotW (1978) that Christianity was able to nullify the scapegoat mechanism 5 with the revelation of the universal truth that all scapegoats were innocent (Jesus: “they hate me without cause”) 6, Girard’s Catholicism was muted by an appeal to the scientificity of his enterprise. Girard later insisted religion, as accumulated wisdom, was itself a form of science that arose as the sacred emerged in the process of hominization, as part of the attempt to comprehend and tame the forces of the natural and social world. Basically Girard’s position reflected acceptance of the modernist critique of scientism but didn’t entail a nihilist or romantic repudiation of science per se. So Girard explicitly affirmed the real beyond the text in contrast to the more excitable proponents of post-modern theory, underlining the distance from the fashionable French social theory that was shaped by the ‘linguistic turn’. Instead Girard’s intellectual formation partly stemmed from older French sociological traditions but also the fact he spent his academic career in the US since 1946.

Below Girard’s distinctive arguments are summarised as they were presented in VatS (1972) and extended in THStFotW (1978). This brief precis is followed by some critical reflection on Girard’s two leitmotif ideas: firstly, mimesis or mimetic desire and how it leads to intractable, destructive conflict and violence (Girard’s sacrificial crisis) and, secondly, how the selective violence of the sacrificial mechanism functions to mortify global violence and in doing so provides the genetic ground of culture.


In VatS (1972) Girard plundered a variety of sources – the Old Testament, Greek and Roman myth, anthropological, ethological and ethnological research, to elucidate the social and historical meaning of human sacrifice, the scapegoat mechanism and the meaning of those temporary, cyclical disturbances of the social world that Girard termed the sacrificial crisis, that was the starting point of his analysis. Yet underpinning the scapegoat mechanism was a phenomenological master concept: mimetic desire (outlined much later) and it is with mimesis or mimetic desire we begin.

Essentially for Girard desire was imitative and a fundamental relation of mimesis dominated social existence. Every individual shared basic needs rooted in a common biological desideratum but beyond the somatic there was also desire. Desire was social and the satisfaction of desire was necessary to achieve plenitude. Desire was more or less intense and its object began as lack, something coveted. Girard dismissed the notion of desire’s great confinement that was a leitmotif of French social theory in the post-war years – the idea that laws and prohibitions combining to bind desire should be thrown off to allow the authentic individual to “blossom forth.” The idea desire was uniquely individual was modernity’s illusion. In reality if desire was a fixed quantity as was often assumed then it would hardly differ from instinct. How did desire take shape? Where did the objects of desire come from? 7 Girard’s stance recalled Freud’s – the repression (husbanding) of desire was a necessity, enabling social life proper.

How did we each know what we wanted? How did we learn desire? It was by the “example of his own desire” that an individual conveyed to others the object’s desirability Girard claimed. 8 Each individual learned what was desirable from the Other but crucially what they internalised was the imitative behaviour (mimesis) of the Other itself. Therefore the desire for a specific object (in Freudian terms the object of desire could be another individual) did not derive from the object per se but from another’s desire for the object. Surprisingly perhaps we coveted sameness and similarity in the specific object and so mimesis and desire were strongly linked, as Girard concluded: “two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash.”9 So a furtive but universal imitation (furtive because every individual in the modern age regarded themselves as an individual) led to sameness/similarity in society but instead of this conformity of desire issuing in harmony as you might at first expect, sameness fed global rivalry, opposed interests and conflict. The ultimate source of these rivalries in the mimetic mechanism was inevitably shrouded in a degree of obscurity because social actors were unable to acquire the lucidity to apprehend the universality of mimesis and its part in the fission of reciprocal antagonism. In Girard’s terms the Other was first of all the Model (in Freudianism the imago – parents, the original imago, were exemplary in this respect though other Models followed), the Model for desire destined to be your rival. A mimetic crisis – the conflict of rivals – was also a crisis of undifferentiation (the attenuation of difference) because rivals were almost identical – doubles in fact. The mimetic mechanism’s power was at its purest among the small bands and groups of pre-history. In contrast modernity distorted the mimetic mechanism. More generally the historical emergence of stratified, hierarchical societies functioned as a partial prophylaxis to mimetic desire because certain objects could not be acquired by the majority of the populace in the context of scarcity. Feudalism demonstrated how scarcity ensured only the most basic needs of the peasant majority could be met, though Rabelais’s literature revelled in a liminal plebeian world of gluttony. 10 Girard did not dispute that scarcity could also promote the class struggle but Marx was accused of scapegoating the bourgeoisie or in Nietzschean terms deemed to be driven by ressentiment.

The other two ‘masters of suspicion’ (as Paul Ricoeur christened them) Nietzsche and Freud were also indicted for embracing the scapegoating logic. Historically class and social stratification implied difference, often quite rigid, and the resulting differentiation of desire attenuated the mimetic mechanism. Mimesis was still operative but functioned crookedly. Modernity saw an “array of models” but social mobility and the attenuation of class and status meant those at ‘lower’ social levels increasingly desired what those at ‘higher’ social levels had. The emergence of the state also saw the instantiation of Law and therefore an end to the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’. Law as transcendent power and authority played a part in curbing mimesis and reciprocal violence. Modernity saw the rise of mass society and the citoyen on the one hand, and an object universe created by modern manufacture, on the other. But the productive fission of the objects of desire available to all, hardly weakened mimetic desire or the potential for mimetic conflict according to Girard. In a critical appraisal that echoed Herbert Marcuse’s refusal of the ‘affluent society’, Girard claimed that the near universal availability of commodities diminished the desirability of these objects. Commodities were desired, purchased but quickly discarded. Consumer society rested on the plunder and consumption of the Earth’s resources in a sacrificial, ecologically-malign zero sum game, to manufacture objects that were increasingly unwanted. The paradox of consumer society was that it simultaneously corrupted its citizens (false wants, hollow desires, useless activities proliferated) but also turned them into “mystics” increasingly able to apprehend that consumption would never satisfy their desires. 11

This critical theme was evidently quite congenial to the spiritual concerns of certain strands of ‘social’ Catholicism.


For Girard mimetic desire led to the threshold of violence. What might be regarded as the dominant, ‘romantic’ view that held desire to be singular and unique to each person, was a prejudice of an individualistic age. Reflection revealed desires varied little across society due to mimesis, and paradoxically, what individuals held in common in the realm of desire was what finally prompted conflict (leaving aside the vicissitudes of mimesis in the context of modernity). The Other became our rival because the Other was firstly a Model, a mirror of mimetic desire where we learned the desirability of the object. As we noted, Girard concluded that your Model qua rival was the cause of your desire and their desire was the mirror of your desire rather than the supposed object of desire itself which was strictly secondary (and thus, strictly speaking, nowhere).

In his reading of Sophocles Oedipus Rex, Girard noted how Tiresias and Creon following in Oedipus’s steps assumed that by acting in good faith as honest arbiters they could avoid becoming embroiled in the social crisis engulfing Thebes and draw its sting. But it was testament to Sophocles’ realism that they were destined to fail. Inevitably individuals as social actors were blind to the interests and injuries of others except their own. 12 Standing outside a conflict made empathy easy but inside a dispute it was always the Other who was responsible for the first blow either by striking first or provoking the blow they received. Girard was insistent that there was no difference between those who struck and those who received the blows. Reprisals would soon be forthcoming as part of the telos of the mimetic mechanism and the deadly rivalries generated. 13 In Oedipus Rex Oedipus kills his father Laius at the crossroads (Oedipus is unaware that Laius is his father). Girard observes that though Thebes as a Greek city state existed in specific historical dimension, that tragedies like those of Sophocles also captured the transition from an archaic to a more rule based social order while Oedipus and Laius still inhabited a “universe of reprisals” where male relationships rested on reciprocal violence and the infinite possibility of reprisal. 14

More generally violence arising from the mimetic mechanism, was part of a diabolical phenomenology of social life, an interminable “plague” that periodically destroyed community. Violence shredded the fabric of social life and even threatened the dissolution of society (as it often had in pre-history) but reciprocal violence arising from the mimetic mechanism also had a genetic function laying the foundations of human culture. Later Girard would acknowledge the other side, the angelic phenomenology of social life that revealed how the mimetic mechanism also functioned as an instrument of cultural transmission. Imitation (nascent mimesis) which the pioneers of child psychology and development like Jean Piaget had failed to fully appreciate, was not simply negative but a crucial to the child’s ‘learning process.’ 15 Without this ‘good’ mimesis there would be “no human mind, no education, no transmission of culture.” 16 Even so Girard continued to elevate violent mimesis as he believed commentators were most likely to deny this reality even when it appeared in symbolic or culturally attenuated forms.

Ritual Sacrifice and the Sacrificial Crisis

Turning to the question of ritual sacrifice is to turn to beginnings. Though the mimetic mechanism was the obvious logical starting point for understanding the long process of hominization and the emergence of culture, Girard himself began by exploring the genesis and significance of ritual sacrifice.

Firstly we are alerted to the double aspect of sacrifice: the sacred and religious on the one hand, and the transgressive on the other. Paradoxically both sides were mutually reinforcing as it was transgressive to kill another human being while killing revealed a debased sacred character at its heart because a prohibition on taking human life was broken. Significantly Girard viewed violence and aggression as universal as it was in the animal kingdom while no “man” resembled another more than when he was angry. The archaeological and anthropological record demonstrated violence was a feature of pre-history. Violence aroused was difficult to appease and could rapidly acquire a devastating destructive power in small pre-state bands. In VatS (1972) Girard appealed to the field of ethology as well as various social scientific disciplines to support an essentially Hobbesian or realist view of aggression as part of humanity’s behavioural repertoire, an adaptive tool rooted in, and surviving beyond our animal past. Like Freud, Girard evinced support for a hydraulic model of aggression as energia flowing from a specific physiological-biological economy where energia accumulated until a certain point when it needed an outlet. Girard approvingly cited Konrad Lorenz, author of On Aggression (1966). Lorenz’s popular work originally appeared in West Germany in 1963 and anticipated similar books about the animal-zoological basis of human behaviour by writers like Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey though Lorenz focused on aggression as an adaptive tool in the behavioural repertoire. 17 As Girard observed in 2008 Lorenz’s ethological research cast some suggestive light on the transition from the animal to the human world, and the appearance of culture and the symbolic realm, by producing evidence of ‘instinctual scapegoating’ in some animals. 18

The mimetic mechanism was fundamental to the long process of hominization. The universality of mimetic desire, the inevitability of conflict tore at the delicate social fabric of emerging human societies. Girard speculated that at some point in pre-history the small bands and groups of early hominids hit on the scapegoat mechanism involving the selective use of violence in ritual sacrifice to cauterize the threat of wider violence afflicting the group. Killing the sacrificial victim was an outlet for the violence the mimetic mechanism generated and prophylaxis for further chronic aggression that could potentially destroy the group given its precarious existence. The scapegoat mechanism eventually evolved into the practice of ritual sacrifice aiding the social integration of the group – a position akin to Durkheim who emphasized precisely this role of ritual in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life and the Totemic System in Australia (1912). The scapegoat mechanism helped to constitute community, culture and the sacred realm of primitive religion. In many ways Girard’s position was similar to Freud’s speculative belief in Totem and Taboo that civilization and culture derived from the murder of the tyrannical Father by the primal horde of brothers who subsequently shared the females thus creating the first prohibitions against incest so laying the basis of religion, law and exogamous social relations (social structure, culture). Girard demurred from much of this speculative argument and believed Freud had recoiled from discovering the mimetic mechanism. Later Girard would explicitly reject Freud’s unlikely ur-scenario though Freud’s genius was acknowledged. Alluding to Darwin’s theory of evolution Girard suggested that over the course of tens of thousands of years there were probably countless ur-scenario’s. Ritual slowly emerged after a long gestation, a process of trial and error – the scapegoat mechanism was part of the natural order (as Konrad Lorenz had suggested from observation of geese and the evidence of instinctual scapegoating) as well as the foundation of culture but many sacrificial crises occurred before it became established. Echoing Darwin only the “fittest” bands and groups would have survived to eventually generate culture and religion.

Girard explored this process via different disciplines, undertaking close readings of a variety of myths and origin narratives. The sacrificial victim as a surrogate was not necessarily human. As Stephen Pinker observed in his work on the civilizational pacification of human aggression, the Israelites boasted their God was superior to the deities of neighbouring tribes because He only demanded the sacrifice of sheep and cattle and not their children. Yet human sacrifice was clearly a part of their recent past as this prohibition from Leviticus 18:21 revealed: “You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God.” 19
Similar to ritual sacrifice of humans, animal sacrifice also emerged as a probably symbolically inferior means of appeasing the violence that threatened the stability of the band, horde or group. Indeed animals were probably regarded as symbolic analogues of human beings. Girard cited the example of the Neur who saw their cattle herds as a mirror of Neur society. Each cow had a name that mirrored a person suggesting to Girard that a substitution was at the heart of Neur animal ritual sacrifice implying it was false to separate animal from human sacrifice. They were not so far apart as some imagined. In fact supposing animals to be legitimate sacrificial objects partook of the sacrificial logic. The main problem of ritual sacrifice was ascertaining why there were victims in the first place. Also though animals were regarded as an analogue of people and sacrificing them was a sacred act, animals were not assimilated to people. The Neur did not sacrifice men for cows.

In pre-history if serviceable or substitute victims such as animals were not available then the “pollutant” of violence might not be contained. This is one possible meaning of the Bible story of Cain and Abel. Cain, a farmer slew his brother Abel, a shepherd. Suggestively as a shepherd Abel was able to occasionally sacrifice the first born sheep, discharging his violent impulses but Cain had no such outlet. 20 Animal sacrifice allowed violence but was also revealed as a screen for deflecting violence that would otherwise be aimed at group or band members. Abel had an outlet but Cain did not – Cain was a murderer. 21

Girard was sharply critical of the ‘standard’ anthropological treatment of ritual sacrifice. Its framework was supposedly inadequate because sacrifice was usually apprehended as a violent mediatory act between a human community and their Deity or Deities, so that the specificity of the sacred ritual was disregarded as ritual sacrifice belonged to the past and could be “relegated to the realm of the imaginary”, an anachronistic curio. The Cambridge Ritualists and Frazier treated ritual sacrifice as related to Cosmology and seasonal change as an analogue to changes in human society. But such a perspective put the cart before the horse as Girard believed the reciprocity of violence ran deeper. Only when people discerned the alternating pattern of order and disorder in society did they make a link to the rhythms of Nature. 22

Mauss, Hubert and Levi-Strauss were all rebuked for viewing ritual and sacrifice through a rationalist lens. 23 Critically focusing on the sacred content of ritual sacrifice exposed a rationalist will to repudiate theology but this materialist critique of primitive ritual and religion unintentionally confirmed the veracity of theological explanations. The violent economy of sacrifice generated misunderstanding from the beginning because its efficacy derived from concealing the underlying social conflicts (mimetic rivalry) that ritual sacrifice as symbolic, sacred act only obliquely addressed. Girard often proposed that violence was a “contagion” or a “plague” – with the reciprocal violence arising from the mimetic mechanism inevitably leading to a periodic sacrificial crisis.

Modern interpretation was influenced by an innocent rationalism that lightmindedly overlooked the import of collective violence. Finding a sacrificial victim who could simultaneously be a receptacle for all the evil “pollutant” and a socially symbolic cure, also entailed a certain level of dissimulation or socially necessary illusion for ritual sacrifice to be fully effective. According to Girard, Mauss and Hubert correctly emphasized the universality of ritual sacrifice but it was not due to diffusion but the global nature of mimesis. 24 Freud’s solution to Oedipus was a brilliant interpretation but ultimately misleading because it was not the libidinal impulse that was being repressed but rather mimetic violence. As Hayden White suggested in his critical reading of Girard’s method, sexuality was not the latent meaning of Oedipus Rex or other Greek myths but part of the “surface of the text”. We might say following White that in Girard’s system “purifying violence” chased out impure violence. 25

How the surrogate victim was selected was a profound problem in itself. Typically the victim of ritual sacrifice was a part of the community – the Same – but might also relatively marginal like a child, adolescent or an older woman – the Other. As we know for Girard, sacrifice of the surrogate victim protected the group, band or village from even deadlier internal violence. It was hardly coincidental that the relatively powerless were selected to forestall the escalating violence that might have taken the form of revenge or blood feud.

The Gospel Truth

Girard’s diabolical phenomenology, mimesis and reciprocal violence were paradoxically the foundation of society, culture and the sacred but Girard was also convinced that civilization’s ultimate viability rested on humanity abandoning violence. In his sequel to VatS (1972), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), Girard offered a close reading of the sacrificial theme in the Gospels and suggested the Biblical texts shone an unambiguous and powerful light on the sacrificial mechanism. The primary revelation of the Gospels was its proclamation via the crucifixion of Jesus, the Son of God, that all sacrificial victims and scapegoats were innocent. The crucifixion of Jesus was emphatically not part of the dominant sacrificial logic. 26


In the Girardian universe the Gospels were a form of biblical disenchantment exposing the sacrificial character of the prevailing myths and religious systems. In contrast, the God of the Old and New Testament was a God of Love. God was not vengeful and He was not responsible for the mimetic mechanism. The apocalypse was a strictly human dynamic that unfolded from the social logic of mimesis. 27 God had not offered up his Son for sacrifice and the fundamentalist reading of a fire and brimstone God was misplaced, derived from wrongheaded readings, the transmission of error strewn copies of the Gospels and the antiquity of the Old Testament – though even here Girard disputed fundamentalist readings of the Old Testament and insisted we were still dealing with a God of Love. It isn’t necessity to scrutinize Girard’s theological reasoning or examine the plausibility of his reading of the Biblical texts other than to mentally note there is a characteristic, symptomatic Girardian tendency to proceed by informing us how we should read certain disputed passages of texts, Girard will posit what is primary (and secondary) in any ethnographic or anthropological study before giving his own reading with its strategic insertion of the themes of mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism. This procedure of amendment before the Girardian reading can properly be imposed is particularly jarring with Girard’s insistence that there is no real gap between the Old and the New Testament. In any case Girard warns us the Gospels should not be read with medieval eyes or as an allegory of God’s punishment of humanity. This biblical passage quoted by Girard was exemplary in this respect:

“You have that it was said: ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5: 43-45).

Neither were the Gospels implicated in a sacrificial universe except insofar as they directly challenged the sacrificial framework while humanity rather than God, was deemed responsible for the violence and miseries afflicting humanity. In a counterintuitive leap Girard suggested the Gospels provided a “practical atheism” 28 because the God shining forth in the Gospel texts was both a God of love but also significantly a non-interventionist God – He resisted the interference that might implicate Him in mimesis though God did send his Son to Earth to disabuse humanity of the efficacy of sacrificial violence. God was not the sort of deity who walked alongside humanity or dwelled in an ancient tree.

Concluding Remarks

Girard’s ambition to explain the basis of ‘civilization’ matched that of one of his major inspirations, interlocutors and rivals: Freud. Both men alluded to the scientific nature of their respective enterprises though one feature distinguishing Girard’s project was its aim to rehabilitate Christianity. According to Hayden White – citing as evidence Desire, Deceit and the Novel (1962) and Violence and the Sacred (1972) before the full blown Girardian appeals to the anti-sacrificial message of the Gospels of 1978 – Girard was waging a war against modernity as his insistence on the “necessity of religious belief” to ward off social chaos, revealed. White was hostile to the message there could be no society without religion. The arrival of the scientific age meant religion pragmatically required a defence using the weapons of science. According to White, Girard was the inheritor of a strand of French sociological thought preoccupied with reason’s inability to overcome inertial tradition and time honoured social practices. These had revealed the importance of identity and belonging. This may perhaps have been the case – there were parallels with the admired Durkheim for example whose work on ‘primitive’ religion showed how ritual aided social integration. Yet Girard had also happily accepted elements of the modernist critique of rationalism and married it to a quite traditional conception of the scientific enterprise that certainly could not be bracketed with French social theory after the ‘linguistic turn.’

White noticed that Girard in generalising from ethology, ethnology, anthropology, sociology and literary analysis, daringly reversed the usual interpretive modus operandi. For example in the anthropological field, a particular cosmological weltanschauung might usually be regarded as the latent meaning of, say, a ‘primitive’ bands perceptual framework. But in a theoretical move disavowing puritanism Girard would offer a worldly critical reversal of such an interpretive procedure and suggest that these aspects were not repressed at all but part of the manifest content. They were easily read off the social text or social practice because they were there on the surface all the time. It was mimesis and the sacrificial logic that provided the latent content and the hidden drama. In terms of ‘primitive’ society this simply indicated the primacy of ritual (and therefore ultimately religion) over myth. Again here we can see the essential outline of Girard’s overall critique of psychoanalysis which was particularly severe with Freud’s reading of the Oedipus myth. But then Girard wished to create a superior monistic cosmology to surpass that of Freud (and Marx and Nietzsche) – an intriguing echo of Girard’s own theory of Doubles: your Model and ultimately your enemy.

Let us be clear we entirely reject Girard’s “monistic cosmology” as White dubs it. The major weakness of Girard’s master concept of mimesis despite a certain superficial plausibility or localized utility, is its insatiable aspiration to explain everything. Girard’s whole argument is not falsifiable as any modest scientific theory might usually expected to be. In terms of his own specific specialism: critical cultural or literary theory, White argued that Girard’s ‘theoretical imperialism’ had been apparent in his first 1962 book on the modern novel. Modern literary interpretation was too sophisticated to grasp the import of the narrative parabola of, say, Don Quixote’s or Madame Bovary’s life, whose “conversion in death” Girard uncomplicatedly read as parables of the Christian revelation. This fundamental “truth” had been obscured by the “romantic lies” born of the secular sensibility of the modernist critic. In somewhat hyperbolic fashion White offers the jaundiced suggestion that for Girard such obscurantist romanticism was propagated by a humanity drunk on pride.

Leaving the relatively modest field of literary or cultural theory for one moment and the question of how much Girard’s take on the modern novel marked the first occasion for him to audition the theme of mimesis and its generative role in culture and the Christian revelation, it becomes clear that Girard’s fundamentally reductive argument can only have plausible traction if the necessarily diabolical phenomenology is treated as a powerful, omnipresent logic in social life. In other words Girard has to resist any concession that mimesis might only be a “weak” mechanism or simply one local element of social interaction among others or else the sacrificial crisis qua event loses its potency and influence. More importantly it would lose its status as a plausible explanadum of the emergence of culture from the many ur-scenarios Girard speculated must have taken place over thousands of years during pre-history. Girard was the first to concede that many factors blocked or deflected the working of the mimetic mechanism (chiefly social differentiation arising from the advent of civilization) but insisted its sway was more powerful in earlier, smaller, undifferentiated human groups. It is peculiar that such countervailing counterfactuals are not regarded as fatally invalidating mimesis when elsewhere its global nature is so vaunted.

Above we noted in relation to Girard’s characteristic procedure is to propose how the text should be read – why dominant or common readings are erroneous or part of the dissimulation necessary to conceal the latent working of the traumatic logic of the scapegoat mechanism. Thus Girard gathers much secondary material from the field of anthropology and subjects that material to his own interpretive reworking. Hayden White also noted how Girard took the “raw data” of ethnology and anthropology and inserted it into an a priori “interpretative grid”. Of course so far as White was concerned there was no such thing as “raw data” as an object existing externally to mediatory order of language. Thus Girard was reshaping material that had already been shaped. While Girard sharply disagreed with anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss, more serious was his accusation that anthropology had of not taken ritual or myth seriously because the anthropological field is dominated by a secular will to disenchant the sacred spell and a peculiarly modernist blindness to lost ‘truths’ that the ancients or ‘primitives’ understood perfectly well such as the “contagious” or “plague-like” nature of destructive violence (understood perfectly well except when social illusion was functionally necessary to conceal this traumatic truth – characteristically Girard has it both ways). Yet there was and is a great deal more to the field of anthropology than, say, the Cambridge Ritualists or Mauss and Hubert. In fact in no other field of the social sciences has the realm of myth, ritual, the sacred and early religion, been taken so seriously.

One anthropologist who took the subject of the sacred and ritual sacrifice extremely seriously was Victor Turner who died in 1983 (Turner incidentally was a Christian). Turner paid close attention to the particularities of belief in the sacred and ritual practice in during fieldwork in West Africa linking it, for example, to the literary symbolism of Dante or Roman sacrificial practices and underwent an intellectual odyssey that rejected structuralism and Durkheimian functionalism as inadequate in capturing the complex social logic and beliefs of ritual and ritual practice (characteristically Turner was more impressed with Durkheim’s conception of collective “effervescence” originally meant for understanding the French revolution, which stressed the part played by agency in generating new social structures). 29 The work of Turner and others marks a far more serious engagement with the sacred and ritual than Girard’s dismissive, selective balance sheet of the field.

Turner’s concept of communitas reminds us that Girard has failed to satisfactorily account for the genesis of social solidarity among hominids and early man. Naturally it is open to Girardians to claim social solidarity is derivative of mimesis or that social solidarity retains strong elements of coercion directly derived from the internalisation of prohibitions governing group behaviour mediated indirectly by the scapegoat mechanism. Except Girard says remarkably little about social solidarity and ultimately I think this is because the mimetic mechanism cannot satisfactorily explain social solidarity. Mimesis and the sacrificial mechanism it generates supposedly promotes social integration (Durkheim also thought ritual was socially integrative) and yet Girard’s conception is strongly coloured by ethology so the individual in the group is very much a fearful, selfish egoist whose Models are also putative rivals. It’s hard not to conclude the mimetic mechanism is simply too one note to capture the complex tapestry of social life.

Finally the weakest link of the mimetic mechanism which ought to disqualify Girard’s theory from offering an explanation for culture and society, is its basic component: desire. Essentially Girard is absolutely emphatic – desire is derived from mimesis or imitative behaviour. We desire the objects we desire because others desired the same objects. So the key relation of our desire toward an object is mediated by the desire of the Other, the Model and rival. What characterises the objects we desire is not the difference that would affirm individuality but similarity and sameness which exposes the conformity at the heart of the mimetic mechanism and our desire. So we learn desire from our Models – the Model qua rival was the cause of our desire not the object. There is a certain surface plausibility to Girard’s argument – it could be read as a simple insistence that desire is socially mediated which may well be true but is a different to Girard’s position. The mimetic mechanism means that desire cannot proceed from ourselves. By contrast we maintain we can subjectively desire a specific object without the mediatory intercession of the Other as Model and/or rival. The fundamental connection between desire and mimesis was one reason Girard emphatically rejected Freud’s conception of desire (and crucially the libidinal economy underpinning it). Sadly we cannot interrogate Girard’s criticism of Freud’s Oedipus complex which points to the various adjustments Freud made to his theory to render it more coherent but we can address two issues in lieu of that systematic rebuttal of Girard’s interpretation. It was Girard’s judgement that Freud had been close to grasping the logic of mimesis when he explored the Oedipus complex in 1910. But instead of deriving desire from the mimetic triadic structure of the family with the parents conceived as proto-Model’s – essentially Girard’s position, Freud took a different, more ‘materialist’ position. Firstly Freud presented desire (instinct) as a libidinal aim whose ultimate somatic basis was the nervous system and though he emphasized the “source of the instincts” lay in the physiological apparatus Freud also insisted it was strictly outside the scope of “psychology.” 30 The proximity of the child qua child rearing to its mother ensured the child’s libidinal aim (instinct, desire, want) acquired its First Object in its mother. Generally it was inevitable the mother would be the child’s first Love-Object, the dominant object of the child’s infantile libidinal strivings. The child’s libidinal attachment to its mother signalled the unfolding of the Oedipus complex – an important ontogenetic stage in a child’s psychosexual development. This conception was quite different from Girard’s mimetic model of desire – significantly only Freud’s conception of desire could explain that fundamental feature of human sexuality – its polymorphous perversity. 31 It is symptomatic that in one passage dismissing Freud’s Oedipus complex, Girard defends the innocence of the young child trading on the enduring scepticism towards Freud’s acknowledgement of the existence of infantile sexuality or the idea that a young boy might have unconscious murderous wishes towards his father, the rival for his mother’s affections.

Clearly some desires are mimetic originally but it actually stretches plausibility and logic to suggest that all desire is derived from the rivalries generated by the mimetic mechanism. The critic of Girard who suggests there are desires not mediated by a Model, does not mediated by a Model, does not have to be swollen with the sin of pride or narcissism or even the conceit of illusory individualism, to point this out. So desire can genuinely be our own in the sense that it is not mediated by the rival and desire can indicate authentic difference and not simply the illusion of difference. Also in the actually existing social world individuals know many other individuals with different temperaments and personalities so that in Girardian terms any individual would be confronted with a multiplicity of possible Models holding in turn many, many choices and many, many objects or goods of desire. Therefore an individual is still faced with having to make any number of choices, deciding what they want, what their desires are, what they wish to achieve and though those choices are socially mediated to a greater or lesser degree, they are predominantly their choices and their desires. Ultimately the complexity of the human social universe capsizes Girard’s deterministic, reductive mimetic mechanism and if mimesis is a demonstrable aspect of social life it is so in a much more etiolated, weaker form than Girard imagines and thus falls far short of the global explanatory power than was claimed for the concept.

by Jules Etjim




1 Perhaps surprisingly one such dissenter is Stephen Pinker

2  Mary Kaldor captures some of the changes in the nature of war in New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in the Global Era (1999).

3 Girard’s earlier Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1962), organised around the central category of mimesis, marked a straw in the wind of his later more extensive argument.

4 Hayden White’s belated review of Violence and the Sacred (1972, 2012) appeared as Ethnological ‘Lie’ and Mythical ‘Truth’ (1978)Diacritics Vol 8. No.1 Spring 1978, pp. 2-9.

5 Those terms italicized in the text – for example sacrificial mechanism or surrogate victim – are important concepts used by Girard in his work.

6 Girard Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (2017) p.150. Hereafter abbreviated to E&C (2017).

7 Ibid. pp.43-4.

8 Girard VatS (1972, 2012) p.164.

9 Ibid.

10 Intriguingly Girard – whose starting point was European literature and mimesis including Dante, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Dostoevsky and so on – appears to have barely discussed Rabelais.

11 Girard E&C (2017) pp.58-9.

12 For Girard’s reading of Oedipus Rex see VatS (1972, 2012) pp.77-99.

13 Ibid. pp.178-9.

14 Ibid. p.52.

15 Girard in E&C (2008, 2017) p.43.

16  Ibid. p.56.

17 For an account of the reception surrounding Lorenz’s popular work, its context and the relevance of Lorenz’s wartime fascist sympathies in relation to his elaboration of the nature of human aggression, see Dagmar Herzog Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in the Age of Catastrophe (2017) pp.123-50.

18 E&C (2008.2017) p.72

19 Leviticus 18:21 quoted in Stephen Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (2012) p.161.

20 Neither is it is an accident that Cain and Abel were brothers according to Girard’s overall argumentative schema, as they would have been rivalrous doubles.

21 VatS (1972, 2012) pp.4-5.

22 Ibid. pp.107-8.

23 Ibid. p.7.

24 Ibid. p.102.

25 Hayden White Ethnological “Lie” and Mythical “Truth” in Diacritics Vol.8. No.1 Spring 1978 p.4.

26 Girard in THSTFOTW (1978) p.172.

27 Though to talk of “social logic” in relation to Girard’s mimetic mechanism is somewhat paradoxical given that it creates the social in the first place.

28 Ibid. p.174.

29  See Turner’s discussion of Durkheim – the context, exploring agency and social solidarity in contrast to alternative Hobbesian optic of individuals like Konrad Lorenz and Rene Girard – in Victor Turner’s essay Morality and Liminality in Blazing the Trail: Way Marks in the Exploration of Symbols (1992) p.137.

30 “Psychology” was not concerned with the physiological apparatus, the source of the instincts but rather their ideational-symbolic form in the mental apparatus but it did presuppose this material basis. Freud makes this point in his essay Instincts and Their Vicissitudes (1915).

31 Girard discusses Freud’s Oedipus complex in VatS (1972, 2012) pp.191-217.

Land of Closure? Religion. Geography and closed forms of thought in the Russian Imaginary



Pyotr Ossovsky ‘Moscow Kremlin at night’ (1979).

“A natural dionysism and a Christian asceticism are equally characteristic of the Russian people. A difficult problem presents itself ceaselessly to the Russian—the problem of organizing his vast territory. The immensity of Russia, the absence of boundaries, was expressed in the structure of the Russian soul. The Landscape of the Russian soul corresponds with the landscape of Russia, the same boundlessness, formlessness, reaching out into infinity, breadth”. Nicolai Berdyaev, The Origin of Russian Communism


Preliminary Remarks

In the West, Russia stands for alterity. An idea of a place of endless grasslands and forests, of mountain ranges and rivers that run from banks arctic to verdant. Also a land of cruelty and cynicism – the land of the great lie as Ante Ciliga called it. Of men in prison and men imprisoned in rituals of faith. A world itself, enclosed and barricaded. This boundlessness is closed because of the lack of differentiation and the paucity of the intersubjective aspect. In thinking and writing about Russia an outsider may lean on and be seduced this alterity and deceived by its mythologies. Nonetheless it seems necessary to note that this imaginary Russia is part of the Russian imaginary, the combined significations and endless referrals of circulating meanings that make a society and create its unique iteration of reality. This is the Great Russian imaginary. One always views the world from somewhere, through a socially instituted vision that is reality for the subject. This is as true for the New Atheist as it is for the Russian village shopkeeper.

My interest in the subject is prompted by this Russian imaginary and its sharp contrast, as otherness, to the culture of Western Europe and North America. This essay concerns the distant Russian past, its influence in the C20th and how its otherness casts a shadow on the contemporary world. If I don’t address parts of Russian culture and history that appear distant from the closed, heteronomous and traditional Russia it is because reality has many domains and an essay, like any individual, can only be a fragment of it.

I From Muscovy to Communism

For many Russian’s, the early many modern period was marked by the development of what is now considered its most obvious political aspect: a centralized state dominating all other actors in a vast, expanding territory. While the Western European city gave rise to a heterogeneous social field shaped by political, economic and religious struggles that eventually dissolved the foundations of the social order of the Middle Ages, in Russia the state successfully outlawed the urban assemblies of Kievan Rus while monopolising and fostering a captive foreign trade whilst also closely following the trail blazed by the Cossacks colonization of lands in the south and east.

Statism and autocracy was the rule, blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church that added the Tsar to its Icons. The Josephite tendency in the Orthodox Church favoured a Byzantine model and asked Ivan III to become a kind of Caeseropapist ruler. Ivan had some sympathy with the mystic hermit tradition of the Orthodox Church, which renounced worldly things and state power in favour of the transformation of the inner self through benediction and prayer. Even so the Josephite vision of social Christianity for people and state was too attractive for the man who would be Tsar. When his grandson Ivan IV crushed the Boyars, his Oprichnina was styled as a monastic order founded in the countryside near Moscow – a theological-political order with the Tsar as Abbot.

Genealogy of the state of Muscovy (Panegyric to the Virgin of Vladimirsk) by Simon Ushakov. (1668)

Simon Ushakov, Genealogy of the state of Muscovy (Panegyric to the Virgin of Vladimirsk) (1668).

In the nineteenth century the central question for Russia’s small and marginal intelligentsia generally captivated by Germany, was whether their society was a western or eastern society. Eventually for many the telos of Marxism provided the answer to this question, in the sense that a Western Europe defined by industrial capitalism, was in the vanguard of an inevitable planetary transformation. Today with the return of much of the symbolism of a pre-Soviet historical past in the post-Soviet present and the continuity of autocratic, authoritarian government, the question of the particular unique significations of Russian society, of who the Russians are to Russians themselves and how the idea of closure informs this reflection, seem to possess a special relevance.

A general feature of Russian society that had long been evident was a particular Russian heteronomy that is deeply intertwined with the Christianity of the Russian Orthodox church, marked by political quietism, mysticism and passive intellectualism. The religious philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev who had spent his youth in the Russian socialist movement and lived in Communist Russia until his deportation on the famous philosophers’ ship, believed the connection between Orthodoxy, autocracy and closure, profoundly influenced the revolution.

The twin impulses of modernity in the West, of rationalization and maximalization on the one hand, and the project of individual liberty and collective rights on the other, barely touched Russia until late in the nineteenth century. While Europe was transformed by an ideology declaiming the ceaseless expansion of material outputs, a draconian Russian state often neglected to put to work the rebels it dumped in its vast wilderness to fend for themselves. The official discourse presented a holistic society and a people at one with the Tsar. In contrast revolutionary ideology presented a stupefied but noble peasantry whose suffering under absolutist tyranny would finally lead to the yoke being thrown off and claiming of the land. A boundless, vast steppe littered by Stations of the Cross, fortresses, holy fools, church domes, formed the real and symbolic staging of the social realm.

The apparent terminus of this world in the revolutionary explosions of 1905 and 1917-19, was the result of a peculiar westernization – the militant class struggle of the working class of the cities mixed with a vision of an eschatological, global revolution that was predicated on a very Russian Orthodox idea of the suffering people as vassals abandoned in a cruel world finally being redeemed. Johann Arnason surmised the emergence of Russian Marxism and Bolshevism in particular, as a mixture of these influences:

“As the Russian state became more deeply involved in the global state system and its conflicts, a similar internationalization of the frame of reference took place within the Russian revolutionary movement. But on the whole, the results did not go beyond the projection of Russian perspectives onto the international arena and the translation of Russian models into a more universal language. The Russian revolutionary tradition had developed in the wake of Westernizing revolution from above, and the pioneers of its Marxist phase saw themselves as radical Westernizers, but the underlying significance of Marxist orthodoxy turned out to be the very opposite: it helped to consolidate the independence and hegemonic aspirations of a revolutionary movement which had now become capable of subordinating its original sources of inspiration to its own strategic principles. Lenin’s belief in the ‘actuality of the revolution’ should as suggested above, be interpreted from this point of view: the appropriation of Marxist categories enabled him to rationalize the Russian vision of imminent revolution. The same applies to the notion of the revolutionary vanguard; in What Is To Be Done?, Lenin claims international relevance and a universal-historical mission for a specifically Russian variant of Jacobinism. Lenin’s ideological experiments during the world war can be seen as a further step in this direction. His ‘theory’ of imperialism was an unorganized mixture of unoriginal ideas, but it served a strategic purpose in that it helped to link the revolutionary perspective to a visible rather than an expected crisis.”1

Nicolai Berdyaev, who faced down Felix Dzerzhinsky himself to assert his freedom of thought according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had an unusual answer to a question that has stood at the crux of C20th history. Why did the theory of proletarian revolution triumph in a country that was, by any conventional reading, so apparently ill-suited to Marxist doctrine? Even if we take Berdyaev’s answer as partial, the suggestion that Marxism, or at least a particular side of it, was attractive to Russian thinking and further, that Marxism covertly masked a continuity with traditional forms of thought while ostensibly repudiating their content (traditional forms that could not be resuscitated), is a compelling question when one considers the return to national-imperial ideology after revolutionary energies ebbed.

“Totalitarianism, the demand for wholeness of faith as the basis of the kingdom, fits in with the deep religious and social instincts of the people. The Soviet communist realm has in its spiritual structure a great likeness to the Muscovite Orthodox Tsardom. The same feeling of suffocation is in it. The nineteenth century in Russia was not an integrated whole; it was divided up; it was the century of free enquiry and revolution. The revolution created a totalitarian communist realm in which the free spirit was stifled, free enquiry disappeared. In it the experiment is being made of subjecting the whole people to a political catechism”2

The Socialist Revolutionary Party (for all their renowned love of the peasant), and the Mensheviks (for all their stagiest dogmatist), considered their projects ongoing and provisional, open to revision. Both parties were aware of the terrible toll demagoguery might inflict on politics. In short they shared a belief that the class struggle was not a zero sum game and that actual means would be far more influential whatever the original subjective intention.

Lenin’s insistence that there was only one correct ‘line’ on any question, this line being not only being politically judicious but uncomplicatedly reflecting the ‘objective interest’ of the working class as a whole (as determined by Lenin) discovered though a dialectical analysis that damned contrary positions as reflecting alien class influences, was essentially theological. One could apparently determine a correct position through a series of analytical and conceptual categories that collectively constituted Marxism. Debate, deliberation and inter-subjectivity were ultimately a distraction from the grand tectonic movement of social classes in history whose telos was a visible, known goal. Berdyaev saw something of the Russian past in Bolshevik certitude:

“[Lenin] combined in himself two traditions: the tradition of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia in its most maximalist tendency, and the tradition of Russian government in its most despotic aspect. The social democrat Mensheviks and the socialist revolutionaries remained in the stream of the first tradition only, and that in a mitigated form. But combining in himself traditions which in the nineteenth century had been in mortal conflict, Lenin was able to fashion a scheme for the organization of a communist state and to realize it. However paradoxical it may sound, still Bolshevism is the third appearance of Russian autocratic imperialism; its first appearance being the Muscovite Tsardom and its second the Petrine Empire. Bolshevism stands for the strong centralized state. A union was achieved of the will to social justice and the will to political power, and the second will was the stronger. Bolshevism entered into Russian life as a power which was militarized in the highest degree”3

For Lenin, the working class like the peasantry for the Narodniks, was an emotional image that however sincere ones attachment, functioned predominantly as a cultural source, an energia to draw from and animate a lifeless, pre-determined philosophy of history. For the masses crashing the historical stage, first in revolution and later in the ceaseless mobilization of labour resources the Soviet bureaucracy had to rely on to overcome backwardness, an:

“…integrated doctrine was needed, a consistent general outlook, and symbols which held the State together were required. In the Muscovite Tsardom and in the Empire the people were held together by a unity of religious faith; so also a new single faith had to be expressed for masses in elementary symbols. Marxism in its Russian form was wholly suitable for this”4

Bolshevism’s basic doctrine was that if one eliminated the bourgeoisie and simple economic exploitation entailed by the private capitalist factory system, a different anthropological type might be born if given the correct ideological training. Changes in the economic ‘base’ would give rise to their equivalent in broader social relations.

“[Lenin] believed that a compulsory a compulsory social organization could create any sort of new man you like, for instance, a completely social man who would no longer need to use force. Marx believed the same thing, that the new could be manufactured in factories”5

Berdyaev suggests Bolshevism was a rationalization of the irrational and if we regard the irrational as a psychical otherness that is other than what is posited as rational and right in the dominant imaginary, then Berdyaev’s suggestion might be a justifiable proposition. The Russian tradition of redemptive revolution was also an otherness positing a just world. As Arnason noted this utopian otherness marked all the revolutionary tendencies in Russia.

“The peasants considered that the land was God’s; in other words, it belonged to no human being. The peasants always considered the acquisition of the land by the gentry an injustice, as they did serfdom. The communal collective ownership of land was much more to the mind of the Russian people and especially to the Great Russians, thanks to the existence of the commune”6

Looking to the massive horizon the peasant desired to be at one with the land without landlords or officials. This was a desire for the just and a will to unification. The beauty of the land was intrinsically related to feelings of wholeness, oneness and return. Its affect reawakened the primary feelings of in-utero perfection defined by the lack of want and the symbiosis of mother and child before differentiation. Authority in the figure of the Father-Lord, was banished or murdered. If this represents a positive aspect to this desire, the negative aspects relate to the desire to recapitulate natality by recapturing this oneness. This tone feeling decisively influenced the Russian revolutionary tradition, even though committed ‘Westernizers’ like Lenin and Trotsky barely registered it.

As Joel Whitebook explained, the original psychical situation, or what Freud called ‘primary narcissism’, is:

“…a plenum-like experience of unity, fullness and perfection and a denial of externality, otherness and privation. And once the original experience of unity has been broken, individuals strive to recapture it, in one or another, throughout their lives”7

Janine Chausseguet-Smirgel observed that in totalitarian politics, the Leader is a figure of identification, investment and unification; of closure and engulfment that smothers difference. Chausseguet-Smirgel related this identification to an ever present global desire to return to the pre-oedipal state of undifferentiation and symbiosis with the Mother, that Loewald suggested was a tacit understanding derived from the ‘unofficial’ Freud.8 If Russia simply experienced one authoritarian system replacing another authoritarian system with the Party-Leader displacing Church-Tsar as ‘primal mother’, then the change of signifiers did not mean a change in the essential material, phenomena or content. It was surely no accident that the theotokos (iconic representation of Madonna and child) as the emblematic image of Russian art, was replaced by the Party leader’s photograph or socialist realist portrait, as the most common image circulating in Russian society?

“Lenin could not realize his plan of revolution and the seizure of power without a change in the soul of people. This change was so great that the people who had lived by irrational beliefs and had been submissive to an irrational fate suddenly went almost mad about the rationalisation of the whole of life without exception. They believed in a machine instead of in God. The Russian people having emerged from the period of being rooted in the soil, and living under its mystic domination, entered upon a technical period in which it believed in the almighty power of the machine, and by the force of ancient instinct began to treat the machine like a totem”.9

The collapse of the old order left a psychical space that needed to be filled. If we follow Castoriadis in viewing historical change as the emergence of otherness as the older imaginary foundations of society begin to lose their power to satisfy while this novel otherness needs to be socially instituted with significations in order to found a new social order, it follows that we can speculate that Marxist ideology was the functional equivalent of a religion for the new Soviet man. The otherness, worked through in revolution, will, in a heteronomous society, become a whole itself, a weltanschauung, a total vision of the world.

The militant Russian working class in the pre-revolutionary period was strongly attached to the land – as the grandsons, sons, granddaughters and daughters of serfs (serfdom was formally abolished in 1861) but also Social Democratic ideology, the latter more powerful than just a political conviction. The famous ‘Lenin levy’ instituted after Lenin’s death in January 1924, saw a massive influx of former peasants and workers into the Communist Party, who were innocent of the relatively democratic traditions of pre-war Russian Social Democracy which at least tempered the totalitarian element. A wish for social advancement and the new religion of socialist man were in no way exclusive. Equally a belief that the science of modern industry powered the rising People’s State while underwriting the movement of history toward Communism, was central to the new Soviet state religion.


If Orthodoxy could no longer supply the necessary logos for the Westernizing intelligentsia of the C19th, the subterranean longing for the original psychic situation still required sublimation. In Marxism’s claims to totality we see a new iteration of this desire raised to the status of scientific theory. It fulfilled certain requirements for both revolutionary intellectuals and militant workers in that it was a total theory, a theory of the utopia that lay ahead that was a cartography and explanation of the massive, often disastrous social changes occurring in industrializing societies that also provided consolation by positing that, all its evils aside, capitalism was laying the ground for an emancipated society that would abolish social division. As Castoriadis noted, “whether it is the philosopher or the scientist the final dominant intention to find across difference and otherness, manifestations of the same…a primary unity.”10 Similarly Chaussguet-Smirgel suggests to that to purse this unity in the social and political realm can lead to a drive to omnipotence. This perspective views crushing everything via political violence that stands outside the schema of sameness, as part of the project of recapturing oneness so evident as a goal of totalitarian movements and justifying hatred of all those considered other.


Bolshevik instrumentalism leaned on this dynamic for support. If one side of life in an underground party was Oedipal with members as symbolic Fathers to the broader masses, drawing the latter away from the phantasms of religion and inchoate politics (childhood) into the Marxist reality of the world (maturity), then Leninism’s totalitarian side ultimately represented not a movement to autonomy but a reflexive heteronomy based on a schematic closed worldview. The early resort to ostensibly political iconography, propaganda or revolutionary pedagogy and repression of rival socialist parties and anarchists in the course of 1918, clearly illustrates the primal mother-omnipotence principle at work. This informed the belief that only a Leninist [Bolshevik] has the ‘correct’ line on anything that mattered. This incipient Stalinism – the leadership principle, secret police, party cadre and bureaucratic functionaries – was the omnipotent principle run riot, a state that controlled not only its people but history and ultimately reality itself.

For Western radicals looking east and supporting Stalinism, and who could not fully identify with their own societies for quite comprehensible reasons, there existed an Otherness in the world that had a name and a home, and this was enough for these radicals to disregard the inconvenient facts that everybody should now know.

II The Eurasianist Imaginary

Berdyeav’s argument, despite being the work of a Christian existentialist skeptical of all authority, has some affinities with the thought of a group of Russian émigrés associated with a strand of Russian nationalism of an orientalist hue. One, curiously, happened to be a founding father of structuralism: Nikolai Trubetzkoy. Trubetzkoy, P.N. Savitsky, G.V. Vernadsky and G.V. Floravsky inaugurated Eurasianist theory with their collection of essays Exodus to the East. Trubetzhoy’s book The Legacy of Genghis Khan is their most succinct historical statement.

Eurasianism is a branch of thought related to Slavophile anti-modernists like Konstantin Leontiev and Nikolai Danilevsky. The historian Vernadsky taught with Trubetzskoy at the Russian School in Prague. In Vernadsky’s monumental, highly readable History of Russia, he made a very straight case for the Eurasian doctrine, contending that the development of Russian civilization was fundamentally influenced by Mongol rule. The principalities of Kievan Rus were based on princely rule with a popular and direct democratic element. The Veche – a popular assembly of the adult male citizens in provincial capitals – could hold princely power to account and elect officials. In Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal, the Veche wielded substantial power though less so in the aristocrat dominated Galicia and Volynia.

Vernadsky believed that Mongol conquest and rule wiped out this part of the Russian experience. The autocratic principle that Vernadsky essentially saw as a positive aspect of Russian culture, was a particular fusion of Slavic, Byzantine and Mongol elements:

“What was of considerable importance was that the people were trained by the Mongols to take orders, to pay taxes, and to supply soldiers without delay. They continued to perform the same duties for their own grand duke, who became their leader in the national struggle against the Mongols. This change in attitude gradually resulted in a new concept of state and society. The old free political institutions were replaced by an authority of the grand duke. The free society was gradually transformed into a network of social classes bound to state service. The new order took definite shape in the post-Mongol period but its beginnings are to be found in the changes introduced into Russia by the Mongols as a result of their rule”.11


It should be noted that the life of nomads forms an inherent unity in contrast to large settled societies where different elites (aristocratic, military and so on), trades and social classes existed, negating an organic whole and necessitating the Veche. Traditionally the nomadic ger (yurt) is decorated as cosmos with areas representing earth, sky, sun and other elements. The ideal of the organic unity of society (or the world) was immensely attractive and a persistent feature of Russian thought.

The discredited notion of ‘oriental despotism’ has long been considered anachronistic, an orientalist belief based on the idea that all non-Western societies were closed, hierarchical tyrannies. However, the Eurasianists – monarchist and authoritarian in their politics – utilised this notion in an odd manner. For them Russia – neither East nor West but an original fusion of the two – was profoundly influenced by the Mongol occupation. This unique Russian vision of the world alloyed with a base Mongol vision  – in which the stultifying suffering of a strict, impoverished and heteronomous social order perversely enriched the soul’s inner life – was played out on the great steppe and in the endless forests and in isolated communities scattered in boundless space, below endless sky. The ceaseless desire for expansion by conquest was also a method to render the Other (those different people encountered across the plain) the same, to make them ‘them’ and force ‘them’ to submit to ‘us’ (or become ’us’) or destroy ‘them.’ This impulse was integrated into the emerging Russian worldview.

Increasingly, the many affinities of the Russian worldview with primary narcissism become clear.

The arctic, forest, steppe and desert ran horizontally across the Eurasian landmass atop of each other – as one realm that couldn’t be artificially separated into Europe and Asia. Geography played an important role in Eurasian theory – polycentrism was an accepted fact of the Eurasian landmass which added up to a broader civilization. While the differences between peoples were evident, their relation to the broader landmass had fused them into a differentiated unity and while some lived on the Steppe and others lived on the rivers, they could be identified in a broader cultural complex.

The original context of Eurasianist thinking was the early C20th debates around the centrality of European models to the project of modernity. The Eurasianists denied that European culture represented the future of the world. Trubetzkoy posited a multilinear world history where different cultures unfurled their own potentialities. So Eurasia stood for an ascetic and fixed collective identity, heteronomously given by ancestors. The vaunted ‘individualism’ of Western Europe was egotism and was bound to lead to the dissolution of national culture. For Trubetzkoy, Peter the Great’s westernizing reforms were the start of Russia’s downfall. The modern enemy was, of course, cosmopolitanism and European chauvinism alike which could only dilute and destroy the intrinsic qualities of other cultures whether by integration, economic transformation or imperialism. He saw the Communist revolution as yet another Western model likely to both fail in Russian conditions but also fundamentally distort Eurasian society.

Lev Gumilev, a highly influential thinker in post-Soviet Russia, gave these Eurasianist ideas a scientistic, behaviourist and more overtly racist complexion. Gumilev was profoundly shaped by Eurasianism and the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ biological and behaviourist theory that found official favour in the USSR from the 1920s onwards. Gumilev was the only son of two famous late-Tsarist era poets (his father was executed by the Cheka in 1921) and suffered three spells in the Gulag including the notorious Norilsk camp in the Arctic north because of his bourgeois, anti-Soviet origins. After the Khrushchev thaw he very slowly managed to gain positions in the Soviet academy. But it was only as an elderly man in poor health in the 1990s that Gumilev was finally feted as an important Russian scholar (Gumilev died in 1992).

Gumilev, a notorious anti-semite, thought that Ethnoses – essentially ethnic-cultural groups – were structured to behave in certain ways according to new behavioural models strongly influenced by terrain and bio-chemical processes, created by the acts of unique individuals or groups of individuals who Gumilev called passionaries. Gumilev’s pseudo-scientific idea held that civilizational complexes formed a biological-behavioural phenomena (though these were not determinate or teleological) created by specific large scale laws of history which human societies were subject to. Thus Ethnoses rose, went through periods of great innovation before they finally settled into cultural stasis. Gumilev presented a cyclical philosophy of history of a type familiar from Oswald Spengler but what would be another pseudo theory is regarded seriously as Gumilev is feted in Russia and Central Asia today.

Like Trubetzkoy, Gumilev justified closed, authoritarian society on the basis of culture, particularly the Asiatic strand of Russian culture. It is little wonder that L.N. Gumilev Eurasian National University is located opposite the Presidential palace in Astana. While Putin, Nazarbayev and other authoritarians may believe it, there is nothing intrinsically European about an open, cosmopolitan attitude to the world. The Eurasianist’s imaginary – as a curious reaction to modernity – has had a profound influence in post-Communist Eurasia.

III Post-Soviet Traditionalism, Civilizational Orthodoxy and Fascism

Originally the post-Soviet oligarchy wanted a partnership with the Western powers contrary to realist geopolitical claims but accession to NATO among former Soviet dominated European countries and the ongoing imperial ambitions of the Russian state, made this impossible. The deep anger against the disaster provoked by the headlong rush to embrace free market capitalism which impoverished the masses while astronomically enriching a tiny unsavoury elite, eventually drew a response from the statist wing of the ruling class especially when less connected oligarchs started meddling in politics. During Putin’s second Presidential term a civilizational narrative was becoming prevalent as the power-holders became increasingly interested in promulgating ideas drawn from classical sources of Russian exceptionalism. Thus the old currency of the Orthodox world became the general currency.

The apex of Russian state power remained in the hands of former members of the Soviet security apparatus and people who had cut their teeth in the rough and tumble of 1990s Petersburg (sometimes known as the Petersburg lawyers group). Vladimir Putin, a KGB officer who had made in his name in the local administration of Russia’s former imperial capital, is perhaps the only person who can legitimately thought of as part of both groups.

As a bastion of anti-liberal opinion, the Church was a key ally. Mikhail Maslovskiy and Nikita Shangin wrote that:

“The church supports the idea of a strong centralized Russian state. More liberal periods of twentieth-century Russian history are treated negatively by the church hierarchs. Thus perestroika and the first half of the 1990s are associated in their eyes, not with the revival of the church, but the moral decline and the spread of ‘sects’. On the other hand, there is a nostalgia for the more authoritarian periods. Thus the Brezhnev era is seen as stable and quite attractive and there are hopes for Putin as a leader with a ‘strong hand’.”12

Though those professing a deep attachment to religious faith remain a minority, Orthodoxy is widely regarded as part and parcel of the Russian world. The world of closure that is Orthodox theology and the church hierarchy, is a symbolic referent for Russia itself – Russia and Orthodoxy on a symbolic level constituting a unity, indivisible and without remainder.

Again Maslovskiy and Shangin, drawing on the work of sociologist Alexander Verkhovsky, note that:

“State-controlled media creates the image of the Orthodox Church that corresponds to the interests of the regime. In the media the church is presented as supporting all kinds of state policies. The Orthodox Church does not support treating the Russian Federation as a nation-state. The church is not ready to confine itself in the state boundaries since the ‘Holy Russia’ includes also Belarus and Ukraine. The ‘canonical territory’ of the Russian Orthodox Church ‘roughly corresponds to the territory of the former empire’ and thus the church is ‘the last really existing structure that has been preserved on the imperial scale after the disintegration of the USSR’”13

In the rationalizing ideologies of modernity one might be tempted to consider this Russian imaginary as a purely ruling class ideology, a mere screen for the interests of the Russian establishment. As we have noted the state did indeed ally with the Church to bolster the foundations of its rule after the strategic alliance with the West failed. But again we should be clear that imaginaries are not ideologies. Rather, an imaginary is functionally necessary for society. Also rationalising ideologies are imaginaries themselves even if their adherents do not consider them as such.

In his geopolitical theory, the Russian fascist Alexander Dugin has offered a historically dubious but conceptually strong civilizational, geopolitical defence of Putin’s securocratic government, especially its expansionist policies. Dugin’s neo-Eurasianist ideology represents a hodge-podge of Eurasianism, post-war European fascist thought and traditional Great Russian imperialism.

If Russia, as so many have claimed, is a unique cultural entity then it is not surprising that its foreign or geopolitical policy, seeks to preserve itself in a rapacious world system. Also, if as is the view of this author, Russia is a weaker imperialist state ruled by an utterly cynical police-oligarchy compact, then cynical, authoritarian rule does not preclude being invested in this ideology. Freud noted long ago that it is perfectly possible for two contradictory thoughts to occupy the same space. Reflexive heteronomy and cynical instrumentalism in relation to passionately held ideas and beliefs are hardly uncommon in history.

A multi-polar world constituted by different civilizational entities is the world favoured by Dugin – at least until the Russian imperial state is strong enough to go beyond reclaiming its ‘lost’ territories. Essentially Dugin’s worldview is a radical right wing version of the ‘anti-globalisation’ narrative while his propaganda tracts take aim at the ‘globalists’ by which he means both free market capitalism and cultural cosmopolitanism. When Marine Le Pen declared that this century would be a battle between ‘Patriots and Globalists’, this cri de coeur of C21st fascism was pure Dugin.

At Hugo Chavez’s funeral Putin’s close ally Igor Sechin described the deceased president as the founder of the multi-polar world. The Russian oligarchy was posing as ‘anti-imperialist’ and extending that sobriquet to similar second order powers, particularly a cohort of tyrant-oligarchs whose ‘anti-imperialism’ insulated them against popular domestic challenges to their rule in the name of the rights of nations and sovereignty. Bashar al-Assad at least was paying attention. Neo-Eurasianism and Putinism had joined hands on the national and the international (or geopolitical) level.

Unsurprisingly Dugin believes Putin saved Russian civilization from Gorbachev’s betrayal and Yeltin’s ruinous delirium and since the war with Georgia in 2008 successfully reasserted Russia’s imperial and traditional foundations as a political entity. For Dugin the Western countries represent thassalocracy: the civilization of the sea, standing for mercantilism, cosmopolitanism, individualism and a trajectory of asymptotic historical progress. The global image of the Western countries is one of fluidity, change and the promise of free will with all its tragic and bathetic potentialities.

Dugin derived the binaries of thassalocracy and tellurocracy from an obscure British academic Halford Mackinder who in a 1904 lecture to the Royal Geographical Society argued that Britain’s main strategic opponent was Russia rather than Germany. Essentially Mackinder invented geopolitics by predicting that the enduring strategic, geopolitical rivalry would prove to be that between Britain and the United States with their naval power on the one hand, and Russia with its vast steppes and spaces, on the other. For Russia the first goal of geopolitics was control of the Eurasian ‘heartland.’ After the Second World War, the US took over the role as the centre of world thassalocracy. As a civilization of sea, the US had enormous strength being a continental power protected by two world oceans. Dugin also borrowed from Carl Schmitt’s small book Land and Sea (1954),  on the consolidation of the modern state system. Schmitt presented the binary of the land and sea as antipodal: whale and bear, leviathan and behemoth, fluid and fixed. Societies that were sea based were in relative flux, open to historical possibilities. Pirates and privateers, merchants and adventurers had, “fulfilled a thirteenth-century English prophecy: ‘The lion’s cubs will turn into the fishes of the sea’. At the end of the Middle Ages, the lion’s cubs were tending sheep in the main, and fleece, sold in Flanders, was processed there into cloth. It was only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that this nation of shepherds recast itself into a sea-roaming nation of privateers, into the ‘children of the sea’”14

In contrast Russia was tellurocratic: a civilization of the land standing for closure, social unity and fixed historical dimensions. A synchronic image of Russia exists in perpetuity as an ideal for the realm of politics to emulate while its truth qua truth was essentially inarticulate for Dugin and his comrades because of Russia’s ideological and ethnological purity. But for us from a Freudian standpoint Dugin’s conception of Russia leans on an unconscious desire for integration without remainder with the primal mother, presented as a unique cosmos of tundra, plain, forest, river, Kremlin and pogost, repressed and forgotten, prelinguistic.


For Dugin the Western world view has colonized the global imagination to such a degree that he is forced to admit – like fascists and reactionary anti-modernists before him – that compromises with modernity are inevitable but even so the tellurocratic ideal of Russia stands as a cultural source or a Kitezh for the modern Russian soul. Dugin views the current world situation as a battle between liberalism and authoritarian traditionalism. Unlike other fascist ideologies, neo-Eurasianism reclaimed and defended the tellurocratic aims of the Soviet Union especially (though not exclusively) its High Stalinist period. Dugin views communism’s emphasis on the ‘people-as-one’ as an ultimate good with Lenin’s takeover of the Tsarist state fortuitous and Stalin’s expansionism as standing in the Great Russian tradition.

In contrast Dugin’s political theory considers Atlanticism, liberalism and postmodernism to be expressions of the same phenomena: the unipolar world under American leadership. So Dugin channels Rene Guenon and Julius Evola in seeing individualism, democracy and capitalism as ills blighting the modern age and therefore proposes that anti-capitalists, traditionalists, authoritarian states and white nationalists should all unite against the American world order. Unsurprisingly the rapid descent into conspiracy theories about the New World Order is not far behind.

If communism (the second political theory) and fascism (the third) were remnants of a bygone age, Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory united the anti-capitalism from communism and the nationalism from fascism, into a new anti-cosmopolitan and anti-individualist theory, the Fourth Political Theory, that was a harbinger of a multi-polar world of civilizational complexes without internal schisms or autonomous populations. Instead each distinct peoples would be shaped by a traditional outlook determined by their specific history and geography in heteronomous ‘units’ whose interrelations would be conducted by elite power-holders.

To use Lefortian terminology, the unique symbolism integral to democracy in which power is an open space occupied by the competing claims of different groups, is repudiated in favour of autocratic rule on behalf of the ‘people-as-one’. The Other(s) who must be respected and accepted as a legitimate actors in a democratic polity are to be cast out and annihilated in a traditionalist polity. According to Dugin, the symbolic space of power is now filled by that modern Tsar, Vladimir Putin and his state. Thus in Castoriadian language, Dugin aspires to a new social imaginary based on a very firm idea of what Russia is – in which gender roles are conceived in traditional terms and strictly maintained, the ‘nations’ of the Russian empire are under Moscow’s dominance (exposing Dugin’s unconvincing claims to respect all ‘Eurasian’ cultures) and Russian civilization is a world of closure based on traditional values. The endless plain is the infinite stage for Eurasian civilization that reaches back to the golden horde and pre-Petrine Tsardom.

This perfectly encapsulates a philosophical version of Putin’s worldview:

“Do not harbour any illusions,” [Putin] once told US vice President Joe Biden…”We are not like you. We only look like you. But we’re very different. Russians and Americans resemble each other only physically. But inside we have very different values.” According to one of his closest aides, Putin thought long and hard about traditional Russian values. “Putin was more concerned about values than about Russia’s unique path,” says the aide. “He believed that building capitalism was every country’s destiny.” The main source of Putin’s contemplations was the philosopher Ivan Ilyin. Based on Ilyin’s works, Putin placed the basic values of Russian society in this order: God, family, property”15

Though Dugin’s influence is often overstated (he is certainly not at all influential on the power holders policy decisions), he has not been short of work or commissions in Putin’s Russia (Dugin can be seen on RT cable news regularly). Putin himself has recommended Russian’s read Gumilev and the genuinely frightening Slavophile fascist Ivan Ilyin. Dugin lost some of his influence when his outright genocidal fascism – calling for all Ukranians resisting Russian power to be killed – proved a bit too much for the notoriously cynical and savvy operators in the Kremlin. However, the annexation of Crimea, the repression of that peninsula’s Tatar population and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine complete with the founding of bogus ‘Peoples Republics’ (Donetsk and Lugansk) was an operation that drew the support of every Russian fascist and not a few nominal leftists for whom the recycled symbolism of Stalinist power was too libidinally heady to resist. The whole annexionist enterprise was predicated on the traditional imperial symbolism of the Russian imaginary of the Orthodox-Eurasian civilization and fully supported by the Church. Russia’s outrageously effective sponsoring of the European far right and, above all, Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, was again posited on the basis of strong opposition to cosmopolitanism in favour of a traditional-reactionary weltanschauung based on closure, white nationalism and patriarchy. In that sense both Putin and Dugin were swimming in the same stream.


Why talk about Russia now other than its importance as a great power? One reason is because of its Otherness. Indeed it might be this Otherness that attracts some sections in Western democracies repelled the meaningless of contemporary consumerist culture, as the ideological bearings of traditional forms of identity come apart further. Not only Donald Trump but Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and the various leaders of the continental post-fascist parties, have all expressed admiration for Putin. Right-wing populist politics in North America and across Europe is mutating into a traditionalist-reactionary block that openly admires authoritarian states like Russia which stand for anti-cosmopolitanism and heteronomy. Much of the North American and European left has fallen for this Putin mania – with a myopic inflation of the dangers of America imperialism leading them to campist conclusions. For evidence, witness much of the left’s open or more cryptic support for Bashar al-Assad’s war on his own people on the basis of opposition to non-existent American intervention and phantasmagorical regime change. Such powerful illusions again recall our earlier point about the psychical feelings of oneness, unity and wholeness which can be derived from the anthropological (ontogenetic) experience of the infant that underpin the appeal of monistic weltanschauungs, as a particular response to the meaningless of modern society.

The pioneers of the classical psychoanalytical tradition studied psychotics not just to ‘treat’ the afflicted as physicians but because they believed these benighted psychotic individuals who found reality as a whole literally so painful they had broken with it (the psychotic break) and constructed their own world, revealed to us something profound about the human psyche. I am not suggesting that heteronomous societies are psychotic but rather that closed worldviews cannot adequately cope with the inter-subjectivity required by a modern world whose inherent nature means human rights, human autonomy and diversity are important positive values. Recently Joel Whitebook suggested that Trump supporters rejection of modern American, particularly the reality of an America where whites are no longer a majority, has led then to reject reality altogether:

“Of course, a clinical psychoanalytic experience and general social experience are not strictly analogous. But a comparison of them can prove illuminating. Just as disorientation and bewilderment tell analysts something significant about what they are experiencing in the clinical setting, so to our confusion and anxiety in the face of Trumpism can tell us something important about ours. I am suggesting, in other words, that Trumpism as a social experience can be understood as a psychotic-like phenomena”.16

Does Trump represent the primal mother to his supporters? Perhaps. But a social phenomenon like Trump or Brexit or even continental post-fascism, Modi or Duerte, all share a backward gaze to a past that in fact never existed. Where the majority ruled without uppity minorities demanding to be accounted for, when the nation was ‘one’, homologous, home. The tendency of the psyche to strive for undifferentiated oneness finds potentially dark and dangerous material here.

In an important article Hartmut Rosa discussed those attracted to such politics:

“Their relationship with the world is precarious and rebarbative, they feel unheard, unseen, isolated and voiceless in an indifferent or even threatening environment, where the most important thing is, as far as possible, to keep the world at bay. The Other, the vital, the young, the intangible must not affect them, either physically or spiritually, let alone transform them. The more disillusioned and depressed, the more alienated people feel, the more drastic becomes their craving for a strategy of immurement. The world that seems a threat to them must be kept at a distance and their relationships with it reduced to a minimum…Parties such as the AfD (Alternative for Germany) in Germany, the PiS (Law and Justice) in Poland, the SPO (Party of Civic Rights) in the Czech Republic, the Front National in France, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party of Freedom) in the Netherlands and the FPO (Freedom Party) in Austria all converge in their repressive and at times racist refugee policies, which are geared towards the radical exclusion of foreigners. This is the ‘essence of their brand’, and it is no coincidence that this is also the key to Donald Trump’s success. Foreigners and their ways are to be kept out with walls and fences – and if necessary with mines and guns”17

The necessity of fashioning a proper response to this phenomenon is urgent. The C20th versions of radicalism, of left politics, produced more of the same: monistic worldviews that became functionally similar to the ideologies they ostensibly replaced. A new imaginary is vital but it must avoid ideology and certainty and instead inscribe diversity and otherness as positive values at its centre. It must be aware of the temptations and dangers of the psychic drive to unity and put such drives to work in ways that benefit inter-subjectivity – in music, art and the appreciation of a natural world that humanity is ineradicably connected to. Perhaps then our otherness may not be the darkness lurking in our psyches.


by Joe R


1. Arnason, The Future That Failed: Origins and Destinies of the Soviet Model
2. Nicolai Berdyaev, The Origin of Russian Communism.
3. Berdyaev, ibid.
4. Berdyaev, ibid.
5. Berdyaev, ibid.
6. Berdyaev, ibid.
7. Joel Whitebook, Whitebook in Monotheism and the Repudiation of Feminity
8. See the discussion of Loewald on the relationship of pre-Oedipal to the Oedipal, the maternal to the paternal in the ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ in Whitebook, Freud, An Intellectual Biography pp.169-70.
9. Berdyaev, ibid.
10. Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society.
11. George Vernadsky, History of Russia
12. Maslovskiy and Shangin, Orthodox Religion and Politics in Post-Soviet Russia from ‘Religion and Politcs: European and Global Perspectives’ Edited by Johann P. Arnason and Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski
13, Maslovskiy and Shangin, ibid.
14. Carl Schmitt, Land and Sea
15. Quoted in Karen Dawisha, ‘Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?’
16. Joel Whitebook Trump’s Method, Our Madness
17. Harmut Rosa ‘Adaptation not Fossilization, Two Responses to the Refugee Crisis’

Our Capitalist Universe: Camatte and Castoriadis on leaving this world


The future is inestimable. After the obvious failure of the Marxist telos and liberal capitalist ‘end of history’; and the persistence of imperialism, war and the rising new authoritarianisms across the globe, this should be obvious. Society runs on the significations it produces and the imaginary that those significations become embedded in.

Marxism and Communism were capitalist countercultures; this view is explicitly taken up by two of the most interesting figures to come from the extreme left of the Socialist movement, Jacques Camatte and Cornelius Castoriadis.

The idea of overcoming capitalism by using its presuppositions or on the basis of how it has changed the planet (industrialisation, centralisation, etc.) or that Communism is immanent but a prisoner of capitalism cannot be squared with history. Historical materialism often appears as a backwardly constructed functionalism, especially when its adherents have been hard pressed to make a single correct prediction based on its suppositions.

In this essay I wish to explore the idea of leaving Capitalism in distinction to passing through or overcoming it (as per the classical conceptions of socialism) in the aforementioned writers work.

“Each society creates its own forms. These forms in turn bring into being a world in which this society inscribes itself and gives itself a place. It is by means of them that society constitutes a series of norms, institutions in the broadest sense of the term, values, orientations and goals” Castoriadis, The Greek and the Modern Political Imaginary.

For Castoriadis, each type of society is constructed around a sui genesis series of social imaginary significations which congeal into the social imaginary of that society. Historically ideas and concepts have been transmitted from other eras and societies through historical rediscovery and inter-societal interactions, but more often than not these transpositions have been anaclitic, that is to say there is a leaning on relationship where elements are taken on but meaning is furnished anew.

From his essay ‘Marxism and Revolutionary Theory (1961-65) onwards Castoriadis considers Marxism irreconcilably split between a historical struggle for human autonomy against alienating and exploitative social systems, as best exemplified in Marx’s short historical masterpiece The Civil War in France, and a positivistic notion of historical progress based around the idea that development of the productive forces as an ultimate good and the Base/Superstructure conceptualisation of creation in the socio-historical. The latter was developed as an inescapable schema in which the human element was almost completely smothered, and projected back through history. In short, Marxism is imbued, root and branch, with the capitalist imaginary.

From the outset, and sometimes also later on, Marx was inspired by the best in this historical creation. From the outset too, however, he displayed the rationalistic,scientistic, theoreticist tendency that rapidly gained the upper hand and practically crushed the other one. This second tendency induced him to seek an overall and complete explanation of society and of history, to believe that he had discovered it in the “determining” role of production, and, finally, to erect the “development” of production into the universal key for the comprehension of history and the Archimedean point for the transformation of society. Marx was thereby led, in fact-and regardless of what at times he might have continued to think and to say—to narrow down greatly the field of the movement’s preoccupations and aims; to concentrate completely on questions of production, economy, and “classes” (defined on the basis of production and economy); and, quite naturally, to ignore or to play down all the rest, saying or implying that the solution to all other problems would arrive as part of the bargain when the capitalists were expropriated. The political question in the broad sense (the question of the overall institution of society) and the political question in the narrow sense—power, its nature, how it is organized, the possibility of the collectivity effectively exercising it, and the problems this exercise of power raises—are ignored or, at best, envisaged as corollaries that will be established as soon as the main theorem is demonstrated in the practice of revolution.” Castoriadis, ‘Socialism and the Autonomous Society’.

Every civilisation has its rendezvous with a Godhead, whether totemic father or cultural constant. For Castoriadis, Capitalism – the first social system in which the economy takes the predominant role is – despite the persistence of traditional ideology of different kinds – the quest for ever increasing outputs/profits for fewer inputs/investment is part of a wider drive for ‘rational mastery’. One can see this throughout the classical period of capitalism, the statist/corporatist model of the Cold War and the current neoliberal/austerity turn. This key signification of Modernity permeates our world – in the way we conceptualise the physical world as science, the raising of children, our interactions with each other and the way we assign value to all phenomena –it is how nature becomes ‘natural resources’ and how creativity is judged as worthwhile or not.


Camatte thinks that the logic of capitalism has taken over the movements that stood for its abolition, from Against Domestication:

All the movements of the left and right are functionally the same in as much as they all participate in a larger, more general movement towards the destruction of the human species. Whether people stay confined within certain obsolete strategies and forms, or whether they submit to the mechanisms of technology -either way the result is the same. Historically, the categories of left and right seem to emerge as a duality at the beginning elf the nineteenth century when the capitalist mode of production was beginning to exert its real domination over the process of production, and was becoming a true social force. Thus certain people like Carlyle found themselves in opposition to the apologists of capital, but it was left to Marx to go further: he affirmed the necessity of developing productive forces (and therefore science and technology as well), and at the same time denounced their negative effects on people in the immediate situation. But he thought that all this would eventually lead to a contradiction such that the development of productive forces would no longer be possible without the destruction of the capitalist mode of production. Thereafter these forces would be directed by people themselves, and alienation would cease to exist. But this was to presuppose that capital would not be able to become truly autonomous, that it could not escape from the constraints of the social and economic base on which it is built: the law of value, the exchange of capital and labour power, the rigorous general equivalent (gold), and so on.”

It is rather a strange hypothesis in which the laws that Marx saw underpinning capitalism have ceased to be valid but while the formal categorisation of forms of society in the historical materialist framework (modes of production) remains unchallenged. One would think that the failure of the content of the theory would result in a revision of categories.

Instead, perhaps we should say that power (class power, power of men over women and families, the power of ideological authority, and counter-power) exists and operates through the culture we live in, through certain significations written anew by human action, the anonymous collectivity of humanity. (Nitzan and Bichler’s Capital as Power project is probably in the most thorough attempt to think through the idea of a post-Marxist anti-capitalist theory of the global economy, and thinking about their work could useful for the idea of leaving capital).

Camatte continues:

Revolution can no longer be taken to mean just the destruction of all that is old and conservative, because capital has accomplished this itself. Rather, it will appear as a return to something (a revolution in the mathematical sense of the term), a return to community, though not in any form which has existed previously. Revolution will make itself felt in the destruction of all that which is most “modern” and “progressive” (because science is capital). Another of its manifestations will involve the reappropriation of all those aspects and qualities of life which have still managed to affirm that which is human. In attempting to grasp what this tendency means, we cannot be aided by any of the old dualistic,manichean categories. (It is the same tendency which in the past had held back the valorization process in its movement towards a situation of complete autonomy.) If the triumph of communism is to bring about the creation of humanity, then it requires that this creation be possible, it must be a desire which has been there all the time, for centuries.

For Camatte, capital has become autonomous and its one-time gravedigger has now become fully integrated into its system. The ‘mode of production’ has domesticated the dominated subject. The system runs on its own logic and if human beings are able to escape it then the answer is a fundamental break and a return to a human community.

Would this human community be an outgrowth of our non-alienated species-being? Marx’s labour-centric vision of man suggests so but every society creates its own image of humanity, and Marx’s idea of man was extrapolated from the society he lived in. Camatte’s idea of man’s nature perverted by class rule is an untenable continuation of Marx’s idea, where could man draw this perversion from? The desire to return is dangerous, there is no lucidity in an imagined returned to a situation we have no consciousness of, and lucidity is certainly necessary for consciously transforming society.

Castoriadis’s position is far more tenable than Camatte’s whose extreme reification of the ‘capitalist mode of production’ (CMP) cannot account for the continued functioning of society – creative interaction is needed for that – and any idea of a human community needs furnishing with meaning itself, it does not lie outside of history or as an outgrowth of biology/psychology. In the process of assigning meaning, the presence of possibility for the provision of the most basic biological necessities aside, there is nothing intrinsically human about human societies that are not the creation of the human imagination through sublimation. The assigning of meaning is our own act, the question becomes whether is it done in heteronomy or autonomy.


In the final sentence quoted Camatte talks of Communism, let us take a short diversion.

The socialist movement, in the broadest sense, up to and including the Second International, for all its flaws, was at least was endowed with a socialist social imaginary that was plausible and foundational to its political aesthetic. Charles Fourier’s phalanstère was intended to be a social environment where the interplay of human passions, harmonious feeling and thought, could be reconciled to the benefit of the individual and collective. Imagining the merging of human labour and ‘non-productive’ human activity (play, sensual pleasure, etc.) on an egalitarian basis in line with the seasons, numerology and the empowerment of women was an audacious conceptualision of the end of poverty and hierarchy. The communities he inspired may have inevitably failed but he – like those he influenced – Breton, Benjamin, Marcuse and the Situationists amongst others – have provided much inspiration to the construction of visions beyond capitalism.

In William Morris’s News from Nowhere the future socialist order was craft orientated communism in medieval robe. In design and aesthetics nature was simply adorned with the beauty of handicraft folksiness. Egalitarianism had brought together physicality and mind in a valuable amalgamation. Outdoorsy men and self-possessed domestic women (his imagination sadly and strangely didn’t stretch to the end of the gendered division of labour) living in an idyll not quite rural or urban. The plentiful social product was plain and simple goods for the consumption of the classless population.

This utopian content of the socialist imaginary was also important to the Second International. Marxism was ‘true’, Socialism as the inevitable progress in history, future communism was abundance provided by modern technique without the parasitical bourgeoisies. At first glance these things sit uneasily with what was the everyday work of the movement: struggles for suffrage, working class representation and improved wages and conditions. However, it surely functioned as a consolation for many socialist workers and party militants in the vicissitudes of their struggles. History was on their side, the science that powered production lines, steam trains and newly developed electrification infrastructure also guaranteed the programme of the party and the movement of history.

The new and importable technology that created the conditions for the rise of a working class in European Russia over the course of decade or so also gave rise to fantastical visions of a technologist communist utopia. The bestselling literature in the early RSFSR of which the earliest and best examples were Alexsandr Bogdanov’s Bolshevik Science-Fiction novels from the pre-revolutionary period.

Bogdanov’s two works of Socialist science fiction, Red Star (1908) and Engineer Menni (1912) sketch an idea of a future socialist society better than most, often criticised for being proto-Stalinist if anything their historically determinist narratives of large-scale industrial (if relatively pollution free) technologically advanced societies are straight from the imaginary of Second and Third International Marxism. Rationalisation based on capitalist principles (in Red Star computers work out and deliver statistics by the second) plus Marxist ideology makes a socialist state, Lenin would have surely added ’…and the rule of the Party of the Working Class’ and agreed.

Richard Gunn has written of how Utopian thought deals in space, whereas Apocalyptic thought deals in time. The original utopian fictions explored the topography of ideal-type societies, as Gunn calls them, by negotiating their terrain. Often this consists of little more that listing opulent constructions and the grand dedicatees of luminous towns, such as in Capanella’s ‘City of the Sun’, surely a foundational text of bourgeois ideology in its praise of empirical reason and the great minds of great men. Literary utopias often emerge at times of great change; an ideal-type society with two key concepts of 20th Century capitalism computation and mechanised mass production – can be seen on Bogdanov’s Socialist Mars.

That imaginary has clearly failed, socialism is not inevitable and the idea of the continued expansion of the productive forces as the key driver of historical progress, whilst being clearly not tenable in itself, is not compatible with the continued existence of a habitable planet. Capitalism has not become a fetter on the development of the productive forces, quite the contrary (which is not the same thing as saying that there are not better things to allocate resources toward). So the socialist movement is left with no clear view of its mission, its aims and, therefore, a practice that breaks with past failures. The sects continue to run as theological operations dependent on hero worship of long dead figures and bad faith hermeneutics. The larger parties of the left long for an age of party-states and working class mono-culture that thankfully won’t be coming back. 

We can observe two contradictory visions of Communism – capitalist abundance without class rule and a return to humanity with the end of alienating capitalist methods which both feature in Marx’s conception of communism – and putting aside the important question of whether communism is a psychically plausible idea (see the sub-chapter on ‘Communism in its Mythical Sense’ in The Imaginary Institution of Society) – we can see that Camatte has opted for an extreme version of the latter. It is to his credit, and places him far in advance of much of the revolutionary left these days, that he sees capitalist technology as being not value neutral but part of the synergy of relations of domination.

If not ‘material’ progress, where can we the find the resources to change society? Camatte’s ‘This World We Must Leave’ has an interesting take on this question:

Marx shows well that religion is a feeling (more than a consciousness) of something I call lost, but it is also the formation of another community. Now, it can be an alternative to capital, limited certainly, but operative. It is true that in accomplishing its different modernisations the church destroys itself, it tends to lose progressively the memory of what had been lost”

This amounts to creating a myth of consciousness itself, albeit it a relatively benign one. Camatte understands that leaving capital involves a fundamental break with both the reification of the world and the bureaucratic order that it entails but cannot break with the value-centric rationalisations of its self-image:

“We must abandon this world dominated by capital which has become a spectacle of beings and things…. One must reject the presuppositions of capital, which immerse in a distant past, to escape the grip of capital (moment of the dissolution of the primitive communities) and, simultaneously, one can supersede Marx’s work which is the finished expression of the arrival at totality, the accomplished structure of value, which, with its mutation of capital, has set itself up as the material community. One must envisage a new dynamic, for the capitalist mode of production will not disappear following a frontal struggle of people against their present domination, but by a huge renunciation which implies a rejection of a path used for millennia. The CMP does not decay but has a downfall” Camatte, This World We Must Leave.

But to found a new social order it is necessary to collectively create institutions, and a socialist (or autonomous) society this needs to be done autonomously, i.e. in a historically conscious way that acknowledges our needs, desires and limitations. As Johann Arnason has put it:

“The first step towards a restoration of the meaning of autonomy is a kind of demythologization: a retreat from the phantasms of absolute abundance and unlimited control over nature. These phantasms had, in a previous phase, counted for something in the attractivity of the socialist movement, but they were, on closer examination, extrapolations of the capitalist imaginary. They were, in other words, the principal reasons for describing classical Marxism as a capitalist counter-culture. A new commitment in favour of self-limitation was essential to the redressing of the revolutionary project. But this was only a prelude to a more positive reaffirmation of autonomy. This other part of the argument could begin with a new interpretation of the history of the working class, concentrated on the aspirations and episodes which had gone beyond the framework of capitalism.” Arnason, The Imaginary Dimensions of Modernity.


Reading The Making of the English Working Class we can see that an entire socio-historical movement was born by the anonymous making/doing of many thousands of people – now this, plus the French tradition and the 1848 revolutions, etc – were of course extremely important to the development of the socialist movement and Marxism. The rise of an industrial working class in the context of ‘the development of the productive forces’ gave us Marxism in its highly determinant form that was part of the politics of all its major practitioners. We have seen recent struggles throw up some new ideas and some older methods – some literally ancient – popular assemblies, election and instant revocation of deputies, occupation of public spaces – here we are thinking of Occupy, the Indignados, the movements of the squares, small scale attempts at direct democratic administration of both services and struggle in the free Syria cities and Nuit Debout – we should not kid ourselves of the embryonic and possibly stalled nature of these attempts but they are real in a way the failed textbook theories of the old left aren’t. No attempt can be made to try to theorise a strategy for these movements, or a new making/doing outside of them. We can, however, continue to think about how a historical orientation could enrich struggles like them we might participate in and how possibly we avoid the old flawed methods of struggle based on a determinist and elitist conception of politics and historical change.

There is no question of a return to nature – if such a thing were attempted the institutions of that society would be no more ‘natural’ than any other – but the preservation of the natural world does need to be a key signification of any socialist order.

We must proceed with the least unconsciousness possible whilst being clear than there is no question of the elimination of the unconscious or that the representations the psyche brings forth, even in an autonomous society, will always be beneficial to society. However, it is possible to create social institutions that can help alleviate psychical suffering.

A new society would need a new imaginary and that has to be created consciously and collectively. We believe that creating a society based on human needs, the reduction of alienation and social suffering and instead a nurturing of the lucid and creative potentialities of humanity is possible. To move toward that we need to leave capital and consciously move to something else – this idea of exit has good significations – its stresses our need to act and that history is not on our side, it stresses that the social system we live in is not a station of the cross but a social world born of the anonymous collective of human beings acting, for the most part, in heteronomy. The question of human autonomy and its limits as discussed by Castoriadis and Arnason seems to me to be a fruitful first step for moving toward a society not born in closure.

by Joe R