uncertainplume (bobbydrake666) wrote,

The Extinction of the Negative: Megamind with Mouffe, Schmitt and Gaddafi (1/3)

In Dreamworks’ latest feature-length animation, Megamind, the viewer is thrust into a Manichean world balanced by two polar forces, a world pivoting around an axis of Good and Evil. The eponymous protagonist of the film is an archetypal evil genius with a prodigious cranium and a remarkable faculty for science and technology, who spends much of the opening third of the film contriving plots to defeat his arch-nemesis, a squeaky-clean epigone of Superman named Metroman. In a rapid recapitulation of their respective origins, Megamind reveals that the two of them- like Kar-El in Superman and Ka-ka-rot in Japan’s Dragonball series- are refugees from vanished planets, having been catapulted to earth in their infancies. Megamind then proceeds to reconstitute the chain of causality that led to his notorious career- having landed in the yard of a penitentiary, young Megamind soon falls in with a band of infamous criminals, some of whom take it upon themselves to educate him in the rudiments of brigandage. On the other side of the spectrum, Metroman lands at the door of an affluent Metrocity household, where he spends a painless suburban childhood impressing his friends with his peerless strength and good looks.

Megamind- as befitting a blue-skinned, hyper-intelligent mutant thrown into the jungle that is the grade school playground- is taunted and excluded for his awkwardness as much as his bookishness. Having realized that his only talent lies in contriving elaborate mathematical models and manufacturing machines of mass destruction, Megamind resolves to put his talents at the service of high villainy. What is fascinating about this is that Megamind is not- as Kant might suggest- marked by some primordial decision of radical Evil; evil is not encoded in his genetic makeup as an incipient strain that is striving towards realization. Rather, it is Metroman whose destiny seems to have been allotted to him by fate- Metroman is an incorruptible force of Good, and it is this unadulterated goodness that renders him utterly unsympathetic to the viewer. In contrast to this, Megamind derives from pure contrarianism- it is an ethical posture that he adopts to distinguish himself from those who, in standing alongside Metroman, declare their antipathy towards him. What results is a lifelong feud between Metroman, who grows up to become Metrocity’s champion of justice, and Megamind, whose diabolical schemes to defeat his foe often come to naught.

What strikes one immediately at the outset of the film is the ludic character of this conflict, wherein both sides approach one another as players in a formalized, ritualized and interminable game. It is almost as though one were watching a comic enactment of Lacan’s logic of desire, where the prospect of victory is merely a pretext for an extravagant series of lures, feints, snares and challenges. One gets the sense that neither wants to annihilate the other. Neither wants to win. Rather, it is this perpetual pursuit of the Other, this circuit of reciprocity and response that keeps desire alive. Amplifying the theatrical aspect of these combats is the fact that all of this is televised and rendered as spectacle for an admiring public. Metroman, like any charismatic celebrity who serves as a conduit for our vicarious desires, is transfigured into an image and an avatar, a sublime object that crystallizes all of the noumenal aspects of ‘Metrocityness’. In Lacanian speak, Metroman is the ‘quilting point’, the transcendental signifier that- in incarnating the essence of Metrocity and ‘assuming the dignity of the maternal Thing’ (Zizek)- holds the collective together and shields it from chaos and dispersion.

It is this coherence, symbolized in vague ideals like ‘justice’ and ‘goodness’, that Metroman holds together. Complicating matters is the fact that Metroman’s grasp of these ideals are hardly more concrete than those of his fellow citizens. Rather, he takes delight in embodying this emptiness, so much so that he, like Narcissus, becomes fascinated with the vacuity of his own image. In a telling scene, Metroman unveils a titanic statue of himself, built to commemorate the opening of a museum memorializing all of his crimefighting exploits. In a very real sense, the history of Metroman, insofar as its archives the community’s persistence against the ever-present threat of absolute Evil, is the history of the city. Like Nasser, Hitler, Khomeini, Chavez, Castro or Mao, Metroman is the populist icon, the objet petit a whose sublime presence galvanizes, condenses and gives corporeal form to the longings of a people.

What undermines Metroman’s seemingly unblemished goodness, then, is the reflexive sense of enjoyment that he seems to derive from playing himself in the ongoing pantomime that he stages with his partner, Megamind. A living cliché, Metroman’s dramatic repertoire has been honed and perfected through years of practice- he utters vapid superhero mantras by rote, accentuates these oratorical effects with plenty of muscle-flexing, newspaper-friendly posturing and sweeping, overwrought gestures. Metroman, to paraphrase the existentialists, is a hero-for-others, and he lives his reality as such, experiencing it through the eyes of his adoring audience. The struggle between the two, in a certain regard, is a struggle to occupy this position, to attain to being by becoming an object of unconditional love. At the same time, Megamind seems to develop a masochistic fixation with failure- for a time, Megamind seems content with being a foil for Metroman’s incandescent brilliance. The reason for this almost symbiotic dependence upon the Other is not difficult to discern- both seem dimly aware that the vanquishing of the Other would deprive them of their raison d’etre: the presence of a well-defined, undefeatable enemy makes Metroman indispensable to Metrocity, while Megamind’s entire existence would fall apart if his quest for revenge were satisfied. Derrida’s logic of the ‘constitutive outside’ is entirely apposite here- the identities of both sides are derived negatively, in contradistinction to the Other. The crucial thing to note about Metrocity is that- for all of the apparent dissymmetry between Metroman and Megamind- the logic of Manicheanism that characterizes this world necessitates the indestructibility of both sides. The conflict between them, then, is never-ending, but- in demarcating the battle lines between them and formalizing the rules proper to adversaries- this conflict supplies coherence and sense to the world that they inhabit.

This is, of course, until the unspoken entente between them is breached by an inadvertent victory. Megamind constructs a death ray that will concentrate all of the heat of the sun into a burst of light, only to discover- by a combination of incompetence and blind chance - that Metroman’s Achilles heel is actually the exact opposite: darkness. Nevertheless, Megamind fires the ray at Metroman, which reduces him to ash upon contact. The rest of the movie, then, revolves around Megamind’s pathetic attempts to acclimatize himself to life after Metroman, as he wrestles with the disbelief, self-pity and melancholia that set in following the loss of his object of desire. Having eliminated the city’s living guarantee against anarchy, Megamind and his assistant, Minion, endeavor to plug the gap in their lives by looting the Louvre of all of its masterpieces and filling their chambers with all manner of goods. As one might expect, gluttony and debauchery do little to lift Megamind’s spirits. Even bouts of mindless destruction, the wanton devastation of Metrocity’s infrastructure and the terrorizing of its population fail to cure him of his despondency. We are well aware that he did not pursue a life of crime because of rapacity, hatred or a will to power, but because he needed some sort of ontological consistency in his existence. Disconsolate, Megamind founders in a mire of nihilism and regret, ruminating on the irrevocable loss of meaning, the absence of an enemy whose threat to one’s being gave one an impetus to struggle for one’s survival.

Surely, the movie would be rather dour if it simply ended at this point. What reinvigorates the film is a sudden flash of inspiration- Megamind will invent a new enemy by injecting an unsuspecting Metro-citizen with Metroman’s DNA and training him to combat crime. In that way, the game could be resumed for all time, and a cosmic purpose could be brought back to a decrepit universe. The recipient of this awful boon is a nerdy, overweight cameraman whose repeated overtures to the sole female character of the film- a TV reporter who will emerge as a trophy that each of the male ‘heroes’ desire to possess- are rebuffed with unerring cruelty. Megamind’s fatal mistake, of course, lies in entrusting this awesome power to a man blinded by ressentiment and megalomania- instead of dedicating himself to the defence of Metrocity, Megamind’s creation sinks the city into deep disorder, as he wreaks havoc on the metropolis in a fit of blind rage. To make matters worse, Metroman resurfaces, only to declare that he feigned his own death, weary of the burden that he had shouldered for so many years. Bowing out of the superhero game, Metroman refashions himself as ‘Musicman’, an Elvis-styled bluegrass raconteur. Metroman’s parting words for Megamind are a self-fulfilling interpellation: every evil invokes the good that will defeat it. By passing the mantle to Megamind, Metroman shatters the transferential relationship that bound them together, leaving Megamind alone with the destitution of decision. True to form, Megamind, spurred by his burgeoning love for the news reporter, fights a cataclysmic duel with his own monster, one which almost reduces the city to ruins. Naturally, he wins, and in a fitting turn of events, the Metroman museum is replaced with a state-of-the-art Megamind equivalent. The reporter plants a wet kiss upon his protuberant dome, confirming his homecoming- the pariah has finally found a place in the world.

How are we to read this rather epic cartoon, and, more importantly, what does this have to do with cosmopolitanism? I would suggest that this seemingly innocuous piece of animation can be taken as a complex allegory of the long twentieth century, as well as a stark portrait of our own time. It’s all here: the abrupt end of the Cold War, the near-spontaneous collapse of the Soviet Union, the West’s astonishment at the crumbling of a nemesis that had- once upon a time- threatened to engulf the world and transform the course of history, the creation of a new enemy (in both a physical and ideological sense) in the Afghan mujahiddin. Like the Soviet Union, Metroman was a catalyst, a symbol for an admiring public, a beacon of reason and progress in times of barbarism and depravity. As Eric Hobsbawm shows in his most recent work of Marxist historiography, How To Change The World, Bolshevism after World War I had, for many disenchanted Europeans who felt disgusted with the miseries of capitalist ‘civilization’, inherited the legacy of the Enlightenment from the Western world, and would gain considerably more prestige when it led the vanguard of anti-fascist struggle. Despite its crippling assumption of autarky, the relentless productivity of the Soviet Union had led many begrudging commentators to believe that the cleaving of the world into two antagonistic halves could very well be a permanent state of affairs. Like the Soviet Union, whose downfall was precipitated by the development of the information economy, the demands of which the monolithic, centralized command economy could hardly hope to meet, Metroman was defeated by the most infinitesimal of factors. The productivist economism that supplied the scaffolding of the Stalinist project could scarcely hide the discontents that had irrupted in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, exposing the manifold resentments that were burgeoning amidst men and women who were tired of shouldering the mandates of history. The breaking apart of the Soviet Union and the fatal ‘shock treatment’ that Jeffrey Sachs and his IMF cowboys applied to Russia- the first among many future operations- foreshadowed the fate of the neoliberal world, one that would see the emergence of innumerable ‘nations’ through internecine and sectarian strife, almost always aroused and abetted for political gain, and the mass privatization of the commons for the benefit of oligarchic mandarins.

The film’s diagnosis of the post-Cold War order goes further- what happens when capitalism is, as the saying goes, the ‘only game in town’? As recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have shown, the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a reservoir of foreign aid and arms makes a world of difference in the foreign policy of nation states, and these paradigmatic shifts can engender some rather peculiar political and economic contradictions. In the case of Egypt, the humbling blow inflicted to Nasserism in the imperialist-backed war with Israel and the waning of pan-Arabic aspirations in the twilight years of Nasser’s reign paved the way for Sadat’s intifah to the market, opening gates that Nasser had sealed shut, clearing the way for the depredations of the market. Mass privatization of land, the shattering of Nasser’s corporatist-unionist structures that mediated between the central state structure and constituencies on the ground, the concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite- these are features that we have become rather familiar with over the last two decades. Factor in the debacle of Camp David, and the humiliation, despair and rage that characterized life in Mubarak’s Egypt will come into relief. As a central piece in America’s half-realized plan to weave a free trade zone (bound by FTAs) in the Middle East and the Gulf states, Mubarak’s Egypt made their reconciliation with Israel official by throwing in their lot with the War on Terror and housing a number of Qualified Industrial Zones, intensive sweatshop sites that had duty-free export access to America’s consumer market on the condition that Egypt opens itself up to Israeli goods by importing a mandatory quota of Israeli products every year. Little wonder that Egypt, the border of which has always been crucial for Palestinian insurgency, has cringed at the thought of Israeli camaraderie, let alone Israel’s transparent desire to seize the scepter that Nasser once held aloft, claiming that it alone can man the helm in the Middle East.

In Libya, the bewildering concatenation of events that have transpired over the last few weeks would confuse most observers, though a consideration of Gaddafi’s legacy in the light of a longue duree would help to illuminate matters. Gaddafi, as Gilbert Achcar rightfully notes in his recent interventions in the Libya debate, has always been a rather enigmatic figure, not least among his fellows in the Arabic and Islamic world. Modelling himself on Nasser’s Free Officers Movement of 1952, Gaddafi fused a penchant for oratorical utterances (he did, after all, produce a ‘Green Book’ to announce his affinities for Mao and Kim Il-Sung style grandstanding) with a rather haphazard political approach. Gaddafi’s studied mimicry of Mao and Nasser culminated in a Cultural Revolution-style upheaval where, following a wave of indiscriminate nationalizations (even hairdressers were not spared), he baptized Libya as a ‘State of the Masses’, effectively confiscating the right to strike (if the state is, as the name says, a state OF the masses, a consummate realization of the popular will, any dissent is logically construed as being counter-revolutionary) and embedding police/informant apparatuses in workplaces and universities by setting up ‘revolutionary councils’ akin to Red Guard units. As we know, the support of the Soviet Union, which had grudgingly supplied arms and aid to this rather erratic and grandiloquently anti-American charge, made Gaddafi a pin-up for anti-imperialist forces the world over- Ronald Reagan, who dubbed Gaddafi “the mad dog of the middle East”, personally ordered a bombing of Gaddafi’s house, one which claimed his daughter. The dissolution of the Soviet Union would lead to a swift swing to the West, opening up the Libyan oil fields to the likes of Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil while transforming Libya into a greenfield for foreign investment, keeping wages of his own people down by hiring massive numbers of migrant laborers (among whom many are, like myself, Chinese) and short-circuiting working class dissent by following the textbook stratagem employed by English capitalists on their unemployed countrymen, setting them against the Irish migrants who were allegedly taking their jobs. This ploy, the oldest and the most effective trick in the playbook, has been wielded to devastating effect by every unscrupulous politico, from Sadat (whose harnessing of the Muslim Brotherhood, persecuted and criminalized by Nasser, to undo and uproot all the structural and organizational underpinnings of Nasserism led to his own assassination) to Mubarak (whose security ministers repeatedly instigated confessional conflict between Coptic Christians and Muslims by setting churches and mosques on fire) to Saleh and Gaddafi, whose alliances with a loyal coalition of tribes lead them to underdevelop other areas of their countries (the Libyan East and the Yemeni South).

Sadly, sections of the anti-capitalist Left continue to back stooges like Gaddafi, who manages to beguile supporters and foreign admirers alike with his cryptic, superficial rhetoric, peppered with populist denunciations of the Great Devil, the United States and its international syndicate of servile clients. This has been the story with every great populism of the 20th century, whether this assumes the form of radical Islamism (the Ayatollah Khomenei and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 being the archetype of political Islamism premised on the restitution of the shari’a), the doddering Castroism (Raul planning on taking the ‘Chinese path’ of capitalist accumulation to revive Cuba’s fortunes) or the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, the former of which obscures his honoring of oil contracts to the United States by fuming denunciations of it. Elsewhere, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad does a hackneyed impression of a dedicated anti-imperialist and an impassioned defender of an emancipatory revolution while he solicits the open partisanship of Ayatollah Khamanei in crushing the non-violent Green Movement. Obama woos an apathetic student body and politicizes a large proportion of the youth in the United States for the first time in a recent memory, only to exhibit an astonishing lack of will in a multitude of areas, missing the opportunity to institute a ‘new New Deal’ following the financial meltdown, compounding matters in Pakistan and Afghanistan, dragging his feet with Guantanamo Bay, failing to make any significant strides towards a greener, more sustainable economy and disappointing the electorate by reneging on vague promises to reform the healthcare system and deliver Americans from the despotism of private insurance and pharmaceutical companies. China, meanwhile, permits the press to flatter its vanity by pointing to it as the spearhead of a BRIC-led capitalism, all the while knowing that it cannot- at the present moment at the very least- assume the reins that America seems to be relinquishing. Besides, the symbiotic relationship between the two countries (and, indeed, between ALL of the extant capitalist economies and the United States, making the massive bailout and ‘quantitative easing’ plan unfurled by the US a local intervention with global benefits) is common knowledge to anyone who reads the business papers. All of this was captured very well when Luo Ping, director-general at the China Banking Regulatory Commission, spoke at the Global Association of Risk Management’s 10th Annual Risk Management Convention, laying bare the coordinates of a post-Bretton Woods, post-Gold Standard economy pegged to the US dollar: “Except for US Treasuries, what can you hold? Gold? You don’t hold Japanese government bonds or UK bonds. US Treasuries are the safe haven. For everyone, including China, it is the only option. We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion [$1,000bn-$2,000bn] . . .we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do.” Much as they would like to follow sanguine economists the world over and ‘decouple’ from their fatal dependency on the US (something that China is, admittedly, setting as a long-term target), at the present moment There Is No Alternative.

Nationalism, in the long march of modernity, was typically a state-led, secularist project that fostered an ‘imaginary community’ above and beyond regional, tribal and ethnic divides, producing citizens that would rally to a flag and shed tears at the rousing sound of an anthem. Today, it is more often than not a smokescreen that obscures the unanimity of the world order on the fundamental prerogatives of the world market, the terms of which are- unless we give credence to Hardt and Negri’s highly problematic suggestion that Empire is a centre-less, multilateral network of power- largely dictated by the United States and its various disciplinary arms, among which are (naturally) the IMF and the World Bank. If this is tedious and repetitious, if this is a mere recantation of tired imperialist chestnuts that everyone has spouted since the Vietnam War, outmoded theoretical baggage that we should throw overboard in favor of a sexier, sleeker model more in keeping with liquid modernity, then it is simply because imperialism- as the combined and uneven development of the world economy in favor of certain centers of command and its willing clients- is not a problem that is going away anytime soon. In fact, the interventionist debacle in Libya is the clearest possible expression of this. Mammon, always hungry for cheap oil, faces a long-term volatility of oil supply and prices in the simmering political climate of the Arabian Spring. Worse, what would happen if some overzealous upstarts got it into their heads to nationalize their oil wealth or form a federated regional union that operates on solidaristic, socialist principles of wealth-sharing, taking bolder steps than their Latin American confreres in the Bolivarian bloc? What goes under the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is simply an effort to have business carry on as usual, without the pesky hiccup of politics jamming up the works.

And it is this disappearance of politics that Megamind takes up in an oblique, tangential way. When Megamind laments the lack of an enemy to struggle against and the sterilizing, stupefying effects of a world wherein the negative has been entirely extirpated in lieu of a frictionless utopia, it is almost as though he were invoking Carl Schmitt on the one hand and Jean Baudrillard on the other. Here, I would posit, is precisely where Megamind puts itself forward as a scathing critique of any theory of ‘cosmopolitanism’ that premises itself upon a certain appropriation of Kant, whether this assumes the form of a modified Rawlsian theory or a Habermasian dream of ideal speech situations. To show how this is so, it would be prudent to refer to Chantal Mouffe, whose brilliant readings and confrontations with Schmitt deftly underline the problems with these neo-Kantian approaches, which attempt to evacuate the contingency at the heart of the political in favor of the procedural, operational mode of ‘politics’ so common in our times of consensus.

In Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox, Mouffe takes up a classic antinomy that Schmitt put forward as a critique of liberal democracy. For Schmitt, the term ‘liberal democracy’ is this paradox, and it is an insupportable one: “Schmitt asserts that there is an insuperable opposition between liberal individualism, with its moral discourse centered around the individual, and the democratic ideal, which is essentially political, and aims at creating an identity based on homogeneity. He claims that liberalism negates democracy and democracy negates liberalism, and that parliamentary democracy, since it consists in the articulation between democracy and liberalism, is therefore a non-viable regime…In his view, when we speak of equality, we need to distinguish between two very different ideas: the liberal one and the democratic one. The liberal conception of equality postulates that every person is, as a person, automatically equal to every other person. The democratic conception, however, requires the possibility of distinguishing who belongs to the demos and who is exterior to it; for that reason, it cannot exist without the necessary correlate of inequality.” (Mouffe, 39)

What Schmitt means when he points out this essential incompatibility between liberalism and democracy is that liberalism is not a politics, while democracy is a patently political concept, one which (for whatever reason) has- in our Western polities- been bound up with liberalism for so long that we hardly notice their radical difference. More than this, Schmitt proposes that liberalism is an anti-politics, one which nullifies the properly political moment of democracy and displaces it into other areas of social life: “In the domain of the political, people do not face each other as abstractions but as politically interested and politically determined persons, as citizens, governors or governed, politically allied or opponents- in any case, therefore, in political categories. In the sphere of the political, one cannot abstract out what is political, leaving only universal human equality…[in liberalism inequalities] would shift into another sphere, perhaps separated from the political and concentrated in the economic, leaving this area to take on a new, disproportionately decisive importance. Under the conditions of superficial political equality, another sphere in which substantial inequalities prevail (today for example the economic sphere) will dominate politics.” (Schmitt, quoted in Mouffe, 41-2) Schmitt’s point that liberalism, in dissolving the concrete in favor of the abstract, resonates with many conservative, communitarian critics of contemporary cosmopolitans and their assertions that a deracinated, decontextualized and ahistorical conception of the cosmopolitan subject could not possibly inspire a political endeavor infused with enough blood and passion to construct a collaborative global project. My feeling is that this rather Hegelian critique of a certain neo-Kantianism is largely correct, and I would like to demonstrate this later on via a discussion of Alberto Toscano’s incendiary take on the Enlightenment in his superb book, Fanaticism: Uses Of An Idea. Here, it would suffice to say that Kant himself- for all of the caricatures of his ethical subject as a de-pathologized moral machine that did its duty regardless of the circumstances- is not as anodyne as many Kantian liberals would have us believe. Schmitt’s point that ‘universal human equality’ masks real inequality is rings true with those of us who have been weaned on Marx’s Critique of the Philosophy of Right and Lenin’s programmatic statements on ‘formal’ and ‘real’ democracy, and his discussion of the eternal dilemma of liberalism- namely, how does a philosophy that espouses the elemental equality of all human beings justify a legacy of slavery, colonialism, torture and imperialist warfare?- provides the bases for the powerful work of Domenico Losurdo. The fact that Schmitt foresaw the dilution of the political, its shattering into single-issue ‘ethical committees’ and lobby/interest groups and its disastrous reduction to the economy presaged Hannah Arendt’s sober elegy for the Greek polis, wherein the ‘unnatural growth of the natural’ oikos was kept apart from the public, democratic sphere.

Developing on these insights, Mouffe dwells on the foundational trope of Schmitt’s political theory, that of the frontier between friend and enemy. For liberalism, this antagonistic frontier simply does not exist- everything is subject to a continuous, procedural dialogue in which everyone is included and violent contestation is not admitted: “Democracy, according to Schmitt, consists fundamentally in the identity between rulers and ruled. It is linked to the fundamental principle of the unity of the demos and the sovereignty of its will. But if the people are to rule, it is necessary to determine who belongs to the people. Without any criterion to determine who are the bearers of democratic rights, the will of the people could never take shape….By stressing that the identity of a democratic political community hinges on the possibility of drawing a frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, Schmitt highlights the fact that democracy always entails relations of inclusion-exclusion….One of the main problems with liberalism- and one that can endanger democracy- is precisely its incapacity to conceptualize such a frontier. As Schmitt indicates, the central concept of liberal discourse is ‘humanity’, which- as he rightly points out- is not a political concept, and does not correspond to any political entity. The central question of the political constitution of ‘the people’ is something that liberal theory is unable to tackle adequately, because the necessity of drawing such a ‘frontier’ contradicts its universalistic rhetoric. Against the liberal emphasis on ‘humanity’, it is important to stress that the key concepts of democracy are the ‘demos’ and the ‘people’….The democratic logic of constituting the people, and inscribing rights and equality into practices, is necessary to subvert the tendency towards abstract universalism in liberal discourse.” (Mouffe, 43-44)

The implications of this lengthy extract for the sort of ‘abstract universalism’ found in self-help books and cosmopolitan theorizing today need hardly be stressed. One need only look, once more, at the Libyan crisis to discern the profoundly depoliticizing effects of this substitution of ‘humanity’ for political agency, replacing politics with moralism. The pretext for the passing of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 was, of course, the impending incursion of Gaddafi’s forces into the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, as well as the anticipated slaughter of tens of thousands of Libyan civilians. To enlist the general public’s sympathy for a concerted allied air strike (a rather amnesiac public, I might add, in light of all the disasters that such ‘interventions’ have visited upon the very civilians that NATO has always sworn to protect), a rather slapdash sketch of projected proceedings was drawn up and circulated on the international news: Gaddafi is another raving mad, Hitler-esque lunatic who will not listen to reason. There is no point negotiating with such madmen, they only respond to force. Ergo, a quick and ruthless offensive will coerce him to capitulate. Like Saddam in 1990- who, it bears reminding, was willing to negotiate his way out of Kuwait- Gaddafi’s Libya would be ‘bombed into the stone ages’ to show them what’s what. Gaddafi had, in other words, reverted back to the rabid dog of the Middle East, and the ‘people’ of Libya would live to see a glorious dawn after the smoke of the guns subsided. What faded away in this broad-stroke sketch of vainglorious, frothing-at-the-mouth tyrants and their wretched, defenceless peoples was any discussion of the geography of the nation, its history, the evolution of its economy, its social dynamics and the political tendencies within the cluster vulgarly termed as ‘the rebels’ or ‘the opposition’. That a large faction of the rebels had vigorously objected to the imposition of the no-fly zone was ignored, as were the repeated pleas of certain sections for the requisitioned funds of the Gaddafi regime to be sent to rebel forces to buy arms. Further, nobody seemed to ask why it was that regimes just as autocratic as Gaddafi’s (Tunisia, Egypt) had fallen without any major bloodletting. That is, if the Libyan ‘rebels’ are truly representative of the Libyan people at large, if they are a truly popular movement, why is it that they require assistance? Such questions are occluded the moment we begin to distort the Libyan fight for autonomy and democracy by:

a) Holding fast to the enervated, impoverished conception of ‘really existing democracy’ as practiced in our liberal-democratic polities, which equates democracy with an electoral form commandeered and overseen by technocrats. The pernicious consequences of this are plain to see when the Western press enframes the struggles of the Arab world as a struggle to ‘be just like us’, proving themselves worthy to ‘enjoy our freedoms and liberties’, rather than investigating the concrete social conditions of said countries, the rich and innovative organizational forms that originated from them, the unique role of culture and religion in the formation of political groupings. In other words, the aspects of these insurgencies that have something to teach those of us who have forgotten the very meaning of political action.

b) Separating this political moment from what, in my view, is just as crucial, the economic one. The media’s propensity to poetize endlessly about ‘universal human rights’, ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘democratic rights’ is characteristic here, and an oft-repeated slogan of many Egyptian workers exposes the shortcomings of such rhetoric: “We cannot eat democracy!” It seems intuitive that, insofar as we live in a capitalist world order, and insofar as this capitalist world order is a globalized order that curtails workplace protagonism and radical democratic praxis in the interests of profit, politics and economics are indissolubly bound up with one another. In other words, there is no democracy without economic democracy. This seems so obvious that it hardly warrants mentioning, but it has taken revolutionary action to make the world take notice of the most elementary demands of the global proletariat- workers, students, peasants and the poor. Still, old habits die hard, particularly when they’re reinforced by the iron fist of power, and it could very well be that these voices, having been silenced and extinguished for the last two and a half decades, could be suppressed beneath the petit-bourgeois clamor of ‘democracy’ and ‘suffrage’ once more.

c) Liquidating all specificity, local identity and political subjectivity in the catch-all abstraction of ‘humanity’. In itself, this is not so objectionable. What is reprehensible about this conception is how it tends to strip the human being of any trace of active agency, so that the human being is reduced to being what Alain Badiou has called the ‘human animal’, or what, in Giorgio Agamben’s terrifying vision, has labelled homo sacer, the possessor of a body that can be mangled and destroyed with abandon. It was this image of the suffering, passive human being that was mobilized to elicit enthusiasm for the Libyan intervention. Exacerbating matters was the typical liberal contention that ‘doing something is better than doing nothing’, and that ‘risking the bad is better than permitting the possibility of the worst’. One forgets that doing something often instigates the worst- Gaddafi, having been cornered and betrayed by Western powers that he had been cosying up to for the last two decades, will now make good on his promise to hunt Libyan dissenters down in every nook and cranny. One also forgets that men and women are not helpless victims of fate, nor are they condemned to being the pawns of power. When properly organized and determined to win, they are perfectly capable of reversing, overturning the relations of subordination that they have endured. As such, even if the Libyan rebels were to fail in this venture, they would be forced to learn from their mistakes in order to regroup and try again next time. In the eyes of the anti-imperialist Left, ‘humanitarian intervention’ is the worst possible eventuality that could happen, and the near-unanimous consensus on military interference does not bode well for the future- what is to stop the United States from engaging in cavalier regime changes across the region, establishing new and improved client governments in the name of ‘human rights’? In effect, this ‘humanitarian intervention’ will prove to be a saccharine-coated euphemism for a repressive police action that eliminates political antagonism and restitutes the despotism of the Same. Beneath a few surgical, cosmetic changes, business will resume.

How did we arrive at this point, where an anti-politics has expelled all traces of negativity and contingency to its fringes? It is as though political philosophy’s long and protracted struggle against the excess of politics- inspired by a ‘hatred of democracy’ that Hannah Arendt and Jacques Ranciere examine at great length- has finally managed to consummate the ‘becoming-world of philosophy and becoming-philosophy of the world’. For Mouffe, the constitutive paradox of liberal democracy must be acknowledged and protected, keeping both dimensions of the liberal democratic tradition in dialectical tension rather than collapsing- as the so-called ‘Third Way’ of consensus politics has done- one into the other: “We do not have to accept Schmitt’s thesis that there is an inescapable contradiction between liberalism and democracy; such a contradiction is only the result of his inability to grasp the specificity of modern democracy, between its two constitutive principles of liberty and democracy. They can never be perfectly reconciled, but this is precisely what constitutes for me the principal value of liberal democracy. It is this aspect of nonachievement, incompleteness and openness that makes such a regime particularly suited to modern democratic politics. Unfortunately, this aspect has never been properly theorized, and liberal democracy lacks the political philosophy that could provide it with adequate principles of legitimacy. Schmitt is certainly right to agree that those principles are quite unsatisfactory and in need of reformulation.” (Mouffe, The Return of the Political, 110, emphasis mine)
Tags: cartoons, libya, marxism, the political
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