total depravity

Are we witnessing the end of the myth of Western classicism? By this I mean the myth that ancient Greece, with its philosophers, drama, art, culture and pretence at democracy, is the foundation of ‘Western’ – that is, European – culture. The efforts by many of the north-western European powers to force Greece out of the Eurozone and the European Union suggest that we may well be seeing the end of that myth.

Slightly less than two hundred years ago, ancient Greece entered forcefully into the Western European consciousness. In 1823 Greece began fighting for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Support in Western Europe was widespread and enthusiastic. By 1827, the Ottoman fleet was destroyed at Navarino. Greece became autonomous and independent, which for many Europeans was Greece’s ‘natural’ status. In Western Europe, people of all manner of persuasions supported Greece’s inclusion in Europe: Christians, political liberals and left-wingers, conservatives and even new humanists. Greece stood at the border of civilised Europe and the barbarous Orient, so it was crucial to claim that it was part of a vibrant and advanced Europe. No longer were ancient Egypt, India and China the embodiments of power, wealth and wisdom.

The elevation of all things Greek was spectacular. What had been a trickle became a flood. As custodians of ancient Greece, the modern Greeks embodied ‘progress’ in terms of freedom, harmony, individualism and the role of reason, and they provided the sources of philosophy, drama, the arts, politics and the ideal of the human form. Philhellenes abounded, especially in Germany, where Greece was regarded as the true source of all that was good in the world. Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Friedrich August Wolf may have been precursors in the later eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, the Humboldts and Hegel all proclaimed the greatness of Greece. For Hegel, only in ancient Greece had human society begun ‘to live in its homeland’ (The Philosophy of History, 1837, p. 247). Or as Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, an early sociologist, wrote in Kulturgeschichtliche Charakterkopfe (1891) concerning his recollections of life in a German gymnasium of the time:

We regarded Greece as our second homeland; for it was the seat of all nobility of thought and feeling, the home of harmonious humanity. Yes, we even thought that ancient Greece belonged to Germany because, of all the modern peoples, the Germans had developed the deepest understanding of the Hellenic spirit, of Hellenic art, and of the harmonious Hellenic way of life.

How things have changed. A couple of centuries ago, a Western Europe conscious of its new global power needed a dynamic new model that was in some way European. The classical Greeks provided that image: youthful, energetic, progressive, even ‘democratic’ (although this took longer to emerge). The ‘Classics’ became the core requirements for educating the ruling class, providing a cultural framework that had its own codes and signals. Plato occupied the chair in many philosophy departments, with Aristotle his understudy. Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes found similar locations in drama departments. Pericles and Athenian democracy became the darlings of political science. All of them seemed very much present, interlocutors in current debates.

Now Greece is a pariah. For north-western Europeans in our time, Greece is the embodiment of ‘southern laziness’. Their culture is chaotic; they cannot manage their finances; they allow all those dreadful Africans into Europe; they are too close to Turkey and the turmoil of the Middle East. So for the last five years, they have been punished with ‘austerity’ measures, administered by European banks, funds and politicians. At the forefront is Germany, which has had a profound change of heart. And when the Greeks elected a mildly left-wing government, led by Syriza, the grey bureaucrats of the European Union felt called upon to punish Greece even further. How dare they vote against austerity measures! They will be brought to heel. So each time the government of Tsipras caves in and agrees to the latest round of measures, the EU manipulators raise the bar.

Indeed, it has become clear that a hard-core majority of European states want to push Greece out of the Eurozone, out of the European Union, and thereby out of Europe. They keep proposing measures that Greeks can hardly accept. The tragedy in all of this is that many Greeks have internalised the myth of the Greek origins of Europe. While they oppose the crippling austerity measures, they overwhelmingly wish to remain part of Europe. Indeed, they cannot imagine that the rest of Europe would banish them. Or rather, they respond with disbelief that north-western Europe should wish to do so. In light of this situation, it may well be that for the time being the government caves in to the latest and even harsher measures. But this will be yet another step in the process of banishing Greece.

The symbolism is powerful. The fount of Western civilisation is now being stripped of that mythical honour. It may have enjoyed this status for a couple of centuries, but it is fading fast. But this raises a problem: who or what will become the new basis? Will it be a revamped Aryan myth? Not so long ago, this myth was expressed in terms of the Indo-European hypothesis. The problem with the hypothesis is that it included the Greeks. But another strain has always argued that human civilisation began not in the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East, not even among the Mediterranean peoples, but in northern latitudes. Will this become the dominant myth of north-western Europe as it demonises anyone from southern or eastern Europe – especially Greece?

I have been discussing the Danish election results with Christina this afternoon. For a small country, the results may not seem important, but they may be read as harbingers of the situation in Scandinavia more generally. Initially, the results may seem depressing for anyone with sympathies vaguely on the Left. The ‘blue block’ seems to to have won the election with the slimmest of margins, 90 seats to the ‘red block’s’ 89 seats. Why depressing? The Danish People’s Party (DF) has won more than 21 percent of the vote, becoming Denmark’s second largest party in the Folketing (parliament). This is the party that has campaigned on three issues for the last 20 years: anti-Muslim propaganda, a wider xenophobia and a rhetoric of watching out for the ‘little people’ who are ‘suffering’ from the EU’s policies. This party has now become the king-maker, nominating Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the centre-right Ventre Party as Prime Minister.

But let us look a little deeper into the election results. The Social-Democrats actually improved their standing, cementing their position as Denmark’s main party. They now command about 27% of the vote. However, their various allies in a conventional bourgeois democratic system did not get enough votes to get the ‘red block’ coalition over the line. The second most popular party is the Danish People’s Party (as I mentioned, with more than 21% of the vote), a kind of neo-fascist bunch with a populist appeal. The two main parties would seem to be the antithesis of one another. But at a deeper level, they have much in common. Both have played the xenophobia card. The Social-Democrats have pointed the finger at ‘Eastern Europeans’ as the bane of Denmark, while the People’s Party likes to target Arabs, Muslims and people with obvious skin colouring that is not white.

Why are they so close to one another? I suggest it has to do with the infamous Scandinavian welfare state. The Social Democrats have been the architects of the welfare state in Denmark (and also with similar parties in other Nordic states). The catch is that the welfare state can only function by means of strict controls as to who is eligible for its benefits. The boundaries have always been clear. The Danish People’s Party plays on that theme: they promise to care for those who have been disadvantaged by aggressive EU policies aimed at bringing in cheap labour to undermine the very structure of welfare state. In that sense, the Danish People’s Party is the child of the welfare state, laying bare its incipient xenophobia.

The upshot: the natural alliance should be between the Social Democrats and the Danish People’s Party, since the latter is the child of the former. In that way, they could easily form government (at more than 48% of the vote) with one of the other minor parties.

As I work through the material concerning the industrialisation and collectivisation drives of the 1930s (actually starting in the late 1920s), it is becoming clearer that it this period and its enormous upheavals were crucial for Stalin’s rethinking of Marxist theories of human nature. During those intense periods of extraordinary reconstruction – literally unleashing the forces of production in a way not seen before (no ‘Great Depression’ in the USSR) – there were many who were wildly enthusiastic about the process. This was the time of the ‘foi furieuse’, of Stakhanovism, of mass enthusiasm and emulation. But there were also many losers, since it was a profoundly disruptive time. Many lagged, were doubtful and came actively to oppose the process. This is when what I would like to call a ‘materialist doctrine of evil’ really comes into its own. Ultimately, Stalin would come to see that such evil was deeply internal, within the collective drive, within the party and within each person (himself included). On the way to seeing this stark reality, he can certainly call up word-pictures like the following:

People look for the class enemy outside the collective farms; they look for persons with ferocious visages, with enormous teeth and thick necks, and with sawn-off shotguns in their hands. They look for kulaks like those depicted on our posters. But such kulaks have long ceased to exist on the surface. The present-day kulaks and kulak agents, the present-day anti-Soviet elements in the countryside are in the main “quiet,” “smooth-spoken,” almost “saintly” people. There is no need to look for them far from the collective farms; they are inside the collective farms, occupying posts as storekeepers, managers, accountants, secretaries, etc. (1933, Works, volume 13, p. 235).

Stalin was not averse to taking the piss out of trendy Bolshevik talk. As part of his typology of useless Bolsheviks, he speaks of the bureaucrat, the red-tapist, the big-wig and the wind-bag. Here is the characterisation of the windbag:

I have in mind the windbags, I would say honest windbags (laughter), people who are honest and loyal to the Soviet power, but who are incapable of leadership, incapable of organising anything. Last year I had a conversation with one such comrade, a very respected comrade, but an incorrigible windbag, capable of drowning any live undertaking in a flood of talk. Here is the conversation:

I: How are you getting on with the sowing?

He: With the sowing, Comrade Stalin? We have mobilised ourselves. (Laughter.)

I: Well, and what then?

He: We have put the question squarely. (Laughter.)

I: And what next?

He: There is a turn, Comrade Stalin; soon there will be a turn. (Laughter.)

I: But still?

He: We can see an indication of some improvement. (Laughter.)

I: But still, how are you getting on with the sowing?

He: So far, Comrade Stalin, we have not made any headway with the sowing. (General laughter.)

There you have the portrait of the windbag. They have mobilised themselves, they have put the question squarely, they have a turn and some improvement, but things remain as they were. (Works, vol. 13, pp. 378-79)

For those not in the know, Scott Morrison is one of the head-kickers in the increasingly hated Liberal-National government of Tony Abbott (in Australia). Morrison has made a name for himself as former immigration minister, actively victimising asylum seekers for his own political gain. In the process, he has moved Australia further and further away from internationally agreed conventions concerning asylum seekers, refugees, human rights and so on. The crunch came when he asserted that some people can forego their human rights and be treated accordingly – as in the case of a man who had been convicted of womanslaughter for killing his wife, served his prison term and was now to be freed. Not so, said Morrison, since he had abrogated his human rights.

How can this be? Said many. Did not Morrison, the pentecostal Christian from Shorelive Church, once quote the words of Jeremiah, in his inaugural speech in parliament:

I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord.

Morrison went on to explain:

From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others.

And then, quoting Desmond Tutu:

we expect Christians … to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.

And so:

My vision for Australia is for a nation that is strong, prosperous and generous … generous in spirit, to share our good fortune with others, both at home and overseas, out of compassion and a desire for justice.

Hypocrite, opportunist, betrayal … all these and more are levelled at Morrison. How can one who espouses such beliefs, who claims to be a true liberal, be so cruel to asylum seekers and refugees?

It is actually perfectly consistent with a liberal position. Morrison does not offer compassion, kindness and justice to everyone. The ‘poor’ in question are not all the poor, for liberals consistent limit the definition of the ‘all’ to whom their principles apply. The majority are actually excluded. For Morrison and his ilk, the excluded can be treated like dirt, since God doesn’t care for them.

Morrison is very much in the mould of John C. Calhoun, vice-president of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century and champion of liberalism. Calhoun was an impassioned champion of liberty, which should be defended at all costs. His favourite targets were concentrations of power, ‘fanaticism’ and the spirit of ‘crusade’, against which he upheld the rights of minorities. Which minorities? They clearly did not include slaves. For Calhoun, slavery was a ‘positive good’ and the opponents of slavery were ‘blind fanatics’. In other words, tolerance, justice, compassion are for a select few, for those who count as human. The rest need not apply.

So there is no inconsistency in Morrison’s position. He is a good liberal, with Christian principles. In fact, he would make an excellent slave owner.

The other day, when I was strolling through the local shops, I came across a big screen full of graceful Chinese dancers prancing about. Intrigued, I stopped to ask the smiling man about them.

‘Shen Yun,’ he said, ‘traditional Chinese dance’, he said. ‘We have two shows in Sydney coming soon’.

‘What a shame’, I said, ‘I’ll be in China then’.

The smile disappeared. ‘You can’t see this in China’, he said.

‘Why not?’ I said.

‘The Chinese government won’t allow it?’ he said. ‘They won’t allow any traditional culture or religion in China – Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, all forbidden’.

Puzzled, I said: ‘But I have been to Confucian congresses, Daoism research centres, and Buddhist temples – plenty of those all over China’.

‘They are all fake’ he said. ‘It’s a sham perpetrated by the Chinese communist party. Only Shen Yun, or Divine Performing Arts, presents the truth of 5,000 years of civilisation‘.

Genuinely surprised, I asked, ‘So where is Shen Yun based?’

‘New York’, he said.

Then it hit me: ‘Genuine Chinese culture is found only in New York?’ I asked. ‘What about Disneyland?’

‘Anywhere, except in China’, he said.

I pondered this dialectical possibility for a while, and then the light bulb slowly went on: ‘You wouldn’t be supported by Falun Gong by any chance?’

‘Yes!’ he said, and pointed to some tiny print on the back of a flyer. He seemed to feel the message was getting through.

‘That’s a very impressive con job‘, I said with genuine admiration.

While the Newcastle rail saga now has more twists than a bad Russian novel (let’s say, Dostoevsky), it has also been able to produce a new term for terrorism.

The context:

1. Deeply corrupt government decision to cut railway line for the last 2.5 km into Newcastle and replace with light rail – at cost of $500,000.

2. Snobby Sydney people thinking that the locals don’t know what’s good for them.

3. Sneaky effort by state government to avoid scrutiny and the need for an act of parliament to cut the line. They plan to cut the line on 26 December (when no one is looking).

4. Save our rail succeeds in gaining a Supreme Court injunction on cutting the line – on Christmas Eve. Court rules any cutting of line requires act of parliament, which state government would lose.

5. State government appeals decision.

6. While awaiting appeal proceedings, line lies in limbo, neither cut nor used.

7. Awabakal Land Council submits a land claim. Legal opinion thinks they may succeed, since they can claim land held by the state but not used for any purpose.

8. Redefinition of terrorism is made.

Let me explain. The government is able to stop services while court proceedings are under way, but not cut the line. So they have put some temporary fencing.

IMG_6676 (320x240)

Such fencing now requires an official sign to indicate the possibility of terrorist attack:

IMG_6677 (320x240)

Four levels apply: low, medium, high …

IMG_6682 (320x240)

and yes, immenent:

IMG_6679 (320x240)

Terrorist attack is not imminent, not even immanent (which is little more intriguing), but immenent.

I have been puzzling over the philosophical implications. Is ‘immenent’ the third term of the dialectic, which overcomes the initial opposition and draws the whole situation up to another level. If so, does that mean we can be in a situation where it feels as though an attack has occurred, even if it has not?

Next Page »