total depravity

As is no doubt the case in other parts of the globe, we have been talking from time to time about the – I admit it – most fascinating US election in recent memory. I am not a fan of bourgeois democracy, especially of the US variety. But the prospect of Trump winning has piqued my interest.

For instance, Julian Assange replied to the question as to whether he prefers Trump or Clinton: “Well, you’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?” He may be a democratic liberal concerned with accountability, but at least he pinpoints the rottenness of the system.

Michael Moore has the “depressing news” that Trump will win. Moore may be a supporter of the ever-so-mild social democrat Bernie Sanders, but my sense is that he is right: Trump will win the election.

Meanwhile, as the material on the US election has begun to appear on Wikileaks (much more is to come), the Democrats have begun the propaganda – as Mary Dejevsky writes -of “All together now: let’s blame Putin.” If the Russians are meddling, who blames them, she asks, given the US interference in everybody else’s matters.

And John Pilger, who hits a few points and misses many, points out that the “danger to the rest of us is not Trump, but Hillary Clinton.” While Trump says the invasion of Iraq was a crime and that he doesn’t want to go to war with Russia and China, Clinton embodies the “resilience and violence of a system whose vaunted ‘exceptionalism’ is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face.”

In other words, Clinton is the imperialist warmonger (like so many Democrats, including Obama), while Trump is the one who embodies the awareness that the short-lived US empire is waning. There are simply too many problems in the USA for it to bother itself with the rest of world. His approach may trouble the hand-wringing liberals, and it may not be pretty in the USA itself, but the rest of the world will breath a huge sigh of relief.




The early Greek, Hesiod, had this advice for a young man (in Works and Days):

First get a house, a woman and a plough-ox – one bought, not married, who can also follow the oxen.

On 12 July, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague made a non-binding ruling concerning the Law of the Sea. The former regime of the Philippines (under Aquino) had made a unilateral application to have the Nanhai Zhudao (South China Sea Islands, known in English as the Spratley Islands) declared rocks rather than islands and therefore solely under its jurisdiction. The tribunal found in favour of the Philippines, which has led to the inevitable flurry of arguments back and forth. China indicated from the beginning that a ruling either way would have no impact or force. Taiwan has rejected the finding as well, since it lays claim to some of the islands, as does Vietnam. Of course, spokespersons in the USA and Australia are huffing and puffing about the ‘law of the sea’ and ‘freedom of navigation’.

So let us backtrack a little to get some perspective on the so-called ‘freedom of the seas’. The argument dates back to the ingenious Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). He was called upon by the Dutch East India Company to find some way of justifying the capture of the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina by the Dutch captain, Jabob van Heemskerck, on February 25, 1603. The seized cargo was sold in Amsterdam later that year for no less than three million Dutch guilders. It increased the coffers of the Company by fifty percent.

Obviously, much was at stake. Grotius musters all his legal, philosophical and theological to pen De jure Praedae (Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty). Two elaborate and key arguments were made with relevance to the current situation.

First, using all his Eurocentric assumptions, Grotius argues that possession of land and sea could only be claimed if there was evidence of human activity involving construction or the definition of boundaries. Wharves and jetties on shore may be fine, but on the open seas it is another matter entirely. Crucially, this argument is part of a much longer effort to retell the story of Genesis 1-3 so as to show that God willed and ordered private property and a universal ‘natural law’.

Second, he argues – good Armenian theologian that he was – that an individual is responsible for good and evil. This also means that an individual can punish evil and recompense good, subject of course to the universal principles established by God. Thus, Dutch mariners on their gunboats-cum-merchant ships were justified in seizing Portuguese ships. He does not mean a fleet of Dutch war ships under the direction of the government but individual captains working for a private company in the distant seas of the Indies, far from the practices of Western European customs and laws. As rational, free-willing actors, the Portuguese had willingly violated the laws of nature by claiming the seas as their own, but the Dutch captain also acted in accordance with those principles by punishing them for such an act.

What did the hard-headed directors of the Dutch East India Company make of all this? They were somewhat nonplussed by the deft philosophical, theological and legal arguments, peppered with quotations from classical Greek and Roman authors. Instead, they seized on a section and published it in 1609, with the title Mare Liberum (On the Freedom of the Seas). Another 250 years had to pass before the whole text was accidentally discovered.

These directors saw clearly that all of Grotius’s complex arguments were really propaganda. ‘Freedom of the seas’ really meant that the gunboats of the Dutch East India Company could sail where they wanted and seize who they wanted. A convenient argument that has been used ever since, whether by the British Empire or now the declining American Empire.

To return to the current situation concerning the South China Sea. Back in 1603, the Santa Catarina had been on its way from Macau to Malacca, laden with Ming porcelain, Chinese silk, musk and so on. Heemskerk seized the ship just off Singapore, after it had passed through the South China Sea. Further, the ship may have been Portuguese, but at the time Portugal was part of the Spanish Empire. And it was the Spanish who colonised the Philippines in 1565.

In 2016 we have China, a former Spanish colony (the Philippines), and the South China Sea, where a significant portion of the world’s shipping once again can be found. And the ‘arbitration’ takes place in The Hague, the Netherlands, where the Dutch East India Company first sought to develop the international law of the ‘freedom of the seas’ for its own purposes.

I cannot help thinking of Marx’s observation, ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce‘.

Is this a new low in efforts to demonise refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere? The Danish minority government, run by Venstre and supported by the Danish People’s Party, has proposed that the bags and clothes of refugees be searched for money and valuables such as jewellery so as to be confiscated for the ‘cost’ of travelling through Denmark. Mind you, the government has thus far refused to accept refugees, although it generously allows them to travel through Denmark to Sweden. Indeed, the government is trying to claim that it is exceedingly generous – by allowing people to keep their phones and wedding rings. Of course, the underlying assumption is that they are not ‘genuine’ refugees but supposedly rich ‘economic’ refugees.

As Christina pointed out to me, not only are such minor items easily transportable for an emergency (like food), but the next step is to remove gold teeth. Further, my experience from a recent rail journey across Europe on trains full of refugees is that they have only a small bag with the absolute basics.

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).

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