Keepers of the open plain

This is a translation of my essay ‘Hoeders van de open vlakte’. With this essay I won the Nexus-Connect essay prize which allowed me to co-author my first book. Since I made the translation myself and since I don’t dare to claim to be a good translator you’re invited to send suggestions for improvement (grammer and spelling mistakes included).

The Althing in Iceland is the oldest parliament in the World. In the year 930 the most important leaders of this island decided to join together on the big open plains of Pingvellir to make collective decisions and hold court. Although nowadays the Althing is located in the capital Reykjavik, the idea of an open plain still plays an important though hidden role in contemporary democracy. A watchful eye would probably have noticed that the centre of almost all parliaments in the world consist of an open space: The European parliament, the House of Commons, the Assemblée, the Tweede Kamer: The middle of the room is empty. In that regard, every parliament seems to be an illustration of the thought of the French philosopher Claude Lefort, who stated that the centre of power in a democracy should be empty. According to this thinker the most important difference between this form of government and a totalitarian system is the fact that within democracy the body of sovereignty is always open. When during the French revolution the guillotine ended the life of king Louis XVI, the sovereignty of power passed on to the people. In contrast to the body of the king, which is concrete and has boundaries, the body of the people is always abstract and open to different interpretations. According to Lefort it is of the utmost importance that a democracy guarantees this openness in its institutions: By keeping the body of the people open we avoid sliding down into a totalitarian state.

This empty character of the centre of power seems to be a recurring theme in our history and has an interesting myth of origin described by Sigmund Freud in his essay Totem und Tabu. According to Freud, who is citing Darwin, there was a time when people lived in tribes where one alpha male was allowed to mate with all the women in his tribe. Although the sons of this alpha were in awe with their father, these young men were so aggrieved by the love which was denied to them that they plotted to kill their father. This primordial revolution made such an impression on humanity that the decision was made to leave the former position of the alpha man forever open. To realise this it became taboo for the men in the tribe to have sexual relations with their female relatives like the alpha man did. In its turn, this murdered alpha man started to be worshipped like a strict but righteous god. Although Freud uses this myth to explain both the origin of our contemporary concept of God and the origin of the taboo on incest, for our purpose it’s only relevant that the spot of the murdered alpha man was left empty after its dead. From the betrayal of Caesar to the chopped of head of Louis XVI, from the castration of Uranus to the murder of king Hamlet: To keep this place empty seems a challenge for us humans to say the least. Both our history and our literature is full of examples of the return of the primal patricide. Even today the endeavours to keep this place empty still play an important part in our politics – although the desire to let an alpha male seize this place sometimes seems to get the best of us.

The problem of the open plain may have been most strikingly illustrated during the pictorial art during the October revolution. During this time the well known painter Kazimir Malevitsj rose to fame in Russia as an avant-garde artist of the revolution. His most famous works are a collection of abstract, empty squares on white canvasses which marked a rupture with the figurative style of painting which was customary until that time. Malevitsj stated himself that these paintings ‘… should evoke an experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a libratory nothingness’. Although it’s telling that a rupture with the figurative style of painting is described as an experience of emptiness, it’s even more significant how the officials of the Soviet Union responded to this development. When the Soviet Union started to consolidate itself after the revolution and developed more and more into a dictatorship the abstract art of Malevitj fell from grace: The empty space was yet again desecrated. Official Soviet painting re-established itself as a purely figurative form of art with a strong moralising character. Artist weren’t guardians of an empty space anymore but engineers of the soul. A soul which should be completely devoted to the communist revolution. A hundred years after the October Revolution we still haven’t learned how to cope with the white emptiness. Nowadays those in power are still to such an extent trembled by the open plain of true democracy that the desire to appropriate this plain becomes too big. If we ever want to succeed in a true revolution we should acknowledge that the centre of power should be empty and can’t never be appropriated.

But how do we do this? How do we acknowledge that the centre of power should be empty? How do we become keepers of the open plain? Firstly by avoiding to absolutize our own opinions but at the same time acknowledging that the acceptance of the political opinions of others isn’t the same as surrendering your own beliefs. Since the Berlin wall collapsed we have too often been an eyewitness of the injustice which occurs when the space to do this doesn’t exist. This is because the space where different opinions can co-exist and be exchanged with each other is nowadays more and more defined by the logic of capitalism. Because capitalism reduces everything to a universal exchangeable commodity, it is able to create an illusionary balance between different competing political views. Every subculture can express its own political agenda for as long they can pay for it. The problem with this all-embracing form of capitalism is that it implies itself a form of politics. The many believe-systems and subcultures on our planet can only express their ideas explicitly by implicitly accepting the ideas of capitalism. This means that although as a subculture you can express yourself all you want, this can only happen against the background of an ever expanding exploitation of the world around us. Only by accepting the rules of capitalism is it possible to let our ideas co-exist in a relative peaceful manner. Although this is already a danger in itself, it even becomes more dangerous when the open space is bought or appropriated by a totalitarian politician. An open society with a multitude of visions is to such an extent complex that the idea of a ‘strong’ leader who creates order out of chaos becomes appealing to many. When the complexity of an open society doesn’t have a common ground, this complexity starts to be experienced as a foreign threat. At such moments it becomes easy for a ‘strong’ leader to bend this sentiment to his will. Nowadays strong leaders are emerging all around the globe as father figures who are able to end the so called ‘multicultural’ quarrels.

But are we truly handed over to the mercy of these men? A hand full of patriarchs who try to maintain the global order by playing a game of geo-political bluff poker? Besides the fact that the rise of these patriarchs didn’t end the exploitation of the world around us, these men are all besides keepers of the open plain. The lands which they rule have seen a severe attack on the public sphere with its ‘open’ institutes such as a free press, parliament, science and the court of justice. It seems therefore that the rise of macho politics is above all a fake solution for the problems of multicultural capitalism. To come to a real solution of these problems which respects the open plain and her multitude of believes, we need a different common ground as capitalism. But how can you create a commonality for all the different religions and subcultures on our planet? How can the believes in the subjection to Islam, the utopia of the free market, the resurrection of Christ and the foundation of communism go together?

Firstly by acknowledging that every vision on a ideal society is by definition a declaration of war. This not only goes for the opinion of a militant sect, but, in a much more nuanced way, for each vision on society. When a politician speaks about his vision on an ideal society were hardworking people make an honest living, he speaks about this society from his own particular position. A position which is not only privileged by the power and recognition politicians get, but is also biased. The precise meaning which the politician in question gives to the concepts of ‘hardworking people’ and ‘honest living’ won’t probably be shared by any other living person. A democracy of the open plain will always acknowledge that a vision on society can never be anchored from a neutral ground. There doesn’t exist an objective standard which tells us what an ideal society should look like. What does exist are people who are prepared to fight and make efforts for their own visions of an ideal society. Although these visions can have dire consequences when people are too prepared to make them a reality, these visions have nothing necessary or divine about them. Al these different worldview’s relate to each other as gladiators in an arena. This arena is nowadays constructed in such a manner that the spectators who are passionately cheering for their favourite warrior don’t realize that they pay a price for each battle. The battle itself is subsequently only trying to make the show spectacular enough so that the spectators are becoming even more passionate and prepared to keep paying. It is up to us to break out of this vicious circle and re-arrange the arena in the peaceful manner it was supposed to be.

If an ideology always needs a fight, a fight in its turn always needs a sacrifice. A keeper of the open plain understands that the size of a sacrifice shouldn’t lead to absolute power, even if the battle is won. Furthermore, he understands that when a sacrifice gets too big, the expectations can have dangerous consequences. During the Soviet regime millions of civilians were sacrificed for the necessary progression towards the ideal communist state. Because of the size of the sacrifice not only did this ideal state get out of sight, the way back had also been lost as an viable option. Just as victims of a pyramid scheme prefer to keep on investing in a malicious product until the very end, a certain vision on the truth ‘needs’ to be true to justify the sacrifices made for this vision. When the sacrifice cost too much it becomes impossible to acknowledge your defeat.

A keeper of the open plain insists that there isn’t a single religion or ideology which has the right to put her altar in the centre, no matter how big the sacrifices for this system of believe are. Instead the political acts of a keeper will always try to acknowledge the sacrifices made by others, thereby trying to avoid the desire of desecrating the open plain altogether. Because a keeper of the open plain knows that rampant capitalism which allows everybody its own opinion as long as they are able to pay for it isn’t capable to keep the plain open, he behaves as a tightrope dancer. On the one hand the keeper resolutely denies the capability of any ‘strong’ man to create order in a ‘multicultural’ chaos. The keeper namely knows that the fear we sometimes have for the open plain pales in comparison with the fear we will have for an alpha man who is able to appropriate the open plain definitive. On the other hand the keeper restrains himself in regard to the sacrifices which are made for a world after capitalism. Although this battle is worth being fought and it is therefore justified that the sacrifices made to win this battle are big, the keeper knows how to put his expectations into the right perspective. The keeper namely understands that when he grounds his desire in the sacrifices he made, his desire can never be satisfied. When this happens there won’t be a temple big enough to house the power he believes to be entitled to.

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