‘In God we Trust’

In god we trust

Imagine the entire universe as being one single squat. Would people use money in this squat? Probably not. Most people who live together in such a small community, contribute to this community because they trust that the other members of this community will try to do the same. Each member of the squat would have different needs and each member would have different abilities to take care of these needs. As long as people trust each other there’s no need to put these needs and abilities on a scale which determines who contributed the most and who contributed the least. So, what would be needed before this one-single-squat-universe would start to use money?

Well, if people don’t use money because they trust each other, chances are that they will use money if they don’t trust each other. This makes sense in our squat-universe as well. If there would be a single member who consequently doesn’t contribute to the community, this member would probably not be trusted anymore. So there would start to arise a need to have some system which could count what people owe each other.

This teaches us a valuable lesson about money. The inauguration of money is always accompanied by a loss of trust in the community. Although it’s an interesting question which caused which (did money cause people to distrust each other or did distrust create the need for money), it’s a question which I will leave aside. What’s important to note at this point, is that this inauguration of money isn’t unambiguously good or evil. Yes, money means people don’t trust each other anymore, but the alternative may be far worse. If money wouldn’t be invented in the squat which has a free rider (someone who takes without ever giving in return) this free rider would probably be locked up in his or her room, being deprived of freedom.

Yet, money isn’t a neutral medium which solves the problem of distrust. It’s a politically biased medium which incorporates the problem of distrust on a more abstract level. What if the refrigerator in the squat-universe would only be filled if you write a slightly Marxist inspired essay? In a moneyless community where I would trust my fellow roommates I would ask if the writing of Marxist essays could be considered as just as important for the community as cleaning and doing the maintenance, since it’s now a form of labour which is needed to get food. If, on the other hand, I would be living in the  squat which uses money because people don’t trust each other,  I wouldn’t ask a thing. Eventually people would get hungry and come to me to offer their money to get food. If I would be the only one who could write a Marxist essay, I would not only ask a lot of money to write one, I would probably believe that I would be justified in asking a lot of money. These starving little beggars came to me to ask for help!

Sure, in real life there may be some better competition in the writing of Marxist essays or any other manner to produce something. Yet, the means of production are never justly spread out through any given society. We shouldn’t mistake the social-economic position we have in a society as being just as long as we live in a society which is based on distrust.

Waiting for the Barbarians

Barbarians

In 1980, the South-African writer J.M. Coetzee published his novel ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’. A story about a border town in an enormous empire. Officially, this border town functioned as the place where civilization stopped and where barbarism began. Beyond the gates of this town lived the barbarians. In reality however, the people in this town knew that the barbarians where peaceful beings which the town depended on. Weren’t it for the trade with the barbarians, the town wouldn’t have the necessary resources to sustain itself. Due to a misfortunate series of events, the empire decides to start a war with the barbarians. Although the army of the empire heavily outnumbers the strength of the barbarians, the war eventually starts to cause the decline of the empire because of its dependency on these barbarians.

A border determines what the inside is and what the outside is, but because a border ‘draws a line’ it also creates a relation of dependency: What is inside a border is inside because it isn’t outside, yet it does need this outside to claim a stable identity. The empire in Coetzee’s story needs the barbarians, not only to sustain itself economically, but also to think of itself as being civilized. We can see this phenomenon not only within literature but also within art. The framework of a famous artwork for example decides what should be considered as art and what should be considered as mere decoration or even as the museum wall. Of course, modern and contemporary art always plays with this frame. When an artist like Duchamp puts an urinal upside down in a gallery he automatically poses the questions: ‘what is art?’, ‘which boundaries are needed to define art?’, ‘are there boundaries needed to define art?’. This play with the boundary of what is included and what is excluded seems more relevant today than ever.

We live in the paradoxical situation that after the collapse of the long boundary which divided the world in two, the Iron Curtain, humanity has seen a rise in walls popping up all around the globe. While today’s economy seems more global and more interdependent than ever, people in Mexico, people in Palestine, even people at the borders of Europe are excluded because of a line which was drawn. The words and feelings that we use to separate people into different categories, the walls that we need to protect our sense of identity, the histories that haunt our prejudices on which we exclude people. These are all necessary topics to address if we want to understand these arbitrary lines in our landscape. So, although an upside-down urinal may have lost its originality, similar artistic gestures haven’t lost their relevance.

Waiting for the Messiah

Messiah

Supposedly there are Jewish families who, when they have dinner, serve an additional plate on their table. This additional plate is for in case the Messiah decides to come to earth and happens to be hungry. In that case he or she can always eat with the Jewish family in question. There is a deeply emancipatory logic in this idea that if the Messiah comes, it will be in the guise of a stranger, a traveller so to speak.

If the Messiah comes, he or she will be able to discern right from wrong, good from bad and justice from injustice. In short, he or she will be able to tell what the truth is. The fact that you wait for the Messiah thus automatically means that you acknowledge that you don’t know what the truth is now, in the present. Yet, the fact that you believe that he or she might show up one day makes you responsible to never stop asking these questions: What is right? What is good? What is just?

This logic is present in radical emancipatory politics as well. Although most activists would consider themselves to atheistic to believe in the coming of the Messiah, it could still be argued that activists consider their struggles as struggles for a better future, a future where their struggles will finally be rewarded. But, just as there is no guarantee that the Messiah will come, it is important to take into account that this better future should never be considered as a promised future. Something which is promised to you is something which you have a right to. The idea that someone has a more privileged right to the future than someone else seems profoundly totalitarian to me.

Walter Benjamin, one of the most creative and influential figures within twentieth century Marxism, once claimed that if the Messiah comes, it will be a historian. He or she will be able to tell the stories of all the victims which are now simply forgotten because history is written by the victors. Whereas the future will always be an abstract concept, history is at least something which happened. Although there must be victims of capitalism, of state-power, of patriarchy, of racism, of injustice which will always remain forgotten, some of these victims will have left traces. Traces which will help us think about the questions: What is right? What is good? What is just? Traces which will help us realize that if present day struggles will be beaten, there might always be a future where someone will find our traces and remember these struggles as they where meant.

Yet, this will always be a future which might be, there is no guarantee that it will come. It could very well be that these struggles where fought completely in vain. As such, it’s better to look at the past and leave the future open than to fight for a future while forgetting your past. Just as the waiting for the Messiah should be considered as more messianistic than the actual coming of the Messiah.

On Scaffolds and Education

MARIE ANTOINETTE BEING TAKEN TO HER EXECUTION, 1794

Some of the darkest pages in the history book of humankind are the ones in the chapter called ‘colonialism’. The systematic exploitation of both people and natural resources for domestic markets in the west showed the grimmest side of what people are capable of. Moreover, this chapter hasn’t ended. Both racism and the economic underdevelopment of a lot former colonies are still highly relevant issues today which deserve attention.

Yet, it’s always a bit difficult to write about these topics if you happen to be a well-educated, white, western, male. Who am I to represent the suffering of people which I haven’t experienced myself? A lot of these victims can’t speak for themselves because they are either dead or because they don’t have the same access to the physical infrastructure to make their voices heard in a politically relevant manner (write essays on a computer, appear on television without being reduced to a token minority, etcetera). So does the fact that they can’t speak represent their current predicament not better then someone who speaks for them?

The process of letting one’s utterances being counted as real speech as opposed to mere emotional background noise maybe the single most important definition of emancipation. The French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges was, therefore, spot on when she famously proclaimed that: “When a woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.” Human beings who are needed as the scapegoats of systematic violence and exploitation should also have the right to make their voices heard. Yet, having the right to make you voice being heard and actually being capable of producing the speech which can resist systematic violence are two different things. The latter is something which not everybody is able to do.

Should we then speak for victims if they can’t speak for themselves? Preferably not. What Olympe de Gouges has in common with almost every other modern emancipatory figure, from Karl Marx to Rosa Luxemburg to Toussant Louverture, is that she received a comprehensive education based on the enlightenment values. A lot of these figures where even the first generation who received proper education, thus being able to see the difference between universal human rights and the actual living conditions their parents grew up in. Although a lot of products of western enlightenment are despicable, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A proper education is, and always has been, one of the most important driving forces behind revolutionary action. So instead of speaking for people it’s better to share knowledge with them.

Al Carrer!

Barricade

When you walk through some of the largest European cities you will notice that major monuments are connected by a single road. For example: in Amsterdam it’s possible to walk from the central station tot the Royal Palace by only using one street. The need for these big roads connecting important places originated in 19th century Paris. In 1853, emperor Napoleon the third appointed Georges-Eugene Haussmann as the city planner of Paris. By then, Paris had become one of the mayor industrial centres in the world. Although a city which became more modern by the day, the Paris city plan was still thoroughly medieval. Small and tortuous roads prevented Paris to organize itself efficiently according to the new industrial-capitalistic standards. When Haussmann was confronted with this problem, his solution was brute but simple. He simply demolished most of the medieval infrastructure by building big roads which connected the major monuments and which guaranteed quick transportation within the city.

It’s interesting to look from the perspective of revolutionary history to the Haussmann restructuring of Paris. Having been a  prominent side of revolutionary action before, one of the goals of the emperor and Haussmann was to make Paris less ‘revolution-friendly’. The demolishment of the small streets, which were perfect for creating barricades, should have taken care of this. Yet, the  Paris Commune, arguably the most radical leftist revolution the world has ever seen, happened in 1871; Only one year after Haussmann was relieved of his job and most of his restructuring had been realised. It turned out that although the erecting of barricades had become more difficult, it was now possible for the newly formed proletariat to march the streets in huge formations, maintaining the status of Paris as a side of revolutionary action.

There is an important lesson to be drawn from this history of 19th century Paris: Revolutionary action is able adept itself to new, even anti-revolutionary, forms of infrastructure. We can see this phenomenon today as well. Although completely capitalistic, digital infrastructure like Facebook and Twitter are used by contemporary protest movements to create networks of solidarity. Another example would be the empty buildings which lost their struggle within capitalistic competition and are now squatted by people who reclaim these sites for the community. Caution should be taken into account here though: Facebook tends to put its users in information loops which gives them only information which they ‘liked’ before. Thereby abandoning them to an isolated part of the internet with only like-minded people believing in their own truth. Squatting loses its support within a community much more easier then it gained by the hands of biased, mainstream media outlets. Although the streets can be reclaimed, it’s still up to us what we do with them.