‘Night of the World’

‘It is night everywhere: here a bloody head suddenly shoots up and there another white shape, only to disappear as suddenly. We see this Night when we look a human being in the eye, looking into a Night which turns terrifying. [For from his eyes] the night of the world hangs out toward us’[1]Hegel

By now, a lot has been said and written to reflect upon our precarious present times where the march of far-Right globally was marked by Brexit vote and Trump’s victory in US presidential election. These are the times when ‘Liberal democracy, the rule of law, human rights- each of this holy trinity of liberal principles was challenged and in many places trampled underfoot, from the Philippines to the US, from Turkey to Britain. Their antithesis – populism, fundamentalism, ethnic nationalism – have prevailed’. There has been a horror at how fast the ‘centre’ i.e. institutional framework of liberal democracy is crumbling in the face of the rising tide of authoritarian conservatism- and there have been constant comparisons with 1930s. The spectre of fascism, of forces of reaction seems to haunt the globe.

‘How did we get here? How do we make sense of the dark times? How should we ‘name’ the present ‘conjecture’? Should one call it fascism? Is it neo-fascism? How do we counter it?’

By and large, these are questions which have informed and characterized the public discourse over past year or two. What is also interesting to note is a varied response from the Left over these developments. And this variation is also deeply related to the questions mentioned which remain disturbingly open- at both theoretical and practical levels. There has been a recent debate within Left circles in India over the characterizing the incumbent Hindutva neo-conservative forces as fascist or authoritarian[2]. The position of the Labor party which campaigned for ‘Remain’ vote in British referendum was highly criticized by a section of the Left which chose to form a separate platform called ‘Lexit’ for exit from EU as first advance against neo-liberal hegemony of finance capital.

It is my contention that ‘these debates are necessary. But these debates are also ‘impossible’’. Their impossibility is marked by the dilemma of ‘naming’ a phenomenon which itself forms the context of this ‘naming’. Our analogies, historical references, strategic political positions or formulae of ‘Popular front versus mass movements’; seem to only perpetrate a circular deadlock.

Only by such acknowledgement, can we try to operationalize the dialectical solution and thus secure some theoretical conceptions out of it. I will hereby attempt to note certain points in this regard:

The novelties of Far Right today:

Fascism is a modern project, not just by temporality, but also by its historicity (as humanity comes to choose between ‘socialism or barbarism’ only at a crisis point thrown up by capitalism).

Fascist project is modern in the sense that it is also an outcome of enlightenment project, only that it totally rejects its allegiance to it. The totalitarian choice of fascism is ‘anti-enlightenment’ as it ordains an ontological criterion of race or religion by birth as elaborated by Zizek in his ‘The Ticklish Subject’. So there is no scope for redemption for people born in minority communities. At the same time, ambitiousness of this project in 20th century coincided with the ‘modern’ motif to rewrite rules and mould institutions.

Today’s neo-fascism is novel in its lack of interest in subverting or overthrowing the formal institutional frameworks of representation and electoral democracy as such. It critiques them wholeheartedly. But it is least inclined to overthrow them. As contended often, this might be to do with absence of communist spectre.

Brexit and victory of Trump in US elections is another classic crumbling of ‘Hard Centre’ politics under liberal democracy.

It doesn’t oppose or reject core republican values of French Revolution- i.e. Liberty, equality and fraternity. It simply turns their logic on its head and applies them to only one set of people. Basically it naturalizes the social antagonisms into a fable of a perfect corporate body of modern society, threatened through an external ‘other’[3]. Thus, far-Right in France has ensured a wedge between ‘French enlightenment values’ and multi-cultural tolerance where xenophobic bigotry is unleashed in the name of ‘enlightenment’. Similarly, the Hindutva project as articulated by Savarkar seeks to completely transform the organic Hindu community as we know it, i.e. divided by caste- class differences and alternatively mobilize a synthetic symbolic identity of ‘Hindutva’ which is radically different from Hinduism prescribed by scriptures. Hence, today, even the Sangh Parivar doesn’t mind celebrating Dr. Ambedkar, constitution or the Tri-color flag[4]. It is not betrayal of their Hindutva project. It is logical culmination of it where the tri-color fluttering in the air will only belong to only one section of people, while effectively hiding this very fact- a successful exclusion and its cover-up.

Troubled link between Democracy and capitalism:

How do we approach this problematic?   Brexit and victory of Trump in US elections is another classic crumbling of ‘Hard Centre’ politics under liberal democracy. This liberal democracy model was celebrated throughout nineties with political establishment committed to neo-liberalism; Security State wedded to militarist interventions and rhetorically progressive but practically skeptical multi-culturalism.

The key question is whether this anger is being directed at neo-liberal policies and capitalism as such. The far-Right parties and movements are witnessing a surge by posturing vocabulary of ‘political correctness’ under democracy as the ‘evil establishment’. Affirmative action, multicultural tolerance, ‘political correctness’ inscribed in the legal frameworks of nation-states which were won through decades and centuries of struggles are under attack. These very elements are being portrayed by fascists as elemental blocks of ‘super-ego’ which hinders the freedom of the individual and the market for open bigotry and racist, xenophobic economic and social order.

To be sure, the link between democracy and capitalism has always remained problematic. Exclusionary logic overlaps well with actually existing capitalism everywhere and especially the ‘capitalism with Asian values’ which is touted as mix of development and authoritarianism. What is more, it can well be argued that democratic institutions and structures are the result of struggle against capitalist interests. Especially the welfare states in the West post-world war II which represented the ‘golden age of capitalism’ were for the very same reason, an exception in its historical development.

Fascist ideological revolution merely brings to the light the phantasmic inherent transgression of the ‘normal’ bourgeois ideological situation (the set of implicit racist, sexist etc. ‘prejudices’ that effectively determine the activity of individuals in it, although they are not publicly recognized)[5]

However, there is a critical issue of qualitative difference involved here. Prabhat Patnaik rightly argues that ‘The viability of democracy requires a belief among people that they can make a difference to their lives by participating in the democratic process. This belief may be a false one; it may be a mere illusion. But unless this illusion exists, people become not just cynical about the democratic process but despondent about their capacity to make any difference to their lives through their own efforts. Such despondency then leads to their quest for a “saviour” or a “messiah” supposedly endowed with extraordinary powers who can come to their rescue. They no longer remain “on this side of reason” but start moving into a realm of irrationalism’[6].

It is the political correctness and enlightenment traditions established as a result of progressive struggles and movements which have come under attack of the far Right which succeeds in projecting it as the ‘establishment’. ‘The more you seek distance from guilt of playing such a role for the hegemony, the guiltier you become’- such has become the predicament of the oppositional forces. However, it is noteworthy that the fundamental ‘fantasy’ of the actually existing capitalism- ‘rule of private property’, remains undisturbed. It is because the overwhelming ‘closure’ of politics and political processes under neo-liberal era which have effectively transformed the politics into issues of governance and surveillance. For all its theatre of attacking and disturbing the ‘status quo’, fascism thus succeeds in creating/ sustaining a ‘public’ which is votary of bigotry and neo-liberal dogma of the market.

The society of spectacle:

It is the structural limitation of totalitarianism in general and Fascism in particular, that it requires to remain perennially triumphant, on an everyday basis. Here, Orwell’s 1984 is all the more relevant for its bleak depiction of a totalitarian society which is technologically so advanced. The ‘doublespeak’ is not replacement of dialectic as the die-hard anti-communist people like to imagine; but it is precisely the collapsing of imaginary i.e. pre-critical thinking into the Real; what is worse is that it even allows one to wear the mask of having carried out a symbolic function of critical mediation. The role of media was and is crucial for how the fascism develops and articulates its vocabulary and alters the discourse.

And it is the same spectacle that we witness through the media trials on everyday basis, where the news anchors are not interested to properly know even the names of the panelists, let alone their work or issue at hand. The fabricated reality, pace and velocity of such semi-truths adjusted to the logic of market consumption, in order to secure consensus and legitimacy through both: the fundraising from capitalists as well as eyeballs from the viewership which doubly buys the commodity of news and the fabricated lie behind it as ‘more real than real’.

Batman: Then why do you want to kill me?

Thus, like with capitalism as a whole, fascism also seeks to assert the actuality of a world where none exists. Badiou calls it atonal world, world without a ordering principle. Here, it is tempting to recall the Situationist International’s critical reminder- Fascist onslaught builds upon with the ‘society of spectacle’- that is the media. The same thing that is a commodity – a TRP device – also turns out to be the dearly cherished nation. While class, caste, gender are categories of Real exploitation, they never present themselves directly so. Racism, communalism as well Fascism aspires to construct a nation on the basis of a lie and merge it with the state. Thus, the lie is not just converted into reality; it becomes sacrosanct and unquestionable, which holds the power of legitimizing everything else.

The ‘absent’ spectre of communism

In Christopher Nolan’s famous movie ‘Dark Knight’, there is an interesting exchange:

Batman: Then why do you want to kill me?

The Joker: I don’t.. I don’t want to kill you…! What would I do without you..!? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, no! No. you…. you….complete me….!

Keeping aside the varied takes on character of Batman as vanguard of the propertied rich and champion of the Order (which functions as the fantasy of the bourgeoisie to safeguard the ‘rule of law’ through unlawful means- almost a prop for CIA actions); it is necessary to note a symbiotic, almost organic relationship between the two- ‘it is the same systemic crisis which throws up a Joker also throws up a Batman[7]. If we consider the Joker as one of the morbid symptoms which appear when the ‘old system is dying and the new cannot be born’, the far Right today (be it ISIS or neo-Nazi groups and fanatic organizations world over) performs this role which causes moral panic and horror for the established order which desperately seeks a ‘righteous’ ‘vigilante’ which would tame it down and ‘Gotham city’ would go back to its good old days of order.

The moralistic understanding of crisis as corruption of values and increasing criminality rightly captures the bourgeoisie incapability of resolving it, its search for vigilante was thwarted by the world war and role of Communists in defeating the Fascist powers.

Can we situate this Batman-Joker story in the wider historical context of 1930s when it was serialized first? A similar economic crisis facilitated the Fascism in 1930s. However, the rise of fascism was also in response to the spectre of communism. In fact, the two are so deeply linked that it has led many to define fascism only for dictatorships where the looming danger of a dominant Left was present, such as Chile and Indonesia. Can we then hazard a wild claim that it is actually the Left which ends up acting as the last defense of ‘civilization’ against the ‘barbarism’ of fascist power?

The Left globally remains in a weak position for a long period of time. With the fall of USSR, eastern European socialist states and end of cold war-there were hasty pronouncements of victory of western capitalism and liberal democracy. It was certainly not ‘End of History’ as was hastily pronounced, and was proven otherwise by terrorism, American imperialist wars, global recession of 2008, Arab Spring and many other developments. However, the Left found itself mostly on the peripheries of History most of the times during this period; if not on the wrong side. Pink tide in Latin America, Syriza in Greece, popular support for Bernie Sanders- Jeremy Corbyn in US & UK respectively, remain bright spots. However, structurally the Left remains weak and marginal in most parts of the world.

If this is the case, and if we start with the provisional argument of a symbiotic relation between Fascism and communism, we arrive at our problematic- we have a situation where there is a protracted crisis and unfolding ascent of the far-Right, with no revival of the Left on the horizon. What we have today is merely an abstract ‘Communist hypothesis’. And the situation has become far more complicated with the rise of the far-Right as the main challenger to neo-liberal hegemony. Whether this far-Right operates at a level of ‘State’ or as a part of ‘civil society’ may determine its formal status as Fascist or otherwise; however, its linkages, loyalties and legacies remain clear.

It is for this reason that commentators like Praveen Swami argue against the tendency to raise the bogey of fascism and need to analyse today’s far Right differently. ‘For too much of the Left, the New Right’s victories have raised the spectre of Fascism, just as they did in the 1970s — an act of intellectual laziness, and a dangerous failure of the imagination. Fascism rose under a particular historical circumstance: The need of European capitalism to destroy the challenges Communism was posing to its very survival. Today, however, the New Right exercises power precisely because there is no Left. The liberal parties of Europe clawed back to power after decades of Thatcherism by appropriating many of its ideas and principles. Faced with working class distress in the wake of the 2008 crisis, Liberal-Left parties have no credible language to address their own constituency’[8].

The inherent instability of fascism and need to always ‘win‘, necessitates creating new fields of conflict, to explore new fissures and penetrate even further. And herein lies the problematic of how the far-Right now portrays itself as more ‘socialist than socialists’, a classic case of ‘more real than real’ to delegitimize and attack the class struggle on the ground using the language and narrative of progressives and radicals. It is quite telling how Narendra Modi invoked Bob Dylan’s ‘the times they are a changing’ to spin a narrative of radical change around his economic policy of demonetization and digital economy. Similar is the case with how Brexit vote generated a common tribal ground of sorts and how Trump’s victory in US was attributed to the support from ‘white working classes’. Trump in fact spun a narrative of ‘national revival’ and taming the ‘corrupt state’ by ‘draining the swamp’ of establishment corruption and lobbies- the language reminiscent of Leftists.

What is the way out of this predicament? Of late, there is an intense desire on part of many on the Left to disturb the status quo of liberal establishment institutions- no matter what.

What is so fascinating about the Left that far Right/ fascism always seeks to devour it? Why is it so anxious to prove itself ‘more Left than the Left’ even when the feebleness of organized Left remains a material reality? I believe it is the power of ‘concrete universal’ which Left symbolizes- which in Badiou’s terms, seeks to transcend the realms of knowledge and embody ‘Truth’. While Laclau’s formulation of the ‘event’ of ‘truth’ as another rearrangement of field of being/ ontological knowledge remains largely valid in that after the revolution, the Left doesn’t and didn’t do away with the State and no socialist society could become post-political or classless. However, the Left contains the seed of such concrete universal which can disturb the balance of ideological field, and ‘uncover’ or ‘lay bare’ the social, economic bankruptcy of the fascist regime. Hence Walter Benjamin had famously identified Fascism as a project which ‘aestheticises the politics’ i.e. without disturbing the property relations, it goes on to structure subjectivities around multiple emotional narratives. Whereas, it is the Left, which makes even the aesthetics and the art as political, i.e. means of revolution. Fascism seeks to destroy such potentialities. Hence, no matter what is the material reality of strength of the Left on ground, it always seeks to destroy them in person, in ideas, in justice, in education or in shadows even, either through witch hunts and purges or through posturing itself as ‘more Left than Left’.

‘Night of the world’:

What is the way out of this predicament? Of late, there is an intense desire on part of many on the Left to disturb the status quo of liberal establishment institutions- no matter what. Through this turn, far Right political risings which are seen as a symptom of the brewing crisis of the establishment. At times it borders on the scales of desperation and sometimes lapses even into a masochistic drive in case of likes of Zizek; who even theorize that such masochism[9] it as an essential part to establish a radical subject necessary for revolution[10]. However, it merely underlines the abstract idealist embrace of a ‘night of the world’ in the hope that a revolutionary subject would rise out of it. Almost like ‘night gets darkest just before the dawn’.

Thus, a certain (abstract idealist) turn towards Hegelian radical negativity[11] (like the romanticism of the Left Hegelians of 19th century) has been gaining ground among the Left progressive circles. How far does it help shed light upon our predicament? Or this very turn is part of the particular predicament we find ourselves in? We shall see. But before that, a passage from Hegel is necessary to reproduce here:

It becomes clear to Spirit that it [i.e., Spirit itself] is in and for itself (an und fur sich) – but to begin with, in the looking, Spirit is only in itself. It complements this [being-in-itself] with the ‘for-itself’, with negativity, separation from the in-itself, and goes back into itself. It takes its first self as an object, i.e., the image, Being as mine, as negated (als aufgehobnes).

This image belongs to Spirit. Spirit is in possession of the image, is master of it. It is stored in the Spirit’s treasury, in its Night. The image is unconscious, i.e., it is not displayed as an object for representation. The human being is this Night, this empty nothing which contains everything in its simplicity – a wealth of infinitely many representations, images, none of which occur to it directly, and none of which are not present. This [is] the Night, the interior of [human] nature, existing here – pure Self – [and] in phantasmagoric representations it is night everywhere: here a bloody head suddenly shoots up and there another white shape, only to disappear as suddenly. We see this Night when we look a human being in the eye, looking into a Night which turns terrifying. [For from his eyes] the night of the world hangs out toward us.

Into this Night the being has returned.[12]

It is certainly the ‘night of the world’ which represents a general crisis of institutions and representation. This night marks the ‘pre-Symbolic’ world of blind drives, pre-discursive, pre-rational ‘unconscious’ interiority —which represent irreducible dimension of the finitude of subjectivity. Freudian death drive, Lacanian encounter with the Real, translated into political reality come depressingly close to the crisis of legitimacy for ‘political correctness’ as we witness it today.

What is crucial to note is that this crisis is a culmination of late capitalist turn itself. As there’s compression of time and space between fantasy and its notional resolution via market in this late capitalist world; the logic is extended to politics as well where ‘governance’, ‘delivery mechanism’, ‘surveillance’ ‘management of poverty’ become dominant themes- creating a façade of effectively addressing the harsh and hard realities of class, gender, caste without a systemic change. The neo-liberal consensus of so-called centre-Left and centre-Right parties first sought to anesthetize the politics through its balancing act of multi-culturalism with rampant neo-liberal policies. What it did achieve was to discredit all modern projects of representation, institutions. The modern institutions were derided and mocked through a whole host of poststructuralist literature with an over-emphasis on micro-identities with disrergard to macro-economy. The Far-Right turn today merely replaces a short circuit to singular monolithic exclusivist identity, tradition and post-political world with equal disregard to macro-economy.

In short, ‘The messianic conception of the ‘proletariat’ as the ‘subject-object of history’[13] has been eclipsed. What is more, it has been replaced by the figure of the ‘immigrant’ (and often by an Islamophobia, a replacement of erstwhile anti-Semitism in political function) without any conception of class politics around it.

Our inability to name or define fascism today precisely captures this predicament where the structures of representation and their most modern and comprehensive project are in crisis. This predicament is further compounded by a theoretical inability to think through the idealist currents which inform the present times. On the one hand is an uncritical embrace of ‘status quo’ neo-liberalism with multi-cultural face (‘the lesser evil’ ‘big tent’ option) – which is a certain kind of romanticism and nostalgia for ‘good old times’. On the other hand, there is a critical embrace of a Hegelian radical negativity which embraces the Far Right in the hope of this would rekindle a Left resistance; and ‘bad new days are better than good old ones’- however, it also amounts to another form of romanticism with heavy masochist dose.

Thus, it is clear that both these paths are of little use in confronting our predicament. On what terms should the Left approach the electorate? Should it offer more or less of the same- either the paranoid far-Right with civilized clothes or the traditional economic neo-liberalism with austerity policies? It amounts to conceding the political ground and committing political suicide in the long run- something which was set in motion by ‘Pasokification’. Whether one chooses the normalization of affairs, as the mature Hegel prescribed as logical course of history or accepting the ‘Night of the world’ in cultural terms which poses a Fascist danger- both ways are false hopes.

Hence, the Left needs to articulate the contradictions it faces. It needs to locate the ‘part of no part’- the revolutionary subject which rises above the phenomenon of the ‘night of the world’ and ‘traverse the fantasy’ of our times. And this fantasy consists of both: ‘national revival/ guarding the culture’ and ‘neo-liberal consumerism with multi-cultural faces’. It can only be disturbed by a coherent polemic which struggles for social justice but also doesn’t limit it to celebration of identity. In a classical Left fashion, it brings the dimension of class and class struggle to it. Admittedly, the condensation of contradictions and exceptional circumstances would lead to possibility of its coherence; however, it is the conditions for such ‘articulation’- conversing with ‘common sense’ of people, often challenging it, but always addressing it- that remain critical.

In a sense, the predicament of the Left today reminds one about the major crisis faced by the second international when social democratic parties in Europe rallied behind the national bourgeoisie governments during First World War. Nationalism, war-mongering triumphed all over Europe. However, it was the revolutionary intervention of Bolsheviks which upheld internationalism while also radically altering the Russian national question to ‘land, bread and peace’ and defeat of Tsarism. Internationalism and national question are not contradictory. However, it is only the Left which can articulate them and resolve them. Are the bourgeoisie democratic institutions necessary for this or are they a hindrance needs to be resolved in the light of how much the reactionary forces of far Right can be isolated through them and if such isolation happens with altered terms of debate shifting towards identification and organization of working class.

 

NOTES

[1] The Philosophy of Spirit (Jena Lectures 1805-6)

[2] ‘CPI (M) leader Prakash Karat wrote a brief article in the Indian Express that assessed the character of the RSS and the BJP. He argued that the BJP is not capable of fascism because the conditions that would require the ‘terroristic dictatorship of finance capital’ – as the Communist International put it – do not exist. At the Sabrang website, historian Jairus Banaji responded tartly, saying that indeed the BJP-RSS is a fascist ensemble. Joining the debate then was LeftWord Books chief editor Vijay Prashad, who responded to Banaji’s tone, and Newsclick’s Prabir Purkayastha, who pushed the idea that building a mass movement is a more important thrust than the question of electoral alliances’.- http://mayday.leftword.com/blog/is-fascism-imminent/

[3] Zizek, Slavoj ‘The Ticklish Subject’, p.228

[4]http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/patriotism-on-display-tricolour-to-fly-atop-all-central-universities/story-iR7rggqAz7yQwTkAuHvdVN.html

[5] Zizek, Slavoj ‘The Ticklish Subject’, pg.200

[6] http://peoplesdemocracy.in/2014/0302_pd/neo-liberalism-and-democracy

[7] It is quite noteworthy that original Batman series, the cult of the superhero in pop American culture dates back to 1940s- a period marked by global economic crisis and rise of Fascist forces across Europe.

[8] http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/donald-trump-united-states-president-xenophobia-united-kingdom-margaret-thatcher-us-immigration-that-70s-show-4471385/

[9] like Zizek’s support for Trump in hope that it would lead to radical & resurgent Left

[10] Zizek bases this on Gandhi’s agitations involving a significant masochistic element. He further links up Gandhi with Hegel through a Hegelian formula of ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for’- an essential part of Gandhian Satyagraha.

[11] ‘The unorthodox reading of the Hegelian ‘night of the world’—the radical negativity that haunts subjectivity—is developed further in an explicitly political direction, which helps explain Žižek’s recent critique of the ‘Fukuyamaian’ consensus, shared both by moral-religious conservatives and libertarian ‘postmodernists’, that global capitalism remains the ‘unsurpassable horizon of our times’. The Hegelian “Night of the World”: Žižek on Subjectivity, Negativity, and Universality, Robert Sinnerbrink – Macquarie University (Australia) International Journal of Zizek Studies, Volume Two, Number Two, ISSN 1751- 8229

[12] https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/jl/ch01a.htm

[13] ‘as it appeared in Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923), which was the how brief moment when the Bolshevik Revolution seemed to be the beginning of a world revolution’- Etienne Balibar, http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3042-etienne-balibar-from-althusserian-marxism-to-the-philosophies-of-marx-twenty-years-after

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Rahul Vaidya Written by:

Independent Researcher based in Delhi

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