Sunday, March 22, 2015

Limonov in Prison by Emmanuel Carrere


He stays in Lefortovo for fifteen months, subject to a regime of strict isolation. Then, in a government Antonov aircraft, accompanied by a police escort so impressive it’s as if he were Carlos the Jackal or maybe the Baader-Meinof  Gang rolled into one, he’s transferred to Saratov, on the Volga, where he’s to be tried. Why Saratov? Because it’s the Russian jurisdiction closest to Kazakhstan, where he is supposed to have committed the crimes he’s accused of. What crimes exactly? It’s impossible to be ignorant of your crimes at Saratov, where on every possible occasion you not only have to state your last name, first name, and patronymic but also the articles of the criminal code that you’re imprisoned for having violated. As soon as he arrives, Eduard learns to reel off in quick succession the mantra that even today springs to his lips when he’s woken up with a start: “Savenko, Eduard Venyaminovich , Articles 205, 208, 222 paragraph 3, 280!

To explain: 205 is terrorism; 208, organization of an illegal armed group or participation in one; 222 paragraph 3, illicit acquisition, transport, sale, or storage of firearms; and 280, incitement to extremist activities.

When the investigating judge cites the charges and the heavy sentences they bear during the first hearing, Eduard is torn between pride in being accused of such serious stuff and the vital interest he has in exonerating himself. On the one hand, it’s not easy for him to admit to himself that a half dozen muddlers roughing it in a log cabin in the Altai sixty miles from the Kazakh border, with no arms other than a couple of hunting rifles, had as little chance of destabilizing Kazakhstan as they did of sparking a nuclear war. On the other hand, if he doesn’t want to get locked away for twenty years as a terrorist, he has no choice but to pass himself off as a bungling fool. The judge, however, seems ill-disposed to listen to his arguments and holds to the version presented by the FSB, according to which he and his six accomplices constitute a serious menace to the country’s security.

To top it all off, the FSB’s version is graphically illustrated by a TV film aired by Channel One Russia just as he arrives at Saratov. While he was in prison, 9/11 happened, and you can sense it: the film presents the National Bolshevik Party as a branch of Al-Qaeda, the hut in Altei as a secret camp training hundreds of fanatic fighters – which was in fact his dream and which, as he knows, is a far cry from reality. Everyone in the prison has seen The Ghost Hunt (the name of the film), everyone knows that Eduard’s a hero, and everyone starts calling him “bin Laden” – which is of course flattering, but also dangerous.

Saratov is the opposite of Lefortovo: there the risk isn’t isolation but overcrowding. Although the cells are built for four, often seven or eight inmates crammed into them. When Eduard enters his for the first time, all the beds are occupied. Without protesting, he rolls out his mattress on the ground; it seems right that the last to arrive should be the most uncomfortable. This humility is surprising, and it works to his advantage. He was preceded by his reputation as an intellectual, a political prisoner, and a celebrity, three reasons for his fellow inmates to consider him a pretentious pain in the ass; three reasons things might not work out for him. But he shows right away that he’s a simple, straightforward guy who wants nothing more than to sidet spokoino, that is, to wait things out without making waves, without shooting his mouth off and without getting himself or anybody else into trouble. And everyone appreciates the wisdom of an experienced prisoner; at the same time, everyone senses that he’s a tough nut under his placid air. He’s not the kind of guy who stupidly asks, “Can I help” when he sees someone cooking or repairing something; instead, he figures out what has to be done and does it. He avoids useless words and gestures, doesn’t shirk chores, shares with everyone when he gets a package, and respects the unwritten rules that govern life in the prison without them having to be explained. Which isn’t to say he takes courtesy to extremes either; he imposes his own way of seeing and doing things with calm authority. Initially, the other inmates are a bit surprised when he refuses to play cards or chess because he thinks they’re a waste of time, and instead spends this time reading or writing on his cot. But they quickly see it’s got nothing to do with snobbery: that’s just the way he is, and it doesn’t stop him from readily lending a hand when someone needs help writing a letter to his girlfriend or even completing a crossword puzzle. It only takes a week for everyone to reach the same conclusion: he’s a good guy.

His cellmates are ordinary criminals, condemned to long sentences for serious crimes. Most of them have been charged under Article 105, paragraph 2: murder with aggravating circumstances – and, having always respected gangsters, he’s proud now to have commanded their respect. Proud that they consider his party not a pack of young idealists but a gang (“You’ve got seven thousand men? Holy Shit!”; proud that they call him – if not bin Laden – “Limon the boss”; and proud above all that a godfather asked him one day, discretely, the way you’d let a man know that there’s nothing stopping him from becoming a member of the Academie francaise, if he’d like to be welcomed into the brotherhood of the vory v zakone, the thieves of the law, that aristocracy of the underworld that had been the source of so many of his adolescent dreams. All this impresses me without surprising me; it’s Eduard through and through. What surprises me more, and proves Olga Matitch right*, is that in the three books on his time in prison he writes far less about himself than about others. Eduard, the narcissist, the egotist, forgets himself, forgets to pose, becomes sincerely interested in how his cellmates ended up where they did.

One of the prisoners he gets along with best is a guy named Pasha Rybkin. At thirty, this colossus with a shaved heads has already spent ten years in prison, and, as Eduard charmingly sums it up, he “is surrounded by crimes the way forest dwellers are surrounded by trees.” That doesn’t prevent him from being a peaceful man, always in a good mood, half Russian holy fool, half Asian ascetic. Summer and winter, even when the temperature in his cell drops below zero, he walks around in shorts and flip-flops, he doesn’t eat meat, he drinks hot water (not tea) and he does impressive yoga poses. It’s not a very well known fact, but a huge number of people from all walks of life do yoga in Russia, even more than in California. Pasha very quickly recognizes a wise man in “Eduard Venyaminovich.” ”They don’t make people like you anymore,” he assures him. “At least I’ve never met any.” And he teaches him to meditate.

People make a big thing of it if they’ve never tried it, but it’s extremely simple. In fact you can teach yourself in five minutes. You sit down cross-legged, as straight as possible, stretch your spine from the tailbone to the back of the head, close your eyes, and concentrate on your breathing. Inhale, exhale. That’s all. The difficult thing is precisely that that’s all there is to it. The difficult thing is to do nothing else. When you start out you overdo it and try to chase the thoughts away. Very quickly you see that that doesn’t chase them away, but if you watch your thoughts on their carousel as it turns, bit by bit you’re carried along with it less and less. Your breathing slows. The idea is to observe it without modifying it, and that too is extremely difficult, almost impossible, but with practice you progress a little, and a little is enormous. You catch a glimpse of a calm, zone. If you’re not calm for one reason or another, if your mind is racing, no problem: you observe your agitation, or your boredom, or your desire to move, and as you observe them you put them at a distance, you’re a little less held hostage by them.

I’ve been doing this exercise for years. I don’t talk about it because I feel uncomfortable with its new-age valence, let’s be Zen and all that stuff, but it’s so effective and it does you sop much good that I have a hard time understanding why everyone doesn’t do it...

In any event, as soon as the good, wise gangster Pasha Rybkin explained to him how it worked, Eduard, with his customary pragmatism, immediately saw its utility and fit spells of meditation into his rigorous schedule. At first he sits in lotus position on his cot, with his eyes closed, but once he’s gotten the hang of it he discovers he can do it anywhere, discretely, without having to adopt this somewhat showy posture that advertising campaigns- whether for mineral water or for insurance policies – have abused so badly. Through various double doors, metal cages, and paddy wagons that punctuate the prisoner’s journey from his cell to the office of the investigating judge, amid the barking of police dogs, the suffocating odor of piss, and the morning cures of the security guards, he learns to retreat within himself and reach a zone where he’s calm, beyond reach. Again, if there’s one person I’d never have imagined giving himself up to this practice, it’s Eduard. . .




How to tell what I have to tell now? You can’t. There are no words to describe it. If you haven’t experienced it you don’t have the first idea, and I haven’t experienced it. Apart from Eduard I only know one other person who has. That’s my best friend Herve Clerc. He recounts the experience in a book that’s also an essay on Buddhism, called Les choses comme elles sont ( Things as They Are). I prefer his words to Eduard’s, but it’s Eduard’s experience that I’ve got to write about here. Let’s give it a go.

He remembers very well the moment that preceded it. An ordinary moment, like the ones that make up ordinary time. He’s busy cleaning the aquarium in the office of a senior official. All the offices of senior prison officials have aquariums in them. Do they all like fish? And if they don’t, could they ask to have the aquariums removed? Most likely they don’t think about it. As far as he’s concerned, Eduard likes cleaning aquariums, it’s more fun than cleaning toilets, and not as dirty. He’s transferred the fish to a bucket with a net, removed the water pail by pail, and now the tank is empty and he’s scrubbing the sides with a sponge. As he gives himself over to this task, he’s focused on his breathing. He’s calm, concentrated, attentive to what he’s doing and feeling. He’s not expecting anything in particular.

And then without warning everything stops: time, space – but it’s not death. Nothing around him has changed in any way – not the aquarium, not the fish in their bucket, not the office, not the sky outside the window – but it’s as if all of that was just a dream and only now has it become absolutely real. Raised to the second power, revealed, and at the same time erased. He’s sucked into a voids that is fuller than all that is fill in this world with its presence. He’s no longer anywhere and he’s totally there. He no longer exists and he’s never been as alive as he is now. There’s nothing, there’s everything.

You could call it a trance, a rapture, a mystical experience. My friend Herve says its an abduction.

I’d like to go on longer about this, in more detail and more convincingly, but I see that all I can do is string together oxymorons. A dark brightness, a full emptiness, a still vibration, I could prattle on for awhile without either the reader or myself getting any further along. What I can say, bringing together their experiences and their words, is that Eduard and Herve know with absolute certainty that they have, the one in his Parisian apartment thirty years ago, the other at Penal Colony 13 in Engels, in the office of a prison official whose aquarium he is cleaning, attained what the Buddhist call nirvana. Pure, unfiltered reality. Sure, from the outside we can always object: okay, but what proves to you that it wasn’t a hallucination? An illusion? A sham? Nothing, apart from the most essential thing: namely that when you’ve been there you know it’s for real, that that darkness and that light can’t be imitated.

They say something else too: that when you’re taken, carried away, lifted to that place, you feel, to the extent that there’s styli someone there to feel, something like immense relief. Gone is the desire, the anxiety that are at the basis of  human life. They’ll return, of course, because unless you are one of the illuminated – and according to the Hindus there’s only one every century – you can’t remain in this state. But you’ve had a taste of what life is like without them, you know first hand what it means to be in the clear.

Then you come back down. In a flash you’ve experienced the entire duration of the world and its abolition, and then you fall back into time. You return to the old yoke of desire and anxiety. You wonder, What am I doing here? After that you can spend, like Herve, the next thirty years thoughtfully digesting this incomparable experience. Or, like Eduard, you can go back to your barracks, lie down on your bunk, and write in your notebook: “I was expecting that of myself. No punishment can reach me; I’ll know how to transform it into bliss. Someone like me can even find pleasure in death. I’ll never return to the emotions of ordinary men.”

                       .   .   .   .   .   .

One day in September 2007, we went out into the country together. I though it was for a meeting, but in fact it was to have a look at a dacha situated a couple of hours outside Moscow that his wife of the time, the pretty actress, had just bought. Actually it was much more than a dacha: what’s called an usadba, a veritable manor. There was a pond, meadows, a birch forest. Abandoned and vandalized, the old wooden house was immense. It must have been magnificent once, and if it were renovated it would be magnificent once more, and that’s why he’d come. As soon as he arrived he started talking with a local craftsman, the way someone who’s done manual labor himself knows how to talk to a contractor and not get ripped off. I wandered away while they were talking, strolling through the gardens overgrown with tall weeds, and when, coming to the end of a bridle path, I saw his little black silhouette from a distance, gesticulating in a pool of sunshine, his goatee unkempt, I thought: he’s sixty-five, he’s got and adorable wife, an eight-month-old child. Maybe he’s had enough of war, of bivouacs, of the knife in his boot, of police breaking down his door at dawn, of prison bunks. To come and settle here, in the countryside, in this beautiful house, like the landed gentry of the old regime. That’s what I’d have wanted, in his place. That’s what I do want. It’s exactly the old age that I wish for Helene and myself. There would be big bookshelves, deep couches, the shouts of our grandchildren outside, berry jam, long conversations in Chaise longues. The shadows grow longer, death approaches softly. Life was good because we loved each other. Maybe that’s not how is going to end, but if it were up to me that’s how it would.

Coming back, I ask him: “You see yourself getting old in this house, Eduard? Ending your days like one of Turgenev’s heroes?”

That makes him laugh, but not with his dry little laugh this time: heartily. No, that’s not how he sees things. Really. Retirement, a life of calm, that’s not for him. He’s got another idea for his old age.

“You know Central Asia”

No, I don’t know, I’ve never been there. But I saw photos of it when I was very young, taken by my mother when she went on that long trip during which my father looked after me with an awkward tenderness – in those days fathers weren’t used to taking care of little kids. Those photos weighed on me, and made me dream. For me they represented the remotest places on earth.

It’s in Central Asia, Eduard goes on, that he feels best. In cities like Samarkand or Bukhara. Cities parched in the sun; dusty, slow, violent. In the shadow of the mosques, over there, under the high crenellated walls, there are beggars. Whole groups of beggars, gaunt, tanned old men without teeth, often without eyes. They wear tunics and turbans that are black with dirty; they place a scrap of velvet before them and wait for someone to throw a few small coins. And if someone does they don’t even say thank you. You don’t know what their lives were before; you know they’ll end up in a communal grave. They’re ageless, thy don’t have any possessions any longer –assuming they ever did- they hardly even have names. They’re castoffs. They’re wrecks. They’re kings.

That, okay, he’d be fine with that.


 *( “God knows I’ve met writers, and above all Russian writers. I’ve me them all. And the only really good man among them is Limonov. Really, he’s one of the most decent men I’ve  met in my life.")

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shock Therapy by Emmanuel Carrere


Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain.
Whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart.
- Vladimir Putin

Aware of his ignorance in economic matters, Yeltsin pulled a young prodigy named Yegor Gaidar out of his hat. A descendant of the high Communist nomenklature, Gaidar professed an absolute faith in liberalism. As David Remnick nicely sums up in Resurrection, the book that follows his memorable Lenin’s Tomb, and to which I owe many insights into this era, no theoretician of the Chicago School, no adviser to Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher believed in the virtues of the market as fervently as Yegor Gaidar. Russia had never anything remotely like a market, the challenge was enormous. Yeltsin and Gaidar thought it was essential to act quickly, very quickly, to force their ideas through and catch the reactionary forces that had gottent he better of all Russian reformers since Peter the Great off guard. They baptized their remedy “shock therapy,” and as far as shocks go, this one was quite a jolt.

First of all, prices were liberalized, which provoked inflation of 2,600 percent and rendered completely useless the parallel ‘voucher privatization’ initiative. On September 1, 1992, vouchers valued at ten thousand rubles were sent by main to all Russian citizens over a year old; these vouchers represented each citizen’s share in the national wealth. After seventy years during which in theory no one was allowed to work for him – or herself but only for the collectivity, the idea was to involve people as investors and foster the development of businesses and private property – in short, of the free market. Because of inflation, unfortunately, by the time these vouchers arrived, they were already worthless. Their beneficiaries discovered that, at most, they could purchase a bottle of vodka with them. So they resold them en masse to some cunning individuals who offered them, let’s say, the value of a bottle and a half.

Theses cunning  individuals, who would become billionaires in just a few months, were named Boris Berezovsky, Vladamire  Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There were others, but to go easy on my readers I’ll just ask them to remember these three names: Berezovski, Gusinsky, Khodorkovsky. The three little pigs who, as in those penniless theater troupes with more roles than actors to play them, will represent or the purposes of this book all those known as the oligarchs. They were young, intelligent, energetic, and not dishonest by nature; but they had grown up in a world where it was forbidden to do the very thing they were gifted at – business- and then overnight they were told, “All right, go to it.” With no rules, no laws, no banking system, no taxation. As Yulian Semyonov’s young bodyguard had predicted with delight, it was the Wild West.

For someone who returned every two or three months as Eduard did between trips to the Balkans, the speed with which Moscow changed was hallucinating. The drab Soviet monotony had been though eternal, and now, on the streets that had been named after great Bolsheviks and when again went by the names they’d had before the Revolution, the neon signs were as densely packed as in Las Vegas. There were traffic jams and, besides the old Ladas, black Mercedes with tinted windows. Everything foreign visitors used to cram into their suitcases with to please their deprived Russian friends – jeans, CDs, cosmetics, toilet paper – was now readily available. No sooner had people gotten used to the appearance of a McDonald’s on Pushkinskaya Square than a trendy disco opened next door. Before, restaurants had been immense, dismal places. Headwaiters who looked like surely clerks brought you fifteen=page menus, and no matter what you ordered there wasn’t any more of it – in fact there was only one dish, usually revolting. Now the lights were subdued, the waitresses pretty and smiling, you could get Kobe beef and  oysters flown in that day from the coast of Brittany. The “new Russian” entered contemporary mythology, with his bags of cash, harems of gorgeous girls, his brutality, and his boorishness. A joke from those days runs: two young businessmen notice they’re wearing the same suit. “I paid five thousand dollars for it in Paris,” one says. “It that a fact,” the other trumps: “I got mine for ten thousand!”

While a million crafty people started to enrich themselves frenetically thanks to the “shock therapy,” 150 million less quick off the mark were plunged into misery. Prices kept climbing, while salaries stayed put. An ex-KGB officer like Limonov’s father could hardly buy two pounds of sausage with his monthly pension. A higher-ranking officer who’d started his career in the intelligence service in Dresden, East Germany, and who’d been hastily repatriated because East Germany no longer existed, found himself without a job or a place to live. Reduced to working as a black-market cab driver in his hometown of Leningrad, he cursed the “new Russians” as bitterly as Limonov. This particular officer isn’t a statistical abstraction. His name is Vladimir Putin, he’s forty years old, like Limonov he thinks that the end of the Soviet empire is the worst catastrophe of the twentieth century, and he will be called upon to play a role of no small importance.

The life expectancy for a Russian man dropped from sixty-five in 1987 to fifty-eight in 1993. The lines of desolate people waiting in front of empty shops were replaced by old people walking up and down in underground passageways trying to hawk the few possessions they has. Anything they could sell to survive, they sold. If you were a poor retiree, it was two pounds of pickles, a tea cozy, or old issues of Krokodil, the pathetic “satirical”: magazine of the Brezhnev years. If you were an army general, it might be tanks or planes; some fraudulently set up private companies that sold military aircraft and pocketed the profits themselves. If you were a judge, you sold your verdicts. A police officer, your tolerance. A bureaucrat, your stamp od approval. A veteran of the Afghan wars, your ability to kill. A murder contract was negotiated at between ten thousand and fifteen thousand dollars. Fifty bankers were shot dead in Moscow in 1994. As for the wheeler-dealer Semyonov, by that time barely half his gang were still alive and he himself was dead and buried.

The big players slaughtered one another for control of industrial companies or mineral deposits, the small fry for kiosks or market stalls, and even the smallest kiosk or stall needed a “roof”: that’s what the countless security providers – all more or less protection rackets because they shot you if you refused their services – were called. The holding companies of oligarchs like Gusinsky or Berezovsjky employed veritable armies, commanded by high-level KGB officers who’d privatized their talents. Moving down a rung, the protection services no businessperson could do without recruited from the Georgian, Chechen, or Azeri mafias, and from among the police, which had become just one mafia among many.

To justify the collectivization, the famine, the purges, and, in a general way, the unassailable fact that the “enemies of the people” were the people themselves, the Bolsheviks liked to say that when you chop wood, chips fly, the Russian version of saying  you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. The free market replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat as the horizon of a radiant future, but the same proverb still served the chefs of “shock therapy” and all those close enough to power  to get a bite of the omelet. The difference now is that those who see themselves as broken eggs are no longer afraid of being sent to Siberia, and they speak out. Moscow is the scene of numerous demonstrations by retirees reduced to begging on the street, unpaid soldiers, nationalists maddened by the liquidation of the empire, Communists who mourn the days when everyone was poor but equal, and people who are disorientated because they no longer understood their own history. And it’s understandable: how to know what’s right or wrong, who are the heroes and who the traitors, when you keep celebrating the October Revolution year after year, repeating all the while that this revolution was both a crime and a catastrophe?

Eduard Limonov doesn’t miss a single one of these demonstrations when he’s in Moscow. Recognized by the people who read his articles in Dyen, he’s often congratulated, kissed, and blessed: with people like him, Russia is not lost. Once, invited by his comrade Alksnis, he gets up on the platform where the leaders of the opposition are speaking one after the other, and takes the megaphone. He says that the supposed “democrats” are profiteers who’ve betrayed the blood shed by their fathers during the Great Patriotic War. That the people have suffered more in one year of supposed “democracy” than in seventy years of communism. That anger is brewing and people should prepare for civil war. This speech differs little from the others, but after each sentence the immense crowd applauds. The words come naturally to him, and they express what everyone feels. Waves of approval, gratitude, and love wash over him. It’s what he dreamed of when he was poor and desperately alone in his room at the Embassy Hotel in New York, and his dream has come true. As when he was mixed up in war in the Balkans, he feels good. Calm, powerful, borne aloft by like-minded individuals: right where he belongs.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer


Throughout this book we have documented how the wellness command seeps into all aspects of our lives, at all times. It transforms every conceivable activity, including eating, meditating and even sleeping, into an opportunity to optimize pleasure and become more productive.

And yet, as we have demonstrated in the course of this book, the more we concentrate on maximizing our wellness, the more alienated and frustrated we often seem to become. The frantic search for the perfect diet; the paranoid pursuit of happiness; the forced workplace work-out; the endless life coaching sessions; the detailed tracking of our bodily functions; turning your entire day into a game – these desperate attempts to increase productivity through wellness create their own problems. The encourage an infectious narcissism which pushes us to take the great turn inwards, making our body into our first and last concern. They generate a creeping sense of anxiety that comes with the ever present responsibility of monitoring every lifestyle choice. They feed a sense of guilt that comes from the inevitable slip-ups when we don’t follow our diet or fail to live up to our life goals. People whose life have been seized by wellness are not just healthier, happier and more productive. They are also narcissistic, anxious and guilty. They are the victims of the wellness syndrome.

Biomorality does not just inflict its enthusiasts with personal pathologies; it reshaped how they engage with others. Those who don’t live up to the high standards of wellness are looked at with disgust. And as this vitriolic language becomes common in the public sphere, the possibility of reasoned debate fades. As authorities lose faith in structural reforms, they become more interested in small-scale behavioral interventions. In place of politics, we are left with corporeal babble and increasingly invasive lifestyle tweaks. As a result, we abandon political demands. The just redistribution of material resources (through ‘social welfare’), the recognition of previously maligned identities ( through ‘identity politics’) and the representation of political voices ( through ‘democratization’) have now become replaced by a new ambition: personal rehabilitation. Here, the unemployed are not provided an income; they get life coaching. Discriminated groups don’t get opportunities to celebrate their identities; they get an exercise plan. Citizens don’t get an opportunity to influence decisions that affect their lives; they get a mindfulness session. Meanwhile, inequality, discrimination and authoritarianism become seen as questions to grand to tackle head-on. Instead, political ambitions become myopically focused on boosting our wellbeing.

This concern with rehabilitating our health and happiness has not gone unchallenged. It has sparked new forms of what Peter Fleming calls ‘post-recognitional politics’.* These are political movements that challenge authority by checking out. The ill take to their bed, fat acceptors get rid of their bathroom scales and barebackers avoid testing their HIV status. Each try to create a new way of experiencing the world unencumbered by the wellness command. This mighty open up new spaces of respite, but in doing so these anti-biomoral militants are often becoming even more tightly tied to their bodily obsessions.

The fate of these escape attempts remind us that finding a way out of the wellness syndrome is not easy. But a start would be to stop obsessively listening to our bodies, to give up fixations with our own health and happiness and to abandon the illusion of limitless human potential. Instead we could forget about our bodies for a moment, stop chasing after happiness and realize that, as human beings, we are not just defined by our potential to be healthy and happy. Wellness is not always our lot.

To escape the clutches of wellness, we might recognizer that as human beings, we are not defined exclusively by our potentials, but also by our impotence. And this to be ashamed of. Accepting our impotence allows us to see that we will always come up short in one way or another. What makes most important things in life worthwhile is the inevitable failures and pain they entail. Truth often makes us miserable. Political action may involve direct threats and danger. Beauty is often soaked in sorrow. Love usually tears us apart. They may hurt, but not more than they are worthy….

Instead of forever dwelling on our own health or sickness, we might do better to look at and act upon the sickness of the world.

Peter Fleming, Resisting Work: The Corporatization of Life and It’s Discontents, (Temple University Press, 2014)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Ranciere

The ‘government of anybody and everybody’ is bound to attract the hatred of all those who are entitled to govern men by their birth, wealth or science. Today it is bound to attract this hatred more radically than ever, since the social power of wealth no longer tolerates any restrictions on its limitless growth, and each day its mechanisms become more closely articulated to those of State action. The pseudo-European Constitution testifies to this. State power and the power of wealth tendentially unite in a sole expert management of monetary and population flows. Together they combine their efforts to reduce the spaces of politics. But reducing these spaces, effacing the intolerable and indispensable foundation of the political in the ‘government of anybody and everybody’, means opening up another battlefield. It means witnessing the resurgence of a new radicalized figure of the power of birth and kinship. No longer the power of former monarchists and aristocrats, but that of the peoples of God.

This power may openly assert itself in the terror practiced by a radical Islam against Democracy identified with States of oligarchic law. It may also bolster the oligarchic State at war with this terror in the name of a democracy assimilated, by American evangelists, to the liberty of fathers obeying the commandments of the Bible and armed for the protection of their property. In France, it can be invoked against democratic perversion to safeguard the principle of kinship, a principle that some leave in an indeterminate generality, but others unceremoniously identify with the law of the people instructed by Moses in the word of God.

Destruction of democracy in the name of the Quran;  bellicose expansion of democracy identified with the implementation of the Decalogue; hatred of democracy assimilated to the murder of the divine pastor – all these contemporary figure have at least one merit. Through the hatred they manifest against democracy, and in its name, and through amalgamations to which they subject its notion, they oblige us to rediscover the singular power that is specific to it.

Democracy is neither a form of government that enables oligarchies to rule in the name of the people, nor is it a form of society that governs the power of commodities. It is the action that constantly wrests the monopoly of public life from oligarchic governments, and the omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth. It is the power that, today more than ever, has to struggle against the confusion of these powers, rolled into one and the same law of domination. Rediscovering the singularity of democracy means also being aware of its solitude. Demands for democracy were for a long time carried or concealed by the idea of a new society, the elements of which were allegedly being formed in the very heart of contemporary society. That is what ‘socialism’ designated: a vision of history according to which the capitalist forms of production and exchange constituted the material conditions for an egalitarian society and its worldwide expansion. It is this vision that even today sustains the hope of a communism or a democracy of the multitude: the notion that the increasingly immaterial forms of capitalist production concentrated in the universe of communication are, from this moment on, to have formed a nomadic population of ‘producers’ of a new type; to have constituted a collective intelligence, a collective power of thought, affects and movements of bodies that is liable to explode apart the barriers of the Empire. Understanding what democracy means is to renounce this faith.

The collective intelligence produced by a system of domination is only ever the intelligence of that system. Unequal society does not carry any equal society in its womb. Rather, egalitarian society is only ever the set of egalitarian relations that are traced here and now through singular and precarious acts. Democracy is as bare in its relation to the power of wealth as it is to the power of kinship that today comes to assist and to rival it. It is not based on any nature of things nor guaranteed by any institutional form. It is not born along by any historical necessity and does not bear any. It is only entrusted to the constancy of its specific acts. This can provoke fear, and so hatred, among those who are used to exercising the magisterium of thought. But among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy.




Her Arabic Education by Rahib Alameddine



I was fourteen when I began my first translation, twenty dull pages from a science textbook. It was the year I fell in love with Arabic – not the oral dialect, mind you, but the classical language. I’d studied it since I was a child, of course, as early as I’d studied English or French. Yet only in Arabic class were we constantly told that we could not master this most difficult of languages, no matter how much we studied and practiced, we could not possibly hope to write as well as al-Mutanabbi or, heaven forbid, the apex of the language, the Quran itself. Teacher indoctrinated students, just as they had been indoctrinated when younger. None of us can rise above being a failure as an Arab, our original sin.

 I’d reads the Quran and memorized large hunks of it, but all that studying didn’t introduce me to the language’s magic – forced learning and magic are congenital adversaries.

I was seven when I took my first Quranic class. The teacher – a wide, bespectacled stutterer – would lose her stutter when she recited the Quran; a true miracle, the other teachers claimed. She had it all committed to memory, and when she recited, her eyes glowed, her scarf-covered head swayed on a shaky neck, and he pointed stick twirled before her. In the first row we covered our eyes whenever the pointer came too close – to this day, when I sit in the front seat of a care during a rainstorm, I’m afraid the windshield’s wipers might poke my eye. The teacher’s stick may have appeared dangerous, but it was not what she beat us with. If we made a mistake in reciting, if a girl forgot a word or had trouble recalling a line, the teacher’s cheeks contracted and glowed, her lips pursed and shrank; she’d ask the child to come to the front and extend her hand, and would mete out punishment using the most innocuous of implements, the blackboard eraser. It hurt as much as any inquisitor’s tool.

As if forced memorization of the Quran – forced memorization of anything – wasn’t punishment enough.

“Listen to the words,” she exhorted, “listen to the wizardry. Hear the rhythm, hear the poetry.”

How could I hear anything when I was either in excruciating pain or fearing I might soon be?

“The language of the Quran is its miracle,” she used to say.


Consider this: In order to elevate the Prophet Moses above all men, God granted him the miracle that would dazzle the people of his era.  In those days, magicians were ubiquitous in Egypt, so all of Moses miracles involved the most imaginative magic: rod into serpent, river into red blood, Red Sea into parting. During the Prophet Jesus’s time, medicine was king. Jesus healed lepers and raised the dead. During our Prophet’s time, poetry was admired, and God gifted Muhammad, an illiterate man, with the miracle of a matchless tongue.

“This is our heritage, our inheritance – this is our magic.”

I didn’t listen then. The teacher frightened faith out of my soul. I didn’t care that the Quran had dozens of of words for various bodies of water, that it used rhythms and rhymes that hadn’t been heard before.


Compared to the Quran’s language and its style, those of the other holy books seemed childish. It is said that after one glance at the Bible, the Marechale de Luxembourg* exclaimed, “The tone is absolutely frightful! What a pity the Holy Spirit had such poor taste!”

No. I might be able to poke fun at the Quran for its childishly imperious content, but not for its style.
It was finally poetry that opened my eyes; poetry, and not the Quran, that seared itself into the back of my brain – poetry, the lapidary. I’m not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry, or more sensuous for that matter.

I recall the [poet who ignited the flame, Antaras, the jet-black warrior poet. I remember the shock of a doomed language being resuscitated.

And I remembered you as spears quenched their thirst
In me and white swords dripped with mu blood
So I longed to kiss the blades that recalled
The gleam of your smiling mouth to my mind.

The again, maybe it was Imru’ al-Qays. He and Antara are my preferred of the seven included in the legendary Suspended Odes*.


But come, my friends, as we stand here mourning, do you see
         The lightning?
See its glittering, like the flash of two moving hands, amid
          The thick gathering clouds.
Its glory shines like the lamps of a monk when he has dipped
         Their wicks in oil.
I sat down with my companions and watched the lightning
         And the coming storm.

The language – we hear it all the time. News anchors speak classical Arabic, as do some politicians, definitely Arabic teachers, but what sputters out of their mouths sounds odd and displaced compared to our organic Lebanese tongue, our homemade, homegrown dialect. Television and radio announcers sound foreign to my ears. Those early poems, though, they are alchemy, something miraculous. They opened my ears, opened my mind, like flowers in water.

Yet my first translation was not a poem but twenty dull pages. In the school I attended, the sciences were taught in French. Rarely was Arabic used for physics, chemistry, or mathematics in any of the schools of Beirut, whose main curriculum has always been community conformity. It seems that Arabic is not considered a language for logic. A joke that used to make the rounds when I was a child, probably still going strong: the definition of parallel lines in geometry textbooks in Saudi Arabia is two straight lines that never meet unless God in all His glory wills it.

The twenty pages were a curiosity; I wished to see for myself. My first translation sounded odd and displaced as well.

The translations that followed improved, I hope.

By improved I mean that I no longer felt as awkward about writing my name on what I translated as I did in the beginning.


* Suspended Odes: classic, pre-Islamic poetry.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Marx and the Current Crisis by Yanis Varoufakis



In 2008, capitalism had its second global spasm. The financial crisis set off a chain reaction that pushed Europe into a downward spiral that continues to this day. Europe’s present situation is not merely a threat for workers, for the dispossessed, for the bankers, for social classes or, indeed, nations. No, Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it.


If my prognosis is correct, and we are not facing just another cyclical slump soon to be overcome, the question that arises for radicals is this: should we welcome this crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace it with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?

To me, the answer is clear. Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.


.My view on this dilemma has always been that the powers that be are never perturbed by theories that embark from assumptions different to their own. The only thing that can destabilise and genuinely challenge mainstream, neoclassical economists is the demonstration of the internal inconsistency of their own models. It was for this reason that, from the very beginning, I chose to delve into the guts of neoclassical theory and to spend next to no energy trying to develop alternative, Marxist models of capitalism. My reasons, I submit, were quite Marxist.
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 Neo classical economists recognise the mountain of debts and banking losses but neglect the opposite side of the same coin: the mountain of idle savings that are “frozen” by fear and thus fail to convert into productive investments. A Marxist alertness to binary oppositions might have opened their eyes.


A major reason why established opinion fails to come to terms with contemporary reality is that it never understood the dialectically tense “joint production” of debts and surpluses, of growth and unemployment, of wealth and poverty, indeed of good and evil. Marx’s script alerted us these binary oppositions as the sources of history’s cunning.


From my first steps of thinking like an economist, to this very day, it occurred to me that Marx had made a discovery that must remain at the heart of any useful analysis of capitalism. It was the discovery of another binary opposition deep within human labour.

Between labour’s two quite different natures: i) labour as a value-creating activity that can never be quantified in advance (and is therefore impossible to commodify), and ii) labour as a quantity (eg, numbers of hours worked) that is for sale and comes at a price. That is what distinguishes labour from other productive inputs such as electricity: its twin, contradictory, nature. A differentiation-cum-contradiction that political economics neglected to make before Marx came along and that mainstream economics is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge today.


In the classic 1953 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien force does not attack us head on, unlike in, say, HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Instead, people are taken over from within, until nothing is left of their human spirit and emotions. Their bodies are shells that used to contain a free will and which now labour, go through the motions of everyday “life”, and function as human simulacra “liberated” from the unquantifiable essence of human nature. This is something like what would have transpired if human labour had become perfectly reducible to human capital and thus fit for insertion into the vulgar economists’ models.

If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.
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At a time when neoliberals have ensnared the majority in their theoretical tentacles, incessantly regurgitating the ideology of enhancing labour productivity in an effort to enhance competitiveness with a view to creating growth etc, Marx’s analysis offers a powerful antidote. Capital can never win in its struggle to turn labour into an infinitely elastic, mechanised input, without destroying itself. That is what neither the neoliberals nor the Keynesians will ever grasp. “If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery”, wrote Marx “how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!”

 Marx has given me the tools with which to become immune to the toxic propaganda of neoliberalism. For example, the idea that wealth is privately produced and then appropriated by a quasi-illegitimate state, through taxation, is easy to succumb to if one has not been exposed first to Marx’s poignant argument that precisely the opposite applies: wealth is collectively produced and then privately appropriated through social relations of production and property rights that rely, for their reproduction, almost exclusively on false consciousness.


In his recent book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, the historian of economic thought, Philip Mirowski, has highlighted the neoliberals’ success in convincing a large array of people that markets are not just a useful means to an end but also an end in themselves. According to this view, while collective action and public institutions are never able to “get it right”, the unfettered operations of decentralised private interest are guaranteed to produce not only the right outcomes but also the right desires, character, ethos even. The best example of this form of neoliberal crassness is, of course, the debate on how to deal with climate change. Neoliberals have rushed in to argue that, if anything is to be done, it must take the form of creating a quasi-market for “bads” (eg an emissions trading scheme), since only markets “know” how to price goods and bads appropriately. To understand why such a quasi-market solution is bound to fail and, more importantly, where the motivation comes from for such “solutions”, one can do much worse than to become acquainted with the logic of capital accumulation that Marx outlined and the Polish economist Michal Kalecki adapted to a world ruled by networked oligopolies.*

Marx’s first error – the error of omission was that he failed to give sufficient thought to the impact of his own theorising on the world that he was theorising about. His theory is discursively exceptionally powerful, and Marx had a sense of its power. So how come he showed no concern that his disciples, people with a better grasp of these powerful ideas than the average worker, might use the power bestowed upon them, via Marx’s own ideas, in order to abuse other comrades, to build their own power base, to gain positions of influence?


Marx’s second error, the one I ascribe to commission, was worse. It was his assumption that truth about capitalism could be discovered in the mathematics of his models. This was the worst disservice he could have delivered to his own theoretical system. The man who equipped us with human freedom as a first-order economic concept; the scholar who elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics; he was the same person who ended up toying around with simplistic algebraic models, in which labour units were, naturally, fully quantified, hoping against hope to evince from these equations some additional insights about capitalism. If I am right, Marx knew what he was doing. He understood, or had the capacity to know, that a comprehensive theory of value cannot be accommodated within a mathematical model of a dynamic capitalist economy. He was, I have no doubt, aware that a proper economic theory must respect the idea that the rules of the undetermined are themselves undetermined. In economic terms this meant a recognition that the market power, and thus the profitability, of capitalists was not necessarily reducible to their capacity to extract labour from employees; that some capitalists can extract more from a given pool of labour or from a given community of consumers for reasons that are external to Marx’s own theory.

Alas, that recognition would be tantamount to accepting that his “laws” were not immutable. He would have to concede to competing voices in the trades union movement that his theory was indeterminate and, therefore, that his pronouncements could not be uniquely and unambiguously correct. That they were permanently provisional. This determination to have the complete, closed story, or model, the final word, is something I cannot forgive Marx for. It proved, after all, responsible for a great deal of error and, more significantly, authoritarianism. Errors and authoritarianism that are largely responsible for the left’s current impotence as a force of good and as a check on the abuses of reason and liberty that the neoliberal crew are overseeing today.


Even as unemployment doubled and then trebled, under Thatcher’s radical neoliberal interventions, I continued to harbour hope that Lenin was right: “Things have to get worse before they get better.” As life became nastier, more brutish and, for many, shorter, it occurred to me that I was tragically in error: things could get worse in perpetuity, without ever getting better. The hope that the deterioration of public goods, the diminution of the lives of the majority, the spread of deprivation to every corner of the land would, automatically, lead to a renaissance of the left was just that: hope.

The reality was, however, painfully different. With every turn of the recession’s screw, the left became more introverted, less capable of producing a convincing progressive agenda and, meanwhile, the working class was being divided between those who dropped out of society and those co-opted into the neoliberal mindset. My hope that Thatcher would inadvertently bring about a new political revolution was well and truly bogus. All that sprang out of Thatcherism were extreme financialisation, the triumph of the shopping mall over the corner store, the fetishisation of housing and Tony Blair.

The lesson Thatcher taught me about the capacity of a longlasting recession to undermine progressive politics, is one that I carry with me into today’s European crisis. It is, indeed, the most important determinant of my stance in relation to the crisis. It is the reason I am happy to confess to the sin I am accused of by some of my critics on the left: the sin of choosing not to propose radical political programs that seek to exploit the crisis as an opportunity to overthrow European capitalism, to dismantle the awful eurozone, and to undermine the European Union of the cartels and the bankrupt bankers.
Yes, I would love to put forward such a radical agenda. But, no, I am not prepared to commit the same error twice. What good did we achieve in Britain in the early 1980s by promoting an agenda of socialist change that British society scorned while falling headlong into Thatcher’s neoliberal trap? Precisely none. What good will it do today to call for a dismantling of the eurozone, of the European Union itself, when European capitalism is doing its utmost to undermine the eurozone, the European Union, indeed itself?

A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe is would be in the grip of vicious stagflation. Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the eurozone.

 If this means that it is we, the suitably erratic Marxists, who must try to save European capitalism from itself, so be it. Not out of love for European capitalism, for the eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis.

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*Austerity? Call it class war – and heed this 1944 warning from a Polish economist



The single best guide to what happened in Britain last week was published in 1944. Naturally, its author was a Polish economist. Even economics students may not have heard of MichaƂ Kalecki – but it's the discipline that got small, rather than his legacy. In his time, Kalecki was recognised as having anticipated some of Keynes's most important ideas, years before the Master published his General Theory, and he exerted a big influence on such legendary Cambridge thinkers as Joan Robinson and Nicky Kaldor.


His article, Political Aspects of Full Employment, explains with an almost eery prescience why the coalition is attacking our wages, our working terms and conditions and our welfare state.


The tone is exhilaratingly brisk. "A solid majority of economists" agree on how to solve a slump, Kalecki says. The government borrows more and invests the cash either in building schools and hospitals or in providing benefits and tax cuts; this boosts demand and generates employment. Ta-da! Two pages in, and he has both fixed the problem of recessions and despatched most of the arguments against public borrowing that we have heard with such tedious frequency in the past five years.

What if savers become wary of lending to the state? Then, Kalecki says, the Treasury pays higher interest rates – and, since most of its lenders are British (just like now), the money will still flow back into the economy. But he notes that Churchill's war coalition has run "astronomical budget deficits", while "the rate of interest has shown no rise since the beginning of 1940". What if it becomes too costly to keep on top of the national debt? Then ministers should raise more funds, not by taxing ordinary pay or spending, which would slow the economy, but with a levy on idle wealth.


That proposal, by the way, is tossed out in a mere footnote on the second page; and, reader, if you can't love a man who comes up with a novel way of soaking the rich in one short italicised paragraph, then I fear we're never going to be friends.


Having rattled through the urgent problems, Kalecki points out that a booming economy and healthy profits would be good for the "leaders of industry", but that they will never support such government intervention. And in a sentence that sums up post-crash Britain, he identifies one of the principal sources of resistance as "so-called 'economic experts' closely connected with banking and finance" along with "big business".


The opposition posed by this coalition of bosses and financiers is motivated by three factors. First, they want as little government interference in the economy as possible; second, they don't want the state expanding into new areas and so doing them out of business. But the thing that really keeps the capitalists awake at nights is the boost to workers' confidence that will be provided by a heathy jobs market. They will demand more pay, better working conditions, perhaps even a say in how their companies are run. Fully employed, well-paid Britons will have more cash to buy things, so a healthy economy supported by the government is better for corporate profits than a sick one. "But 'discipline in the factories' and 'political stability' are more appreciated by the business leaders than profits". Rather an insecure and cowed workforce than a confident and boisterous one.

But it's Kalecki's "political business cycle" that sums up the world we're in now. Rather than opting for public investment and a healthy recovery, Britain is stuck in a slump that austerity and a blind trust in private-sector vigour is only deepening. But the parallels don't stop there. Last week, the day after MPs voted through a bill for real-terms cuts year upon year in benefits for the jobless and the low-paid, newspapers led on government briefings that the butchering of the welfare state would not stop there. Next, the FT reported, winter fuel allowance would be for the chop.


Meanwhile, living standards for those in work are also under attack: through wages that are falling further and further behind inflation and government schemes to sacrifice workplace rights in return for share options. For those slow on the uptake, there is always William Hague, telling Britons to "work harder".


The rhetoric is also echoed in our media. Last Friday, the Guardian's librarians went through all the British tabloids and broadsheets since 2007. Up to 2010, they found that Fleet Street was quite restrained in its use of the term "scrounger": a mere 46 mentions (when discussing benefits or welfare) for all of 2007. In 2010, though, that shot up to 219 mentions, and last year 240 mentions. As for shirkers v strivers, the false opposition du jour, newspapers did not use the phrase at all until 2010. Last year, the total was 10. In the first two weeks of 2013, the press had already racked up 30 mentions.


Whether from politicians or the press, these justifications for austerity are getting more strident even while evidence of austerity's failure is stacking up. It may be that Britain goes into a third recession this year; it is certainly not going to enjoy a recovery. And what was always evident in the coalition's spending plans issued back in 2010 – that our welfare state and public realm were going to get shredded – is slowly but surely materialising.


This assault on an entire social contract, says Malcolm Sawyer, a leading expert on Kalecki, is what his subject warned about. "The argument for dealing with budget deficits has provided cover for attacking wages and benefits." And austerity is just code for the transfer of wealth and power into ever fewer hands.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Battle of Lepanto and the Clash of Civilization by Mohammad Arkoun

The battle of Lepanto – 7 October 1571 – was one of the major episodes in the competition between Islam and Christianity for Mediterranean supremacy. As in many other confrontations between two rival powers, each side invoked ‘the laws of God’ and the revealed Truth, ignored or rejected by the ‘infidels’ opposite.

Religion was fully mobilized to legitimize cynical strategies of political and economic dominance. A commonplace situation, one might say. Wars always take place between what my friend Paul M.G. Levy calls ‘possessors of the true’. Even today, however, it is to be noted that religious thought has still not drawn all the conclusions from these common place situations in which religions played and still play leading roles. Instead of reflecting on the true functions of religion to advance our knowledge of the religious phenomena, the guardians of orthodoxy in each community have tended to interpret victory over the enemy as a sign of God’s approval, and to erase the compromises present in official religion while continuing to exalt the ‘transcendence’ of eternal belief.

What does the Battle of Lepanto tell us about this aspect? If we take the trouble to examine impartially the language, the conduct and ideologies of the two sides, we find that Islam and Christianity performed the same functions of masking reality, twisting the meaning of events and transcendantalizing profane behavior, with the same later results of individual and collective alienation. This last, in will be claimed, is the price to be paid for the survival and temporal growth ( spiritual growth, believers will insist) of each community. If that is an unbreakable boundary in the human condition, it is well worthy a thorough investigation of its causes and consequences with the aid of historical examples such as the Battle of Lepanto.

This exercise will be attempted 1) by describing the protagonists; 2) by defining what was at stake in the battle; and 3) by bringing out the common mode of thought underlying the Christian and Islamic discourses.

Description of the Protagonists

On the Christian side, the Republic of Venice had a firm ally in Pius V who headed the thirteenth crusade against the Muslim infidel. The Pope had no difficulty in recruiting Philip II, King of Spain (1527-1598), by making him a beneficiary of the papal bull that launched the crusade, ensuring him an annual income of 400,000 ducats extracted from Church property. Philip had abandoned his father Charles V’s dream of a universal monarchy and was seeking to rebuild the power of Spain, having lost Preveza in Greece in 1538, Djerba in 1559-60, Malta in 1564 and Tunis in 1570; Granada in Spain itself, was under threat from the Moors. The king hoped, with the help of Venice, to eliminate the Calabrian ‘renegade’ Uludj Ali who held Algiers and Tunis in the name of the Ottoman sultan. This power strategy had aroused Venetian suspicions, the more so when Pius V helped manoeuvre Don Juan of Austria (1545-1578), fresh from his harsh repression of the Moorish revolt (1568-1570), into the supreme command of the allied fleets. Within this command, Marc Antonio Colonna, Constable of the Kingdom of Naples, favored Venice; the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria supported Philip II.

On the Muslim side, the Ottoman Empire, in 1570, covered the Balkan peninsula and the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean; pirates of various origins, operating out of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, maintained (with the help of their Christian competitors) a climate of insecurity, making it possible for example for the Turks to take the Venetian colony of Cyprus in 15670. But, although Turkish power looked threatening from the outside, internally the regime had a number of weaknesses. Sultan Selim II, who had succeeded his father, Suleiman the Magnificent, in September 1566, was seen by Western contemporaries as ‘a sovereign both unworthy and incompetent, odious, squat and obese . . . the first of the indolent sultans.’  Continuity of imperial power was in the hands of the Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokoullou (or Skoklovitch), one of those astonishing individuals characteristic of the whole age.  Sokollou was actually a Bosnian, born in Ragusa (now Known as Dubrovnik) and taken from his family as a child under the devshirme of press-ganging Christian boys to fight for the Ottoman empire. Raised and educated in the seraglio, he had learned how to assert his authority without losing his footing among court intrigues, merciless struggles between foreign clans, demanding Janissaries and over-ambitious Pashas. While accepting sumptuous presents and fabulous sums of money from the vassals of the empire (but also from Venice and the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople), he maintained an attitude of obedience and devotion to the Sultan.

In their battles in Cyprus, Lepanto and elsewhere, both sides depended on galley-slaves (oarsman) and mercenaries of every origin and provenance. Thus, when the peasants of Crete showed extreme reluctance to assist, Venice was obliged to call upon the Bohemians. But it is also true that when the SAxcred and Perpetual Union against the Turk was proclaimed in May 1571, Italy and Spain were once again swept up by a crusading fervor and every town and city wanted to raise a contingent. The Turks, by combining calls for holy war (jihad) and with the practice of devshirme, managed to assemble a force of 25,000 men and 2,500 Janissaries. Sickness, desertion and treachery spread confusion and uncertainty on both sides in the run-up to the battle, exacerbated by internecine violence, incompetence and squabbling among leaders.

It would be interesting to dwell on the extraordinary characters who figure in the preparations and negotiations before the battle, the battle itself and its aftermath. Popes, kings, ministers, viziers, cardinals, ambassadors and military officers of all ranks, all deserve detailed biographies to map the status of the human individual in Muslim and Christi an settings. How can he importance for each of them of genuinely religious motivation be measured, given the general predominance of ambition, appetites for power and revenge, obsessions and private fantasies? Thus, Don Juan ‘recognized as a royal prince from the age of 16 but known to all as ‘the bastard’ . . .eaten up withy the lust for action, he at last found, with his nomination, an opportunity for revenge on his destiny . . .’ Marc-Antonio Colonna ‘descended from an illustrious Roman family. . . quarreled with Pope Paul IV, stripped of estates, excommunicated . . . remains indebted to the King of Spain. . .’ Veniero ‘whose difficult character was already known . . . not pleased at having to obey an inexperienced young man . . .also scornful of his worldly character, and jealously protective of Venetian prestige . . .’

Uludj Ali (  known as Kilidj Ali or ‘Ali the scimitar’) had even more the characteristic features of the age than those described above.

He was both choleric and melancholy, ostentatiously devoted to the Empire and suspected of treason. Like many other Ottoman dignitaries, he was a Christian renegade. Born into a very poor family in Calabria , he had always been a child of the sea, as fisherman, galley-slave and finally pirate, Captured by the Turks at age 16 and mocked by his fellow galley-slaves when afflicted with scurvy, he killed one of them in a brawl and abjure Christianity to avoid the death penalty. He later amassed a colossal fortune as Beylerbey of Algiers.

Many other such portraits could be quoted but it is already apparent that religion counted for very little in the behavior of the most visible protagonists. And even less among the mercenaries greedy for loot or the press-ganged rowers who cowered under the lash of their guards. There remain the many peasants and humble townspeople who had responded with fervor to appeals from a Pope and a Sultan venerated as spiritual’ leaders. It will be seen that the language of the official discourses employed all the stereotypes most likely to arouse eschatological visions and millenarian aspirations in the popular consciousness.

Notwithstanding all this, can it be claimed that the stakes over which the Battle of Lepanto was fought were as varied as the interests of those individual parties, communities and ethno- cultural groups? Or is it possible to discern amid this tangle of violent appetites, explosive hatreds and deep-seated rivalries certain more universal and permanent aims?

What the Battle was About

Lepanto is an episode in the secular struggle between all the Mediterranean peoples. The geo-historical facts of this competition were admirably described by F. Braudel in his major book on the Mediterranean world in the time of Philip II. The emergence of Islam in the seventh century and its impact first on Byzantium and, from the eleventh century onwards, on the expanding Christian West, came increasingly to be presented as an intolerable challenge to the temporal and spiritual power of the Church. In the minds of both sides, a religious motive was thus substituted for the real reasons which were (and remain to this day) strategic and economic. The wealth of polemical Islamic and Christian literature makes it possible to monitor the construction of what I have called a cultural system of reciprocal exclusion, on which the perceptions that Islam and Christianity have of each other are still based today. For the Muslims, the ‘arguments’ and framework of the polemic were fixed for all time by the Qur’an, which reflects the climate of opposition to the Prophet maintained by the Jews and Christians first in Mecca, and then in Medina. For the Christians, a haunting collection of imagery has been built up in the course of many Crusades against the infidel in the East, in Spain and in the Maghreb.

By considering historical turning points such as Las Navas de Tolosa, Granada, Oran, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Alexandria, Lepanto, Constantinople and the Palestinian tragedy today, I am trying to establish the nature of the major concern at stake in our own time. Since religious imagery has been attached to the struggles for political and economic hegemony in order to give them ‘divine’ legitimacy, and since such imagery has for centuries fixed a priori the forms of sensitivity and intelligibility in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, it is reasonable to suggest that the history and anthropology of the Mediterranean area needs to be given a cognitive basis that is radically different from the one established by mediaeval theologies and continued by positivist, colonial, Eurocentric historiography until at least the 1950s. Academic research hardly bothers with this purifying function although it is of great importance currently, especially in the Mediterranean world, where serious conflicts have built up, not over territorial issues but more essentially in what I will call the metaphysical structure of the three great religious universes. Thus, for example, although Michel Lesure reveals to the reader many valuable texts redolent of the mentality of the age, he takers no interest in the common structure of thought that produced these utterances; so he does not help the unprepared reader to understand that, although couched in obsolete sixteenth-century linguistic forms, their underlying thought still prevails to this day in the three communities. The whole literature of the Israel-Arab conflict broadly confirms the currently status of the legitimization discourses used during all the Crusades and, notably, at Lepanto. Although Christian discourse appears to be more ‘modern’ since Vatican II, it should be recognized that the hard core of traditional theological thought successfully resists all attempts at reform.


To better outline the cognitive background to the debates launched in the Mediterranean world by the successive emergence of the there monotheists religions, it is worth analyzing some significant texts.

Observations on Historical Psychology

The defeat of the Turks at Lepanto was greeted by all the Christian peoples as ‘Christ’s victory. A durable imagery was crystallized in the popular consciousness during the widespread celebrations that followed, encapsulated in songs such as this one:

Did you think, booby, you could confront
Italy and Spain with your rabble
And did you believe Mahomet would vanquish Christ?
O my Selim, what’s become of you? And Mahomet,
What a lot of help he gave you!
Your pashas have all gone up in smoke.

The text of the Holy League signed in Rome on 19 May, 1571 includes the following:
After first invoking the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost . . . in the presence of our Holy Father and the Most Reverend Cardinals. . . ha been published this Sacred League.
. . .They ( the Confederate members ) wish and agree, through the grace and favor of God, that to destroy and ruin the Turk, this league be perpetual, and not only to defend the kingdoms and principalities of the Confederate members of the League against the Turk, but also to go and cause him damage and invade his territories, both by land and by sea, and in these enterprises are included Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli in Barbary . . .

Christian convicts serving life sentences were ‘permanently set free and encouraged to fight for Jesus Christ through whose grace they have been delivered from servitude. . .’

Pius V, who had ‘received from Heaven on 7 October the revelation of victory’, wrote to the king of Spain:

My very dear son in Jesus Christ . . .since receiving the happy news of the most glorious victory won by the army of the Sacred League over the army of the arrogant tyrant and enemy of the Cristian name, we have not ceased giving thanks to the Lord God who, in his mercy and infinite bounty, did not fail to fulfil the hopes He had given to that effect. . .

The Turkish texts are just as thickly sprinkled with propitiatory formulae, invocations to God and the Prophet to ensure victory. The enemy is referred to as ‘the fleet of the vile Infidels’, the ‘boats of the miserable Christians”. ‘War is uncertain in its results,’ wrote Selim to Pertev Pashia. ‘Judgment belongs to God, the High, the Great, the Master and the Benefactor. We hope that Almighty God will soon make possible all sorts of humiliations and the crushing of the enemies of the Religion and the Empire. . .

In his instructions to the Kapudan Pasha, Seyit-Ali, Sokoullou wrote:

. . . with the help of Almighty God and placing your absolute trust and resignation in the ultimate assistance of the All-Highest, relying on the abundant blessings of the Prince of Prophets, and seeking the aid of the Prophet’s four Companions – God’s grace be upon them –and all the holy spirits, you will come down from the direction of Corfu . . .

 When villagers all over Europe celebrate ‘Christ’s victory’, when Catholic kings confer with the Holy Father to found a Sacred League, when Sokoullou discovers ‘at random’ a Qur’anic verse predicting the later restoration of the true order and values, we see living examples of the exercise of a single mode of semiotic organization. On both sides, the theme of True Religion is evoked in the same fashion by direct and constant references to God, rather than to signs, symbols, myths, rituals and narratives that, over time and with effort, gradually form the specific consciousness of a community. In victory as in defeat, the Scriptures are given confirmation of their transcendent nature.

We call this ‘religious’ to the extent that historical events are integrated (as in the case of Lepanto) into the setting and with the aid of religious symbolism; we call it ‘national’ when the system of legitimation is secular ( territory circumscribed by a political frontier, mother country, historic individual etc.) The passage from one system of legitimation to another takes place with very different frequency in different social-cultural environments. Apart from that, these occurrences are becoming ever more important in the present phase of history, as the political monoliths of ‘modern’ regimes restore to the traditional religions their function of ultimate refuge for the marginalized or silenced social groups. I refer, of course, to the rapid proliferation of ‘sects’ of different kinds in the Western societies and the role of Islam in the expression of political opposition. That is why those of ostensibly modern and secular consciousness should not be to quick to dismiss the texts quoted above as cliches and and ritual formula from another age.

While Christian theology is starting to embark upon a serious investigation into the changing content and functions of faith, beliefs and spirituality under various determining factors, the same cannot be said of Muslim or Jewish thought which continue to fulfil dialectical, polemical and self-establishing functions in the context of the Israel-Arab conflict and more generally the structural violence exerted in international economic and cultural relations.

Still, the guardians of Christian  orthodoxy and the transcendent will certainly object to the reductive side of this analysis [as exemplified by conservative reactions to President Obama’s recent speech at a Congressional ‘Prayer Breakfast in which he simply referred to the brutality of the Crusades]. This objection has two meanings. It confirms that contemporary consciousness  , despite all the positive achievements of modern rationality, continue to acquiesce in the spontaneous operations of transcendentalization; this  signals the philosophical  quest that ought to accompany ‘the new scientific spirit,’ illustrated by the explorations of human and social sciences. This is what I am pursuing personally by attempting a re-reading of the Scriptures, not through the axioms of traditional theologies, but by using all the instruments of a greatly expanded historical sciences.

Seen from the historical trajectory of Islam, Europe/the West is a hostile, hegemonic geopolitical sphere, unavoidable since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and broadly responsible for a historical decline which began in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As a geocultural, intellectual and spiritual sphere, Europe, before the emergence of the economic, technological and powerful monetary sphere called the West, is in many ways an extension and expansion of the thought and scientific knowledge accumulated in the  Islamicized area of the Mediterranean during the classical age of the Arab-Islamic civilization (750-1300). The change in direction in intellectual, scientific and cultural exchanges between the Muslim Mediterranean and Europe can be dated from the year 1492 AD when Catholic Spain drove the Muslims and Jews out of Andalusia and Europe discovered the American continent and opened the Atlantic route, which resulted in supplanting the Mediterranean route with the growth of United States power, especially after 1945.

This is not the place for a detailed account of all the stages and conditions of these developments, which include notably the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the colonialization of all the Muslim countries, the liberation wars of the 1950s and the ideological peregrinations of the so-called national states since the achievement of political ‘liberation.’ What interests us here is the accumulation of unthinkables and unthoughts during the four centuries from the sixteenth to the present, during which Europe/the West was constructing intellectual, political;, legislative and cultural modernity in Western Europe. Not only did Islamic thought play no part at all in this development; it cut itself off from its own classical heritage by eliminating the practice of philosophy and even theology, which so enriched religious thought in the past and has yet to be reinstated.


That is why the historical summary I have provided is strictly unthinkable in the historical and cognitive contexts in which Islamic thought has been imprisoned since the political triumph of nationalist ideologies in the struggle for liberation, and the ensuing construction of single-party states either on the apparently claimed liberal European model or ,until 1989, that of the ‘people’s democratic republics’ of Communist Europe. From 1950 to 2000, two determining factors substituted a sociologically dominant populist ideology for a liberal culture, itself restricted to circumscribed and fragile urban elites. Education systems, manipulated by one-party states universally promoted a nationalistic, militantly ethnic vision, sometimes openly xenophobic, in the guise of vigilance- not entirely unjustified – against imperialist exploitation by the ‘West’: and the social settings of knowledge were thrown into confusion by a demographic growth rate unprecedented in the history of human society. In all Islamic contexts, the situations crated in this way will never be superseded as long as the military and police-states endure, with their total hostility to the most unarguable values of democratic development in modern societies.

It is in terms of these weighty and complex factors that we should interpret the militant ‘argument’ proclaiming the radical and definitive incompatibility of ‘Western’ science and thought with that of ‘Islam’; in which ‘Islam’ has its own conceptual apparatus and horizons of meaning which admit absolutely no theoretical or pragmatic validity in the intellectual and spiritual ‘wanderings’ of Western positive science. This position is defended in the education systems and religious rhetoric of Islamicist militants issuing from the sacred enclaves of the mosques, and also by official media compelled to take part in a mimetic escalation concerning the ‘validity’ of ‘Islam’ as a source and foundation of all religious, ethical, political and economic legitimacy. All discursive utterances in contemporary Islamic contexts are inspired to a greater or lesser degree by this ideological perception of the ‘Western’ protagonist of contemporary history, just as in that ‘West’ constructed by the political-religious imaginary, the world of ‘Islam’ is generally perceived as radically incompatible with, and therefore threatening to, the superior ‘values’ of the West. This is the highly successful ‘clash of civilizations’ theory that has haunted the Western political imagination since the end of the Cold War. There is certainly a clash, but it is between collective imaginaries constructed and maintained on both sides through unthinkables and unthoughts cultivated by the education systems, the discourse of political and academic establishments, and the media that feed on this rhetoric and seek to increase their following by outdoing each other with anticipations of interpretations from the leading minds.

But there are very few works in which the boundaries of specialization- sociology, psychology, ethnography, anthropology, theology and philosophy- are truly merged in order to completely change representations and interpretations of belief and the teaching offered to the believer. On the contrary, macro-theories on the clash of cultures presented by political scientists are currently overwhelmingly successful allover the world, despite the fact that they spread a dangerous, ideological polarization of backward, obscurantist, anti-humanist cultures and religions that threaten enlightened, advanced, humanist values.

Islam: To Reform or To Subvert by Mohammad Arkoun, Saqi Essentials, London, 2002, 2006.
M. Arkoun is Emeritus Professor at the Sorbonne.