Monday, October 30, 2017

Marching to the Remainder by Simone Weil


To imagine that we can switch the course of history along a different track by transforming the system through reforms or revolutions, to hope to find salvation in a defensive or offensive action against tyranny and militarism – all that is just day- dreaming. There is nothing on which to base even the attempt. Marx’s assertion that the regime would produce its own gravediggers is cruelly contradicted every day; and one wonders, incidentally, how Marx could ever have believed that slavery could produce free men. Never yet in history has a regime of slavery fallen under the blows of slaves. The truth is, to quote a famous saying, slavery degrades man to the point of making him love it; that liberty is precious only in the eyes of those who effectively possess it; and that a completely inhuman system, as our is, far from producing beings capable of building up a human society, models all those subjected to it – oppressed and oppressors alike- according to its own image.

Everywhere, in varying degrees, the impossibility of relating what one gives to what one receives has killed the feeling for sound workmanship , the sense of responsibility, and has developed passivity, neglect, the habit of expecting everything from the outside, the belief in miracles. Even in the country, the feeling of the deep-seated bond between the land which sustains man and the man who works the land has to a large extent been obliterated since the taste for speculation, the unpredictable rises and falls in currencies and prices have got country folk in the habit of turning their eyes towards the towns. The worker has not the feeling of earning his living as a producer; it is merely that the undertaking keeps him enslaved for long hours every day and allows him each week a sum of money which gives him the magic power of conjuring up at a moment’s notice ready-made products, exactly as the rich do. The presence of innumerable unemployed, the cruel necessity of having to beg for a job, make wages appear less as wages than as alms. As for the unemployed themselves, the fact that they are involuntary parasites, and poverty-stricken into the bargain, does not make them any less parasites. Generally speaking, the relation between work done and money earned is so hard to grasp that it appears almost accidental, so that labor takes on the aspect of servitude, money that of a favor.

The so-called governing classes are affected by the same passivity as all the others, owing to the fact that, snowed under as they are by an avalanche of inextricable problems, they have long since given up governing. One would look in vain, from the highest down to the lowest on the social ladder, for a class of men among whom the idea could one day spring up that they might, in certain circumstances, have to take in hand the destinies of society; the harangues of the fascists could alone give the illusion of this, but they are empty.

As always happens, mental confusion and passivity leave free scope to the imagination. On all hands one is obsessed by a representation of social life which, while differing considerably from one to class to another, is always made up of mysteries, occult qualities, myths, idols and monsters; each one thinks that power resides mysteriously in one of the classes to which he has no access, because hardly anybody understands that it resides nowhere, so that the dominant feeling everywhere is that dizzy fear which is always brought about by loss of contact with reality. Each class appears from the outside as a nightmare object. In circles connected with the working-class movement, dreams are haunted by the mythological monsters called Finance, Industry, Stock Exchange, Bank etc.; bourgeois dream about other monsters which they call ringleaders, agitators, demagogues; the politicians regard the capitalists as supernatural beings who alone possess the key to the situation, and vice versa; each nation regards its neighbors as collective monsters inspired by a diabolical perversity. One could go on developing this theme indefinitely.

In such a situation, any log whatever can be looked upon as king and take the place of one up to a certain point thanks to that belief, and this is true, not merely of men in general, but also in that of the governing classes. Nothing is easier, for that matter, than to spread any myth whatsoever throughout a whole population. We must not be surprised, therefore, at the appearance of  ‘totalitarian’ regimes unprecedented I history. IT is often said that force is powerless to overcome thought; but for this to be true, there must be thought. Where irrational opinions hold the place of ideas, force is all-powerful. It is quite unfair to say, for example, that fascism annihilates free thought; in reality it is the lack of free thought which makes it possible to impose by force official doctrines entirely devoid of meaning. Actually, such a regime even manages considerably to increase the general stupidity, and there is little hope for the generations that will grow up under the conditions it creates. Nowadays, every attempt to turn men into brutes finds powerful means at its disposal. On the other hand, one thing is impossible, even if you were dispose of the best public platforms, and that is to diffuse clear ideas, correct reasoning and sensible views on any wide scale.

It is no good expecting help to come from men; and even if it were otherwise, men would none the less be vanquished in advance by the natural power of things. The present social system provides no means of action other than machines for crushing humanity; whatever may be the intentions of those using them, these machines crush and will continue to crush as long as they exist. With the industrial convict prisons constituted by the big factories, one can only produce slaves and not free workers, still less workers who would form a dominant class. With guns, aeroplanes, bombs, you can spread death, terror, oppression, but not life and liberty. With gas masks, air-raid shelters and air-raid warnings, you can crate wretched masses of panic-stricken human beings, ready to succumb to the most senseless forms of terror and to welcome with gratitude the most humiliating  forms of tyranny, but not citizens. With the popular press and wireless, you can make a whole people swallow with their breakfast or their supper a series of ready-made and, by the same token, absurd opinions –for even sensible views become deformed and falsified in the minds which accept them unthinkingly; but you cannot with the aid of these thing as arouse so much as a gleam  of thought. And without factories, without arms, without the popular press you can do nothing against those who possess all these things. The same applies to everything. The powerful means are oppressive, the non-powerful means are inoperative.

 Each time that the oppressed have tried to set up groups able to exercise a real influence, such groups, whether they went by the names of parties or unions, have reproduced in full within themselves all the vices of the system they claimed to reform or abolish, namely, a bureaucratic organization, reversal of the relationship between means and ends, contempt for the individual, separation of thought and action, the mechanization of thought itself, the exploitation of stupidity and lies as a means of propaganda, and so on.

The only possibility of salvation would lie in a methodical cooperation between all, strong and weak, with a view to accomplishing a progressive decentralization of social life; but the absurdity of such an idea strikes one immediately. Such a form of cooperation is impossible to imagine, even in dreams, in a civilization that is based on competition, on struggle, on war. Apart from such cooperation, there is no means of stopping the blind trend of the social machine towards increasing centralization, until the machine itself suddenly jams and flies into pieces. What weight can the hopes and desires of those who are not at the control levers carry, when, reduced to the most tragic impotence, they find themselves the mere playthings of blind and brutish forces. As for those who exercise economic or political authority, harried as they are incessantly by rival ambitions and hostile powers, they cannot work to weaken their own authority without condemning themselves almost certainly to being deprived of it. The more they feel themselves to be animated by good intentions, the more they will be brought, even despite themselves, to endeavor to extend their authority in order to increase their ability to do good; which amounts to oppressing people in the hope of liberating them, as Lenin did. It is quite patently impossible for decentralization to be initiated by the central authority; to the very extent to which the central authority is exercised, it brings everything else under its subjection.

Generally speaking, the idea of enlightened despotism. Which always has a Utopian flavor about it, is in our day completely absurd. Faced with problems whose variety and complexity are infinitely beyond the range of great as of limited minds, no despot in the world can possibly be enlightened. Though a few men may hope, by dint of honest and methodical thinking, to perceive a few gleams in this impenetrable darkness, those whom the cares and responsibilities of authority deprive them of both leisure and liberty of mind are certainly not of that number.

In such a situation, what can those do who still persist, against all eventualities, in honoring human dignity both in themselves and in others? Nothing, except endeavor to introduce a little play into the cogs of the machine that is grinding us down; seize every opportunity of awakening a little thought wherever they are able, encourage whatever is capable, in the sphere of politics, economics or technique, of leaving the individual here and there a certain freedom of movement amid the trammels cast around him by the social organization. That is certainly something, but it does not go very far. On the while, our present situation more or less resembles that of a party of absolutely ignorant travelers who find themselves in a motor ca-car launch at full speed and driverless across broken country. When will the smash-up occur after which it will be possible to consider trying to construct something new? Perhaps it’s a matter of a few decades, perhaps of centuries. There are no data enabling one to fix a probable lapse of time. It seems, however, that the material resources of our civilization are not likely to become exhausted for some considerable time, even allowing for wars; and, on the other hand, as centralization, by abolishing all individual initiative and all local life, destroys by its very existence everything that might serve as a basis for a different form of organization, one may suppose that the present system will go on existing up to the extreme limit of possibility.

To sum up, it seems reasonable to suppose that the generations which will have to face the difficulties brought about by the collapse of the present system have yet to be born. As for generations now live, they are perhaps, of all those that have followed each other in the course of human history, the ones that will have to shoulder the maximum of imaginary responsibilities and the minimum of real ones. Once this situation is fully realized, it leaves a marvelous freedom of mind. . .

Only fanatics are able to set no value on their own existence save to the extent that it serves a collective cause; to react against the subordination of the individual to the collectivity implies that one begins by refusing t subordinate one’s own destiny to the course of history. In order to resolve upon undertaking such an effort of critical analysis, all one needs is to realize that it would enable him who did so to escape the contagion of folly and collective frenzy by reaffirming on his own account, over he head of the social idol, the original pact between the mind and the universe.

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