Pankaj: Age of Anger

In 1862, Dostoevsky visited London for the World Exhibition. The Crystal Palace transfixed his mind. He penned the following perceptive remarks:

“You  sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal”.


Genius was necessary to understand the hidden message behind that beaming facade – he had that in abundance, but crucially it took something else too. Dostoevsky came from backward Russia, where the narrow-mindedness of the ruling class kept the country in the tight grip of underdevelopment, religious bigotry, mass illiteracy if not outright serfdom: the contemplation of the Palace the_possessedfrom the remoteness of Russian spiritual and material conditions was the springboard for the revelations he uncovered in his mature literary production. In “The Possessed”, Dostoevsky explored the schizophrenic reaction of the young intelligentsia against the world heralded by The Crystal Palace. As described in another entry, czarist Russia was dangerously exposed to the main undercurrent of European civilization in the xix century- i.e. German Idealism. The intelligentsia knew just how bad things were in motherland and how the forward movement of History – so neatly exemplified by the palace in London – was restrained by the parochialism of Russian ruling class. This situation visited upon them strong, unmitigated anger.

In the riveting “Age of Anger: A History of the Present”1Pankaj Mishra moves from the same vantage point – he gives a name to the displacements that modernity has wrought on countless human masses, in the entire ‘global village’. He analyzes how the pull of backwardness and the sheer attractive force of the the modern Palace interplay in the soul of modern man. In essence, the book

“argues that the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteen-century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations: that, first exposed to modernity through European Imperialism, large parts of Asia and Africa are now plunging deeper into the West’s own fateful experience of that modernity” (AoA, pg. 10).

In order to drive home such a wide-ranging recognition, age_of_anger.jpgPankaj avails himself of the best guides. He draws heavily from Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”, Arendt’s “Origin of Totalitarianism” (see here) and of course, as an hidden undercurrent, from the Marshall Bermann’s “All that is Solid melts into air” (text). But the true inspiration for the book -what makes it precious to me – lies in the superb “From Hegel To Nietzsche” by Karl Löwith, where the Jewish philosopher – and student of Heidegger- charts the internal movements  of the German spirit in the XIX century.
German classical philosophy – which had in Hegel its final synthesis before disgregation began – is the genial culmination of the European mind coming to terms with the modern world – its main focus the critical exegesis of what modernity implies, how its potential could be realized, how its promises should not be betrayed. Referring to Hegel and the tradition spurred by him, Pankaj is adamant:

“[German philosophy’s] insights germinating during shattering historical and emotional crises were far removed from the stolidly empirical traditions of Anglo-America, or the cold objectivity prized among the ‘politically and economically sated nations’ as Weber called them” (AoA, p. 33) and moreover “The modern world’s greatest philosophical system, implicit in all our political ideas and values today, was built during this time. The French Revolution may have announced the nineteen century’s religion of the nation, and the cults of liberty and equality; but Germans brooding on their political inadequacy produced an Ur-philosophy of development: one to which liberal internationalists and modernization theorists as well as communist universalists and cultural nationalists should subscribe” (AoA, 203)

Pankaj’s real polemic target are the sanitized narratives of the last two centuries of European history. In those narratives, a humanistic, freedom-loving Enlightenment is only shaken, from time to time, by the external threat of some demagogue who takes power in Berlin (1933) or by some fanatic zealots of top-down modernization who happen to run the Kremlin from 1917, etc. You can perceive the Frankfurt School’s lesson -and Hannah Arendt’s-  in his words:

“‘Totalitarianism’ with his tens of millions of victims was identified as a malevolent reaction to a benevolent Enlightenment tradition of rationalism, humanism, universalism and liberal democracy – a tradition seen as an unproblematic norm. It was clearly too disconcerting to acknowledge that totalitarian politics crystallized the ideological currents (scientific racism, jingoistic nationalism, imperialism, technicism, aesteticized politics, utopianism, social engineering and the violent struggle for existence) flowing through the whole of Europe in the late Nineteen Century” (AoA, pg. 17)

As early as 1776, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor was duplicitous. Its first reference – to an impersonal optimization mechanism (more precisely an iterative solver of constrained inequalities) determining prices – was clear at once. But only few spirits red past that. One of those was Kant. In “Idee zu einer cosmopolitischen Regierung“, he had already recast the ‘invisible hand’ into the concept of ‘unsocial sociability’ (see Hobsbawm, Age Of Revolution, pg 58). But it was Rousseau who understood the full import of that – and built a system on it, with “[his] prescient criticism of a political system based on envious comparison, individual self-seeking and the multiplication of artificial needs”. Between the “First Discourse” (1750),  the “Second Discourse” (1754) and “The Social Contract” (1762), the Swiss thinker voiced the new category of ressentiment, or anger indeed – the anger against a state of the world which accelerates competitions on uneven playing fields – what Arendt called later on ‘negative solidarity’ (AOA, 51), i.e.

“individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity […] is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communication, the improved capacity for envious and resentful comparison, and the commonplace, and therefore compromised, quest for individual distinction and singularity” (AoA, 13)

Rousseau saw another thing very clearly. He understood that the ruling class, and in particular the intellectual stratum (in his time, Voltaire) would always want to dictate what is best for the common man. Most of the enlightenment philosophers and all the technocratic intelligentsia in the following two centuries, would stand by Voltaire side. Nietzsche understood the full import of that, when “claimed to identify in the battle between Voltaire and Rousseau the ‘unfinished problem of civilization’ “(AoA, pg. 94). In the posthumous “The Willpower” (123 –Spring-Fall 1887), Nietzsche wrote indeed:

The unfinished problems I pose anew: the problem of civilization, the fight between Rousseau and Voltaire around 1760. Man becomes more profound, mistrustful, “immoral,” stronger, more confident of himself—and to this extent “more natural”: this is “progress.”— At the same time, in accordance with a kind of division of labor, the strata that have become more evil are separated from those that have become milder and tamer—so that the overall fact is not noticed immediately.—It is characteristic of strength, of the self-control and fascination of strength, that these stronger strata possess the art of making others experience their progress in evil as something higher. It is characteristic of every “progress” that the strengthened elements are reinterpreted as “good.

These two strands germinating from Rousseau’s thought would undergird  every critique of modernization projects ever after- from Komeini to Brexit or Trump, Pankaj reiterates. Hence the anger as a driving force of political turmoil – spread to the whole globe by the concurrent destruction of premodern cultures and by the existence of digital platforms mirroring events in real time, with no geographical boundaries2. His conclusion is worth repeating here:

“Many people find it easy to aim their rage against an allegedly cosmopolitan and rootless cultural elite. Objects of hatred are needed more than ever before during times of crisis, and rich transnationals conveniently embody the viced of a desperately sought-after but infuriatingly unattainable modernity: money worship, lack of noble virtues such as patriotism. Thus, globalization, while promoting integration among shrewd elites, incites political and cultural sectarianism everywhere else, especially among people forced against their will into universal competition” (AoA, pgg 333-334)

We ought to be thankful to the author for his superb book. The great intellectual tradition spurred by German classical philosophy – from Hegel down to Habermas or Bauman – has in Mishra Pankaj another powerful voice.

1. [ Pankaj, Mishra. Age of Anger. A History of the Prsent. Penguin Press , 2017]
2. See also: “The coming of Anarchy” by Robert Kaplan

Una nota di Pier Paolo Pasolini

Apparsa sul Il Reporter del 19 gennaio 1960, col titolo “La comicità di Sordi, gli stranieri non ridono”, questa interessante nota di Pier Paolo Pasolini sembra, al solito, capace di una penetrazione psicologica straordinaria. Riproduco qui sotto la nota per intero,  a seguire un breve commento.

Dicono che, finora, Alberto Sordi non abbia avuto successo all’estero: può darsi che il successo venga, presto, e che questa situazione sia smentita da una inaspettata «scoperta» (e l’auguro all’attore): comunque non si può non meditare su questo fatto. Alberto Sordi è stato quest’anno al centro del cinema italiano: c’era Alberto Sordi nei Magliari, c’era Alberto Sordi nella Grande guerra, c’era Alberto Sordi nel Moralista, c’era Alberto Sordi in altri tre quattro filmetti di cassetta (vedi Costa Azzurra); in gran parte della produzione italiana c’era Alberto Sordi. E ci sarà. In questo momento la comicità nazionale coincide in gran parte con quella di Sordi. Totò e Fabrizi invecchiati e cadenti, gli altri quasi tutti fuori moda (a parte, più aristocratico, il caso di Eduardo De Filippo), è Sordi che ha il monopolio del riso. Ma all’estero non fa ridere. Bisognerà pur chiederci il perché.
Vediamo un po’: in fondo il mondo della Magnani è, se non identico, simile a quello di Sordi: tutti due romani, tutti due popolani, tutti due dialettali, profondamente tinti di un modo di essere estremamente particolaristico (il modo di essere della Roma plebea ecc.). Eppure la Magnani ha avuto tanto successo, anche fuori d’Italia: il suo «particolarismo» è stato subito compreso, è diventato subito, come si usa dire, universale, patrimonio comune di infiniti pubblici. Lo sberleffo della popolana di Trastevere, la sua risata, la sua impazienza, il suo modo di alzare le spalle, il suo mettersi la mano sul collo sopra le «zinne», la sua testa «scapijata», il suo sguardo di schifo, la sua pena, la sua accoratezza: tutto è diventato assoluto, si è spogliato del colore locale ed è diventato mercé di scambio, internazionale. È qualcosa di simile a quello che succede per i canti popolari: basta trascriverli, aggiustarli un po’, toglierci la selvatichezza e l’eccessivo sentore di miseria, ed eccoli pronti per lo smercio a tutte le latitudini.
Alberto Sordi, no. Parrebbe intraducibile. Lo si direbbe un canto popolare che non si può trascrivere. Ce lo vediamo, ce lo sentiamo, ce lo godiamo noi: nel nostro mondo «particolare».
Ma di che specie è il riso che suscita Alberto Sordi? Pensateci bene un momento: è un riso di cui un po’ ci si vergogna. E il massimo di questo senso di vergogna viene raggiunto, (ricordate?), nella risata angosciosa e un po’ isterica che Sordi strappa al pubblico nei due episodi dei Magliari in cui vende la mercé della povera ingenua gente tedesca, per di più colpita dal lutto. E vero che il «magliaro» è stata la più brutta interpretazione di Sordi: e non si capisce come egli sia così sfuggito di mano a un regista di buon gusto, anzi, di gusto raffinato, come è Rosi. Tuttavia, appunto perché è la più brutta, questa interpretazione può essere presa ad esempio, perché, nel suo eccesso, mostra con chiarezza l’intelaiatura della comicità di Sordi: è la comicità che nasce dall’attrito, con la variopinta e standardizzata società moderna, di un uomo il cui infantilismo anziché produrre ingenuità, candore, bontà, disponibilità, ha prodotto egoismo, vigliaccheria, opportunismo, crudeltà. Alberto_Sordi_I_vitelloni_bisÈ una deviazione dell’infantilismo. E quando uso questa parola, la uso in senso clinico (il lettore mi perdoni), nel senso che le danno gli psichiatri; la uso cioè molto seriamente. Il referto dei medici su Proust era, per esempio, infantilismo. L’infantilismo presiede a qualsiasi operazione artistica moderna, è il dio del decadentismo: cioè della grande arte borghese di questo ultimo secolo. Anche la comicità rientra in questo enorme schema fenomenologico. Da Charlot a Tati, per citare solo i grandi, i personaggi comici sono in realtà dei bambini (e ricordate pure Pascoli: ne siete storiograficamente autorizzati), bambini cresciuti, magari allampanati, magari pelati, ma sostanzialmente bambini: o, che sarebbe lo stesso, poeti. Anarchici, giramondo, nostalgici, scapigliati, spostati, falliti ecc., sono fondamentalmente inadatti a un rapporto normale con la società: in continuo urto con essa, e, nella fattispecie, con le sue convinzioni mondane, col suo tacito galateo di ipocrisie. Nessuno dei grandi comici del nostro tempo è un vero rivoluzionario: ma semplicemente un umanitario, un moralista, che, della società, indica i mali senza indicarne i rimedi. Il «ragazzine» che è in ogni comico non ne sarebbe capace.
Comunque resta un dato di fatto: in ogni comico vero del nostro tempo (e di tutti i tempi, del resto) c’è una profonda rivolta morale, che, se implica l’ingenuità inabile e improduttiva dell’infanzia, ne implica anche la bontà.
La bontà: ecco quello che manca totalmente in Sordi. Charlot ha fatto ridere tutto il mondo perché era buono; Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel e Oliver Hardy hanno fatto ridere tutto il mondo perché erano buoni; Tati fa ridere tutto il mondo perché è buono. La Magnani – che tuttavia non si può dire una «comica», nel senso stretto della parola – è piaciuta a tutto il mondo, pur essendo così particolaristica-mente italica, perché è generosa, appassionata.L'arte_di_arrangiarsi
Alla comicità di Alberto Sordi ridiamo solo noi: perché solo noi conosciamo il nostro pollo. Ridiamo, e usciamo dal cinema vergognandoci di aver riso, perché abbiamo riso sulla nostra viltà, sul nostro qualunquismo, sul nostro infantilismo.
Sappiamo che Sordi è in realtà un prodotto non del popolo (come la vera Magnani) ma della piccola borghesia, o di quegli strati popolari non operai, come se ne trovano specialmente nelle aree depresse, che sono sotto l’influenza ideologica piccolo-borghese. Alberto Sordi, come Cioccetti, è stato educato in sacrestia, da piccolo ha fatto il chierichetto. Cresciuto, si è trovato a doversi adattare: non c’è stata soluzione di continuità morale: ogni atto, che il bambino onesto educato dal prete riproverebbe, è tacitato, è giustificato dalla necessità. Un malato ha la necessità di essere sano, e, preso da questa necessità improrogabile, non hatempo e modo di occuparsi dei mali degli altri. È questo infantilismo come malattia, diventato cattiveria, che commuove in Sordi noi italiani: possiamo perdonarlo, perché sappiamo tutto, cosa c’è dietro e sotto.
Ma fuori d’Italia non sono cattolici: sono protestanti, puritani, o sono dei cattolici rigorosi senza compromessi. Capisco come per pubblici simili sia difficile ridere su un modo di vita che è il peccato stesso, è il male stesso, senza rimedio, senza contraddizione. Essi non conoscono l’arte di arrangiarsi, o, se ne hanno sentore, la vedono molto più romanticamente. Tanta ferocia, tanta viltà è inconcepibile. Noi possiamo riderne, amaramente: ma a loro chi glielo fa fare?
Questa comicità di Sordi piccolo-borghese e cattolica, fondamentalmente senza nessuna fede, senza nessun ideale, non urta e non urterà mai la censura italiana: urta e urterà sempre chi possiede una sensibilità civica e morale, cioè la media dei pubblici francesi e anglosassoni.
Non vorrei che questa potesse parere una eccessiva «stroncatura» di Sordi: in fondo, probabilmente senza rendersene conto, il tipo che egli così intelligentemente e vividamente ha inventato, era necessitato fuori da lui, dalla società in cui egli vive in assoluta acribia. Per diventare un vero grande comico, «universale» (come si dice) gli ci vuole un po’ di senso critico: un po’ di cattiveria intellettuale, finalmente, dopo tanta cattiveria viscerale! C’è infatti la possibilità di inserire nel suo personaggio quel tanto di pietà, cioè di conoscenza di sé e del mondo, sia pure irrazionale e sentimentale, che gli manca. Egli deve essere meno ellittico, meno ammiccante: noi, che ci siamo in mezzo, lo capiamo subito, gli stranieri (cioè il mondo, cioè lo spettatore in assoluto), no. Egli deve rendere esplicita quell’estrema ombra di pietà che nel suo infantilismo pure permane e può commuovere, malgrado le mostruosità di cui è capace.La_grande_guerra
E dico che tutto questo è possibile perché due volte Sordi c’è riuscito: una volta per merito del dialogo, una volta per merito del regista. Intendo riferirmi a una particina indimenticabile, a una specie di «a solo» che Sordi ha eseguito nel Medico e lo stregone; e, soprattutto, alla Grande guerra. In questi due casi, finalmente, Sordi vive di due elementi, entrambi operanti: il Sordi bebé antropofago, cattivo, amorale, e il Sordi poveraccio morto di fame sostenuto suo malgrado da una forza morale, dalla pietà che in infinitesima parte sente e per il resto incute.
Se in Sordi entrasse definitivamente questa contraddizione, se egli capisse che non si può ridere se al fondo del riso non c’è della bontà – pur esercitata o repressa in un mondo nemico – la sua comicità finirebbe di essere uno dei tristi fenomeni della brutta Italia di questi anni, e potrebbe, nei suoi modesti limiti, contribuire almeno a una lotta riformistica e morale.
Le categorie gramsciane (“particolare”, “una lotta riformistica e morale” etc) sono totalmente in chiaro nello splendido tessuto della prosa di Pasolini, come pure l’analisi materialistico-storica della societa’: una vera delizia intellettuale. In progresso di tempo, il Sordi di cui parla PPP si sarebbe affrancato da questa stroncatura per mano di ben piu’ sofferte interpretazioni (si veda per tutti il film di Scola “Riusciranno i nostri eroi“): ma il tipo umano rappresentato dall’attore e’ ancora con noi.  Ancora agli inizi degli anni`80 Calvino poteva scrivere il suo “Apologo sull’onestà nel paese dei corrotti” cogliendo pienamente nel segno.
Mi chiedo che cosa scriverebbero oggi autori dotati della finezza psicologica di PPP o dell’intelligenza delle cose di Italo Calvino sulla societa’ italiana. Mi chiedo se la scomparsa di questo genere di analisi sia da imputare al mutamento “molecolare” della natura stessa della comunicazione (pubblica) o al discredito che codeste categorie (“particolare” etc) incontrano nel discorso pubblico. Piu’ probabilmente, la qualita’ stessa del dibattito intellettuale nel paese Italia e’ cosi’ vistosamente precipitata che l’uso stesso di simili – ma aggiornate – categorie  interpretative  (si pensi al lavoro dell’ultimo  Zygmut Baumann) risulta impervio. In fin dei conti, Pasolini era buon conoscitore di Eliade e Malinowski, della sociologia anglosassone, oltreche’ ovviamente della filosofia classica tedesca.

On Chomsky and Hobsbawm (cont’ned)


Upon visiting the splendid mosaics in Villa Romana del Casale (Piazza Armerina), one is reminded very clearly of the intelligent remark made by Karl Marx  according to which work had no social relevance in the ancient world. Because of oversupply due to slave labour, no place for the creative activity of man was on display in the ancient world – there simply was no place for it.

Take now another of Marx’ great insights (from the ‘Grundrisse’, as quoted in George Lichtheim, ‘A Short History of Socialism’ pp. 100-101):

What appears as surplus value on the side of capital, appears on the workers side as surplus labor … beyond the immediate requirement for the maintenance of his existence. The great historic side of capital is to create this surplus labor, superfluous labor from the standpoint of mere use value, mere subsistence; and its historic destiny is fulfilled as soon as, in the one hand, needs [wants] have been so far developed that surplus labor beyond necessity [subsistence] has itself become a general need [want] … on the other hand, the general disposition to work [industriousness] has, through the severe discipline of capital … been developed into the general property [possession] of the new breed of men [ des neuen Geschlecht] – finally, when the development of labor productive forces … has reached the point where the possession or maintenance of societal wealth requires a diminishing quantity of labor time, and where the laboring society takes up a scientific attitude to the process of its progressive reproduction … where consequently the kind of work man does, instead of letting it be done by things on his behalf, has come to an end.

Again quoting Lichtheim (loc. cit. p. 101) ‘from the standpoint of the mature Marx, capitalism appears as a historically conditioned mechanism for developing society’s productive power to the point where the subordination of labor to capital, of living people to dead matter, will become unnecessary’. A splendid contribution on this direction, focusing in particular on the changing nature of ‘time’ in the upcoming industrial society is in the influential article by Edward P. Thompson “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967).

The question is then: what can we do with Noam Chomsky’s remark about distributed, horizontal, vertically-free organization of social labour? The global supply chain that I hold in my hand when I use my Android – can we really do without the kind of pressure that capitalism extracts from the worker? the kind of productivity tyranny it imposes on the men and women composing the human mass it insists upon?

Practical reason as sorcery (ii): development economics

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the towering figure of Josif Stalin, whose footprint on the 20th century has been arguably the biggest of any world leader. ‘Young Stalin‘ of Simon Sebag Montefiore has rightly been awarded many prizes, as much uncomfortable its central tenet – JS was a supremely talented man, albeit an evil one- can be. In a forum, I stumbled upon the following witty remark:

“Stalin was a great ceo of ussr inc. fought and won inter management battle due to his superior strategy and vision. successfully defeated hostile takeover bid by german nazi inc ( with a little help from friends). cut lots of unproductive and underperforming fat. and really turned over inefficient and backward business into a world conquering juggernaut second only to great usa inc. a really great ceo and shining beacon for business community. “

Turning to more serious analysis, the early Soviet poster below, promoting industrialization, reads “Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”:
it  gives an hint for another instance of the recurring theme of practical reason as sorcery (see here for the previous post).


Let us start  from a remark by late Eric Hobsbawm in “Age Of Revolution 1789 -1848”, (pg 181):

“Of all the economic consequences of the age of dual revolution this division between the ‘advanced’ and the ‘underdeveloped’ countries proved to be the most profound and the most lasting. Roughly speaking by 1848 it was clear which countries were to belong to the first group, i.e. Western Europe (minus the Iberian peninsula), Germany, Northern Italy and parts of central Europe, Scandinavia, the USA and perhaps the colonies settled by English-speaking migrants. But it was equally clear that the rest of the world was, apart from small patches, lagging, or turning—under the informal pressure of western exports and imports or the military pressure of western gunboats and military-expeditions— into economic dependencies of the west. Until the Russians in the 1930s developed means of leaping this chasm between the ‘backward’ and the ‘advanced’, it would remain immovable, untraversed, and indeed growing wider, between the minority and the majority of the world’s inhabitants. No fact has determined the history of the twentieth century more firmly than this.”

Hobsbawm,  in “Age Of Extremes – 1914-1991″, (pg. 380), talks about the first Five Year Plan launched by J. Stalin in the following terms:

“Nevertheless, any policy of rapid modernization in the USSR, under the circumstances of the time, was bound to be ruthless …”

Stalin realized quite early on that the (world) revolution was not going to happen in the West & hence he unflinchingly (and brutally) followed the suggestions of the industrialists to steer through a policy of massive industrialization in one country.
How are we to judge the above remarks? Are they supported by empirical data?

Take old Alec Nove’s article, “Was Stalin really necessary?”:  his conclusion seems to be on the affirmative. Now take another set of researchers,  Anton Cheremukhin, Mikhail Golosov, Sergei Guriev, Aleh Tsyvinski (MIT): in the paper “Was Stalin Necessary for Russian Economic Development?”, they argue quite the opposite, seemingly pointing to the total uselessness of JS’s policies of rapid industrialization, against the loss of economic potential in the millions. (The paper above has been reviewed by Emanuele Felice: here)

In reality, the debate -even invoking notions of Pareto optimality in the allocation etc- would still be an ill-fit to the empirical data, because the concept of human society it is predicated upon cannot be clearly stated, but it lives in the foggy province of either an extrapolation from the present, or of a earthly ‘civitas dei’ which, along with similar messianic ideas, cannot have instantiation.

It seems that either some obscure notion of human freedom, happiness has to be invoked, – which is impossible – or the debate is reduced to sterile comaparison of time-series analysis, which by itself cannot do justice to the vastness of the events. The phrase :”One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is statistics”, also attributed to JS, is just a restatement of the same problem, that morality – so to speak- has a necessary scale, which is commensurate to the situation at hand. Entire popuulations can be displaced to make room for future Magnitogorsk or Norilsk, without the notion of human dignity to apply or make much sense. Those notions, so to speak, have a local domain of validity. Kantian universalism is rejected by the historical data in the ‘age of extremes’.




Wir sind unschuldig


The text at the bottom of Marx and Engels monument in Alexander Platz in Berlin reads “Wir sind unschuldig”, i.e. “We are not guilty”. Guilty of what?
In the preface to “A People’s Tragedy”, Orlando Figes writes very perceptive words:

The Russian Revolution launched a vast experiment in social engineering — perhaps the grandest in the history of mankind. It was arguably an experiment which the human race was bound to make at some point in its evolution, the logical conclusion of humanity’s historic striving for social justice and comradeship.

Albert Einstein wrote an article for the “Monthly Review” in 1949, with the title ‘Why Socialism?’, explaining why a mode of production corresponding to Veblen’s “predatory phase” of human race could not foster the human potential, as (Veblen 1899, Ch. 1

“The predatory phase of culture is attained […] when the predatory attitude has become the habitual and accredited spiritual attitude for the members of the group; when the fight has become the dominant note in the current theory of life; when the common-sense appreciation of men and things has come to be an appreciation with a view to combat.”

Nowhere in recorded history, has argued Yuval Harari in ‘Home Sapiens’, there have been periods where being expendable in the production process has accrued in something else than insignificance. If ever we would be able to build the ‘civitatem dei’ of automata working for us, according to the old dream of the rabbi from Prague, the outcome may be straight dismissal for us. The illusion – fostered by the golden age of post 1945 Western economies miracle – that free sanitation and health care and (almost) free schooling were granted by the liberal order because of some ethical concern about the human life is soon dismissed: the (neo)liberal argument that inspired such policies was born out of efficiency considerations. Whoever has to provide for her own expensive health care is less productive and total efficiency decreases.

We are still trapped in this line of argument: if we forget this, it is at our own peril.

Mass reproduction & reproduction of the masses


In “Illuminations“, pg. 251, Walter Benjamin makes the following remark:

“Mass reproduction is aided especially by the reproduction of the masses.”

In order to comment on that, let us start from a film. The Bildungsroman of StaSi agent Wiesler in “The Life of Others” is clearly depicting a world where one could end up in jail for a non conformist interpretation of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right” or for an off-center reading of Dostoevsky.

The socialist world had the greatest respect for the poetic word: to the extent one could die because of it. Mandelstam and Bulgakov, Pasternak and Shostakovitch all had to face the consequences of their artistic genius. The aesopic nature of the Polish cinema in the 1960, to take another example (think of ‘Mother Johanna of the Angels‘),  reflects the fact that the poetic word could pierce the screen of power. The locus classicus for this sort of ideas is of course, George Steiner’s “Archives of Eden” (jstor) and his “In Bluebeard’s Castle“.

Why was that the case? Was it because the preservation of the poetic aura is the necessary condition for a message to be effective, and Baudelaire’s books of poems at the supermarket next to groceries are pointless offerings? Or was it because the secret of the poetic word was its concentration in very few hands, hence its disruptive power was in essence totally correlated with its social scarcity?

Arguably the failure of the Socialist movements in the “short 20th century” is attributable  to the leninist vanguardism of the ‘What is to be done?‘ according to which a selected elite should drive forward the ignorant masses. On the contrary, it can be argued that it is only the raising level of consciousness of the general population that can both (i) prevent the excesses of vanguardism and (ii) insure that the social targets are achieved in a way that is meaningful to all the people.

Rosa Luxembourg in her critique of Lenin, see here, raised the same argument more than 100 years back. Its poignancy is still with us.  Take the ‘Guardian‘, one of Europe’s best newspaper (arguably the best).


Alan Rusbridger has been its editor in chief  for more than 10 years, steering the newspaper -among other accomplishments – to win a Pulitzer.
On the 9 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, he confronted the issue of how to inform the public in a world which is very different from just 20 years back and he wrote those perceptive words:

Is there an economic model for serious news? Let’s hope so – but the gales blowing through my old industry are now truly frightening. When I stepped down from the Guardian just over a year ago, my Guardian Media Group colleagues were happy to go on the record to emphasise their confidence in increasing digital revenues and a future based on growth. But something profound and alarming has been happening in recent months and all our eyes ought to be on the West Coast giants – especially, but not only, Facebook – that are cleaning up quite extraordinarily.

There is only one truly proven business model for serious general news – that of the BBC. Yes, it sometimes infuriates me, too. But it is an astonishingly wide-ranging, accurate and ethical institution that […] ought, in any sane world, to be listed, not cut.

But many people today clearly find organisations that are not primarily driven by profit beyond comprehension. What would they make of the Scott family, who could have been multimillionaires but decided instead, back in 1936, to give away the Manchester Guardian for a quid? They placed the Guardian into a trust because its greatest editor, C P Scott, saw it as a public good, or even a moral force, rather than an engine of profit or personal gain.

For most of its 195-year life, the Guardian has struggled to make money […]. Quite often (as today), the Guardian has lost more than it should, or could, in any given year. Clearly, the business model needs to change. But looking around the world, I don’t think that anyone can truthfully claim to have cracked it.

When the impeccable elitist Lord Reith set in motion BBC, “its self-assigned obligation to raise popular standards rather than condescend to them” -in the words of Tony Judt, “Ill fares the Land”, pg. 53 – was uncompromisingly clear.

Once, I used to think that the issues raised by Noam Chomsky in say, “Manufacturing Consent” or for that matter Glenn Greenwald in “No Place to Hide”, about some sort of interlocking directorate of revolving doors between journalism and politics was the likely explanation of that failure. Upon closer inspection and mature reflection, I have come to a simpler, information-theoretic conclusion. Information of good quality, challenging the expected value of conformist opinions, disruptive of worn out consensus, is costly. Providing it, as Alan correctly states, is very difficult. As human beings , we love patterns, repetitions, habits: we find unattractive what challenges our opinions, no matter how unmeditated. This is the true problem: whoever wants to know, she/he has the instruments to decipher the noise: be it books, the internet, high quality newspapers etc. The problem is, once again, how much energy are we willing to spend on that.
The conundrum of mass reproduction highlighted by W. Benjamin is still with us.


Deflation of human agency


One of the premier Art Deco buildings in London, the famed Senate House (above) keeps resonating in my mind every time I wander in it. Especially overnight.
Vastly different in concept but equally capable of impressing with its geometry, the Brutalist masterpiece by Ernő Goldfinger (Trellick Tower: below) gives a sort of shock on its first appearance.

Trellick Tower was an ideal-typical realization of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” concept but in “A Clockwork Orange” Kubrick placed Alex and his comrades in one of Britain’s most notorious environments, Tavy Bridge area of Thamesmead South: in the Brutalist architecture Kubrick sensed the scary vibrations coming from Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”. Who was right?

Norbert Wiener said that the fundamental assumption of 1930 dictatorships rested on a conceptual fallacy, i.e. the misrepresentation of the human nervous system:

[the] aspiration of the fascists for a human state based on the model of the ant results from a profound misapprehension both of the nature of the ant and of the nature of man. […]. The human individual, capable of vast learning and study, which may occupy almost half of his life, is physically equipped, as the ant is not, for this capacity. […] Those who would organize us according to permanent individual functions and permanent human restrictions condemn the human race to move at much less than half speed.
( The Human Use of Human Beings, pg.51-2)

Both the modernist utopia of the Swiss architect and the dystopia hinted at by Wiener rested on the same assumption: life is path-dependent, human being is intrinsically plastic, and can be cast in various shapes. In  “Variation of Animals and Plants” (1871),

Darwin had already found that the brains of hares and rabbits that grew up confined in boring hutches were 15 to 30 percent smaller than those of their wild counterparts. Conversely,  when animals are placed in an “enriched environment,” a large enclosure full of objects that are renewed each day and in which they can play with one another, their brains grow and develop more synapses. Children who are seriously neglected during their early development also have smaller brains […]; their intelligence and linguistic and fine motor control are permanently impaired, and they are impulsive and hyperactive.  (D. Swaab, “We are our brains”, 2014)

The question at stake in the dilemma above is really the interplay of freedom and necessity. This is the message that resonates from the Senate House and the Trellick Tower. We cannot escape this message:  we can only hope to be able to stand their presence, to endure their shadow.

The organization of society implied by those massive structures is a reminder that man is a social animal, thriving in the social organization of labor. At the same time their very conceptual and physical presence deflates human agency to the level of the ant: which corresponds in material terms to the epistemological pessimism of Dostoevsky’s “Great Inquisitor”, when he assumes that the elite has to control the common man as he is not able to discern good from evil for himself. Christ gave men liberty out of a misplaced thrust, the Inquisitor’s stance reads.

Truth is that today we cannot do without the towers and what they represent. We have to inhabit these imposing concrete islands. We have to pass through them, to rise to their level if we want to face our time. But we have to accomplish that without losing the touch with our uniqueness of human beings. We do not want to relinquish Enlightenment’s epistemological optimism, lest we end in Great Inquisitor’s trap.

There is no room to regress to previous modes of social interaction. We have to struggle for “the human use of human beings” while inhabiting the many towers of Modern times.