Autumn-winter 2004
 

 

  Autumn-winter 2004

  SURFING ON A TIDAL WAVE OF POPULISM
  Nenad Fiser
 
 
International diplomacy - the current embodiment of the political consciousness of global civilization - has danced around Bosnia, merrily singing "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf" for more than two years.
Rarely has a human tragedy of that magnitude been attended by such a series of political mannequins, acting as moderators, terminators, commanders in chief and commanders in thief, with faces contorted in nonchalant "we-have-it-under-control" grins. They have been arrogantly displayed for public scrutiny while hanging on a carrousel of contradictions and incompetence.
Their behaviour is the quintessence of our civilization. Individuals and cultures cannot be properly analyzed in terms of civilization when reduced to any particular dimension, but only through the full span of their achievements - their average and their extremes. In that respect, we follow the method of 'comparing the averages of extremes', so superbly and convincingly established and applied by Vladimir Dvornikovic in the first half of this century. In his chief work, "Characterology of Yugoslav Man", he warned that in order to judge the moral character of some historical collective, it is necessary to "...examine within what range not only the nuances, but also the contradictions, of their moral life lay." In ethical terms, it is the question of how far, in which dimensions and to what extent one collectivity can go towards good and evil, and what extremes it reaches. However, international politics, as a subset of the human political community, tends by its nature to minimize that range (or, in the words of probability, to decrease its standard deviation), shrinking its horizon around the heaviest body of public opinion, lying on the median line of the average. In that sense prominent politicians are well placed to analyze the true nature of our civilization. All the way up, along the intertwined lianas of local, national, international and finally transnational power-structures, they have been passed, extracted and extruded through a variety of sieves, screens and filters, until they have ended up in positions where they can represent, as closely as possible, the current ideal of that function (as required by the current conception of politics).

Instead of blindly exploring the sedimentary depths of that collective mind, in search of the fundamental common denominator which the latest generation of leading political designers share (the characteristic which mutually affiliates them more closely than their ideologies could ever separate them), we shall start with the observation of what is their most transparent common feature. Although only epiphenomenal, hypocrisy has become almost a trademark of the current political scene, particularly as it is seen on the Bosnian stage. The magnitude of the discrepancy between proclaimed values and the actions taken on their behalf, designate the end of this century as the era of the pretence of virtue, which by law metastasizes into renewed political barbarism. The historic edifice of political man, whose most important sections were built earlier in the century, is now collapsing.
Hypocrisy, when it becomes a prominent feature of political life, offers a model worthy of investigation, because of its simplicity and the amount it can teach us. Hypocrisy reinforces behaviour rich in schizophrenic talent: coordination between the - in principal - divided realms of private and public, inner and outer. Hypokrinesthai is one of the mental reflexes of every habitual demagogue (characterized by Dvornikovic as "...indescribably insensitive to all absurdities, both moral and logical"). In its self-conscious form, hypocrisy develops into cynicism (about which Sloterdijk has already said enough).

What is so peculiar in the circumstances that created the episode of history directed by this particular species of political prodigy? Why have they so rarely before emerged in such numbers - and unusually even distribution - as now?

Dramatic and substantial changes in the structure of the contemporary world have rendered useless most of the algorithms of their political calculus. They have faced an emerging world which can no longer be grasped through a schema based on bipolarity. Alas, the political experience of past centuries in the West was founded on the suitability of exactly that schema for successfully dealing with reality. Its sudden malfunction and inability to provide the political mind with a clear view of the political domain, has created a dumbfound kind of confusion.

The international political community has found itself in the midst of a historic shift, in which the greatest political minds of human history often emerge. Unfortunately, this time the challenge of that shift was faced by a political elite who managed to climb to the top capitalizing on their knowledge of old routines. To their dismay, it was no longer the stage they once knew. Suddenly, it became quite windy and chilly up there. The usual cosy chatter subsided, and was replaced by the sound of frantic calculations, in the vain belief that quantitative data would compensate for qualitative blindness. No matter how intensively they stared at reality, transcendental aesthetics worked against them; the picture was chaotic, vague and fuzzy (the phenomenon of fuzziness and its symptoms in the case of the current American president was nicely, observed by William Safire in his article "Fuzzy, Was He ?", The New York Times, 16 September 1993). To make matters worse, their position was conditioned by their allegiance to certain values and principles; and they were tempted by the very possibility that one might have to apply them and act accordingly.

The lack of cultural substance, the substance which distinguishes a politician from political clerk1, has made them incapable of deducing what "acting accordingly" might mean. To their despair, the highest principles of civilization are exactly those through which ethos regulates and controls the animal bios of a human being. However, with the instinct of a predator, they smelled the promise of new opportunities, suspecting that in all that commotion something might turn out to their own personal advantage.

Slow in adjusting its vision to a new perspective, the political community acted in the most fitting manner available - by improvising. On the map of all conceivable principles, they left the trace of what is known (in the theoretical world of probability) as a "drunk man's walk": depending on the chance that stumbling around sufficiently long will get us to the exit door. That "sufficiently long time" was provided by the executives of transnational diplomacy. They faced the challenge of stalling and dragging out, by performing colourful rituals ranging from incantations of fear-inducing spells to symbolic folk dances around tables and performing semantic masterpieces of non-commitment in front of the cameras. Anything and everything that might help the transnational political establishment make it through the crisis - the emergence of a qualitatively new situation - was welcomed. Perhaps, in the end, they might even be able to achieve some credibility in the future if events happen to move, under their own steam, in a favourable direction. But however disastrous it might be, the outcome can always be justified later as minima demalis, when compared to any hypothetical "what-might-have-been" (which would supposedly happen if they weren't around to prevent it.) It happens to be, by the way, the same rationale used by Serbian nationalists to justify their initiation of the so-called civil war.

In achieving that aim without abandoning aloud declared and inherited ethical principles, and particularly without the cost of applying them, it is no wonder that, at a given moment, the political scene was flooded by 'dignified cynics', who shared the solidarity of accomplices. In the words of Sloterdijk ("The Critique of the Cynical Mind"), "the fashionable realism of the gentlemanly cynic originates from the desire to save face while getting his hands dirty, by striking a superior pose and giving a cynical smile...as crooked as the comma between ‘Yes’ and ‘But’".

Deprived of a firm ethical credo, and consequently its corresponding political vision, their agenda is determined by careful eavesdropping, in a ridiculous choreography of riding on the statistical curve of local public opinion. It is in the nature of such an endeavour to be continuously tuned into the direction of the statistical mainstream since it comprehends the world only in quantitative terms. The content of successively changing standpoints, and the nature of that change and the eventual inconsistency of positions taken during that process, is of lesser importance to such a political jockey. Although he strives to emulate Swift's Lemuel Gulliver: the one who in Brobdingnag, the land of Giants, wins the hearts of people with his spirit and wisdom, and in Lilliput by his justly motivated physical strength, as an ambitious eclectic (who, according to Baudelaire, resembles the ship that tries to sail on all four winds at the same time), he ends up as an average Gulliver in the land of the people of average height. And that indicates a symptomatic picture of the rising populism of the new breed. While democracy acts as a form of permanent pressure on the political establishment to be consistent in respect of proposed values, populism dismisses that pressure with cynical relativization.

On the deserted field of values - still, nevertheless, pompously acclaimed - appeared the experts of theoretical reverse engineering to reshape and to reinterpret either reality, or principles, or both, until they fit each other in the frame of alleged compatibility - an achievement which would enable political practitioners to replace their bewildered stuttering with the self-confident pretence of historical wisdom. Various theoretical patches, interfaces, amendments and concoctions were brought out. If one preferred to stick with a bipolarized model of the world, Samuel P. Huntington from Harvard offered his "clash of civilizations", prophesying the rise of a new antagonistic alliance of Chinese-Islamic (ie. non-white) provenance, just as his Russian theoretical counterpart, political practitioner Zhirinovsky, offers a clash of bipolarized "healthy nationalistic" and "decadent cosmopolitan" civilizations in the future. About a year later, Michael Lind, executive editor of "The National Interest", revealed that "multi-national" by itself equals "despotic", and therefore advised Western encouragement of national separatism - to mention only two essays which have appeared on the pages of "Foreign Affairs".

Despite all the effort involved in assembling these ideological platforms, designed to be sufficiently opaque to create ,an impression of fresh ideas, the bottom layer of the author's political axis unmistakably reveals an apologist of historical entrenchment. His imagination is virtually pre-conceptual: a simple analogy has an absolute precedence over deduction. Reduced and codified metaphor is, hence, the furthest his analytical imagination is capable ofreaching. His deepest representational strata still demonstrate some sort of atavistic kinematophobia - a fear and rejection of motion and change - except in predictive patterns of periodic, preferably cyclic, rhythms like the change of the seasons, the change of terms of office or the orbiting of celestial bodies. The metaphorical synthesis of his ideal of stability and harmony is supplied by the immediate observation of a narrow segment of nature, as experienced through centuries of tribal and patriarchal anchorage. The botanic metaphor of a tree, its roots and soil, as the one depicting an ultimate human identifier, is probably one of the oldest living metaphors of our ideosphere. Formed in the dawn of man's search for knowledge, it certainly did reflect the keen perceptiveness of our non-nomadic, ancient ancestors. Applied today as a paradigm for understanding reality, both individual and collective, it is a call to climb up again into the trees from which we are still trying to descend. In this imagery, where roots take priority over fruits, one finds the loop of perpetual return to the realm in which no achievement can be more significant than its preconditions, nor can it ever become a starting point for some further creative process, as a cause of the next developmental stage. Fruits ripen, fall off and decompose, while roots remain forever.2

Only in this century has mankind culturally absorbed the idea, known to astronomers since the Renaissance, that the Earth is a planet in space. A single, extremely complex entity with intricate levels of interconnections. Understanding is primarily cultural, but is consequently also political. That realization presented a step further in the process of the mental reframing of contingencies. However, considering the care demonstrated in cherishing the metaphor of the tree as an explanatory device, and the non-ostensive nature of the theory of evolution, it seems that quite some time will pass before the knowledge that life has evolved a bit further from the level of plants penetrates the shell of such an archaic Weltanschauung.

Where the paragon of life is identified in its immovable form, it is no wonder that history and social dynamics have ended up petrified in the imagery of plate tectonics. We speak of clashes, unbridgeable gaps, of chasms and collisions. Motion is allowed only in a limited, mechanical sense to demonstrate that tectonic plates, intrinsically monolithic and unchangeable, if directed towards each other will crash on until one of them crumbles apart and gives way to the other. On the other hand, the gaps - most often abysses - between them may be artificially surmounted, although, by their nature, these geological masses are distinctly and permanently separated.

In both of these models, the creative dynamism of history is reduced to the quantitative consumption of time. Its self-repeating and monotonic flow assumes an a-historical isomorphy, as expressed in words of Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1:10): 'what has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again; Nil novi sub sole' - there is nothing new under the sun. And this being the case, any historical moment can be compared to any other, if sufficiently simplified. Since there is nothing which might develop in the course of history into a new quality, the main sense of collective existential orientation is directed towards the past, not the future. Behind every "political realist", there is an atavist in disguise, filled with contemptuous and enraged Weltschmerz - in short, a cynic. His political philosophy is shaped in terms of the end of history, led by the prophetic conviction of being the witness of its final moments. In the time remaining, only some small spots are supposed to be outlined more sharply, and a few patches left to be applied to the ripped map of the Universe, before it can enter into an eternal state of subsistence. If only he could advise where those patches should be sewn on and by whom; maybe that would be sufficient to provide him with some evangelistic recognition, even among those who believe neither in historical development, nor in historical stagnation, but with a tearful eye take an oath on pre-history.

Every concept, when taken over and passed through the grinding machinery of that reductionist mind, is peeled off to the bare bones of quantity. Insensitive to the amplitudes of historical development, it declares the first appearance of any new quality to be "obviously unfit" or a "failed project". The ease and malicious content with which multi-ethnic states are, as a matter of principal, dismissed in favour of old worn-out social and cultural prescriptions, on account of current processes, reveals the kind of intellectual horizon from which any restoration of a historically prior state is celebrated as a return to ultimately "absolved and proven solutions", to the domain of reality whose history has already "successfully ended" for good. It is the same kind of mentality which repeatedly proved the emptiness of the idea of a republic, after its fall in France, and the restoration of the monarchy, with the same vigour as it, today, points to the advantages of nationally monolithic states over multi-ethnic ones. Not so much as a consequence of their analysis of civilization, but out of a sheer, melancholic devotion to the tectonic imagery of monoliths. That mind accepts history as the magistra vitae, as long as trees, rocks and boulders are magistra historiae.

Recently, we witnessed this type indulging in debates on "how to bridge existing gaps" (iuch as those between East and West, Islam and Christianity, and so on), completely neglecting the fact that there was already "know-how" available, sometimes tested in the most fruitful way for centuries (as in the case of Bosnia); or to put it more precisely: efficiently performing their evolutionary function until exactly that type of political geometer appeared to promote the ontological priority of the gap over the bridge. A phenomenon particularly worthy of attention is the silent diversion performed on the idea of multi-ethnicity. Appropriately reduced to quantities, multi-ethnic society is understood as a collection, a mechanical conglomerate, of clearly distinct collective entities, lumped together in the same bag. The fact that within sufficient time and the right historical circumstances this connectedness will produce a new quality, which cannot be reduced any more to any of its particular constituents, is carefully avoided or blatantly negated, despite overwhelming evidence. In their chemistry, complex molecules are only unfortunate connections between mutually exploited and otherwise incompatible atoms, which would be much better off if held together with their own kin. The absence of possible reactions which would lead towards elevated complexity, as axiomatically postulated to be a case in their living state, leaves the door open for their justification of any reduction downwards. That is where the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing and genocidal bigotry is treated with recognizable hypocrisy: as something which. is to be prevented not by greater cultural maturity through educatioQ, but by promoting the values and means which will ensure that different cultures stay away from each other, left in the undisturbed hibernation of fossilized tradition where history left them centuries ago.

The Greek physician and philosopher, Hippocrates, warned in his celebrated aphorism that Ars longa, vita brevis. Contrary to the modern interpretation of this quotation, as a simple statement in praise of the inexhaustible potential for human investigation, Hippocrates had a more "down to the earth" imperative in mind - that despite the obvious vastness of the uncharted waters beyond the horizon of current knowledge (of medicine, in his case), the brevity of a single human life calls for immediate action. A lack of ultimate knowledge is not an excuse for inaction, nor does the praiseworthy ambition to achieve it release one from the responsibility to act hic et nunc, according to the best knowledge available. In the historical sense of what concern us today, that knowledge, and its application, was sufficiently well established more than half a century ago with a price so high that any pretence of forgetting about it makes that forgetfulness a criminal act against civilization itself.

That Promethean spirit of resoluteness, invoked by Hippocrates' maxim, gradually evaporated in occidental cultural space, until its revival in the Renaissance. The call for immediate action when addressing issues crucial for human well-being dissolved amidst the rise of a different set of values, in which history and man's place within it were conceived less and less in their formative but, instead, in their consumptive sense. So, the maxims concerning Hippocrates's area of expertise firstly manifested a stance of healthy, Roman pragmatism (Medice, cura te ipsum), then cautiousness in attributing to human achievements features reserved for forces of supernatural origin (Medicus curat, natura sanat), and finally an attitude of resignation in a predetermined flux of time (Medicina vinci fata non possunt). The same descending path can be traced today in the body politic.

That loss of historical awareness, including an appropriate sense of responsibility for shaping it, is not nowadays frozen by an ideology of emptiness, withdrawal or renunciation, but by an over-saturation of deceptive self-sufficiency, condensing into electronic populism.

In the case of Bosnia, the political homunculi of Hippocrates created an inflammation, which was hastily treated by applying local anaesthetics, hoping that before the process gets too obviously lethal the surgeons in charge will already be operating in some other hospital. Judging by their previous effectiveness, they will scarcely manage to dig the graves fast enough to accommodate all the prospective patients gathering on the horizon of historical
tumult.


Notes

1. The degree of readiness to act in a manner consistent with one's ideas of cultural - and therefore political. - reality, is where the politician of a historical calibre cannot be simply "emulated" by a politicizing dilettante. The former perceives politics in the perspective of historical development; the latter in the perspective of the duration of his term of office. The former builds his political experience on a clear articulation of his values and subsequent goals (the method used to achieve them being itself a goal); the latter forms his values and goals by obsessively measuring the popular pulse (particularly sensitive to the beat of the deepest arteries of the unawakened, animal bios), to the extent that it becomes his only political praxis. That makes him, in a political sense, a janitor and, in philosophical sense, a wholesaler.
2. Quite recently I read about one of our antediluvian ancestors, a sea squirt, who seemed to be satisfied with the level of evolution he had attained millions of years ago. The sea squirt merrily repeats, through countless generations, a curious life-style, which actually throws an interesting light on human behaviour. Moreover, one could follow this frequently adopted survival strategy, in its various and complex disguises, throughout the whole of history, proving that, if need be, humankind can always rely on experiences from our evolutionary past that have been deeply embedded in our genetic memory.
A juvenile ascidian (sea squirt) wanders through the sea, looking for some comfortable, or at least available, rock to conquer. When an appropriate piece of coral is found, the sea squirt clings to it, regarding it as his indisputable lebensraum - and stays on it for good. The process of floating around observing an unfriendly ocean environment in order to achieve his ultimate blood-and-soil connection, requires a nervous system that is up to the job. However rudimentary it may be, it certainly serves its owner well enough to root himself to the chosen site of his very own cornucopia. With his goal achieved, his brain isn't needed any more, so the squirt simply gobbles it up. This particular diet, enjoyed only once in the otherwise carefree life of every honest sea squirt, has the advantage of being extremely nourishing, helping our primordial intellectual to resist the environmental threats he will have to face. Compared to what he is going to eat for the rest of his days, it is probably the best meal of his life. But then, of course, he won't care any more.


(originally published in “Erewhon”, Vol. 1, No. 1, Amsterdam, 1994)