A review of Free World: Why a Crisis of the West Reveals the Opportunity of Our Time by Timothy Garton Ash
From London Review of Books, Vol. 26, No. 17
The fate of a Slovene Communist revolutionary serves as a perfect metaphor for the twists of Stalinism. In 1943, when Italy capitulated, he led a rebellion of Yugoslav prisoners in a concentration camp on the Adriatic island of Rab: 2000 starving prisoners disarmed 2200 Italian soldiers. After the war, he was arrested and put in a prison on Goli otok (‘Naked Island’), a notorious Communist concentration camp near Rab. While he was there, he and other prisoners were detailed to build a monument to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1943 rebellion on Rab. As a prisoner of the Communists, he was building a monument to himself and the rebellion he’d led. If poetic injustice means anything, this is it. The fate of this revolutionary was surely the fate of the people as a whole under Stalinist dictatorship: the millions who overthrew the ancien régime, and were then forced to build monuments to their own revolutionary past.
Timothy Garton Ash would appreciate this tragicomic accident: it comes close to the spirit of ethically engaged irony that permeates his best work. Although he is my political opponent, I always consider him worth reading for his wealth of precise observations, and as a reliable source on the vicissitudes of the disintegration of Eastern European Communism. In Free World he has taken the same perspicuous and bitterly witty approach to the conundrums of the recent tensions between the key Western European states and the US. His aperçus about the relations between the UK, France and Germany often recall the gentle irony of a novel of manners, giving a new twist to the old topic of the ‘European trinity’.
In a famous scene from Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty, the roles of eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at toilets around a table, chatting pleasantly, and when they want to eat, sneak away to a small room. So, as a supplement to Lévi-Strauss, one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a matière-à-penser: the three basic types of toilet form an excremental correlative-counterpoint to the Lévi-Straussian triangle of cooking (the raw, the cooked and the rotten). In a traditional German toilet, the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness. In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. shit is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible. Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that in the famous discussion of European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that ‘German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.’ It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: each involves a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement.
Hegel was among the first to see in the geographical triad of Germany, France and England an expression of three different existential attitudes: reflective thoroughness (German), revolutionary hastiness (French), utilitarian pragmatism (English). In political terms, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism and English liberalism. In terms of the predominance of one sphere of social life, it is German metaphysics and poetry versus French politics and English economics. The point about toilets is that they enable us not only to discern this triad in the most intimate domain, but also to identify its underlying mechanism in the three different attitudes towards excremental excess: an ambiguous contemplative fascination; a wish to get rid of it as fast as possible; a pragmatic decision to treat it as ordinary and dispose of it in an appropriate way. It is easy for an academic at a round table to claim that we live in a post-ideological universe, but the moment he visits the lavatory after the heated discussion, he is again knee-deep in ideology.
Garton Ash’s observations suggest that the three terms of the trinity have recently undergone a strange displacement: the French are preoccupied with culture (how to save theirs from vulgar Americanisation), the English are focusing on political dilemmas (should they join a politically united Europe?), and the Germans? The Germans worry about the inertia of their economy, as if, in postponing economic reforms indefinitely, they were persisting in an attitude which turns around their own saying: morgen, morgen, nur nicht heute, sagen alle faulen Leute (‘tomorrow, tomorrow, just not today, all lazy people say’).
And what if there was a further shift of terms? We might then see the United Kingdom focused on culture (cultural tolerance and lack of pretension could serve as an antidote to French elitism and excessive German seriousness); France focused on the economy (which, against all expectations, has done rather well in recent decades); and – surprise – Germany focused on politics (is the political life of the Bundesrepublik not a triumph of reasoned debate over blind passion?).
So far so good. In the second half of the book, however, Garton Ash passes to a general diagnosis of the threats to freedom since the end of the Cold War, and the tone becomes dogmatic and simplistic, and the proposed solutions hopelessly naive. The final pages are full of journalistic commonplaces – ‘Western-style consumerism is unsustainable on a global scale’ – which contrast starkly with the witty remarks about ‘Janus Britain’ earlier in the book. True, there are forthright statements, unusual for a man of Garton Ash’s political views (an unambiguous attack, for example, on the unfair trade practices of the developed countries), but he fails to ground his proposals in a detailed analysis of the global situation. First, he identifies four ‘new Red Armies’ (sic), the forces of evil – or historical processes – that pose (or will pose) a threat to democracy and freedom in the coming decades: the situation in the Middle East (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of Islamism), the situation in the Far East (how will China develop with regard to democracy?), the gap between North and South, and the global ecological deadlock.
These four areas of anxiety are enumerated rather than analysed and, as a result, Garton Ash’s proposed solutions (or, rather, since he is appropriately modest, his guidelines for solutions) read like a list of desiderata: the developed countries should abide by the rules of fair competition they want to impose on the underdeveloped ones; they should make a more concentrated effort to thwart ecological catastrophe; the Middle East crisis should be resolved through the joint effort of the US and Europe, and so on. And what is one to say of his tendency to moralistic platitude? ‘If we want to be able to look ourselves in the face every morning, anyone who earns more than the average wage in a rich country should aim to give 1 per cent of his or her annual income to charities with a good track record in the developing world. We can afford it.’
Garton Ash’s conclusion does not live up to the promise, stated in the book’s subtitle, to show how the post-Cold War world, although it generates new problems, also opens up a unique chance to confront them. My own view of these shortcomings is hopelessly ‘outmoded’, because tinged with Marxism: the four problems Garton Ash lists are clearly grounded in the general dynamics of today’s global capitalism. This link is self-evident in the case of ecological problems and the poverty gap between North and South. Is the rise of Islamism not conditioned by the refusal of Muslim civilisation to accept the social dynamics of capitalism? Is the strange turn in China not to do with the fact that it is a Communist state which has fully endorsed a capitalist economy? The question should therefore be put at a more general level than Garton Ash would like: how do we stand with regard to global capitalism? Are his ‘new Red Armies’ symptoms of a structural flaw at the heart of the capitalist machine, or are they accidents that can be kept under control, if not averted?
Not that we should respond to Garton Ash with the crude Marxist retort that ‘he doesn’t take into account the dialectical totality of the situation.’ The singularity of human suffering may reach a level at which the easy reference to totality turns into cynicism. The only argument for the war against Iraq was repeatedly put by Christopher Hitchens: the majority of Iraqis were victims of Saddam and were glad to get rid of him. To this majority, the caution expressed by Western liberals could only appear deeply hypocritical. A typical middle-class Western leftist has no right to despise a Cuban who has decided to leave Cuba not only because of political disenchantment, but also because of poverty and hunger. I remember from the early 1990s dozens of Western leftists who proudly proclaimed that Yugoslavia still existed, and reproached me for betraying the opportunity to prolong that existence – to which I answered that I was not yet ready to lead my life to avoid disappointing the dreams of Western leftists. There are few things more worthy of contempt, few attitudes more ideological (if this word has any meaning today, it is here) than a tenured Western academic leftist patronising an Eastern European from a Communist country who longs for liberal democracy and some consumer goods.
One should ask the naive question: why should the US not be a global policeman? The post-Cold War situation called for a global power to fill the void. The problem, however, is not that the US is a new global empire, but that it isn’t one, though it pretends to be. In fact, the US continues to act as a nation-state, ruthlessly pursuing its own interests. The watchword of recent US politics is a weird reversal of the well-known ecologists’ motto: act global, think local. This contradiction is amply illustrated by the twin pressures the US was exerting on Serbia last year: it demanded that the government in Belgrade hand over suspected war criminals to the Hague tribunal (the logic of the global empire demands a trans-state global judicial institution) while at the same time urging it to sign a bilateral treaty with the US obliging it not to deliver to the International Criminal Court any US citizen suspected of war crimes or other crimes against humanity. No wonder the Serb reaction was one of perplexed fury. Apropos the Hague tribunal, Garton Ash wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that ‘No Führer or Duce, no Pinochet, no Idi Amin and no Pol Pot should any longer be allowed to feel safe behind the palace gates of sovereignty from the intervention of people’s justice.’ One should take note of the names missing from this list.
Garton Ash is well aware that the same logic of exception applies to economic relations. In Cancún last year, the US insisted on keeping subsidies for its cotton producers, thus violating its own advice to Third World countries to abandon state subsidies and open up to the market. With torture it’s much the same story. The exemplary economic strategy of today’s capitalism is outsourcing – contracting out the ‘dirty’ process of material production (but also publicity, design, accountancy) to other companies. In this way, it is easy to circumvent environmental and health legislation: the production takes place in Indonesia, say, where regulations are much less stringent than in the West, and the Western company which owns the logo can claim that it is not responsible for any violations by the sub-contractor. Torture is nowadays ‘outsourced’ to Third World allies of the US, which can practise it without worrying about legal liability or public protest. Garton Ash’s analysis does not allow him to see how the things he condemns (ruthless disregard for the environment, the hypocritical double standards imposed by the superpowers etc) are products of the social dynamics which sustain the role of the exporters of democracy and guardians of universal human rights.
Then there is the question of depoliticised ‘human rights’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’. When Sarajevo was under siege for more than three years in the early 1990s, there was no attempt by UN forces, Nato ” or the US to create a corridor – the most modest of options – through which people and provisions could move freely. It would have cost little and a bit of serious pressure on the Serb forces would have ended the prolonged spectacle of the encircled Sarajevo, exposed to ridiculous levels of terror. So why was nothing done? There is only one answer to this: the one proposed by Rony Brauman, a former president of Médecins sans Frontières, who co-ordinated the relief effort for Sarajevo. The presentation of the crisis of Sarajevo as ‘humanitarian’, the recasting of the politico-military conflict in humanitarian terms, was in Brauman’s view sustained by an eminently political choice – that of siding with the Serbs.
More generally, how is it that human rights are so often the ‘rights’ only of those excluded from the political community and reduced to ‘bare life’? Jacques Rancière has proposed in an essay in the South Atlantic Quarterly that when such rights are of no use,
you do the same as charitable persons do with their old clothes. You give them to the poor. Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes and rights. It is in this way . . . that the Rights of Man become the rights of those who have no rights, the rights of bare human beings subjected to inhuman repression and inhuman conditions of existence. They become humanitarian rights, the rights of those who cannot enact them, the victims of the absolute denial of rights. For all this, they are not void. Political names and political places never become merely void. The void is filled by somebody or something else . . . if those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact the human rights that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the ‘right to humanitarian interference’ – a right that some nations assume to the supposed benefit of victimised populations, and very often against the advice of the humanitarian organisations themselves. The ‘right to humanitarian interference’ might be described as a sort of ‘return to sender’: the disused rights that had been sent to the rightless are sent back to the senders.
The reference to Lacan’s formula of communication (in which the sender gets back from the recipient his own message in its inverted – i.e. true – form) is here to the point: in the reigning discourse of humanitarian interventionism, the developed West is effectively getting back from the victimised Third World its own message in its true form. And this is also where we should look for candidates for the position of the ‘universal individual’ – a figure or group whose fate stands for the injustice of today’s world: the detained in Guantanamo, or the Palestinians. Palestine is today the site of a potential ‘opportunity’, in the sense of Garton Ash’s subtitle, precisely because the standard ‘pragmatic’ solutions to the Middle East crisis have repeatedly failed, so that a utopian invention of a new space is the only ‘realistic’ choice. Furthermore, the Palestinians make good candidates on account of their paradoxical position of being the victims of the ultimate victims, the Jews, which of course puts them in an extremely difficult spot: when they resist, their resistance can be denounced as a prolongation of anti-semitism, as a secret solidarity with the Final Solution. Indeed, if – as Lacanian Zionists like to claim – Jews are the objet petit a among nations, if they represent the troubling excess of Western history, how can one resist them with impunity? Is it possible to be the objet a of objet a itself? It is precisely this ethical blackmail that we should reject.
However, there is another area of ‘opportunity’ that goes unremarked. The explosive growth of slums in the last decades, from Mexico City and other Latin American capitals through Africa to India, China, the Philippines and Indonesia, is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times. The case of Lagos, according to Mike Davis, ‘the biggest node in the shanty-town corridor of 70 million people that stretches from Abidjan to Ibadan’, is exemplary: no one even knows the size of its population. Davis quotes a UN report: ‘Officially it is six million, but most experts estimate it at ten million.’ Since, some time very soon, the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural population (this may already have happened), and since slum inhabitants will constitute the greater part of the urban population, we are in no way dealing with a minority phenomenon. We are witnessing the rapid growth of a population outside the control of any state, mostly outside the law, in terrible need of minimal forms of self-organisation. Although these populations are composed of marginalised labourers, former civil servants and ex-peasants, they are not simply a redundant surplus: they are incorporated into the global economy in numerous ways; many of them are informal wage-earners or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security provision. (The main reason for their rise is the inclusion of the Third World countries in the global economy, with cheap food imports from the First World countries ruining local agriculture.) One should resist the easy temptation to elevate and idealise slum-dwellers into a new revolutionary class. It is nonetheless surprising how far they conform to the old Marxist definition of the proletarian revolutionary subject: they are ‘free’ in the double meaning of the word, even more than the classical proletariat (‘free’ from all substantial ties; dwelling in a free space, outside the regulation of the state); they are a large collective, forcibly thrown into a situation where they have to invent some mode of being-together, and simultaneously deprived of support for their traditional ways of life.
The slum-dwellers are the counter-class to the other newly emerging class, the so-called ‘symbolic class’ (managers, journalists and PR people, academics, artists etc) which is also uprooted and perceives itself as universal (a New York academic has more in common with a Slovene academic than with blacks in Harlem half a mile from his campus). Is this the new axis of class struggle, or is the ‘symbolic class’ inherently split, so that one can make a wager on the coalition between the slum-dwellers and the ‘progressive’ part of the symbolic class? The new forms of social awareness that emerge from slum collectives will be the germs of the future and the best hope for a properly ‘free world’, whether or not it’s the one that Garton Ash refers to in his title.