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22 Dec 2000 00:00
The purpose of this text is to fuel the debate between right-wing and left-wing intellectuals. It does not attempt to explain the relation of either to governments or changes in society
Pay-per-view global domination
We learned at school that the world is not square; but at the start of the third millennium it is not round, either.
What do the pictures show? On the American continent we see a paramilitary group occupying the Autonomous National University of Mexico: the men in grey uniforms are not there to study. Another frame shows an armoured column thundering through a native community in Chiapas. We see police using violence to arrest a youth in a city that could be Seattle or Washington. And the pictures from Europe are just as grey.
II. A memorable omission
Intellectuals look at social facts and analyse the evidence, for and against, looking for ambiguities, for revelations of the unobvious. These professional critics act as an impertinent consciousness for society. They are non-conformists, disagreeing with everything social and political forces, the state, government, media, arts, religion.
Activists are content to say, “We’ve had enough”, but sceptical intellectuals will cautiously murmur, “too much”, or “not enough”. Intellectuals criticise immobility, demand change and progress. They are nevertheless part of a society; and that society is in a process of endless confrontation, split between those who use power to maintain the status quo and those who fight for change.
Intellectuals must choose between their function as intellectuals and the role that activists offer them. This is the origin of the split between progressive and reactionary intellectuals. They all continue their work of critical analysis, but whereas the more progressive persist in criticising immobility, permanence, hegemony and homogeneity, the reactionaries focus their attacks on change, movement, rebellion and diversity.
Reactionary intellectuals forget their true function and give up critical thought. Their memory shrinks, excluding past and future to focus only on the immediate and present. They believe no further discussion is possible.
III. Intellectual pragmatism
Many leading right-wing intellectuals begin as progressives. But they soon attract the attention of the powerful, who use many stratagems to buy or destroy them. Progressive intellectuals are created by the processes of seduction and persecution. Some resist; others, convinced that the global economy is inevitable, look in their box of tricks for reasons to legitimate the existing power structure. They are then rewarded with a comfortable armchair on the right hand of the very prince they once denounced.
They can find any number of excuses for the supposedly inevitable outcomes of globalisation: the end of history; the ubiquity and omnipotence of money; the replacement of politics by the police; the idea that the present is the only possible future; the idea that there are rational explanations for social inequality and good reasons for the unbridled exploitation of human beings and natural resources, and for racism, intolerance and war.
In an era observant of two new paradigms communication and the market right-wing intellectuals have realised that modernity means obeying one rule: “Adapt or go under.” They are not required to be original; just to think like everyone else, taking their cue from bodies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation.
Far from indulging in original, critical thought, right-wing intellectuals become pragmatic, echoing the advertising slogans of the world’s markets. In exchange for a place in the sun and the support of media and governments they cast off their critical imagination and self-criticism and espouse the free-market creed.
IV. Blind seers
The question is not, “Why is the global economy inevitable?”, but , “Why does almost everyone agree that it is inevitable?” Just as the economy is increasingly global, so are culture and information. How are we to prevent media and communications companies such as CNN or NewsCorp, Microsoft or AT&T, from spinning their world wide web? The big corporations are media enterprises, holding up a huge mirror to show us what society should be, not what it really is.
To paraphrase Rgis Debray, what is visible is real, and consequently true. (One of the tenets of right-wing dogma, by the way.) Debray explains that the centre of gravity of news has shifted from the written word to visual effects, from recorded to live broadcasts. To retain legitimacy, right-wing intellectuals must fulfil their role in a visual era, opting for what is immediate and direct, switching from signs to images, from thought to television commentary.
V. Future past
In Mexico left-wing intellectuals are very influential their crime is that they get in the way. That is one of their crimes; they also support the Zapatistas. “The Zapatista uprising heralds the start of a new era in which native movements will emerge as players in the fight against the neo-liberal global economy,” writes Yvon le Bot.
But we are neither unique nor perfect. Look at the natives of Ecuador and Chile; the demonstrations in Seattle, Washington, Prague (and other demonstrations that will follow). We are just one of the pictures that spoil the screen images of the world economy. The prince has issued orders: “Attack them! I shall supply the army and media. You come up with ideas.”
Right-wing intellectuals spend their time insulting their left-wing counterparts, and, because of the Zapatista movement’s international impact, they are now busy rewriting our story to suit the demands of the prince.
VI. Neo-liberal fascists
Umberto Eco provides some pointers as to why fascism is still latent, warning us that fascism is a diffuse form of totalitarianism. He defines its characteristics: refusal of the advance of knowledge, disregard of rational principles, distrust of culture, fear of difference, racism, individual or social frustration, xenophobia, aristocratic elitism, machismo, individual sacrifice for the benefit of the cause, televised populism, and use of newspeak with its limited words and rudimentary syntax. These are the values that right-wing intellectuals defend.
Take another look at that giant screen. All that grey is a response to disorder. Is Europe once more the prey of fascism? We see skinheads with swastikas on the screen, but the commentator is quick to reassure us that they are only minority groups, already under control. However, demands for law and order may take more sinister forms.
After the fall of the Berlin wall both sides of the political spectrum in Europe rushed to occupy the centre very obviously in the case of the traditional left, less obviously in that of the far right, which went out of its way to create a new image, distancing itself from its violent, authoritarian past, and enthusiastically espousing neo-liberal dogma.
VII. Sceptically hopeful
The task of progressive thinkers which is to remain sceptically hopeful is not easy. They have understood how things work and, noblesse oblige, they must reveal what they know, dissect the information and pass their findings to others.
But to do this they must also confront neo-liberal dogma, which is backed by media, banks, corporations, army and police. Since we live in a visual age, progressive thinkers, to their disadvantage, have only words with which to fight the power of the image. But their scepticism will get them out of that trap; if they are rigorous in their critical analysis they will be able to see through the virtual beauty to the real misery that it conceals. There may be reason to hope.
When Michelangelo sculpted his statue of David he had to work on a block of second-hand marble that was already marked and hollowed by the chisel. It proved his talent that he was able to create a figure by incorporating those marks and hollows. The world we want to transform has already been worked on by history and it is mostly hollow. But we must be inventive enough to incorporate the marks and deficits in our shaping of a better new world.
Take care. And do not forget that ideas are also weapons.
This article appeared in the English-language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique
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