Politics and War: Clear and Present Stupidity?


This morning read a pundit on the Left, Slavoj Zizek on Turkey, and on the Right,  John Gray on ISIS and Syria, on the current stupidity of nations without leaders worth a dam. The Liberal West seems to be sinking fast, a world where the notion of freedom and democracy are shibboleths and icons of a bankrupt estate rather than the hard won concepts of the American and French Revolutions two-hundred years back. In an age of decline and decay when the world that many call fragile begins to waver and crumble into ruin one has to wonder what is next. For Gray a retrenchment and return to Hobbesian Leviathans, strong governments ruling with an iron fist; for Zizek, our world, being leaderless, is going the way of previous eras into slow decay and decline. Will Lacan’s Master-Signfier pop out of the wood work, a new Stalin or Hitler, some new dictator or strong man to fill the decadent vacuum for Gray’s Leviathan; or, will we just follow T.S. Eliot into that great silence where the world ends in a whimper rather than a bang?

John Gray in his article Islamist terror, security and the Hobbesian question of order tells us:

The West continues to reject co-operation with Russia on the grounds that Vladimir Putin and his client Assad are evil tyrants. From a Hobbesian standpoint, this is irrelevant. The salient question can only be: which is the greater evil? How is Assad’s dictatorship worse than a cult that abducts and rapes children, kills women it considers too old for sexual slavery, throws gay men off roofs, assassinates writers, cartoonists and Jews, murders dis­abled people in wheelchairs and razes irreplaceable cultural sites?

One really doesn’t like either choice. Maybe the answer is to clean house, replace Assad and put ISIS out of business. Oh, but that sounds like something we’ve heard before too: building democracy in the world. Has that worked? Let me count my fingers. No. Gray returns to Hobbes whose Leviathan took the hard line of support for a strong royalist State because without it there would be “no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

So for Gray the West has only one option, expand the State and its powers: “Concerted action against Isis on the scale that is required may not be feasible in current conditions. But even if the will to act can somehow be summoned, Isis will not go down without launching more assaults on western cities. That is why the powers of the state may need to be expanded, including restrictions on freedom that many liberals will want to reject out of hand.” Ah, the key: “restrictions on freedoms”. Where have we heard that before? War of Terror? Bush? Let’s clip the wings on our citizens, keep them safe from themselves and others: command and control, stronger law and violence. And, like the Hobbesian defender he is Gray digs in telling us: “A universal surveillance society is not a pretty prospect. Politicians who say that there is no conflict between freedom and security are deceiving themselves and us. The conflict is genuine but it is also un­avoidable. Those who want to treat liberal freedoms as sacrosanct should ask themselves what price they are willing to pay for these liberties.” The price of freedom? Being open and aware that freedom entails conflict and the realization that paranoia is not a defense against violence; being tolerant and realizing that in an open society one takes the risk. That risk is the name of the game in and Open Society? That freedom is not another word for lockdown and imprisonment, but rather for a belief that people have rights and liberties that cannot be infringed upon, that constitutions mean more than just words?

Slavoj Zizek for his part seems almost disgruntled. His article We need to talk about Turkey is so short this time one wonders if he just woke up with a bad hangover:

We are definitely dealing not with the clash of civilisations (the Christian west versus radicalised Islam), but with a clash within each civilisation: in the Christian space it is the US and western Europe against Russia, in the Muslim space it is Sunnis against Shias. The monstrosity of the Islamic State serves as a fetish covering all these struggles in which every side pretends to fight Isis in order to hit its true enemy.

So solidarity has become just another word for war by other means? We see the supposed global powers committing to non-commitments, to an uncooperative cooperation, to bombing and fly-bys without actually investing real time and energy in fighting a land based war. Of silently dispersing a nation of refugees around the planet as if this solves anything, anything at all. Zizek sees our current situation as a war of all against all, with the war on ISIS as just the staging ground for a larger global arena of war among the giants. Should one reread Gibbon on Rome rather than Hobbes on the Leviathan? What used to be called Progress has become the treadmill of a farcical repetition in stupidity and black humor. Our world is not so much a global civilization as much as it is one of Lovecraft’s slipshod gothic nightmares. Gnon is alive and well in the kingdom of Stupidity! Long live Gnon!


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