Political Truth in the Age of Populism: Part 2

This is  part 2 of a three part conversation between Sokol Ferizi, of Stillpoint Spaces Berlin, and Leon Brenner, PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University and a guest scholar at the Freie Universität Institute of Philosophy in Berlin. You can read more from Leon Brenner on his website: https://leonbrenner.com/. And, you can read part 1 of this conversation, including an introduction by Sokol Ferizi, here

Part 2

Sokol: I’d like to know if faithfulness to the event can be influenced by the context.  To venture out from one of my first thoughts, there is something like Western values and, let’s say, Russian, Orthodox values. At least in Europe such a difference can be observed. Let’s say, Russian Orthodox political values are experienced as a sequential accretion of faithful reactions to the event….which would be the Russian political scene today. Can this political reality be seen as faithful to a given event in its own terms and context? Because, if you look at this political reality from the Western perspective, it’s often not seen as being faithful to the (sequence of) event we call parliamentary democracy, and, perhaps, the other way around.

In other words, is it possible, in Badiou’s sense, that a faithful event can happen, but is not universal? Despite hesitations to use such a politicized example, I have the example of Kosovo, having lived there throughout the repressive regime of Serbia. In Kosovo, the Serbian politics were often understood as an offshoot of Russian-Orthodox politics (a tendency of large swathes of society to share and support obscurantist political agendas backed by religious establishment and together enacting oppressive practices). It made me think, when you said that there can be cases when the workers, the students, and the church are involved, and they come together, becoming more faithful. They would be “all behind” the event, as it were. I would often see Serbian church leaders, the large population, the state representatives, and the military, coming together in support of some government agenda. What you describe hypothetically  sounds similar, a monolithic coming together of State, Church, and the majority, coming behind a political stance. So is it possible that a faithful event is faithful in a context? And if so, what are we to do with the universal side of it?

Leon: OK…so we’ll start with a resounding No! Badiou saves us from these perspectives, which relativise truth. Truth is for humanity. Truth is not for the white man, truth is multiple by definition, therefore for everybody. An event is for everybody. That’s first. Second, it’s important to make a distinction….an event is not faithful per se. An event…it happens. It’s a happening in reality. The subjective position that is accomplished in relation to the event can be faithful, reactive, or obscure (occultist). So it’s the question of which position the subject takes.

We had many movements in the history of humanity, which were mass movements, but they were obscure movements, they were manifestations of the obscure subject. It’s easy to name them, a good example is Fascism. The masses—everybody—was united under that. You can say that there were some reluctant people, it’s true that there are always reluctant people, but it has been a mass movement, in many countries. You can see the films from Germany, from Italy, from Spain, you see the masses, and a mass of people can be oppressive. The fact that a lot of people agree on something, doesn’t mean that it is true. And now we need to emphasize two points: a truth, or the truthfulness of an event, is not a matter of opinion. So let’s say, when the idea that the world should turn into a German world—right, let’s put it like that—the fact that so many people thought it should happen, didn’t make it true.

Now, the question you were asking was actually about the universality of it all, the way the event traces itself out in history. What is this universality? You can actually characterise it. It’s an all-inclusive universality, and you can compare it with an all-exclusive universality. So an all-inclusive universality is the nature of the event, it’s the nature of the trace of the event, and would be the nature of the new present that would be created. This all-inclusive universality means, in the field of politics, that it is true for every single person in the world. So it is true for every person in the world that no man or woman is a slave. That is absolutely true for everyone.

Sokol: That’s where my thoughts were going now. In the times of identity politics you cannot say that a specific truth, of a specific social or political group, is true for everyone. And to try to sell it like that, which is the spirit of our times, it’s hard, you know, to universalise. Because what is true for a specific ethnic or sexual group, or political group, whatever, it’s just not true for the others, so all other groups might want to say ‘we support or sympathise with your cause”, but deep down there is no connection, really, between different groups. So it’s a bit like, there’s a diversity of truths, which exist underneath the universal truth, which by the way, instinctively, I would say is the case, and seems like Badiou is also saying. But then is it that a particular truth is somehow evaporating into a universal one, what he calls the universal truth?

Leon: Feminism, the struggle of women, is a struggle which could be put within the confines of identity politics, but is not necessarily a struggle which belongs to identity politics. This is just a translation. This is a reactive translation of the feminist event, which is a sequence that has been happening since the days of the Bible. Noa was a feminist in the Bible, a woman who decided to inherit the land of her father. So the feminist struggle has been happening ever since. The new present that feminism will create is a present for humanity.

Now, a reactive approach would say, what sexual difference means is that there is no difference, that men and women should be equal, which is true. They should have all their rights in parliamentary democracy, they should have equal rights in everything, there should be no difference in the bureaucracy and relationships of everyday life. But there is another form of feminism which says, there is a difference. There is something which is feminine. And that something is the “not-all” (a Lacanian term) encapsulated in the masculine translation of whatever woman is.

So, the struggle for equal rights is a struggle that needs signatures. Like that struggle with the commercials. It needs us to be educated and make this happen. This is crucial for the struggle. In our democracies, that would be the state of affairs. But the idea that femininity is something different, that it is not included in this discourse, and nevertheless has to be included in it, entails a forcing. Not a signing, not an intellectual deliberation and necessary legislation, but a forcing. Because it is beyond what we can conceive of today. And that would constitute the new present. The new present is a paradigmatic change, it is something that is created and becomes generic, becomes part of our life, and we say, of course this is true, but it entailed a deep transformation of what we know about our political reality.

Sokol: So it assumes its meaning only retrospectively. This was one of the amazing lessons coming from Badiou, also discussed in your lecture. This resonates so much with psychoanalysis for me: that only in retrospect does something become meaningful, even the most direct forcing, even the forcing which can be a short-lived event, a spontaneous act, you know, something is happening, but only the effects will linger. Is there any container which can contain these effects of an event? Can legislation serve this purpose of containment? In other words, what brings us to that point where we become aware of the effects of an event?

Leon: Because Badiou is a materialist, the materialisation of the event is not a matter of knowing more than it is a reorganisation of knowledge. In politics, this materialisation of the event would be a new form, or a new way that we organise ourselves. Bitcoin, for example, it challenges our whole conception of currency, of money. The truth of Bitcoin, or the logic of Bitcoin, makes the stock-market, currency, banks, completely obsolete. If the logic of bitcoin would be incorporated on the scale of humanity, all of these things would evaporate. Bitcoin is the hole in the logic of our market, of our conception of coins, and of material value and worth. Now, how will it manifest in politics? That is a question that is not answered yet. I said Bitcoin, but I meant cryptocurrency. But what happened with Bitcoin? It is traded in the Stock Market. This is a complete reactive approach to the logic of cryptocurrency—instead of a real alternative, cryptocurrency has been incorporated. That’s what a lot of critiques of capitalism say, that it incorporates the crises. Today you hear “yeah you should buy some bitcoins”, but this is exactly the opposite from what this invention is aiming at.

Sokol: I sense here an element of the idea of recognition. So for the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin in this case, it wanted to say “hey I’m here,” like the guys who brought it to the Stock Market. How do you actually articulate this “I’m here,” since to actually make yourself visible, to  merely shout your presence within a context, seems to consign one to the reactive approach, in Badiou’s terms. This brings me back to the issue of political independence, Kosovo’s case specifically, and its need for recognition of its new statehood by other states. It’s the talk of the town since 2008 when independence was declared. Now and then, local news excitedly declares another country’s recognition  of Kosovo. Even now, many political discussions there circle around the idea that ‘we have only been recognised by this and this number of countries.” Consequently, the criticisms landed against the government there also follow this reactive line, you haven’t done enough to secure more recognitions. This has so far-reaching implications, and come to think of it, the idea of recognition can be seen as a Hegelian notion, a dialectical perspective. But for Badiou, is this important, to be recognised? You will be recognised if the position taken towards the event is faithful, right?

Leon: Yes, but not necessarily.

Sokol: So you will become present, but not necessarily recognised?

Leon: We have seen many events come into being in history, which then are  extinguished, or actually create change in humanity on the political scale. Still, we’ve had in the last hundred years, even more than a hundred years, no actual paradigmatic change in the field of politics. It’s as though Capitalism is the only way… There was a sequence starting in the USSR, which failed miserably and became another fascism, another occultation. The Party was the universal body that completely destroyed human life. So we didn’t have any novelty, really. But we critically need one, because our democracies are failing, they are creating occultists, that is to say, leaders who are fascists. That is the trend right now. The beautiful reactionaries, Macron or Obama, these charming guys, well-educated, giving us legislation, and more legislation, but also saying don’t worry, we’ll keep the market going as it’s going, the wealthy become wealthier, but keep calm, I’m eloquent and nice-looking. And then we have these Trumps, we have Erdogan, Netanyahu, Putin, the leaders in Poland, Hungary.

Sokol: They are the third in the chain of reactiveness to the event, the obscurantists. So from reactiveness can result in outright denial, which in turn leads to occultation. There is to obscurantists a degree of intensity which one can’t see in the other subjective positions, say Obama, and suchlike…and here we arrive at populism, with the irresistible appeal it has when leaders speak from their guts, and become powerful. They swallow attention.

Leon: We can give this a psychoanalytical interpretation. I would say the power of populists, their universality, their offering, is much more accessible than the universality the faithful subject offers. The faithful subject is the subject of forcing, who does not gain this knowledge, or satisfaction, or whatever, in the procedure of truth, but after. Only after we have created something new, after the event has materialised, do we have a product. But populists, their universality is very easy to grasp: “Being German: you’re not German, you’re not German, you’re not German”. It’s easy, it’s an exclusive universality. Like in Brecht’s poem, Bertold Brecht, inspired by Emil Gustav Friedrich Martin Niemöller: “First of all, they came to take the gypsies/and I was happy because they pilfered./Then they came to take the Jews and I said nothing,/ because they were unpleasant to me./Then they came to take homosexuals,/and I was relieved, because they were annoying me./Then they came to take the Communists,/and I said nothing because I was not a Communist./One day they came to take me, /and there was nobody left to protest.” So one is left alone, if you’re lucky, and then you are killed as well. Eventually, the Führer kills himself. That’s the end of this sequence of occultation.

This is what the Marquis de Sade writes in his books. He tries to find something in the bodies of his victims, but he can gain his pleasure only as long as they are alive. But they have to die, because there is a limit to the torment they can take. So eventually he goes and excludes more and more bodies. That is what the occultists do, exclude more and more bodies. If we go back to psychoanalysis, this is what perverse enjoyment (jouissance) is. And what these obscurantist political figures are offering, psychoanalytically speaking, is a perverse form of enjoyment. And that is where Obama and Macron don’t offer anything. They offer nothing because they only ask us to hold back. Like Merkel is telling us: Be adults, don’t enjoy!

Sokol: I wanted to go back to the question of recognition. I would like to enlarge it a bit, more than just Kosovo. I have been affected, for a short period of time, by the Catalan struggle for independence. Perhaps also because I find myself in the Spanish-speaking community here in Berlin, and my partner is Spanish. But also for reasons having to do with the time I was a refugee as a kid.  During the demonstrations for and against the Catalan independence referendum at end of last year, and the political consequences they unleashed, I found myself in a sort of mental deadlock. In conversations, not sure by what sort of political reasoning, I ended up identifying with the aggressor, in this case the central government in Madrid. I did so by hanging on to only one element, the recognition of state structure, the constitution, pretty much sharing the EU position. That is, within the constitution you (Catalonia) are an autonomous region within this nation-state (Spain), and you are going against the constitution, if you want to secede. It was very painful for me to see the police battering people in the streets of Barcelona. It actually evoked in me a lot of memories of growing up as a child and participating, all the time, in the violent demonstrations for independence in Kosovo. They were as common as family visits. When I look back, I can safely say that’s what I did all my life, with everyone, friends, family, fellow Kosovo Albanians.

In the case of the upheaval in Catalonia, I found a space in my mind to say that this is what the police do, defending the law, defending the constitution. Not to minimise the pain, but to state what seemed to me obvious (now at the adult age of 31). So I ended up rationalising what was happening, and lost contact—for the duration of these violent events—with the Catalan cause for independence, which taken in its pure form, is comparable to the cause of Albanians for independence in Kosovo: the universal right for self-determination of a people. But then, just like Madrid, I remember that it was exactly on this basis that the Serbian government under MIlosevic, in 1989, justified the occupation of Kosovo: in the name of the violation of constitutional law. Kosovo was an autonomous region of Yugoslavia and, by wanting to be out of it, it was breaking the law, the Yugoslav law. When I realised this, something in me stopped, I didn’t know where I stood. I did some further thinking, and reading, but only ended up with particularities of each case.

Perhaps what I’m trying to articulate into a question does not have to do with the particularities of these two struggles, rather, are we really stuck so much in the reactive approach that you cannot help but rationalise one position, or the other? In other words: if there is a law, a constitution, that you have signed, and then break, does this mean you aren’t you inviting police force and intervention? It feels to me like a double-bind: the right to self-determination on one hand, and respect of law on the other. Further on, what is independence, in the context of dependence? This is a larger question I’m trying to explore and is one of the reasons for this interview.

I realise, now, for myself, what for those on the outside might have seemed obvious—that facilitating Kosovo’s independence was a geopolitical solution for the Western powers that enacted it, in the sense that there was really nothing better to do, given the ethnic cleansing in the wake of the fall of communism. Add to it the need, from the perspective of Western Europe, to  prevent the redrawing of borders in the Balkans. So giving Kosovo independence was a technical solution to a larger geopolitical problem. I didn’t think like this when I was younger. I really thought we, Kosovo Albanians, wanted to be independent, in the sense many Catalans want independence today. But what I realise now, asking myself faithfully, and listening deeply to what I have heard from my childhood on, from my parents, from political commentators, historians, and other adults, is that Kosovo always wanted to be part of Albania proper. That is, to reverse the political situation of Kosovo to the point before The First World War, when the current map of the Balkans was drawn through redistribution of territories (to Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece) based on political interests of Russia and the so-called Great Powers (France, Germany, US, England). In other words, the essential historical desire of Albanians was not unlike that of any nation-state being formed in the end of XIX century, for Albanians to be under one state.

This sounds like a preposterous desire today, the drive of a monoethnic state, but that was the historical drive then. (Yet, this cannot be understood, from contemporary lens, as a perverse desire for mono-ethnic state leading to the exclusion of all other ethnicities. Multi-ethnicity belongs naturally to the order of all nation-states, and such is the case with both Albania and Kosovo today.) Back to the nineties and the outbreak of wars in the Balkans, the call for independence was a call to be independent, and then join Albania proper, on the basis of a majority vote. With all these considerations, I doubt even more the drive for independence at the heart of Kosovo’s struggle. All these thoughts and emotional memories apart, looking from a distance, all independence movements today, including Kosovo’s and Catalonia’s, seem to me reactive approaches to a historical event which was the inception of nation-states in the end of XIX century.

First, would it be right to call such a historical development an event, in Badiou’s terms? If so, isn’t the failure to negotiate another form of being among distinct collectivities sharing a territory (Kosovo-Serbia, Catalonia-Spain), and a historical event (the nation-state), a failure of imagination at best, and the constant calls for independence, on one hand, as a reactive approach to that (already problematic) event which is the nation-state, with its concomitant and cultish defense of territorial integrity, on the other? Because my thoughts often go in the direction of political independence being useless, in the context of such complex dependencies in the global world.

Leon: It seems to me that calls for independence are calls for yet another, smaller, nation-state. It’s interesting that you pinpointed the 19th century. And I would definitely call it a reaction. I would call it a reaction in response to a call for universalisation in Marxism, and the Marxist movement. I would also venture to say that this was a reaction which took the face of an obscure subject in the 20th century, when it became Fascism. Before that it was a question of identity, and the independence of citizens, and the answer was a nation state. That’s how you could get your rights, your legislation and so on. I think Kosovo is an excellent example for something like this happening today. The Catalan example, as well. In my lecture I gave the example of the Palestinian struggle, creating an identity, demanding a national state, demanding a belongingness.

When you take it to the direction you’re hinting at, you can say that this is reactive, yes. But you can also say the question of identity, and the question of self-organization, is a question answered by tautology: we are the people! Well, every people are the people. It’s true for everybody. It’s a generic truth. Saying: “We are the people!” Or: “We are Catalans and we need our own state!” would dilute the universal and the revolutionary dimension of saying we are the people. Because it is true: “We are the people!” Humanity! We are humanity, and politics is for us. It is not for some of us, it is not for the rich, or strictly for Catalonia, but it is for all of us. The Catalan example is a good one in the context of the European Union. The Kosovo one preceded it, but still there was war, while in Catalonia there was different kind of oppression. They shouldn’t…

Sokol: …right they shouldn’t be compared…

Leon:…but I mean, you have things which are part of this sequence. Intifada is part of this sequence. We have situated the Kosovo struggle also in this sequence. I think these are all part of a sequence in which the reactive answer would be, yes, you are the people, here’s your nation, enjoy.  But I think the beginning, the spark of this whole process is the idea of the universalisation of the state, but the national state is at the same time a reduction of this universalisation. And I think, today, the EU is not giving a good answer to that. The EU today is a tool to regulate economic pressure, whereas, on the other side, we see today why it is so crucial to give an answer which is not Kosovo, Catalonia, or Palestine per se. But Humanity. We see it in the state of our Earth, of environmental catastrophe, which is happening in front of our eyes. Climate change is a fact, even if Trump doesn’t agree with that. If only Catalonia would work on climate change, or if only the EU would work on climate change, but Trump would say, we don’t care, and China and Russia would say the same, then the world will change for the worse. It’s a fact. We will not be able to live here for long. So this is a global problem, and the only way to solve it is to say: “We are the people of Earth.”

Sokol: You mean to always resist reference to particularity?

Leon: There is always particularity, and a person from Kosovo, or Catalonia, should do whatever they can in the scope of their identity and whatever they identify with, but as a people, as a humanity, this is the trajectory we have to take in order address our contemporary political problems, which include environmental catastrophe, which include the question of immigration. These are global effects which can only be answered globally. Look at the solutions the question of immigration receives in the EU. People arrive and naturally say: We are people. What they get in response is: You know what, you are probably the people of Turkey.” This is the way the nation-state solves this, but only temporarily. So we’ll have less advertising on the streets, but our space will still be appropriated. This is what Badiou calls, a non-progressive movement. Its end is the castrated presence. It’s semantic change. Today, in the 21st century, we see more than ever—because we have access to information—the fact that politics has to re-articulate itself on the global scale, or else, there will be no politics in the future, because there will be no humanity.

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