“…the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror”
T.S.Eliot, The Dry Salvages
These are sorrowful – and dangerous – times. We’re powerless facing the perennial Middle Eastern agonies or the build up towards Cold War 2.0; the myriad ramifications of the Pentagon’s Long War or the pauperization of the Western world’s middle classes. The feeling of a global civil war is unmistakable. At least, in a few obscure corners of NATOstan, some of the best and the brightest, in silence, are thinking.
In a short volume – Stasis. La Guerra Civile come Paradigma Politico – based on two seminaries at Princeton and available in Italian and French but not yet in English, master philosopher Giorgio Agamben identifies civil war as the West’s fundamental sign of politicization. The key question is whether this proposition has been altered by our civilizational plunge into the dimension of global civil war.
Stasis is the civil war that provoked trouble inside the ancient Greek polis. Hannah Arendt was already conceptualizing global civil war in 1963. Agamben argues that in global historical terms, civil war now is represented by terrorism.
So if Foucault was right when he qualified modern politics as “biopolitics,” says Agamben, “terrorism is the form taken by civil war when life becomes a political game.”
It’s all about the balance between oikos (the family) and polis (the city) as the Greeks – always them – identified it. So, when the polis presents itself under the reassuring face of an oikos, as in the so comforting image of the “house of Europe” sold by Brussels, or in “the world as the absolute space of global economic management,” Agamben argues, “the stasis, which cannot be placed between oikos and polis, becomes the paradigm of every conflict and assumes the figure of terror.”
Thus terrorism equals global civil war. The next step, which Agamben does not take – after all it’s a short essay – would be to qualify the myriad declinations of terrorism; not only of the ISIS/ISIL/Daesh kind, but also state terrorism, as in the indiscriminate killing of civilians worldwide by our usual imperial and sub-imperial suspects.
Barbarism begins at home
As terrorism is a form of barbarism, another short essay – L’Europe a Deux Visages – by master sociologist Edgar Morin, goes a step further as he takes us on a brief but very ambitious anthropology of human barbarism.
Morin argues that the ideas of Homo sapiens, Homo faber and Homo economicus are insufficient. After all, Homo sapiens can become Homo demens (see the endless political archive of delirium and dementia, from Nero to Dick Cheney). Homo faber may also produce an endless collection of myths. And Homo economicus may also turn into Homo ludens, a joyful player (German Finance Minister Schauble excluded.)
Human barbarity belongs of course to Homo demens; an avid producer of delirium (Daesh’s Caliph Ibrahim), hatred (Saudis against Shi’ites), contempt (the wealthy towards the downtrodden) and – the Greeks, once again – hubris (the trials and tribulations of the Empire of Chaos). Not to mention, as Morin reminds us, that technology introduces its own form of barbarism; the barbarism of pure, glacial calculation.
Morin shows us that Europe may not have had the monopoly of barbarism, but has certainly manifested all forms of barbarism recorded in history in a much more durable, massive and innovative form. And he ties all this innovation to the formation of the modern European nation, in Spain, France, Portugal, England.
The most damning case is Spain. In Islamic areas – Al Andalus – there was plenty of tolerance towards Christians and Jews, and in the Christian zone, tolerance towards Muslims and Jews, up to 1492.
So what happened in 1492? “Not only the discovery of America and the start of the conquest of the New World. It was also the year of the conquest of Granada, the last Muslim bastion in Spain, and slightly later, of the decree imposing to Jews and Muslims to choose between conversion or expulsion. This European invention, the nation, was built from the start over a foundation of religious purification.”
Well, at least the West was also blessed by the Renaissance – which gestated European humanism. Morin identifies two divergent explanations for the essence of humanism. One extols the Judeo-Christian tradition. The other is about Ancient Greece – because it’s in Greek thought that human spirit and rationality affirm their autonomy. The best case can be made that humanism developed a Greek message, revitalized in Renaissance Italy. A few minutes contemplating Botticelli’s Spring at the Uffizzi may be enough to clinch the case.
Morin also reminds us that, “in the democratic city of Athens, goddess Athena does not govern, she protects.” The true meaning of democracy is that “responsible citizens have the government of the city in their hands.” Hard to fit Merkel, Cameron, Hollande or the new House of Saud capo into this description.
In parallel, as European barbarism evolved, Morin also reminds us that it has always treated The Other – think the Global South – as barbarian, instead of celebrating a difference and seeing the opportunity of mutual enrichment through knowledge and human relations.
There are exceptions, of course. So in our current pitiful condition the least we could do is to heed the lessons of Spinoza – for whom reason was sovereign; not “a cold, glacial reason, but a profoundly compassionate reason.” Spinoza was a spirit as independent as Montaigne – another one of our inspiring models.
Morin is implacable; if Auschwitz was supreme barbarism, so was Hiroshima. He qualifies Brussels, correctly, as an “European techno-bureaucracy”; insists that Turkey is “a European power”, especially after the fall of Byzantium; and fondly remarks that “Russian culture brought sensibility and a human depth to European culture,” as “Russia is also European.” Try telling purveyors of Cold War 2.0 about it.
So all is not lost, even though we must admit barbarism is also us. Morin tells us that to think seriously about barbarism is to contribute to regenerate humanism. So even under siege, and under the aegis of a global civil war, we shall resist, with our hearts and minds. No pasarán.
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