Monday, August 27, 2012

From Russia with narcissism

Summer months tend to be quite uneventful in France. We have earned the right to go on extended leaves in 1936 and consider it somewhat sacred, so everything is put on hold in July and August. The world feels no obligation, however, to follow French mores and two major events have happened during the last months, which triggered a number of quite revealing reactions, or non-reactions.

First you had this strike in a platinum mine in South-Africa, which got seriously out of hand and ended with the police shooting 34 miners dead. Then there was this trial in Russia, where three musicians from a rather obscure Riot Grrrl band got sentenced to two years in a prison colony for having staged an impromptu happening in the middle of the largest church in Moscow. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, Pussy Riot got a lot of support in Western countries with a lot of people demonstrating in front of Russian consulates and embassies – well, maybe not a lot, but they sure as hell got a lot of media time. Strangely, South-African consulates and embassies have remained stubbornly demonstrator-free.

The funny thing is what Pussy Riot did is also an offense in France. France is a adamantly secular state, yet, when in 2005 Act Up staged a fake gay marriage in the largest church of Paris, well, let’s say that the French courts were not amused.

The Tribunal of Grande Instance of Paris thus said it was a direct attack against freedom of religion as defined by the article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It also said that it was irrelevant that the stated aim of the action was not to attack religion as such but to protest against a particular policy.

Of course, the French sentence was symbolic, mostly because the Catholic Church did not push for more. Russia has been too harsh in my opinion, yet the logic behind the law against "hooliganism”, defined in Russian law as "a gross violation of public order which expresses patent contempt for society” is quite similar to the French Tribunal of Grande Instance’s. Indeed, last time I checked freedom of religion was one of the founding principles of liberal society, and that certainly includes the right to worship undisturbed. When you think about it, it is not that different either from the logic behind the recently passed Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which will send you in jail if you have the dubious idea of protesting the funerals of a veteran.

There is more in this affair than a few bobos showing off their usual double standard. It has real implications for the coming energy descent, notably for what concerns the defense and furthering of functional communities. Communities are crucial to our getting through the energy descent in any reasonable shape. Bureaucratic forms of solidarity such as the French Sécurité Sociale, are bound to fail in an environment where the net energy available to society, and therefore its ability to mobilize resources structurally dwindles.

The only way to preserve some kind of safety net for those in need is by relying on organic community solidarity. Community solidarity can greatly vary in form, from Anglo-saxon fraternal societies to Islamic Zaqat, It comes with a price, however, a human price. Unlike networks – the kind of socialization favored by the elites – which put together people similar to each other, communities, in a reasonably complex societies, are made up of people with divergent, and sometimes highly divergent, values, interests, characters and life-goals. To get along, we need a basic set of common values, according to which we not only can but also must judge people – what Georges Orwell called common decency, this feeling , common to all men that there are things which simply cannot be done to fellow humans.

We need also an understanding that there are things which are both important and private, such as the choice of your life-partner or the way you worship whatever you have chosen to worship – provided, of course, those choices stay within the bounds of common decency, what pedophilia and Aztec-like human sacrifices don't, by the way.

It was those two principles Pussy Riot trampled with their, rather lame by the way, church dancing, and this, as well as the support they got, tells a lot about the way our elites see community.

Political philosophers distinguish between two kinds of liberty, which Isaiah Berlin calls respectively positive and negative liberties. Positive liberty, which is derived from Aristotle's definition of citizenship, is basically self-mastery, the right to choose one's own government and to have a say its policies, which, of course, implies a full participation in the political life of the community. Negative liberty is the right to act without interference by other persons.

Being a liberal, Isaiah Berlin argued that positive liberty was quite vulnerable to abuse by would-be philosopher-kings who conflated positive liberty with rational action, based upon a rational knowledge to which, only a certain elite or social group had access. Even a cursory look at the history of the last two centuries shows he was quite right in doing so. What he failed to see was that positive liberty could be similarly abused to serve the interests of such or such social group.

This is what I call the sadian interpretation of liberty.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade was a French aristocrat philosopher and writer of the late XVIIIth century, and for those who wonder, yes, the similarity of his name with the word sadism is not entirely coincidental. Sade is best known as a novelist, his most important work being The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism. In it, he describes the “adventures” of four “libertines”who seal themselves in a castle with a harem of sex-slaves of both genders and then proceed to rape, torture and murder them.

Needless to say, Sade spent a lot of time in jail and died in an asylum.

Sade, an educated man, was also a philosopher and wrote a number of political texts, the most important of which being an insert in his novel Philosophy in the Bedroom titled "Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans". His thesis in this short piece was that egoism, greed, violence and lust were part of human nature and should therefore be indulged without any interference by other persons. Sade even denies the community the right to regulate in any way the behavior of his members, saying “ Demanding that men unequal in character submit to equal laws is frightening : what goes for one, does not work for another” and : "Laws can be so soft, and so few, that all men, whatever their character, can submit to them”.

And if you open The 120 days, you'll quickly realize that whatever their character includes Jeffrey Dahmer's.

Of course, you can't base an healthy community on such premises, and no political thinker I know of have followed him in his serial-killer oriented theory of liberty. The assumption behind it, however, thrives in every social group which manages to insulate itself from the community as well as from the consequences of their own behavior. This was certainly the case of Sade's own social group : the French aristocracy. This is also the case of not only the various elites which lord over our civilization, but also of a significant part of the “bobo” upper middle class.

That doesn't mean that there is some elite conspiracy to replay the 120 days in a Carpathian castle, mind you, only that as they isolate themselves from the rest of us, those the current arrangements favor begin to consider themselves above the rules of common decency. This leads not only to Madoff running his scheme or Dominique Strauss-Kahn organizing orgies in a very select French hotel, but also to CEOs giving themselves totally indecent wages while the firm they run goes under, or Wall Street traders causing people to lose their jobs, or even to starve, to make a few dollars more... or a riot grrrl band trampling religious freedom just to make a political point.

And please note I am emphatically not a Christian.

The members of Pussy Riot are hardly proles. One is a computer programmer, the two others are students, and apparently not the starving kind. One of them is even a Canadian permanent resident and their activism revolves around the kind of societal issues which enable the bobos to feel good without endangering their privileges. They represent the Sadian tendencies within occidental upper middle classes who want to enjoy their hedonistic, community dissolving, lifestyle, without having to bother about such petty things as the rights of others.

The South-African miners, on the other hands are just ordinary, presumably decent, workers trying to feed their families the best they can and demanding a better salary for what is after all one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the world. They have no access to any cultural circle or any upper middle class network. Many speak only their (Bantu) native language and they don't understand modern art. Let's face it, they are quite boring. They represent common people, whith common hopes and common decency.

Personally, I would have sentenced Pussy Riot to long and harsh community service. That is not the problem, however. The problem is that as the net energy available to our societies shrinks, so will their ability to support large elites and middle classes. That means that a significant part of those shall lose their privileges and that the rest will secede ever more from the society they live off, becoming more and more ferocious in the defense of their interests while using various societal issues to convince themselves they are enlightened. They will be able to keep their affluent lifestyle in a shrinking economy only by pressuring ever more the working classes and pushing them ever further into poverty and precarity. To continue to feel good in such circumstances they will have to shift the definition of social progress until it includes only what betters the lot of their class.

The focus on Pussy Riot and away from the pile of corpses in South-Africa is a step more in this direction.

This is a self-defeating strategy, and one which can have drastic consequences. The populace, looking the intelligentsia using what amounts to navel-gazing to justify the defense of their privileges, will be more and more tempted to throw the baby with the bathwater and turn to authoritarian solutions to save them from liberalism. Genuine advances, such as considering gays as human beings or allowing anybody to speak one's mind in the street or in papers, will be jeopardized.

A lot may be lost because the intelligentsia prefers to clamor about the woes of a not so innocent punk band than about the murder of ordinary decent people.


  1. Noticed that it was a platinum mine, meaning most of the products are either bound for the developed world or to factories to make goods for the developed world. Would be very uncomfortable for an upper middle and upper class thats driven by liberal ideologies to face that truthfully.

    Basic liberal ideas (free speech, freedom of religion, political representation etc) are worth far more than the justification and comfort of the intelligentsia

    side note: inspired by your blog (mostly the name but i have read all of it, good stuff) i started my own.

    1. Indeed, the fact it was a platinum mine makes the whole thing more symbolic. The main use of platinun today is "green technology".

      As for the liberal ideas (well, negative liberties as liberalism is not not only defined by its support to negative liberties), they are vitally important and must be protected... but they certainly must not be allowed to become a pretext for the powerful to ignore the rights of the unpopular, nor a mere feel-good for the well-to-do, lest the very idea of liberty gets considered as a sham. It is not by chance that islamists git elected in Egypt.

      By the way, interesting blog... and I really loved The man from the Snowy Mountain.

    2. While doing some research about energy over here, i've come to the conclusion that there are quite a few people in our beuracracy and politics (hard to tell which at times) are preparing for a post-peak world the best they can.

      A lot of it comes from direct references to peak oil, such as "peak oil approaching" and our textbooks directly refering (my chemistry and my brothers Politics books had it added this year) to it as a major problem. Also as more overt approach theres this:
      (he's surprisingly on the ball for this.) Following up, I found that he specifically said that quite a few politicans are aware of the problems coming and the main obstacle stopping them from talking about it is the Murdoch News (70% of print media).

      Just to let you know that, even if its the other side of the world, the proper response is happening in a, by the looks of it, substantial way (maybe not hugely substantial but still substantial).

      The only other country i can definetly say has a similar thing going on is New Zealand, propably because they're very aware of their isolation.

    3. That's good news, Leo. I think that NZ's isolation will be really good for it if and when it all goes tits up. It has food, water, energy, infrastructure and a nation of people who know how to make things and fix things themselves.

  2. Interesting. There is a really thoughtful item on the BBC as well:

    1. Thank for the link, it is quite interesting, even if it focuses on the threat unfettered democracy poses to freedom (and rightly so), but unfettered freedom can also pause threats too. There is, of course, the famous "free fox in the free chicken coop", but also the "soft tyranny" describe by Tocqueville, in which all your right are effectively guaranteed, but in which you have no meaningful control upon your life because the political system does not allow a real alternative - in France we call that the UMPS, in America the Demopublican.

  3. Very interesting article.

    I've never read Sade, but know I understand far better why he's still printed. The books cristallize all the dream of domination of man above the others in the most private domain.

    Your article is clear: Now, we won't have to wait a long time before the awakening of the violence.