Thursday, November 12, 2009

Four Perspectives on the Fall of the Wall

Here are three articles from a series on the fall of the wall. Here is Slavoj Zizek's take on it in the NYTimes.

One of the more poignant moment's of Zizek's piece was when he said that:
When people protested Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the large majority of them did not ask for capitalism. They wanted the freedom to live their lives outside state control, to come together and talk as they pleased; they wanted a life of simplicity and sincerity, liberated from the primitive ideological indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy.

As many commentators observed, the ideals that led the protesters were to a large extent taken from the ruling Socialist ideology itself — people aspired to something that can most appropriately be designated as “Socialism with a human face.” Perhaps this attitude deserves a second chance.

I think this is precisely what gets drowned out in the triumphalism that continues to accompany most cheering about the fall of East-Bloc Stalinism. That, even today, we can still hardly articulate a position outside of prescribed disjunctions like "East or West", "Communism or Freedom", etc. should strike us as deeply problematic.

The fall of the wall dividing Berlin means so many things, but any critical assessment of these ramifications would not operate within the facile logic of east vs. west, communism vs. 'freedom'. Here I am tempted to recall a similarly complicated political situation that receives similar treatment in mainstream outlets: the political situation with Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Without any doubt whatsoever, Mugabe's regime is violent, oppressive, self-serving and largely ineffective. But any critical account of the entire situation in Zimbabwe would include a lot more than the failings chalked up to the actions of the current regime and its leader. It would include engagement with the legacy of colonialism, the neo-colonialism of Britain's post-Independence economic interactions with Zimbabwe, the relationship of Mugabe's regime to global capitalism, the concrete configuration of power within Zimbabwe before and after independence, the continued existence of high concentrations of economic power in the hands of colonial elites, and so on.

But complicating the political dynamics is not possible within the framework foisted upon us in outlets like the Economist or the NY Times. There we are told that the politics are simple: The West is good, Mugabe is bad... which translates to: more neoliberalism is the prescription, the ZANU-PF and land reform are the disease. This is why certain British outlets are so pleased to hear about everything going terribly wrong in Zimbabwe, for it gives credence to what they've wanted to claim all along: that Zimbabwe "isn't ready" for self-rule and needs to to be brought in line by means of neo-colonial economic domination.

Something similar, I feel, is true of our confrontation with the history of the Soviet Union. It's easy for the media to simply give us a redux of the triumphant, clamoring cheers proclaiming a new world of unbridled capitalism that followed the events of 1989. It's easy to continue to use the demise of the East Bloc (or the degenerated worker's states, state capitalist regimes... whatever you like) to cast doubt upon any alternative to capitalism. But the world has never been as simple and clear cut as "east vs. west". Today, not to feel at all ambivalent about what died with the East Bloc is to accept a kind of cynicism that, perhaps, in 1991 was forgivable, but today reemerges as one of the most suffocating legacies of the Cold War. As Adorno put it in another context: "freedom would not be to choose between black and white, but to abjure such prescribed choices".

Whatever else is true of American collective memory and the fall of the wall, it is not unreasonable that many Germans who lived in the DDR aren't satisfied with 20 years of capitalism they've been thrown into as part of their liberation. This jibes with the Zizek quote at the beginning of the post: those protesting the East Bloc regimes did not ask for economic shock therapy, criminal privatizations of public assets, or the ruthless competition of capitalist social relations. The situation was and continues to be a complicated one.

The central political question here, for me, is put well by Badiou:
Why, in the 20th century, have the most heroic popular uprisings, the most persistent wars of liberation, the most indisputable mobilizations in the name of justice and liberty all ended… in opaque statist constructions wherein none of the factors that gave meaning and possibility to their historical genesis is decipherable?... we must categorically reject the refrain of all those who imagine themselves being able to settle this question with a few evasive replies on totalitarian ideology since it is apparent that they have simply abandoned the ideas of justice and the emancipation of humanity and instead joined the eternal cohort of conservatives bent on preserving the ‘lesser evil’
But the rejoinder of the "eternal cohort of conservatives" conservative reply to any serious attempt to imagine a different kind of society makes an invalid inference. While it may be true that we are best served to accept the least worst alternative in the meantime, this bare admission does not cast any suspicion on the perpetual, unending struggle to try to find an systemic alternative to the present that is far more just, and far less violent and exploitative.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

About your Zimbabwe entry: Patrick Bond disagrees with mamdani on a few things: