Saturday, June 20, 2009

woe betide those who forgive such moments

“I don’t pity them. For, I confess it madam, I differ of little from your taste in political colors; I find pink (rose) charming, when it is transformed into a proper name; I find it infinitely lovable to perceive it on a pretty face like yours; but in opinions, I confess, I find it repulsive (je le repousse). Continue, then, madame, I pray you, to be pink in complexion and name, but not in politics.” – Alexander Tocqueville, letter to Rose Margaret Phillimore, 30 December, 1848.

It is interesting, ghoulishly interesting, to be writing about Herzen’s reaction to the collapse of the revolution of 1848 on the day that the Iranian military disperses protests in Teheran. From the Other Shore strikes deep chords – and one of them is surely about the meaning of oligarchic reaction. In many ways, Ahmadinejad’s Republic resembles that of Louis Phillipe - vast fortunes are made by shady men, sieved off the public and become part of the structure of rot. At a certain point, hazard, in the form of an election, cannot be tolerated. And it isn’t. The people wake up to the fact that the rules of the game changed when they were asleep.

Herzen, of course, throbbed with the revolution that seemed to promise so much when it took Paris and crumbled all the old structures in February, 1848. By the end of the year, the new structures – especially the attempt by the state to simply employ people in the ateliers nationales, which was the breaking point for the liberals – had been in turn smashed. Tocqueville was, as in that rather disgusting letter to his friend, happy about the smashing, and had some hand in putting General Cavaignac in charge of the worker massacres.

Herzen does not sketch the details of the fight – rather, his point is to give an impression of Paris and himself during this time. Here is how he describes what happened:

The liberals dallied and jested with the idea of revolution until they joked themselves into February 24. The popular hurricane carried them to the top of the belfry, whence they could see where they were going and leading others. And the chasm they saw before them made them blanch for they saw that not only that wh8ich they had regarded as prejudice was tumbling but all the rest as well, the things they had regarded as true and eternal. So frightened were they that some of them clutched at the tumbling walls while others halted midway, remorsefully assuring all passers-by that this was not at all what they had wanted. And thus the very people who proclaimed the republic came to be the hangmen of freedom.”

When the liberals in the government gave untrammeled reign to the White terror in order to uproot the Parisian proletariat, Herzen was a witness. His account of this is not famous in the English speaking world, so I will quote some of it. But I want to end this post – on this dark day – with this:

“On the evening of June 26, after the victory of the National over Paris, we heard salvoes with brief, regular intervals between them… We glanced at each other; everybody was green in the face. “These are executions,” we said in unison and looked away. I pressed my forehead to the window-pane. Such moments kindle hatred for a dozen of years, call for life-long vengeance. Woe betide those who forgive such moments!”

A cry that has been uttered millions of times since.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iran, via IT

Infinite thought posted a guestpost that I am just going to steal for LI. It is a great explanation of what is happening in Iran. Myself, I am too sick at the moment to achieve coherence over any stretch of prose longer than OUUUUUUCHHHHH - I have an ear infection that is making me the world's biggest Beethoven sympathizer.

Here it is:

why are the iranians dreaming again?*

[The following is a guest post from Ali Alizadeh, Researcher at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University]

This piece is copyright-free. Please distrbute widely.

Iran is currently in the grip of a new and strong political movement. While this movement proves that Ahmadinejad’s populist techniques of deception no longer work inside Iran, it seems they are still effective outside the country. This is mainly due to thirty years of isolation and mutual mistrust between Iran and the West which has turned my country into a mysterious phenomenon for outsiders. In this piece I will try to confront some of the mystifications and misunderstandings produced by the international media in the last week.

In the first scenario the international media, claiming impartiality, insisted that the reformists provide hard objective evidence in support of their claim that the June 12 election has been rigged. But despite their empiricist attitude, the media missed obvious facts due to their lack of familiarity with the socio-historical context. Although the reformists could not possibly offer any figures or documents, because the whole show was single-handedly run by Ahmadinejad’s ministry of interior, anyone familiar with Iran’s recent history could easily see what was wrong with this picture.

It was the government who reversed the conventional and logical procedure by announcing a fictitious total figure first – in four stages – and then fabricating figures for each polling station, something that is still going on. This led to many absurdities: Musavi got less votes in his hometown (Tabriz) than Ahmadinejad; Karroubi’s total vote was less than the number of people active in his campaign; Rezaee’s votes were reduced by a hundred thousand between the third and fourth stages of announcement; blank votes were totally forgotten and only hastily added to the count when reformists pointed this out; and finally the ratio between all candidates’ votes remained almost constant in all these four stages of announcement (63, 33, 2 and 1 percent respectively).

Moreover, as in any other country, the increase in turnout in Iran’s elections has always benefitted the opposition and not the incumbent, because it is rational to assume that those who usually don’t vote, i.e. the silent majority, only come out when they want to change the status quo. Yet in this election Ahmadinejad, the representative of the status quo, allegedly received 10 million votes more than what he got in the previous election.

Finally, Ahmadinejad’s nervous reaction after his so-called victory is the best proof for rigging: closing down SMS network and the whole of country’s mobile phone network, arresting more than 100 leading political activists, blocking access to Musavi’s and many other reformists’ websites and unleashing violence in the streets...But if all this is not enough, the bodies of more than 17 people who were shot dead and immediately buried in unknown graves should persuade all those “objective-minded” observers.

In the second scenario, gradually unfolding in the last few days, the international media implicitly shifted its attention to the role of internet and its social networking (twitter, facebook, youtube, etc). This implied that millions of illiterate conservative villagers have voted for Ahmadinejad and the political movement is mostly limited to educated middle classes in North Tehran. While this simplified image is more compatible with media’s comfortable position towards Iran in the last 30 years, it is far from reality. The recent political history of Iran does not confirm this image. For example, Khatami’s victory in 1997, despite his absolute lack of any economic promises and his focus instead on liberal civic demands, was made possible by the polarization of society into people and state. Khatami could win only by embracing people from all different classes and groups, villagers and urban people alike.

There is no doubt that new media and technologies have been playing an important role in the movement, but it seems that the cause and the effect are being reversed in the picture painted by the media. First of all, it is the existence of a strong political determination, combined with people becoming deprived of basic means of communication, which has led the movement to creatively test every other channel and method. Musavi’s paper was shut down on the night of election, his frequent request to talk to people on the state TV has been rejected, his official website is often blocked and his physical contact with his supporters has been kept minimum by keeping him in house arrest (with the exception of his appearance on the over a million march on June 15).

Second, due to the heavy pressure on foreign journalists inside Iran, these technological tools have come to play a significant role in sending the messages and images of the movement to the outside world. However, the creative self-organization of the movement is using a manifold of methods and channels, many of them simple and traditional, depending on their availability: shouting ‘death to dictator’ from rooftops, calling landlines, at the end of one rally chanting the time and place of the next one, and by jeopardizing oneself by physically standing on streets and distributing news to every passing car. The appearance of the movement which is being sold by the media to the western gaze – the cyber-fantasy of the western societies which has already labelled our movement a twitter revolution, seems to have completely missed the reality of those bodies which are shot dead, injured or ready to be endangered by non-virtual bullets.

What is more surprising in the midst of this media frenzy is the blindness of the western left to the political dynamism and energy of our movement. The causes of this blindness oscillate between the misgivings about Islam (or the Islamophobia of hyper-secular left) and the confusion made by Ahmadinjead’s fake anti-imperialist rhetoric (his alliance with Chavez perhaps, who after all was the first to congratulate him). It needs to be emphasized that Ahmadinejad’s economic policies are to the right of the IMF: cutting subsidies in a radical way, more privatization than any other post-79 government (by selling the country to the Revolutionary Guards) and an inflation and unemployment rate which have brought the low-income sections of the society to their knees. It is in this regard that Musavi’s politics needs to be understood in contradistinction from both Ahmadinejad and also the other reformist candidate, i.e. Karroubi.

While Karroubi went for the liberal option of differentiating people into identity groups with different demands (women, students, intellectuals, ethnicities, religious minorities, etc), Musavi emphasized the universal demands of ‘people’ who wanted to be heard and counted as political subjects. This subjectivity, emphasized by Musavi during his campaign and fully incarnated in the rallies of the past few days, is constituted by political intuition, creativity and recollection of the ‘79 revolution (no wonder that people so quickly reached an unexpected maturity, best manifested in the abstention from violence in their silent demonstrations). Musavi’s ‘people’ is also easily, but strongly, distinguished from Ahmadinejad’s anonymous masses dependent on state charity. Musavi’s people, as the collective appearing in the rallies, is made of religious women covered in chador walking hand in hand with westernized young women who are usually prosecuted for their appearance; veterans of war in wheelchairs next to young boys for whom the Iran-Iraq war is only an anecdote; and working class who have sacrificed their daily salary to participate in the rally next to the middle classes. This story is not limited to Tehran. Shiraz (two confirmed dead), Isfahan (one confirmed dead), Tabriz, Oroomiye are also part of this movement and other cities are joining with a predictable delay (as it was the case in 79 revolution).

History will prove who the real participants of this movement are but once again we are faced with a new, non-classical and unfamiliar radical politics. Will the Western left get it right this time?

* The title is a reference to Michel Foucault’s 1978 writing on Iran’s revolution: “What are the Iranians dreaming about?”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

the cost of making universal history

Silly fools, it is my glory, for that is where the truth lies…The reason for the Underground is the destruction of our belief in certain general rules. “Nothing is sacred.”
- Dostoevsky, quoted by Aileen Kelly in Irony and Utopia in Herzen and Doestoevsky, the Russian Review,1991.

When the Czar’s police arrested Herzen in 1834, they impounded his papers, including an article on Hoffmann. Many of those papers were lost, but the Hoffmann article eventually was published. In it, Herzen accused Hoffmann of opting for an internal exile to a past that never existed. For Herzen, the perfect Hoffmann anecdote is of the man directing an orchestra in 1812 in Warsaw while Napoleon was invading Russia; Herzen takes a remark he made at the time to mean that he was either ignorant of or indifferent to Napoleon invading Russia.

As I’ve tried to show, this image of Hoffmann, the autistic creepy gnome, is not true. Herzen obviously did not know of Hoffmann’s experience in Dresden, since he couldn't have read Hoffmann's journal - as we can now - and Herzen seems unaware of the essay about the Dresden battlefield. However, Herzen should have known that Hoffmann mounted a fight against political repression as a judge in Berlin in the 1820s that could have landed him in jail. However unfair Herzen's judgment, what is important here is the slant of the criticism, which echoes Heine’s judgment about the second wave of German Romantics. (I get these details from Michel Mervaud's series of articles on Herzen) This was no accident. Just as Hoffmann’s works had an enormous effect on Russian writers – on, most notably, Gogol – Heine’s criticism of what he took to be its political retardation (symptoms: a high degree of fantasy; nostalgia for magic; the elevation of private over public life) also had an effect in Russia.

It seems to be Herzen’s fate in the English speaking world that he is taken up partly because he seems like the anti-Marx – possessing Marx’s genius for polemic while holding out for the place of individual genius in this sublunary world. Thus, Tom Stoppard, Isaiah Berlin, and Aileen Kelly have taken up the cudgels for Herzen while tiptoeing around his words in the preface to From the Other Shore: “Better perish with the revolution than seek safety in the alms-house of reaction.”

The problem of Herzen’s reception is partly one of substituting social contexts. Herzen’s social context was the autocracy of Nicholas I, not the autocracy of Brezhnev. Herzen – and Marx, for these writers – are never treated in terms of the history in which they actually existed, one in which, for instance, the Russian empire was instituting the 19th century’s bloodiest European ethnic cleansing: that of the Turkic peoples in the Caucasus; while the English were looking away from the starvation of the Irish and celebrating as providential the depopulation of their neighboring island, a policy combining “providential” famine and civilized laissez faire that was taken to India as well. It is so distressing, these famines and wars, that, for the most part, the liberal Cold war crowd simply forgot them. And in so do, distorted history to such a degree that, since the sixties, our greatest intellectual task has been simply to get that history back. The cost of making universal history – wasn’t that Foucault’s great theme? Deleuze’s? Derrida’s? The dissidents so attacked by the cold war liberal establishment for dissenting from the agreed upon amnesia.

So, this is the lie in Isaiah Berlin’s cold war liberalism. He is a brilliant philosophical historian, one with a true sense of what he called the Counter-enlightenment. However, he is not a trustworthy writer. He does like to hide things behind his back.

Aileen Kelly is less known than Berlin, and may be less capacious. But she is undoubtedly Herzen’s most brilliant advocate in the English speaking world. I want to engage with her image of Herzen a bit in this thread.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

false consciousness - real happiness

Note 1: I think I can trace the career of the concept of false consciousness across the Other sciences, across literature, across the adventures of all of my alienated marginals (for yes, instead of a ‘career’, they lead, or are led by, an adventure, even if they never leave home at all). For liberals, false consciousness is the disturbing power of projection; for radicals, it is the inverse image of what is really happening in capitalism, as commodity exchange sinks deeper and deeper into all personal relationships; and for the reactionaries, it is original sin, which finds, in the non-Christian, the undertakers of Christendom – the decadents, the positivists, the Jews, the homosexuals, the half breeds. Although, in truth, false consciousness, as original sin, is a feature of man’s very nature – and in that sense it is false to call it false. Rather, it is consciousness itself which is permeated with sin.

Yet, the liberals and the radicals felt there was a limit somewhere. Their alienation from the happiness culture represented, or rather, was represented as a stance for true happiness. And so we have another duality, perhaps derived from the notion of false consciousness. One that is less codified. For the most part, the alienated did not feel that happiness itself, as a social phenomenon, could be questioned. Rather, happiness has the wrong objects. Why? Because of social and cultural conditions. To dissolve those conditions, which are always disguised in false consciousness, is to take the first step to real happiness.

Note two. I am sick, the summer is boiling, and for a long time I’ve wanted to write about Herzen. I’ll start with the following:

L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers. Rousseau’s famous phrase imposed a kind of shibboleth on intellectuals in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – before the revolution, the phrase is read with an emphasis on the imposition of those chains, for surely someone or something has shackled man; indisputably, those chains were forged and affixed by some institution, or perhaps even by many. And if this is so, if this injustice has been enacted everywhere, everywhere one has the duty to strike them off.

But after the revolution, in the wake of the reaction that succeeded Napoleon’s fall, the focus. If man is everywhere in chains, this is a statement not about what has been done to man, but about what man has preferred. Such gloomy thoughts came to William Hazlitt. And, after 1848, they were expressed by one of Herzen’s characters, a doctor, in a dialogue between him and his companion, a woman of the Left, in From the Other Shore. The doctor claims that Rousseau’s phrase is “famous nonsense”:

“Can you repeat with irony this cry of indignation wrung from a free man?”
“To me, it is a coercion of history, contempt for the facts, and I find it unbearable: I am hurt by the arbitrariness of it. Added to this, there is the obnoxious method of deciding in advance just what the crux of the matter is. What would you say to a man who, shaking his head, would make the melancholy observation that fish are born to fly and yet are constantly under water?”
“I would ask him why he believed that fish were born to fly.”
“You are becoming more exacting. But a true friend of fishkind would find a ready answer. In the first place he would tell you that the skeletons of fish incontrovertibly show the tendency of limbs to develop into legs or wings; he will point to an array of quite superfluous bones which suggest the rudimentary bones of feet and wings; finally, he will cite the flying fish which demonstrate in practice that fishkind not only strives to fly, but sometimes actually does so. Having made this requisite reply, he will be justified to ask why you do not demand an explanation from Rousseau who says that man is born to be free on the grounds that he is constantly in chains. Why do all things exist as they should exist, while man alone does not?” (I'm using the translation that is contained in Selected works. With a preface by Lenin! Check it out at

Herzen’s doctor is a premonition of Nietzsche, or of those characters in Ibsen who defy the masses. A new theme, a new form of liberalism, one alienated from the banalities of positivism, is born on the other shore. It is, however, easy to lose track of this sensibility if we simply accept the easy oppositions of universal history. I’ve been treating Hoffmann’s tale as a way of opening us up to the versions of universal history that can be projected


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...