A Didier Eribon moment to go with the last day of the year. My mother is on the phone in the kitchen to my aunt. Her voice is so loud I can hear the conversation through the closed door. It’s about politics, and in the meanest outraged-citizen tone her moaning and accusatory monologue rattles off one resentment after the other: look at the crap they’re teaching in schools these days, using laptops before the children can write and count, no wonder all the trainees are worse than useless. Assad and Erdogan should have been shot, then all this would never have happened. Local journalists are scum, denouncing someone who wants to help the town financially as a racist. And so many pedophiles these days…! The people at the top have been deceiving us (pensioners) since the introduction of the euro. For Merkel the people don’t count any more. Power is the worst—but with the proviso: “To be honest, I wouldn’t want to do their job …” Though this doesn’t prevent the next tirade about the failings of the morons who govern us.
I squirm. How can you say anything about politics if you can’t even take that? I ask myself. There are probably far more people in this country and around the world who think like her than think like you. People who to your mind don’t even think but react to a rhetorically prefabricated complex of meaning with an emotion that can be how it is because it has no other purpose than its own expression. Civil subjects who are used to being cut off from political action and are therefore unable to anticipate, accompany, and remember action, but have feelings instead of acting. Efferent nerve signals spluttering into a void. Resonance feelings.
My mother is a very gentle person. The hatred gushing out of her shocks me all the more, as I have only ever known her without harshness. The fact that within her lower-middle-class milieu (and without ever escaping it) she was able to let me become what must have been incomprehensible to her during my final teenage years at home still commands my admiration. The mothers and fathers of my schoolfriends parented as badly as the political attitudes they represented were rotten. They were anxious-aggressive, full of reservations, hands and faces hard from automatically checking every impetus that might take them a few centimeters off their familiar tracks. Or they didn’t parent at all, refusing to take on the role. Perhaps loving a man twenty-five years older than her gave my mother the decisive leeway. Propitious oedipality, pulling the law through one of its loopholes.
This may have saved her from that petit-bourgeois aggression whose primary concern is to nip other people’s happiness in the bud. But not from the inactive aggression of the ruled. If the rulers were family members, relations, neighbors, she wouldn’t begrudge them the freedom of their bad decisions. Her know-it-all mother-to-them-all would want to help, would take responsibility in the form of advice, however incompetent and parochial. Concrete concern would simply forget the hate. Like Brecht’s Mother, she would immediately put a routine sense of the practical into operation, and the negative consequences the people around her might have to suffer in the shadow of her concern would only be due to a humanly imperfect, necessarily short-sighted, error-ridden praxis.
But with no expertise in doing anything with the rage about everything that’s wrong, without anyone close enough to personalize political information, resentful claptrap is a self-sufficient occupation. A reality of hands-on concern and one of grumbling ire exist side by side, separated, like two alternative operating systems. Anger takes over where concern can’t get hold of an object. Indiscriminately taken umbrage seems to be the price paid for an attitude to the world that knows no other sense of what’s right than personal concern.
I am seized with shame on listening because I also think that a lot of what my mother considers bad is bad. And I don’t know anything better to do with the frustration about this tangled badness so tightly knotted into its own infrastructure—except think. Thinking gives me a respite, gives me time to form a judgement. My political education, including the emergence of my convictions, occurred in this time of at least tentative judgement. She, however, has never learned to make time work to differentiate her access to the world. She has to respond immediately. If we watch the news together, she often vents her displeasure even before the presenter finishes a sentence.
And this is normal, to some extent, because our bodies do in fact process language in this way. If I hear what someone says, my body doesn’t wait until the person finishes a sentence or even speaking so as to ascertain the meaning of everything heard. As soon as two or three words have been recognized, cognitive speculations occur as to how the sequence will continue. Information about how it actually continues will need to irritate and interrupt these speculations so that I reconsider an understanding that in communication terms may already have been complete and provoked reactions. All those times when what other people meant eluded us because we were so sure where it was going that we didn’t pay any attention to the end should remind us that rashness is the default setting of our responding.
Without a situation with tangible other people, without consequences necessitating responsive adjustment, rash judgements remain unchallenged and uncorrected. Conversation chains of such judgements with no inducement to insightful change solve the task of undertaking an activity without having the power to act. A state limited to the democracy of voting in a government every few years gives its citizens just such a task: be active, without acting! Those who stop caring about politics undermine civic standards. We should take an interest, but like a lively audience. The constitution may guarantee the right to express opinions in the form of demonstrations, petitions, letters to parliamentarians, and so on. But none of these options constitutes a political activity, and as soon as something that people do makes such a claim and contradicts the sovereign body on its own level, the law enforcers move in.
Resentful claptrap is a part of the activity-without-the-power-to-act that establishes itself in so-called representative democracies: people pounce on news and hurl out something “authentically” expressive, only to leave the spontaneous affective statement behind and go on to the next thing. If this is done online, in the social network, it can produce a shitstorm, as statements that were only intended to be expressive suddenly have consequences as if they were political actions. Posts make effects similar to actions through a collective dynamic of acclaim, imitation, escalation, and distortion. The sensitive educated middle-class soul marvel at how people can utter such stinging insults and threaten rape and murder under their real names. But as ugly as the mob is that stares out from the net, it’s important to understand that the irresponsibility isn’t a merely individual psychological disposition, but rather the systemic reality of being an audience. Someone who only ever makes judgements without taking decisions will never be able to cultivate a political ethics. Ethics need action, and the feedback from practice.
We recklessly count on ethics coming from somewhere other than a practice only offered by party politics or activism, from which the majority population excludes itself. The panic invocation of Christian values shows the extent of the dilemma here: please come up with something, anything, that will make people behave responsibly, no mater how obviously illusory it is! But the drift into religious or ideological morality only veils a truth that any theatre performance could tell us: there is no responsible audience. There is no responsibility without a concrete opportunity to formulate an answer whose effects have the status of acknowledged consequences. There is no responsibility-bearing demos without participation in political action.
What my mother and I could have in common, despite all the things that habitually divide us, would be forms of investing our aggression in something other than claptrap. Activities that would gradually pave the way from merely expressive civil agitation to collective acts of violence, in which the emotions would be transferred from tongue to hands. It would be nice, now, to do in a handy little piece of the bad world, I think, while the fireworks go off outside behind the security blinds. No tepid ritual diverting actual violence into the symbolic. Nothing cathartic that functions like a film or how stage dramas used to. But really destroying something ourselves—a technically accomplished collective endeavor, learned and refined by doing, of deliberate destruction from several sides. And then facing up to the consequences of what the collective has screwed up. In this twenty-first century I’d like to answer the question that was passed over with the implementation of the nation state and its monopoly on violence, and has been twitching without gaining political legitimacy in the laboriously immobilized limbs of the people ever since: what replaces revenge?
Representative democracy, embedded in a nation state, is the attempt of a modern authoritarianism, whose vanishing point remains fascism, to keep itself in check. Some of the events of recent years have shown how quickly this fails. In a segmental society, revenge was the negative of concern, the violent consequence of responsibility for the family. Now that legitimate retribution is the sole preserve of the state—and private reprisal is high presumption—a puny remnant of this consequence has expanded almost universally in the form of resentment: the less power I have, the more extensively I negate a reality that offends me without generally meaning me personally. At best I am permitted to destroy in the semblance of productivity or upkeep—pulling up weeds in the pretty, thriving garden. My mother is a passionate gardener.
While the upkeeping, productive forms of self-organized collectivity never went quite out of practice through centuries of empire or state citizenship, as they could be oriented, in the absence of a civil-political sphere, to the welfare principle of the family, the destructive forms had a bad time. Political sublimation was much more dreary than its erotic equivalent. Civil negativity would be well advised to learn from perversion, not least from its resourcefulness in the use of media: what if social organizations (schools, community work, cultural activities …) included civil practices of destruction? If we saw the translation of audience aggression into acts of self-organized collective violence as an essential exercise in democratic coexistence, as a practice that supplements and offsets the routines of “constructive” civil participation?
It’s just before midnight. My good or bad New Year’s resolution is to find out, through destruction, how we can destroy something in the right way together.
This text was written on December 31, 2016. It responds both in its hesitancy and resolve to political devastations that had begun to emerge with painful clarity that year. Since then the badness it discusses has become far worse. We are seeing how common resentment is increasingly drawing on that fascism that was never overcome, not even pushed to the extremity indicated by an erroneous term like “extreme right”. Today fascism is the continually threatened revenge on a democracy that defrauds its citizens, with reference to objective necessities, of the decisive part of what the democratic idea stands for. Giving in to the pull of fascism feels like an accelerated leap forward into “genuine authoritarianism.” Which is why the pull will become stronger, the more state government falls back on false promises.
In this text I wanted to meet resentful aggression where it’s close to me—and where I’m not necessarily far from it. And to wonder what might help to plug such feeling back into a collective activity from which the state order detaches it. “You can make people say what you want them to say, but you can’t make them do what you want them to do,” explains a pollster to the prime minister, Francis Urquhart, in the British original House of Cards. Through suitably phrased questions you can manipulate people to give the desired answers, which gives opinion polling a huge power. But this power ends where action begins. Willing as we are to be manipulated in our judgements if they are meant to take the form of an utterance, we can be headstrong if they are digested by collective activity. This seems to me to be the starting point for all attempts to save democracy. Whether we finally move away from the voting system and allocate offices to citizens temporarily by lot (which I would like) or whether the struggle for democracy will be restricted to a makeshift defense of the current system against dictatorship (which is more likely), it will be essential to give as many people as possible, as often as possible, opportunities for self-organized political practice. Instead of sermons and appeals to humanity, we need practice in the positive and negative experience of putting-into-effect. Our fears, prejudices, envy, and malice also need to be actionably materialized. Only practice is anarchic, and only real physical collective accomplishment can convey ethical principles that aren’t the internalizations of orders.