Building Education for the Commons
The essential problem with thought today is that as things get more complex people start to think in ever more simple ways. The more we are confronted with an economy and society which demands extraordinary amounts of nimble-footed intellectual effort in order to keep on top of its twists and turns, the more we retreat into black and white certainties. One is either in favour of free speech and therefore must support Charlie Hebdo or one does not support them and is therefore some sort of ISIL fifth columnist. There is very little space for those who maintain that it is necessary to be both in favour of and against something at the same time. Je suis indeed Charlie but I am also not Charlie. This is precisely where intellectual activity comes in. You do not have to be a dialectician to know that nothing can be understood in simple binary terms, but it helps.
For example; one can be absolutely in favour of Charlie Hebdo’s right to print its rather teenagerish attempts at frightening the horses by printing cartoon images of Mohammed with his trousers down and indeed be in favour of defending to the death their right to do so. But it is not a contradiction- or at least not one which cannot be reconciled – to be opposed to them doing so. We have to have absolute freedom to upset and offend and oppose the most fundamental religious sentiments but at the same time question whether it is sensible to do so.
At base this is a political question and not a theological one.
The reason for the appearance of fundamentalist Islam as a significant social phenomenon is explicable by recourse to the old Gramscian notion that every fascism represents a failed revolution. I do not favour the term Islamo-fascism because its use implies that there is something specific to Islam which lends it to fascism. Fascism of the Nazi or Italian version is not called Christo-fascism, despite the fact that many within the hierarchy of various Christian churches – predominantly the Catholic church – supported and even encouraged fascism as a way of channeling age-old traditional antisemitism. And yet one of the most renowned anti-nazi groups – die weisse Rose, led by the Scholls – was also motivated by its Christian and indeed Catholic faith. The pope himself seems to represent this dialectical character in one figure. When he was first elected it was feared that someone with a history which connected him to some of the worst excesses of South American military dictatorships would taint and tarnish him, and yet now the main criticism seems to be that he is a liberation theologist, nay, a Marxist.
Again this can only be understood as a result of binary thinking. Everything must be either A or B, nothing must be presented that asks one to think that everything is a little bit of A and a lot of B or vice versa.
This is not such a new notion after all.
Let us look back just 160 years or so at the writings of Marx, where we find that capitalism is presented both as something which has liberated the productive forces to an unimaginable extent and in doing so has objectively propelled human society – indeed the human species – forward into a realm of new possibilities, central to which was the immanent overcoming of that very system and its transformation into a new one.
Everything carries within it its own sublation, its own overcoming, and this is certainly as much the case with fundamentalist Islam as it was with European fascism.
In both cases there are indeed similarities to be noted:
Firstly radical Islam was – as were the Nazis in the 1920s and early 30s – supported by corporate interests while they seemed to be doing the work of those corporations. Where were the outraged protests when it was young Soviet soldiers who were having their heads sawn off by the Taliban and the Mujahedin in the late 1970s? Oh, that’s right – there weren’t any. Instead they were invited to the White House and lauded as the new “founding fathers” of a new order in the Middle East. Well, actually that was correct. They were the new founding fathers. But now they have turned on their own fathers in a way which even Freud would have found amusing.
Secondly, just as the Nazis became a Frankensteinian monster that it was no longer possible to control so the very forces which anti-communism have unleashed cannot be put back in the bottle and now we stand effectively on the threshold of a new World War, fought this time with new weapons and new techniques but with the same old aim of putting the genie back in the bottle.
To dig even deeper, one further point about this is that the current struggle is not something new, but a continuation of the transition from an old imperial order to something new. Fascism in its 1930s guise was, amongst other things, the attempt by German imperialism to carve its own space in the hinterlands of central and eastern Europe by means of military conquest. The logic was that pursued already by Bismarck when he demanded a “place in the sun” at the end of the 19th century. Fascism mixed in a dose of virulent racism against eastern European Jews as a way of dehumanizing and degrading a racial group before exterminating them. Of course there was a particular pathological content to Hitler’s antisemitism which cannot be put down simply to imperial interests, but for many in the West a blind eye could be turned as long as he focused his attentions on the East and the Soviet Union.
And what does ISIL want today? A caliphate in which old imperial borders and zones of interest are wiped away in favour of a “New Order”. The straight lines on the map drawn up in the imperial meeting rooms of London and Paris in the 19th century mean nothing more to them than the borders of Eastern Europe meant to Hitler. The slogan he used of “heim ins Reich” (bringing all Germans home) is essentially identical with the idea of a caliphate; namely the establishment of a state of all the Germans regardless of arbitrary borders drawn up in various imperial meeting rooms. ISIL want the same thing for all Muslims today, whether all Muslims want it themselves or not.
Paradoxically, those borders should mean nothing to us either.
What we should be fighting for is a redrawing of the map that has nothing in common with the insane fantasies of the Jihadis. At the same time, however, we must not think that the old or new imperial order can simply be reimposed and borders stabilized under the auspices of some New World Order dreamed up in Washington or, indeed, Beijing. In the short to medium term, in the battle that is now raging we do not stand aside and say a plague on both your houses. We are unequivocally against the victory of the fundamentalists. Once they are beaten, however, the struggle for a new way of running the world must continue.
What we, the “Left” – to the extent that there is any such thing today – should be fighting for is a redrawing of the lines the old imperial order in which at last the people truly take command of their own destinies under the control of neither the Jihadis in the Middle East nor the Cold Warriors of the West or Russia or China. The Kurds have started to show the way with this and this is why Turkey and their fellow NATO members were happy to provide only limited and ineffective help against ISIL. Only when a social transformation has taken place and when people can truly liberate themselves can the new black and white dichotomy between western corporate democracy and Jihadi-fascism be overcome.
Prof. Peter Thompson is a GCAS faculty member
I have been teaching at the University of Sheffield since 1990, when I was appointed to build up the provision of politics and history options within the Department. My background is a somewhat unusual one: I left school at 16, joined the army for 5 years and then worked as a lorry driver, before commencing undergraduate study as a mature student in 1983 at Portsmouth Polytechnic. My interests have always been in the post-war history of the GDR and German unification, but my main area of research at present is in the field of Ernst Bloch studies, encompassing not only his period in the GDR from 1949 to 1961 – when he was Professor of Philosophy at Leipzig University and centrally involved in oppositional Marxist activities of the Harich-Gruppe of the mid 1950s – but also in the philosophical impact of his theories of “Concrete Utopia” and the central role of hope in social transformation.
I am also the Director of The Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies, which was established at Sheffield in 2008 (Check out, the Ernst Bloch Blog).
In 2013, Duke University Press published Thompson and Zizek’s edited volume The Privatisation of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia in Slavoj Žižek’s SIC series. Contributors include Slavoj Žižek, Wayne Hudson, Vince Geoghegan, Roland Boer, Ruth Levitas, Johan Siebers, Cat Moir, Henk de Berg, Caitríona Ní Dhúill, David Miller, Rainer Zimmerman, Francesca Vidal, Welf Schröter, Frances Daly and me.