“No Matter What We Do, It Will Still Be The Same”

An English translation by Bernard Bouvet of my « QUOI QU’ON FASSE, CE SERA LA MÊME CHOSE ! » of March 11.

 

77% of you, my dear blog readers, not all of you, but a “comfortable majority” of you, happens to be French. Your country is now in full “election showbiz” mode, and the mainstream media, in the press, on the radio, on television, are full of it, news on why the moment is “crucial” and “how to vote”, are front and centre.

Still, you are perfectly conscious of the fact that whatever which way you vote, either for one of the two candidates facing each other in the second round, or someone else, as a protest vote favouring either the extreme-left or the extreme-right, or a blank vote, or even if you don’t bother voting, all that is of no importance since the result will be the same: either actively or passively, you will elect or help elect a candidate who will either immediately set out to carry out the program of any such “troika” (EU, IMF, ECB) forgetful of the meaning of “democracy” – if it ever understood it – or a candidate who will, after a perfunctory six month delay, carry out the exact same program, in “former president Miterrand’s fashion”, following a “valiant” last stand.

No doubt, that last stand will turn out to be “valiant”, but again, a fat lot of good it’ll do you.

One can sense the weariness, the discouragement pervading your comments on this blog since the election campaign started.

Throughout history, particularly in the 19th century, that kind of hopelessness had led to several social change attempts from within the system. For instance, it gave birth to an array of communal groups, rendered vulnerable from the very start, to some extent, by an exaggeratedly idyllic view of human nature, but mostly due to the hostility of an outside world, a world which had stood unchanged. How many a grandiose project of a cooperative, of a social workshop, of abolishing money, of an alternative currency, did not succumb to the assaults of those from the outside who had retained their, let’s call it… “business sense”? Virtue, as Saint-Just realised far too late, can only be exercised within a protective institutional framework, otherwise, it is purely and simply trampled under foot.

What to do? Those unanswered questions require resolving, if the goal for a preferred tomorrow is to achieve a decent, livable world. A world where, in retrospect and in contrast, we will realise what a nightmare the previous world had been that we contended ourselves with.

Indeed, those 19th-century associationists, collectivists, socialists, communists, anarchists, even enlightened liberals such as Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, posed those unanswered questions, but still, they remained unresolved. The 20th century, for its part, has had its share of false solutions ending in atrocities.

In France, the Revolution of 1848 gave birth to numerous projects founded on generosity but soon failing, due to the instigators’ lack of a proper analysis of principles. Proudhon laments the “premature birth” of the Revolution. But aren’t all revolutions always, and by definition, born prematurely, otherwise they wouldn’t even have been considered as necessary. The excuse has been abused throughout human history, of having been caught unprepared in the face of an “unpredictable” collapse, even if predicted with some accuracy by a few.

Last Sunday, I launched a five-part series called: “The Remaining Unresolved Questions”. I have only been back home last night, following a series of speeches in Belgium and Holland, with no time yet to read your contributions to the debate, but I am readying myself to do so.

Anyway, those “Remaining Unresolved Questions” are already well-known. What I am expecting of you, is for a few (the rest of the troops fill follow suit in no time) to initiate an undertaking of resolving those questions. A precise list will take shape along the way, but in the meantime a few questions can be clearly formulated: “How do we smash the wealth-concentrating machinery?”. “How do we terminate speculation?“. “How should newly created wealth be redistributed?”. “How do we re-invent an economic system neither based on private property, nor on “growth”, both recognised as life destroying on our planet?”. “How do we eliminate work, without reducing to misery those who lived from it?”. Etc. Etc.

Time has come to define in new terms this insane world that – because of weariness and because of discouragement – we have contented ourselves with until now.

So, have a nice day, get set, ready, go! Use your pens, emails, phone calls, your arms, your legs… whatever works!

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LE CAPITALISME À L’AGONIE, Fayard 2011

A couple of weeks ago, my new book Le capitalisme à l’agonie came out, published by Fayard in Paris. Bénédicte has been so kind as to translate the summary I wrote for its backcover.

Le capitalisme à l’agonie (Fayard 2011). Summary

In 1989, at the fall of the Berlin Wall, capitalism was triumphant. Deprived by now of any enemies, it had ceased to be just one economic system among others to become the single form under which an economic system could possibly exist. In 2007, a mere eighteen years later, that is for all purposes simultaneously on the timescale of human history, it would itself be carried away by the maelstrom of its upcoming destruction. Capitalism has now reached the point of death. What could possibly have happened?

Looking back, the eighteen years separating the fall of the Soviet-type state capitalism and the fall of the Western market capitalism will seem trivial The explanations offered for a supposedly intrinsic superiority of the one system which outlasted its rival by a short interval only will seem trivial as well. History will remember the irony of this conjunction.

Despite having hardly been mentioned at all, one hypothesis by now stands out: could it be that capitalism and communism were struck down by the very same ailment? Complexity would then be the cause: the make-up of human societies is bound to reach a threshold in complexity beyond which instability gets the upper hand and fragility having become overwhelming, the system heads for disaster.

An alternative explanation is that in order to thrive, capitalism was in need of a powerful enemy to oppose. This enemy, far from being a threat to capitalism turned out to be in actuality its unexpected support. The option was open to citizens of democracies to turn their vote to such an alternative and this by itself was enough to force capitalism’s beneficiaries to keep its functioning within the borders of common decency. Once such an alternative option had vanished, capitalism’s beneficiaries did not refrain from trying de develop its market mentality even further, destabilizing by this the entire system and leading it straight to its downfall.

There is one more possible explanation: that due to the payment of interests by those who have no option but to borrow when trying to meet their productive or consumptive aims, capitalism would inevitably fuel a concentration of wealth such that the whole system would break down sooner or later.

Between these various hypotheses, there is no need for choosing though: the three of them are jointly true, each in its own particular manner and their combined implications characterise the first decade of the twenty-first century. This getting together of lethal factors explains why we are not currently experiencing any of the crises of capitalism which have become habitual in the two most recent centuries but truly, its last gasp.

We are examining in the book the various moments of a time when a behemoth mechanism, first slows down, then stops.

This novel feature of a lack of any serious competitor for capitalism prevents us from seeing with any clarity what is coming next. To enlighten us, we need to focus on what we mean by happiness, the kind of happiness we are wishing our children, our children’s children and ourselves. We need also to scrutinize the contradiction existing between two of our main concerns neither of which we are prepared to sacrifice: ethics, the moral life, and private property, the right of owning, without such possession being ever legitimately questioned. We analyse the quandary of a world where labour is becoming rare but where the income it provides remains indispensible for the large majority.

Some luminaries of human thought did guess that our species would one day be faced with questions which if not unsolvable, require however that we initiate a move as radical as that which led us from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic era, or from agrarian to industrial societies. We will summon to this aim the ground breaking pondering of Robespierre, Saint-Just, Hegel, Marx, Lévy-Bruhl, Freud and Keynes in particular.

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Capitalism (I) – The Veins of the Future

An English translation of Le capitalisme (I) – Les nervures de l’avenir posted on my French blog on March 2nd.

In Reason in History (1837), a posthumous work composed from lecture notes, Hegel observes that “ … what experience and history teach is that peoples and governments have never yet learned from history, let alone acted according to its lessons”. This is true: had it been otherwise, no civilization having preserved the memory of those that preceded it would ever have died.

While failing to learn from history, men have never stopped however trying to decipher it and when reading it, our focus is either on what keeps reappearing under an identical shape or on what has never been seen before. Grasping to what extent these two ingredients are mixed: the same and the different, is fundamental of course, especially in those times of transition. We will not know where we’re heading if we fail to determine whether the times we live in are characterised by the brand new or by the eternal return. With the former, the processes observed are nearing completion, with the latter, they are bound to persist. We need distinguishing ruptures from continuities. When the first outweigh the second, then change is radical. This is why the ability at reading history is less crucial when in the early days of a new era than when, as currently, an exhausted era is coming to an end.

When cracking a chrysalis, a dark and thick liquid comes to light, revealing neither the shape of the larva in the process of being dissolved, nor that of the perfect insect which will emerge one day. Turbulent times are of this nature. Saint-Just was once forced to admit that: « Perhaps the force of circumstance leads us to outcomes which we had not thought of ahead. » Shortly after this admission, he surrendered without a fight to a fate of impending death, acknowledging his inability to understand the whirlwind that had overtaken him.

Should times evolve in a radical fashion, there will exist within them « veins »: rectilinear trajectories connecting the past to the future through the mesh that the present is made of. Other areas will remain unchanged but, for as long as the transition takes place, being part of the general effervescence, they will nonetheless be subjected to disquieting turbulence. Being able to detect the underlying presence of such “veins” amounts to reading the future written as of now in the present.

(To be followed …)

[Thanks to Bernard Bouvet for having had a first shot at translating this piece!]

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