The genesis of governmentality and the great flood of arbitrariness

(A homage to a great book)

28.XII 2018


Hieronymus Bosch: Last Judgment Triptych

Human freedom is a hell of alternatives, dilemmas and choices. True freedom is having no choices. Hell is nothing other than absolute freedom and the devil has been its champion since his rebellion against God… Just look at what kind of image we have of heaven. Whenever some painter attempts to reveal the Powers and Glory of God, we feel like we’re attending an SS parade at the Luipold Arena in Nuremberg… Phalanxes of identical, expressionless and blond angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, surround the Throne as specified in most brutal visions of an authoritarian state… Take the Bosch’s Last Judgment as an example. Successive necessities, realizing paradisiacal freedom are transformed along the vertical axes of the composition into chaos and true freedom of hell. High up, in the golden nimbus, symmetry reigns as in the Wehrmacht barracks; there’s still a humble order and a system in the falling of the angels, but further down… my god! Further down and absolute oriental chaos reigns! Each abusing each as he pleases! Each does as he likes! Everything is in total confusion! An insane chaos attains the freedom and beauty of the ideal democratic state. (Borislav Pekic)

Collective free will is a paradoxical social configuration. It is a highly disruptive force that interrupts the normal run of things and creates conditions for its own demise — it shows up every once in a while, but it never stays. The last time free will made its brief appearance in 1968, it frightened everyone, sounding alarms and prompting the urgent response of governments across the entire western hemisphere. Ironically, it was in the West, the champion of freedom and emancipation, where panic registered the highest levels. The developments that led to 1968, and those that followed, represent the crossroads of political history at the moment of an acute crisis of governmentality. The tensions of 1968 are defined by two contradictory realizations: that force is an inefficient way of governing and that true freedom is not governable.

In a discursive ideological competition that followed as a consequence of the crisis, neoliberalism offered the most “successful” (not necessarily the best) resolution of the underlying contradictions. By outlining a new way of conducting individuals, which satisfies aspirations to freedom in every sphere of human activity, it set the new initial conditions of modern governmentality. Behind these abstract statements lies a simple and, at the same time profound, observation about our ambivalence regarding freedom. People are both attracted and frightened by it — they like to wear it as an ornament, but don’t know what to do with it. This was the major political and cognitive innovation shaped by the factual constraint of the times.

Begin from the middle: From free choice to free selection

However, there was a twist, a detail without which none of it would have worked out. It consisted in the displacement of free choice with free selection. As long as selection was abundant, this subtle, but profound, shift of perspective remained largely unnoticed and the essence of control consisted of dialing the selections. But, when free choice is replaced with free selection and when selection is reduced to only two options, things begin to get interesting. People are given an illusion that, at each point of their life, they stand at the crossroads where one path leads to destruction and the other to redemption, that their future depends on every decision they make along the way. The ideological core of this binary choice consists in packaging it as the principle of one’s own choice. One constantly has to choose. Left or Right. With time, this dilemma becomes an engine which drives a continuous cognitive process that never switches off; it dictates how people live, how they experience reality, and how their sub-consciousness functions. For something like this, people need to mobilize considerable intellectual energy — totally preoccupied with the fear of not making a mistake, they have no time to reflect on anything else. Surrender to this reality — the ubiquitous and perpetual dilemma, Left or Right, when it would be normal to resist either direction — is an expression of acceptance of one’s (inevitable) destiny, supported by the hope of redemption, although real redemption is not waiting for us in either direction.

Labor camps as the birthplace of modern governmentality

The principle of one’s own choice of destiny is not a neoliberal invention. So reassuring at first sight, it was a tried and perfected modus operandi in Jewish Ghettos during World War II. It was invented there with a particular purpose to squash any possibility of resistance. This is how SS Standardführer Heinrich Steinbrecher[1] described the logic of its functioning in the Vilna Ghetto (city of Vilnius, in the territory of Nazi-administered Reichskommissariat Ostland), where, within less than two years from its establishment in 1941, the Ghetto’s population was reduced from an estimated 40,000 to zero.

In the Ghetto, the principle of choice of your destiny was perfected by issuing various kinds of certificates. Those who worked for the German industry received them, the others did not. At first, raids would target only those without certificates, so everybody tried to get one. The thought was now exclusively occupied with this goal. There was no time for any kind of resistance. The main objective was to obtain a work certificate before the next raid. However, the raid did not happen. In the meantime, a change in the rules was announced. Now, there were two kinds of certificates being issued — with and without an identification photo. It was up to you to choose with which kind of certificate you would face the next “manhunt”. The principle Left or Right was active again. Raid now hits those with passport without a picture. Everyone tries to exchange them. Administration announces that it is introducing a third id: a blank card with a stamp mark from the labor bureau in Ponar. However, hardly anyone decides to get it. Miserable piece of paper does not present any reassurance in terms of security. Next night, they arrest many of those with old id’s, with or without photos, in proportion to those without any documents. Everyone rushes to get a blank id. In the meantime, administration arrives at a conclusion that this division/distinction is impractical. It replaces it with partition on qualified and non-qualified workers. They do not ask for any proof. Only personal statement/declaration. Right or Left? Majority decides for some qualification. They reason that one who is considered useful will be spared. In principle, that conclusion is correct. Soon, it is discovered that “qualified” documents were taken also by those who have no rights for that. As a punishment, raid hits everyone, without discrimination. Both, those with and without documents. Jews realize they can only blame themselves: “They (Germans) trusted us, and we deceived them”. When someone reaches this level of reasoning, you can do anything with them. Selections on the basis of identification papers were continued. Left of right was permanently in effect/play. And before the last Jew was liquidated, their i.d.’s changed all colors: from red to white. Thought was constantly occupied. One always had to choose. Left or right?

Do you understand the genius of this idea? It could come only from a speculative mind like German. Only people who gave the world Kant and Hegel. However, to be fair, one has to give credit to those Jews. Only their Talmudic intelligence could get fully and wholeheartedly immersed into this game. Primitive Anglo-Saxons, without imagination and intellectual combinatorics, as soon as they would notice that the rules of game are changing whenever they are on the way to winning, they would exit/abandon the game. Jews continued the play it. With ever growing passion, as the game selection would get more complicated, and their count continued to shrink[2].

In what must be one of the greatest moments of cultural introspection, Steinbrecher’s summary outlines the contours of future struggles of governmentality in a broader ideological context and, at the same time, reveals a disturbing natural link, a straight line, that connects the western cultural tradition with the Holocaust and the final solution. The logic of that strait path leads beyond mere physical; it penetrates deeply cognitive and intellectual horizons and ties them together. It identifies Evil as an intellectual need of the mind, which meditates about the good –a logical necessity of any effort that funds the idea about a better world[3].

Triumph of unfree will: New governmentality at work

The fundamental challenge of any capitalist ideology is how to convince people to voluntarily make stupid decisions, and how to do that systematically. This is a complicated problem of constrained optimization with multiple horizons to which neoliberalism offered the simplest solution. Instead of inventing a new ideology for the emerging socioeconomic system, neoliberalism concentrated on reshaping the political subjects and manufacturing docile bodies. It introduced a series of social apparatuses that gradually transformed society to conform to the old methods of control, using Ghettos as a blueprint.

For the labor camp model work outside of the context of extreme oppression, it was necessary to condition the modern political subjects and reduce their thinking process to that of the residents of the 1940s Ghettos. How? Neoliberalism adopted a simple approach. It disseminated market values into every sphere of human activity. Cooperation is replaced by competition, which is elevated to the level of a supreme principle and a criterion that trumps everything else. It inserts a war machine into each pore of human activity – a fascisization of everyday life. The continued cult of wage labor merely replaces Arbeit macht frei, and, as “fences” become narrower and the “voltage” approaches lethal levels, every mistake becomes potentially irreversible and the fatality of mistakes self-fulfilling.

To persuade the Westerners, and, in particular, Anglo-Saxons with their practical empiricism, to play this game, the rules have to be complicated to the point of becoming ungraspable. And, of course, to make sure people continue to make stupid decisions, efforts have to be made to keep them stupid: Critical (or any systematic) thinking is undermined and discouraged; ignorance is promoted and cultivating as a cultural virtue while access to education is continuously reduced.

As selection gets reduced to binary, the contours of the Ghetto gradually emerge. The Left or Right dilemma gets a cultural dimension. One path is more inclusive, it leads to more welfare, but less god and guns, while on the other end, one is lured by the promise of “greater coherence”, with all the regressive ornaments surrounding a neo-patriarchal, unenlightened society – a gay-free zone where everyone carries a bible and a gun. However, both paths lead to the same destination of social self-destruction defined by the systematic devastation of everything that doesn’t submit to the profit of the strongest.

So, at the end, it is down to a binary choice between two alternatives, neither one of which would have been found acceptable if they had been subjected to free (and/or intelligent) choice. This is the neoliberal parallax gap defined by the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives with no common ground. The free will has been taken out of the decision process altogether, ex ante! However, the cultural division, embedded in the two selections on offer, has an important stabilizing role: make the pain across different cultural divides mutually unintelligible and mutually exclusive. As the rules of the game become more complicated and the size of excess population grows, those who had been played – the game’s main victims – continue to play with ever growing passion. Everything looks perfect. But, reality refuses to be fooled by it.

2018: The great flood of arbitrariness

After decades of accumulated social deficit, neoliberalism came to a halt by the end of the first decade of the century. Although it became clear that the existing ideological framework had run its course, there was no alternative that could replace it. 2016 was a referendum on free will, the year when the West finally rejected freedom and the capital voiced an open quest for an authoritarian state. In many ways, 2016 was an anti-1968 — the triumph of unfree will — a directionless step forward and a stepping into political quicksand.

In the two subsequent years, the initial conditions of 2016 set the stage for the great flood of arbitrariness: A chaotic dissolution of all frames of reference, the established social structures, institutions and rules, and an all-out assault on truth. The new political narrative envisions the great deluge of arbitrariness as an act of “divine” retribution aimed at washing away the sins of the West: the sin of rationality, logic, restraint, mediocrity, and compromise — a systemic purge of the social body from the existing rules in preparation for its rebirth.

This is another round of discursive ideological competition where the modern-day transposition of the biblical narrative is served to the properly prepared segment of excess population, while the insane wing of the right populism is energizing their base – the unsuspected victims of their con jobs — and subcontracting their rage to build, on their behalf, the Ark on which they will secure the spot for a selected few.

The great flood of arbitrariness creates its own rules. It is an escalation of neoliberal maneuver of selection reduction extended to intellectual and cognitive horizons, beyond physical survival. Instead of the Left or Right dilemma, it is now between drowning in the flood of arbitrariness or getting on board of the Ark of fools. People subjected to this principle of choice resemble a person who considers an outstanding privilege and benefit a permission to choose whether he will jump through the window from the third floor or wait for the fifth[4].

2016 marks the beginning of the end of the Hegelian historical continuum where History is seen as the realization of freedom by means of a series of successive enslavements to different kinds of necessity. Free selection is now being reduced down to one option and we are free to embrace it or reject it. This is the highest act of freedom — freely assuming what is otherwise necessary. It is also the end of history. We have finally achieved true freedom because true freedom is having no choice. And so, history doesn’t end with a fairytale of global liberal democracy, but with an authoritarian state.

[1] Borislav Pekic, How to Quiet a Vampire, Northwestern University Press (2003)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.


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