The motto of every authentic radical change is the same as the quote from Virgil that Freud chose as the epigraph for his Interpretation of Dreams. It is Acheronta movebo – I will move the infernal regions. Dare to disturb the underground of the unspoken underpinnings of our everyday lives! There are two such “infernal regions” in our societies: (1) the political unconscious proper, i.e., the vast domain of obscene unwritten rules that supplement public rules, and (2) the digital network which regulates our daily lives, from the public sphere to the innermost intimate sphere. Let’s take a closer look at each of the two.
The Catholic unconscious is structured like paedophilia
The sheer number of paedophiliac crimes that were taking place in the Catholic Church all around the world, from Ireland and Pennsylvania to Australia, crimes committed by members of the institution which propagates itself as the moral compass of our society, compels us to raise some difficult questions. Almost as terrible as the horror of the crimes is the way the Church tried to downplay the scandal.
In my own country, Slovenia, the leading figure of the Church, Cardinal Rode, displayed open cynical “realism”: in one of his radio interviews, he said that “statistically, this is an irrelevant problem – one or at the utmost two out of a hundred priests had a kind of adventure.” What immediately drew the attention of the public was the term “a kind of adventure” used as a euphemism for paedophilia: a brutal crime of raping children was presented as a normal display of adventurous “vivacity” (another term used by Rode), and, as Rode quipped in another interview: “In forty years’ time you would expect some small sins to occur, won’t you?” This is Catholic obscenity at its purest: no solidarity with the victims (children), but what we find beneath the morally upright posture is just the barely concealed solidarity with the perpetrators on behalf of cynical realism (that’s how life is, we are all red under our skin, priests can also be adventurous and vivacious…), so that, in the end, the only true victims appear to be the Church and the perpetrators themselves, exposed to the unfair media campaign. The lines are thus clearly drawn: paedophilia is ours, our own dirty secret, and it is, as such, normalized, the secret foundation of our normality, Or, as G.K. Chesterton put it a century ago in his Orthodoxy (unaware of the full consequences of his words, of course):
“The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.”
The perverse conclusion is unavoidable here: do you want to enjoy the pagan dream of pleasurable life without paying the price of melancholic sadness for it? Choose Christianity! We can discern the traces of this paradox up to the well-known Catholic figure of the Priest (or a Nun) as the ultimate bearer of sexual wisdom. Recall what is arguably the most powerful scene in The Sound of Music. After Maria escapes the von Trapp family and goes back to the monastery, unable to deal with her sexual attraction towards Baron von Trapp, she cannot find peace there, since she is still longing for the Baron. In a memorable scene, the Mother Superior summons her and advises her to return to the von Trapp family and try to sort out her relationship with the Baron. She delivers this message in a weird song “Climb every mountain!”, whose surprising motif is: Do it! Take the risk and try everything your heart wants! Do not allow petty considerations to stand in your way! The uncanny power of this scene resides in its unexpected display of the spectacle of desire, which renders the scene literally embarrassing: the very person whom one would expect to preach abstinence and renunciation turns out to be the agent of fidelity to one’s desire. Today, with cases of paedophilia popping up all over the Catholic Church, one can easily imagine a new version of the scene from The Sound of Music: a young priest approaches the abbot, complaining that he is still tortured by desires for young boys, and demanding further punishment; the abbot answers by singing “Climb every young boy…”
When Church representatives insist that these cases, deplorable as they are, are the Church’s internal problem – and consequently display great reluctance to collaborate with police in their investigation – they are, in a way, right. The paedophilia of Catholic priests is not something that concerns only the persons who, for accidental reasons of private history with no relation to the Church as an institution, happen to be paedophiles. This abuse is a phenomenon that concerns the Catholic Church as such, because it is inscribed into its very functioning as a social institution. In this way, it does not only concern the “private” unconscious of individuals, but the “unconscious” (the part which should not be talked about publicly) of the institution of the Catholic Church itself. This abuse is not something that happens because the institution has to accommodate itself to the pathological realities of libidinal life in order to survive, but something that the institution itself needs in order to reproduce itself. One can well imagine a non-paedophile priest who, after years of service, gets involved in paedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an institutional unconscious designates the obscene disavowed underside that sustains the public institution. In other words, it is not simply that, for conformist reasons, the Church tries to hush up its paedophilic scandals; rather, in defending itself, the Church is defending its innermost obscene secret.
Freud considered the church and the army the two exemplary cases of an organized crowd. No wonder, then, that we find the same phenomenon abundantly in the army: the underside of obscene sexualized rituals such as fragging sustains military group solidarity. This obscene underground enables us to approach in a new way the (today half-forgotten) Abu Ghraib phenomenon: images of US soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. Does anyone still remember the unfortunate Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Saddam’s information minister who, in his daily press conferences, heroically denied even the most evident facts and stuck to the Iraqi line? Once, however, he did strike a strange truth. When, confronted with the claims that the US army is already in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: “They are not in control of anything – they don’t even control themselves!” When the scandalous news broke out about the weird things going on in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, we got a glimpse of this very dimension that Americans do not control themselves.
When I saw the well-known photo of a naked prisoner with a black hood covering his head, electric cables attached to his limbs, standing on a chair in a ridiculous theatrical pose, these images immediately brought to my mind the obscene underside of the US popular culture – say, the initiation rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo in order to be accepted into a closed community. Do we not see similar photos at regular intervals in the US press, when some scandal explodes in an army unit or on a high school campus, where an initiation ritual went overboard and soldiers or students got hurt beyond a level considered tolerable, forced to assume a humiliating pose, to perform debasing gestures (like penetrating their anal opening with a beer bottle in front of their peers), to suffer being pierced by needles, etc.
What this means is that self-identification with this secret side is a key constituent of the very identity of a soldier – and of a Catholic priest. If a priest seriously – not just rhetorically – publicly denounces these scandals, he thereby excludes himself from the ecclesiastic community; he is no longer “one of us”. (In exactly the same way a citizen of a town in the South of the US in the 1920s, if he denounced the Ku Klux Klan to the police, excluded himself from his community, i.e., betrayed its fundamental solidarity.) Consequently, the answer to the Church’s reluctance should be not only that we are dealing with criminal cases and that, if the Church does not fully participate in their investigation, it is an accomplice after the fact. The Church as an institution should itself be investigated with regard to the way it systematically creates conditions for such crimes. Sentimental admission of guilt and the theatrics of repentance are not enough: only the full and active collaboration with police counts here.
This obscene underground, the unconscious terrain of dirty habits, is what is really difficult to change. However, there is another such underground, a kind of externalized or materialized unconscious: the digital material grid of our lives, this new figure of what Lacan called the “big Other.”
The fate of the digital commons: A Trotskyite view
In the overflow of celebratory reactions to the centenary of the October Revolution in 2017, its central lesson for today passed unnoticed (or was mentioned as a proof that the October Revolution was a coup performed by a narrow group and not a true popular uprising at all). This lesson concerns the unique collaboration between Lenin and Trotsky.
The kernel of Lenin’s “utopia” arises out of the ashes of the catastrophe of 1914, in his settling of accounts with the Second International orthodoxy: the radical imperative to smash the bourgeois state, which means the state as such, and to invent a new communal social form without a standing army, police or bureaucracy, a form through which all could take part in the administration of the social matters. This was for Lenin no theoretical project for some distant future. In October 1917, Lenin claimed that “we can at once set in motion a state apparatus constituting of ten if not twenty million people.”1 This urge of the moment is the true utopia. What one should stick to is the madness (in the strict Kierkegaardian sense) of this Leninist utopia – and, if anything, Stalinism stands for a return to realistic “common sense.”
One cannot overestimate the explosive potential of The State and Revolution. In this book, “the vocabulary and grammar of the Western tradition of politics were abruptly dispensed with.”2 What then followed can be called, borrowing the title of Althusser’s text on Machiavelli, la solitude de Lenine: the time when he basically stood alone, struggling against the current in his own party. When, in his “April Theses” from 1917, Lenin discerned the Augenblick, the unique chance for a revolution, his proposals were first met with stupor or contempt by a large majority of his party colleagues. Within the Bolshevik party, no prominent leader supported his call to revolution, and Pravda took the extraordinary step of dissociating the party, and the editorial board as a whole, from Lenin’s “April Theses”. Far from being an opportunist flattering and exploiting the prevailing mood of the populace, Lenin’s views were highly idiosyncratic. Bogdanov characterized the “April Theses” as “the delirium of a madman,”3 and Nadezhda Krupskaya herself concluded that “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”4
In February 1917, Lenin was stranded in Zurich, with no reliable contacts to Russia, mostly learning about the events from the Swiss press; in October, he led the first successful socialist revolution. So what happened in between? In February, Lenin immediately perceived the revolutionary chance, the result of unique contingent circumstances: if the moment is not to be seized, the chance for the revolution would be forfeited, perhaps for decades. Even a couple of days before the October Revolution, Lenin wrote: “The triumph of both the Russian and the world-revolution depends on a two or three days’ struggle.” In his stubborn insistence that one should take the risk and pass to the act, Lenin was alone, ridiculed by the majority of the Central Committee members of his own party: however, indispensable as Lenin’s personal intervention was, one should not modify the story of the October Revolution into that of the lone genius confronted with the disoriented masses and gradually imposing his vision. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the party nomenklatura, found an echo in what one is tempted to call revolutionary micropolitics: the incredible explosion of grass-roots democracy, of local committees popping up all around Russia’s big cities and, while ignoring the authority of the “legitimate” government, taking things into their hands. This is the untold story of the October Revolution, the obverse of the myth of the tiny group of ruthless dedicated revolutionaries who accomplished a coup d’etat…
Still, the notion that a tiny group of ruthless dedicated revolutionaries accomplished a coup d’etat is not just a myth; there is a crucial grain of truth in it. When popular dissatisfaction grew and Lenin’s idea that there was a chance for the revolution was accepted, the majority of the Bolshevik party leaders were trying to organize a mass popular uprising; Trotsky, however, advocated a view which, to traditional Marxists, couldn’t but appear as “Blanquist”: a narrow well-trained elite should take power. After a short oscillation, Lenin defended Trotsky, specifying why Trotsky is not advocating Blanquism:
“In his letter of October 17, Lenin defended Trotsky’s tactics: ‘Trotsky is not playing with the ideas of Blanqui,’ he said. ‘A military conspiracy is a game of that sort only if it is not organized by the political party of a definite class of people and if the organizers disregard the general political situation and the international situation in particular. There is a great difference between a military conspiracy, which is deplorable from every point of view, and the art of armed insurrection.’”
In this precise sense, “Lenin was the ‘strategus,’ idealist, inspirer, the deus ex machina of the revolution, but the man who invented the technique of the Bolshevik coup d’etat was Trotsky.” Against the latter “Trotskyite” defenders of an (almost) “democratic” Trotsky who advocates authentic mass mobilization and grass-root democracy, one should emphasize that Trotsky was all too well aware of the inertia of the masses – the most one can expect of the “masses” is chaotic dissatisfaction. A narrow well-trained revolutionary striking force should use this chaos to strike at power and thereby open up the space where the masses can really organize themselves… Here, however, the crucial question arises: what does this narrow elite do? In what sense does it “take power”? The true novelty of Trotsky becomes visible here: the striking force does not “take power” in the traditional sense of a palace coup d’etat, occupying government offices and army headquarters; it does not focus on confronting police or army on the barricades. Let us quote some passages from Curzio Malaparte’s unique The Technique of Coup d’Etat (1931) to get the taste of it:
“Kerenski’s police and the military authorities were especially concerned with the defense of the State’s official and political organizations: the Government offices, the Maria Palace where the Republican council sat, the Tauride Palace, seat of the Duma, the Winter Palace, and General Headquarters. When Trotsky discovered this mistake he decided to attack only the technical branches of the national and municipal Government. Insurrection for him was only a question of technique. ‘In order to overthrow the modern State,’ he said, ‘you need a storming party, technical experts and gangs of armed men led by engineers.’”5
Trotsky thus targeted the material (technical) grid of power (railways, electricity, water supply, post, etc.), the grid without which state power hangs in the void and becomes inoperative. Let the mobilized masses fight police and storm the Winter Palace (an act without any real relevance); the essential move is accomplished by a tiny well-trained minority… Instead of indulging in a miserable moralist-democratic rejection of such a procedure, one should rather analyse it coldly and think about how to apply it today, since today Trotsky’s insight gained new actuality with the progressive digitalization of our lives in what could be characterized as the new era of post-human power.
Most of our activities (and passivities) are now registered in some digital cloud which also permanently evaluates us, tracing not only our acts but also our emotional states. When we experience ourselves as free to the utmost (surfing the web where everything is available), we are totally “externalized” and subtly manipulated. The digital network gives new meaning to the old slogan “the personal is political.” And it’s not only the control of our intimate lives that is at stake: today everything is regulated by some digital network, from transport to health, from electricity to water. That’s why the web is our most important commons today, and the struggle for its control is THE struggle today. The enemy is the combination of privatized and state-controlled commons, corporations (Google, Facebook) and state security agencies (NSA). But we know all this, so where does Trotsky enter here?
The digital network that sustains the functioning of our societies as well as their control mechanisms is the ultimate figure of the technical grid that sustains power. Does this not lend a new actuality to Trotsky’s idea that the key to the state is not in its political and secretarial organizations but in its technical services? Consequently, in the same way that, for Trotsky, taking control of the post, electricity, railways, etc., was the key moment of the revolutionary seizure of power, is it not that today, the “occupation” of the digital grid is absolutely crucial if we are to break the power of the state and capital? And, in the same way that Trotsky required the mobilization of a narrow well-trained “storming party, technical experts and gangs of armed men led by engineers” to resolve this “question of technique,” the lesson of the last decades is that neither massive grass-roots protests (as we have seen in Spain and Greece) nor well-organized political movements (parties with elaborate political visions) are enough. We also need a narrow striking force of dedicated “engineers” (hackers, whistle-blowers…) organized as a disciplined conspiratorial group. Its task will be to “take over” the digital grid, to rip it off the hands of corporations and state agencies which now de facto control it.
Wikileaks was here just the beginning, and our motto should be a Maoist one: Let a hundred Wikileaks blossom. The panic and fury with which those in power, those who control our digital commons, reacted to Assange is proof that such an activity hits the nerve. There will be many blows below the belt in this fight: our side will be accused of playing into the enemy’s hands (like the campaign against Assange for being in the service of Putin). But we should get used to it and learn to strike back with interest, ruthlessly playing one side against each other in order to bring them all down. Were Lenin and Trotsky also not accused of being paid by Germans and/or by Jewish bankers? As for the scare that such an activity would disturb the functioning of our societies and thus threaten millions of lives, we should bear in mind that it is those in power who are ready to selectively shut down the digital grid in order to isolate and contain protests. When massive public dissatisfactions explode, the first move is always to disconnect the internet and cell phones.
We need thus the political equivalent of the Hegelian triad of the Universal, the Particular, and the Singular. Universal: a mass Podemos-style upheaval. Particular: a political organization which translates dissatisfaction into an operative political program. Singular: “elitist” specialized groups which, acting in a purely “technical” way, undermine the functioning of state control and regulation. Without this third element, the first two remain impotent.
[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on September 30th 2018.]
- Quoted from Neil Harding, Leninism, Durham: Duke University Press 1996, p. 309.
- Harding, op.cit., p. 152.
- Op.cit., p. 87.
- Op.cit., ibid.
- Quoted from https://archive.org/stream/CurzioMalaparteTechniqueCoupDEtatTheTechniqueOfRevolution/Curzio+Malaparte+-+Technique+Coup+D%27Etat+-+The+Technique+Of+Revolution_djvu.txt.