Already a quick glance at our imbroglio makes it clear that we are caught up in multiple social struggles: the tension between the liberal establishment and new populism, the ecological struggle, struggles for feminism and sexual liberation, ethnic and religious struggles, the struggle for universal human rights, struggles against the digital control over our lives… How to bring all these together without simply privileging one of them (be it economic, feminist, or anti-racist…) as the “true” struggle that provides the key to all other struggles? Half a century ago, when the Maoist wave was at its strongest, Mao Zedong’s distinction between “principal” and “secondary” contradictions (from his treatise “On Contradiction” written in 1937) was common currency in political debates. Perhaps, this distinction deserves to be brought back to life in the context of our question.
When Mao talks about “contradictions,” he uses the term in the simple sense of a struggle of opposites, of social and natural antagonisms, not in the strict dialectical sense articulated by Hegel. Mao’s theory of contradictions can be summed up in four points:
-First, a specific contradiction is what primarily defines a thing, making it what it is: it is not a mistake, a failure, the malfunctioning of a thing but, in some sense, the very feature that holds a thing together. If this contradiction disappears, a thing loses its identity. A classic Marxist example: in all history hitherto, the primarily “contradiction” that defined every society was class struggle.
-Second, a contradiction is never single; it depends on other contradiction(s). Mao’s own example: in a capitalist society, the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is accompanied by other “secondary” contradictions, such as the one between the imperialists and their colonies.
-Third, while a secondary contradiction depends on the first one (colonies exist only in capitalism), the principal contradiction is not always the dominant one. Contradictions can trade places in the order of importance. Say, when a country is occupied, it is the ruling class which is usually bribed to collaborate with the occupiers to maintain its privileged position, so that the struggle against the occupiers becomes a priority. The same can go for the struggle against racism; in a state of racial tension and exploitation, the only way to effectively struggle for the working class is to focus on fighting racism (this is why any appeal to the white working class, as in today’s alt-right populism, betrays class struggle).
-Fourth, the principal contradiction can also change. One can argue that today, maybe, the ecological struggle designates the “principal contradiction” of our societies, since it deals with a threat to the collective survival of humanity itself. One can, of course, argue that our “principal contradiction” remains the antagonism of the global capitalist system, since ecological problems are the result of the excessive exploitation of natural resources driven by the capitalist thirst for profit. However, it is doubtful whether our ecological mess can be so easily reduced to an effect of capitalist expansion. There were human-related ecological catastrophes before capitalism, and there is no reason why a thriving post-capitalist society would not also confront the same deadlock.
To recap, while there is always one principal contradiction, contradictions can trade places on the scale of importance. Consequently, when we are dealing with a complex series of contradictions, we should locate the contradiction which is superior, but we should also remember that principal and non-principal contradictions are not static: over time, they transform into one another. This multiplicity of contradictions is not just a contingent empirical fact; it defines the very notion of a (single) contradiction. Every contradiction is dependent on the existence of “at least one” (other contradiction) and its “life” resides in how it interacts with other contradictions. If a contradiction were to stand alone, it wouldn’t be a “contradiction” (struggle of opposites) but a stable opposition. “Class struggle” inheres in how it overdetermines the relations between sexes, the struggle with nature in the production process, tensions between different cultures and races…
Old-fashioned and hopelessly dated as these ruminations may appear, they acquire a new actuality today. My first “Maoist” point is that, in order to take a correct stance in each of today’s struggles, one should locate each of them within a complex interaction with other struggles. An important principle here is that, contrary to the current fashion, we should stick to “binary” forms of opposition and translate every appearance of multiple positions into a combination of “binary” opposites. Today, we don’t have three main positions (liberal-centrist hegemony, Rightist populism and the new Left) but two antagonisms: Rightist populism versus liberal-centrist establishment, and both of them, as the two sides of the existing capitalist order, are set against the Leftist challenge to that order.
Let’s begin with a simple example. Macedonia: what’s in a name? A couple of months ago, the governments of Macedonia and Greece concretized an agreement on how to resolve the problem of the name “Macedonia”: Macedonia should change its name to “Northern Macedonia.” This solution was instantly attacked by the radicals in both countries: Greek opponents insisted that “Macedonia” is an old Greek name, and Macedonian opponents felt humiliated by being reduced to a “Northern” province since they are the only people who call themselves “Macedonians.” Imperfect as it was, this solution offered a glimpse of hope to end a long and meaningless struggle through a reasonable compromise. But it was caught up in another “contradiction”: the struggle between big powers (the US and the EU on the one side, Russia on the other). The West put pressure on both sides to accept the compromise so that Macedonia could quickly join the EU and NATO, while, for exactly the same reason (seeing in this development the danger of losing its influence in the Balkans), Russia opposed the solution, supporting rabid conservative nationalist forces in both countries. So which side should we take here? I think we should decidedly take the side of the compromise, for the simple reason that it is the only realist solution to the problem. Russia opposed it because of its geopolitical interests, without offering another solution, so supporting Russia here would have meant sacrificing a reasonable solution to the singular problem of Macedonian and Greek relations to international geopolitical interests.
Moving on and taking the case of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, we see that there are also two struggles intertwined here. Our big media have lately focused on Assange’s links with Russia and his “meddling” in the US elections. Did he meet Manafort, or did he not? etc. As usual, in this case, we are dealing with dirty political games: when the UK said it would not extradite Assange to a country where he could face a death penalty (instead of simply saying he would not be extradited to the US because of Wikileaks), it practically confirmed the possibility of his extradition to the US. But we should not get caught in these debates that concern only a ”secondary contradiction.” Wikileaks is much more than an element in the struggle between the US and Russia, or in the struggle between Trump and the US establishment (the “Russian link” in the last presidential elections). The “principal contradiction” here is the struggle against new forms of digital control and regulation of our lives, against the coalition of state agencies (NSA) and big corporations (Google, etc.) that, more and more, exert invisible control over our lives, a control we are, as a rule, not even aware of. This is what Wikileaks is really about, and all the debates about Assange’s mistakes are meant to obfuscate this key point.
Now, let’s take the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and daughter of the firm’s founder, in Vancouver. She is accused of breaking the US sanctions on Iran, and faces extradition to the US, where she could be jailed for up to 30 years if found guilty. What is true here? In all probability, one way or another, all big corporations discreetly break the laws. But it’s more than evident that this is just a “secondary contradiction” and that another battle is fought here: it’s not about trade with Iran, but about the struggle for domination in the production of digital hardware and software. What Huawei symbolizes is a China which is no longer the Foxconn China, the place of half-slave labor assembling machines developed elsewhere, but a place where software and hardware are conceived jointly. China thus has the potential to become a much stronger agent in the digital market than Japan with Sony or South Korea with Samsung.
But enough of particular examples. Things get more complex with the struggle for universal human rights. What we get in this instance a “contradiction” between the proponents of these rights and those who warn that, in their standard version, universal human rights are not truly universal but implicitly privilege Western values (individuals have primacy over collectives, etc.) and are thereby a form of ideological neocolonialism. No wonder, then, that the reference to human rights served as a justification for many military interventions, from Iraq to Libya. Partisans of universal human rights counter that their rejection often serves to justify local forms of authoritarian rule and repression as elements of a particular way of life… How to decide here? A middle-of-the-road compromise is not enough. One should give preference to universal human rights for a very precise reason: the dimension of universality has to serve as a medium in which multiple ways of life can coexist, and the Western notion of universal human rights contains the self-critical dimension which makes visible its own limitations. When the standard Western notion of universal human rights is criticized for its particular bias, this critique itself has to refer to some notion of a more authentic universality which makes us see the distortion of a false universality. But some form of universality is always in place — even a modest vision of the coexistence of different and ultimately incompatible ways of life has to rely on it. In short, what this means is that the “principal contradiction” is not that of the tension(s) between different ways of life but the “contradiction” within each way of life (“culture,” organization of its jouissance) passing between its particularity and its universal claim. To use a technical term, each particular way of life is by definition caught in a “pragmatic contradiction,” such that its claim to validity is undermined not by the presence of other ways of life but by its own inconsistency.
Things get even more complex with the “contradiction” between the alt-right descent into racist/sexist vulgarity and the politically correct stiff regulatory moralism. It is crucial, from the standpoint of a progressive struggle for emancipation, NOT to accept this “contradiction” as primary, but to unravel in it the displaced and distorted echoes of class struggle. In a Fascist way, the Rightist populist figure of the Enemy (a mélange of financial elites and invading immigrants) combines both extremes of the social hierarchy, thereby blurring class struggle; on the opposite end, and in an almost symmetrical way, politically correct anti-racism and anti-sexism barely conceal that their ultimate target is the white working class racism and sexism, thereby also neutralizing class struggle. That’s why the designation of political correctness as “cultural Marxism” is false: political correctness in all its pseudo-radicality is, on the contrary, the last defense of “bourgeois” liberalism against Marxism, obfuscating/displacing class struggle as the “principal contradiction.”
The same goes for transgender and MeToo struggles: they are also overdetermined by the “principal contradiction” of class struggle, which introduces an antagonism into its very heart. A black woman, Tarana Burke, who created the MeToo campaign more than a decade ago, observed in a recent critical note that in the years since the movement began, it deployed an unwavering obsession with the perpetrators, a cyclical circus of accusations, culpability, and indiscretions: ”We are working diligently so that the popular narrative about MeToo shifts from what it is. We have to shift the narrative that it’s a gender war, that it’s anti-male, that it’s men against women, that it’s only for a certain type of person — that it’s for white, cisgender, heterosexual, famous women.“1 In short, one should struggle to re-focus MeToo onto the daily suffering of millions of ordinary working women and housewives. This emphatically can be done: for example, in South Korea, MeToo exploded as tens of thousands of ordinary women demonstrated against their sexual exploitation.
The ongoing protests of yellow vests (gilets jaunes) in France condense everything we were talking about. They began as a grassroots movement that grew out of widespread discontent with a new eco-tax on petrol and diesel, seen as hitting those living and working outside metropolitan areas where there is no public transport. In the past weeks the movement has grown to include a panoply of demands, including Frexit (the exit of France from EU), lower taxes, higher pensions, and an improvement in ordinary French people’s spending power. They offer an exemplary case of Leftist populism, of the explosion of people’s wrath in all its inconsistency: lower taxes and more money for education and health care, cheaper petrol and an ecological struggle… Although the new petrol tax was obviously an excuse or, rather, a pretext (and, hence, not what the protests are “really about”), it is significant to note that what triggered the protests was a measure intended to act against global warming. That is why Trump enthusiastically supported the yellow vests (even hallucinating shouts of some of the protesters “We want Trump!”), noting that one among the demands was for France to step out of the Paris agreement. (In a hotel room, you can hang on the door a sign saying either “Please clean the room!” or “Please do not disturb!”. Whenever I see this sign, I imagine a single side of the sign saying: “Please do not disturb while cleaning the room!” Are the demands of the yellow vests not a similar combination of contradictory requests? “Please protect our environment while providing cheaper fuel!”)
The yellow vests movement fits the specific French Left tradition of large public protests targeting the political, more than the business or financial, elites. However, in contrast to the 68’ protests, the yellow vests are much more a movement of France profonde (“deep France”), its revolt against big metropolitan areas, which means that its Leftist orientation is much more blurred. (Both le Pen and Melenchon support the protests.) As expected, commentators are asking which political force will appropriate the energy of the revolt, le Pen or a new Left, with purists demanding that it remain a “pure” protest movement at a distance from established politics. One should be clear here: in all the explosion of demands and expression of dissatisfaction, it is clear the protesters don’t really know what they want. They don’t have a vision of a society they want, just a mix of demands that are impossible to meet within the system, even though they address them at the system. This feature is crucial: their demands express their interests rooted in the existing system, yet incompatible with it.
One should not forget that the protesters are addressing their demands to the (political) system at its best, which, in France, means: Macron. The protests mark the end of the Macron dream. Recall the enthusiasm about Macron offering new hope not only of defeating the Rightist populist threat but of providing a new vision of progressive European identity, which brought philosophers as opposed as Habermas and Sloterdijk to support him. Recall, also, how every Leftist critique of Macron, every warning about the fatal limitations of his project, was dismissed as “objectively” supporting Marine le Pen.
Today, with the ongoing protests in France, we are brutally confronted with the sad truth of pro-Macron enthusiasm. Macron’s TV address to the protesters on December 10 was a miserable performance, half-compromise half-apology, which convinced no one and stood out for its lack of vision. Macron may be the best of the existing system, but his politics is firmly located in the liberal-democratic coordinates of enlightened technocracy. As everyone who has trouble with constipation knows, a suppository is a solid dosage form that is inserted into the rectum to facilitate excrementing. I always found it strange that such a noble philosophical-sounding term is used for a rather disgusting task. And is not the same with the way many of our economic experts talk when they call rather brutal measures that hurt ordinary people “stabilization” or “regulation”? Macron remains within this expert frame and that’s why his reaction to the protests caused such an uproar.
We should, therefore, give the protests a conditional YES – conditional since it is clear that Left populism does not provide a feasible alternative to the system. Imagine that the protesters somehow win, take power and act within the coordinates of the existing system, like Syriza did in Greece. What would happen then? Probably some kind of an economic catastrophe. This doesn’t mean that we simply need a different socio-economic system, which would be able to meet the protesters’ demands. The process of a radical transformation would, instead, give rise to different demands and expectations. Say, with regard to fuel costs, what is really needed is not just cheap fuel; the true goal is to diminish our dependency on oil for ecological reasons, to change not only our transportation but our entire way of life. The same holds for lower taxes, plus better healthcare and education: the whole paradigm will have to change.
And the same holds, too, for our big ethico-political problem: how to deal with the flow of refugees? The solution is not just to open the borders to all who want to come in, and to ground this openness in our generalized guilt (“colonialism is our greatest crime which we will have to keep repaying forever”). If we remain at this level, we serve perfectly the interests of those in power who foment the conflict between immigrants and the local working class, whose members feel threatened by them, and retain their superior moral stance. (The moment one begins to think in this direction, the politically correct Left instantly cries Fascism – just see the ferocious attacks on Angela Nagle for her outstanding essay “The Left Case against Open Borders”2.) Again, the “contradiction” between the advocates of open borders and populist anti-immigrants is a false “secondary contradiction,” whose ultimate function is to obfuscate the need to change the system itself, that is to say, the entire international economic system which, in its present form, gives rise to refugees.
Does this mean that we should patiently wait for a big change? No, we can begin right now with measures that appear modest but, nonetheless, undermine the foundations of the existing system, like the patient subterranean digging of a mole. What about the overhaul of our entire financial system, which would affect the rules of how credits and investments work? What about imposing new regulations that would prevent the exploitation of Third World countries, from which refugees come?
The old 68’ motto Soyons realistes, demandons l’impossible! (“Let’s be realistic, let’s demand the impossible”) remains fully relevant, on the condition that we take note of the shift to which it has to be submitted. First, there is “demanding the impossible” in the sense of bombarding the existing system with demands it cannot meet: open borders, better healthcare, higher wages… That is where we are today, in the midst of a hysterical provocation of our masters, the technocratic experts. This provocation has to be followed by an additional key step: not demanding the impossible from the system but demanding “impossible” changes of the system itself. Although such changes appear “impossible” (unthinkable within the coordinates of the system), they are clearly required by our ecological and social predicament, offering the only realist solution.
At this point, we should be very clear: to accomplish this key step, a shift from the hysteric to the Master has to occur: a new Master is needed. Here we encounter the fatal limitation of the much-praised “leaderless” character of the French protesters, of their chaotic self-organization. It is not enough for a leader to listen to the people and formulate into a program what they want, namely their interests. The old Henry Ford was right when he remarked that, when he offered a serially produced car, he didn’t follow what people wanted; as he put it succinctly, if asked what they want, the people would have answered: “A better and stronger horse to pull our carriage!” This insight finds an echo in Steve Jobs’ infamous motto: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” In spite of everything one has to criticize in the activity of Jobs, he was close to an authentic Master in how he understood his motto. When he was asked how much inquiry into what customers want Apple uses, he snapped back: “None. It’s not the customers’ job to know what they want… we figure out what we want.” Note the surprising turn of this argumentation: after denying that customers know what they want, Jobs doesn’t go on with the expected direct reversal “it is our task (the task of creative capitalists) to figure out what customers want and then ‘show it to them’ on the market.” Instead, he continues, “we figure out what we want.” This is how a true Master works: he doesn’t try to guess what people want; he simply obeys his own desire so that it is left up to the people to decide if they follow him. In other words, his power stems from his fidelity to his vision, from not compromising it.
And the same goes for a political leader needed today. Protesters in France want a better (stronger and cheaper) horse – in this case, ironically, cheaper fuel for their cars. They should be given the vision of a society where the price of fuel no longer matters in the same way that, after cars, the price of horse fodder no longer matters.
A possible counter-argument is that the “chaotic” leaderless and decentralized character of the yellow vests protests is precisely their strength: instead of a clear agent addressing demands to state power and thereby offering itself as a partner in dialogue, we get polymorphous popular pressure. What puts those in power in a panic is precisely that this pressure cannot be localized in a clear opponent but remains a version of what Negri called the multitude. If such pressure expresses itself in concrete demands, these demands are not what the protest is really about… However, at some point, hysterical demands have to translate themselves into a political program (or else, they disappear), and we should perhaps read the protesters’ demands as the expression of a deeper dissatisfaction with the very liberal-democratic capitalist order in which demands can only be met through the process of parliamentary political representation. In other words, the protests contain a deeper demand for a different logic of economico-political organization, and here a new leader is needed to operationalize their demand.
[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on January 7th 2019.]