Utopia and Its Discontents

By Slawomir SierakowskiFebruary 23, 2015

SLAWOMIR SIERAKOWSKI is the founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), an Eastern European movement of liberal intellectuals, artists, and activists, with branches in Ukraine and Russia. He is also the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and the president of the Stanislaw Brzozowski Association, overseeing its publishing house; its online opinion site; cultural centers in Warsaw, Gdansk, Lodz, and Cieszyn, in Poland, and in Kiev, Ukraine; and 20 local clubs. He spoke to Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek after the Charlie Hebdo murders about the future of Europe, the Ukraine, capitalism, and the West.


SLAWOMIR SIERAKOWSKI: In your article in the New Statesman, you expressed your solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Do you think that the global reaction to what happened was adequate?

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Think about the pathos of universal solidarity which exploded in the days after the Paris killings, culminating in the Sunday January 11 spectacle of big political names from all around the world holding hands, from Cameron to Lavrov, from Netanyahu to Abbas — if there ever was an image of hypocritical falsity, this was it. The true Charlie Hebdo gesture would have been to publish on its front page a big caricature brutally and tastelessly mocking this event, with drawings of Netanyahu and Abbas, Lavrov and Cameron, and other couples passionately embracing and kissing while sharping knives behind their backs.

You very interestingly pointed out that Muslim terrorists are strange kind of fundamentalists since they see themselves in the social mirror of the West. Real fundamentalists like the Amish would just ignore Western hedonists and their stupid caricatures. So what, if not fundamentalism, is really behind these terrorists? Do you think that it is simply a desperate need for a transcendental cause, so lacking in this post-ideological world?

Things are much more ambiguous. If one asks a Russian anti-Communist which tradition is to be blamed for the horrors of Stalinism, one gets two opposed answers. Some see in Stalinism (and in Bolshevism in general) a chapter in the long history of Western modernization of Russia, a tradition that began with Peter the Great (if not already with Ivan the Terrible), and others put the blame on Russian backwardness, on the long tradition of Oriental despotism that predominated there. So while for the first group Western modernizers brutally disrupted the organic life of traditional Russia, replacing it with state terror, for the second group, the tragedy of Russia is that socialist revolution occurred at a wrong time and place, in a backward country with no democratic tradition. And are things not similar with the Muslim fundamentalism that found its (hitherto) extreme expression in ISIS?

It became a commonplace to observe that the rise of ISIS is both the last chapter in the long story of the anti-colonial reawakening as the arbitrary borders drawn after World War I by the great powers are being redrawn, and, simultaneously, a chapter in the struggle against the way global capital undermines the power of nation states. But what causes fear and consternation is another feature of the ISIS regime: the public statements of the ISIS authorities make it clear that the principal task of the state power is not the regulation of the welfare of its population (health, fight against hunger) — what really matters is religious life, to ensure that all public life obeys religious laws. This is why ISIS remains more or less indifferent towards humanitarian catastrophes within its domain — their motto is “take care of religion and welfare will take care of itself.” Therein resides the gap that separates the notion of power practiced by ISIS from the modern Western notion of so-called “bio-power” which regulates life: the ISIS caliphate totally rejects the notion of bio-power.

Does this make ISIS simply premodern, a desperate attempt to turn back the clock of historical progress?

Resistance to global capitalism should not rely on premodern traditions, on the defense of their particular life-forms — for the simple reason that such a return to premodern traditions is impossible, since globalization already determines the form of resistance to it: those who oppose globalization on behalf of traditions threatened by it do this in a form which is already modern, they already speak the language of modernity. Their content may be ancient, but their form is ultra-modern. So instead of seeing in ISIS a case of extreme resistance to modernization, one should rather conceive of it as a case of perverted modernization and locate it within the series of conservative modernizations which began with the Meiji restoration in Japan (rapid industrial modernization assumed the ideological form of restoration, of the return to the full authority of the emperor). The well-known photo of al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, with an exquisite swiss watch on his arm, is here emblematic: ISIS has well-organized web propaganda, financial dealings, et cetera, although these ultra-modern practices are used to propagate and enforce an ideologico-political vision which is not so much conservative as a desperate move to fix clear hierarchic delimitations, principal among them those who regulate religion, education, and sexuality (the strict, assymetrical regulation of sexual difference, the prohibition of secular education …).

Does the lack of a secular Left help explain the rise of the Muslim radicalism, and if so, what should the West do to solve the problem of global terrorism?

That’s my point — we cannot defeat it if we remain within the liberal-democratic coordinates. Only a new radical Left can do it. Recall Walter Benjamin’s old insight that “every rise of Fascism bears witness to a failed revolution”: the rise of Fascism is the Left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, dissatisfaction, which the Left was not able to mobilize. And does the same not hold for today’s so-called “Islamo-Fascism?” Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries? When, back in the spring of 2009, Taliban took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, The New York Times reported that they engineered “a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants.” If, however, by “taking advantage” of the farmers’ plight, The Taliban are “raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal,” what prevents liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US to similarly “take advantage” of this plight and try to help the landless farmers? The sad implication of this fact is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the “natural ally” of liberal democracy.

So what about the core values of liberalism: freedom, equality, et cetera?

The paradox is that liberalism itself is not strong enough to save them against the fundamentalist onslaught. Fundamentalism is a reaction — a false, mystifying reaction, of course — against a real flaw of liberalism, and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism. Left to itself, liberalism will slowly undermine itself — the only thing that can save its core values is a renewed Left. In order for this key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the brotherly help of the radical Left. THIS is the only way to defeat fundamentalism, to sweep the ground under its feet. To think in response to the Paris killings means to drop the smug self-satisfaction of the permissive liberal and accept that the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict — a vicious cycle of two poles generating and presupposing each other. What Max Horkheimer had said about fascism and capitalism already back in 1930s — those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism — should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.

Do you see common ground between you and Michel Houellebecq, with his critique of Western liberal societies, combined with no justification for reactionary alternatives like Islamist or Russian ones?

Yes, definitely. Crazy as it may sound, I have much respect for the honest liberal conservatives like Houellebecq, Finkielkraut, or Sloterdijk in Germany. One can learn from them much more than from progressive liberal like Habermas: honest conservatives are not afraid to admit the deadlock we are in. Houellebecq’s Atomised is for me the most devastating portrait of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. He shows how permissive hedonism turns into the obscene superego universe of the obligation to enjoy. Even his anti-Islamism is more refined than it may appear: he is well aware how the true problem is not the Muslim threat from the outside, but our own decadence. Long ago Friedrich Nietzsche perceived how Western civilization was moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment. Unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security, an expression of tolerance with one another:

A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. “We have discovered happiness,” — say the Last Men, and they blink.

Since you are a great cinema lover, let me ask you about Pawlikowski’s Ida, the last international success of Polish cinema, which also triggered a lot of controversies in Poland.

I do not know enough about the specific ideological situation in Poland to take part in these controversies.

It’s about anti-Semitism. But in today’s Poland, the argument is no longer between anti-Semites and their opponents but among the opponents about who was not sensitive enough, who still had some deeply hidden traces of it.

Such competition for who is more sensitive, such hermeneutic detective-search for hidden traces, is one of the worst expressions of what in the West they call Political Correctness. It is a hypocritical game that not only does not contribute to the fight against real racism, it even trivializes racism.

I would like to begin by making a general observation that, I think, is crucial. First, why are the best films about the holocaust comedies? Recall how Primo Levi, in If This Is a Man, describes the dreadful “selekcja,” the survival examination in the camp: naked prisoners have to run in front of an SS doctor who, barely noticing them, makes a note in his list, putting them into a right or left column: right means survival, left means gas chamber. Is there not something properly comic in this, in the ridiculous spectacle to appear strong and healthy, to attract for a brief moment the indifferent gaze of the Nazi administrator who presides over their life and death? Here, comedy and horror coincide: imagine the prisoners practicing their appearance, trying to hold head high and chest forward, walking with a brisk step, pinching their lips to appear less pale, exchanging advices on how to impress the SS man; imagine how a simple momentary confusion of cards or a lack of attention of the SS man can decide my fate …

I am far from laughing …

This “comical” aspect, of course, causes no laughter — it rather stands something which is too horrible to be a tragedy. The Muslim (the “living dead” in the camp) is so destitute that his stance can no longer be considered “tragic”: there is no dignity in him that is crucial for the tragic position, that is to say, he no longer retains the minimum of dignity against the background of which his miserable actual position would have appeared as tragic — he is simply reduced to the shell of a person, emptied of the spark of spirit.

There is a memorable passage of Still Alive, the memoirs of the Auschwitz survivor Ruth Klüger. During Ruth’s visit to Israel with a friend of hers, they met a Holocaust survivor who dismisses the West Bank Palestinians in openly racist terms as lazy thieves and terrorists to be thrown out of the land. When her friend is shocked by this outburst and tells Ruth he cannot understand how someone who went through Auschwitz, and saw all the suffering there, can talk like that, Ruth replies that the extreme horror of Auschwitz did not make it into a place which purifies its surviving victims into ethically sensitive subjects who got rid of all petty egotistic interests; on the contrary, part of the horror of Auschwitz was that it also dehumanized many of its victims, transforming them into brutal, insensitive survivors, making it impossible for them to practice the art of balanced ethical judgment. The lesson to be drawn here is that we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to clear the mess and open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.

It was Tadeusz Borowski, who first made this point in his short stories. By the way, they were entitled exactly in this horror-tragic style that you are talking about: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. But you got lost, as usual — let’s go back to Ida.

Of course it’s an excellent film, made in a perfect ascetic way, but it is this perfection itself that bothers me — there is something false in it. No wonder Ida made so many people feel good: everything that happens is utterly predictable, there are no surprises. The quilt for the murder of Ida’s family falls on the ordinary poor farmer, and the guilt-ridden Wanda, a promiscuous Communist judge, kills herself. As for Ida herself, after tasting the forbidden fruit of sex (clearly using the saxophone player as a mere instrument), decides to enter the convent, thus bringing about a fantasy-like image of a Jewish Catholic nun. The film immediately aroused in me the desire to imagine different versions of the outcome: what if Ida decides to get married to the sax player, and it is Wanda who discovers faith and becomes a nun? What if, in their inquiry into who killed Ida’s family, the two women discover that a local priest was also involved? One can argue that such a different film would have been much better.

I know you are fascinated with this idea of multiple directions that a story can take — the reason you think Blind Chance is Kieslowski’s best film …

Yes, I even wrote a new version of Antigone along these lines — it will be staged in 2016. I asked myself which Antigone would fit our contemporary condition, and, coping with this problem, I decided to retell Sophocles’ Antigone in the mode of Bertolt Brecht’s three learning plays (Der Jasager, Der Neinsager, Jasager 2): at the crucial point of decision, events take three different directions — a procedure used also in Kieslowski’s Blind Chance. My premise is that such a staging confronts us with a true Antigone for our times, ruthlessly abandoning our sympathy and compassion for the play’s heroine, making her part of the problem, and proposing a way out which shatters us in our humanitarian complacency. My retelling is consciously anachronistic — I mention Kol Nidre, although it is a millennium later — and my text freely borrows ideas and formulations from the Talmud, Euripides’ Electra, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Walter Benjamin, Brecht, Orson Welles, Claudel. It doesn’t pretend to be a work of art but an ethico-political exercise. So in the middle of the play — the big confrontation between Antigone and Creon — the three version diverge: (1) The first version follows Sophocles’ denouement, and the concluding chorus praises Antigone’s unconditional insistence on her principle — fiat justitia, et pereat mundus … (2) The second version shows what would have happened if Antigone were to win, convincing Creon to allow the proper burial of Polyneices; i.e., if her principled attitude were to prevail, citizens cannot accept the burial of the traitor Polyneices, they rebel, and the whole city is in flames. In this version, the concluding chorus sings a Brechtian praise of pragmatism: the ruling class can afford to obey honor and rigid principles, while ordinary people pay the price for it. (3) In the third version, the chorus is no longer the purveyor of stupid commonplace wisdoms, it becomes an active agent. At the climactic moment of the ferocious debate between Antigone and Creon, the chorus steps forward, castigating both of them for their stupid conflict, which threatens the survival of the entire city. Acting like a kind of comité de salut public, the chorus takes over as a collective organ and imposes a new rule of law, installing people’s democracy in Thebes. Creon is deposed, both Creon and Antigone are arrested, put to trial, swiftly condemned to death and liquidated.

Where do you stand with regard to these three ethical choices? It appears that you are getting softer, politically, at least. From advocating revolution and even dictatorship of the proletariat, in your various statements you are now dreaming about a "nicely alienated society" …

If anything, I am harder than ever. If anything, I am now even more pessimist and radical than I was, so my preference is still the third choice. I think there is a whole series of antagonisms and dangers — ecology, biogenetics, intellectual property … — which cannot be dealt with within the confines of liberal-democratic capitalism. On the other hand, I am well aware that the 20th-century solutions (state socialism, social-democratic welfare state, local direct democracy) no longer really work. So what are we to do?

How do you combine this with your proclaimed fidelity to European legacy of emancipation?

In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative T.S. Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between sectarianism and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is our only chance today: only by means of a “sectarian split” from the decaying corpse of the old Europe can we keep the European legacy of what Étienne Balibar calls egaliberte alive. To put it bluntly, if the emerging New World Order is the non-negotiable destiny for all of us, then Europe is lost, so the only solution for Europe is to take the risk and break this spell of our destiny. Today, more than ever, fidelity to the emancipatory core of the European legacy is needed. The lesson that the frightened liberals should learn is this: only a more radicalized Left can save what is worth saving in the liberal legacy today.

I know what you mean, but when I am hearing about the radical Left, I see guys who use to confuse politics with morality and by excluding any compromises, resign from any influence. Don’t you think that we need heretics rather than sectarians?

I do not think that the choice between sectarian moralistic purism and pragmatic spirit of compromises is a true choice. The choice is: do we remain within the Fukuyama coordinates of liberal-democratic capitalism and just try to make it more tolerable, so that, instead of the old utopia of socialism with a human face, we work for a global capitalism with a human face, or do we accept that the antagonisms we are facing today cannot be dealt with within the Fukuyamaist frame?

Furthermore, I think that the established politics today tends to confuse politics with ruthless amorality and principle-less opportunism — whenever I hear words like “democracy” and “human rights” in our media, I instantly get nausea.

All the rising economic powers, represented by BRICS, are very strong states, which carefully control their economies. The very fact that these states are not dependent on the market sounds promising, however not necessarily for democracy. Yes, it is still capitalism that we are talking about, but you cannot claim that it is the same one Fukuyama was thinking about.

The lesson of the post-9/11 era is the end of the Fukuyama dream of global liberal democracy, but at the level of economy, capitalism has triumphed worldwide — the Third World nations that endorsed it are those which are now growing at spectacular rates. The mask of cultural diversity is sustained by the actual universalism of the global capital. And this new global capitalism functions even better if its political supplement relies on so-called “Asian values.” Global capitalism has no problem accommodating itself to a plurality of local religions, cultures, traditions — so the cruel irony of anti-Eurocentrism is that, on behalf of anti-colonialism, one criticizes the West at the very historical moment when global capitalism no longer need Western cultural values in order to function smoothly, when it is doing quite well with authoritarian “alternate modernity” — in short, one tends to declaim against Western cultural values at the very moment when, critically reinterpreted, many of them (egalitarianism, fundamental rights, welfare-state) can serve as a weapon against capitalist globalization.

Do you include democracy among the European legacy that should be preserved?

It depends on what we mean by this much-abused term — here I am a Leninist: it is always the question of a “concrete analysis of concrete circumstances.” I think that TISA and other agreements are perfect indicators of where we stand with regard to democracy. The key decisions concerning our economy are negotiated and enforced in secrecy, out of our sight, with no public debate, and they set the coordinates for the unencumbered rule of capital. In this way, the space for decisions of the democratically elected political agents is severely limited, and the political process deals predominantly with issues towards which capital is indifferent (like cultural wars).

But most of us living in liberal democracies still understand ourselves as free citizens …

Here, again, one should repeat Lenin’s ominous question: “Freedom for whom? To do what?” Since, in our society, free choice is elevated into a supreme value, social control and domination can no longer appear as infringing on a subject’s freedom — it has to appear as (and be sustained by) the very self-experience of individuals as free. There is a multitude of forms of this un-freedom appearing in the guise of its opposite: when we are deprived of universal healthcare, we are told that we are given a new freedom of choice (to choose our healthcare provider); when we no longer can rely on a long-term employment and are compelled to search for a new precarious work every couple of years, we are told that we are given the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and discover new unexpected creative potential that lurked in our personality; when we have to pay for the education of our children, we are told that we become “entrepreneurs of the self,” acting like a capitalist who has to choose freely how he will invest the resources he possesses (or borrows). Constantly bombarded by imposed “free choices,” forced to make decisions for which we are not properly qualified (or don’t possess enough information about), we more and more experience our freedom as what it effectively is: a burden that deprives us of true choice.

Let’s be frank now: Do we really like to choose? Commodities in hypermarkets, TV channels, hotels, politicians, and so on.

The truth is very sad here. In big decisions where it truly matters, we don’t want really to choose, we want the appearance of choice, but we want simultaneously to be told what to choose. As for personal choices, let’s imagine a single mother with two small children — let’s call her Sophie. She wants the best for her children, but, lacking money, she has to make some hard choices: she can send only one of them to a good school, so which one will she choose? Should she organize a nice summer holiday for them, buy each of them a new PC, or should she rather provide better healthcare for them? Although her choice is not as tough and brutal as Sophie’s choice in the well-known William Styron novel, where Sophie has to choose one of her children to be saved from the gas chamber, it runs along the same lines and I would certainly prefer to live in a society which would deprive her of this freedom of choice.

Perhaps, this paradox also allows us to throw a new light on our obsession with the ongoing events in Ukraine, and even with the rise of ISIS in Iraq, both extensively covered by the media (in clear contrast to the predominant silence on TISA). What fascinates us in the West is not the fact that people in Kiev stood up for the mirage of the European way of life, but that they (as it seemed, at least) simply stood up and tried to take their fate into their hands. They acted as political agents enforcing a radical change — something that, as the TISA negotiations demonstrate, we in the West no longer have the choice to do.

This brings us to Ukraine — do you agree that much of the Western Left plays the sad role of Putin’s useful idiots?

As an old Leftist, I would first like to make a general observation apropos Ukraine. There was a deep irony in watching Ukrainians tearing down Lenin’s statues as a sign of their will to assert their national sovereignty: the golden era of Ukraine’s national identity was not the tsarist Russia (where Ukrainian self-assertion as a nation was thwarted), but the first decade of the Soviet Union when they established their full national identity.

Maybe good for their national identity, but one of the worst for their well-being. Actually, the best time for the rise of their national identity was under Austrian liberal rule before 1918. Ukrainians can be grateful to the Soviets only for the borders after 1945, which are now questioned by force.

The fact is that the opportunity of the Austrian rule was not used (only a minor part of the Ukrainians lived there), and the fact is that Ukrainians formed their national identity in the first decade of the Soviet rule, as an effect of the Soviet politics. In his last struggle against Stalin’s project for the centralized Soviet Union, Lenin again advocated the unconditional right of small nations to secede (in this case, Georgia was at stake), insisting on the full sovereignty of the national entities that composed the Soviet State — no wonder that, on September 27, 1922, in a letter to the members of the Politburo, Stalin openly accused Lenin of “national liberalism.” What Stalin did in the early 1930s was thus simply a return to the pre-revolutionary tsarist foreign and national policy (for example, as part of this turn, the Russian colonization of Siberia and Muslim Asia was no longer condemned as imperialist expansion, but was celebrated as the introduction of progressive modernization that set in motion the inertia of these traditional societies). And Putin’s foreign policy is a clear continuation of this tsarist-Stalinist line: after the Russian Revolution of 1917, according to Putin, it was the turn of the Bolsheviks to aggrieve Russia: “The Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons — may God judge them — added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic makeup of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine.” No wonder we can see Stalin’s portraits again during military parades and public celebrations, while Lenin is obliterated; in a large opinion poll from a couple of years ago, Stalin was voted the third greatest Russian of all times, while Lenin was nowhere to be seen. Stalin is not celebrated as a Communist, but as a restorer of Russia’s greatness after Lenin’s anti-patriotic “deviation.” No wonder Putin recently used the term “Novorossiya (New Russia)” for the six southeastern counties of Ukraine, resuscitating a term out of use from 1917 …

So how would you answer the accusation, coming often from the Left, that Ukrainian politics is dominated by nationalists?

The Ukrainian nationalist Right — much more marginal than Marine Le Pen in France or Nigel Farage in UK, by the way — is part of what is going on today from the Balkans to Scandinavia, from the US to Israel, from central Africa to India: a new Dark Age is looming, with ethnic and religious passions exploding, and Enlightenment values receding. These passions were lurking in dark all the time, but what is new, now, is the outright shamelessness of their display. In the middle of 2013, two public protests were announced in Croatia, a country in deep economic crisis, with a high unemployment rate and a deep sense of despair among the population: trade unions tried to organize a rally in support of workers’ rights, while right wing nationalists started a protest movement against the use of cyrillic letters on public buildings in cities with a Serb minority. The first initiative brought to a big square in Zagreb a couple of hundred people, the second one succeeded in mobilizing hundreds of thousands, the same as with a fundamentalist movement against gay marriage. And it is crucial to see this ethical regression as the obverse of the explosive development of global capitalism — they are the two sides of the same coin.

The predominant political orientation in Ukraine is obviously sustained by the pro-European liberal-democratic capitalist dream. Do you have something good to say about the liberal-democratic capitalists?

Of course it’s good when a Left-liberal government does something — for example, the Lula government in Brazil radically reduced poverty. But there are limits to its maneuvering space — for example, what will the eventual Syriza-led government in Greece be able to do? To paraphrase President Bush, one should definitely not misunderestimate the destructive power of international capital, especially when it is combined with the sabotage of the corrupted and clientelist Greek state bureaucracy. In such conditions, can a new government effetively impose radical changes? The trap that lurks here is clearly perceptible in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. For Piketty, capitalism has to be accepted as the only game in town, so the only feasible alternative is to allow the capitalist machinery to do its work in its proper sphere, and to impose egalitarian justice politically, by a democratic power which regulates economic system and enforces redistribution. Such a solution is utopian in the strictest sense of the term. Piketty is well aware that the model he proposes would only work if enforced globally, beyond the confines of nation-states (otherwise capital would flee to the states with lower taxes); such a global measure presupposes an already existing global power with the strength and authority to enforce it. However, such a global power is unimaginable within the confines of today’s global capitalism and the political mechanisms it implies — in short, if such a power were to exist, the basic problem would already have been resolved. Plus what further measures would the global imposition of high taxes proposed by Piketty necessitate? Of course the only way out of this vicious cycle is simply to cut the Gordian knot and act — there are never perfect conditions for an act, every act by definition comes too early, one has to begin somewhere, with a particular intervention, one just has to bear in mind the further complications that such an act will lead to. In other words, the true utopia is to imagine global capitalism as we know it today, still functioning the way it does, just with the added high tax rate proposed by Piketty,

So, back to Ukraine, in my books I repeatedly used the well-known joke from the last decade of the Soviet Union about Rabinovitch, a Jew who wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why, and Rabinovitch answers: “There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power, and the new power will put all the blame for the Communist crimes on us, Jews — there will again be anti-Jewish pogroms …” “But,” interrupts the bureaucrat, “this is pure nonsense, nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last forever!” “Well,” responds Rabinovitch calmly, “that’s my second reason.” We can easily imagine a similar exchange between a critical Ukrainian and a European Union financial administrator — the Ukrainian complains: “There are two reasons we are in a panic here in Ukraine. First, we are afraid that the EU will simply abandon us to the Russian pressure and let our economy collapse …” The EU administrator interrupts him: “But you can trust us, we will not abandon you, we will tightly control you and advise you what to do!” “Well,” responds the Ukrainian calmly, “that’s my second reason.” One cannot be sure what awaits Ukraine within the EU, beginning with austerity measures.

If Ukraine will end up as a mixture of ethnic fundamentalism and liberal capitalism, with oligarchs pulling the strings, it will be as European as Russia (or Hungary) is today. (And, incidentally, it would be crucial to also tell the full story of the conflict between different groups of oligarchs — the “pro-Russian” ones and the “pro-Western” ones — a conflict that forms the background of the big public events in Ukraine.) So yes, the Maidan protesters were heroes, but the true fight begins now, the fight for what the new Ukraine will be, and this fight will be much tougher than the fight against Putin’s intervention. A new and much more risky heroism will be needed here. The model of this heroism is found in those Russians who courageously oppose the nationalist passion of their own country and denounce it as a tool of those in power. What is needed today is the “crazy” gesture of rejecting the very terms of the conflict and proclaiming the basic solidarity of Ukrainians and Russians. One should begin by organizing events of fraternization across the imposed divisions, establishing shared organizational networks between the authentic emancipatory core of Ukrainian political agents and the Russian opposition to Putin’s regime. This may sound utopian, but it is only such “crazy” acts that can confer on the protests a true emancipatory dimension. Otherwise, we will get only a conflict of nationalist passions manipulated by oligarchs who lurk in the background. Such geopolitical games for the spheres of influence are of no interest whatsoever to the authentic emancipatory politics.

So, to mention some names that we find in headlines, it is crucial that we see how WikiLeaks (Assange, Manning, Snowden) and Pussy Riot are part of the same struggle. It made me very glad that the two Pussy Riot women, when they were recently in London, visited Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy and joined his Courage Foundation, the organization that aims to protect whistle-blowers. In this way, they wisely avoided the danger of being co-opted by the pro-American human rights defenders.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine lately gave rise to the specter of World War III — do you take this fear seriously?

Yes, unfortunately. The present situation bears an uncanny resemblance to the situation around 1900 when the hegemony of the British empire was questioned by new rising powers, especially Germany, which wanted their piece of the colonial cake, and the Balkans was one of the places of their confrontation. Today, the role of the British empire is played by the US, the new rising superpowers are Russia and China, and our Balkans is the Middle East. It is the same old battle for geopolitical influence.

There is another unexpected parallel with the situation before the outbreak of the WWI: in the last months, media continuously warn us about the threat of the World War III. Titles like “The Russian Air Force’s Super Weapon: Beware the PAK-FA Stealth Fighter” or “Russia Is Ready for Shooting War, Will Likely Win Looming Nuclear Showdown with U.S.” abound; at least once a week Putin makes a statement seen as a provocation to the West, and a notable Western statesman or NATO figure warns against Russian imperialist ambitions; Russia expresses concerns about being contained by NATO, while Russia’s neighbors fear Russian invasion; etc. The very worried tone of these warnings seems to heighten the tension — exactly as in the decades before 1914. And in both cases, the same superstitious mechanism is at work: as if talking about it will prevent it from happening. We know about the danger, but we don’t believe it can really happen — and that’s why it can happen. That is to say, even if we don’t really believe it can happen, we are all getting ready for it …

What further complicates matters is that the competing new and old superpowers are joined by a third factor, the radicalized fundamentalist movements in the Third World which oppose all of them, but are prone to make strategic pacts with some of them. No wonder our predicament is getting more and more obscure: who is who in the ongoing conflicts? How to choose between Assad and ISIS in Syria? Between ISIS and Iran? Such obscurity — not to mention the rise of drones and other arms that promise a clean high-tech war without casualties (on our side) — gives a boost to military spending and makes the prospect of war more appealing.

How to stop our slide into this vortex?

The first step is to leave behind all the pseudo-rational talk about “strategic risks” that we have to assume, as well as the notion of historical time as the linear process of evolution where, at each moment, we have to choose between different options of action. We have to accept the threat as our fate: it is not just a question of avoiding risks and making the right choices within the global situation, the true threat resides in the situation in its entirety, in our “fate” — if we continue to “roll on” the way we do now, we are doomed, no matter how carefully we proceed. So the solution is not to be very careful and avoid risky acts — in acting like this, we fully participate in the logic that leads to catastrophe. The solution is to fully become aware of the explosive set of interconnections that makes the entire situation dangerous. Once we do this, we should embark on the long and difficult work of changing the coordinates of the entire situation. Nothing less will do.

Who will trigger such a movement? Do we need new leaders or heroes?

Yes, definitely. Not masters, just people who make us aware of our freedom. One of them is Marek Edelman, a Jewish-Polish political and social activist, who was the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Before World War II, he was active in the Leftist General Jewish Labour Bund (which opposed the Zionist project); during the World War II, he cofounded the Jewish Combat Organization, took part in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (becoming its leader after the death of Mordechai Anielewicz), and also in the citywide 1944 Warsaw Uprising. After the war, Edelman became a noted cardiologist; from the 1970s on, he collaborated with the Workers’ Defense Committee; as a member of Solidarity, he took part in the Polish Round Table Talks of 1989. While fighting anti-Semitism in Poland, Edelman was a lifelong anti-Zionist: in a 1985 interview, he said Zionism was a “lost cause” and he questioned Israel’s viability. Towards the end of his life, he publicly defended Palestinian resistance, claiming that the Jewish self-defense for which he had fought was in danger of crossing the line into oppression. In August 2002, he wrote an open letter to the Palestinian resistance leaders; though the letter criticized the Palestinian suicide attacks, its tone infuriated the Israeli government and press since it was written — to quote Paul Foot — “in a spirit of solidarity from a fellow resistance fighter, as a former leader of a Jewish uprising not dissimilar in desperation to the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories.” Because of this, he never got any official Israeli recognition for his heroism; when Yitzhak Rabin visited Poland as PM and Edelman was in the delegation awaiting him at the Warsaw airport, he first refused to shake Edelman’s hand (the reason he gave was that he did not want to shake the hand of a Bundist). Edelman stands for a certain ethical stance which is rarely encountered today: he knew when to act (against Germans), when to make public statements (for Palestinians), when to get engaged in political activity (for Solidarity), and when just to be there. When his wife and children emigrated in the wake of the growing anti-Semitic campaign in 1968, he decided to stay in Poland, comparing himself to the stones of the ruined buildings at the site of the Auschwitz camp: “Someone had to stay here with all those who perished here, after all.” This says it all: what mattered was ultimately his bare and muted presence there, not his declarations — it was the awareness of Edelman’s presence, the bare fact of his “being there,” which set people free.

Is not Chelsea Manning a similar kind of hero? We often hear that today’s radical Left is unable to propose a feasible alternative. What Manning did simply was the alternative. To quote Gandhi, she was the change she wanted to see. For this, she risked everything, her life included. The very awareness of her, of her deeds, makes us free. But this freedom is a difficult freedom — it is also an obligation to follow in her steps.

Again, people will tell you that you are crazy comparing Edelman to Manning. I am sure that you are aware that by using all these provocative references, ranging from Lenin to Manning, your arguments lose a lot of importance. What kind of politics is this, if it is undercutting itself from the get go?

I do not see anything crazy in it. Edelman and Manning are for me two supreme cases of a true ethical stance. As for Lenin, I am fully aware that the time of Leninism has passed, and that the Stalinist nightmare did grow out of Lenin’s project. I just don’t want to be blackmailed into referring only to the established list of public heroes from Gandhi to Havel. If this means I am undercutting myself from the get go, so be it since this “get go” is today the get go of pragmatic, “realist” liberal politics, it doesn’t really interest me. The true task today is not to make the system better but to confront its limitations. The true utopia is not that of a radical revolutionary change, the true utopia is that, for us in the privileged countries, things can go on indefinitely the way they are now.


Slawomir Sierakowski is a Polish sociologist and political commentator.

LARB Contributor

Slawomir Sierakowski, born in 1979, is a Polish sociologist and political commentator. He is a founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), an Eastern European movement of liberal intellectuals, artists and activists, with branches in Ukraine and Russia. He is also the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and the president of the Stanislaw Brzozowski Association, overseeing its publishing house; its online opinion site; cultural centers in Warsaw, Gdansk, Lodz and Cieszyn, in Poland, and in Kiev, Ukraine; and 20 local clubs.


A graduate of the University of Warsaw, Mr. Sierakowski has been awarded fellowships from Yale, Princeton and Harvard and from the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He has written for many journals and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Guardian, El País, Haaretz, Die Tageszeitung and Gazeta Wyborcza. He has also collaborated (as a writer and actor) on “Mary Koszmary” (“Nightmares”) in 2008, which was expanded into a film trilogy, “And Europe Will Be Stunned,” by the Israeli-Dutch visual artist Yael Bartana. The work represented Poland in the 2011 Venice Biennale.


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