Heroes of the Apocalypse

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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

The war in Ukraine in the face of complacency and military passion

As the end of April 2022 approached, barely two months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world became aware of a profound shift in the meaning of war for the future. The dream of a quick resolution is over. War had already been strangely “normalized”, accepted as a process that would continue indefinitely. The fear of a sudden and dramatic escalation will haunt our everyday lives. Authorities in Sweden and elsewhere are apparently advising the public to stock up on provisions to get through wartime conditions.

This shift in perspective is reflected on both sides of the conflict. In Russia, there is more and more talk of a global conflict. As stated by the director of RT, Margarita Simonya, “or we lose in Ukraine, or there will be a third world war. Personally, I believe the scenario of a third world war is more realistic.”

Such paranoia is reinforced by crazy conspiracy theories about a Nazi-Jewish liberal-totalitarian plot to destroy Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, when asked how Russia could claim to be “denazifying” Ukraine when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself is a Jew, replied: “I could be wrong, but so was Hitler. had Jewish blood. [The fact that Zelensky is Jewish] is meaningless. The shrewdest Jews claim that most ardent anti-Semites are often Jews.”

On the other side, especially in Germany, a new version of pacifism is taking hold. If we look beyond the grandiose rhetoric and focus on what Germany is actually doing, the message becomes clear: “Given our economic interests and the danger of being drawn into military conflict, we must not be too supportive of Ukraine, even if that means allowing let it be taken by Russia.” Germany fears crossing the line beyond which Russia would be really furious. The problem is that only Vladimir Putin decides where that line is drawn each day. Playing on the fear of Western pacifists is an important part of their strategy.

 

betting on complacency

Obviously, everyone wants to prevent a new world war from breaking out. There are, however, times when showing excessive caution only encourages an abuser. those who are bullies by nature they always hope that their victim will not react. To avoid a full-scale war – to establish some kind of deterrence – we must also draw clear lines.

So far, the West has done the opposite. When Vladimir Putin was still preparing his "special operation" in Ukraine, US President Joe Biden said his government would have to wait to see whether the Kremlin would pursue a "minor incursion" or full occupation. This implied, of course, that a "minor" act of aggression would be tolerable.

The recent shift in perspective reveals a deep and dark truth about the West's position. While we previously expressed fears that Ukraine would be quickly crushed, our real fears were just the opposite: that the invasion would lead to a war with no end in sight. It would have been much more convenient if Ukraine had fallen immediately, allowing us to express our anger, mourn our losses, and then return to the business as usual. What should have been good news – a small country unexpectedly and heroically resisting the brutal aggression of a great power – has become a source of shame, a problem we don't quite know how to deal with.

The European pacifist left warns of the risks of adopting, again, the heroic-military spirit that consumed past generations. The German philosopher Jügern Habermas even suggests that Ukraine is guilty of having morally bribed Europe. There is something profoundly melancholic about his position. As Habermas is well aware, post-war Europe was only able to renounce militarism because it was safe under the US nuclear umbrella. But the return of war on the continent suggests that this period may well be over and that unconditional pacifism would require deeper and deeper moral commitments. Unfortunately, “heroic” acts will again be needed, not only to resist and contain aggression, but also to withstand problems such as ecological catastrophes and famine.

 

after the deluge

In French, the gap between what we officially fear and what we really fear is very well represented by the so-called not expletive, a “no” that has no meaning in itself, as it is only used for syntax and pronunciation reasons. It appears mainly in subjunctive subordinate clauses after verbs with a negative connotation (fear, avoid, doubt); its function is to emphasize the negative aspect of what preceded it, as in: “Elle doute qu'il ne vienne.” (“She doubts he /won’t/ come”), or “I make you trust to moins that you don't even lie to me” (“I trust you unless you /don't/ lie to me”).

Jacques Lacan used the not expletive to explain the difference between a will and a wish. When I say that “I fear that the storm /will not/ come”, my conscious will is that it will not come, but my true desire is inscribed in the “no” that I added: I fear that the storm will not come. not come because I'm secretly fascinated by your violence.

something similar to not expletive it also applies to Europe's fears about Russian gas being cut off. “We fear that an interruption in the gas supply will trigger an economic catastrophe,” we say. But what if the fear we expose is false? And if we really fear that an interruption in Russian gas supplies not cause a catastrophe? As Eric Santner at the University of Chicago recently told me, what would it mean if we were able to adapt quickly? Ending the import of Russian gas would not mean the end of capitalism, but in any case “it would force a real change in the 'European' way of life”, a change that would be very well life, Russia notwithstanding.

read the not expletive in a literal way, taking action on the “no”, is perhaps today the most genuine political act of freedom. Consider the Kremlin's assertion that cutting off Russian gas would be the equivalent of economic suicide. Given what needs to be done to put our societies on a more sustainable path, wouldn't that be liberating? To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, we would have avoided going down in history as the first society that was not saved because such a gesture would not have been cost-effective.

 

Whose globalization?

Western media dedicate all their strength to reporting the billions of dollars that have been sent to Ukraine; however, Russia still receives tens of billions of dollars for the gas it supplies to Europe. What Europe refuses to consider is that it could exert an extraordinarily powerful form of non-military pressure on Russia while acting in a meaningful way for the planet. Furthermore, forgoing Russian gas would allow for a different kind of globalization – a sorely needed alternative to both the West's liberal-capitalist version and the Russian-Chinese authoritarian model.

Russia doesn't just want to dismantle Europe. It also presents itself as an ally of the developing world against Western neocolonialism. Russian propaganda deftly exploits many developing countries' memories of Western abuses. Wasn't bombing Iraq worse than bombing Kiev? Was not Mosul as mercilessly razed as Mariupol? Of course, while the Kremlin presents Russia as a decolonial agent, it offers generous military support to local dictators in Syria, the Central African Republic and elsewhere.

The activities of the Kremlin's mercenary organization, the Wagner group, which is mobilized on behalf of authoritarian regimes around the world, allow us to observe what a Russian-type globalization would look like. As Yevgeny Prigozhin, the friend of Putin behind this group, recently told a Western journalist: “You are a western civilization on its deathbed that considers the Russians, the Malians, the Central Africans, the Cubans, the Nicaraguans and many other peoples and countries the scum of the Third World. You are a bunch of endangered pathetic perverts, and there are many, billions of us. And victory will be ours! When Ukraine proudly declares that it stands up for Europe, Russia replies that it will stand up for those who, both past and present, have been victims of Europe.

We must not underestimate the effectiveness of this propaganda. In Serbia, the latest opinion poll shows that, for the first time, a majority of voters are opposed to joining the European Union. If Europe wants to win the new ideological war, it will have to modify its liberal-capitalist model of globalization. Anything short of radical change will fail, turning the European Union into a fortress surrounded by enemies determined to penetrate and destroy it.

I am acutely aware of the implications of boycotting Russian gas. This would bring about what I have repeatedly referred to as "War Communism". Our economies would have to be completely reorganized, as is the case in open war or, equally, in a major disaster. That's not as far off as it might seem. Cooking oil is already being rationed by markets in the UK because of the war. If Europe renounces Russian gas, survival will require similar interventions. Russia is counting on Europe's inability to accomplish anything "heroic".

True, such changes will increase the risk of corruption and open up new opportunities for the military-industrial complex to realize additional profits. But these risks must be weighed against the bigger challenges, which go far beyond the war in Ukraine.

 

the five horsemen

The world is dealing with multiple simultaneous crises that evoke the four horsemen of the apocalypse: plague, war, famine and death. These knights cannot simply be dismissed as evil figures. As Trevor Hancock, Canada's first leader of the Green Party, noted, they are "remarkably close to what we might call the four horsemen of ecology, which regulate population sizes in nature." In ecological terms, the “four horsemen” have a positive role, avoiding population excesses. When it comes to humans, however, this regulatory function has not worked:

“The human population has more than tripled in the last 70 years, from 2,5 billion in 1950 to 7,8 billion today. What happened? Why are we not controlled? Would there be a fifth horseman that would cause populations to collapse at some point, like lemmings do?”

Until recently, notes Hancock, humanity has been able to contain the four horsemen through medicine, science and technology. But now the “massive and accelerated ecological changes we have brought about” are getting out of our control. "So, unless of course a meteor or a supervolcano wipes us off the face of the earth, the biggest threat to the human population, the 'fifth horseman', shall we say, is us."

Whether we will be destroyed or saved is up to us to decide. As much as global awareness of these threats is increasing, it has not translated into meaningful action, and the four horsemen are at an ever-increasing gallop. After the Covid-19 plague and the return of large-scale wars, famines hang in the air. All have already resulted or will result in mass deaths, and the same goes for the severe natural disasters caused by climate change and the loss of biodiversity.

We must, of course, resist the temptation to glorify war as an authentic experience that would lift us out of our complacent consumerist hedonism. The alternative is not simply to walk through this moment, but to mobilize in ways that will benefit us after the war is over. Given the dangers we face, military passion is a cowardly escape from reality. The same can be said for comfortable, unheroic complacency.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the portal Project syndicate

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