A coalition in favour of death
by Arran James
Bluntly: my rebellion is a faith to which I subscribe without believing in it…since the Absolute corresponds to a meaning we have not been able to cultivate, let us surrender to all rebellions: they will end by turning against themselves, against us . . . .
– E.M Cioran.
What politics can the pessimistic regard? All human political systems are centred around a coalition against death, an organisation of violence and the means of subsistence that seem to inevitably favour those who are doing that organising. Anyone who wants a politics based on man’s innate capacities of rationality, morality and sociability has overlooked history. It is not for no reason that Emile Cioran, a through-going and witty pessimist, through of all political convictions after realising the horror that his foray into fascism assisted in producing. Cioran was a member of the Iron Guard, a Romanian fascist organisation of the inter-war years that embraced ultra-nationalist ideology, coupled with a ruthless antisemitism and a variant of Orthodox Christianity that invoked a stupid glorification of death. Their central ideologue Codreanu wrote that ‘A Legionnaire loves death, for his blood shall cement the future Legionary Romania’. Blood and soil and God. Death squads sprang up to destroy enemies of Romania, from citizens considered undesirable to political leaders. It is remarked that the Iron Guard’s Christian element, which also served as a central organisational form, marks it as among an historically unique bunch of political monsters.
Yet if religion has any power beyond that of vital lie and self-deception (of meaning production) it is in its ability to organise individuals, groups, masses, objects, texts and discourses. Religions are capable of getting vast numbers of people in one place, wearing the same symbols, reading the same books, repeating the same refrains…and these people may have very different lives and interpretations of the doctrines of their faith (structure production). Thinking of the Catholic churches of my childhood I remember the clear and obvious hierarchy that was in place through the Priest, the deacons, the altar boys, and volunteers. I remember the rows upon rows of people shaking hands in the sign of peace who might feel repulsed or unnerved at the thought of touching one another if encountered on the street. Indeed, me and my childhood friends all regarded religion as a very nice story, full of bloodshed and lust with a pretty cool antihero at its core and were fascinated by the demonology and heretical traditions that sprang up around it but we were only in that church, among those people, doing religion through hymn singing, prayer, providing responses in mass praying, shaking hands, consuming the host and being nodes in the technology of confession, as was illuminated by Foucault, because we went to a Catholic school. We were made to go to church as part of the school day. To get into this school it was necessary to lie about going to church regularly and to have a priest be willing to lie in confirmation of that lie.
So religion doesn’t just structure it’s own buildings and regulate the behaviour of the inhabitants of those building both within and without its wall; religion structures extra-religious, secular space as well. My education was, in no small part, structured by Catholicism. We could go on to discuss how the American Christian right or the Islamic extremists have also played their mutually reinforcing role in dominating the shape and tenor of geopolitical conflicts and led to the kind of security state that has been analysed by Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. We might also go on to discuss the amount of intellectual time wasted by the debates surrounding the vulgarity of certain New Atheists. All in all, the point is that outside of the realm of ideation and delusion, of ‘wheels in the head’ , religions are behavioural and social structural producers and regulators that evince their potent agency from brick and cement, to the neurology and physiology of their believers, to the voting patterns and intellectual concerns of the day.
All in all, far from just another empty psychological crutch for the weak, organised religions are virulent material operants.
As such the idea that the Iron Guard was one of a few strange politico-religious experiments is erroneous. All organisations share the virulent materiality that I have sketched above. What is shouldn’t be lost is the materiality of the organisation of belief, the harnessing of the generic human capacity to commit to larger ontological units, and the subsequent re-direction of human actions in the world. Crucial in this is the fact that religious moral systems usually function by way of the manichean dichotomisation of light and darkness, good and evil, sheep and goats, and the need, therefore, to order populations into the categories. Here are the true believers and here are the sinners. Or, more simply and more importantly, religious morality operates by way of the identification of friends and enemies.
The famous friend/enemy distinction originates in the political theories of Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt  and it pertains to what Schmitt perceived to be the bald empirical fact that politics only worked on the basis of this primal distinction. In other, adolescent, words; it’s Us and Them, baby. This distinction does not operate as an interpersonal regulator but as the real decisional principle that regulates antagonisms between collectives. That is, the friend/enemy distinction is an architectural feature of the rupturing of assemblages that hold themselves together in that rupture. Us and Them is an irreducible confrontation wherein two elements of a system are caught in disequilibrium, one element seeking to purge another from that system. For Schmitt it is not necessary that this conflict actually occur but only that it remain a constant background fact. The potential for violence and brutality is what produces the need to have a concept of the Barbarian, either at the gate or already within the city walls. Having related the friend/enemy distinction to religion it is important to add that for Schmitt this distinction is primordial and cannot be reduced to good/evil but the latter pairing may be generative of the former. This is the deeply pessimistic view that politics is always about violence. It is about isolating the enemy and seeking to destroy it. Political strategies are thus threats and allusions.
I have gone through this simply to show the proximity of religious and political thought and organisation. How one may lead to the other. This is nothing new. It is known that the Enlightenment was little more than the secularisation of theological concepts. All I wanted to do was explain why it is that Cioran abdicated all commitment after the horror of his fascist identification with the Iron Guard. For Cioran the danger lay not in the Iron Guard but in commitment itself, in faith. Faith itself generated the nightmares of the 20th century. No politics could ever be worth committing to because commitment is always to one’s Friends and, therefore, it is potential and/or actual barbarism against one’s Enemies. As Cioran explicitly states politics involves ‘the passion to reduce others to the status of objects’.
In the face of the politics the pessimist can only shrink into quietude, to mocking derision and sardonic laughter at the stupid naivity of all those flesh bags who are so keen to pierce the flesh of others and to risk having their own flesh cut, shot, irradiated or otherwise destroyed. Politics is always death. As such, it isn’t simply the Iron Guard’s Legionnaire who loves death, it is anyone who identifies an Enemy.
Yet isn’t Cioran doing the impossible? Doesn’t the pessimist who flatly rejects politics as an idiot’s game forget one of the pessimists central convictions? We are all idiots. We are caught inside of politics whether we like it or not. One is always a Friend or an Enemy. Further than this, as the existential threat of death is always on the horizon we will always be compelled to form groups… to commit to the coalition against death.
A pessimist can only ever see religions and political movements as what they are which is, in partial agreement with Schmitt, machines of meaning production. Previously having traced an outline of the materialism at play in this it should be clear that I don’t mean to say that is all these systems are. However, the specificity of their genesis (of religion rather than phalanx, for instance) lies in their functioning as these machines of meaning production. In doing this these machineries are intended to quiet our existential fears of death and catastrophe. What is the green ecological movement if it is not a fearful response to the impending possibility of (multiple) species extinction(s) coming up on the nonhuman horizon? Meaning and value and purpose provide us with the psychological ability to continue, to go on in spite of all that we have come to know.* We can’t go on, we must go on. What Cioran misses is not just the materiality of our always already being implicated in politics and the political but also that it is impossible to withdraw from politics.
The pessimist is in a bind. He knows that politics is barbarism. He understands that commitment and faith produce civilisation and can also result in atrocity. He plays at denying politics while we also knows that one can’t escape politics. The paradox is another form of suffering such that appears before the pessimistic gaze as transparent and horribly opaque. The cynical say I see through it all; the pessimist says I see that I cannot see through it all. Paulo Virno, Italian Marxist philosopher of the autonomia tradition of Negri, wrote that the two prevailing political affects today are opportunism and cynicism. He gives illustrative example of this contemporary cynicism as ‘atrophy of solidarity, belligerent solipsism etc.’ which results, above all, in the cynic as a figure who ‘dispels any illusion of prospects of egalitarian “mutual recognition”‘. The cynic sounds a lot like the pessimist. But the cynic is stupid because he believes that one can give in on the political front. The cynic wants a quiet life. The pessimist also wants a quiet life but he understands that human nature is constitutionally abhorrent of quietude. The pessimist might see this as tragic or simply as a stupid fact (I am more inclined to seeing it’s stupidity)^. The pessimist is all too aware that no matter how much she might want to get out of the political she is always already embedded in its terrible nexus of demands, deprivations, inequalities and injustices, its bland transformation into a piss poor media image of itself, its transformation of believers into citizens into consumers whilst we remain ever more deluded believers. The difference comes down to this: the cynical are fooled by politics, the pessimistic detest it.
Perhaps at this point I should confess. I am not very political. I have always loved theory. When I was a philosophy students and still played at being a philosopher I consumed all the correct radical philosophers, as well as some deeply unpopular ones (the question of popularity is one that academic philosopher’s largely miss, despite constantly erecting and tearing down their own particular hero’s…with so much hero worship going on, is it a surprise that so few women enter or succeed in academic philosophy?). I, along with a handful of comrades, considered myself a radical, a revolutionary. I don’t any more. I have renounced that particular affectation. Not because a revolution wouldn’t be a good thing but simply because I have adjusted myself to a more modest measure; the achievement of each day. And so I have confessed my bad faith, my apostasy even. Even so, working in psychiatric care I am embedded in politics. Living in Scotland, I am embedded in politics. Playing a small role in raising a child, I am embedded in politics. Being a consumer, I am embedded in politics. And I hate it. I relished the images of chaos during the London riots and I relished the insurrectionist texts. But always with a sense of spectacle and poetry. So I am a bad political subject. As one of my old comrades would say, I am post-political. Although, look how well I am able to confess it!
Returning to the problem then, what politics can a pessimist call her own? First, the little aside above is far more than an aside. I ended it after describing myself as post-political. This is because there is often a conceptual confusion between post-politics and anti-politics. According to a slew of radical philosophers (Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere) post-politics centres around the denial of antagonism, the common/generic and the inability of particulars to properly express the moment that exceeds their particularity and renders visible a truly universal articulation. Examples the denial of antagonism are those senses of politics as essentially about the management of consensus such as liberal democracy. Examples of the denial of the commons can be found in the, until recently, naturalisation of capitalism as economic form and end of history, or in the way parliamentary democracy is considered as the only possible way for civilised nations to conduct the management of the state. Examples of the inability of particulars to articulate universality is the way in which identity politics, or the proliferation of ‘the politics of x’ have occluded the possibility of formulating a politics that exceeds the situation that those who speak it find themselves in. This post-politics then is the ‘annulment of dissensus’ and ‘the end of politics'.
This post-politics is the situation that some would say we have been in for a long time. Some would argue that Occupy changed all that. Yet I see nothing in Occupy to mark it out from any other media image of revolution, just the latest form of the spectacle of politics (which is at least bloodless). Can we recognise the pessimist as falling for this shit? The pessimist naturally detests post-politics as she does politics proper. The rejection of post-politics is best summed up by Frank Zappa when he declared that ‘Politics is the entertainment division of the military industrial complex’. This is what politics as post-politics essentially means; bad art. What the radical philosopher’s reveal, none more so than Ranciere, in their discussions of post-politics is precisely that politics is always aesthetics. And this accords with the pessimist’s view.
All politics is bad art.
So it seems the pessimist is in a bind. There is no politics that the she can accept except anti-politics. As far as utopian thought goes, Cioran is again quite clear that
Utopia is the grotesque en rose, the need to associate happiness — that is, the improbable — with becoming, and to coerce an optimistic, aerial vision to the point where it rejoins its own source: the very cynicism it sought to combat. In short, a monstrous fantasy.
The emphasis in this quote is my own and I have added it because, against appearances, Cioran is not rejection fantasy per se but is rejection the fantasy of utopia because it is monstrous. Radicals once claimed that ‘another world is possible’ and it is this kind of thinking that Cioran is scathing as monstrous. A betrayal of this world and a false hope that suffering can be entirely expunged from human existence, a kind of thinking that instrumentalises people and drives them towards the kind of glorification of death that he saw first hand in his idiotic and unforgivable love affair with the Iron Guard. In the same text Cioran writes that ‘Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness'. He condescends to the multitude but must realise that he, viewed from outside himself, is also part of that multitude. As such, he too must have utopia. None can escape from the subtle seduction of utopia. The radical and the fascist, the liberal and the conservative. All must have their madness.
The pessimist is against politics but must have her madness. This is the condition. What politics can the pessimist regard? None. But as a living being possessed of consciousness the pessimist must be political because she is political. Elsewhere, I forget where, Cioran declares that ‘freedom can be manifested only in the void of beliefs, in the absence of axioms, and only where the laws have no more authority than a hypothesis.’ This certainly sounds like antipolitics, the only politics that seems consistent with the pessimist’s convictions about the danger of convictions. But what kind of antipolitics? This is the of politics that holds out no hope of another world, that doesn’t even desire another world, a politics that is entirely and thoroughly negational. It would be an athiest political theology. This world is a burning heap of wreckage and the pessimist’s politics can only be one in which that world itself is identified as the Enemy. Nothing will be constructed and nothing will be healed. Politics as therapy is just more post-political bullshit. Perhaps we are speaking about something akin to Evan Calder Williams’ concept of ‘
salvagepunk: the post-apocalyptic vision of a kaputt world, strewn with both the dream residues and the real junk of the world that was, and shot through with the hard work of salvaging, repurposing, détourning, scrapping’
Williams’s notion of a post-apocalyptic world bears a family resemblance to my own notion of catastrophia, and the idea that the catastrophe has already befallen us (except that in the post-apocalytic optic some truth can be seen in all this). A terrain of catastrophes: the catastrophe of living; the catastrophe of consciousness; and the catastrophe of late capitalism. If politics had the vanguard and post-politics had the media performer then a pessimistic antipolitics has the suicides that refuse to die and the necromancer who speaks only to the living. If we must choose a madness then we should agree with Ballard’s statement that after the death of politics ‘the future seems to lie with competing systems of psychopathology'.
If this conclusion seems vague and (barely) poetic it is because I am this pessimist, just as I am sure many others are. Being so close to the problem I can’t see a way through it. It is also because politics is another machine for meaning-production and the pessimist is deeply ambiguous about meaning. If meaning is produced, if it is an illusion or a lie, then the result is nihilism. But the pessimist is also aware that machines of meaning-production and their products are necessary to being able to be alive. The pessimist’s antipolitics is thus ambiguous or even ambivalent because it cannot escape the virtuous and/or vicious circle of consciousness of the human place in and the nature of the cosmos. Politics becomes a petty and small. Perhaps the best option would be for the pessimist to act out this ambiguity in their politics. What that would look like I don’t know. Antipolitics remains a kind of political rejection of politics. It echoes the title of a Marxist text from the 70s ‘This World we Must Leave’ but knows their is no other world and that all we can in this one is minimise suffering. The pessimist has always dissented but how does one dissent against the whole fucking thing? The problem all along has been, in the absence of faith, is it possible for politics to take account of the truths of pessimism? Is it possible to have a truly secular politics? The answer has to be a shrug of the shoulders. In the mean time we get on with the micro-politics that surround us…that there is no way out of. Perhaps all we can settle on is a kind of ‘hyper- and pessimistic activism' that knows, in the last instance which has already come, that no politics is good enough. One last provocation; maybe the pessimist’s antipolitics, knowing that all politics are coalitions against death, would be that politics which made death its principal, not in order to glorify it but to undermine the human strategies of self-aggrandisement.It might involve the passion to elevate objects to the same level that people have always enjoyed. A coalition in favour of death that rejected the Iron Guard’s strategy as just more suffering, just more stupidity, just more cosmic nonsense. A coalition in favour of death, a faith without faith; what would that even mean?
End Notes 1: references.
. Stirner, M. 1995. The ego and its own.
. Schmitt, C. 1932. The concept of the political.
. Cioran, EM. 1998. History and utopia.
. Virno, P. 2001. General Intellect. Here.
. Ranciere, J. 2001. Dissensus: on politics and aesthetics.
. Cioran. Op. cit.
. Williams, EC. 2011. Combined and uneven apocalypse.
. Ballard, JG. 2005. Now Parliament is just another hypermarket. Here.
. Foucault, M. 1983. On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Second Edition With an Afterword by and an Interview with Michel Foucault
End notes 2: further distractions.
*Don’t suppose I mean to say that the green ecology movement, or any other, is therefore pointless. Although I am exactly saying that everything is distally pointless (pointless-in-the-last-instance) this would be to entirely miss the point about what meaning production does. It stops us going mad and mutilating ourselves en masse, prevents us from committing anthropocide. This is not a moral issue in this post because I consider such as a situation we may cogitively appreciate without being affectively able to step outside of. Pathology is in our nature, to find a cure would spell our destruction. What these insights can allow for though, is that we consider ourselves already post-catastrophic. The end has already come. All that remains is the equal absences of meaning and meaninglessness on the skin of the world, behind which lurks the occult world of withdrawn and inaccessible substances. If we only have the skin of the world, surely it is better to commit to green ecology than it is to the Iron Guard. Personally, I sit uncomfortably with green ecology because of its often romantic view of beautiful and ‘good’ Nature. This is only partially the truth and is born from a perceptual system that cannot always witness the dark, bloody, and viciousness of nature and which is often unable, or unwilling (for good reason) to fully comprehend the indifference of nature to our survival or flourishing. I prefer a concept which takes in all scales of ‘nature’ and reflects back the same indifference, favouring neither beauty nor horror, and as such takes its frame of intelligibility as everything from sub-atomic particles to cars to forests to galaxies. This is why I prefer to speak of ‘cosmos’ instead of ‘nature’.
^ In this way I am almost tempted to characterise pessimism as a philosophy of stupidity. Not a stupid philosophy but a philosophy that regards the cosmos and it’s beauties and sufferings as ruthlessly stupid. We can’t help but feel the tragedy of suffering, especially our own, but what makes that suffering even worse is it’s cosmological stupidity.
Let’s be clear. This isn’t asking why one should become political, what might motivate political action. Rather it is asking which politics the pessimist could recognise pessimism in.