“There is disorder under heavens; the situation is excellent”
Now that yet another week of Donald Trump’s frantic activity is safely behind us and slowly receding into memory, the time has come to think about the chaotic wasteland his visits left behind. Trump visited three places: Brussels, where he met key European leaders; London where he met Theresa May (plus the queen); and Helsinki where he met Putin. Everybody noted the strange fact that Trump was much friendlier to those perceived as American enemies than to its friends. But such facts should not surprise us too much. Our attention should turn in another direction. As is often the case with Trump, reactions to his acts are more important than what he did or said.
Let us begin by comparing what Trump said with what his partners said. When Trump and May were asked by a journalist what they thought about the flow of immigrants to Europe, Trump brutally and honestly rendered his populist anti-immigrant position: immigrants are a threat to the European way of life; they are destabilizing the safety of our countries, bringing violence and intolerance, so we should keep them out. A careful listener could easily notice that Theresa May said exactly the same thing, just in a more diplomatic and “civilized” way: immigrants bring diversity; they contribute to our welfare, but we should carefully check who we let in… We’ve got here a clear taste of the choice which is more and more the only one presented to us: either direct populist barbarism or a more civilized version of the same politics, barbarism with a human face.
Generally, reactions to Trump from all across the spectrum in the US, Republicans and Democrats, were those of global shock and awe bordering on panic pure and simple: Trump is unreliable. He brings chaos: first, he reproached Germany for relying on Russian gas and thus becoming vulnerable to our enemy; days later he praised his good relation with Putin… He doesn’t even have good manners (the horror: when meeting the queen, he violated the protocol of how you behave in the presence of a monarch!). He doesn’t really listen to his democratic partners in a dialogue, while he is much more open to the charm of Putin, America’s big enemy. The way he acted at the press conference with Putin in Helsinki was not only an unheard-of humiliation (just think of it: he didn’t behave as Putin’s master!), and some of his statements could even be considered outright acts of treason. Rumours swirled of how Trump was Putin’s puppet because Putin had some hold over him (the famous photos of prostitutes urinating on Trump in Moscow?), and parts of the US establishment, Democrats and some Republicans, began to contemplate a quick impeachment, even if Pence would be his replacement. The conclusion was simply that the President of the US is no longer the leader of the free world… But has the President of the US really ever been such a leader? Here our counter-attack should begin.
Note that the overall confusion of Trump’s statements contains some truths here and there. Wasn’t he in some sense right when he said that it was in our interest to have good relations with Russia and China to prevent war? Wasn’t he partially right to present his tariff war also as a protection of the interests of the US workers? The fact is that the existing order of international trade and finance is far from just, and that the European establishment hurt by Trump’s measures should also look at its own sins. Did we already forget how the existing financial and trade rules that privilege the strong European states, especially Germany, brought devastation to Greece?
Concerning Putin, I believe most of the accusations against him to be true. Say, with regard to his meddling in the US elections, probably yes, Putin was caught doing… what? What the US are doing regularly and massively, just that in their case, they call it the defence of democracy. So, Trump is a monster, and when he designated himself as a “stable genius,” we should read this as a direct reversal of the truth: he is an unstable idiot who disturbs the establishment. But as such, he is a symptom, an effect of what is wrong with the establishment itself. The true Monster is the very establishment shocked by Trump’s actions.
The panicky reaction to Trump’s latest acts demonstrates that he is undermining and destabilizing the US political establishment and its ideology. Our conclusion should thus be: the situation is dangerous; there are uncertainty and elements of chaos in international relations. But it is here that we should remember Mao’s old motto: “There is great disorder under the sky, so the situation is excellent!” Let’s not lose our resolve, let’s exploit the confusion by systematically organizing another anti-establishment front from the Left. The signs are clear here: the surprising electoral victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-proclaimed democratic Socialist, against 10-terms House incumbent Joe Crowley in a New York congressional primary was, hopefully, the first in a series of shocks that will transform the Democratic Party. People like her, who are not the well-known faces from the liberal establishment, should be our answer to Trump.
Trump and the Idea of Europe
In an interview on July 15, 2018, just after attending a stormy meeting with the EU leaders, Trump mentioned the European Union as the first in the line of “foes” of the US, ahead of Russia and China. Instead of condemning this claim as irrational (“Trump is treating the allies of the US worse than its enemies,” etc.), we should ask a simple question: what bothers Trump so much about the EU? And which EU is he talking about? This question should be raised because, when Trump was asked by journalists about immigrants flowing into Europe, he answered as it befits the anti-immigrant populist that he is: immigrants are tearing apart the fabric of European mores and ways of life, posing a danger to European spiritual identity… In short, it was people like Orban or Salvini who were talking through him.
So which Europe bothers Trump? It is the Europe of transnational unity, the Europe vaguely aware that, in order to cope with the challenges of our moment, we should move beyond the constraints of nation-states. It is the Europe which also desperately strives to somehow remain faithful to the old Enlightenment motto of solidarity with victims, the Europe aware of the fact that humanity is today One, that we are all on the same boat (or, as we say, on the same Spaceship Earth), so that the other’s misery is also our problem. We should mention here Peter Sloterdijk who noted that the struggle today is about how to secure the survival of modern Europe’s greatest economico-political achievement, the Social Democratic Welfare State. According to Sloterdijk, our reality is – in Europe, at least – “objective Social Democracy” as opposed to “subjective” Social Democracy. One should distinguish between Social Democracy as the panoply of political parties and Social Democracy as the “formula of a system” which “precisely describes the political-economic order of things, which is defined by the modern state as the state of taxes, as infrastructure-state, as the state of the rule of law and, not last, as the social state and the therapy state”: “We encounter everywhere a phenomenal and a structural Social Democracy, a manifest and a latent one, one which appears as a party and another one which is more or less irreversibly built into in the very definitions, functions, and procedures of modern statehood as such.” (Peter Sloterdijk, “Aufbruch der Leistungstraeger,” Cicero, November 2009, p. 99)
In the normal run of things, this Idea that underlies a united Europe got corrupted, half-forgotten, and it is only in a moment of danger that we are compelled to return to this essential dimension of Europe, to its hidden potential. More precisely, the point is not just to return to this Idea but to (re)invent it, to “discover” what was actually never there. As Alenka Zupančič put it apropos of the threat of nuclear (self-)destruction of humanity: “the true choice is between losing it all and creating what we are about to lose: only this could eventually save us, in a profound sense. […] The possible awakening call of the bomb is not simply ‘let’s do all in our power to prevent it before it is too late’, but rather ‘let’s first built this totality (unity, community, freedom) that we are about to lose through the bomb’.”
Therein resides the unique chance opened up by the very real threat of nuclear (or ecological, for that matter) destruction. When we become aware of the danger that we could lose it all, we automatically get caught in a retroactive illusion, a short-circuit between reality and its hidden potentials. What we want to save is not the reality of our world but reality as it might have been if it were not hindered by antagonisms which gave birth to the nuclear threat. And the same goes for the united Europe which lies in the great pincers between America on the one side and Russia on the other. Although America and Russia may appear opposites – unbridled liberalism and individualism versus new authoritarianism–, seen metaphysically, they are the same: the same hopeless frenzy of unchained technology grounded in fake patriotism (“America first,” “Russia first”). When the farthest corners of the globe have been conquered technically and can be exploited economically; when any incident you like, in any place you like, at any time you like, becomes accessible as fast as you like; when, through televised “live coverage,” you can simultaneously “experience” a battle in the Iraqi desert and an opera performance in Beijing; when, in a global digital network, time is nothing but speed, instantaneity, and simultaneity; when a winner in a reality TV-show counts as the great man of the people; then, yes, there still loom like spectres over all this uproar the questions: what for? – where to? – and what then?…
Anyone minimally acquainted with Heidegger will easily recognize in this paragraph an ironic paraphrase of his diagnosis of the situation of Europe from mid-1930s (Introduction to Metaphysics). There effectively is a need, among us, Europeans, for what Heidegger called Auseinandersetzung (an interpretive confrontation) with others as well as with Europe’s own past in all its scope, from its Ancient and Judeo-Christian roots to the recently deceased Welfare-State idea. Every crisis is in itself an instigation for a new beginning. Every collapse of short-term strategic and pragmatic measures can be a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to rethink the very foundations. What we need is a retrieval-through-repetition (Wieder-Holung): through a critical confrontation with the entire European tradition, one should repeat the question “What is Europe?”, or, rather, “What does it mean for us to be Europeans?”, and thus formulate a new inception.
Both the US and Russia openly want to dismember Europe. Both Trump and Putin support Brexit, and they support euro-sceptics in every corner, from Poland to Italy. What is bothering them about Europe when we all know the misery of the EU which fails again and again at every test, from its inability to enact a consistent immigration policy to its wretched reaction to Trump’s tariff war? It is obviously not this actually-existing Europe, but the idea of Europe that rekindles against all odds and becomes palpable in the moments of danger.
From Fake News to the Big Lie
An obsession with fake news is something that Trump and his critics share: Trump is accused of lying all the time, while Trump himself accuses his opponents of spreading fake news. In debates about the explosion of fake news in (not only) our media, liberal critics like to point out three events which, combined, continuously bring about what some call the “death of truth.”
First, it is the rise of religious and ethnic fundamentalisms (and its obverse, stiff Political Correctness) that disavow rational argumentation and ruthlessly manipulate data to get their message through. Christian fundamentalists lie for Jesus, Politically Correct Leftists obfuscate the news showing their favourite victims in a bad light (or denounce the bearers of such news as “Islamophobic racists”), etc.
Then, there are the new digital media that enable people to form communities defined by specific ideological interests, communities where they can exchange news and opinions outside a unified public space and where conspiracies and similar theories can flourish without constraints (just look at the thriving neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic websites).
Finally, there is the legacy of postmodern “deconstructionism” and historicist relativism, which claim that there is no objective truth valid for all, that every truth relies on a specific horizon and is rooted in a subjective standpoint dependent on power relations, and that the greatest ideology is precisely the claim that we can step out of our historical limitation and look at things objectively. Opposed to this is, of course, the view that facts are out there, accessible to an objective disinterested approach, and that we should distinguish between the freedom of opinions and the freedom of facts. Liberals can thus comfortably occupy the privileged ground of truthfulness and dismiss both sides, alt-right and radical Left.
Problems begin with the last distinction. In some sense, there ARE “alternate facts,” though, of course, not in the sense of the debate whether the Holocaust did or did not happen. (Incidentally, all the Holocaust-revisionists whom I know, from David Irving on, argue in a strictly empirical way of verifying data; none of them evokes postmodern relativism!) “Data” are a vast and impenetrable domain, and we always approach them from what hermeneutics calls a certain horizon of understanding, privileging some data and omitting others. All our histories are precisely that – stories, a combination of (selected) data into consistent narratives, not photographic reproductions of reality. For example, an anti-Semitic historian could easily write an overview of the role of the Jews in the social life of Germany in the 1920s, pointing out how entire professions (lawyers, journalists, art) were numerically dominated by Jews – an account that is (probably more or less) true, but clearly in the service of a lie.
The most efficient lies are lies performed with truth, lies which reproduce only factual data. Take the history of a country: one can tell it from the political standpoint (focusing on the vagaries of political power), on economic development, on ideological struggles, on popular misery and protest… Each of the approaches could be factually accurate, but they are not “true” in the same emphatic sense. There is nothing “relativist” in the fact that human history is always told from a certain standpoint, sustained by certain ideological interests. The difficult thing is to show how some of these interested standpoints are not ultimately all equally true: some are more “truthful” than others. For example, if one tells the story of Nazi Germany from the standpoint of the suffering of those oppressed by it, i.e., if we are led in our telling by an interest in universal human emancipation, this is not just a matter of a different subjective standpoint. Such a retelling of history is also immanently “more true” since it describes more adequately the dynamics of the social totality which gave birth to Nazism. Not all “subjective interests” are the same, not only because some are ethically preferable to others but because “subjective interests” do not stand outside a social totality; they are themselves moments of that social totality, formed by active (or passive) participants in social processes. The title of Habermas’s early masterpiece “Knowledge and Human Interest” is perhaps more actual today than ever before.
There is an even greater problem with the underlying premise of those who proclaim the “death of truth”: they talk as if before (say, until the 1980s), in spite of all the manipulations and distortions, truth did somehow prevail, and that the “death of truth” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Already a quick overview tells us that this was not the case. How many violations of human rights and humanitarian catastrophes remained invisible, from the Vietnam War to the invasion of Iraq? Just remember the times of Reagan, Nixon, Bush… The difference was not that the past was more “truthful” but that ideological hegemony was much stronger, so that, instead of today’s greater melee of local “truths,” one “truth” (or, rather, one big Lie) basically prevailed. In the West, this was the liberal-democratic Truth (with a Leftist or Rightist twist). What is happening today is that, with the populist wave which unsettled the political establishment, the Truth/Lie that has served as an ideological foundation for this establishment is also falling apart. And the ultimate reason for this disintegration is not the rise of postmodern relativism but the failure of the ruling establishment, which is no longer able to maintain its ideological hegemony.
We can now see what those who bemoan the “death of truth” really deplore: the disintegration of one big Story more or less accepted by the majority, a story, which used to bring ideological stability to a society. The secret of those who curse “historicist relativism” is that they miss the safe situation where one big Truth (even if it was a big Lie) provided basic “cognitive mapping” to all. In short, it is those who deplore the “death of truth” that are the true and most radical agents of this death: their motto is the one attributed to Goethe, “besser Unrecht als Unordnung,” better injustice than disorder, better one big Lie than the reality of a mixture of lies and truths. One thing is clear: there is no return to the old ideological hegemony. The only way to return to Truth is to reconstruct it from a new cognitive interest in universal emancipation.