“Quel sens, pour les hommes qu’il habitent, à rechercher au prix même de leur vie cette chose dont nous avons, nous autres, oublié la possibilité depuis la Renaissance et les grandes crises du christianisme: une spiritualité politique.”
(“For the people who inhabit this land, what is the point of searching, even at the cost of their own lives, for this thing whose possibility we have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity, a political spirituality.”)
Michel Foucault, Á quoi rêvent les Iraniens?
“To say that there is no absolute impossibility preventing capitalism from finding a way out of the situation that is being created today, does not mean that it is a sure thing capitalism will get out of it. […] But whether it be through a crisis or through peaceful transformation, these problems will only be resolved by shaking the present social edifice to its very foundations.”
Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society
Yesterday(04-04-2012), first thing in the morning, a 77 year old pharmacist blew his brains out at Syntagma square (the “square of the Constitution”, right across the Greek Parliament where all the protests are notoriously held). The note found on his body reads as follows:
“The occupying Tsolakoglou government* has annulled even the last means of my survival, a dignified pension funded by me alone (without any support from State) for 35 years of my life.
Given that my age does not grant me the individual possibility of a forceful reaction (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him) I see no other solution than a dignified end, before I start picking up the garbage to find something to eat.
I believe that our youth with no future, will one day pick up their arms and hang the traitors of this Nation upside down at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945 (Piazza Loreto, Milan).”
*note: reference to the current Papademos government with the name of the Greek collaborationist Government after the German Occupation of 1941-1942.
Greece has made the news once more. But which news? Being the son of an old-school journalist, I am appalled at the level of both local and world-wide reporting. For, the media have carefully managed to disarm this man’s act from its message. The translation I provided above is the full and exact translation of his relatively short suicide note. However, the major news agencies did not report the note its entirety (let me point here that the French press, even the conservative one, once more makes the exception). The references to the Kalashnikov, the hanging of Mussolini, the youth’s call to arms –in short the major political tone of this man’s message is seriously downplayed, if not “cleansed”.
Of course all this does not only happen on an international level. Ever since the news of this man’s suicide broke up and despite the fact that his note has been widely circulated around the internet, the Greek media along with politicians, priests and psychiatrists have transformed this political act into a suicide of some desperate poor fellow. By focalizing on his reduced pension and the demoralizing act of “garbage picking”, they manage to shift the talk to the increasing rates of suicide and the ways we can prevent our fellow men from taking the pas au delà. This morning, some psychiatrist stated that “there is no political suicide. All suicide I know of is pathological”, whereas last night some orthodox priest declared that “anyway, the elderly have no use of large amounts of money.”
There is one word to describe this political, institutional and intellectual liberalist strategy: individualism, the idea stating that the whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts. According to the explanatory principle of methodological individualism (very common in modern economics and part of modern sociology) social and economic phenomena are to be explained on the mere basis of individual beliefs and desires; according to economic individualism (which has common roots with the liberal tradition), value depends on nothing other than private valuations; finally, according to liberal political individualism (which finds its apogee in public choice theory) the actions of citizens and politicians are reduced, explained and understood on the basis of a self-seeking behavior, a freedom to choose (in the economic sense of the term “a choice between alternatives”) backed with a sense of responsibility towards the State that supposedly secures this very right.
Within the general framework of liberal individualism, this man’s suicide can be conceived, explained and understood solely on the basis of an individual action. Insofar as he left a note behind him which “explains” the intention behind it, he (and not the State) is deemed responsible for the action he performed (or as a famous liberal like Ludwig von Mises once said: “the hangman, not the State, executes the criminal”). Finally -insofar as his intentions evoke the State, its apparatus and its representatives, this man at best can be characterized as a partisan of a given political group, within a democratic society which has a robust system of political representation. But this man did not seem to belong to any particular party. On the contrary, the polemic and political content of his text made reference to revolutionary tactics and practices that do not belong to the individualist and representative type of “democracy” within which he lived –and died. In that manner, the part of his letter that did not fit the liberal individualist discourse was almost instinctively and with great precision erased, forgotten, placed outside the sphere of our perception and consciousness. He was a desperate man. A lonely monad caught in a debt trap (as a government politician stated in some morning news show). Like millions of Greeks. And thousands of suicides. As long as the whole is nothing but the sum of its parts. Which means as long as there is no necessity (historical, objective or subjectified) for changing the status quo other than the “natural” and individual strife for personal “well-being”.
There is no need to convince the readers of this blog that this man’s suicide was a political act. It is already obvious from his references to a political and armed struggle. However, his act was far from individualist –and this is why it is not and cannot be taken primarily as a mere suicide. Taken into account that he was substantially old and seriously ill, his age and his physical condition not permitting an effective form of resistance (as he openly claims), this man chose to transform himself into a political symbol, thus forming a real conjecture that would legitimize the undertaking of that for which he died.
It is tempting to think of cases of self-immolation a year ago during the political protests in Tunis and Cairo. Again, we are talking of individual acts undertaken in the name of a general idea which is both presented as a necessity overcoming the individual and as an alternative impossible to represent constitutionally in terms of the given status quo. But there is also a great difference (residing mostly in us not in some ‘property’ of the other’s acts).
It is true that in the West (and even in Greece, which is much closer to the East –if not historically a part of it) political suicides are not a common form of protest. After the foundation of our modern state in 1828, modern Greece suddenly and all too belatedly entered the European fate of Enlightenment. Protests and revolutionary acts usually assumed the form of a battle built upon rationalized plans and strategies –even if these fights were irregular as in the Schmittian case of the ‘partisan’. However, insofar as suicide remains a personal and individual act, one is tempted to speak (as in the case of Foucault) about the (re-)emergence of a given political spirituality that can become dangerously absolute and unconditional insofar as it remains attached to a messianic ideal. To recall Carl Schmitt:
“Annihilation thus becomes entirely abstract and entirely absolute. It is no longer directed against an enemy, but serves only another, ostensibly objective attainment of highest values, for which no price is too high to pay.” (Carl Schmitt, The Theory of the Partisan)
Our recent Western memory identifies this spirituality with terror. And since it does not recognize the fact that individuals can be more than constituent members/monads, it trembles at the thought of them believing that they are something more -especially when they are gathered together. Hence the fear of mentioning the erased passages. Hence our fear of politics. Hence our ridiculous (if not strategic) identification of terror with the possible but not-yet-unrepresented. Usually with terror as its outcome.
The suicide of the 77 year old was a spiritually political act. His act and his note were both call to action and politics, for the shaking of the Greek social and political status quo. And insofar as this status quo is directly and explicitly imposed by European technocrats (who are represented by a Greek government that was not elected), it is also an appeal for the shaking of the bureaucratic foundations that keep European (and Western) societies along with their thought hostage for at least 25 years. It is a call against a State that defies democracy and forces people to literally starve to death in the name of a stability based on the private interests of the few. This man’s spirituality is not the one of an irrationalist terrorist blinded by an absolute enmity. Enmity becomes absolute (and demonized) when the politically spiritual aspect of this act remains hidden, erased, undiscussed.
It must therefore be noted that political spirituality is not and cannot be a category over and above the historical conditions that shape and transform it. Western political spirituality belongs to its own historical fate and sphere (including antiquity, christianity, the Enlightenment). As such, it cannot fit within the explanatory schema of a radical, “irrational” otherness (which in no case is a trait of Eastern traditions, but an imaginary product of the West). Within this particular historical, cultural, economic and social state of affairs, spirituality appears as a negative relation to truth (and not as a positive relation to some “ideology”):
“spirituality posits that truth is never given to the subject by operation of law […] it is not given to the subject as an act of knowledge that is in turn founded upon and legitimized by the fact that one is a subject and that the subject has such and such a structure.” (Foucault, L’Herméneutique du Sujet)
There are many cases when this negative relation to truth can only be specified through action. Especially when ignorance (viz. the question of how to exit the crisis) is used as a means of economic extorsion and measures that essentially bring people at the brink of extinction. This knowledge might not be clearly represented by any given political project at the moment –let alone as an objective possibility (and here I distance myself from part of my argument in my three Pasolinian posts). But when this happens, the choice is not only an individualist choice between clearly represented alternatives. People historically cannot be identified with voters and political movements with parties. In the same manner that people who shoot themselves in the head in the middle of the city’s central square cannot be identified with suicides -in lack of some pre-existing definition.
From its political perspective, the message of this act cannot but be and wish to be hopeful: uncertainty cannot possibly be the mother of a terror born by a desire for control that inflicts our lives with servility and fear.