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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 45, New Delhi, October 24, 2020

The Destruction of Humanity and Nature: What is to be Done? | Murzban Jal

Saturday 24 October 2020

by Murzban Jal

On Human Alienation and the Denkverbot (Prohibition against Thinking)

Consider the Covid-19 pandemic along with the late 2019 Australian bush fires. Also consider the Amazon forests being depleted, not to forget California being burnt in 2019 by unexplained wildfires. While it may seem that it is some unknown fires and even more unknown virus that are creating havoc, a closer philosophical understanding will note that it is not viruses and fires which are problems, but capitalistic industrialization and the entire disastrous ideology of unbridled consumerism that capitalism promotes. Viruses and fires (known and unknown) are products of capitalism. They do not, as if, magically appear from nowhere.

This essay is on a critical reflection on the ecological crisis, Covid-19 note excluded, and what a real alternative could mean. This critical humanistic and naturalistic alternative—in fact anti-capitalistic alternative—will firstly take up Marx’s idea of humanity being embedded in nature, in fact humanity understood as being an essential part of nature—from his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. One then contrasts this idea of humanity as being an essential part of nature to estranged society where humanity and nature are considered hostile opposites, whereby nature is understood as an estranged thing that needs to be controlled and then destroyed. It is here that one understands nature as not part of human reality, but as some sort of thing to be exploited. In contrast to this estranged-exploitative thesis, we locate nature as genus; and humanity as being a member of the larger living species, and also being an essential part of this genus that we call “nature”. It is here that we are able to critique the contemporary world of globalized capitalism (that once sang the ode to “end of history” and now which is composing a new dirge to the “end of nature itself”) and its anti-humanist, anti-nature ideologies.

It is with this that we recall Slavoj Žižek’s tragic statement that we can think of the end of the world, but not of capitalism [1]. And thinking of the end of the world and the permanence of capitalism is surely a sign of our apocalyptic anti-humanist times. According to Žižek this is because the dominant narrative of our times, namely liberalism with its fetish for hyper-individualism, has created a sort of a prohibition against thinking, or what he calls after Jürgen Habermas as Denkverbot. [2] More specifically we have ceased to think about the world. And this is because the world has literally become alienated from us. However if liberalism has created this uncanny Denkverbot, what the world is experiencing is not only a complete economic crisis along with the domination of extreme right-wing parties, but experiencing the complete havoc that mankind has created with nature.

This Denkverbot we call after Marx as abstract thinking, thought that emerges from the estranged mind. [3] And it is to this estranged mind where attention that must now take. There are many warnings given since the last century and a half. Leo Tolstoy beings his masterpiece Resurrection with the following words:

Though hundreds of thousands had done their very best to disfigure the small piece of land on which they were crowded together, paving the ground with stones so that nothing could grow, weeding out every blade of vegetation, filling the air with the fumes of coal and gas, cutting down trees and driving away every beast and every bird—spring, however, was still spring, even in the town. [4]

For the mirror of the Russian revolution (as Lenin would soon call him [5]) a sense of optimism and realism would have to be placed at the heart of human existence. Thus:

All were glad: the plants, the birds, the insects, and the children. But men, grown-up men and women, did not leave off cheating and tormenting themselves and each other. It was not this spring morning which they considered sacred and important, not the beauty of God’s world, given to all creatures to enjoy—a beauty which inclines the heart to peace, to harmony and to love. No, what they considered sacred and important were their own devices for wielding power over each other. [6]

While a novelist’s response seems adequate, a more scientific and philosophic response in understanding the human-nature relation [7] is necessary to explain why an unprecedented ecological crisis is looming such that the end of the world now looks as a very real possibility. While the death instinct, a fundamental concept in psychoanalysis, may help us in understanding this crisis, a deeper and more rigorous mechanism needs being created such that the destructive capacity that humanity has been able to demonstrate must be understood and decoded. What we have done is transformed Freud’s death instinct into the destructive instinct. Let us see how it goes and how one can understand humanity’s condition as being-a-part-of-the-world being reduced to the state of being-apart-from the world. This apartness from the world, this alienation from the world is the starting point in our analysis.

Structure of the Destructive Drive

The following points are essential for our analysis:

1. Alienation from the world where the world is split from humanity where humanity appears in split form, or what we call after R.D. Laing as the “divided self”,

2. The world, society and nature seem to be hostile to the individual,

3. Birth of private property and the senses of possession and ownership which devalue human and natural sensibilities which then create the sense of aggression and destruction,

4. Humanity’s being-in-the-world as a creature of the world has now been destroyed.

What we now witness is the death of humanity as humanity and the birth of what we call after Erich Fromm as the birth of the “male consciousness” and a “one-sided male character”. [8] In this paradigm, “Nature has been turned upside down” [9]. We have now the production of an alienated rationality (that has destroyed human rationality) with its principle of calculation and control. That this theme (which has been elaborated often by Habermas) emerges from the Judeo-Christian civilization (a theme common to Fromm and Žižek) has to be noted. Also what needs to be noted is the idea of the “Fall” where humanity is cursed by the alleged creator, Monsieur Jehovah or “Lord God”, as the Bible says,. Humanity is thus not merely “thrown-into-the-world” but condemned and thrown-into-the-world. For the Judeo-Christian narrative the individual is necessarily a part of an “Original sin” and thus a sinful creature. Guilt, anxiety, estrangement and neurosis are thus the psychological components of this Judeo-Christian narrative.

Yet the individual rebels against this form of estrangement and anxiety. Two sorts of rebellions appear on the scene: one that is rational and scientific and which critiques this entire narrative from its Judeo-Christian origins to modern capitalism; and the second is the one that does not involve a philosophical critique, but which tries to violently and blindly resist this narrative. Fascism is a classical example of this pseudo-rebellion. In contrast to the fallen individual of the Judeo-Christian narrative, it creates the phantasmagoria of the superman. This superman as we all know from history is not only extremely violent, but which keeps violence and destruction at the basis of its life-world. The inherent violence against society and the world is innate in this worldview, the worldview which is also the common factor joining and uniting all reactionary forces, from the global right-wing to the ISIS, Yankee imperialism, the neo-Nazis and the Iranian Ayatollahs.

What happens is that we find a violent, imperialist model where the Iranian Ayatollahs, the ISIS along with the global fascists fall in the paradigm of operation where the imperialist imagination is framed in the terms of the pyramid model where the elites residing in Washington, London, Berlin, Brussels, Tel Aviv and Riyadh are sitting on top of this pyramid. The model is the pyramid model, which is violent, hierarchical and despotic. Why do we say so? We say so because on top of the pyramid of life the Western white male is perched (the infamous WASP—the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), burdened by the repressed unconscious. What late imperialism in permanent crisis has done is that it has completely and absolutely erased the early model of the human psyche where the rational ego that was recognized as the centre of the human psyche. Now things have changed. Instead, as Theodor Adorno and Žižek have pointed out, late capitalism has erased this model of the rational ego and instead has replaced it with the idea of destructive, narcissistic and psychotic self which not only imagines itself to be at the centre of the world, but is bent on destroying this very world. Thus it is not merely the case that the elites are on top of society and the Western male is on top of the world. Instead we have the neurotic and psychotic elites who are sitting on the top of the pyramid crushing all humanity and in crushing humanity, destroying the entire world, the world of nature too. The appearance of Covid-19 on the scene of world history, along with all the wildfires is no accident in the history of capitalism.

It is thus that we once again ask: “What is to be done? Can the world really be saved? Can capitalism be destroyed and superseded by a more rational and humane society that sees the individual as part of a larger humanity and humanity as an essential part of nature?”

[2Slavoj Žižek, ‘Repeating Lenin’ in, Last assessed 8 January 2020.

[3Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), p. 129.

[4Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection, trans. Louise Maude (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 9.

[5 "Bellicose Militarism and the Anti-Militarist Tactics of Social-Democracy" V. I. "British and German Workers Demonstrate for Peace" Lenin, ‘Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution’, first published in Proletary No. 35, September 11 (24), 1908, in V.I."l "volume15" Lenin Collected Works, "1908-sep-11" Volume 15 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), pp. 202-9.

[6Leo Tolstoy, op.cit., p. 10.

[7We are saying “human-nature” (in hyphen). But we mean is that there is not only a continuum in this human-nature relation, but humanity to be understood as a “being-in-the-world”, or in other words “being-a-part-of-the-world” and not “being-apart-of-the-world”. We do not put this relation as “human/nature”. We do not want walls between these two, though capitalism has built walls, and courtesy Donald Trump and all global right-wing parties, walls continue being built.

[8Erich Fromm, ‘The Male Creation’, in Love, Sexuality, and Matriarchy. About Gender, edited and with an introduction by Rainer Funk (New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1997), p. 51.

[9Ibid., p. 54.

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