manse jacobi on 19 Oct 2000 03:29:30 -0000

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] 'Do not forget ideas are also weapons'

'Do not forget ideas are also weapons'

The purpose of this text is to fuel the debate between right and leftwing
intellectuals. It does not attempt to explain the relation of either with
governments or changes in society.

I. Pay-per-view global domination
The world is not square, or so we learn at school, but on the brink of the
third millennium it is not round either. I do not know which geometrical
figure best represents the world in its present state but, in an era of
digital communication, we could see it as a gigantic screen - one of those
screens you can program to display several pictures at the same time, one
inside the other. In our global world the pictures come from all over the
planet - but some are missing. Not because there is not enough room on the
screen but because someone up there selected these pictures rather than

What do the pictures show? On the American continent, we see a paramilitary
group occupying the Autonomous National University of Mexico (Unam); but the
men in grey uniforms are not there to study. Another frame shows an armoured
column thundering through a native community in Chiapas. Beside this, we see
United States police using violence to arrest a youth in a city that could
be Seattle or Washington. The pictures in Europe are just as grey.

II. A memorable omission
Intellectuals have been part of society since the dawn of humanity. Their
work is analytical and critical. They look at social facts and analyse the
evidence, for and against, looking for anything ambiguous, that is neither
one thing nor the other, revealing anything that is not obvious - sometimes
even the opposite of what seems obvious.

These professional critics act as a sort of impertinent consciousness for
society. They are non-conformists, disagreeing with everything - social and
political forces, the state, government, media, arts, religion and so on.
Activists will just say "we've had enough", but sceptical intellectuals will
cautiously murmur "too much" or "not enough". Intellectuals criticise
immobility, demand change and progress. They are, nevertheless, part of a
society, which is the scene of endless confrontation and is split between
those who use power to maintain the status quo and those who fight for

Intellectuals must choose between their function as intellectuals and the
role that activists offer them. It is also here that we see the split
between progressive and reactionary intellectuals. They all continue their
work of critical analysis, but whereas the more progressive persist in
criticising immobility, permanence, hegemony and homogeneity, the
reactionaries focus their attacks on change, movement, rebellion and
diversity. So in fact, reactionary intellectuals "forget" their true
function and give up critical thought. Their memory shrinks, excluding past
and future to focus only on the immediate and present. No further discussion
is possible.

III. Intellectual pragmatism
Many leading rightwing intellectuals start life as progressives. But they
soon attract the attention of the powerful, who deploy innumerable
stratagems to buy or destroy them. Progressive intellectuals are "born" in
the midst of a process of seduction and persecution. Some resist; others,
convinced that the global economy is inevitable, look in their box of tricks
and find reasons to legitimate the existing power structure. They are
awarded with a comfortable armchair, on the right hand of the prince they
once denounced.

They can find any number of excuses for this supposedly "inevitable"
outcome: it is the end of history; money is everywhere and all-powerful; the
police have taken the place of politics; the present is the only possible
future; there is a rational explanation for social inequality; there are
even "good reasons" for the unbridled exploitation of human beings and
natural resources, racism, intolerance and war.

In an era marked by two new paradigms - communication and the market -
rightwing intellectuals have realised that being "modern" means obeying one
rule: "Adapt or go under". They are not required to be original, just to
think like everyone else, taking their cue from international bodies like
the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade

Far from indulging in original, critical thought, rightwing intellectuals
become remarkably pragmatic, echoing the advertising slogans that flood the
world's markets. In exchange for a place in the sun and the support of
certain media and governments, they cast off their critical imagination and
any form of self-criticism and espouse the new, free market creed.

IV. Blind seers
The problem is not why the global economy is inevitable, but why almost
everyone agrees that it is. Just as the economy is becoming increasingly
global, so is culture and information. How are we to prevent vast media and
communications companies like CNN or News Corporation, Microsoft or AT&T,
from spinning their worldwide web?

In today's world economy the major corporations are essentially media
enterprises, holding up a huge mirror to show us what society should be, not
what it is. To paraphrase Régis Debray, what is visible is real and
consequently true (1). That, by the way, is one of the tenets of rightwing
dogma. Debray also explains that the centre of gravity of news has shifted
from the written word to visual effects, from recorded to live broadcasts,
from signs to pictures.

To retain their legitimacy, today's rightwing intellectuals must fulfil
their role in a visual era, opting for what is immediate and direct,
switching from signs to images, from thought to TV commentary.

V. Future past
In Mexico, leftwing intellectuals are very influential. Their crime is that
they get in the way. Well, one of their crimes, because they also support
the Zapatistas in their struggle: "The Zapatista uprising heralds the start
of a new era in which native movements will emerge as players in the fight
against the neoliberal global economy" (2). But we are neither unique nor
perfect. Just look at the natives of Ecuador and Chile, and the
demonstrations in Seattle, Washington, Prague - and those that will follow.
We are just one of the pictures that deform the giant screen of the world

The prince has consequently issued orders: "Attack them! I shall supply the
army and media. You come up with the ideas". So rightwing intellectuals
spend their time insulting their leftwing counterparts, and because of the
Zapatista movement's international impact, they are now busy rewriting our
story to suit the demands of the prince.

VI. Neoliberal fascists
In one of his books Umberto Eco provides some pointers as to why fascism is
still latent (3). He starts by warning us that fascism is a diffuse form of
totalitarianism, then defines its characteristics: refusal of the advance of
knowledge, disregard of rational principles, distrust of culture, fear of
difference, racism, individual or social frustration, xenophobia,
aristocratic elitism, machismo, individual sacrifice for the benefit of the
cause, televised populism and use of Newspeak with its limited words and
rudimentary syntax.

These are the values that rightwing intellectuals defend. Take another look
at the giant screen. All that grey is a response to disorder, reflected in
demands for law and order from all around us. But is Europe once more the
prey of fascism? We may well see skinheads, with their swastikas, on the
screen, but the commentator is quick to reassure us that they are only
minority groups, already under control. But it may also take other, more
sinister forms (see the articles by Christian Semler and Brigitte Pätzold in
this issue).

After the fall of the Berlin wall both sides of the political spectrum in
Europe rushed to occupy the centre. This was all too obvious with the
traditional left, but it was also the case with the far right (4). It went
out of its way to acquire a new image, well removed from its violent,
authoritarian past, enthusiastically espousing neoliberal dogma.

VII. Sceptically hopeful
The task of progressive thinkers - to remain sceptically hopeful - is not an
easy one. They have understood how things work and, noblesse oblige, they
must reveal what they know, dissect it, denounce it and pass it on to
others. But to do this, they must also confront neoliberal dogma, backed by
the media, banks, major corporations, army and police.

What is more, we live in a visual age - and so, to their considerable
disadvantage, progressive thinkers must fight the power of the image with
nothing but words. But their scepticism will get them out of that trap, and
if they are equally sceptical in their critical analysis, they will be able
to see through the virtual beauty to the real misery it conceals. So perhaps
there is reason to hope.

There is a story that when Michelangelo sculpted his statue of David, he had
to work on a "second-hand" piece of marble that already had holes in it. It
is a mark of his talent that he was able to create a figure that took
account of these limitations. The world we want to transform has already
been worked on by history and is largely hollow. We must nevertheless be
inventive enough to change it and build a new world.

Take care and do not forget that ideas are also weapons.


* Leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, Chiapas, Mexico
(excerpted from "La droite intellectuelle et le fascisme libéral" which
appeared Le Monde diplomatique in French in August 2000; the full version of
this text is available on our internet site in French, as is a longer
version in Spanish)

Croire, voir, faire, Odile Jacob, Paris, 1999.
Yvon Le Bot, "Los indígenas contra el neoliberalismo", La Jornada, 6 March
Umberto Eco, Cinque scritti morali, Bompiani, Milan, 1997.
See Emiliano Fruta, "La nueva derecha europea", and Hernán R. Moheno, "Más
allá de la vieja izquierda y la nueva derecha", in Urbi et Orbi, Itam,
Mexico, April 2000

Nettime-bold mailing list