Volume 3, Number 2 (July 2006)
Author: Jean Baudrillard
Translated by: Laura Nyssola
Note: Another translation of this material appears as “The Despair of Having Everything” in Le Monde Diplomatique, November 22, 2002. Translated by Luke Sandford). http://mondediplo.com/2002/11/12despair
Islamic fundamentalism – a providential target for a system which no longer knows what values to subscribe to – has a pendant in Western integrism, the integrism of the universal and of forced democracy, which is equally intolerant, since it, too, doesn’t grant the other the moral and political right to exist. This is free-market fanaticism, the fanaticism of indifference to its own values and, for that very reason, total intolerance towards those who differ by any passion whatsoever. The New World Order implies the extermination of everything different to integrate it into an indifferent world order. Is there still room between these two fanaticisms for a non-believer to exercise his liberty?1
* * * * *
It is the mission of the West to make the world’s many cultures interchangeable and subordinate to the global order. A culture bereft of values, is now taking revenge on the values of other cultures. What passion propels the world to believe that globalization is inevitable and what drives us to make this an unconditional reality? The universal is an old idea but when an idea is realized globally it meets its death. Humankind has replaced the empty space left by God and is now the sole authority, ruling unchallenged, but without purpose. Now that humanity’s enemies have fled, we show symptoms of inhumanity by generating enemies from within our own ranks.
This is why there is such violence in globalization, with a system that wants to eliminate any manifestation of negativity and singularity (including death, the ultimate expression of singularity). This is the violence of a society in which conflict is virtually forbidden. This violence marks an end to violence itself in a way, as it desires a world free from any natural order that might govern the human body, sexuality, life and death. Perhaps we should replace the word violence with “virulence”. Violence now is a viral force spreading by contagion – slowly destroying our immunity and our ability to resist.
The triumph of globalization’s is in no way guaranteed. Against its homogenizing and destabilizing effects, hostile forces are emerging everywhere. The manifestations of anti-globalization’s (including social and political resistance) are more than mere outmoded forms of rejection. They are part of a painful revision that focuses on modernity and progress, processes that reject both the globalizing techno-structure and the ideology that seeks to make all cultures interchangeable.
From the viewpoint of our enlightened philosophy, anti-globalization actions are understood as violent, abnormal and irrational. Anti-globalization may take collective form (bringing together different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups), or may be individual (including maladjustment and neurosis). It is wrong to condemn anti-globalization forces as populist, antiquated or terrorist. Every current event – including the hostility of Islam to the West – takes place against the abstraction of universality. Islam is “public enemy number one” because it is the most resistant to Western values.
What or who can stop globalization? Surely not anti-globalization forces, whose real aim is only to slow deregulation. The anti-globalization forces have considerable political influence but their symbolic impact is non existent. The violence of the protestors is simply one more event that system will absorb while continuing to control the game.
Singularities however confound the system. Singularities are neither positive nor negative and they do not represent alternatives. They are outside of the system and they cannot be evaluated by value judgments or through principles of political reality. They correspond to both the best and the worst. Singularities play by another set of rules which they determine themselves allowing them to stand as impediments to the single-track thinking of the dominant mode of thought (although they are only one kind of challenge to the system). Singularities are not inherently violent – they represent unique characteristics of language, art, culture, and the body. Violent singularities such as terrorism do also exist. Violent singularities attempt to avenge the various cultures that disappeared in the face of an emerging global power. What we have before us is not so much a clash of civilizations as an anthropological struggle pitting a monolithic universal culture against all manifestations of otherness, wherever they may be found.
Global power is as fundamentalist as any religious orthodoxy, understanding all unorthodoxy as heretical. The contemporary heretic must be brought into the system or be made to disappear completely. The West’s mission (which lost its own values long ago) is to reduce a variety of distinct cultural singularities to interchangeability by the most brutal of means necessary. A culture with no values is taking its vengeance on the values of other cultures. As an extension of politics and economics by other means, warfare (including the conflict in Afghanistan) normalizes savagery while beating unorthodox sectors into line. War is also used to reduce zones of resistance and to colonize and subdue any terrain – geographical or mental.
The rise of the globalizing system has been driven by the furious envy2 of the indifferent, low-definition mono-culture, confronted by high-definition cultures. Envy is what the disenchanted system which has lost its intensity feels when facing high-intensity cultures. It is the envy of a deconsecrated society that emerges when confronted with sacrificial cultures and structures.
For the global system, any resistance is understood as potential terrorism – as we have seen in Afghanistan. Natural disasters can be understood as a form of terrorism (even though they are accidents as was Chernobyl), as they resemble terrorism. In India, the Bhopal poison gas tragedy (an accident) could have been terrorism just as any terrorist group can take responsibility for an aviation accident. This is not new, in the wake of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, thousands of Koreans were blamed and killed. In a system as integrated as ours, everything destabilizes and seeks to undermine the system’s claim to infallibility. Given what we are already experiencing as a result of the rational grip of the system, we may well wonder if the infallibility of the system is the worst catastrophe of all?
When nations ban democratic liberties, music, television, or force women to cover their faces, the “free” world sees these events as uncivilized – whatever principles may be at stake. The disavowal of modernity and its pretensions to universality cannot be tolerated. Resistance challenges the belief that modernity is a force of good, that it represents the natural progression of humanity, and the actual universality of our mores and values. When resistors are labeled “fanatics”, their obstinacy is criminalized according conventional Western wisdom.
Symbolic obligation is the only thing that can help us to comprehend the current confrontations. To understand the hatred the rest of the world feels towards the West, perspectives must be reversed. The hatred expressed at the West by non-Westerners is not that of a people from whom everything has been taken. It is the hatred of those who have received everything, but have never been allowed to give anything back. This is not the hatred of the dispossessed or exploited, but that of a humiliation – of those who can give nothing in return. It is this symbolic understanding that explains the attacks of September 11, 2001 – acts of humiliation responding to another humiliation.
The worst thing that can happen to global power is not to be attacked or destroyed, but to be humiliated. Global power was humiliated on September 11 because the terrorists inflicted something the system cannot give back. Armed reprisals are merely a means of physical response and cannot respond to the challenge the terrorists symbolically represent. On September 11, global power was symbolically defeated. Armed attacks or war is a response to an aggression, but not to a symbolic challenge. A symbolic challenge is accepted and removed when the other is humiliated in return (and this does not happen when the other is killed by bombs or locked away at Guantanamo Bay). Symbolic obligation’s fundamental rule requires that the starting point of domination is the total absence of any equivalent, any return.
A unilateral gift is a powerful act. The empire of “good” gives without any possibility of a return. This is to assume the place of God – to assume the role of the master who’s slaves are allowed to live in exchange for their labour. Work is never a symbolic return, which leaves the slave with only the option of death or revolt. In earlier times God allowed for sacrifice – making it possible to repay the higher authority – which insured the symbolic equilibrium between man and the universe. We no longer have such means of repaying symbolic debt and this is the curse on our culture – only giving is possible – giving back is impossible without the importance of the sacrifice, which has been taken away. What remains are caricatures of sacrifice such as victimization.
And so we are left always to receive, not only from God or from nature, but also from the technical mechanisms which provide for daily exchange and gratification. Like slaves, we receive almost everything – and we are entitled to it all – like slaves who are spared but always bound to an impossible debt. However, at some point in time the rule always comes into force and a negative reaction will take place.
The return may be the expression of negative passion and may thus take the form of violence or terrorism – a debased form of a payment that is impossible to provide. We must recall the destiny that Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor had prepared for the masses in his Brother’s Karamazov – the defeat of freedom in order to make men happy. And so, what we hate in ourselves is the excess or reality – the accomplishment of comfort, power, and universal availability. This is precisely what the terrorists find repulsive about our culture and hence the endless fascination with terrorism.
The support for terrorism emerges not only from the humiliated but also from the wider invisible despair of those who are the beneficiaries of globalization. It also depends on our own submission to technology and to the crushing virtual reality of the networks and programs. Our own feelings of despair – an invisible despair – is based on this dependence of a species on technology and it is irreversible as it is the result of the fulfillment of our desires.
As the result of an excess of reality and the impossibility of exchange with reality – the result of an excess without possibility of return – then efforts to eliminate it as an infliction imposed from the outside are illusory. Terrorism, for all of its absurdity and meaningless nonsense, is our society’s judgment and punishment.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool Memories III (1990-1995). New York: Verso, 1997:133.
2 – I prefer “furious envy” (also used by Luke Sandford’s in his translation) to other possibilities (e.g. jealousy, resentment).