Why are so many essays entitled “politico-theological treatise”? The answer is that a theory becomes theology when it is part of a full subjective political engagement. As Kierkegaard pointed out, I do not acquire faith in Christ after comparing different religions and deciding the best reasons speak for Christianity. There are reasons to choose Christianity, but they only appear after I’ve already chosen it, i.e., to see the reasons for belief one already has to believe. And the same holds for Marxism: it is not that, after objectively analyzing history, I became a Marxist. My decision to be a Marxist (the experience of a proletarian position) makes me see the reasons for it, i.e., Marxism is the paradox of an objective “true” knowledge accessible only through a subjective partial position. This is why Robespierre was right when he distrusted materialism as the philosophy of decadent-hedonist nobility and tried to impose a new religion of the supreme Being of Reason. The old reproach to Marxism that its commitment to a bright future is a secularization of religious salvation should be proudly assumed.
This practical nature of a theory is totally different from the way modern science relates to experiments: science forecloses subjectivity; it aims at grasping “objective reality,” while a revolutionary theory is immanently practical, grounded in subjective engagement. The religious dimension of a radical political act is founded on a very precise fact: the triumph of a revolution is the moment when we step out of the existing economic and social order by way of suspending its main written and unwritten rules. We (try to) do what, within this order, appears impossible. So, what would have been a true political act today?
In the beginning of 2023 Israel was shaken by demonstrations against the new Rightist government and its brutal politics which, among other things, subordinated an independent judiciary to political power. However, the liberal freedom-loving hundreds of thousands of protesters more or less totally ignored the plight of the Palestinians (20% of Israel’s population and millions more in the occupied territories) who will obviously suffer most from the new government and its laws. Their protests do not really pose a threat to the Israeli apartheid; they act as if they are an internal Jewish affair. In these conditions, a true act would be to propose a large democratic coalition that would include Palestinians. Such an act would be very risky because it would break an unwritten rule of Israeli politics; however, only such a coalition, such a change in the coordinates of what appears as possible in Israel, can prevent Israel from becoming another religious-fundamentalist racist state.
In a true act, we do things to which the hegemonic ideology reacts with “But you can’t just do this!!!” We do what Brecht, in his praise of Communism, called “simple things that are hard to do” – nationalizing banks and large corporations, expanding free education and health service, providing housing for the poor, legalizing gay and LGBT+ rights, etc.
Remember the first year of the Allende government in Chile in 1970. They provided free meals at schools, nationalized copper mines, engaged in the construction of workers’ housings, “simple things” like that… And, we have to go to the end, in the specific conditions of that time, with the brutal resistance from the local bourgeoisie supported by the US, they HAD to fail: inflation soared, etc. They had to fail not only because of the resistance of the forces of the established order but due to immanent reason: their failure (exemplified by the violent death of the leader) provides the point of excremental identification which gives a new force to the movement. It is meaningless to deplore the fact that revolutionaries were not pragmatic enough. This, precisely, was the point of their acts once they took over, namely to violate the existing “pragmatic rules.” Whatever the new problems, the Allende government changed Chile into a “liberated territory” where, in some sense, even the air the people were breathing was different, and the problems it faced just prove the fact that, within the existing order, even doing “simple things” like providing free meals and housing for workers is impossible. Later, revolutionaries should become pragmatic, of course, but they HAVE to begin with crazy simple acts. This is why Robespierre was again fully right when, in his final speech on 8 Thermidor, he pointed out that, observing a revolution just as a series of actual events, without taking note of the sublime Idea that sustains it (or, as Badiou would have put it, of its dimension of an Event), this revolution is just a “noisy crime” that destroys another crime:
“But there do exist, I can assure you, souls that are feeling and pure; it exists, that tender, imperious and irresistible passion, the torment and delight of magnanimous hearts; that deep horror of tyranny, that compassionate zeal for the oppressed, that sacred love for the homeland, that even more sublime and holy love for humanity, without which a great revolution is just a noisy crime that destroys another crime; it does exist, that generous ambition to establish here on earth the world’s first Republic.”[i]
Here I am ready to use Lorenzo Chiesa’s notion of an irreducible oscillation[ii]: radical emancipatory politics is condemned to oscillate between moments of ecstatic religious commitment where we suspend “the reality principle” and try to actualize the impossible, and the long and hard “pragmatic” process of transforming revolutionary goals into moments of ordinary social reality of the majority. The point is not that moments of ecstatic commitment are simply utopian/destructive and have to be “normalized”: they are essential since they clear the ground and prepare a new base for pragmatic solutions. They are also not illusory since we, the engaged agents, are fully aware that our “impossible” striving will eventually subside, and this awareness only strengthens our commitment. So, we don’t oscillate between the One of full engagement and the cynical acceptance of not-One, of the messy reality. A true believer can be (and mostly is) ruthlessly cynical about his/her predicament, but this awareness only strengthens his/her commitment. This is the political version of Tertullian’s credo qua absurdum est.
The key to the unity of a fanatical principled stance and ruthless pragmatism is the ability to analyze a concrete situation in such a way that we simplify it to the abstract choice, neglecting the wealth of inessential features. A math problem went viral on the web towards the end of 2022 when it became known that Chinese 5th graders were asked the question: “If a ship has 26 sheep and 10 goats onboard, how old is the ship’s captain?” The Chinese authorities explained that the question was used in exams in order to instigate critical thinking. Obviously, the correct answer is: “There are not enough data available to provide an answer.” Some individuals provided a vague reply based on their knowledge of the Chinese law which stipulates that to be a captain of a boat which carries more than 5 tons of carriage (26 sheep and 10 goats weigh around 7 tons), one has to work as a captain of a smaller boat for at least 5 years, plus that the earliest age to become the captain of a boat is 23 years, so in this case, the captain should be at least 28 years old. But it was soon discovered that, for the same reason, exactly the same question was asked of pupils in France and some other neighboring countries. The surprise was that in many cases, the answer was produced by way of desperately trying to read some meaning into the numbers – the most obvious reply was that, since 26+10=36, this must be the captain’s age… The lesson is thus that we must not succumb to the temptation of reading the true meaning of numbers, especially in our age obsessed with the precision of numbers, or, at a more general level, that, when we are solving a precise problem, one has to learn to ignore irrelevant data. Thinking does not involve taking into account the infinite complexity of every situation; on the contrary, thinking begins by learning to abstract, to ignore the irrelevant data.
This holds from ideology to quantum physics. Is not one of the ideological procedures to explain a phenomenon like unexpected economic success through personal features of the individual who got rich (“he worked really hard; he is really bright…”)? When we read about a link between particles that is instantaneous (i.e., faster than light), most of us as a rule continue to refer to our ordinary notion of space and then try to imagine the almost-infinite speed of the information that links the particles in question. And this holds especially for radical emancipatory politics: its core is the art of combining fidelity to a Cause with the most ruthless pragmatic shifts in pursuing this Cause. The unsurpassable model here is still Lenin:
“On 14 May /1918/ Lenin proposed that the German imperialism should be offered a comprehensive plan of economic cooperation. By way of justification, he offered what was surely the weirdest of his many modifications of orthodox Marxism. The need for a close alliance between the Russian revolution and the Imperial Germany, he argued, arouse out of the twisted logic of history itself. History had by 1918 ‘taken such a peculiar course that it has given birth … to two unconnected halves of socialism existing side by side, like two future chickens in the single shell of international imperialism.”
For Lenin, “Germany’s legendary wartime economic organization /…/ was ‘the most striking embodiment of the material realization of the economic, the productive and the socio-economic conditions for socialism’.”[iii] One should notice here than Lenin does not speak about the high development of German productive forces but about “economic organization,” about the concrete way relations between people are organized in big industrial companies in a wartime economy. What this means is that Socialism should take over this organization, just putting it under the control of the state. Another detail demonstrates how serious Lenin was with his idea of cooperation with Germany: after the British established an anti-Bolshevik front at Murmansk, the Bolshevik government officially asked Germany to intervene with military force to stabilize the Murmansk front, i.e., to keep the British army from advancing south. Even Rosa Luxembourg was shocked at this idea, but nothing came from it because of the German wavering.[iv]
The Need for an Enemy
The lesson of such paradoxes is a very clear one: what characterizes an authentic emancipatory thought is not a vision of conflict-free harmonious future but the properly dialectical notion of antagonism which is totally incompatible with the Rightist topic of the need for an enemy to assert our self-identity. Here is Heidegger’s concise articulation of the need for an enemy from his course of 1933-34:
“An enemy is each and every person who poses an essential threat to the Dasein of the people and its individual members. The enemy does not have to be external, and the external enemy is not even always the most dangerous one. And it can seem as if there were no enemy. Then it is a fundamental requirement to find the enemy, to expose the enemy to the light, or even first to make the enemy, so that this standing against the enemy may happen and so that Dasein may not lose its edge.… [The challenge is] to bring the enemy into the open, to harbor no illusions about the enemy, to keep oneself ready for attack, to cultivate and intensify a constant readiness and to prepare the attack looking far ahead with the goal of total annihilation.”[v]
The most obvious passage is “to expose the enemy to the light, or even first to make the enemy, so that this standing against the enemy may happen.” In short, it doesn’t even matter if the enemy is a real enemy, if there is no enemy, it has to be invented so that a people “may not lose its edge” and can prepare the (invented) enemy’s “total annihilation”… What we find here is the logic of anti-Semitism at its most elementary: what Heidegger ignores is the possibility that an enemy is invented to create the false unity of the people and thus cover up its immanent antagonisms.
It is sad to see how this logic of the need for an enemy is brought to extreme in today’s Russia where the role of the enemy to be annihilated is played not by Jews but by the decadent Western culture of trans-sexuality. The specifically Russian version of religious fundamentalism, which celebrates death, re-emerged as a justification of the attack on Ukraine: some religious preachers assured their audience that Russians can “become themselves” only by killing, and that “all God’s creation” is at stake in Ukraine. Following this line, Vladimir Solovyov, one of Putin’s chief propagandists, said in a New Year message on Russian television:
“Life is highly overrated. Why fear what is inevitable? Especially when we’re going to heaven. Death is the end of one earthly path and the beginning of another. Don’t let fear of death influence decisions. It’s only worth living for something you can die for, that’s the way it should be. /…/ We are fighting against Satanists. This is a holy war and we have to win.”
And Magomed Kitanaev went to the end in this direction: “We’re asking: Oh, Ukrainians, why did you permit gay parades in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa? Why did you permit it? Why didn’t you come out against them, against your government that was overtaken by fascists? Without shame before God and the people, they are openly, manifestly spreading their filth.”
We cannot really understand today’s proliferation of ideologists like Dugin or Solovyov without analyzing their roots in the Russian tradition of Cosmism. Cosmism began with Nikolai Fedorov who “was nick-named the ‘Socrates of Moscow’, because of his ascetic habits and his radical philosophy. He had one all-encompassing goal: the achievement of immortality and the resurrection of the dead.” Among his Communist followers there are Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (who theorized about space travel) and Alexander Bogdanov (the target of Lenin’s critique of “empiriocriticism” who practiced blood transfusion as a means to prolong one’s life). There is an incredible irony in the fact that there is another Vladimir Solovyov, the Russian religious thinker from the second half of the 19th century, who
“called for a universal theocracy under a Russian Tsar, to hasten humanity’s ‘long and difficult passage from beast-mankind to God-mankind’. The next stage in evolution is to become immortal spiritual beings – only Christ has reached this stage so far, but all humanity will soon follow. However, Solovyov thought this spiritual evolution would happen through magical-spiritual means while Fedorov insisted on scientific resurrection. But both agreed that humanity would be saved by Russian theocracy.”[vi]
For a detailed exploration of the link between the two Solovyovs, you may consult Denys Sultanhaliiev, “Russian Nuclear Eschatology: Pathologies on the Ruins of Modernity.” Sultanhaliiev establishes a lineage between the two strands of Russian “Cosmism” (belief in resurrection and eternal life), scientific (Fedorov in 19th century and Cosmism in the first decade of the USSR which also deeply influenced Soviet cosmonautic program) and religious-spiritual (Solovyov), up to the nihilistic approach to the prospect of nuclear destruction in the USSR and under Putin. Cosmism could only emerge within the Russian Orthodox version of Christianity, whose basic formula is “god became man so that man will become god.” This is how the Cosmists interpret the appearance of Christ, the god-man: as a model for what all of humanity should approach.
Repressed out of the public sight in the central period of the Soviet state, Cosmism was openly propagated only in the first and in the last two decades of the Soviet rule. Its main theses are: the goals of religion (collective paradise, overcoming of all suffering, full individual immortality, resurrection of the dead, victory over time and death, conquest of space far beyond the solar system) can be realized in terrestrial life through the development of modern science and technology. In the future, not only will sexual difference be abolished with the rise of chaste post-humans reproducing themselves through direct bio-technical reproduction or no longer reproducing at all; it will also be possible to resurrect all the dead of the past (establishing their biological formula through their remains and then re-engendering them – at that time, DNA was not yet known…), thus even erasing all past injustices, “undoing” past suffering and destruction. In this bright bio-political Communist future, not only humans, but also animals, all living being, will participate in a directly collectivized Reason of the cosmos… Whatever one can hold against Lenin’s ruthless critique of Maxim Gorky’s “construction of God (bogostroitel’stvo),” or, the direct deification of man, one should bear in mind that Gorky himself collaborated with the Cosmists. One should, of course, contrast this to Martin Luther’s idea that man is an excrement of God, something that fell out of God’s anus… So, when we laugh with consternation at today’s ideological madness in Russia, we should always bear in mind its roots in the Russian Orthodoxy admired by many in the West who see in it a cure for Western Protestantism, which opened up the path to liberal decadence.
From Athings to Apersons
This, of course, in no way implies that, in rejecting religious fundamentalism, we should put our bets on Western liberalism. Liberalism clearly shows its fateful limitation, especially with today’s emergence of the third space of “free” digital exchanges. The new technology to manipulate and create public opinion demonstrates how non-free the third space of public-private media is: it’s not just a space of chaotic exchanges where conspiracy theories are allowed to thrive, it is also a space in which control and manipulation thrive even more.
“claim to have manipulated more than 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage, and automated misinformation on social media. ‘Team Jorge’ is led by 50-year-old Tal Hanan, a former Israeli special forces operative. The methods and techniques described by ‘Team Jorge’ raise new challenges for big tech platforms, which have for years struggled to prevent nefarious actors spreading falsehoods or breaching the security on their platforms. Evidence of a global private market in disinformation aimed at elections will also ring alarm bells for democracies around the world.”
All this is now more or less common knowledge, at least since the time of the Cambridge Analytica scandal (its involvement in the 2016 US elections significantly helped Trump to win). However, to make things worse, one should include into the series of new algorithms also the explosion of programs that make face-swapping and other “deep fake” procedures easily accessible. Most popular are, of course, algorithms that paste celebrity faces to porn actresses’ bodies in adult films: “the tools needed to create this ‘homemade’ porn videos including your favorite Hollywood actresses and pop stars are readily available and easy to use. This means that even those without a computer science background and limited knowledge of technology can still make the films.” The faces of hardcore actresses can be swapped not only with those of pop stars but also with those nearest you. The procedure is “eye-catching for its simplicity”: “turn anyone into a porn star by using deepfake technology to swap the person’s face into an adult video. All it requires is the picture and the push of a button.”
Unfortunately, deepfakes are mostly used to create pornography with women for whom this has a devastating effect: “between 90% and 95% of all online deepfake videos are nonconsensual porn, and around 90% of those feature women.” And if you want also the voices to fit the swapped faces, you use the Voice AI to create “hyper-realistic replicas that sound exactly like the real person.” The ultimate incestuous short-cut would be here, of course, to swap my own and my wife’s or partner’s face for those in an adult video, plus to accompany the shots with our voice clones, so that we would just sit comfortably, have a drink and observe our passionate sex… But why limit ourselves to sex? What about embarrassing our enemies with face-swapped videos of them doing something disgusting or criminal?
And to make things even worse, we should add to this series chatbots (computer programs that are capable of maintaining a conversation with a user in natural language, understanding their intent, and replying based on preset rules and data). Lately, their capacity augmented explosively:
“While grading essays for his world religions course last month, Antony Aumann, a professor of philosophy at Northern Michigan University, read what he said was easily ‘the best paper in the class.’ It explored the morality of burqa bans with clean paragraphs, fitting examples and rigorous arguments. Aumann asked his student whether he had written the essay himself; the student confessed to using ChatGPT, a chatbot that delivers information, explains concepts and generates ideas in simple sentences – and, in this case, had written the paper. The moves are part of a real-time grappling with a new technological wave known as generative artificial intelligence. ChatGPT, which was released in November 2022 by the artificial intelligence lab OpenAI, is at the forefront of the shift. The chatbot generates eerily articulate and nuanced text in response to short prompts, with people using it to write love letters, poetry, fan fiction – and their schoolwork.”
No wonder universities and high schools are reacting in panic, some of them allowing only oral exams. Among other problems, there is one that deserves attention: how should a chatbot react when the human partner in a dialogue engages in aggressive sexist and racist remarks, presents troubling sexual fantasies and regularly uses foul language? “Microsoft acknowledged that some extended chat sessions with its new Bing chat tool can provide answers not ‘in line with our designed tone.’ Microsoft also said the chat function in some instances ‘tries to respond or reflect in the tone in which it is being asked to provide responses.’” In short, the problem arises when the human exchanging messages with a chatbot uses dirty language or makes violent racist and sexist remarks, and the chatbot, programmed to answer at the same level as the questions addressed to it, replies in the same tone. The obvious answer is some kind of regulation which sets clear limits, i.e., censorship, but who will determine how far this censorship should go? Should political positions deemed “offensive” by some people also be prohibited? Will solidarity with West Bank Palestinians or the claim that Israel is an apartheid state (as Jimmy Carter put it in the title of his book) be blocked as “anti-Semitic”?
So, let us imagine a combined version of all these inventions: they allow me to construct my alter ego (or a purely invented person) as an aperson, a virtual person who doesn’t exist in reality but can interact digitally as a real person. To go to the end, this is possible because / myself am already an aperson: I don’t exist as a “real” person, in my interactions with others (and even with myself); I am never directly “myself”; I refer to myself as a symbolic and imaginary construction, which never directly coincides with the real of my subjectivity. It is because of this minimal split constitutive of the subject that, for Lacan, subject is divided or “barred.” So, I (or, rather, my double as aperson) present a seminar paper written by a chatbot to a professor via Zoom, but the professor is also there only as an aperson, its voice is artificially generated, plus my seminar is graded by an algorithm.
A decade or so ago I was asked by The Guardian if romance was dead today. Here is my reply:
“Romance is maybe not yet totally dead, but its forthcoming death is signaled by object-gadgets which promise to deliver excessive pleasure but which effectively reproduce only the lack itself. The latest fashion is the Stamina Training Unit, a counterpart to the vibrator: a masturbatory device that resembles a battery-powered light (so we’re not embarrassed when carrying it around). You put the erect penis into the opening at the top, push the button, and the object vibrates till satisfaction… How are we to cope with this brave new world which undermines the basic premises of our intimate life? The ultimate solution would be, of course, to push a vibrator into the Stamina Training Unit, turn them both on and leave all the fun to this ideal couple, with us, the two real human partners, sitting at a nearby table, drinking tea and calmly enjoying the fact that, without great effort, we have fulfilled our duty to enjoy.”
We can now imagine the same outsourcing of other activities like university seminars and exams. In an ideal scene, the entire process of writing my seminar and the professor examining is done through digital interaction, so that, at the end, without doing anything, we just confirm the results. Meanwhile, I am having sex with my lover… but, again, an outsourced sex through her vibrator penetrating my Stamina Training Unit, with the two of us just sitting at a nearby table and, to amuse ourselves even more, watching on a TV screen a deep fake with the two of us having sex… plus, of course, all of it controlled and regulated by Team Jorge. What remains of the two of us is just an empty cogito (“I think”) dominated by multiple versions of what Descartes called malin genie.
This, perhaps, is our predicament today: we are not able to take the next step described by Descartes and rely on a truthful and stable form of some divine big Other. We are “children of a lesser god” (the title of a play and a movie) forever caught in the inconsistent multiplicity of evil and cheating spirits. Since such a situation is experienced as unbearable, a pseudo-solution emerged in our Western liberal societies to control the chaos of what can be said and done: the complex set of notions and practices associated with terms like Wokeism, Political Correctness, and Cancel Culture in a perfect Hegelian example of how, today also, absolute freedom turns into terror.
[i] Maximilien Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, London: Verso Books 2007, p. 129.
[ii] See Lorenzo Chiesa in Chiesa and Johnston, God Is Undead (quoted from the manuscript).
[iii] Adam Tooze, The Deluge, London: Penguin Books 2014, p. 151-2.
[iv] Op.cit., p. 166.
[v] Martin Heidegger, Being and Truth, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2010, p. 73.