When Ariel Sharon goes for a walk:
Politics of meanings at the turn of the
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
So it all came down to a simple walk on 28 September 2000. Ariel Sharon, an ex-general, leader of the opposition Likud party and holder of many posts in various Israeli governments (including the one of the defense minister), decided to stroll around the good old Jerusalem. Who could blame him? After all, Jerusalem is de facto recognized as Israeli territory, it is part of the sovereign state of Israel, and who could blame an Israeli citizen for wanting to stretch his feet walking through beautiful old streets?
The only problem is that Mr. Sharon chose to walk right next to the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the most sacred sites for the Muslims (some of which still, despite everything, live within the borders of Israel). And the Muslims got frustrated and angry. Many Palestinians got killed. Some Israelis as well. And that put an end (at least, for the time being) to the peace process in the Middle East.
Despite the anger, the violence and frustration, Mr. Sharon is completely unimportant here. I am also tempted to state that he is completely innocent in the most recent matter. Just like Baudrillard claimed that between 1992 and 1995 Bosnian Serbs were doing publicly what many Western European political leaders wanted privately (that is, "to put an end to a Muslim menace"), it seems reasonable to say that Mr. Sharon did not do anything out of the ordinary.1 After all, here are some facts:
1. East Jerusalem is part of Israel. (Most Israelis think that its status should not and cannot be negotiated.)
2. This fact (as well as the Israeli occupation following the 1967 war) is practically recognized by the "international community", led by the Israeli No. 1 partner and sponsor, the US.
3. Even the current coverage of the conflicts by the leading (mostly American) news networks tends to put some form of balance in reporting stating that, for example, "more than 170 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed."
The last fact is an interesting example of applied semiology. It is not what has been said (the number and the ethnic origin), it is how it is said and what are the implications ("the surplus of meaning"). The statement implies that both sides are engaged in violence (which must be stopped), and that both sides suffer casualties. The statement does not state the discrepancy in the firepower
of both sides (tanks, armored vehicles, attack helicopters on the one side, kalashnikovs and stones on the other), nor the discrepancy in the actual number of killed. If 8 Israelis (mostly soldiers) and 162 Palestinians (many kids under 15) die, the number is still 170, but the proportion tells something about the conflict. The intended meaning is that everybody is involved, it is everybody's fault, so everybody gets killed. The real facts are that Palestinians are still held prisoners in their own land and that the peace accord is not being respected. It is Palestinians that are being killed or bombarded. The facts are also that Palestinian leadership needed this kind of conflict in order to boost its own image among its people, and that they did their share in keeping the "Palestinian Territory" impoverished and underdeveloped several years after (albeit timidly) foreign aid started to come. They also shed no tears over the Islamic Jihad bombing in Jerusalem.
People of Bosnia-Herzegovina have experienced the same type of "neutral" reporting and resort to the "facts" — as the story went, both the Muslim and the Serb side had tanks and guns, so they were all engaged in a war… The fact of the actual discrepancy in arms did not appear until much later and far away from the media. It has yet to appear among the (re-democratized) people of FR
Yugoslavia, who still believe that the Balkan wars during the 1990s were everybody's fault and that they have no reason whatsoever to apologize (after all, the FR Yugoslavia was bombed by the NATO in 1999 as well).
But, back to the Israeli-Palestinian facts mentioned above. The fact that the most powerful industrialized countries tacitly support (and have done so since 1967) the Israeli occupation is the cause of the problem. It is not Ariel Sharon's walk that caused the violence — it is the inaction of Western countries and the impotence of the international organizations like the UN (where the US holds a veto threat to any meaningful action). Mr. Sharon's activity (going for a walk) was a mere sign — the connoted meanings are: I can do whatever I want and wherever I want because I have the power and the backing of the ones that have even superior power. If you don't like it, well, that is too bad for you.
If Mr. Sharon would have said that he holds contempt for the Arabs in general and Muslims in particular, that he could not care less about the peace process (stalled as it was), and that he thought Palestinians were just some kind of nuisance, people (especially in the media and in the "international community") would have thought that he was out of his mind. He did not say anything like it. He did not need to. He just went for a little walk.
Meanings, situations, incidents
In the world that is full of meanings, some make more and some less sense. Some are presented in full force, and some are more implicit. The Middle East conflict has always been the site of unclear messages, one of the most important ones was about the actual causes of the conflict. The popular public opinion catch phrase is that people of different religions just cannot live together ("centuries-long religious hatreds and intolerance"). However, even a cursory glance at a map of the region (or a travel through the region, in more peaceful times) reveals that most of the "sacred" land held by Israelis is actually the territory where all the strategic points are, sources of water, etc. It is not
religion, it is geography and practical (everyday) interests.
In the case of the wars in former Yugoslavia, violence was also frequently attributed to "centuries-old ethnic hatreds." Which is a nonsense since the term "ethnic" did not mean anything there.2 It was always the story of taking someone else's land, then making excuses (Ignatieff mentions the episode of Bosnian Serbs claiming that the Bosnian Muslims crucify Serb children and then throw them into the Drina river). As shown in the Belgrade economist Mladjan Dinkic's book The Economy of Destruction, the wars were waged for money, and, surprisingly enough, over two billion dollars "disappeared" from the total foreign debt of the SFR Yugoslavia in 1991. Someone had to take this
The economic interests might also provide the background for the recent dramatic changes in Serbia, since some cynics claim that the amount of money available from various illegal activities (countries subject to international sanctions are haven for all sorts of criminals — it is only "ordinary people" who end up paying the price) has been reduced seven times in the last few years.
With their "business interests" in mind, various powerful groups might have decided that Mr. Milosevic's people were not good for business any more.
This again does not conform to the image of "ancient ethnic hatreds" that forms the basis of argumentation in hundreds of books and articles written about the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, people responded to Western journalists or bureaucrats interviewing them in the way(s) that they perceived their responses were expected. A typical answer to the question: "Did you always hate your neighbor?" would be: "Well, yes, of course, just as you say." This is a common anthropological/ethnographic situation — when one receives a guest who is curious, one tries to provide him/her with the answers that she/he expects — it is the famous South European hospitality. There are very few people (like Slavoj Zizek) who have questioned this media game. Popular stories and even films (like the award-winning Macedonian runner-up for the Oscar in 1995, Before the Rain) perpetuate this imagery. It is nice, neat, simple and straightforward. To my knowledge, only two authors (Macedonian sociologist Dimitar Mircev and Croatian political scientist working in Cairo, Ivan Ivekovic) in their analyses of the events in former Yugoslavia examine the role of the élites and the impact that the élites had in orchestrating the violence. Simply, the cake has gotten smaller, and everyone still wanted a piece of it. So why not start a war?
The fall of Mr. Milosevic, the man everyone in the West loves to hate, has been swift and surprising. He made a huge miscalculation when he made changes to the Yugoslav Constitution in July 2000. Supposed to make easier his victory at the presidential elections as well as his party's victory at the municipal elections, these changes were taking into account the (then) current state of
the Serbian political scene and the hopelessly divided opposition. However, to everyone's surprise (and with the strong incentives from the US and the EU), the opposition did manage to unite, and even to agree about the presidential candidate, Mr. Kostunica, who is a nationalist (unlike Mr. Milosevic!), but who was acceptable for the large segments of population as an alternative to Mr.
Milosevic. In fact, the fall of Milosevic and the rise of Kostunica complicate quite a few things (it is interesting to note that the reactions to changes in Belgrade were chill and confusion both in Croatia and in Kosovo). What if his government really puts the West up to the task at honoring the UN Security Council Resolution 1244? Could the West admit that they waged a long and expensive 78-days war (and a PR disaster) for nothing? Just to test the new weapons? Or to see that the most sophisticated new technological toys like the F117a bomber (the "invisible" one) are quite visible on the old radars from the 1950s?
A psychoanalytic approach would have been best suited to deal with the western industrialized countries tolerating the kind of behavior of Israel that elsewhere (in the case of Serbian troops in Kosovo, which at least has been legally part of Serbia since 1913) provoked international response. Perhaps it is all about the suppressed guilt complex and the fact that some of the greatest defenders of Israel did nothing to stop the mass killings of Jews at the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War? On the other hand, could anyone imagine a great Hollywood director making another Schindler's List, this time about the sufferings and exodus of Palestinians since 1947?
In the politics at the border of the third millennium, it seems that what matters is simple power. The might is right. But this power has to be applied carefully — for example, the US troops quickly withdrew from Somalia after 18 of its soldiers were killed in 1993. The best war is the "clean" war — without casualties… at least on the part of the powers waging the war (cf. the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 — the first humanitarian war in history). Or, as Orwell nicely said it, "War is peace."
What this means is that simple power will determine whose interests will be taken into consideration. Of course, in the Balkans, things get complicated. NATO bombs the whole infra-structure of Yugoslavia (and destroys a couple of tanks and six airplanes in the process) in order to get into Kosovo and stops the exodus and killings of Albanians. NATO gets there and finds, to their
surprise, that some Albanians are not nice little victims as they are supposed to be, but that find great joy in killing or kidnapping non-Albanians that have stayed at Kosovo (Serbs, Gypsies, Turks). So what to do? In a world where politics is based on the script from a good western (where in first ten minutes everybody knows who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and what
should be expected), what happens when the good guys are not as good as they are supposed to be? The UN Security Council Resolution 1244 stipulates that all the citizens of the province should return to their homes, but it is clear that neither the UN nor the NATO can guarantee safety to the non-Albanian population. What is to be done?
Technologies of power
The giant superpowers and other conglomerates are engaged in the game of substituting the meanings and trying to manage the regions where their (real or imagined) interests lie with the minimum cost. The local meanings are substituted for the more universal ones: individual countries do not completely ruin their economies trying to hold on to very idealistic but practically
untenable projects (like the Euro in the EU), they readjust. Structural readjustments are key to this process which in fact plays upon the incapacity of the underdeveloped countries to form a unified and coherent strategy on how to deal with the great financial institutions (like the IMF or the World Bank). Many Sub-Saharan African countries have paid a huge price to this readjustment.3 One of my favorite examples (and at the same time one of the more sickening ones) is the fact that the developed countries sell to African countries the medicines that help put HIV under control at five to ten times greater prices than the cost of the same medicines in the US or in Western Europe. Of course, the IMF and World Bank have gallantly offered credits for the countries that would want to buy these medicines at astronomic prices.4
In the current political spectrum, the most likely way is the way of the dominant powers. These powers are not necessarily states or governments — as far as the global issues are concerned (and they are reflect in the development strategies of individual countries), it is much more important
what the IMF or the World Bank decide than any particular government in Washington, Moscow, London, Tokyo, Paris or Berlin. Concepts like "globalization" and "multiculturalism" are thrown around with great ease and they are used to justify new ideological projects associated with technologies of power.
The ghost of globalization is haunting our world. By "us" I mean not only yourselves, distinguished readers or friends (or both), but more or less each and every one interested in understanding processes that are affecting the world we live in. This is not necessarily related to citizens of the more developed (or western) countries — one of the main characteristics of current trends is that current moves towards globalization are supra-national and very far from being a matter of anyone's personal choice. In some sense, we are all members of a globalized world – whether we like it or not. This world is increasingly becoming global, and some trends are more obvious than others,
as French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard remarked some time ago:
Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture:
one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald's food for
lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo
and 'retro' clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV
Of course, whether one calls this trend "eclecticism", "multiculturalism" or something else is not that important here – what really matters are the consequences that are becoming more apparent. These consequences are related not only to the consumer trends (as emphasized by Lyotard, for
example) – but also to the issues related to the very notion of identity. Is it possible to speak (or even to think) about particular identities in a globalized world?
Identities are under attack. On the one hand, processes of unification (NAFTA, EU, OPEC, The Arab League, ASEAN, MERCOSUL, SECI, CEU, OSCE, CIS), on the other of diversification and particularization (new independent states in Europe and Central Asia after 1991). On the one side, the fight against all forms of discrimination — racial, sexual, gender, etc. —, but on the other,
increased discrimination that is legally sanctioned in various European countries — against the refugees, against the immigrants, against the poor. When it comes to the gender relations, it is also worth remembering that the effective reduction of women's rights was second in order only to the revision of property rights in the former communist countries. Particular identities are being remodeled (Yugoslavs of yesterday have become Serbs, Croats or Muslims of today; Slovenians desperately trying to convince themselves that they were never part of Yugoslavia), but also submerged into the pool of international concepts such as "human rights" with various universalizing consequences.
This threat to identities generates insecurities. The reason for this should be sought in one of the most apparent consequences of globalization. Canadian sociologists Arthur and Marylouise Kroker mention the strategy of "bunkering in" and "dumbing down." In words of French theorist Ignacio Ramonet: "In today's democracies, an increasing number of free citizens feel bogged down, glued down by a kind of sticky dogma which is in the process of surreptitiously engulfing any contrary way of thought by inhibiting it, by disturbing it, by paralyzing it and in the end, by squeezing it shut."6 Threatened by the developments which goes beyond their power of understanding (and, in some cases at least, even their power of imagination), many people choose to retreat into their own little shelters, take things as simply and as straightforward as possible, and just cordon themselves off against threatening influences of the outside world. This also leads to various forms of racism and xenophobia — since any form of otherness (especially other race or other culture) is seen as
dangerous. (Racial and xenophobic incidents most often happen in poorer and suburban areas.) The feeling of being threatened is carefully exploited by another new segment of the society, moguls of the new digital era, what the Krokers call "the virtual class."7
This virtual class is a direct consequence of the new digital revolution, and their most prevalent characteristic is dominance of the "predatory self" — a kind of ruthless capitalism which seeks to maximize the profit while at the same time minimizing costs — regardless of the social or political price. Just like the industrial revolution a century ago, digital revolution raised many hopes and promised a better society for all. If just technology take over, we were told, machines will do most of the work, produce more output (which will lead to the adequate increase in profit), so the humans will have more free time (or "quality time"). Of course, things did not quite turn out that way. People advocating new technologies forgot to mention that they also mean loss of jobs (and loss of income) – as a matter of fact, some of the developed countries that fully embraced new digital technologies were the first ones to feel the unwanted consequences of the rise in unemployment rate. At the same time, one should also remember that
[b]ack in the early nineteenth century, the spread of the new
industrial technologies freed no slaves. On the contrary, the
invention of the cotton gin ad mechanical spinning machines
actually reinforced the archaic and brutal institutions of slavery
in the Old South.
To sum up, a feeling of "being threatened" is a feeling of losing one's own identity. This "loss" could occur whenever "us" come in contact with "them", so any communication or interaction should be carefully controlled at worst and avoided at best. Technology serves both in keeping us aware of what is going on (control) and in keeping open the possibilities to stay away. The best way of interacting with the other in the contemporary globalized world is only from the position of power — either bombing the countries or remote-controlling the economies.
In lines with what the CAE have written in another context,9 I would like to say that the primary importance of concepts and projects like the "globalization" is not in their essence (in effect, there is none, it is all about control and power), but in the spectacle. Globalization is a myth, a narrative thrown to the masses to entertain themselves by being for or against it (and even when they are
against it they will end up being for it, the logic goes). The idea and the concept are thrown in order to generate both an elegant excuse for governments ("it is not our fault, we cannot fight off the forces of globalization"), and to throw a bone of contention for analysts and scholars. It can also come in handy as a potential source and generator of conflicts, conflicts that are make people
involved in them easier to manipulate with. The Palestianians and the Israelis will continue to depend on foreign mediation ("conflict management"). Mr. Sharon will not.
It should also be stressed that conflicts are important for the maintenance of the established political order. In multicultural and multiethnic societies (in practice, all of them), one of the most efficient strategies of governing is pitting one underprivileged segment of society against the other. In a perfect-case scenario, such as Brazil, the ruling élite has established a type of government that always keeps most of the society among the underprivileged. The middle class joins in by leading separate lives, sending their kids in private schools and, in general, trying to stay as far away from the social reality of the country. In doing so, they join in what Brazilians call the "social apartheid" — they live worlds apart from the 90% of the population.
However, the strength of the modern industrialized societies is also their potential weakness. By depending on technology to control, govern, orchestrate and infiltrate, they are vulnerable to the attacks from the same area — technology.
The attacks do not necessarily have to be direct (hackers) — an interesting recent case is the process that the MPAA (Motion Pictures Association of America) initiated against the Norwegian teenager Jon Johanssen and his father. The Norwegians have been accused of "breaking" the code for digital video discs (DVDs), through the computer program that they created, DeCSS. The film industry representatives claim that this program violates the new copyright law, Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, some problems appear in this construction. First of all, the DeCSS is a driver that actually translates the content of DVDs, so that it could be seen on any computer. The DeCSS is not used for the copying of DVDs. This is decoding and re-formating, not copying. Decryption and reformating is translating, copying is replicating. No one makes pirate DVDs today — that would be too expensive and impractical. But why forbid people from watching them on their own computers? It seems that the panic of international corporations and the quest for absolute control sometimes goes way too far.
This panic is a clear sign of weakness, and perhaps we are witnessing the emergence of the first cracks in the steel armor of the international capital. But attacks and challenges must continue. The ideological monopoly that has been constructed over the last fifty years or so have engulfed the world in such a way that meanings are lost or reconstructed at the whim of the holders of power,
embodied in the global international capital. The fight against its monopoly is one of the most important challenges of our times, and that is why hackers should have all the support. Each breaking of the information and communication monopoly is at the same time a defeat of ideological monolithism and thinking arguing for the existence of a single and universal truth, whose authorized owner is any state, government, or some mega-corporation.
What kind of future do we want to have? The one where an innocent little stroll will provoke outbursts of violence? The one where millions of people will die of AIDS-related diseases when the medicines that effectively control the HIV are available? The choices still exist.
1. The same could be said for the rising star of the Austrian politics, Mr. Jörg Haider, who
has never been out of synch with the West European politics on foreigners and
immigration. Mr. Haider just says what most Western European leaders do — in fact,
the current anti-immigrant laws in Austria were brought under the previous government,
without the presence of the extreme xenophobic right. Thus, his and his party's surprise
at the EU's reaction to the new Austrian government is quite genuine — it remains
unclear why they should be singled out among all the West European countries that
advocate and implement similar policies.
2. In her book Imagining the Balkans (Oxford U.P., 1997), Marija Todorova nicely traces
the history of these prejudices in a wider Balkan context, following the Balkan wars of
1912 and 1913.
3. I don't say all, since in the case of Zimbabwe, for example, it is clear that it was not
any external or global process, but the policies of the country's single ruthless ruler, Mr.
Robert Mugabe that led the country to ruins.
4. For a rather typical western (post-colonial) image of the Africa, according to which
everything that happens (and what matters) in Africa are wars, disasters and famine,
and that this is the destiny of the whole continent, see The Economist, issue of 13 May
5. Jean-François Lyotard, "Answering the question: What is postmodernism?", in: Ihab
Hassan (ed.), Innovation/Renovation, University of Wisconsin Press, 1983, p. 76, transl.
by Régis Durand.
6. Ignacio Ramonet, "The One Idea System", transl. by Patrice Riemens. CTHEORY.
(Orig. in Le Monde Diplomatique, January 1995.)
7. Arthur and Marylouise Kroker, "Code Warriors", CTHEORY.
8. Richard Barbrook, "Global Algorithm 1.5: Hypermedia Freedom", CTHEORY.
9. About virtual reality, in their VIPER lecture in 1995.