by Costas Douzinas
Were the four successive electoral victories of Syriza a historic event? Have we reached the point at which the ancien regime had reached its natural end? Can philosophy help us in this respect?
The belief that we can predict the movement of history is relatively recent. In its strict version, it constitutes a simplification and secularization of Christian eschatology, according to which humanity moves inexorably from lower to higher stages, from one historical era to a better one, until the second coming, the end of history, communism.
The theologian Joachim of Fiore was the first to offer a periodization of the historical movement in three stages: the age of the father (before Christianity), the son (Christianity), and of the holy spirit (the second judgment). The secular version replaced eschatology with the philosophy of history and the divine parousia with the idea that history moves to a predetermined end, Kant’s cosmopolitanism, Hegel’s ethical state or Marx’s communism. The philosophy of history offered guarantees for the future.
Kant adopted two ideas from Joachim and Augustine. First, divine providence has predetermined the destiny of humanity. History will be completed with the pax aeterna of the second coming. In the Kantian version, humanity follows a secret plan of nature, who acts like a puppeteer or backstage artist. Human reason replaced the providential plan and discovers an irreversible march of progress behind fortuitous events which will lead to a world cosmopolitan federation. Contemporary cosmopolitans, like President Bush and Tony Blair and their followers elsewhere believed the Kantian prophesy and tried to accelerate the route of history. they argued that the wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria would import democracy and human rights to these ‘dark’ parts of the world. They would be the last wars before the emergence of the age of perpetual peace. As history has repeatedly taught us every cosmopolitanism starts with clear moral ideas and unfailingly ends us as brutal imperialism.
Hegel discovered the necessity of historical change in reality. Human desire and plans come into conflict with the objective world, the subject confronts the object and prepares the change by pushing the ancien regime to the precipice. Human will gives the final push. In France, the contradiction between Enlightenment principles, feudalism and monarchy had undermined the social and political regime well before the revolution. The ancien regime had no longer a raison d’etre, it had become injurious. The revolution just completed the job. For Hegel, modernity aligns the progress of the spirit with the historical movement. From the classical city, to modern civil society, to the moral state (sittlichkeit) humanity ascends to its self- consciousness. Its consummation arrives when philosophy realizes that history is nothing more than the gradual unravelling of spirit, the coincidence between rational reflection and empirical world. It was that idealistic trajectory that Marx ‘turned on its head’ dividing history materially into feudalism, capitalism, finally, socialism-communism.
Classical philosophy of history discovers the necessity of radical change first in social being. It is later expressed in social conscience and gets completed by human action. The period between the two, the ancien regime inhabits a grey zone between a symbolic and a physical death, like a walking dead or a zombie. On many occasions, however, dominant political and economic elites put up a portent defence of the old delaying or frustrating the completion of the historical process.
Greece lives precisely in this limbo period. The usefulness and effectiveness of the old power system that dominated the country since the end of the civil war has finished. But it does not want to believe it and is fighting a desperate rearguard action.
John Carpenter’s film They Live (1988), the protagonist John Nada (the Homeric outis, anyone and everyone) finds a pair of magic glasses. When he puts them on, he sees the world in black and white while under media and advertising messages subliminal commands appear to obey, to consume, to conform. They tell him that ‘what he hears is lies’ and that people in positions of wealth and power are actually aliens with skulls for faces. The sunglasses demystify dominant ideology and reveal the oppressive reality beneath the consumer heaven. The memoranda and austerity policies acted in precisely the same way. They revealed the decadence of power, its lies and fake bling. This end of an era is apparent in the main emotion of old dynasties and elites: fear. We can smell it in the repeated and shameless lies, the targeting of ministers and MPs, in the attempt to overthrow the government through hysterical domestic attacks and the request of assistance and high protection by their European comrades. Can this rearguard action succeed?
We cannot tell. Philosophy is not a crystal ball that can predict transient events: questions about the date of the next elections, the likelihood of a fifth Syriza victory or the future of the old dynastic families are beyond its scope.
Philosophy can only speculate about great historical moves, such as the beginning or end of a regime or social system. As Hegel says in the Philosophy of Right, philosophy is always late in the scene like the ‘flight of Athena’s owl at dusk’.
But this is not because reality is too complex and incomprehensible. What we cannot predict is how our own intervention, how the subject’s taking hold of reality will change the historical route.
Borjes used to say that every writer creates his own predecessors. TS Eliot that in order to be able to judge a new poet we must place them within the pantheon of dead poets. The poetry edifice is complete, its archive finished before the arrival of the new. When the new poet emerges the whole of poetry changes. We cannot therefore read the old poets without referring to the work of the recent arrival. Something similar happens in philosophy and politics. The latecomers colour our understanding of the initiators. Nietzsche changed Christ, Stalin Marx, Heany Eliot. The past determines and constrains but we can change the past. History moves forward only for those who look backward. An event acquires world historical significance when it severs its xxx chord from the past and radically alters the situation it emerged from. In doing that, it changes retrospectively the meaning of the past. Historical necessity emerges from today’s contingency, fortuity and fortune. The future may change them into the necessity of reality.
The reversed time arrow
History is not written in advance in a linear process and inexorable progress. It is composed retroactively, post factum, when a series of events that appeared initially as insignificant and unrelated are then recognised as rings of a chain, links in a sequence which led to the change. The retrospective reconstruction of actions that appeared to the participants as contingently embedded in different causal sequences will make them indispensable hoops in the chain of necessity. This type of causal relationship reverses the time arrow, directing it backwards. Once a historical epoch has ran its course, history integrates the steps that led to it. With the help of philosophy, history becomes the tribunal of the world, the unravelling and judging of humanity’s acts and mission. We create in the present the history that brought us where we are. We don’t just make our history in conditions not of our choosing, as Marx said. We write today, that is we give narrative form now to what happened earlier and led us to our present state. The historical event creates its own pre-history which will inescapably lead to its realisation. Future change creates the contemporary historical trajectory. We are parts of the future which is still to come.
This is how personal and collective histories work. When I fall in love I interpret the contingent events that led to the encounter with the loved one as fateful, signs of a destiny or historical necessity. Similarly, with history event. Many initially unrelated facts led to the left government and will be viewed from the perspective of the future as the necessary links of historical change. Let me mention indicatively a few of those: Greek statistics which allowed Greece to enter the Eurozone and limitless credit; the election of the Papandreou government in 2009 with increased majority which led to a sense of arrogance bordering on hubris; the first two bailout agreements and the associated austerity measures; the closure of public broadcasting ERT; the creation in the late 2000s of the Syriza party; the election of Tsipras as leader; the European elections in 2014 and so on. All these events became the necessary pieces in the puzzle of historic change.
Philosophy cannot predict the change but can tell us how we can assist its coming. Let us make an intellectual experiment. Let us imagine that the ancien regime managed to survive and the radical change was miscarried. The only way to prevent such a turn of events is to change today the conditions that led to the defeat. Each one of us in our own small way can help cancel the factors that can frustrate the change.
Ordinary people underestimate our contribution to history. we have been taught to consider our political participation as secondary, insignificant, purposeless. If this were the case, history would be the lineal creation of heroes and celebrities. History exists because the little people enter its archive with acts of courage and sacrifice, generosity and solidarity, high minded audacity and shameless resistance. all these and others will have become, from the perspective of the future, the grand stations that frustrated the catastrophe.