French police at the Jewish supermarket in Paris where several people were taken hostage.
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Slavoj Žižek on the Charlie Hebdo massacre: Are the worst really full of passionate intensity?

How fragile the belief of an Islamist must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper, says the Slovenian philosopher.

Now, when we are all in a state of shock after the killing spree in the Charlie Hebdo offices, it is the right moment to gather the courage to think. We should, of course, unambiguously condemn the killings as an attack on the very substance our freedoms, and condemn them without any hidden caveats (in the style of "Charlie Hebdo was nonetheless provoking and humiliating the Muslims too much"). But such pathos of universal solidarity is not enough – we should think further.

Such thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with the cheap relativisation of the crime (the mantra of "who are we in the West, perpetrators of terrible massacres in the Third World, to condemn such acts"). It has even less to do with the pathological fear of many Western liberal Leftists to be guilty of Islamophobia. For these false Leftists, any critique of Islam is denounced as an expression of Western Islamophobia; Salman Rushdie was denounced for unnecessarily provoking Muslims and thus (partially, at least) responsible for the fatwa condemning him to death, etc. The result of such stance is what one can expect in such cases: the more the Western liberal Leftists probe into their guilt, the more they are accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being hypocrites who try to conceal their hatred of Islam. This constellation perfectly reproduces the paradox of the superego: the more you obey what the Other demands of you, the guiltier you are. It is as if the more you tolerate Islam, the stronger its pressure on you will be . . .

This is why I also find insufficient calls for moderation along the lines of Simon Jenkins's claim (in The Guardian on January 7) that our task is “not to overreact, not to over-publicise the aftermath. It is to treat each event as a passing accident of horror” – the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not a mere “passing accident of horror”. it followed a precise religious and political agenda and was as such clearly part of a much larger pattern. Of course we should not overreact, if by this is meant succumbing to blind Islamophobia – but we should ruthlessly analyse this pattern. 

What is much more needed than the demonisation of the terrorists into heroic suicidal fanatics is a debunking of this demonic myth. Long ago Friedrich Nietzsche perceived how Western civilisation was moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment. Unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security, an expression of tolerance with one another: “A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ - say the Last Men, and they blink.”

It effectively may appear that the split between the permissive First World and the fundamentalist reaction to it runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one's life to some transcendent Cause. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called "passive" and "active" nihilism? We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction. William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” seems perfectly to render our present predicament: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This is an excellent description of the current split between anemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists. “The best” are no longer able fully to engage, while “the worst” engage in racist, religious, sexist fanaticism.

However, do the terrorist fundamentalists really fit this description? What they obviously lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the US: the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation.

It is here that Yeats’ diagnosis falls short of the present predicament: the passionate intensity of the terrorists bears witness to a lack of true conviction. How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper? The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescending politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true ‘racist’ conviction of their own superiority.

The recent vicissitudes of Muslim fundamentalism confirm Walter Benjamin's old insight that “every rise of Fascism bears witness to a failed revolution”: the rise of Fascism is the Left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, dissatisfaction, which the Left was not able to mobilize. And does the same not hold for today’s so-called “Islamo-Fascism”? Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries? When, back in the Spring of 2009, Taliban took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, New York Times reported that they engineered "a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants". If, however, by “taking advantage” of the farmers’ plight, The Taliban are “raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal,” what prevents liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US to similarly “take advantage” of this plight and try to help the landless farmers? The sad implication of this fact is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the “natural ally” of the liberal democracy…

So what about the core values of liberalism: freedom, equality, etc.? The paradox is that liberalism itself is not strong enough to save them against the fundamentalist onslaught. Fundamentalism is a reaction – a false, mystifying, reaction, of course - against a real flaw of liberalism, and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism. Left to itself, liberalism will slowly undermine itself – the only thing that can save its core values is a renewed Left. In order for this key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the brotherly help of the radical Left. THIS is the only way to defeat fundamentalism, to sweep the ground under its feet.

To think in response to the Paris killings means to drop the smug self-satisfaction of a permissive liberal and to accept that the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict – a vicious cycle of two poles generating and presupposing each other. What Max Horkheimer had said about Fascism and capitalism already back in 1930s - those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism - should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.

 

See our full coverage of Charlie Hebdo here

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.