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The easiest way to the Gulag is to joke about the Gulag

It is time that we realised where the real danger in Europe lies, and that there is a candidate to help us fight back against this gathering danger. But to do this we must begin to recognise how both are misrepresented for our consumption. A reply to Etienne Balibar.

Oliver Stone, Slavoj Žižek and Alexis Tsipras at the 2013 Subversive Festival in Zagreb. Robert Crc. All rights reserved.Oliver Stone, Slavoj Žižek and Alexis Tsipras at the 2013 Subversive Festival in Zagreb. Robert Crc. All rights reserved.

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass.

According to Russian historian Roy Medvedev, around 200,000 people in the USSR were sent to a Gulag for telling a joke. When a system is threatened by jokes and jokes are taken too seriously, it is no sign of strength, but exactly the opposite - a clear indication of weakness. Even if you have the power to send people to a Gulag. Following the visit of SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras to the Zagreb Subversive Festival in May 2013, only two months prior to the accession of Croatia to the European Union, it seems that jokes are to be taken more seriously now than ever.

Žižek

First, the Greek media reported that Hollywood director Oliver Stone, also attending the festival, openly supported Tsipras, saying without hesitation he hoped Tsipras would become the next Greek prime minister, because he represents "hope for Greece, and could bring a big change not only for Greece and Europe, but perhaps for the world". Then, during the same conversation on Greek National Television, Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek added that he also believes in Tsipras, but "as a Platonist", because "if philosophers are not kings, then at least they have to control kings". Žižek concluded that he supported Tsipras, but only under the condition of becoming his "secret advisor". 

This was, of course, a joke. But it was another of his jokes that provoked a harsh reaction from the Greek establishment. During a public debate with Tsipras at the festival, "the most dangerous philosopher in the west" said that in his "vision of the democratic future, all the people who do not support SYRIZA would get a first class one-way ticket to a Gulag". The Greek media immediately drummed up a furore, prompting Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras to describe Žižek’s comment as "horrible and disgusting", bearing in mind that thousands of Greeks were killed in Gulags. And Tsipras was accused of laughing at the joke.

But what exactly did Žižek say in Zagreb? To avoid any further misunderstandings, it is worth quoting the whole passage:

The fight that SYRIZA is fighting is the fight for the very soul of Europe. And I am here without any shame [an] Eurocentrist. OK, it’s nice for politically correct reasons to blame Europe for everything, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, but my God, Europe did give – and let’s be proud of that – something wonderful to humanity: the idea of radical egalitarianism, of radical democracy, feminism, etc. This is at the core of European identity, and that is what is at stake today.      

So as Alexis said about who is the danger – today’s defenders of Europe, Brussels’ technocrats or anti-immigrant nationalists, they are the threat to what is worth fighting for in [the] European legacy. SYRIZA is not a Greek phenomenon, SYRIZA is something that is one of the few signs of hope for the entire Europe... And the test for the people, when you ask them what they think about Europe is to simply ask them what they think about SYRIZA. If they don’t support SYRIZA, then in my vision of the democratic future all these people will get a first class one-way ticket to a Gulag.

This is a classic Žižek joke and those who follow him have long been accustomed to his sense of humour. However, Tsipras' opponents managed – in an almost Stalinist manner – to take the joke out of context and convince those who didn’t follow the Zagreb debate that "Žižek wants all opponents of SYRIZA to be sent to a Gulag". Yet, the truth is quite the opposite.

Golden Dawn 

The same day that Samaras and his "Truth Team" (believe it or not, this is how the group of top New Democracy spin doctors have chosen to refer to themselves) manufactured that brouhaha, extreme right party Golden Dawn (which now has 18 members in parliament) threatened to organize a march of 100,000 Greeks to prevent the construction of a mosque in Athens. Although about 500,000 Muslims reside in Greece, no Greek government has ever really tried to improve the position of the Muslim community in Greek society, and Samaras' government has so far pursued the same path. Nothing was done even when, to prevent the construction of the first mosque in Athens, Golden Dawn sent a letter to the Muslim Association of Greece with the following text: "Muslim murderers, you have until 30 June to close your brothels in Greece, or we will send you to hell. Those who do not comply with the ultimatum will be slaughtered like chickens."

Only a day later, on 21 May, 2013, Golden Dawn MP, spokesperson and "pop star" Elias Kasidiaris was invited onto a radio show together with Adonis Gorgiadis, a New Democracy MP. Gorgiadis defended the use of controversial detention centres for immigrants, claiming that these respected the detainees' human rights, and accused Golden Dawn of lying when they claim that the illegal migration "problem" can be easily solved. Kasidiaris answered that these detention centres are in fact too good for immigrants, as they receive food and operate air conditioning; he further declared that were Golden Dawn in government, illegal immigrants would be sent to the Aegean islands which were used as offshore prisons for political prisoners throughout the twentieth century. So much for the Gulag and Samaras accusing Tsipras of laughing at Žižek’s joke.

On the one hand, Žižek's quip about the ‘Gulag’, on the other, not only harmful words, but concrete action, including physical violence against immigrants and Muslims. And yet, it is the former that creates controversy and feigned outrage, while the latter is quietly accepted and progressively adopted as part of the mainstream political discourse.

Tsipras

A similar trend is observable in the whole of Europe. On the one side, it is always SYRIZA that is described as a threat to Europe, becoming a bogeyman as we saw in 2012 when right before the Greek elections the German Financial Times published an article in Greek to convince voters not to vote for Tsipras. On the other, it is precisely the direction taken by the European Union – unstoppable new austerity measures and privatizations – which is the real cause of increasing unemployment and rising discontents that can easily be mobilized and channelled through new nationalist or openly fascist movements.

In this sense, Golden Dawn is actually the long arm and extension of the system, as Tsipras insisted in Zagreb. While in appearance Golden Dawn and the like loudly express what is repressed in the European Union’s vocabulary, these new extreme movements create a political climate where, for example, the exceptionally tough anti-immigration legislation of the EU begin to look "moderate" in comparison and, as a consequence, this shifting context enables extreme movements to radicalise further. For example, the electoral slogans used by Hans-Christian Strache in the 2010 Vienna elections - Zu viel Fremdes tut niemanden gut ("Too much foreign does no one any good") or Mehr Mut für unser Wiener Blut ("More strength for our Viennese blood") - are in perfect harmony with the mechanisms Frontex is using to stop the wave of migrants to Europe. The same goes for Golden Dawn's attempt to stop the construction of a mosque in Athens: it is not an exception but rather the confirmation of a general trend across Europe, from the UK and France to Switzerland, where the construction of minarets was banned in a 2009 referendum.

It is in this sense that Tsipras' Zagreb declaration that, "the danger for Europe is not SYRIZA, but Angela Merkel" has to be understood. The next day of course, once again drawing on the Hegelian "bad infinity" of a media manufacturing consent, a Croatian newspaper published a headline announcing: "Merkel is a danger for Europe, says radical Tsipras". Because, of course, the idea that the German Chancellor is a danger can only arise from such a "radical", while those whose policies are producing an irresistible rightwards turn in Europe are not to be described as such. 

But the problem is not so much Merkel herself as an old tactic that the Nazis themselves called Gleichschaltung ("equalization"), a term that denotes the process through which the regime forcibly "equated" various elements of society. Following this logic, all elements which don’t fit into the prevailing paradigm – be it left or right – are "gleich", the same – and undesirable. This is why, in 2012 alone, the leader of SYRIZA was described as a "naive radical," a "dangerous liar", a "populist demagogue" and "the most dangerous man in Europe". The German weekly Der Spiegel went so far as to include him in a list of the "ten most dangerous politicians in Europe". Here, the Gleischschaltung consisted in putting Tsipras alongside French Front National's Marine Le Pen, leading Finnish nationalist Timo Soini, notorious Austrian extremist Hans-Christian Strache and Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders.

Jokes

This situation reminds me of a classic joke from the USSR, one which reveals the full potential of Gleischaltung:

Three new arrivals in a Gulag camp start talking about why they were sent there. "I kept showing up for my job five minutes late. They accused me of sabotage", says the first.
"Understandable," says the second "but I used to come to work five minutes early and they accused me of spying". Both then look at the third prisoner, with an air of eager expectation, knowing that there will be a punch line.
"Ha! I always got to work exactly on time. And they suspected I owned a western clock".

A variation on the joke describes the destiny of three prisoners in a cell in the KGB Headquarters at Dzerzhinsky Square: 

The first asks the second why he has been imprisoned, and he says, "Because I criticized Karl Radek". The first man responds, "But I am here because I spoke out in favor of Radek!" They turn to the third man who has been sitting quietly in the back, and ask him why he is in jail too. He responds, "I’m Karl Radek".

Doesn’t the official reaction of the current Greek government follow remarkably similar lines? Following Žižek’s joke, we can easily imagine the following situation:

Three Gulag inmates start talking about how they finished up there. The first says, "I'm here because I fought against immigrants." Another, "I'm here because I fought against Samaras". And finally the third: "I'm here because I fought against extreme nationalism and Angela Merkel, and they accused me of being against the European Union." The third is, of course, Alexis Tsipras.

The European Union has not yet fallen so far as to develop a sophisticated legislative system for a structural Gleichschaltung, but the reaction of the EU-approved Samaras Government's "Truth Team" is a symptom of what is wrong with Europe. The paradox doesn’t only consist in the fact that it is those who proclaim themselves as the "Truth Team" and fight against politically incorrect jokes (Gulag) who recreate the atmosphere described by Medvedev, a situation in which jokes are treated as a threat, and the real threat – the current policies of the Troika and Golden Dawn – is treated as a joke. The paradox is also obvious when it comes to EU policies - the real reason behind increasing radicalism all around Europe. To put Tsipras arm in arm with Le Pen or Wilders like Der Spiegel has done is not only political falsification, but a cynical way to defend a risky political game that is now becoming the real danger for Europe. In other words: it is not Tsipras who is dangerous, it is austerity Europe.

Thatcher & Heidegger 

Here is an example from the newest member state of the EU. Only a few days after Margaret Thatcher died, a leading Croatian newspaper published an article echoing the famous Heideggerian motto Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten ("Only a God Can Save Us"). The obituary was written by a former minister of finance during Tuđman’s government and the "Transition-period", who is still infamous for declaring that "privatisation is a very difficult operation, and your suit cannot stay clean. You will come out of it with some stains. But somebody had to do it". The title of his panegyric was "Only a Margaret Thatcher can save Croatia".

The story of those who made Croatia (and other ex-Yugoslavian states) adopt neoliberal reforms is always an interesting read: the economist recalls his first meeting with Margaret Thatcher during her visit to Croatia in September 1998 - that was the year when she got the highest state award from president Tuđman. The economist told her that some people in Croatia mocked him for being a "follower of Thatcherism". "Beautiful", she said, "obviously you are doing the right thing. Don’t give up!"

What is the right thing for today’s Croatia? According to this Thatcher-blessed economist:

Fiscal consolidation, privatization of large state-owned enterprises, deregulation, the closure of chronic losers, reforms of the health care system and pensions system, finding the right measures in social tripartism, etc.

And this is still not all:

Our luck is that ‘She’ did all this and received numerous awards during her life, from her political rivals to the young people who owe their jobs today largely to her once unpopular reforms.

(He, of course, forgot to mention that Croatia comes third in Europe when it comes to youth unemployment - around 51.6 percent, just behind Greece - 59.1 percent, and Spain - 55.9 percent). In an interview published in Der Spiegel in 1966, Heidegger was asked:

Can the individual man in any way still influence this web of fateful circumstance? Or, indeed, can philosophy influence it? Or can both together influence it, insofar as philosophy guides the individual, or several individuals, to a determined action?

His answer was the following:

If I may answer briefly, and perhaps clumsily, but after long reflection: philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavour. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in (our) decline insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline. 

To do something which might appear as blasphemy for serious Heideggerians, couldn’t we read Heidegger avec the Croatian economist and imagine the following conclusion:

If I may answer briefly, and perhaps clumsily, but after long reflection: SYRIZA will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of SYRIZA but of all purely human reflection and endeavour. Only Margaret Thatcher can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a new Margaret Thatcher, or for the absence of Thatcher in (our) decline, insofar as in view of the absent Thatcher we are in a state of decline.

Isn’t this the message the Troika is repeating all the time? At least, the good news for Croatia is that the newest member state fits perfectly into the EU as it already follows its current political and economic dogmas. 

Balibar

The two events – Margaret Thatcher’s death and Alexis Tsipras' visit to Croatia – have shown the extent of ideological hegemony in Europe. While it is clear that Thatcher’s legacy in no way proves that she was right and Tsipras should not be dismissed as a "dangerous extremist", the dominance of the perfectly opposite readings show how far we are from a real understanding of what plagues Europe today. And maybe this is something to be added to the recent debate sparked by Etienne Balibar’s article on openDemocracy. The old Humpty Dumpty lesson is more relevant than ever: "The question is which is to be master – that’s all". Or, in other words, for a new Europe to come it is not only sufficient to wait for a solution to come from the "bottom up", as Balibar stated, what is needed is a clear and strong position – what is needed is a new hegemony.

Balibar dismisses the chance that a European New Deal will come from Ms Merkel, while still being convinced that it will come from Germany. But when one thinks about where the battle for hegemony is being fought today – against modern Gulags and extremist tendencies - it becomes obvious the solution will - and must - come from the European South. 

Why? Because the laboratory rabbits – like Greece – from the European South, are not only getting accustomed to being the victims of "shock doctrine" experiments, but they are also willing to experiment themselves. And to reply to one of the replies to Etienne Balibar – namely that of Sandro Mezzadra, who is claiming that we need a founding campaign, "capable of transforming existing forces and institutions, creating new ones, channelling social struggles and indignation towards this purpose of building another Europe – one capable of producing new political languages and cultural imaginaries" – to him and others I say we already have such a founding campaign, and it is something whose name is missing from the whole current debate about the re-building of Europe. It is called SYRIZA.

About the author

Srećko Horvat is a philosopher from Croatia. He has published more than 10 books translated into 15 languages. His latest books include What Does Europe Want? (co-authored with Slavoj Žižek, 2014), Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism (2015), and The Radicality of Love (2015). Together with Yanis Varoufakis he is one of the founders of DiEM25.


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