Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A Touch of Evil

If I must choose the lesser of two evils I will choose neither.
Karl Kraus

Although Kraus made this statement in 1906 he came to support Engelbert Dollfuß in 1933, the Austro-Fascist chancellor, as the lesser evil in comparison to Hitler (“Mir fallt zu Hitler nichts ein.” (When it comes to Hitler, I have no inspiration)). Dollfuß was assassinated by Nazi agents in 1934.

This passage between refusal and tactical embrace demonstrates the difficulty of the logic of the lesser evil; both the difficulty of practicing it and of avoiding it. In the terms proposed by Eyal Weizman in his excellent analysis, we have a tension here between rejection of the general logic of the lesser evil and acceptance of it in a particular case. The key difficulty with the lesser evil, as identified by Weizman, is that it involves accepting a situation in which it is supposed that we have no choice but to engage – to function as a dilemma no refusal of the terms of the situation is allowed.

As Weizman goes on to note the calculative paradigm of the lesser evil is all too consonant with contemporary practices of power – especially in the intersection of militarism and humanism. Here, again, the presumption is of a utilitarian calculability between choices, which may not function. The very “attractiveness” of the lesser evil – say targeted killing rather than indiscriminate bombing – can lead to a long-term increase in violence and to the normalisation of violence (Hollow Land 251). In a sense although the dilemma is presented as bounded – to function as a true dilemma a closed choice is required, with both causing suffering – when it comes to the calculation of consequences these are cut-out of the temporal flow. Each incident of calculation is treated anew, as if the previous accumulation of violence had not happened, and the future implications are also strictly delimited. The injunction is always “choose now!”, hence the attraction of the usual “ticking bomb” scenario.

In Weizman’s “probe” into the origin of this logic he particularly focuses on the religious inquiry into sin and the problem of theodicy. As he argues the logic of lesser evil here is guided and implemented by a final salvation or redemption in which the final calculation (or abolishing of calculation) takes place. We could say, although he does not, that something similar operates in the Marxist use of the lesser evil – it only makes sense in the context of revolution (hence the distinction between revolution and reformism to distribute what is truly a lesser evil and merely a compromise with the system).

The difficulty comes when there is a lack of confidence in this salvation, and to be more precise, in the identification of agencies to carry it out. It is difficult to maintain Lenin’s confidence (quoted by Weizman):
This means: There may still be ‘lesser’ and ‘greater’ evils (there always will be) but we do not have to choose between these evils, for we represent the alternative to both of them, an alternative which is historically ripe.
If we do not have a “third” alternative then the horns of the dilemma become all the sharper.

This is the problem for any radical alternative to the system, posed by Weizman:
How to engage in the practice of “lesser evil”, but seek to mobilize the effect of these actions in the service of larger political claims; how to work from “inside” systems while simultaneously seeing beyond them, even precipitating their end?
As Weizman concedes some practice of the lesser evil and political calculation seems unavoidable, as the very rejection of the lesser evil argument itself involves a calculation… (I choose rejection of the lesser evil as the lesser evil)

This striking difficulty in evading the lesser evil is attested to by two recent attempts to “manage” (or delimit) the logic of the lesser evil. The first is the use of the lesser evil as a strategic imperative by Immanuel Wallerstein. He argues that in the short-run (Braudel’s history of events) we must inhabit the choice of lesser evil:
In the short run, not only should we support the lesser evil, but there is no other choice available, ever. Everyone, without exception, chooses the lesser evil. We just disagree about which choice is that of the lesser evil.
Wallerstein argues that this is simply the pragmatics of day to day short-term politics. He also argues that there is a second reason for choosing lesser evils:
No movement with a middle-run left agenda will have any chance of obtaining the popular support it needs if its advocates refuse to choose the lesser evil that meets the needs and expectations of the larger populace.
This logic only makes sense, however, if coupled to a middle run logic (Braudel’s cyclical time) working in the 10 to 25 years scale. This is the time of the patient work of political education, and
in the middle run, we should make no unsavoury compromises. We should push only for that which matters in terms of transforming the system, even if the rewards are not immediate.

Therefore lesser evil logic only works when constrained by a principled medium term logic – of course this leaves aside the profound problem of the feedback loop between these two “times”. How far can we go in lesser evils before corrupting the medium-term goals of political education and patient building of principles? Once again duration becomes a political problem. The solution, in this case, is a peculiar kind of salvation. This is because Wallerstein’s own longue durée perspective entails a rapidly approaching systemic crisis (not just a crisis of the system but a crisis for the system), or as he prefers (in the language of chaos theory) a bifurcation point. The choice comes down (or will come down) to a choice between the Spirit of Davos and the Spirit of Porto Alegre.

Now it may be true that such a crisis is approaching, I have not had the chance to assess Wallerstein’s evidence. What seems less true even without the evidence is his claim that this forthcoming bifurcation in the world-system means: "[w]e have only a fifty-fifty chance of prevailing. One can define fifty-fifty as unfortunately low. I define it as a great opportunity, which we should not fail to try to seize." It seems high to me in the absence of the identification of agencies to seize this opportunity, and in the lack of assessment of the relative social, political, and military strengths of the Spirit of Davos and the Spirit of Porto Alegre. Of course it is possible that the forthcoming systemic crisis may well affect this balance of powers quite severely, but again it is difficult to see how.

What we can see is that the logic of lesser evil is rescued from running out of hand by the analysis which dictates that the medium term strategy will control it, and that this strategy will only have to last one “term” (25 years or so) as that systemic crisis is imminent. To return to Lenin it is also because the derailment of the world-system is “historically ripe” that we can engage with the lesser evil as a strictly delimited strategy. If capitalism, or the ideological form of military humanism, involves cutting-out the logic of lesser evil from a wider context (except, of course, the historical background of “totalitarianism”), to operate it without salvation, Wallerstein requires salvation (or at least its possibility) to also interrupt the threat of a perpetual logic of the lesser evil.

A similar problem afflicts Alain Badiou’s more wholesale rejection of any such logic (although he does not name it as such) in his recent text “Three Negations” (2007). I will leave the technical detail of Badiou’s descriptions of three different logics of negations and their effects aside, and for those who are more knowledgeable. To summarise radical Badiou identifies three forms of the logic of negation: 1. A classical strong negation which he correlates with the event; 2. An intuitionistic intermediate negation, which he correlates with the logic of appearance; 3. A imperceptible paraconsistent logic in which no change takes place. Now Badiou concludes that: "[t]he lesson is that, when the world is intuitionistic, a true change must be classical, and a false change paraconsistent." (1883)

What this means is that a true change - an evental change - is classical in that P is negated by non-P without any alternative or gradation. The world turned upside down. The difficulty, for me, lies in that the domain of appearance is itself intuitionistic, implying a possible range of negations (non-P) and hence the logic of the lesser evil. Now, in the wake of an event that is saturated (1917) or obscure (1968) how are we to guide our day to day practice towards the classical negation in an intuitionistic world? More importantly, how are we to avoid the simulacrum of a paraconsistent logic (which would seem to be the logic of the lesser evil), in which negation is so weak as to be imperceptible (Badiou's typical example is parliamentary politics). This question has been raised by Adrian Johnston in the context of a "pre-evental" discipline of time, the necessity for a practice to avoid evental attentisme. Now what Johnston does not mention is Badiou's own practice of such a politics (which, for him, would still be post-evental, i.e. in memory of communism) with Organisation Politique. The guides from this practice would be a political of generic prescription, a refusal of any parliamentary politics, and a compact group of militants (to give a minimal description).

Of course this is a guide, but then still we need to have the salvation of an evental change, a classical strong negation. Is it enough that such a change happened previously? Or, as in Badiou's recent work, we can extract from such (political) changes a set of communist invariants? The difficult comes in the (Pascalian?) wager on future salvation that would redeem us from any taint of the lesser evil. Without this the risk is the one identified by Johnston (and other critics) of a "clean hands" politics that refuses to engage with what Daniel Bensaïd has discussed as "the return of strategy".

I am certainly not underestimating the difficulty of this problem. In fact what interests me is the acuteness with whih these texts raise what appears an "intractable" problem. Here, to repeat my earlier point, I think it is something to do with the possible redemptive agency. If the lesser evil appears to remain a closed logic it perhaps lies in the relative difficulty with identifying possible ruptures with that logic. This is not to say nothing is happening. It is simply to register the difficulty (and temptations) of the lesser evil in the current context.

Badiou, Alain "Three Negations." Cardozo Law Review 29.5 (2008): 1877-1883.
Bensaïd, Daniel "The Return of Strategy." International Viewpoint IV: 386.
Johnston, Adrian (2007) ‘The Quick and the Dead: Alain Badiou and the Split Seeds of Transformation’, International Journal of Žižek Studies 1.2: 1-32.
Wallerstein, Immanuel "Remembering Andre Gunder Frank While Thinking About the Future." Monthly Review 60.2 (June 2008).

Weizman, Eyal, Hollow Land. London and New York: Verso, 2007.
___ "665 / The Lesser Evil." Roundtable: Research Architecture. Centre for Research Architecture. Goldsmiths, University of London.

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