Friday, April 17, 2009

Against 'Common Sense'

Something has happened, we are told. But has something really happened? In which reality did it take place? And does it have any meaning? One way of understanding the new is to approach it via comparisons. In Artforum magazine, under the title ‘Common Sense’ (December 2008), Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, compares what has supposedly happened in September 2008 with the ‘crises’ of 1968 and 1989. This is surprising. And I like surprises, which is why I want to take another look at this comparison between last autumn and the spring of forty years ago.
Back then, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Paris, Prague and other major cities. They were students, but also workers. They turned against their governments, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. They demanded to be governed differently in future. This time round, I heard nothing about large-scale demonstrations. Esche points out that the question of ‘How do we want to be governed?’ stood at the centre of last year’s Documenta. But he does not mention that it was a paraphrase of Michel Foucault, one of neoliberalism’s first critics, who raised this same question in his lectures in the mid-1970s.
Six weeks after Esche’s article was published, two million people braved the bitter cold to gather in Washington. But they had not turned against their government. They did not declare a general strike or throw stones. No revolutionary desires were crushed by tanks, as they were in Prague in 1968. No, the peacefully assembled masses were there to welcome their new president. Rather than asking how they wanted to be governed, they listened to how it was going to be done. The new president told them that the nation was still at war with sinister networks. The current financial problems, he said, were caused by a few bankers and managers straying from the path of virtue, plus those degenerates who place pleasure before work. More control will help against both groups, he promised, as will humility and hard work; this is the way to reinstate old values with the latest tools; together, we can return to a state of security. Those listening to these promises were moved, all seemingly eager to go back to the future.
After this address, I am no closer to grasping the similarity seen by Esche between May 1968 and autumn 2008. What in recent months has been styled a turning point in history doesn’t even seem to be a change of system. It amounts at best to a switch from a capitalist regime of deregulation to a regime of regulation. In this light, it’s no wonder Barack Obama has reappointed some of the now-aged advisors to Ronald Reagan, the architects of Reaganomics, as his closest members of staff. The ‘crisis’ functions as the engine for a reassertion of capitalist hegemony, an engine designed to speed things up and push obstacles out of the way, to prove that the end is not an option. Sure, the newly adjusted order must look more like democracy – it’s regulated, after all – so torture cannot be permitted. But it seems grotesque to applaud when the world’s (still) leading democratic nation forswears torture. Even in ailing conditions, there is no reason to settle for the least.
It is a strange coincidence that the United States has elected its first black president at precisely the moment when the country needs its black population again. For some time now, a gigantic fence has been under construction, a fence separating the United States from Mexico and Latin America. Its aim is to stem the mass northwards migration of workers. In recent years, workers from south of the border have performed a not-insignificant share of the physical labour in the United States. But the disadvantages of this obedient and flexible workforce are now becoming clear. Although their jobs are mostly seasonal, they remain in the country illegally and don’t pay taxes. And they don’t make good consumers, as they send most of their wages home. In spite of their low pay, this causes a considerable currency drain. This is about to change. Thanks to a positive role model, the illegal migrant workers are to be replaced by legal Afro-Americans. This cynically fulfils certain demands of the black civil rights movement, as black labour and its purchasing power are back in demand now that the business model of globalization has served its term.
In contrast to the current situation, the year 1968 supplied a timeframe for a real event, something that revealed the possibility of a different society. The ‘credit crunch’, on the other hand, has generated nothing even remotely resembling an event. The word ‘credit’ has its roots in the Latin credere, meaning ‘to believe’, while the concept of ‘crisis’ comes from medicine, referring to the critical point in an illness. The fact that this belief system has been shaken by a crisis seems to have resulted above all in even more borrowing, taking capitalist common sense into a hyper-religious phase. Apart from this ecstatic surge in belief/credit, no identifiable higher political truth has yet been derived from the crisis. Is this illness too harmless to bring about an interruption in the course of things?
There is no doubt that the current recoiling, the ‘recession’, will be terrible for many people. But the question of how we want to be governed is still not being asked, not by governments nor by those who are governed. Whether or not it will eventually lead to a revolutionary ‘event’ – as Esche expectantly predicts ¬– cannot yet be foreseen. So far, what happened in 2008 has served above all to prolong the succession of crises in an order without prospects. To interrupt these monotonous loops, it will take a truth capable of unlocking an event. The uprisings of May 1968 constituted such an event, making a different society conceivable. In Paris at least, one stimulus for this came from art in the form of Guy Debord’s revolt-inciting The Society of the Spectacle. The consequences of the event-less credit crunch renew the call – a call also addressed to art – to move both symbolically and in real terms against today’s ‘common sense’ towards more far-reaching change.

Text by Hans-Christian Dany
Source :
Translation: Nicolas Grindell