What is to be done? Such was the title given by Lenin to his book on how to resolve things at that time, 1902, a few years before it happened, October 1917. But he re-used it, actually. A few years earlier, 1863, Chernyshevsky had used it for his utopian, and very feminist, novel depicting a revolutionary couple of lovers who turned marital relations upside down. They had each their own room and met only on the neutral grounds of the dining & living room. Of the two, she was the flamboyant one, she set up a cooperative sewing outfit for women who thereby worked independently for themselves. 1863 is a long time ago and so is 1917. The socialist woman's day, for instance, is no longer on the agenda.

There isn't much at all on the agenda, today, 2017. What is to be done? There's no easy answer in my little book of the same name. It mainly volunteers the idea that we ought to discuss the mess we're in.

The book is in French, "Que faire! - Contre l'ordre régnant"
éditions Couleur Livre, 2017 - http://www.erikrydberg.net/articles/contre-lordre-régnant-que-faire-ii

We had a quiet and pleasant chat on the subject the other day, Saturday 4th, March. It was arranged at, and by, the cooperative café cum second-hand bookshop La Vieille Chéchette in Brussels, a marvelous joint with glass-flooring peeping into the cellar, intricate iron-works coated in wood & loads of charming old books longing for a new life (sold real cheap). You can sit there for hours, they have the best beers in town, exquisite tea-cups & home-made pastries.

Words, words, words

To kind of get things started, the floored proposal was to discuss what is to be done with the words we use. As the French philosopher Louis Althusser pointed out, "If you are mistaken about the reality, then you will use the wrong words, and vice versa." (This was in 1976, in his book Les vaches noires, published posthumously by PUF, 2016). What matters here is the vice versa: if you don't have the right words, you won't see what's really happening all around.

By the way, La Vieille Chéchette has its home
rue du Montenegro in part gentryfied, part down-trodden Saint-Gilles
check its web site - https://chechette.be/

In the book, to make things more convenient, the words that fool us and make us blind to whatever happens in the world are set up on four different levels of mental disruption. On the first, and easiest, you find all the trappings of bureaucratic gibberish promoted by officialdom, public as well as corporate. Partnership, for instance: between imperialist states & their third-world "partners", between company bosses & their trade-union "partners", and so on and so forth. It's a laugh and no one in his or her right mind will register such words at their face value. The second set is a bit tougher. The words you'll find here are the black-listed ones, those you're not supposed to say or even think of. Proletarian is one such word: as the French marxist Georges Labica once said: uttering that word is a crime akin to grab someone's ass on the subway. It's a laugh, too. As the historian Immanuel Wallerstein matter-of-factly noted, serious people will refer to "the people who sell their labour as proletarians". (That's in Historical capitalism, 1983, Verso Books).

Candies, anyone?

On the third level, you have all the words that have simply disappeared, and usually so after having been black-listed, that's no big surprise. Words as virtue, glory or the father & motherland. These instances ought to be investigated: why were they pushed out from everyday usage? There is often a reason to that, good or bad, and one had better know why. Take Che Guevara, for instance, he signed off his letters with the message "Patria o muerte"...

Then there's the fourth level, the toughest one. It's full of candies. It's drooling with sweet-tasting catchwords. It's brimming with feel-good ego-enhanced feelings of rightfulness. And, apparently, it feels progressive, leftish, modern, whatever, you name it. That's the hard bit, of course. If you start questioning these words (meaning: question whether they adequately reflect reality), you may soon land in enemy territory, among the bad guys. Take "social cohesion" or "inclusive politics": hard to dismiss as pure propaganda, isn't it. Or, worse, "the common good", loved & promoted by quite a few: how can you be against such a beautiful idea? Well, sometimes it's better to take cue from Lenin. When asked what he thought of democracy, he answered: "For whom?". Maybe he's going a bit too far, there, but then again, his line of reasoning is faultless: social cohesion, with whom? inclusiveness, in what? common good, for whom?

Confusing times

When you raise these matters, and the theoretical confusion that goes with them, the proof is in the pudding. You only need take a look at Natacha Polony's latest book, Bienvenue dans le pire des mondes (Plon, 2016). She's right-wing but almost everything she says is left-wing. She's against free trade, neoliberalism, multinational corporations, US hegemony and so on.

As Perry Anderson wrote in a piece for the Monde diplomatique (March 2017 issue), the theoretical confusion is such nowadays that it's has become hard to distinguish who's right-wing and who's left-wing, they both have groupings engaging in "anti-systemic politics" (anti-establishment, say). His concluding remark underlines well the dilemma: "For anti-systemic movements of the left in Europe, the lesson of recent years is clear. If they are not to go on being outpaced by movements of the right, they cannot afford to be less radical in attacking the system, and must be more coherent in their opposition to it. That means facing the probability the EU is now so path-dependent as a neoliberal construction that reform of it is no longer seriously conceivable. It would have to be undone before anything better could be built, either by breaking out of the current EU, or by reconstructing Europe on another foundation, committing Maastricht to the flames. Unless there is a further, deeper economic crisis, there is little likelihood of either."

You can read his piece here:
And Adam Tooze's comments thereon here:
(with thanks to Mario Bucci for referencing the hyperlinks)


Talk the talk


But let's listen to what the people said at La Vieille Chéchette. There was one young lady there, dressed in black with long black hair making her face all the whiter, and her smile so quaintly unadulterated. I didn't catch any of their names, alas. I will call her Claire-Louise, she somehow made me think of the English writer Claire-Louise Bennett whose spooky poetical novel Pond (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015) plays no small part in my book.
The words Claire-Louise had in mind were those of "politics", its deafening death in so many minds nowadays, of "inclusion", too, meaningless in its endless repetition, and also of "laicity" and its misuse as an anti-religious weapon against people of other creeds, which led to some discussion: things are quite different in France and in Belgium, the former being known for its philosophical stance on the matter (and its stronger conflictuality between creeds, what with its ferocious national committee against "islamophobia", for instance).
This remark was made by Evelyn, he sat at the bar, cool, calm and collected. Evelyn is a nice name for him even if some may be led to imagine it belongs to a girl. This was the case of the poor chap who reviewed Evelyn Waugh's book on Rossetti for the Times Literary Supplement in 1928, only to receive a scathing letter by the author in which he reminded that, by referring to him "throughout as «Miss Waugh»", not only is the reviewer's mistake typical of "people of limited social experience" but its shows he hadn't even read "the wrapper for the guidance of unleisured critics" wherein the name bears its correct prefix of "Mr.". (This funny anecdote is retold in the TLS dated February 24th, 2017, as well as in Evelyn Waugh's selected letters published by Penguin in 1982.)
Bullshit jobs, huh?
Now, Claire-Louise also broached the subject of, say, the rather un-inclusive unemployment business. This also led to an interesting discussion - and to the conclusion that if all "bullshit jobs" were to be eliminated, there would be plenty of opportunities to arrange for meaningful jobs for all.
The concept of "bullshit jobs" bears the signature of David Graeber
Check his 2013 article "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs"
it's here: http://www.strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/
Well worth reading...
But then there's Alastair, a broad-shouldered guy that could well travel around in A Tramway Named Desire, with a torn tee-shirt, natch'. Alastair, just to make sure, is not his real name, neither is Ninotchka the name of the Afro-Russian Anais Nin sister (of sorts) with her bushy flamboyant hairstyle. Alastair and Ninotchka both disliked the word "tolerance". What it means, mostly, is shut up. If you feel uncomfortable with other people's ideas, shut up. If you don't feel moved to join up in the inclusive big happy family of shared ideas, shut up. If you cannot tolerate the social divide, you're intolerant and you'd better shut up. We all agreed on that. Tolerance is a word, and a notion, to avoid. Class war is the name of the game.
Well, it had gotten dark outside. Time to part.
Next time, maybe, we'll discuss other parts of the book. The section on the zombie smartphone-cult and its nightmarish dead-ended eternal present. Or the one on city-planning, the way bureaucrats are big-brothering your every move in the street.
Wait and see...