Saturday, November 08, 2008

What is the question?

The radio-waves of the world saturate our working-days with tidings of the latest woe. The only perceptible difference is its progessive worsening. The halcyon days of lassez-faire economics that facilitated an orgy of reckless consumption have passed abruptly into the frosty fold of winter. This is indeed the winter of our discontent, one which is likely to last beyond spring and summer, a long-term winter.

But what have we done wrong, what have we the workers, labourers, assistants, functionaries of the capitalist system done to deserve such an tornado of depression. What is the crisis about ? Who is responsible ? What can be done ? Where do we go from here ? Up until now, the daily economic question was principally one of scale. The morning business reports would tell us that the market was for the most part growing. People were getting richer. Yes, the general assumtion was that ‘people’ were gaining. But which people ? We were inundated with reports of the highest people. That is to say those who manage the banks, the new secret aristocracy of our time. So an so’s annual salary reached 3 million this year. Mr X or bank Y made 2 million on bonuses this year etc etc. Of course, all this meant that the economy was fine. The miraculous trickle-down effect would ensure that we would all benefit. Just as God functioned as a incontrovertible source of autocratic power in the middle-ages, keeping the peasants and serfs quaking with fear, today’s unquestionable authority is the market. The market loves us all and only madmen and socialists would challenge its infallibility.

In pre-renaissance or late-medieval Europe when universities were being founded throughout our backward continent, universities began to teach the liberal arts : grammar, rhetoric and theology were heavily emphasised. Through the mediation of Islamic scholars, the works of Artistotle began to circulate throughout Europe. The challenge for European thinkers was not so much to understand the works of Aristotle but to assimilate them to Christian dogma. Thomas Aquinas-an Italian scholar who received his instruction in Aristotelian philosophy from an Irishman known as Petrus de Ibernia- did his utmost to subordinate Greek philosophy to Christian theology. Since God’s existence was incontrovertible, the dictum of the times was fides querens intellectum, faith seeking understanding.
The philosophical question which would demand valid and rational reasons for belief in God was excluded from the outset, and so the aim was to work out the rationality of God’s ways as revealed to us in Christian mythology. We have come along way in Europe since then. The enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century put an end to theocracy and the tyranny of monarchy, proclaiming the rights of man and the sanctity of liberty. Today’s post-enlightenment world still cherishes these ideas, so much in fact that the sovereignty of the individual has mutated into a grotesque dogma. Having seen the excesses and failures of the Soviet Union and its sudden fall, apologists of the new dogma proclaimed the aim or end-target of history. Human beings had reached the era of liberal democracy and market capitalism was the only system that permitted the exercise of this new freedom. In this sense plutocracy or the rule of the rich, has replaced theocracy or the rule of God. So, just as Aquinas was unable to excogitate valid reasons for belief in God, today’s world is unable to imagine an alternative to capitalism. In such a quandary, the only question that can be asked is how to fix the system, how to repent and seek the remission of sins. This frantic search for an answer, a solution, a quick fix can only be an answer to an unquestionable presupposition, that the market should continue to function. In other words, that the plutocracy should remain in place. The problem , then, is as the Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has noted, not that we don’t know how to formulate an answer to the crisis, rather, we do not know how to ask the question concerning the crisis. In other words, rather than asking ‘what is the answer’, we need to have the audacity to ask ‘ what is the question ?’ What is it that we want ? Who is this ‘we’, the majority of working people, or the minority who determine our working conditions ? If we cannot ask the right questions we will only reinstate the problem, and of course this is the nature of the depression or rather the oppression that has been perpetrated upon us by the plutocracy. The questions they pose already presuppose their desired answer.

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