[Reader-list] Ghassan Hage: The Shrinking Society, forwarded form Nettime, with an introduction

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Thu Sep 20 13:24:40 IST 2001

This is a forwarded posting form Nettime,  with a longish introductory note, 
from me. I thought that this posting might be interesting to read in the 
light of the concerns expressed earlier on this list with what might be a 
'liberal' response to the state of the world. As Ghassan Hage's text 
demonstrates, a 'liberal'' stance on many diffcult issues has tended to veer 
between moral heavy breathing, and a tough-talking pragmatism that is 
cynicism cloaked by concern.

While Ghassan Hage's text takes on issues at once larger and smaller than 
what we have been discussing for a while - mainly the events of September 11, 
it takes it's peg from another, unspoken bit of violence elsewhere, namely 
the refusal to let a boatload of Afghan and Iraqi refugees land in Australia. 
It is strange to see the governments of the world decide that they must bomb 
Afghanistan to free its people form the 'terrorist harbouring' regime 
currently in power over most of its territory, and at the same time, deploy a 
naval blocakade and spend a large amount of money and military power, so that 
ordinary men, women and children, fleeing the same 'terrorist' regime may not 
land on their territory. Public memory is short, but a few months ago, a 
plane load of Afghans similarly fleeing Afghanistan was turned back from 
Heathrow Airport. The rulers of the great democracies seem to think that it 
is better for people to be bombed while they stay on the territory of a 
repressive regime, than to have their lives saved by fleeing from it. No 
wonder people tend to be a bit skeptical about the rhetoric of freedom when 
it comes from the mouths of the mighty.

Subscribers to the list might also note that yesterday the ministry of Home 
Affairs of the Republic of India, decided that the time has come for all 
Afghan nationals to be registered in India. Legally the Republic of India has 
no laws which specify that a person is a refugee and has no instruments for 
offering asylum, all foreigners who enter the country and stay for reasons 
other than tourism, business, official work or academic study are 'illegal 
alins'. India is one of the most difficult countries of the world to get 
into, and stay in, if you are not a happy tourist, or a dollar spending 
businessman. On the other hand, there are many people, form Bangladesh, and 
Afghanistan, who try to do presicsely this, becuase they fear for their lives 
in the places they have left behind. On the one hand they have no status 
other than that of a UNHCR card, on the other hand, they are constantly asked 
to prove the validity of their stay. The UNHCR representative in India, 
yesterday in a television interview, welcomed the minsitry of home affiars 
move as a step in the right direction. So ID cards for Afghans are in the 
offing. And routine checks, and in the event of war with Afghanistan, and if 
India decides to join the coalition of combatants, in real or in symbolic 
terms, the next step would be the internment of 'enemy aliens' -  There are 
30, 000 or so Afghans in India, mainly in Delhi, and many more Bangladeshis. 
We have heard mutterings about the necessity to cleanse our cities of 
'illegal alines' before, one wonders what form these mutterings might take in 
a climate of war.

Ghassan Hage's text raises important questions about the draining away of 
hope that permits opinion shapers in our societies, who speak more and more 
glibly about acts of 'legitimate' violence in the media, and turning people 
away, cleansing cities, and making them more inhospitable for many. 

Ghassan Hage traces the decline of palpable hope and relates it to the 
developments within political economy that, while it is speculative, is 
interesting to follow as an argument.

While I have doubts about whether the nation state has ever been a hospitable 
or hopeful location for anyone other than rulers(or whether that  perception 
of hospitality or hope is anything other than the imirage of paradise that 
drives people to become martyrs and suicide bombers) there is no denying the 
fact that a great deal of hope seems to have vaporized of late. What  are the 
images and thoughts and forms that can take its place?

I invite you all to reflect on this text
(posted to nettime with permission of the author /geert)

From: "Ghassan Hage" <ghassan.hage at anthropology.usyd.edu.au>
Sent: Wednesday, September 19, 2001 5:11 PM

The Shrinking Society
Ethics and Hope in the Era of Global Capitalism
Ghassan Hage

Ethics and Hope in Australia Today

The majority of the polls published in the media are clear. At the very
 least, fifty percent of all Australians support John Howard's 'tough' stand
 on the refugee issue. While the Prime Minister's capacity to be 'in touch
 with the views of ordinary people' is celebrated by some, it is interesting
 to note that the 'non-ordinary people', the minority opposing this stand see
 themselves as a moral opposition. They oppose in the name of things like
 'compassion' and 'hospitality' rather than in the name of a left/right
 political divide. This has become a pattern in the last ten years or so. 
 >From Mabo to the Tampa, via the 'apology' for the Stolen Children and the
 conditions in the refugee detention centres, a small-l liberal, largely but
 not solely middle-class population, supported by churches and human right
 organizations increasingly perceives itself as the outraged defender, the
 last bastion, of a decent and ethical society. Now that the moral majority
 is in power it has been shown to be clearly less moral than it initially
 claimed and instead, we have a moral minority in opposition. It argues that,
 under John Howard, ethics and morality have been thrown out the window.

Interestingly, conservative intellectuals, who in Australia are newspaper
commentators who have mastered a slightly comical neo-tough journalistic
 style of the 'hey softie, let me tell you about what reality is really all
 about' variety, seem to agree despite themselves with the liberals. They
 argue that there is no place for ethics and morality in a world where people
 can viciously 'exploit our compassion and generosity'. Consequently, the
 disagreement is not about the lack of ethics and morality in social life but
 about what to do about it. The small-l liberals see themselves as
 courageously fighting to maintain a glimmer of ethical life within society. 
 The incredibly pragmatic neo-tough ones condemn the soft liberals for being
 naïve. Being very ordinary themselves, they are like the Prime Minister they
 support, incredibly in touch with ordinary people. As such, they are
 particularly down on the small-l liberals whom they see as of privileged
 class background, unable to see the relation between their pompous airs of
 tolerance, compassion and hospitality and their comfortable life style.

But it is not clear why the assertion that a certain ethical point of view is
the product of middle class comfort makes such view less ethical. It is more
ethical to be hospitable to needy people than not to be. It is more ethical
 not to be racist than to be one. It is also more ethical to be a racist and
 acknowledge it than to be one and deny it. The list is a long one. It is
 more ethical to acknowledge that we are reaping the benefits of the
 decimation of indigenous society than not to do so. And it is more ethical
 not to marginalise and vilify a whole community under the excuse of fighting
 crime than to do so. No amount of neo-tough huffing and puffing against
 imaginary threats of political correctness can change this.

Nevertheless, it is also true that small-l liberals often translate the
 social conditions that allow them to hold certain superior ethical views
 into a kind of innate moral superiority. They see ethics as a matter of
 will. And they see Howard (and Hanson)'s people as not wanting rather than
 not being able to offer marginalised others the kind of hope they ought to
 be offered as fellow human-beings. For there is no doubt that this is what
 we are talking about here: the availability, the circulation and the
 exchange of hope. Compassion, hospitality and the recognition of oppression
 are all about giving hope to marginalised people. But to be able to give
 hope one has to have it. This is why the neo-tough ones are right here. 
 Those who are unable to give hope to others, who see in every indigenous or
 refugee a person aiming to snatch whatever bit of hope for a decent life
 they've got, are not immoral people as such. They are just people who
 precisely have very little hope to spare or to share. And so Howard's
 supporters might feel triumphant that 'more than fifty percent' of Australia
 's population are unwilling to be hospitable to the boat people. But only
 idiotic neo-tough ones find reasons to celebrate here. For the statistics,
 more than anything else, beg a rather sad question: why is it that in
 Australia today 'more than fifty percent' of the population are left with so
 little hope for themselves, let alone for sharing with others.

National Capitalism and the distribution of hope within society

In a lecture presented in London, the Slovenian philosopher and
 psychoanalyst, Slavoj Zizek, reflected on the inability of the British left
 to dent Margaret Thatcher's electoral appeal among the working classes with
 their usual strategy of emphasising the massive inequalities her policies
 were generating. For Zizek, in its preoccupation with inequalities in the
 distribution of wealth and the distribution of goods and services, the
 opposition left out of its sight the very area where Thatcher's strength
 resided: her capacity to distribute 'fantasy'. 'Fantasy' here is a
 psychoanalytic term for the set of subliminal beliefs that individuals hold
 and which makes them feel that their life has a purpose, a meaningful
 future. Fantasy, that is, is the psychoanalytic version of what has been
 referred to above as hope.

Thatcher distributed hope primarily through a racist emphasis on the causal
power of the British character and through highlighting the possibility of
 the small shopkeeper's dreams of rising above one's situation and
 experiencing upward social mobility. Her message was simple and clear: if
 you 'possessed' the 'British character', you possessed the capacity to
 experience upward social mobility even if, in the present, you are at the
 bottom of the heap. The British character did not give you immediate
 equality and the good life but it enabled you to hope for a future good
 life. You could look at your Pakistani neighbours living in the same
 conditions you are living in and say: 'sure we're in the same hole, but, I'
 ve got the British character, so I can at least hope to get out of this
 hole, while these black bastards are hopelessly stuck where they are'.

This capacity to distribute hope (particularly the capitalist-specific dreams
of upward social mobility) in the midst of massive social inequality has been
the secret of the ability of the nation-state to provide such an enduring
framework for capitalist accumulation. Michelet, the eighteenth century
observer and historian of the rise of nationalism, relates to us well, in his
famous description of the 'birth of a Frenchman', how the nation worked as an
apparatus for the distribution of hope. No sooner was the person born as a
'Frenchman', he informs us, that he was immediately 'recognised' and
 'accounted for' as a person. Through 'his' inclusion as part of a national
 society, the nation-state provided 'him' with a recognition of 'his' moral
 worth and 'he' could immediately 'claim his dignity as a man'. At the same
 time, Michelet stresses, the national subject is made to feel in 'control
 over the national territory'. No sooner is 'he' born that he is 'put at once
 in possession of his native land'. But most importantly the sense of being
 included, of being accounted for and of being in control all add up to what
 is in a sense the finality of the process: the national's capacity to
 receive, as Michelet called it, 'his share of hope'.

We should remember that in the history of the West access to a share of
'dignity and hope' was not always open to the European lower classes. The
rising bourgeoisie of Europe inherited from the court aristocracies of
 earlier times a perception of peasants and poor city people as a lower breed
 of humanity. The lower classes were 'racialised' as innately inferior beings
 considered biologically ill-equipped to access human forms of 'civilisation'
 which included particularly 'human dignity and hope'. 'Human' society within
 each emerging nation at that time did not coincide with the boundaries of
 the nation-states. Its borders were the borders of 'civilised' bourgeois
 culture. What Michelet's work describes to us is the important historical
 shift that began occurring in the late eighteenth and throughout the
 nineteenth century: the increasing inclusion of nationally delineated
 peasants and lower classes into the circle of what each nation defined as
 its own version of human society. But this de-racialisation of the interior
 went hand in hand with the intensification of the colonial racialisation of
 the exterior.  Now skin colour in the form of European Whiteness was
 emphasised, more than ever before, as the most important basis for one's
 access to 'dignity and hope'. Nevertheless, Michelet captures the birth of
 the nation-state proper: A state committed to distribute hope, to 'foster
 life' as Foucault has put it, within a society whose borders coincide with
 the borders of the nation itself.

It is no secret that under capitalism government has always given primacy to
the interest of investors. But thanks to the framework provided by the
nation-state, the interest of investors did not seem to contradict a
 commitment to the construction of a viable society within national
 boundaries. Hope, as Ernest Bloch has theorised it in his 'Principles of
 Hope' made people determined 'by the future'. The capacity to dream a better
 future that is 'not too far off' was capable of overriding the determining
 power of the
inequalities of the present. This worked well with capitalism.  Hospitality
towards migrants and refugees in this national system was also part of this
dual economic/social logic. They represented an extra source of (often cheap)
labour, but their reception was also represented as a commitment to an ethic
 of the good society in general. The fact that they were received reflected
 something positive about the quality of life within the host society and
 legitimised it in the eyes of its very nationals as capable of producing a
 surplus of hope. This was so even when this surplus was itself the product
 of the colonial plundering of resources, and the destruction of existing
 social structures which undermined the hopes of millions of people in what
 became known the Third World. The vacuum of hope left behind is still felt
 today within the societies of the colonised, whether in terms of the
 hopelessness found in some colonised indigenous societies or the migration
 generated by dysfunctional colonially produced nation-states unable to
 provide a sufficient 'share of hope' but to a small minority of their

Until recently, the capacity of the great majority of migrants to settle in
Western Society was dependent on the availability of a Western 'surplus of
hope'. This surplus is the pre-condition of all forms of hospitality. But it
 is clear today, that while the West is producing a surplus of many things,
 hope is not among them. This has been perhaps the most fundamental change
 that global capitalism has introduced to Western and non-western Society
 alike. In the era of global capitalism, the successful growth of the
 economy, the expansion of firms and rising profit margins no longer go hand
 in hand with the state's commitment to a distribution of hope within
 society. In fact what we are witnessing is not just a decrease of the state'
 s commitment to an ethical society but a decrease in its commitment to a
 national society tout court. We seem to be reverting to the time where the
 boundaries of society coincided with the boundaries of upper class society. 
 Hope stops where the investment of global capital stops.  Global Capitalism
 and the shrinking configuration of hope

It is well acknowledged today that what characterises the global corporation
most and sets it apart from its multinational and national predecessors is
 the absence of a permanent national anchorage point that the corporation
 sees as its 'true home'. In the era of the dominance of colonial or
 international capitalist enterprise, partly because industries were in their
 great majority physically hard to re-locate, capitalism had a specific and
 stable national base. This was so even when its operations spread anywhere
 in the world it was capable of exploiting resources and labour. With the
 rise of the big multinational companies we begin to see a shift. The
 multinational firm, as its name implied, was no longer associated with a
 single nation-state. It had core bases in many parts of the world, though
 wherever it was, it was operated within a nation-state framework. The most
 important political aspect of global capitalism is the end of this reliance
 on a nation-state framework of operation.

On one hand, global capitalism is simply the intensification of the
 tendencies of multinational capitalism towards capital accumulation outside
 the traditional industrial sector. Now there is a clear dominance of the
 finance sector and a massive expansion of an economy of services. These are
 also accompanied with the rise of a relatively new field of capital
 accumulation: the information sector. Partly because of the above, the
 global firm is characterised by an almost complete loss of a specific
 national anchoring. It is not that, like the multinational corporation, it
 has many, but rather that it hasn't got any. Wherever it locates itself, it
 is considered a home on a conjunctural non-permanent basis. Capitalism goes
 transcendental so to speak. It simply hovers over the earth looking for a
 suitable place to land and invest. until it is time to fly again.

It is here that emerges a significant phenomenon. The global corporation
 needs the state but does not need the nation. National and sub-National
 (like State) Governments all over the world are transformed from being
 primarily the managers of a national society to being the managers of the
 aesthetics of investment space. For among the many questions that guide
 government policy one becomes increasingly paramount: how are we to make
 ourselves attractive enough to entice this transcendental capital hovering
 above us to land in our nation? This involves a socio-economic aesthetic:
 How do we create a good work environment such as a well-disposed labour
 force or a suitable infrastructure? But it also involves an architectural
 and touristic aesthetics: how do we create a pleasing living environment for
 the culturally diverse, mobile managers and workers associated to these
 global firms to make them desire to come and live among us for a while?

'Please come here Mr capital, please invest here' every government is
 begging. 'Even if you can't bind yourself to stay here forever, I can
 provide your multicultural workers with the tallest buildings which offer
 unbeatable views, I can provide them with the grooviest coffee shops you can
 imagine, equipped with the latest Italian coffee making machines, the best
 baristas and the best macchiatos. All of this is guaranteed if you come and
 invest here, Mr. Capital'.

The global aestheticised city is thus made beautiful to attract others rather
than to make its local occupants feel at home within it. Thus even the
government's commitment to city space stops being a commitment to society.
 This global urban aesthetics comes with an authoritarian spatiality specific
 to it. More so than any of its predecessors, the global city has no room for
 marginals. How are we to rid ourselves of the homeless sleeping on the
 city's benches? How are we to rid ourselves of those under-classes, with
 their high proportion of indigenous people, third world looking (ie, yucky
 looking) migrants and descendants of migrants, still cramming the
 non-gentrified parts of the city? Not that long ago, the state was
 committed, at least minimally, to prop up and distribute hope to such people
 in order to maintain them as part of society. Now, the ideological and
 ethical space for perceiving the poor as a social/human problem has shrunk. 
 In the dominant modes of representation the poor become primarily like
 pimples, an 'aesthetic nuisance.' They are standing between 'us' and the
 yet-to-land transcendental capital. They ought to be eradicated and removed
 from such a space. The aesthetics of globalisation is the aesthetics of zero
 tolerance.  As the state retreats from its commitment to the general welfare
 of the marginal and the poor, they are increasingly, at best, left to their
 own devices. At worst, they are actively portrayed as outside society. The
 criminalisation and labelling of ethnic cultures, is one of the more
 unethical and lowly forms of such processes of exclusion. This is partly why
 globalisation has gone so well with the neo-liberal dismantling of the
 welfare state The state's retreat from its commitment to see poverty as a
 socio/ethical problem goes hand in hand with the increased criminalisation
 of poverty and the deployment of a penal state to fill in the void left by
 the retreat of the welfare state.

Hope is not related to an income level. It is about the sense of possibility
that life can offer. Its enemy is a sense of entrapment not a sense of
 poverty. As the withdrawal of the state from society and the existing
 configuration of hope begins shrinking many people, even with middle class
 incomes, urban dwellers paradoxically stuck in insecure jobs, farmers
 working day and night without 'getting anywhere', small-business people
 struggling to keep their businesses going, all of these and more have begun
 suffering from various forms of hope scarcity. They join the already
 over-marginalised populations of indigenous communities, homeless people,
 poor immigrant workers and the chronically unemployed. But unlike them they
 are not used to their state of marginality, they don't know how to dig for
 new forms of hope where there is none, and they live in a state of denial,
 still hoping that their 'national identity' is bound to be a passport of
 hope for them. They become self-centred, jealous of anyone perceived to be
 'advancing' while they are stuck, vindictive and bigoted and always ready to
 'defend the nation' in the hope of re-accessing their lost hopes. They are
 not necessarily like this. Their new life condition brings the worst out of
 them as it would of any of us. That is the story of many of Howard's 'more
 than fifty percent'. They are the no-hopers produced by global capitalism
 and the policies of neo-liberal government, the 'refugees of the interior'. 
 And it is ironic to see so many of them mobilised in defending 'the nation'
 against 'the refugees of the exterior'. Global rejects against global
 rejects. Only the lowly can rejoice at this sight.

Ghassan Hage is a senior lecturer in Anthropology at the University of
 Sydney. He is the author of White Nation: Fantasies of White Surpremacy in a
 Multicultural Society, Pluto Press, Sydney: 1998. This article is based on
 research conducted as part of an Australian Research Council Large Grant on
 'Globalisation, Migration and the Quest for Viability'. More on Ghassan
 Hage's White Nation: http://www.plutoaustralia.com/db/161.html. White Nation
 also appeared as a Routledge title (New York, 2000).

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