Susan Buck-Morss: A Commonist Ethics

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The glow of optimism felt worldwide when Barak Obama won the US presidency in 2008 was a last (and lost) chance to believe that the system was capable of righting itself. In Obama’s loyalty to the two pillars of the world order – capitalist economics and national self interest – his presidency has demonstrated the bankruptcy of both. Given that free markets in a free society have failed to deliver basic human needs, can the world’s citizens be asked to hope again? Of course the analogy is exaggerated, and political emergency is qualitatively different – Obama is, happily, not a fascist, and, sadly, not socialist enough ‐ but one is reminded of an exchange between Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler in March 1945, as the Soviet Army closed in on Berlin. Hitler was enraged to discover Speer had blocked his orders, but then calmed down and said “in a relaxed tone”:

“Speer, if you can convince yourself that the war is not lost, you can continue to run your office.”…
“You know I cannot be convinced of that,” I replied sincerely but without defiance. “The war is lost.”
Hitler launched into his reflections…of other difficult situations in his life, situations in which all had seemed lost but which he had mastered….[H]e surprisingly lowered his demand: “If you would believe that the war can still be won, if you could at least have faith in that, all would be well….
Agitated,…I said: “I cannot, with the best will in the world….Once again Hitler reduced his demand to a formal profession of faith: “If you could at least hope that we have not lost! You must certainly be able to hope…that would be enough to satisfy me.
I did not answer.
There was a long, awkward pause. At last Hitler stood up abruptly. …”You have
twenty‐four hours to think over your answer! Tomorrow let me know whether
you hope that the war can still be won.” Without shaking hands, he dismissed me.33

Again, the point of comparison is not one of leadership. It is only to point out that hope, too, can be an ideology. I cannot help feeling that Obama himself is aware of this danger, surely having believed in the democratic process that brought him to electoral victory such a short time ago. Obama was fond of repeating: “this is not about me.” And he was precisely correct. It was not. But he himself lacked faith in the people who elected him. Obama is proud to call himself a pragmatist. He just forgot one thing. In attempting to be realistic within the confines of the crazy status quo, he betrayed the pragmatics of the suddenly possible, which is, after all, the force that elected him in the first place. It is a global force, and it desperately wants change. It is the only sane politics the world now has.

At this moment, being pragmatic in the sense of being cautious, proceeding reasonably within the irrational whole, is the truly risky path. Will the world’s leaders recognize this? Will they wake up to the fact that the system they rely on is bankrupt, and that their power rests on air?
In conclusion: What to Do?

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As the Egyptian Feminist Nawal Sadaawi, responded last spring: Make your own revolution. The ways forward will be as varied as the people of this world. Feminists globally have taught us the need for such variety.34 All of these ways forward deserve our solidarity and support. We, the 99%, must refuse to become invisible to each other. The experiments that are going on now in thousands of locations need space, the space that Walter Benjamin called a Spielraum (space of play) to try out doing things differently. And they need time, the slowing of time, the pulling of the emergency brake, so that something new can emerge. This is time that state power wants to cut short, and space that old‐style political parties want to foreclose.

There is no rush. The slowing of time is itself the new beginning.35 Every day that this event continues, it performs the possibility that the world can be otherwise. Against the hegemony of the present world order that passes itself off as natural and necessary, global actors are tearing a hole in knowledge. New forms emerge. They nourish our imagination, the most radical power that we as humans have.

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32 Hegel’s criticism of liberal democracy’s understanding of free choice as formal freedom, hence “not freedom itself at all,” is pertinent (See Hegel, Logic, paragraph 145).
33 A. Speer, cited in Nocholas H. Smith: “Peter Dews, The Idea of Evil” book review in critical horizons 9:1 (2008), p. 13.