Friday, 16 November 2012

Diogenes in Uruguay


Mark Featherstone

After spending the last few weeks watching austerity matches and riots across Europe and reading about the situation in Greece which has catapulted the far right group Golden Dawn into the political mainstream, I came upon a story about Uruguay’s peasant president, Jose Mujica, that makes startling reading for anybody who has grown cynical about the incestuous relationship between political power and money in Britain, Europe, America, China, and pretty much everywhere else. This cynicism is, of course, well founded because the core principle of neo-liberalism, the political-economic ideology introduced by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s / early 1980s, is that political freedom is inseparable from economic freedom. In other words, in a functioning democracy, the individual’s main concern, and main way of expressing themselves, should be economy. Elections are, thus, elections concerned with economy, rather than any abstract principles about social justice or such like. This is how it is today. In the west, at least, we imagine that democracy and capitalism are inseparable.

In reality this does not quite work out because the result of too much economic freedom or what we might call, following the late Andrew Glyn, capitalism unleashed, is a profoundly undemocratic turn caused by the need to manage increasing levels of inequality and unrest. This is the case because capitalism produces inequality and, in the dark days of contemporary capitalism, little sense that a belief in the modernising aspect of capitalist economics will ever really deliver the good life for the majority. Instead, what we have today is a majority who no longer believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and a minority who desperately and cynically cling to the fantasy that capitalism can work for everybody because it has worked for them and made them extremely rich off the backs of the labour of the poor and those living in a state of endless precariousness where poverty is always potentially just around the corner. In the face of this condition, democracy is not really an option, as the Greek situation has shown. Instead, what is required is a bureaucratic, authoritarian, brand of capitalism organised and run by technocrats who have absolutely no sense of political theory or ethics, but a good working knowledge of Machiavelli and the other classic theorists of power and manipulation. Contemporary China is the classic example of this shift, which involves the separation of capitalism and democracy and the new marriage of capitalism and authoritarianism, and this is why many commentators now speak about the Beijing, rather than Washington consensus.

How, then, does this relate to Mujica, president of Uruguay? The reason Mujica is such an interesting, and important, figure is because he flies in the face of the conventional, and cynical, wisdom which says that today, under conditions of neoliberal globalisation, capitalism and democracy, money and politics, are inseparable, and that no politician can see further than the obsession with economy – profit and growth are essential to the good society. According to this model, we cannot be happy unless we are labouring, making money, spending money, and living the good capitalist life. Mujica shuns this life. As the BBC report, he lives on a ramshackle farm on the outskirts of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and looks after cattle with his wife. He donates most of his salary to charity, drives an old VW beetle, and spends time with a three legged dog. Explaining his outlook on life, Mujica reflects upon the 14 years he spent in prison because of his membership of the communist guerrilla group, the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement. He explains that he was forced to live a more basic life and that he grew to see that one does not need to be a consumer. Indeed, he notes that this is impossible for most of the world, because the American consumer society model is completely unsustainable as a global socio-economic model.  This, then, is a politician who is absolutely not part of a global technocratic elite who cannot see beyond the idea of growth and the expansion of capitalism. On the contrary, I think the Mujica is the model of a new, more, humble politician, a man who stands outside of the cynical western elites, and is willing to point to a new more sustainable, human, future. He is absolutely not trapped by the old Thatcherite logic, There is No Alternative!

In this respect, Mujica’s story reminds me of the story of the Ancient Greek kynic Diogenes, who was famously called Diogenes the Dog for his simple living habits, and because he set up house in a barrel. According to the German writer Peter Sloterdijk, who has written a biography of Diogenes, he lived in a barrel and was called a Dog because he behaved like an animal. Does this mean, then, that Diogenes was an uncivilized beast? Perhaps, but this is not really Sloterdijk’s point, nor the value of thinking about Mujica, because the real beasts of contemporary society are us, the masses who are wedded to the infernal cycle of production and consumption which means that we never do anything, but simply reproduce the conditions of life. I cannot live without my luxuries, so I must work all hours God sends in order to keep myself in this situation. This is truly a natural condition, a metabolism, because we have no time to do anything other than work and shop. By shunning this life-style, what Diogenes offered, and Mujica offers, is ironically a vision of a more human life, where we have time to think, and live, without feeling like the end of the world is just around the next corner.

It is, of course, not easy to do this, and break away from the capitalist metabolism. As Sloterdijk explains, the opposite of the Ancient kynic, who basically walks away from the society that turns him or her into a beast of burden, is the contemporary cynic, who knows how bad things are but continues to behave in the same way anyway, simply because that’s how it is, and what one does. We follow the plan, because there is no other plan. But I think that now, under conditions of austerity riots and a general state of disbelief about the value of capitalism in realising people’s hopes for the future, we stand somewhere between Sloterdijk’s cynics and kynics. On the one hand, people know things are very bad, that capitalism does not work, and so on, but they are carrying on regardless, but on the other hand, they realise something must change, that the world needs to be organised along more human, sustainable, lines, simply because the alternative to doing nothing, and cynically carrying on may be complete social, political, and ecological devastation. This is, then, the question, today – cynically keep going, or leap into the unknown? Who would have thought that the answer to this most pressing of questions would reside with a contemporary Diogenes living on a ramshackle farm on the outskirts of Montevideo who would, I’m sure, absolutely reject the view that he has anything particularly learned to say about the problem of contemporary global society?

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