25 december, 2014

Kairos and socialism

Presented at ASN Conference September 3d 2014

It is probably easy to give a so-called materialist explanation for revolutions around the world. Capitalism is not living through crises that are overcome sometimes and come back, capitalism is continuous crisis. There always will be room for seeing a material cause for uprisings all over the world, even though they will not fit together. Italy and Greece as a starting point around 2009/2010 for the global rebellion in Tunis, Cairo, Spain, the Occupy-happenings from New York to HongKong can all be written off as consequences of the present day economic downturn – raising the price of pasta, for example, in Italy. Such rough reasoning leaves unexplained why earlier price rises or economic slump have not led to revolutionary unrest. No doubt “objective circumstances” will have stood in the way, which is another way of saying: “we cannot tell”.

Why were people turning out in millions standing up for their dignity, in Spain, 2011? Of course, you do not have to demand dignity from someone else, especially in this case, you are already showing it. Doing it collectively however is a more surprising aspect of this demand that cannot really be called a demand.

One of the amazingly beautiful appearances during the 2010-2011 uprisings - I tend to call these years the "1968" of the 21st century, so far course - was the Book bloc, started as far as I can see in the Italian student movement of the time. The Book bloc brought to my attention two books I did not know: one was Caliban and the witch by Silvia Federici (perhaps you think it a scandal I did not know it, but at least I am sincere about my lack on this point), the other was Pip pip, an intriguing title belonging to an until then to me obscure author called Jay Griffiths. Pip pip turned out to be a book about ways of looking at time. Apparently it is subversive to read books, especially when they question the bourgeois concept of time.

Before I read Griffiths it had struck me that Karl Marx in his labour theory of value writes about time as if it is an independent quantity, high above class society and the ones who dominate it. Probably this is a consequence of the materialist belief in which Science somehow was seen as a product of Progress, represented by capitalism as an inescapably higher form of development than what was there before, equally inescapably leading to Socialism and finally Communism as the highest stage of human development (at least, that was what people liked to say appealing to Marx in later years).

Herbert Marcuse tells in The dialectics of liberation that the Communards shot at clocks, wanting to seize the time the ruling class had stolen from them. They did not believe in this classless time of historical materialism, and as I was told by Israeli critical theorist Ilan Gur Ze'ev, Marcuse in his latter days thought the conquest of time could lead to the victory over death – in a physical sense. Unfortunately Ilan died before he could tell me more about this.
Another critical theorist, Ernst Bloch, was certainly aware of the class vision "time" is based upon, regulated as it is on the highest value of Capital, exchange value. George Woodcock writes in his precious little piece The tyranny of the clock: “The clock provided the means by which time - a category so elusive that no philosophy has yet determined its nature - could be measured concretely in more tangible forms of space provided by the circumference of a clock dial. Time as duration became disregarded, and men began to talk and think always of 'lengths' of time, just as if they were talking of lengths of calico. And time, being now measurable in mathematical symbols, became regarded as a commodity that could be bought and sold in the same way as any other commodity.”
Clocktime is its own circular definition: it can only be described in terms of measurement by means of a clock.

Griffiths looks at different ways of approaching duration, the unknown quantity or quality called time. There is however a still quite different way of looking at time, in the letters of St. Paul and at several loci in the gospels indicated with the word kairos, as being different from khronos, the usual word for time in Greek. In the days the earliest christian books were written kairos and khronos might be seen as interchangeable – since eternity had broken into the world with the life and resurrection of Jesus. The second coming was expected soon, and so kairos was the inbetween time until the completion of time would take place. And kairos was now, ho nun kairos is the phrasing St. Paul uses. The idea can be stretched but the church learned to live with the idea that it would take quite some more khronos to fulfill the kairos. So kairos can now be seen as the intervention of eternity, or the Spirit, to pneuma, in the world.

Paul Tillich stresses that to judge a time as kairos means to interpret it as a point of inescapable decision, inevitable justice, seen from the standpoint of the prophets. The idea of kairos is born in interaction with the utopia, yet the consciousness must be alive that the Eternal cannot be present in time, the Eternal can manifest itself by “breaking in” but it cannot ever be fixed at a moment. The spirit of bourgeois society is daemonic, it forces people to infinite service to the finite, into struggle of all against all. Apparently the kairos that should be cherished against capitalism is the idea of religious socialism, also brought forward at that time by Karl Barth – the young Karl Barth who equated socialism and Kingdom of God. Tillich gives this description of kairos in 1926.

Three years ago the mayor of Dutch village De Bilt quoted an unmentioned Russian philosopher at the annual commemoration of the fallen – the words he repeated were: “Freedom is not a right, it is a duty”. In the present day Netherlands this was good enough for a public outcry, since at that time the proto-fascist Party for Freedom was participating in government and as the name of the party tells, it does not allow the idea of freedom to anyone but its followers. Such is the political climate particularly in that part of Europe, but not only there. So the next time this mayor spoke out publicly it was against welfare profiteers, which put him firmly back in the discourse as it is allowed these days.
I recognised the quotation as being from Nicolai Berdyayev and realised I did not know much more of his thoughts. He seems to be a good illustration of the idea of kairos, and in spite of what Brian Morris would have said at the ASN conference of 2012, which he did not, I consider Berdyayev as an anarchist, a Christian anarchist (and in his Christian anarchism Alex Christoyannopoulos specifically mentions him as one of the thinkers in this field). Brian Morris even denies Proudhon, Stirner and Tolstoy among others the honour of being anarchists.

A short sketch of Berdyayev's life: he was born into the highest circles of Russia, in 1874. (He himself pointed at the fact that anarchism in Russia seems to be a speciality of noblemen: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy... ) As a student he was attracted to marxism, distanced himself quickly from materialism though, stressing the primate of the spirit. “Form marxist to idealist” would be a short description, Nietzsche plays a more important role in this shift than Tolstoy. After being persecuted under the czar regime he became a member of the National Sowjet for a while in 1917, being able to start his own school of philosophy. In 1922 he was exiled. He moved to Berlin and then in 1924 to Paris where he would stay. In both cities he started schools of philosophy. A remarkable biographical detail: having finished his autobiography The realm of Spirit and the realm of Caesar he dies, sitting behind his desk, in 1948. This book may be seen as a summing up of his ideas. The Spirit is the mystery of Christianity, not the routine christianity most people will think of when they hear the word. Christianity far exceeds the christian. Berdyayev's rebuttal of all thinkable and usual objections was informed by interaction with anarchists who uttered the usual slogans against christianity. Influenced by French personalist thinkers (and vice versa) Berdyayev develops toward personalism.

Berdyayev's intellectual history is reminiscent of that of Jacques Ellul: from marxist to religious anarchist. They also share the critique of technics. An important point of difference is the accentuation of mysticism, which Ellul wholeheartedly rejected and which is prominent with Berdyayev. This has consequences for how they see the apocalyptic event of the Revolution, which Ellul still sees as an earthly material change, be it with intervention from the Eternal, but which for Berdyayev means a complete spiritualisation of the world. An interpretation of the story of creation which is both different yet the same: Ellul judges we are living the seventh day, God's resting time, Berdyayev sees us under way to the eighth day, when creation will be completed in absolute Spirit.

We cannot put our hopes on a class or a historical earthly power but only on the person reborn in the spirit. “The resurrection of the human being will bring about the spiritualisation of the whole of nature.” The result will be the end of the state which of course cannot be caused by a state. Though Berdyayev is mostly seen as a religious or christian anarchist he deems this a questionable qualification himself. His politics seems to be “not of this world”. The founding of the Realm of the Spirit is the victory over the realm of Caesar in an eschatological transformation, a final unison.

Even though Berdyayev called himself the first truly mystical anarchist in dialogue with decadents and mystical anarchists, he did not preach at any time an empty anarchism or social amorphism. He always took into account the surrounding world and the social and political given, from which human action can aim at its absolute goals. He calls the state a murder machine, made into an almighty totalitarian demon by technology. God does not consent with any government, at most God can tolerate or accept it. God co-operates in the struggle of the free human spirit against the order of this world. Christ can be seen as a symbol of victory over reality.

It looks like Berdyayev missed the positive content of the word anarchy towards which anarchists but not only anarchists strive. Perhaps he limits it to the realm of the spirit and the apocalyptic way this should come about in his view. His mystical anarchism inspired Peter Maurin, the thinker behind the Catholic Worker, but on the whole he seems largely forgotten. Some neocons – who usually repeat each other in the vicious nonsense they write – are sure that this “Russian nationalist philosopher” adorns the bedside cabinet of Wladimir Putin. We can be sure they neither know about Berdyayev nor about what Putin is reading late at night. After the collapse of real existing socialism most of his works have been published in Russia but it is difficult to realistically fathom their impact. A rightwing mayor in the Netherlands quoting him in a soundbite does not mean his thoughts have been reawakened. His opposition against bolshevism was useful in the heyday of the Cold War. This opposition however did not include the rejection of common ownership of the means of production, it was opposition against the almighty state. He rejects current anarchism as belonging to the state, to him it is a mechanical, pseudo-christian way of thinking. Berdyayev's anarchy looks like very distant from what other religious anarchists strive for, although it might be said that all anarchist striving can be equated to the “goal” of anarchy and so can be called absolute – detached from the triviality of life. Berdyayev's revolution is kairos – the breach of eternity into the temporal, if not a victory over the temporal.

Technology, the machine, represents a breach with time for humanity, because it creates a new reality, a continuous topicality. Technics lead to a breach with the Great Mother, that Earth is to the human being, she can be denied if not killed. Berdyayev stresses the idea of free creative activity: “God expects from man a free creative act, for truly: “My Father worketh hitherto and I work” (John V:7 – a quotation on which Dutch Christian anarchists founded their maxim “Our God is a worker”, which I took as the title of my dissertation). The very concept of labour is an existential one. Marx's materialism however belongs to the bourgeois world, a world that has enslaved humans by its lifeless economic categories and material objects. “A true liberation of human existence from the fetters of the bourgeois world will signify above all the freedom from material things and from the rule of economics” (Christianity and Class War).
The speed generated by the machine is the creation of a series of consecutive moments which make the view of eternity impossible, these moments evaporate and the domination of time means slavery. (With this reasoning Berdyayev seems to anticipate Paul Virilio, a contemporary Christian & anarchist.) Still the end seems continually nigh, time is continuously in touch with eternity. In the materialism turned into religion of what he calls communism, truth is informed by the five year plan. Communism has been assigned through God's mysterious providence as the just formation of human society and it has been betrayed and mutilated.

Berdyayev opposes personalism to this communism, and this can be identified with Christianity. It does not know any abstract idea but only God and the neighbour, concrete beings. The personality is not part of the world, it is the other way around – the person testifies of freedom and spirit. Fraternity in suffering and misery means the victory over the unpersonal anonymous power of money in human life, that condemns the human to living in a realm of fictions. Personalism indicates the road back to true realities, Right and justice will be there, not depending on the possible triumph in the world. They will remain right and justice, even if they are crucified.
Jacques Ellul, to my knowledge, does not quote Berdyayev on any point, but his prise de conscience, the awakening of consciousness, must come from a non-historical source, the power that denies all power, God. The idea of prise de conscience as a precondition for revolution – they must both be part of the kairos – was popular in radicalising circles in the 'sixties and 'seventies, especially with an ecclesiastical christian background. It seems the idea has been washed aside with so many other features of what might have been seen as days of kairos, mostly summed up in the one year “1968”, but the period was longer. A marking point for example was Marcuse's One dimensional man, sometimes called overrated but I think that can be put aside in hindsight. His idea of the Great Refusal – the overcoming of surplus repression and anxiety – approaches that of the kairos, the realisation of special time. Michael Löwy ascribes a mystical vein to (at least most of) the Frankfurter Schule, and Marcuse's idea of possible immortality might amount to what in a christian sense could be called apocalyptic. He did not venture in speculating about the Great Refusal though.

In 1965 Provo had as its statement of intent: “Provo feels it has to choose between desperate resistance or passive downfall. Provo calls to resist wherever it is possible. Provo realises it will ultimately be the loser, but it does not want to forego the chance of at least still once provoking this society wholeheartedly.” As students of twentieth century anarchism may know, the Netherlands in those days were forerunners in the sixties youth revolution, before Berkeley or Paris. Paradoxically it can be a reason to be proud, and these days there is that one critical theorist active in the Netherlands, Willem Schinkel. He sees the present day crisis, both economic and ecological, as a kairos, a time for developing visions that have to shape the public instead of the other way around. He pleads for a prise de conscience, a Great Solidarisation as against the Great Desolidarisation, implied in present day so-called neoliberal thinking. Kairos should be the creation of a new democratic atmosphere, a new paradigm in politics – which he sees in the other Dutch specialty which perhaps mirrors Provo, why not cherish the hope – that is the Party for the Animals, until very recentely a unique party for the emancipation of those who will not be represented – nowadays both Germany and Portugal have representatives of similar parties, so who knows if this is a manifestation of kairos. It must be a vexation for anarchists who are used to call damnation on parliaments: representing the unrepresentable other living creatures, never without self-interest though because the Earth is at stake.

Karl Jaspers wrote in 1957 in Die Atombombe: In this life, as the apparently nonsensical sentence should be, what is eternal is decided within time. The decision from the power of love and the commandment of conscience is the appearance of what already is eternal. The presence of the Eternal is immortality. I gain immortality in so far as I love and am good. I will end up in Nothing when I live a loveless confused life. Loving I see the immortality of those who are connected in love. There is more rationality in the thought of eternal punishment in hell than in the false certainty of thinking I can do anything without punishment because after death there will be nothing (Kierkegaard). Immortality can only have sense in the quiet of Being and Superbeing, that sees in time through time and conquers it. Because what matters is the reality of the Eternal, the way in which is lived and is acted, as the all-encompassing, the immortal.

Kairos in the sense of Jaspers is a chiffre, a thought event that can mediate to humans the incomprehensible. I might have said at the beginning what I will finish with now – I shall be honest enough that much of what Berdyayev particularly says can be described with a quotation of Niels Bohr: it is no use writing about what you fully understand.

[As usual referring notes have been left out.]

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