Different Teaching Philosophies

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Christos Marsellos has studied philosophy in Greece and France, has written various articles and essays that will be published or re-published mainly by the Perispomeni editions, and has translated into Greek a series of philosophical books.

FM: In your postface of the book "Financial Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" by John Maynard Keynes, you have written that in 1925, Keynes did not predict the hecatombs prepared by the religion of ethics. Which are these hecatombs?

Christos Marsellos: As religion of ethics, Keynes describes communism, and I am referring, of course, to the millions of victims of the communist experiment in the twentieth century. Without relieving the "Western" camp from its own responsibilities, it is a matter of honesty to recognize this reality, and it is a question of the responsibility of thought to look for the ultimate causes, not the obvious ones.

I also write that the bourgeois camp used the Communist hecatombs as an alibi for its own fatuities, but the opposite happened as well: the tragedies of communism have been explained by the resistance of the bourgeois camp, an unfavorable environment without which everything would have been just fine, wouldn't it. These ultimately are excuses from both sides, which prevent us from thinking more in-depth, while in the background, the common assumptions of both keep emerging.

These common assumptions are what we must reflect upon: the unconscious or unadmitted prevalence of homo economicus, which is not ideological -- that is to say it has never been turned into a banner in its own name; on the contrary, one camp refuses that it serves homo economicus while at the same time defining man as a labour force; and the other camp which, until recently, supported homo economicus in the name of freedom, now finds that freedom is a concept that does not correspond to anything, that there is only successful or non-successful social engineering - and claims that its own social engineering is basically more successful, being more flexible.

FM: You write that homo economicus has spread everywhere. That there is only advertising or obscurity of the simply private. Could you please explain it to us?

CM: Homo economicus is understood here in its narrowest and most obvious sense, not the one I hinted at above. I realize that this is a proposition with which every honest blogger would be indignant, since his activity presupposes the belief that things cannot be so restricted.

And because I do not claim to be a prophet, I would even go so far as to share in this belief and attenuate the judgment. I am just describing what I perceive as a trend. An old, Buddhist, I think, precept says that if you lock yourself in the most remote room of your home and think intensely, the entire world will hear you. But this meant it would hear you -... in the end. In other words, it presupposed history.

The trend of our era is the opposite. It is non-historical, and perhaps this is due to the nature of mass media. You can be heard from your room if you emit - sound or image - whether you are thinking intensely or not. It is worth remembering at this point what the name "mass media" indicates according to McLuhan: not the size of their audiences, but the fact that everybody becomes involved in them at the same time. It may take centuries to realize the consequences of this prevalence of synchronicity.

However, nowadays, the most private content becomes public while what should be "common" in the more traditional sense, as based on more universal criteria, is silenced unless it can become fashionable and be sold as a gadget to the self-respecting hipster. But of course that is how its nature changes - if I may furthermore refer to Oscar Wilde's saying that "fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months".

Therefore, our world seems to be evolving according to an evolutionary algorithm where viability is the adequate economic base, and of course the biggest economic base belongs to whatever addresses the greatest number of people at the same time. From then onwards, the laws of statistics have the upper hand. The bad TV show, or the bad newspaper, drives out the good, just as bad money drives out good money. However, since the balance of our world is dynamic, as that of nature in general, there is always sufficient variety to go around, which conceals this trend from our perception and presents the situation as being constant, so that some can say: it has always been that way.

What is concealed is the predominance of the man Marcuse called one-dimensional, or what Castoriadis called "the rise of insignificance" - which, in a sense, is the rise of privacy, the opposite of the Greek perception of "public", but not only that.

FM: What is the Greek perception of the public?

CM: As I was saying, the rise of privacy comes into conflict with the Greek perception of what is public, but that's not all, because (in reality) what we are actually doing today is projecting, on our understanding of this matter, elements originating from our other, Judeo-Christian, origins, in a way which is more problematic what we think.

Thus, we might conveniently say that, unlike the "individual person", idiotis, (which has ended up meaning idiot in many European languages), the "citizen" is not only interested in himself but he is interested in what is public. But this, for the ancient Greek, does not mean any kind of selflessness - it means, depending on the era, that he aspires to excel in important issues and be glorified, or it means that he himself defends his own interests and the interests of his particular community as well. Thus the "commons" to the Athenians is also, for example, whether an army will be sent to suppress the rebellion of Lesbos, slaughtering men and selling women and children, or if Socrates should drink the poison hemlock because he believes in gods other than those that the city believes in. The citizen, as the French Revolution wanted to revive him, still had such dilemmas, and would accordingly decide to suppress the uprising in Vendée, or to declare the religion of the Supreme Being.

Only Marx, who was, and rightly so, not satisfied with the identification of the citizen with the bourgeois, as resulting from the French revolution, thought that the citizen was the ideal (and ideological) complement of the egoist bourgeois, a sort of replacement mechanism. That is why in his early writings, the philosophical ones, the vision that guides him, - behind the abolishment (Aufhebung) of the internal split of man into a private individual on the one hand and a citizen, with only an ideal sociability, on the other - is the abolishment of the political as such.

The "political" exists only as long as the social nature of man has not yet been realized. While a kernel of the Greek perception is preserved here, that man should not be a private individual, but should be interested in the commons, the context is altered - this Hegelian realization/abolishment of the political is something that is unthinkable for the Greeks, and its origins are in fact biblical. Marx is based at the same time on a unilateral interpretation of history, because in reality the modern bourgeois society/civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) attained its status through religious conflicts and in the name of freedom of conscience, and not merely as an expression of the economic selfishness of the bourgeois/citizen.

That is why, for the non-religious, that is to say, non-fanatic, Keynes, who is the product of exactly this historical development, the proletarian represents a new kind of barbarism, and not the means to the realization of the essence of man. However, while imagining freedom in a way that is reminiscent of the citizen's freedom from "need", in reality Keynes is also projecting newer elements on its concept: the Hellene of the "democratic" era did not have any individual freedom, his freedom was not internal, it was political - he did not have the "legal" status of the slave - and was there to serve the social norm.

FM: What is the new barbarity that the proletarian represents?

CM: Keynes was afraid that the proletarian would erase all of the conquests of

civilization until then. The intensity of the feeling at the time that a new man was being created can be seen inversely, for example, in Ernst Jünger's essay "The Worker", where Jünger consented to the "new man", as did the Communism of his era, though from another starting point.

What Keynes defends contains a lot of conventionality, and it is not altogether worthwhile defending. However, Jünger himself later rather regretted his initial positions, while communism, after at the outset denying tradition, ended up as its preserver - when rock music was flourishing in the western world, the classical music conservatories were flourishing in the east. The result is that nowadays the sense that "civilization" is at risk is diminishing and indeed may even tend to completely disappear within the prevailing generalized culturalism.

If I had to name what is really at stake -- that neither Keynes' fear, nor Jünger's or the early communism's expectations bring to light -- I would evoke the danger of reaching a point where there is no one for whom the question is still meaningful: if the salt of the earth loses its savor, how could its saltiness be restored?

FM: You write, and very astutely, I admit, that "ethics is becoming the aesthetics of private choices and the art of life, while politics ceases to be politics and has become the dynamic management of the crowd of individuals." Could you please give us some examples?

CM: These formulations are meant as an initial description of homo economicus, or, if you wish, of the situation in which the salt of the earth tends to lose its savor and where the words are maintained but lose their content or, if you will, their savor.

There is no such thing as ethics if deep inside ourselves we believe that man is the product of his environment, that there is no freedom, that there is no Right, etc. What we're left with, is that somebody is happy with himself because he has made one choice, while someone else is happy with another choice. The whole issue is how one can enjoy the life that has been given to him, and not preventing others from doing the same is the only content ethics can have. Thus, in one sense there is no ethics and, in another sense, we call ethical what is actually political.

Accordingly politics turns into population management, because there can be no political action where there is no citizen (since there is no freedom - and even the mere political concept of freedom presupposes, without actually thematizing it, a more primitive one) but only effective social engineering. Politics, therefore, turns into population management, initially in a completely practical sense, that is, how raw materials, energy, etc. will be shared, not necessarily with absolute justice, but with a minimum of it, to at least avoid any pragmatically unfortunate uprisings of the populations - but also in the sense of public opinion management.

That's why politicians monitor public opinion polls, so that they can adapt to public opinion;, or they may fabricate their own polls so as to influence it:, or they may even show a fake public opinion - it's simply power management, and the struggle of ideas that was once real is repeated today only pretextually.

FM: You suggest that Western societies feel guilt for their privileges but no desire to share their achievements. Then this means that we refer to societies of hypocrisy and guilt. Where can this lead?

CM:There have been societies in the past that were much more cruel than the Western ones, without feeling any guilty about it. Politics has not always considered ethics as a binding factor. This is the case mainly from the Bible onwards - and that's why it still makes sense to call our civilization Judeo-Christian.

The guilt of Western societies shows in a sense that they are not satisfied with the selfishness of the natural human being, but at the same time they have not overcome it. This is to be expected because the demand for overcoming naturalness is moral and is not mechanically relayed by all of society. The mechanisms can only determine what needs to be silenced - hence the hypocrisy - and can control behaviors, but not consciousness - hence the guilt. Sociologically, hypocrisy and guilt make for vulnerable societies.

FM: Why has economy been upgraded into politics?

CM: I attempted in the humble postface, which offered the occasion for your questions, to show, - succinctly, of course, by resorting to a classical essay by Friedman, - why Keynes' expectation that in the future we would end up seeing the economist as a simple expert, a dentist, for example, (so the economy would be limited to what to the ancients was the chrematistike) was lame. But I reserve the right to show in future publications (my publisher has already announced the publication of a volume entitled: Political Apolitical) that there is something akin to a law that can be expressed as follows: the more the apolitical elements you have, the more the political elements will be, and conversely, the fewer the apolitical elements, the fewer the political will be.

By declaring that everything is political, our times have, in fact, reduced politics to economics, thus paving the way for homo economicus, all the while thinking that is not the case. So my answer to your question is twofold: on the one hand, the economy is by nature political, on the other hand we have, without realizing it, confined politics to the economy.

FM: What do you think Greece's position will be in the current globalized system?

CM: The prevalence of homo economicus means that people no longer have the consciousness of a "spiritual" mission.

Is someone Greek because he happens to be "born" to Greek parents (jus sanguinis), or is it because he happens to be born on Greek soil (jus soli)?

What actually matters is not which one of the two contingencies is the case (historically, they have resulted in the "cultural" and the "political" nations respectively) but the fact that happenstance repeated is no longer assumed and redefined as fate; i.e. redefined with a "must" explained by the simple fact that I can change myself, but I cannot become another.

In their minimal version, "selves" are interchangeable - in fact they are not selves, but defined positions within the system of the real.

Their interchangeability does however have a natural limit: language. As a Greek, you may not know why you "must" be Greek, and not American or Pakistani, but, at some point, sooner or later, you will encounter the natural limit that is language. If you do not speak American or Pakistani, you will be a second-class citizen in the USA or Pakistan, one who will, in time, be assimilated or destined to disappear.

This will be happening tomorrow in the synchronically globalized world, in whose language you will have to express yourself. The synchronically globalized world diminishes the sense of danger by telling you that the only thing that is necessary is to be able to "communicate", thus lowering the language to its minimalist version that corresponds to the minimalist selves that it needs to create - although for some, even "communication " will seem impossible.

Thus, at the other end of homo economicus, an instinct of primitive self-preservation is being developed, for which all the achievements of our past become arguments for survival. But/However this is just another way of betraying them, as the other face of the prevalence of homo economicus.

We are now moving between the two extremes of the culturally colorless, odorless and tasteless homo economicus (who may well have no consciousness of being such) and an atavistic nationalism fixated at the level of simple survival.

As long as the conflict does not end but is prolonged over time, there is, of course, the hope that genuine creation can arise through which the Greek element will continue organically, though this will have to occur in adverse circumstances, since the hegemony of homο economicus does not seem ready to be undermined.

FM: Thank you!