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The Drowned and the Saved

In Books, Politics, Theory on December 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm

From Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, an account of his time in Auschwitz. This is an excerpt from Chapter 9: The Drowned and the Saved.


What we have so far said and will say concerns the ambiguous life of the Lager. In our days many men have lived in this cruel manner, crushed against the bottom, but each for a relatively short period; so that we can perhaps ask ourselves if it is necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional human state.

To this question we feel that we have to reply in the affirmative. We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing. We would also like to consider that the Lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment.

Thousands of individuals, differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture and customs are enclosed within barbed wire: there they live a regular, controlled life which is identical for all and inadequate to all needs, and which is much more rigorous than any experimenter could have set up to establish what is essential and what adventitious to the conduct of the human animal in the struggle for life.

We do not believe in the most obvious and facile deduction: that man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic and stupid in his conduct once every civilized institution is taken away, and that the Haftling is consequently nothing but a man without inhibitions. We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social habits and instincts are reduced to silence.

But another fact seems to us worthy of attention: there comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men – the saved and the drowned. Other pairs of opposites (the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate) are considerably less distinct, they seem less essential, and above all they allow for more numerous and complex intermediary gradations.

This division is much less evident in ordinary life; for there it rarely happens that a man loses himself. A man is normally not alone, and in his rise or fall is tied to the destinies of his neighbours; so that it is exceptional for anyone to acquire unlimited power, or to fall by a succession of defeats into utter ruin. Moreover, everyone is normally in possession of such spiritual, physical and even financial resources that the probabilities of a shipwreck, of total inadequacy in the face of life, are relatively small. And one must take into account a definite cushioning effect exercised both by the law, and by the moral sense which constitutes a self-imposed law; for a country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak or a powerful one too powerful.

But in the Lager things are different: here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone. If some Null Achtzehn vacillates, he will find no one to extend a helping hand; on the contrary, someone will knock him aside, because it is in no one’s interest that there be one more “mussulman” * dragging himself to work every day; and if someone, by a miracle of savage patience and cunning, finds a new method of avoiding the hardest work, a new art which yields him an ounce of bread, he will try to keep his method secret, and he will be esteemed and respected for this, and will derive from it an exclusive, personal benefit; he will become stronger and so will be feared, and who is feared is, ipso facto, a candidate for survival. [Levi’s footnote explains: ‘This word “Muselmann” I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection.’ By selection, he means transfer from the concentration camp to a death camp, i.e. extermination.]

In history and in life one sometimes seems to glimpse a ferocious law which states: “to he that has, will be given; to he that has not, will be taken away.” In the Lager, where man is alone and where the struggle for life is reduced to its primordial mechanism, this unjust law is openly in force, is recognized by all. With the adaptable, the strong and astute individuals, even the leaders willingly keep contact, sometimes even friendly contact, because they hope later to perhaps derive some benefit. But with the mussulmans, the men in decay, it is not even worth speaking, because one knows already that they will complain and will speak about what they used to eat at home. Even less worthwhile is it to make friends with them, because they have no distinguished acquaintances in camp, they do not gain any extra rations, they do not work in profitable Kommandos and they know no secret method of organizing. And in any case, one knows that they are only here on a visit, that in a few weeks nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some near-by field and a crossed-out number on a register. Although engulfed and swept along without rest by the innumerable crowd of those similar to them, they suffer and drag themselves along in an opaque intimate solitude, and in solitude they die or disappear, without leaving a trace in anyone’s memory.

The result of this pitiless process of natural selection could be read in the statistics of Lager population movements. At Auschwitz, in 1944, of the old Jewish prisoners (we will not speak of the others here, as their condition was different), “kleine Nummer” low numbers less than 150,000, only a few hundred had survived; not one was an ordinary Haftling, vegetating in the ordinary Kommandos, and subsisting on the normal ration. There remained only the doctors, tailors, shoemakers, musicians, cooks, young attractive homosexuals, friends or compatriots of some authority in the camp; or they were particularly pitiless, vigorous and inhuman individuals, installed (following an investiture by the SS command, which showed itself in such choices to possess satanic knowledge of human beings) in the posts of Kapos, Blockaltester, etc.; or finally, those who, without fulfilling particular functions, had always succeeded through their astuteness and energy in successfully organizing, gaining in this way, besides material advantages and reputation, the indulgence and esteem of the powerful people in the camp. Whosoever does not know how to become an “Organisator,” “Kombinator,” “Prominent” (the savage eloquence of these words!) soon becomes a “musselman.” In life, a third way exists, and is in fact the rule; it does not exist in the concentration camp.

To sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp. Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way. All the mussulmans who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; they are beaten by time, they do not begin to learn German, to disentangle the infernal knot of laws and prohibitions until their body is already in decay, and nothing can save them from selections or from death by exhaustion. Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me : an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

If the drowned have no story, and single and broad is the path to perdition, the paths to salvation are many, difficult and improbable.

The most travelled road, as we have stated, is the “Prominenz.” “Prominenten” is the name for the camp officials, from the Haftling-director (Lageraltester) to the Kapos, the cooks, the nurses, the night-guards, even to the hut-sweepers and to the Scheissminister and Bademeister (superintendents of the latrines and showers). We are more particularly interested in the Jewish prominents, because while the others are automatically invested with offices as they enter the camp in virtue of their natural supremacy, the Jews have to plot and struggle hard to gain them.

The Jewish prominents form a sad and notable human phenomenon. In them converge present, past and atavistic sufferings, and the tradition of hostility towards the stranger makes of them monsters of asociality and insensitivity.

They are the typical product of the structure of the German Lager: if one offers a position of privilege to a few individuals in a state of slavery, exacting in exchange the betrayal of a natural solidarity with their comrades, there will certainly be someone who will accept. He will be withdrawn from the common law and will become untouchable; the more power that he is given, the more he will be consequently hateful and hated. When he is given the command of a group of unfortunates, with the right of life or death over them, he will be cruel and tyrannical, because he will understand that if he is not sufficiently so, someone else, judged more suitable, will take over his post. Moreover, his capacity for hatred, unfulfilled in the direction of the oppressors, will double back, beyond all reason, on the oppressed; and he will only be satisfied when he has unloaded onto his underlings the injury received from above.

We are aware that this is very distant from the picture that is usually given of the oppressed who unite, if not in resistance, at least in suffering. We do not deny that this may be possible when oppression does not pass a certain limit, or perhaps when the oppressor, through inexperience or magnanimity, tolerates or favours it. But we state that in our days, in all countries in which a foreign people have set foot as invaders, an analogous position of rivalry and hatred among the subjected has been brought about; and this, like many other human characteristics, could be experienced in the Lager in the light of particularly cruel evidence.

About the non-Jewish prominents there is less to say, although they were far and away the most numerous (no “Aryan” Haftling was without a post, however modest). That they were stolid and bestial is natural when one thinks that the majority were ordinary criminals, chosen from the German prisons for the very purpose of their employment as superintendents of the camps for Jews; and we maintain that it was a very apt choice, because we refuse to believe that the squalid human specimens whom we saw at work were an average example, not of Germans in general, but even of German prisoners in particular. It is difficult to explain how in Auschwitz the political German, Polish and Russian prominents rivalled the ordinary convicts in brutality. But it is known that in Germany the qualification of political crime also applied to such acts as clandestine trade, illicit relations with Jewish women, theft from Party officials. The “real” politicals lived and died in other camps, with names now sadly famous, in notoriously hard conditions, which, however, in many aspects differed from those described here.

But besides the officials in the strict sense of the word, there is a vast category of prisoners, not initially favoured by fate, who fight merely with their own strength to survive. One has to fight against the current; to battle every day and every hour against exhaustion, hunger, cold and the resulting inertia; to resist enemies and have no pity for rivals; to sharpen one’s wits, build up one’s patience, strengthen one’s will-power. Or else, to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and individuals in cruel times. Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: as many as there are different human characters. All implied a weakening struggle of one against all, and a by no means small sum of aberrations and compromises. Survival without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world apart from powerful and direct interventions by fortune was conceded only to very few superior individuals, made of the stuff of martyrs and saints.

We will try to show in how many ways it was possible to reach salvation with the stories of Schepschel, Alfred L., Elias and Henri…

Levi P. If This Is A Man. New York: The Orion Press; 1959, p.99-106

I have stopped there, but everyone would benefit from reading the whole book. In fact, I should be more forceful than that. Everyone should read this book. I think Adorno said something about writing poetry after the Holocaust being “barbaric”. Doing anything after reading about Levi’s experiences is certainly difficult. How does one think, how does one moralise, how does one act after the fact of the Holocaust? We are challenged to try to make sense of this. We must never forget that this happened.


Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty

In Books on April 24, 2012 at 5:34 pm

This article was first published by openDemocracy on 07 Apr 2012

‘Treat them as children. Make them do what we know is for their benefit as well as our own, and all difficulties in China are at an end.’

Captain Osborn, quoted in Age of Capital, Eric Hobsbawm

‘A people’s capacity to govern itself democratically is thus proportionate to the degree of its understanding of the structure and functioning of the whole social body… The new economic system which has taken the place of the old is even more incomprehensible to them… It will probably be several generations before the people manage to understand the new state of affairs… Until then, however, a democratic form of government is impossible…’

N.S. Rubashov’s diary, Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler

The first period of the Occupy movement has come to a close. Much has been written regarding its effects and what direction it might take. Dan Hind’s Common Sense is a valuable, provocative addition to this literature which places the movement – and in particular its democratic method – in context before mapping out the author’s hopes for where this might lead.

The fifty-five page pamphlet makes the case that we are currently governed by an impenetrable elite, whom we allow to control us because of our unshaken belief in that which we take for granted, that which we see as common sense. Hind directly links his pamphlet to Thomas Paine’s book of the same name, saying that he aims for a similar upheaval of that which we accept without questioning. Of course, in Thomas Paine’s case, this led to revolution. Hind too hopes for a kind of revolution.

In elegantly persuasive, concise prose, without reference to jargon or anachronism, he destroys the ‘cult of the market’. First, he describes how it purports to work: ‘markets were a great levelling power,’ ‘the customer has become the chairman of the board,’ ‘in a marketplace, every person gets a vote every day.’ He then describes how it does work: ‘a small number of interlocking companies dominate the systems of credit and production’, their tendrils infiltrating the state to force its complicity and the obedience of the worker.

After the market, he destroys the ‘cult of the expert’. Like Terry Eagleton’s history of the critic, he finds its origins in the bourgeois revolutions of post-Enlightenment Europe, the ‘clever, highly educated and energetic expert’ able to disinterestedly parse the scrolls in search of the ‘truth’ and the common good. As the market invaded all aspects of culture, the cult of the expert became less that of the civil servant or the academic, and more that of the banker (or the corporate-funded academic). The state was rolled back, the markets took over. ‘The new experts told politicians that they could no longer presume to second guess the workings of supply and demand. The bond markets became objects of awed veneration. Former Goldman Sachs employees moved into government. When they did so it was called technocracy.’

For some time now I have been considering the similarities in outlook between such technocrats and N.S. Rubashov in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. The same arrogance, the same self-belief, the same dismissal of the masses as not ready, not adequately intelligent/ informed/ discerning to make the correct decisions. In short we, the masses, can not be trusted. The experts must make the world for us, they must design it, build it and modify it. For us. To paraphrase Senator Gracchus in the film, Gladiator, they may not be men of the people, but they do try to be men for the people.

A discussion of democracy and freedom ensues, with a powerful description of positive and negative freedoms, and the necessity of both in a functioning democracy. Hind argues that our positive freedoms have been removed as the experts of the market have assumed complete control of our lives. And that what we perceive as common sense has been used as argument to allow them to do so.

He offers specific evidence to puncture the cult in the form of quotations from those in seats of power before the global financial crisis, many of whom are still in power. These are the people to whom Paul Krugman refers as ‘Very Important People‘. Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King and Gordon Brown are all quoted, they are all shown to be ridiculous, and Hind asks why we are still listening to them.

So if the markets and the experts are ridiculous, then who can and should govern us? Hind’s answer is us. We should govern ourselves and be guided by ourselves, not necessarily in the complete absence of experts, but certainly in the knowledge that the opinion of one human being is no more valid than that of another, no matter his or her background, education or wealth. ‘The monopoly on public speech enjoyed by politicians, journalists and those who hold senior positions in powerful organisations must be broken.’

For evidence of our ability to govern ourselves, Hind finds inspiration in the Occupy movement, ‘The occupations of the last year have shown us that people are capable of awesome sophistication once they start listening to one another.’ He invokes the debating rules and norms of the assembly, arguing that they give equal voice to all participants, unlike our current system of democracy. ‘By acting as though they mattered, they discovered what had always been true – that the assembly of people is the beginning of power.’

To those who bemoan the inefficiency of the assembly system, its inability to come to any firm decisions, Hind argues that this is how democracy should and must be – a messy and sometimes unavoidably frustrating process. This is not a children’s party. His depiction is not rosy. His is not a determinist eschatology, not a path of progress towards utopia, but instead a future in which an individual can expect ‘some share of power in a permanently unfinished and unsatisfactory project of governing ourselves.’ The important factor here is that each share will be equal for all members of that society, regardless of class, creed, age or gender. Every person will be empowered by participation, therefore reclaiming their positive freedom without renouncing their negative freedom. Through this, we will build a ‘truly common sense’.

There are problems with the piece. One is unreferenced conjecture regarding the current prevalence of mental health problems in the UK. Hind hypothesises that this is due to the restriction of our positive freedoms and that the empowerment of the masses may offer a societal cure. While this may be possible, it is inessential to the overall argument, but I fear there may be some who seize on it as fanciful in order to the discredit the overall thesis.

The ideas here are not all new, but the synthesis into a cogent argument is stirring and exciting. The pamphlet is lucid, succinct and devoid of academic or activist idiom. His analysis of the Occupy movement avoids what Slavoj Zizek called falling ‘in love with themselves‘ and instead calls for renewed action. As someone who has missed the assemblies so far, I look forward to discovering their possibilities and frustrations. The tangents, by-laws and overarching progressions of government can be ours to explore.