• The Conflict between Conflicts in the Crisis of Globalised Capitalist Civilisation

  • By André Tosel | 10 May 11 | Posted under: Theory
  • I am not going to talk as a sociologist about class composition, about the debate over the notion of class. I will approach these indirectly. I would like to put forward some thoughts on the conflicts that characterise our present-day period of globalised capitalism, which to some extent are the conflicts that produce the systemic crisis which Wallerstein has addressed. I will distinguish, therefore two kinds of conflict and will, initially, carry out a pure logical ideal-type analysis of each of these conflicts. I will later try and complicate this rather too summary analysis in order to raise some problems and to figure out the issues.

    In fact, I make a distinction between two types of conflict today: social conflicts and conflicts of identity.

    Social conflict and identity

    The strictly social conflicts are those that are, more or less, waged in the broad category of class struggle. They are initiated by the unprecedented offensive of globalised capital to maintain and increase its rate of productivity, to control, at it wishes, the forms of production and consumption, the way of life and the way workers express themselves. They are fuelled by the resistance to this offensive from workers and the subaltern masses, as has been seen in the movements to defend public services and pensions, to save jobs and for environmental safety.

    For their part, the issues at stake in identity conflicts are modes of affiliation to dominant majority communities and minority-dominated ones so as to redefine these communities’ territory and rights. These conflicts are creating blood baths in certain African and Asian countries and were revived with the partition of Yugoslavia and the subsequent civil war, which was manipulated by the great powers. They work on the older states and, often brought about by large-scale immigration, are the favourite stomping ground for the extreme right. Racism and xenophobia overdetermine social discontent and are a factor in a disoriented common sense.

    Social conflict: life, work, langauge and cooperative imagination

    These two kinds of conflicts should not be confused. They are not necessarily linked, though they can change from one into the other, forming complex configurations. How then can one understand these different conflicts that can become a conflict between conflicts?

    As far as social conflicts are concerned, one should first of all note their return. They have reappeared with increasing force in the last few years, though without obtaining results benefitting the working classes. They have not been able to prevent pauperisation, existential insecurity, the production of a “surplus humanity”, the degeneration of democracy dominated by economic and political oligarchies, or of ecological devastation. The fundamental issue of these conflicts is always the very same dimension of human subjectivity in its crudest form: life, work, and communication and free expression. Life, work, language, triangulate the whole area of existence.

    These existential conflicts thus have at stake the production and reproduction of a life free from poverty, hunger, sickness and ignorance. Their horizon is one of a life lived in dignified conditions possible in a developed society. They are complicated and dramatised if one takes into account the new level imposed by the alteration in the forms of life on the planet and the fact that human activity has become, for the first time in the history of the human species, a force that is able to change the form of the earth and that threatens to destroy the conditions of its own existence.

    At the same time, these existential conflicts are established as conflicts that still and always turn around the issue of work or non-work, since the contradictory unity of work and non-work characterise our society. What can be done to have the leisure time now objectively freed up by the global level of productivity, without this leisure being rotted by inactivity, unemployment and by casting aside human beings who have become useless? How can we, at the same time, give work its full realisation beyond any sort of productivism, dedicate the human capacity to act and invent at the point at which competition makes room for free cooperation? To achieve this it is not enough to ensure a just distribution of the wealth produced – it is necessary to promote the ability of the producing classes to organise and manage what they produce.

    Finally, and always at the same time, these conflicts are still conflicts permeated by the need to speak out, by the expression of a cooperative imagination and they have, as their reference point, a symbolic third thing, which is a community, to be sure still to be achieved, but based on a free equality and an equal freedom yet always present in every action productive of the common existence of free individuality. These conflicts are educators of those involved in them. Their protagonists develop capacities of intellectual, affective, imaginative and symbolic expression and they experience the joy generated by the common sharing of struggles, however hard they may be.

    Identity conflicts

    While “existential” social conflicts are conflicts that philosophically refer to a concept of subjectivity taken as the totality of its fundamental manifestations – work, life, speech – identity conflicts are not primarily and directly concerned with these manifestations, although they may be present. They are carried out, philosophically, in the name of their alleged identity by populations who either find themselves stigmatised or else consider themselves threatened by others, finding themselves in a situation of domination or oppression. They are inspired by the need for recognition, a recognition denied by their identity.

    This identity is defined by its difference from other identities that also assert themselves by demanding recognition of their difference. These identity conflicts are not carried out in the name of life, work and free speech, even if some of the motivations are related to these three factors. What is important to them is the recognition of differences related to belonging to a structured group in accordance with polarities that are adopted during a process of speciation that implies differentiation – even, at its most extreme, implying the division of, and a breach in, the unity of the human race. This involves dual relationships. The pair man/woman could be classed amongst these pairs of terms seen as opposed or different, but the man/woman conflict goes beyond the idea of identity conflict since it concerns, in a more direct manner, the dimensions of life, work and speech; it deserves special treatment. Typically involved are pairs that indicate affiliation to communities. These are defined in terms of nationality (national/not national), religion (Moslem/Christian) or ethnicised culture (Basque/French) or of civilisation (West/East, especially Arab).

    These differences take us back to marks, to cultural markers that may or may not overlap. These conflicts over-value the identity dimension by giving it a status of absolute reality and isolating it from any relational complex. It has become a truism to say that identities are imaginary constructs – but their ability to mobilise is enormous. The affiliation identity is an aspect of subjectivity in the broad sense of the word, but it is only a segment defined by a constituted historic contingency that penetrates and structurally overdetermines the three essential constitutive moments of existence: life, work and speech. While it is true that one is not born woman, Moslem, Egyptian or oriental but becomes so, it is also true that it is impossible to avoid this branding by affiliation, which is native to each individual.

    These struggles for recognition are struggles the horizon of which is the oppositional category of “them/us”: the others, who do not recognise me in my difference from them, who deny my own identity of membership, us who are in a situation of inferiority, of domination and who demand recognition of this. This struggle between them and us should not be confused with struggles arising from social conflicts: struggles for life, work, to have a say, which are generic struggles and so governed by two different categories that do not imply the division of humanity into communities of affiliation, but have to do with the general conditions of human life.

    Inside/outside: new forms of class struggle

    These struggles relate to the “inside/outside” pair. On the one hand, there are people who enjoy conditions that allow them to reproduce their human biological life in conditions of ease and security: they eat, dress, come and go unhampered. They thus can belong to a common world, despite the things that oppose them to the others. These people can live, a minority of them even live well by working in supervisory, management or design fields. A minority of that minority can even take decisions that affect others; they play the role of cause, while those who obey or submit may be reduced to the status of being effects of these decisions, which can deprive them of the ability to act. Finally, the former appropriate the powers of science, objectified in the machinery of knowledge and so impose their conception of the world as normal and self-evident.

    Because of this outside/inside distinction, which apply to life, work and having a say, there is, on the other side, the mass of subalterns, all those who do not possess these conditions of life but often live in conditions much worse than those of wage exploitation, who do not even have a life and are “the ones deprived of …”. The latter have either some insecure, ill-paid job or exist without work. These are victims of a new kind of ignorance and cannot appropriate the common capital of knowledge. They speak, to be sure, and express their ill being, express their needs and their desire for freedom and equality, but their language, even if it is common to them, does not count. The recognised freedom of expression is neutralised, they are made inaudible and, if possible, invisible. They live inside society in a kind of interiorised exterior. They are outside within this inside and are, in effect, in a society in the manner of being outside. These existential social conflicts are nothing but forms of the class struggle that capital is now waging unceasingly by imposing henceforth on all of society the real submission (subsumption) that instrumentalises everyone, as a means of infinite accumulation.

    These struggles do not have as their aim a plurality of communitarian areas, making each one a world apart from and hostile to others. The issue for them is the sharing in common of a common world, in which everyone has their part in all the activities of work, life and language. The issue of the class struggle is certainly the free expression of the individual power to act and think – but in a common world. This is a cosmo-poietic issue, a matter of making the world. Today the situation is very grave precisely because globalisation is anything but globalisation. It is a process where capital’s hold on all activities makes the world uninhabitable for many people. From this point of view, capitalism makes the world into a non-world, even more nihilistic than squalor1, since it deprives human beings of their mode of existence, which is to produce a world where everyone is alongside each and everyone else. Social conflicts have as an object inter-esse.2 Globalisation is a “de-worldisation”, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt said, a kind of social “acosmicism” that creates a situation where millions of people are thrown, in one way or another, into a kind of apartheid; into a world in such a way that they are deprived of the world.

    National and anticolonial identity conflicts

    The horizon of conflicts of affiliation identities results from another problem and other categories.It involves, each time, an opposition not of the inside/outside of society, but of an opposition between an us and them struggling to take over a distinctly particular world. First of all, it is not a question of sharing a common world for Catholics and Moslems or for blacks and whites, for a particular population that, on a given territory, demands either the exclusive confirmation of its identity or that it is granted the status of a minority closed in on itself. It is, above all, a matter of getting recognised not as a generic human being that lives, speaks and works but to be recognised, above all else, as a member of a community, or even of a number of communities whose affiliation-identities are negated. Living, working and speaking only exist within territorial forms, and the latter demand that the various manifestations of the generic conditions and expressions of life, work and speech be subordinated to them.

    It is, above all, a matter of being recognised as a Moslem, as a Black, as a Serb, as a Croatian or as a Russian. The fact that these identity conflicts can, in extreme cases, degenerate into ethnic cleansing should not prevent us from considering their legitimate rationales. Human beings do not exist solely in a generic and indistinct manner as human beings living, working and speaking in the abstract. They are born and live in a world that always appears to them as an historic and geographic milieu, as a community, a nation, a state, a territory with its beliefs, its language, its network of imaginary and symbolic relations, structured by phenomena of identification with a community of which they expect that it will recognise them as its own and protect them.

    The social and political movements have already met specific forms of this problem in the 19th and 20th centuries, with nationalisms, anti-colonial wars of national independence. The working class movement found its stations of the cross there throughout its history under the Second and Third Internationals. While, impelled by the Bolshevik Revolution, it was able for a while to connect social and anti-colonial struggles after 1917, in particular in China, Vietnam and Cuba, it had already broken down in 1914, under the weight of nationalisms that led the European proletariat into mutual massacres. Globalised capitalism today is reviving identity conflicts in new forms, is multiplying and complicating them while the anti-system social movements are seemingly permanently marginalised.

    If these identity conflicts necessarily have an anthropological dimension, since identity is a segment of subjectivity, they tend, by their own logic, to minimise the orientations, the motivations, that depend on the general human condition of the living, working and speaking subject, working to reduce them to a plurality of communities that eliminate the dimension of being in the common world. It is a matter of living, working and speaking, essentially while being recognised imaginatively and symbolically as Moslem or Christian, as Black, etc. The common world is in danger of disappearing in a plurality of worlds where each “us” is distinct from “them”. The plurality of worlds generates, in its most extreme form, world wars and its destructive chaos. Pushed to the limit, these conflicts carry a de-worldisation. Certainly, nothing is simple since, inversely, the social conflicts can ignore the real fabric of affiliation communities and impose on them the hegemony of a common pseudo-world which simply hides the hegemony of the strongest communities, the world imperialisms.

    The fact remains, however, that identity conflicts have a limited, partial and potentially ultra-violent horizon, that they are not ruled by the perspective of a common world made up of individual particularities but of a mosaic of closed and potentially aggressive particularities.

    Life, work and speech are shared in common, but closed identity communities territorialise this sharing and are in danger of inverting it into a division of exclusive parts.

    Capitalest globalisation and the conflict between conficts

    The task of theory today is to determine how capitalist globalisation has put in place the conditions for these conflicts and of the conflicts between conflicts. These conflicts, indeed, do not converge. They often oppose one another, even if the political task is to manage such a convergence – or rather a convergence of identity conflicts into social conflicts. In any case, with the perspective of a real possibility of a conflict between the two conflicts and of their pure logics, it is important to take the measure of the historical forms of conflicts, which are necessarily impure.

    To take the measure of the impure complexity of our globalised historicity, it would be useful to have recourse to the problem of a philosophic anthropology, that of Spinoza. Spinoza distinguished between sad passions and joyful passions, as expressions of the desire to exist in one’s trans-individual structure. Joyful passions are those that increase our capacity to act and think and that, in general, are linked to practices of friendship, solidarity and cooperation. Indeed, even though social conflicts imply positions of enmity and opposition, they are also conflicts that generate a certain joyfulness: the joy of responsible cooperation, not to exclude others but to appropriate in common what is absolutely needed to live like a human being, as a living subject, working and speaking. These conflicts may well express some sadness, some resentment and, to be sure, hatred, but this sadness takes root in a specific sadness, that which is born of feeling a diminution of the individual and collective power to act. The immanent goal of social conflicts is the suspension of this sadness, the joy of living together in a positive interdependence, of working together to produce useful things, to create, by free speech a common spirit around the common usefulness. In their often violent course, these conflicts also produce joy. Whoever has campaigned, even a little, knows full well that a real joy is felt in collective actions to transform the world for the better and to share the same world, this same world from which the neoliberal oligarchs have appropriated joy, control and management, including a level of consumption that borders on delirium.

    Identity conflicts – which the Sarkozy state is exacerbating under the guise of eradicating them, and in an objective alliance with the fundamentalists he pretends to fight, particularly with Islamicist communitarianism – play a significant role, though it is not the only influence, in augmenting sad passions: resentment, jealousy, revenge, hatred up to the point of destroying the other. They are clearly linked to a decline in the power to act, implied by the social relations that oppose some “we’s” and some “them’s”. To the extent that I am not recognised, or am stigmatised, as a member of this or that community, I suffer attacks on my conditions of life, work and free expression. This situation makes it impossible to make visible and obvious the effectiveness of the real submission of these activities to capital since the identity markers find themselves positioned and seen as principal efficient causes, which they can also be according to a logic of overdetermination that characterised the anti-colonial struggles for national independence.

    Identity conflicts are notable for the speed and virulence with which they are converted into hatred of the other – that other who oppresses us, who does not consider us according to what makes, in us, our difference with him, that is to say, our true identity – that other who, in negating me, negates me as a human being, and then we in turn declass them by excluding them from belonging to the human species as a savage, barbarian and untermensch. The horizon of these identity conflicts is obstructed by the generalisation of opposing categories them and us. These are terrible categories of daily terror that essentialise the cultural markers by erecting them in a mythical universe of fixed and immutable essences. Each “us” is tempted to declare: “we are the real human beings”, “they are not human”, “they bestow on themselves the category of human beings and they can at any moment treat us as sub-human”. Each term of opposition is thought to be the positive term and the inverse its negative opposite, the judgement the other has of himself “we are civilised, the real human beings, and they consider us barbarians”, “we will show them that, in reality, they are the barbarians and it is we who are civilised”.

    The logic of identity conflict is specular and bi-polar, with exchanges of reciprocal negatives, in which hatred dominates and the perspective very quickly becomes that of destroying the enemy. When one hates someone – the one who prevents you from living, who does not recognise your difference – one destroys the person who does not recognise you. This may explain today the special violence possible in the identity conflicts in Africa, or in Europe – in the Balkans and Yugoslavia –, and which can still happen almost anywhere in the world … since we know that they are, to some extent, breaking out everywhere, as in India or Pakistan, on the Ivory Coast or in Iraq. It is also a selective logic, since the motivations for anger are linked to the inequalities in living conditions, to exploitation of labour, the deprivation of rights to free speech and participation, serve above all as confirmation of the negation of identity. Once the identity movement is assured of its recognition, nothing ensures that there is respect within the victorious or recognised community. Inequality, exploitation, repression continue, but the identity requirement has priority and makes them recede by overdetermining them. Inversely, in a society that has succeeded in ensuring decent conditions of life, work and free speech, identity conflicts can be born. However, these conditions should enable a reasonable formulation of these identity claims and treatment without the extremes of destructive hatred.

    A positive social conversion of identity struggles?

    It is at this point that the question must be raised of the effective and historic intermingling of these conflicts. We have had the example of identity conflicts where the struggle for identity and recognition is converted into a social conflict. The first moments of the victorious communist revolutions in Russia and in China, at the time of colonisation, were created by an association of struggles for independence of peoples and of struggles to produce a common world aiming at equality in life, work and the expression of ideas. The breakdown of this convergence, which was the conversion of conflicts, was the real tragedy of the 20th century, and this was also the tragedy of communism of the Soviet type. Today the challenge is to produce a new conversion – and this problem requires that the conflict between the two conflicts cease.

    We are in fact in a situation where the social conflicts cannot all be converted into identity conflicts – so much the better! – and we are also in a world where identity conflicts tend to take the place of social conflicts, to overdetermine them to the extent of erasing the unifying common sense which combines in a secular trinity the universal struggle for a worthwhile life, for liberated labour associated with free time and for a living freedom of speech. Unless a new possibility opens up of operating the inverse conversion of an identity conflict into a social conflict, the outlook of identity conflicts can only become one of war – and a war of unprecedented violence. The perspective of social conflicts can certainly be blocked by the hegemony of imperial forms, but the logic of these conflicts does not imply the destruction of the other as an enemy – a private and mortal enemy. Identity conflicts derive their fundamental strength from the fact that they are motivated by an extraordinary mobilisation of emotions and by an extraordinary capacity to mobilise imaginary and symbolic resources.

    However, there is a enormous theoretical and political work to be done to convert an identity conflict into a social conflict and, indeed, work must be done on the imagination and the symbolisms to show that, in practice and despite appearances, the All-Powerful character of one God or another, or the power of a Nation or a Race (all of these terms exalted by upper-case letters) cannot be a substitute for a symbolic order. In any case, it is a matter of false symbolic orders, exactly like capital with its fetishisms and its religion of everyday life.

    In this period of globalisation, we are in a situation of being faced with an intermingling which is an over-determination of social conflicts and identity conflicts. There is urgent need to first recognise identity conflicts, then filter out those of their components which can be legitimate when a population is minimised by a majority and, finally, to transform them into social conflicts so that the majority itself does not become, in imagination and symbolism, predatory. Indeed, majorities also fear that a minority when exploited and ill-treated can become a threat that can declass that majority, reducing it to a state of inferiority, of sub-humanity – which they want to avoid. Consequently, majorities push themselves and the minorities to carry out this war. We are rediscovering the danger of a mad war of majorities against minorities. The case of Islam is a prime example. While the movement of the actual democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are engaging in the context of fertile social conflicts and are making the idea recede that Islam in Europe can be considered a vanguard of a totalitarian theological-political movement, the phantasm of a self-destructive identity war of civilisations remains.

    If this work on the real, material, imaginary and symbolic forms of these two conflicts is not done, we will not be able to advance and treat the problem which Wallerstein addressed when he said that finally today the classic social left and the indigenous left are not coming together. However, I did not raise the problem of the indigenous who, I believe, in Latin America can socialise their conflict and find a composite form with other forces of transformation. I spoke of the conflict between conflicts as it occurs in Europe, especially in the issue of inter-culturalism. This limitation shows that, in every case, it is necessary to carry out a concrete analysis of the concrete situation, as Lenin insisted. Today it is time to deal with these two conflicts and to enter into the reality that is not the confrontation of two pure ideal types but the impurity of passing from one conflict to the other.



    1. In French, the word for squalor is “immonde” which implies “unworld”.
    2. Latin: intersum, to lie between, among – the word indicates trans-individual relations. 

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