Stalingrad at Standing Rock?

Photo by Jeffrey Putney | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Jeffrey Putney | CC BY 2.0


Whether the ultimate showdown occurs on Monday or not, there is certainly a moment of great historical significance in the making at Standing Rock.  The two ends of the chain of (what I will call) “absurd brutality” and “brutal absurdity” are connected there, the chain set in motion by European colonialism and presently manifesting in postmodern capitalism.  At either end of the chain there is a supposed “question” that is absurd, ridiculous, crazy.  In this meeting point of the two ends of the chain we see a world that appears to have spiraled into not only insanity but even into a late stage of dementia.

Before getting all world-historical, let’s look at the lines that are being drawn.  First and foremost, there is the line that is being drawn by the  Lakota Sioux.  This is an unambiguous case of where the line separates the good people from the bad people.  How far the scope of the term “bad people” reaches beyond those on the frontline of attacking the Water Protectors is ambiguous–in some sense it reaches out to all of us who take advantage of energy production in the global economy.  At the least, this spreading wave of complicity represents a demand that we take a stand on the side of the Lakota Sioux.

Thus far, the solidarity has been extraordinary, a beautiful thing to see.  The images of a delegation from Black Lives Matter riding to the Standing Rock camp are some of the most beautiful and powerful images I have seen in a long time.

Thousands of U.S. military veterans are now pouring into the Standing Rock camp, ready to form a shield against the militarized police on the other side.  From what I heard from a friend who recently came back from Standing Rock, the motivations of these veterans embody a startling paradox.  They understand themselves to have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq (and other places) to defend freedom; here they feel they have the opportunity to defend freedom and justice for people in the United States–and what better people to defend than the aboriginal people of the United States?  Perhaps, given that the series of U.S. invasions of what we used to call the “Third World” have had absolutely nothing to do with freedom or justice (except in the sense that they had to do with unfreedom and injustice), these veterans are now seeking some sense of redemption.  Whether and to what extent these veterans consciously know or feel this, their brave act of solidarity is honorable and inspiring, and it will make a great difference in how things unfold.

And of course many other people of various colors and nationalities are converging on Standing Rock, fulfilling Lakota prophecy of the “rainbow warrior” and the “rainbow family.”  These prophecies are found in the philosophies and myth-structures of many Native American peoples; to me they speak of what Badiou calls the “invariants,” the “hypothesis,” and the “idea” of communism.  There is also something to be learned here regarding globalism and the politics of difference and everything swirling around the term identity politics.  But that’s another discussion; for now, let us simply take inspiration from the great solidarity that has emerged and still growing.

Going further, this insult to the Seven Tents Sioux tribe is a further insult to, and a line being drawn around and against, Native Americans in general.  Let’s call “reservations” what they are: rural concentration camps.  These camps exist in a larger history of ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide from sea to shining sea.  There is nothing new to be said here (except perhaps in the context of a broader application of fascism in the United States).  Neither is there anything new to be said about the never-ending series of treaty violations committed against the Native American peoples by the U.S. federal government.  Actually, there is one thing, one very crucial thing.  Having removed the Native American population to lands where their traditional ways of life are not sustainable, and having chosen these lands for reservations in the first place because these lands were not wanted by the white settlers, now it turns out that these lands are desirable after all.  This was inevitable, given the fact that capitalism, in its global imperialist stage, must move into every nook and cranny of the world in its never-ending quest to squeeze blood and oil out of rocks.

Here, then, we find ourselves at the “final line,” the line that, for capitalism and its agents, can never come, can never be recognized as such.  From any kind of ethical standpoint, one would think that there are certain lines that should never be crossed.  In the pursuit of surplus value, however, there are no such lines for capitalism.  There may be a place for an “ethical moment” in the conception of politics, of what politics ought to be (I’ve devoted a large part of my career as a philosopher to examining this question), but when it comes to the brutal cash nexus (as Marx called it), “ethics” is no match.  Indeed, most of what people call “ethics” or “morality,” or even “religion,” adapts itself all too well to this nexus and its machinations.

In the period of modernity, in the West at any rate, this is a world in which “knowledge” is always implicated in matrices of power, without any fundamental regard for truth.  There is a joke in the field of linguistics that goes, “What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?”  “A language has an army.”  Yes, of course this “knowledge/power” relation has been in the mix ever since Thracymachus angrily responded to Socrates (Republic, Book I) and before, but now the genie has truly been let out of the bottle, and this genie of the brutal cash nexus, or, more properly, the commodification of labor-power, works its cruel magic in every part of life.

In the later period of imperialism, capitalism as a global mode of production (beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, and integrated with centuries of colonialism), it becomes imperative from a systemic standpoint that the past remain “another country.”  “Knowledge” just becomes subjectivity, but what counts is the subjectivity–formed and guided, broadly, by the generally objective imperatives of capital, to accumulate surplus value–of the ruling class.  (This is just Marx’s “dominant ideology” thesis.)  As for the rest, well, sure, everyone has an opinion.

In the postmodern phase of capitalism, which is still within the imperialist mode of production (with certain modifications in production that we associate with globalism, such as “just-in-time production,” “containerization,” and–a quantitative development with qualitative results–an ever-more extreme concentration of capital in the “financial sector), the “media” and the “culture industry” become fully integrated into the workings of the system.  Terms such as “society of the spectacle” (Guy Debord) or “cognitive mapping” and “loss of affect” (Fredric Jameson) or “communicative capitalism” (Jodi Dean) or the “electronification of the global markets” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; in this sense, postmodernity begins around 1972) and the idea that “Big Brother is you, watching” (Mark Crispin Miller) help elaborate, to put it bluntly, the fix we’re in.

Even just to call this “capitalism in the time of the internet” would go far enough to make the point here: there is no shortage of opinions rushing around in a world of manic consumerism in a perpetual panic about many things that don’t really matter, or in a panic about things that do matter (food, shelter, clothing) but diverted into a “culture” of pure distraction.  This, as both Jodi Dean and Alain Badiou argue, is what we call and largely accept as “democracy” today.  Sheldon Wolin calls it “Democracy, Incorporated,” and even “inverted totalitarianism.”

Though this is a bit manichean, I would also call all of this “anti-politics”: these are the forces that not only violently downpress any attempt for a real expression of politics to emerge, but, even more, in “normal times,” they channel even the barest buds of such expressions into their opposite.  In short, people’s minds are continually messed with, and everyone floats in a kind of perfect “freedom” in a sea of the equality of opinions.

The question is not only whether some truth could burst through this complex and qualitatively variegated melange of mechanisms moving at the speed of light, but also whether anyone will be able to recognize truth, should it appear.  To put things crudely, the way that we’re mixed up in this postmodern capitalist mess, the way that we’re under what Adorno called “the spell,” would we even know truth if it bit us on the ass?

Perhaps the condition of truth’s emergence in this big mess is indeed a manichean situation.  Marx talked about a world divided into two great camps, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  He wasn’t entirely wrong in this conception, but there are some things missing.  We are seeing in our present moment that at least the term “working class” has entered back into the arena of official discourse, and actual working-class people are making their presence felt.  This is a good thing, on the whole.  However–and I think this is the lesson of Lenin’s What is to be Done?-simply the presence and even the movement of the working class is not yet an embodiment of truth, for that a leap is required.  Or, better, an opening is required, and a letting go–because, if it is simply a matter of a leap (which, I realize, is not actually a simple thing, either), then we’re still too much in the realm of subjectivity.  Can we be awoken from our postmodern dogmatic slumbers by a stark opposition between true politics and anti-politics?

With Standing Rock, we have in front of us a real point of contact with this question, and the proof of this is that what happens at Standing Rock will matter in a very large way, I would even say a “world-historic” way.

All I have been trying to say with this theoretical stuff (or references to ideas, at any rate) is that there are philosophical questions here that matter, too, and these questions are not incidental to what will happen in the world, they are not incidental to where things will go from here.

The philosophical questions are: What is truth?  Can truth appear in the midst of everything that is set against it?  Can we still recognize truth if it emerges.

These questions come out of the philosophy of Badiou, though perhaps with a little more specific attention to the postmodern mess than Badiou would generally give it.  There is a point to the latter, too, however, that matters.  When I said that what is needed is an opening and a letting go, and not only a leap, what I am attempting to address is the asymmetry of truth and falsehood.  We are in a world of swirling, circulating opinions, and judgments made by powerful people on the basis of purely instrumental reason.  Some of what swirls around, in fact probably a good deal of it, happens to coincide with what is conventionally called “true.”  The conditions of this swirling melange, however, are not themselves fundamentally related to truth, but instead to keeping people in a world of fundamental falsehood.

We cannot get out of this world simply through the via negativa, by overturning particular falsehoods.  Of course this is important work.  Sometimes this work, after the Frankfurt School, is called “cultural critique,” as a mode of philosophizing.  Badiou isn’t much given to it, perhaps because we’re now in a world where a great deal of what passes for “culture” is in fact not important, it’s prefabricated to be disposable.  After all, this isn’t Adorno talking about Schoenberg versus Stravinsky.  There is not a simple dialectic of negation to get from the disposable world–in art or politics–to a true world (of art or politics).  There is a gap, or a void, or a breach, and something steps into it–namely, truth.

Another way to put this claim about asymmetry is that the diagnosis is not the cure.  Something else is needed, something new to the situation, something that brings about a new situation and that evacuates the previous situation.

Now, this all sounds a bit mysterious and messianic (and perhaps there is a way here to think anew what has been called “messianic”); some have summed up Badiou’s arguments under the heading, “miracles can happen” (e.g., Alex Callinicos, The Resources of Critique). What is happening instead with the new truth is that something is here that is uncounted and indiscernible in the present situation.  We will see what it is after it happens, but not before.  A chess analogy serves well here–the moment when a chess piece seems to come out of nowhere to checkmate you, it’s not as if that piece and the other pieces and the sixty-four squares weren’t there before.  As Wittgenstein put it, “Nothing is hidden”–it’s just that, in our present situation, we don’t see the thing that might save us.

So, what we are concerned with here can properly be called “Truth,” with a capital-T.  My point is that Standing Rock represents the kind of face-off in the midst of which Truth might actually appear and take hold.  The situation there is much more stark than what we ordinarily experience in the postmodern condition.

As always, there is more to be said, but let’s try now to “rise from the abstract to the concrete,” as Marx put it.  However, let me insist one more time that these philosophical points we’ve worked through just now matter.  Philosophy does not create truth, or Truth, it explores how we might encounter truths, and it “registers” Truth.  If we substitute for “Truth” the idea of a “real” or “true” politics, this Truth has fundamentally to do with the people.

What presents itself in a very stark way at Standing Rock is that politics is right up against anti-politics.  Indigenous people and their comrades are up against the imperialist mode of production.  There is no middle ground.

(Whether or not “comrades” is the right word, the word I am avoiding is “allies”–which again goes to the question of political universalism and identity politics.)

Certainly, it is deeply in the interests of the system to at least present things as if there is a middle ground.  And, indeed, there are breaking developments even as I write this (on the evening of 12.4.16).  As reported just a few hours ago, “The U.S. Army has decided not to allow an oil pipeline to cross under a reservoir on land it controls in North Dakota in a move praised by protesters.  The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe hailed an ‘historic decision’ and said it was ‘forever grateful’ to President Obama.  Instead, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will look at alternative routes, a statement by the campaigners said” (BBC.com, 12.4.16, approx. 1700 set).  So, the pipeline might be moved.  However, the company that is building the pipeline, Energy Transfers, has said that it might just pay whatever fines would apply to going against the will of the Army Corps of Engineers and build under the reservoir anyway.

There most likely won’t be a Stalingrad on December 5, 2016, then, but this doesn’t mean that such a make-or-break situation is not coming, even in the case of the Seven Tents Sioux or the specific corporations and banks involved in this pipeline.  One point here is that it is not in the interests of the latter to have a Stalingrad, either, though of course they are willing to do such a thing if that is what it takes for imperialist capital to advance its interests.  Imperialism will stop at nothing, and certainly not for anything having to do with “ethics” or “merely human concerns.”  Imperialism can’t stop itself, because it isn’t fundamentally the “greed” of individuals that motivates it, but rather the inner-workings of the capitalist system of commodity production, in which all qualities are reduced to quantities–water, land, a way of life, people being among these qualities.

(Here we see an opposition that is as stark as can be.  What is the “universal language,” or what will be?  Is it money, or is it justice?  This is what is being fought out at Standing Rock.  On the “greed” question, this is where movements such as “Occupy”–which was a great movement, don’t get me wrong–need to deepen their sense of reality.)

We really are in the world of postmodern capital here, because, on the one side, this truly is a situation where there is no middle ground, either this water will be protected or it won’t be; but, on the other side, there is a greater ability than in earlier periods of history to create the spectacle of a middle ground, especially for people who are distant from the actual scene at Standing Rock.  Hillary Clinton’s one pronouncement on the subject represented this “false middle ground” perfectly, when she said that all the parties need to sit down and talk things out, including the corporate representatives.

(The Clintons in general have been excellent representatives of postmodern capitalism–as were their opponents, back in the day when Ken Starr spent more than sixty-million dollars to talk about a blowjob and a stain on a blue dress.)

Therefore, let’s not get all grateful to Obama just yet.  He and Hillary Clinton have been completely absent from this gathering storm, they have kept silent.  It seems highly likely that the reason Obama (whatever his role was in this) and the federal government acted at this very late moment especially because of the presence of the veterans.  It is to all of the people who are standing at Standing Rock toward whom all of humanity should be grateful.  But the time for standing is not over.

Let’s not get all grateful yet–that’s giving in to the spectacle, to the power machinations of anti-politics.  The latter has power and money on its side, and it can wait awhile for things to cool down, and then go about its business.

As I said earlier, there are these “questions at either end of the chain.”  Each of the “questions” is on the edge of absurdity, and beyond; or, to put it more directly, each is in fact an “absurd question,” a “question” that it is ridiculous even to ask.

It is completely absurd and ridiculous that there is even a question of building the DAPL in the place where Energy Transfer and its backers want to build it.  If there is anything that makes sense in the 240 years of the U.S. republic, and the two hundred and more years of colonization (“when the predator came”) that preceded this establishment, it is the following: If Native Americans don’t want something to happen on their land, or on land or by water that affects them, that’s it, that’s the end of the story.  There is no discussion.

All people in America, and indeed all of humanity, should be grateful for this stopping point–and not that it is the only one, especially where the indigenous people of all lands are concerned, but it is the one that has been thrust in the foreground.

On the other side, on the side of the imperialist mode of production, it is also not really a “question” that this mode will go forward, gathering its “living representatives” to plan and speak for it, with the pursuit of profit, in a world where everyone and everything is understood in market terms.  The only question is How this is to be accomplished, there is no room whatsoever for “Why?”  The “stopping point” at Standing Rock is raising the issue of “Why?”, and this is a big problem for the existing system of things, a very big problem.  It’s not only a matter of this pipeline, it’s a matter of being able to ask a “real question,” a question that goes to the truth of things, a question that goes to the possibility of real politics.  So, then the “question” (not a real question) for imperialism is what combination of brute police force and postmodern image-manipulation will get the job done.

The “two questions at the edge of absurdity” can be seen as starkly counterposed in what are reported in all mainstream media sources (including the just-cited BBC World News, and NPR) as “clashes between police and protestors.”  Having these heavily-armed, militarized police beat the crap out of people is not a “clash.”  That should be more than obvious–there is no “question” of a “clash” here, any more than there is a question of some “clash” of legitimate interests around the DAPL itself.

And, indeed, because of the non-existence of the artificially-created question in the first place, because this non-existence is quite clear to many millions of people, and, indeed, because there are moments when the image-dissemination machinery of postmodern capitalism can occasionally serve the people, it is in some ways not surprising that the level of solidarity around this possible “stopping point” of imperialism, this place where for once the “Why?” might emerge, is very high, of very good quality, and even very disciplined on the whole.

These “police,” not incidentally, bear a great deal of examination, and in every locale.  This is not the first deployment, as a military force, of the post-9/11, “homeland security” police, but it is the most significant one.  This is the case for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the outright insanity of the implicit (perhaps soon to be explicit) implication that Native Americans who are trying to protect their own land and water and culture are “terrorists.”

Supposedly the one who is in charge of this force is the sheriff of Morton County, North Dakota.  So, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department has water cannons, guns that fire rubber bullets (in case anyone here doesn’t know, rubber bullets don’t just bounce off a person–they can bring serious injury and death), and armored military vehicles?  Perhaps all of us who live in smaller towns should check into what the police have–and then get to work on how we can disarm these paramilitary forces.

Clearly the question of violence for radical ends is on the table, the kind of question that the agents of postmodern capitalism, especially the ones associated with the Democratic Party, but also for too much of the so-called “left,” would like to have sucked up into the false “middle ground.”  I will just leave it here that I hope that we will learn some things, for once, from whatever transpires in the coming days.

How ironic is it that, when the German Wehrmacht set out to lay siege to Stalingrad, it was in order to reach the Caspian oil fields to the east of the city.  The NAZI war effort was running out of gas.  The defeat of the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad, at unimaginable cost, was a world-historical turning point.  Can such a thing even exist in postmodern capitalism?  We may find out in the coming days.

There is so much in this last paragraph that is enormously difficult, that really does need to be drawn out.  Perhaps first of all what needs to be thought more deeply is the fact that the regime of Stalin did not confront the regime of Hitler with a very clear presentation of truth or politics–to say the least.  (I say this without at all accepting the fashionable and even “orthodox” equivalency made of Stalin and Hitler; but again this is enormously complicated.)  At Standing Rock, one of the most remarkable elements of the situation is that the line can be drawn very clearly.  And so let’s stop here, at the Stopping Point that we should cherish and that must be defended, in the hope that we can go further.  The people here are on the side of Truth, or at least on the side of its emergence, and so I will say unequivocally and without any irony whatsoever, All Power to the People!

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Bill Martin is a professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago; at present he is also Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Huaqiao University in Xiamen, PRC. His most recent book is Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation. Now he is at work on a large project of synthesis, bringing together elements of Buddhism, Maoism, and French Marxism (especially the ideas of Alain Badiou). He is also a musician, and recently released two albums of experimental music, Gravitas (Avant-Bass 1) and Terre de Bas (Avant-Bass 2).

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