Individuality Only Exists With Time to Breathe, Research Time, 23/12/2013

A critic of Marxism and fascism for the
same reasons, Paul Virilio would be a
favourite left-wing thinker for many
contemporary libertarians.
Paul Virilio makes for a slight conundrum for me. I picked up his Speed and Politics a couple of years ago because I remembered that a colleague had praised his work and ideas. But I never got around to reading it until now, when I’ve been casting around for analytical ideas for the Utopias project. My posts on his work never seemed to get too many pageviews, and I’m still rather standoffish toward him. Nonetheless, he gave me some valuable ideas, and I’m happy to have read him. 

Let me explain it this way. When I was first looking for foundational ideas for the Utopias project, I thought Marxism was going to be a major source. But this ran into two problems. One, I found there was simply too much Marxism to sort through, with the entire field split into too many fine conceptual distinctions. Taking any set of ideas as key to Marxist thinking (or even making my own idiosyncratic set of principles from diverse works, as I’m more likely) would spark massive unnecessary conflict because I was letting another school go by the wayside. There was no way I could appropriate my ideas from the Marxist traditions for my own theoretical purposes without fights over my legitimacy. I’ll never study Marxism to adopt a school of it as my own thinking; I’ll study Marxism to appropriate its ideas for my own work. That’s how I, and the best philosophers, treat philosophy itself.

Second, these distinctions were all virulently opposed to the other, considering themselves to have the one true Marxism. I could refer to a book like Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism simply as a useful historical sorting tool: a set of signs to recognize the different schools of Marxist thought. But one of the first reactions from among my colleagues who knew the Marxisms in my detail was to dismiss Kolakowski as a biased thinker writing an en masse hit job.

Virilio has helped convince me that I don’t need to dive into Marxist scholarship and become a Marx scholar myself to study and use ideas that come from that tradition. Like Arendt, he’s another theorist who draws connections between Nazism and Stalinist communism, but expands his critique of the far left totalitarianism to the Marxist tradition in general, describing Josef Goebbels and Friedrich Engels as men whose aim was transforming society from more complicated structures to a pure mass. To make all of society proletarian is to militarize it.

Now, I don’t know Engels’ writings very well at the moment, but given what Virilio finds in them, I’ll probably look for the ones he refers to in the book. Because the Utopias project is about how ideals, held strongly enough, justify violence. This is most obvious in political revolution, but when an essential social condition for political revolution is the proletarianization or militarization of society, daily violence as ubiquitous as the state and numbing in its frequency becomes necessary. Only through forcing the complex desires of a people to conform to a unified will can those people become a weapon to realize a new political and social order. The people aren’t broken down so they can be reborn, but so they can simply become a blunt instrument to achieve the goals of an ideologue.

Technological participation shapes humanity into a mass
by overpowering us through sheer size. Fritz Lang was
something of a prophet here.
His analysis doesn’t only stop at totalitarian military interventions in colonization movements and the mobilization of domestic society. He even critiques the founding idea behind the welfare state. Virilio analyses social security as the state mobilizing its citizenry to work not as soldiers or the military itself, but to repair the domestic infrastructure by which social militarization operates. This is another example in a phenomenon I’ve seen lately in contemporary politics regarding the United States surveillance apparatus: left-wing and right-wing people agreeing on an issue, or at least leftists speaking in terms that rightists sympathize with. Because Virilio’s critiques of the welfare state sound exactly like some libertarian ones: it’s a government apparatus that interferes with people’s lives to control their labour power.

Virilio’s theoretical analysis of how societies are militarized also shows the phenomenon’s common features with colonialism. Imperialism is, physically and geographically speaking, the rapid expansion of territory where all native creatures in the way of the expansive force are swept out of the way, either co-opted or destroyed. And he uses some of the descriptions Goebbels used for Nazi eastward expansion (Ostkolonisation) to emphasize the colonial nature of the war. Just as Arendt discussed, the Nazi plan was not only the extermination of the Jews; they were just first on the list. If the war had lasted a few years more, or if the Nazis had won at least a victory against Russia, the Poles, various Slavic ethnicities, and the Russians would have been fed to the gas chambers because they stood in the way of German expansion simply by existing in the space Hitler and his movement wanted. Extermination of the colonized culture is the end goal of colonialism taken to its extreme. The Nazis only added explicit racial dynamics to the practice, did it in Europe, and took the extermination process to its highest degree of technological efficiency.

Yet even this horrifying intensity of military mechanization of a populace is outdone once nuclear warfare becomes possible. Total war under the mechanized brutality of the early 20th century chewed people into their component gristle, removing all individuality from people to become a pure force, a weapon thrown against other types of weapons. Marinetti’s and Hitler’s generation thought this was the most intense war could become. Total war makes people into a mass, but at least this mass still has some agency. 

Nuclear weapons concentrate militarized destructiveness to such a high intensity that a physically small arsenal can destroy the world. After all the bombs dropped and missiles fired, all it took were two bombs to end the Second World War in the Pacific. The arsenals capable of destroying hundreds of planets consist of only a few thousand weapons. 

Even worse for human agency, nuclear war is so intense that it has become automated. The Cuban Missile crisis, says Virilio in a quite brilliant analysis, was not ultimately about threats of nuclear attack itself. It was about the American military leadership’s concern that Soviet missiles in Cuba would cut the possible defensive reaction time to almost nothing, beyond the point where human decision powers could interfere. The hotline between nuclear state leaders is to interfere with the others’ decision process, giving the suspicious enough information that he no longer suspects that you’re planning an attack.

Because nuclear war can become literally automated. If a nuclear missile moves so fast that its time from a submarine or a silo to its target is less than a minute (a very easy goal to achieve with modern ballistics technology), then all humanity has been removed from war. It is only a matter of automated technology to screen for incoming missiles and scrambling counter-attacks. A networked computer can learn more about the situation faster than any human could. 
In nuclear warfare, all that a human can do in the face of automatic warfare
like the Soviet doomsday weapon in Dr. Strangelove, is ride to the end with
a theatrical gesture, an artistic flourish being all the power we have left.
So the technological movement of building weapons and infrastructure that moves continually faster first militarizes people to the point of destroying their personalities, making them into a mass man. But nuclear weaponry takes this to such an extreme that no human involvement is even required for military mobilization. If computers alone can process information fast enough to make decisions in the context of nuclear warfare, then humanity truly does become a mass without agency. Even collective agency becomes impossible.

Insofar as he’s described a framework for how this process can work, using the increasing speed and quantity of warfare information production and interpretation, Virilio is an incredibly useful figure for the Utopias project. The mass man is mobilization that erases individuality to make humanity a unified collective weapon. The erasure of agency becomes inevitable when the speed of mobilization and information continues to grow unchecked. Military mobilization smooths away differences and destroys the messiness of individual material existence.

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