Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Derrida and the present world (dis-)order

Anyone who believes that the present world-dispensation is one of “order”, merely has to scan all the many sources of information to be disabused of such an illusion. In doing so, however, they would probably not realise that, as Derrida (1994; see below) enables one to see, these very news sources — mainly television, the internet, and smartphone-applications — are part of the new “(dis-)order” with regard to their mediating form as well as function.

What Derrida means by this is (among other things) that the pervasive global functioning of the media today has “fundamentally” restructured the very way in which governments function — for one thing, the “relation between deliberation and decision”, that used to take place in a parliamentary space which allowed such deliberation in a thoroughgoing, if necessary protracted manner, has become subject to “new rhythms of information and communication” (Derrida 1994, p. 79). If this seems unintelligible, think of the profound way in which the functioning of the media (television, radio, social media) affected the recent political decision-making process around the student protests in South Africa.

This is just one of the many profound insights that one encounters in Specters of Marx (Routledge, London, 1994), the book that was billed as Jacques Derrida’s “definitive entry into social and political philosophy” (see back cover of 1994 edition). Coming from a thinker who everyone had thought busied himself exclusively with matters literary, epistemological and ontological, re-reading this tour de force today, more than 20 years after its first publication in English, is more relevant than ever, considering historical events taking place around the world.

Rather than try to give a “summary” of this complex text (which I have alluded to before on Thought Leader), I shall concentrate on a terse part encapsulating Derrida’s understanding of the present “world (dis-)order”. Setting the scene for his subtle and penetrating discussion of the state of the world, Derrida uses the eponymous Hamlet’s famous words from Shakespeare’s tragedy as metonymic summary of his considered assessment: “The time is out of joint”. This is done advisedly, because one soon realises that the character of time itself is at stake: “What is coming, in which the untimely appears, is happening to time but it does not happen in time” (p. 77). (Clearly, he has something similar in mind to what Manuel Castells thinks of as the transformation of “sequential time” into “timeless time” via the global technological revolution.)

This fundamental change in the meaning of temporality is further apparent in the absurd claim (by Francis Fukuyama, and his teacher, Allan Bloom, for instance), that we are witnessing the “end of history” today, now that the former USSR has supposedly at long last realised that liberal-democratic capitalism is the “telos” that history has finally actualised. Significantly (intermittently quoting Bloom), Derrida remarks (1994: p. 78):

“ … what is one to think today of the imperturbable thoughtlessness that consists in singing the triumph of capitalism or of economic and political liberalism, ‘the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the endpoint of human government,’ the ‘end of the problem of social classes’? What cynicism of good conscience, what manic disavowal could cause someone to write, if not believe, that ‘everything that stood in the way of the reciprocal recognition of human dignity, always and everywhere, has been refuted and buried by history’?”

What interests me particularly here are Bloom’s words quoted, no doubt with heavy irony, by Derrida: the “end of the problem of social classes”. This is a double irony, because not only did Fukuyama and Bloom celebrate the fall, in the late 1980s, of the very system that attempted to remove different social classes in favour of equality, namely socialism/communism (the USSR), but particularly because, as Derrida then goes on to remind one, they could not possibly be unaware of the social and economic disparities that persist across the globe, despite their premature triumphalism.

This could be approached by way of listing the “mass of undeniable facts” (1994, p. 80) corroborating such a claim (which have themselves massively multiplied since 1994), or one could offer a kind of “multiple rubric” which readers can themselves use to trace such evidence, which is what Derrida proceeds to do under the heading of “plagues” accompanying the “new world order” (p. 81-84). Note that they are all (but particularly numbers 1 to 5, below) connected with the massive, and growing, social inequality that the apologists of liberal democratic capitalism seem to be blind to, and furthermore, they function simultaneously. They are:

1. Unemployment, or what Derrida believes should be called something else today because of its mutation effected by the deregulation of the market, global competitiveness and new technologies of production, which disqualify millions of would-be workers from the outset. “The function of social inactivity”, he says (p. 81), “of non-work or of underemployment is entering into a new era. It calls for another politics”.
2. The homeless, who are excluded from democratic participation in numerous states. This, together with the deportation of immigrants and stateless people, signals, for Derrida, a new conception of civil/national identity and of borders, no longer merely in geographic terms.
3. Economic war. This is merciless, according to Derrida (think of recent events in Greece, eg), and is waged between countries in the “same” economic bloc as well as between the main groupings, such as Europe, the United States and what are today known as the Brics countries. Moreover, “this war controls everything … ” and is linked to the “unequal application of international law” (p. 81).
4. The contradictions of the “free market”, which cannot be removed, given the unavoidable functioning of protectionism and economic interventionism regarding (itself unprotected) cheap labour in the global market.
5. The exacerbation of foreign debt and other related economic mechanisms, which indirectly affect millions of people negatively in economic terms. (Think of the present US foreign debt, which runs into trillions of dollars.)
6. The arms industry and trade. From “conventional” arms to technological “cutting-edge” electronic weaponry, this is so tightly interwoven with scientific and technological research and production that it cannot, in the logic of the market, be suspended without “major risks”.
7. The spread of nuclear weapons, which can no longer be controlled by states or conventional markets.
8. Inter-ethnic wars, which are multiplying (this was in 1994; think of today!), driven by factors such as the “phantasm” of the nation-state, community and “native soil and blood”.
9. The “capitalist phantom-States” (international criminal organisations), which have infiltrated social, state- and economic structures to the point where they can no longer be identified separately, and cannot be withdrawn from the complex fabric of capitalist development any longer.
10. The “present state of international law and of its institutions”, of which the most problematic aspect is that the “supposedly universal international law” is conspicuously “dominated by particular nation-States” (p. 83). Obviously this “inequality of States before the law” (p. 84) is connected to the military hegemony of certain states.

There is too little space here to elaborate on the full implications of these ten “world plagues”, so it will have to suffice to quote Derrida by way of conclusion (1994, p. 85): “For it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelise in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy that has finally realised itself as the ideal of human history: never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity … let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact … ”

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    • Voldemort Rupert

      You read the most awesome stuff. I just tried to get this book for my ‘arsenal’ from libgen only to find it’s been down for over two months! Rumour is it’s gone for good. NOOOO! It was always just the best online resource.

    • Bert Olivier

      Voldemort – look a bit further than libgen; I am certain you can download this book free from several websites.

    • Bert Olivier

      Thanks for that excellent comment, Doom; you are right, of course. One could sum up what you said with the statement that formal equality is trumped by substantive inequality. Or as one of Foucault’s seminar group in the Pierre Riviere book put it, although the peasants in France around the 1830s were constitutionally ‘equal’ to everyone else, they were still oppressed by ‘the abstract violence of money’.