"The Despair Of Having Everything."

By Jean Baudrillard.
Translated by Luke Sandford
November 2002
Source: The European Graduate School. Graduate & Postgraduate Studies

The West's mission is to make the world's wealth of cultures interchangeable, and to subordinate them within the global order. Our culture, which is bereft of values, revenges itself upon the values of other cultures.

IS globalisation inevitable? What fervour propels the world to embrace such an abstract idea? And what force drives us to make that idea a reality so unconditionally?

The universal used to be an idea. Yet when an idea is actually realised globally, it commits suicide. With humankind as the sole authority of note, occupying the empty space left by a dead God, the human species now rules unchallenged, though it no longer has any overarching goal. Since humanity's enemies have all fled, it must generate foes from within its own ranks, while showing symptoms of inhumanity.

Hence the violence associated with globalisation, with a system that wants to eliminate any manifestation of negativity and singularity (including the ultimate expression of singularity, death). This is the violence of a society in which we are almost forbidden to engage in conflict. This violence, in a way, marks an end to violence itself, because it yearns for a world free from any natural order that might govern the human body or sexuality, life or death. It might be more accurate to use the word virulence, rather than violence. This violence has viral force: it spreads by contagion and chain reactions. It gradually destroys our immunity and ability to resist.

Globalisation's triumph is not certain yet, though. Faced with its homogenising and destabilising effects, hostile forces are arising everywhere. But anti-globalisation's ever-sharper manifestations — including social and political resistance — should be seen as more than just outmoded forms of rejection. They are part of an agonising revision that focuses on the achievements of modernity and "progress", a process that rejects both the globalised techno-structure and an ideology that wants to make all cultures interchangeable.

Anti-globalisation actions may be violent, abnormal or irrational, at least as judged by our enlightened philosophy. They may be collective, bringing together different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, or they may be individual, including maladjustment and neurosis. It would be wrong to denounce anti-globalisation forces as populist, antiquated or terrorist. Every current event — including Islamic hostility to the West — happens in opposition to the abstraction that is the concept of universality. Islam is now public enemy number one because it has shown the most vehement opposition to Western values.

Who or what can thwart the global system? Surely not anti-globalisation forces, whose only aim is to slow the pace of deregulation; their political influence may be considerable but their symbolic impact is nil. The protestors' violence is merely another event within the system that the system will absorb — while remaining in control of the game.

Singularities [unique or unusual identities or approaches] could be used to baffle the system. Being neither positive nor negative, they do not represent alternatives; they are wild cards outside the system. They cannot be evaluated by value judgments or through principles of political reality; they can correspond to either the best or the worst. They are obstacles to one-track thinking and dominant modes of thought, although they are not the only kind of contrary approach. They make up their own games and play by their own rules.

Singularities are not inherently violent. Some can be subtle, unique characteristics of language, art, culture or the human body. But violent singularities do exist, and terrorism is one of them. Violence revenges all the varied cultures that disappeared to prepare for the investiture of a single global power. This is not really a clash of civilisations. Instead, this anthropological conflict pits a monolithic universal culture against all manifestations of otherness, wherever they may be found.

Global power — as fundamentalist as any religious orthodoxy — sees anything different or unorthodox as heretical, and the heretics must be made to assume their position within the global order or disappear completely. The West's mission (we could call it the "former West" since it lost its defining values long ago) is to reduce a wealth of separate cultures into being interchangeable, of equal weight, by any brutal means possible. A culture that is bereft of values revenges itself on the values of other cultures. Beyond politics and economics, the primary aim of warfare (including the conflict in Afghanistan) is to normalise savagery and beat territories into alignment. Another objective is to diminish any zone of resistance, to colonise and tame any terrain, geographical or mental

The rise of the globalised system has been powered by the furious envy of an indifferent, low-definition culture faced with the reality of high-definition cultures. Envy is what disenchanted systems that have lost their intensity feel in the presence of high-intensity cultures. It is the envy of deconsecrated societies when confronted with sacrificial cultures and structures.

The global system assesses any resistance as potentially terrorist, as in Afghanistan (1). When a territory bans democratic liberties such as music, television or women's faces, when nations take courses opposed to what we call civilisation, the "free" world sees these events as indefensible, regardless of what religious principles may be at stake.

So to disavow modernity and its pretensions of universality is not allowed. Some resistors reject the belief that modernity is a force for good or represents the natural ideal of our species; others question the universality of our mores and values. Even when the resistors are described as "fanatics", their contrariness remains criminal, according to the received wisdom of the West.

This confrontation can only be understood by considering symbolic obligations. To understand the hatred the rest of the world feels towards the West, we must reverse our perspectives. This is not the hatred felt by people from whom we have taken everything and to whom we have given nothing back. Rather, it is the hatred felt by those to whom we have given everything and who can give nothing in return. Their hatred stems from humiliation, not from dispossession or exploitation. The attacks of 11 September were a response to this animus, with one kind of humiliation begetting another.

The worst thing that can happen to global power is not for it to be attacked or destroyed but for it to be humiliated. Global power was humiliated on 11 September because the terrorists inflicted an injury that could not be inflicted on them in return. Reprisals are only physical retaliations, whereas global power had suffered a symbolic defeat. War can only respond to the terrorists' physical aggression, not to the challenge they represent. Their defiance can only be addressed by vengefully humiliating the "others" (but surely not by crushing them with bombs or by locking them up like dogs in detention cells in Guantanamo Bay).

There is a fundamental rule that the basis for all domination is a total lack of any counterflow to the prevailing power. Bestowing a unilateral gift is a powerful act. The "good" empire gives without any possibility of a return of gifts. This is almost to assume God's place or to take on the role of the master who ensures his slaves' safety in exchange for their labours. (Since work is not a symbolic compensation, the only remaining options for the slaves are revolution and death.)

But even God allowed humanity to give him the gift of sacrifice. Within the traditional order it was always possible to repay God, or nature, or another higher authority, by sacrifice. This safeguarded the symbolic equilibrium between human beings and everything else. Today there is no one left to compensate, to whom we might repay our symbolic debt. This is the curse of our culture: although giving is not impossible, giving back is impossible, because sacrifice has had its importance and power taken away, and what remains is a caricature of sacrifice (like contemporary ideas of victimisation).

So we find ourselves stuck with always being on the receiving end, not from God or nature, but from technical mechanisms that provide general exchange and gratification. Almost everything is given to us. And we are entitled to it all. We are like slaves, bondservants whose lives have been spared but who are still bound by an intractable debt. At some point, though, that fundamental rule always applies and any positive transfer will be met with a negative reaction.

This is a violent expression of repressed feeling about lives in captivity, about sheltered existences, about, in fact, having far too much existence. The return to a more primitive condition may take the form of violence (including terrorism) or the form of denials characterised by powerlessness, self-hatred and remorse, negative passions, which are a debased form of the payback that it is impossible to make. The thing we hate within ourselves, the obscure focus of our resentment, is our surfeit of reality: our excessive power and comfort, our sense of accomplishment. This is the fate that Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor had prepared for the tamed masses in The Brothers Karamazov ["to vanquish freedom and to do so to make men happy"]. It is exactly what the terrorists condemn in our culture. Hence the endless coverage of — and fascination with — terrorism.

Terrorism depends not only on the obvious despair of the humiliated, but on the invisible despair of globalisation's beneficiaries. It depends on our subjugation to the technology integral to our lives, and to the crushing effects of virtual reality. We are in thrall to networks and programmes, and this dependence defines our species, homo sapiens gone global. This feeling of invisible despair — our own despair — is irreversible because it is the result of the total fulfilment of our desires.

If terrorism is really the result of a state of profusion without any hope of payback or obligation to sacrifice, of the forced resolution of conflicts, then eradicating it as if it were an affliction imposed from the outside could only be illusory. Terrorism, in its absurdity and meaninglessness, is society's verdict on — and condemnation of — itself.

(1) You could say serious natural disasters are a form of terrorism since, although they are technically classified as accidents (such as Chernobyl), they may resemble terrorism. In India, the Bhopal poison gas tragedy (technically an accident) could have been terrorism. Any terrorist group could claim responsibility for an aviation accident. Irrational events can be attributed to anyone or anything, so that, at the limit, we could see anything as criminal, even cold weather or an earthquake. There is nothing new about this: in the aftermath of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, thousands of Koreans were blamed and killed. In a system as integrated as our own, everything destabilises; everything seeks to undermine a system that lays claim to infallibility. Given what we are already undergoing because of the system's rational grip, we may wonder if the worst catastrophe is the infallibility of the system.
"Patria est communis omnium parens" - Our native land is the common parent of us all. Keep it beautiful, make it even more so.

Blessed is all of creation
Blessed be my beautiful people
Blessed be the day of our awakening
Blessed is my country
Blessed are her patient hills.

Mweh ka allay!