To get to the beginning, to head towards freedom and love
getting to the beginning by clearing out some half worked-out thoughts on capitalism and commitment in society now
In the next few posts I want to get to thinking about necessity and possibility, freedom and revolution, care and constraint. I want to take last week’s post as a personal, formative starting point sitting in the background of my thoughts and giving them gravity: the twin black boxes of my double alienation from the institution in which I am nonetheless fortunate to work, the difficulty of meeting with and caring for one another in institutions now, and all the points of imposed and precluded mediation that constrain and shape how we’re typically capable of being with one another at the moment. What’s the best we can hope for, together? What needs to be changed, and what is capable of being changed? What are we committed to, and where and why we do we lack commitment?
I’m trying to think through practised understandings of freedom, how revolution fits in all of this (nor why it doesn’t), and why this keeps bringing me back to care and constraint, in ways that Maggie Nelson has articulated so brilliantly in the final essay of her recent On Freedom.
I’m also really trying to think this through: I’m still unsure of myself, the venue and the audience, the mode of address and who I’m addressing it all to. And these written thoughts are not finished or polished, but I’m trying to let it out, make the effort get it out, clear out a huge backlog of half-formed articulations I’ve not quite or fully shaped or shared so far. In struggling to find a rhythm for this articulation that pleases me, I’ve worked hard this week, and produced several thousand words that will most likely sit in a folder. This week’s writing has been like Tristram Shandy so far: I keep trying to start (at) the beginning, and so I keep striving to nail a neat post-shaped structure with a narrative, but my mind keeps pulling me back to all the tangential prolegomena I feel the need to express before I can even get to the start. There’s much that needs to be moved out of the clearing house before I can even get to the beginning. A lot of it weighs on me and invades the edges of my moods.
But, to move on from last week: it’s notable that the institution I work for is thoroughly capitalist in its values and norms. Regardless of what it says about people and their feelings, by design and in its operation it is a wealth transfer racket that credentials people by leveraging their hopes and dreams through ‘offerings’, ‘programs’, ‘courses’. These may-or-may-not teach or inculcate certain understandings, may-or-may-not open opportunities to gain skills and become a competitive applicant for a job: ideally there is a synergy in which the student is happy that the university took their money, because what they got out of it was worthwhile or led them to their dream, or dream job, or just a job. But the institution always, invariably takes every student’s money. Subjectively, the university may be many things and experiences to many different people, it may or may not meet our dreams and live up to our expectations. But come what may, in this, like most countries, it is an engine of redistribution that takes public money as tax and individual student debt and transfers that over to a nameable set of beneficiaries, including myself. So before I talk about freedom, including the incredible freedom to formulate one’s thoughts in this way as part of a working week, I really want to canvas how capitalism was, has been, and is the ‘invariable’ in the era in which Building 1111 was built. There’s a sense in which my work place is inevitably the way it is, because of capitalism, and cannot change or be otherwise, as capitalism itself cannot seem to change or be changed. This is a terminus in my thinking that’s as good a place to start as any.
One of Mark Fisher’s most resonant notions was capitalist realism: that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism. The idea, circulated by Zizek after the GFC, is Fredric Jameson’s. But it’s also Margaret Thatchers, and she, in turn, was just a conspusous and memorable avatar of a cultural iteration of this mode of production. In Fisher’s phrasing, ‘capitalist realism’ denotes the absence of any imaginablealternative to the way things now are. For him, a key implication was cultural, and spoke to how little music had changed, how little innovation there had been, how conditions stayed stubbornly stuck in the first decade of the twenty-first century, even as how life got harder and worse, even as things were falling apart economically and ecologically. The fact that our children would have shitter jobs and worse jobs, but still be going to Guns’N’Roses concerts or listening to Hootie and the Blowfish, the way that any house record produced in 2022 could just as easily have been produced in 2012, 2002, or 1992 (but not 1982 or 1972). Fisher, following X, called this the slow cancellation of the future.
Fisher’s work resonated, in part, because of his ability to clearly voice his a sharp intuitive sense for apprehending how societal conditions resonate through culture, especially those atmospheres emanating from his early twenty-first century England, that place where, as Pink Floyd sung from their country mansions, ‘hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’. For Fisher, a lot of this seems to redound to Burial. For me, it’s an ‘era’ that congealed between the suicide of David Kelly in 2003 and the release of Nathan Barley in 2005, which ‘slowly cancelled’ the surreal fun early 00s London of the Mighty Boosh and replaced it with something more remorselessly glum, with cultural weather that had really set in. But for me, this is also about England, which has always been a glum place; re-reading Fisher, I wish he had managed to get out of England, gone to Hawaii or Okinawa.
In Stiegler’s more recent work on disruption and discredit, something rhyming with Fisher’s intuition about capitalism now is given a different valence: we appear to be livingin ‘the epoch of no epoch’. This, he says, it what accounts for the feeling of dust, of nothing amounting to anything, the pervasive sense, especially among young people, that there is no possible future, and that the present is bullshit. Like Fisher, Stiegler’s formulation has some intuitive appeal to me; I have to read his disruption book slowly, both because of his prose style, and because of the inescapably depressing assessment underlying its basic thesis. But I can’t deny that it captures describe something of the precluded, foreclosed, forestalled, epigonic senses of time, possibility, and stunted futurity that were – are? – part of the white middle class left’s cultural experience of the 2000s and 2010s. Defeat, disappointment, foreclosure, scrolling. Apparently, this was a common feeling among journalists in the later years of the Weimar republic.
Recently, I happened upon a copy of New Left Review from 2007 in the neighbourhood Library hosted inside a derelict refrigerator near Newmarket Station. What’s amazing, reading it now, is that 2007 was nothing like 2008, which no one writing in that edition of NLR seemed to anticipate it in any way. No Trump, GFC or Obama, of course – but also no kulturkampf, no queers, no Black Lives Matter, China, no ecology. This doesn’t falsify the thesis of capitalist realism, but it does speak against the cancellation of the future, only because shows that a fuck ton of interesting and important things have happened over the past fifteen years, most of which NLR – the very writers who one might expect to notice such things – hadn’t clocked.
In this particular edition of NLR, I was struck by the almost total preoccupation with a disappointing and wrongful America whose co-ordinates were still the Bush presidency, the Iraq War, and eternally hegemonic neoliberalism. In fact, reading it makes it seem like 2007 belongs to the set of years 2001-2007, which were deeply about the disillusionment of dotcom and the millennium (1999-2000), and the replacement of 1990s globalisation with the Global War on Terror. In 2001-2007, it seems one didn’t yet question the impossibility of capitalism’s overturning; critiques of neoliberalism seemed as radical as it got.
Glancing back at Capitalist Realism from the latter 2010s, at the very least, it’s clear the book was not written 2001-2007, but equally, it’s not from the mid or late 2010s. I hope you can see that I’m trying to date it precisely to an era, and show how much has changed, and how different things seemed-and-were, both before and after. The booklet unndeniably sits in the micro era just after the early 00s just described; the four years it could have made full sense were between 2008-2011: the febrile years between the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), and 2011’s wave of ‘Spring’ protests, Indignados, Occupy, Syntagma. In those years, in the reading groups I was involved in, I ditched Agamben, and we ditched Hardt and Negri, and we returned and read Marx, listened to David Harvey’s podcast on Capital, and became more interested in political economy. One friend stopped studying philosophy, and decided to become a macroeconomist. Like Capitalist Realism, those things were very of that time. ‘Moments are the elements of profit’.
Looking back at those momentific events and the zeitgeist of which they were a part, it’s still interesting how the GFC caught nearly everyone by surprise in 2008, although it was a foreseeable and perhaps inevitable outcome of the financial practices Wall Street was applying to US mortgage markets. In contrast, the wave of political protests around the world in the early 2010s, in all their genuine diversity, were genuinely unforeseen and contingent, although their reasons for emergence – and their demise, slight fizzling, or incorporation – did not and do not surprise me. No one predicted the GFC; no one was surprised about what the protesters were protesting about – only that they manifested everywhere all at once was really surprising. There were revolutions in those years, but small, subtle, plural and lower case. There was no Revolution, because ‘we knew’ that this was impossible. I think that also speaks to the resonance Fisher was able to capture and convey from those years.
If we connect the two events of 2008 and 2011, as Varoufakis attempted in Another Now, we could see that ‘2008, 2011’ can be seen as a missed or lost opportunity for deeper and more genuine change that could have been meaningful – and remains long, long overdue, has become terminally necessary. Yes, 2008 and 2011 both changed the world in subtle and durable ways, but as Varoufakis is right to point out, I think, neither of them was big enough or radical enough to force capitalism to change, or be replaced – and certainly nothing in this constellation was enough to stop the managerial neoliberal university I work at from continuing down its path of alienating aggrandisement, in the years immediately after the meltdown and the revolutions,.
In fact, in 2012, the demand-driven system turbocharged the basic business model of the Australian tertiary wealth transfer racket, which to the time of writing has hoovered up a decade’s worth of year twelves who, de facto, were going to go to university anyway: because that’s what everyone does, because that’s the done thing, because TAFE has been dismantled and there are so few industrial jobs, because in many cases it’s the only way to be competitive applicant for an entry level job. We’ve indebted this generation of young people, and then pumped them through an institution that, every fortnight, fortnight by fortnight, transforms their debt – and the government money that attached to every onshore student who enrolled – into the salaries and superannuation paid into the accounts of ongoing staff members. This is where roughly 60% of this huge influx of money has gone. The rest has gone consultancies, marketing, ICT, and shiny new buildings. On the face of it, that this happened with culturally varying forms across the Anglocapitalist world in the 2010s after the GFC, seems like a retroactive vindication of the complete sense of what Fisher was driving at. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a better example of capitalist realism than Australian universities. No wonder, to follow another Fisher trope, it has also produced so much reflexive impotence. But that’s another post for another time.
And yet, on re-reading, those of Fisher’s theses grounded in the conception of capitalist realism also read as dated: or at least, as I’ve been trying to co-indicate, they date his as a work of precisely that time worked up from blog posts from blogging’s golden era in the mid 00s, an era that has passed or shifted in ways that shows the many surprising senses, good and bad, in which change has actually really happened, and tends to ordinarily really happen. In 2020, to me the capitalist realism thesis feels wrong but right, but now reads as no longer quite contemporary, in ways that actually speak a little against and tell us things ‘the epoch of no epoch’ that have the hallmarks of an era.
Right now, it seems that change is happening, yet both far too slowly and far too quickly. Change buckets down on us all at once like a flash storm, or hovers offshore like the forecast flash storm that never arrives, or that dumps its load 5 nauticcal miles offshore. 2020s change seems or feels like it comes from outside the geopolitical (GWoT) economic-financial (GFC) and the political (2011, 2016-17), realms which we feel there’ss at least some democratic or institutional agency, or which are amenable to some possible political change.
For me, the key transformations of the 2010s observable from the Anglocapitalist world I’m writing inside of were:
technical (pervasive smartphones),
cultural (contested intersectionality and kulturkampf),
ecological (fully acknowledged climate change), and
China (its full arrival on its terms, in its own form not terms or forms the West would give it)
None of these transformations was really on the radar between 2008-2011, and I cannot recall a synthetic analysis even seeking to draw the implications correctly from ‘all of the above’. Stiegler’s 2010s work is appealing again here, because he did at least have a crack at all of them, and although his work has a roughshod quality to it, it has heart, and also avoids the seduction of a binarizing normative evaluation
technology BAD, intersectionality GOOD, ecology FUCKED, China SCARY, future CANCELLED
by sensibly reminding us that each and every one of the above is pharmacological. That is: each of the complex social processes named by these changes is both bad and good, both a poison and a remedy. Keith Flint had the right lyrics by 1995. For Stiegler, as each has its negative pharmacology, so it needs to be given its positive pharmacology, and as this is something we can only do together by assembling, this gives our politics an immediate and tangible task. Stiegler’s own preoccupations led him to industrial policy and regulation against the Silicon Valley Big Four; we could all pick our own.
But what of the key phrasal understanding denoted by capitalist realism. Is it still easier to imagine the end of the world that it is to imagine the end of capitalism? Well, to be honest, capitalism seems like it has the crumbles in the 2020s, to the point where this decade that seems like it might be one of polycrisis: and like many people, I’ve become less convinced by the possibility of any possible theoretical prognostication, and I welcome, fear and anticipate many surprises, because I know so many are coming, some shitty, some great. Yet at the same time, I am stuck waiting, typing on my laptop, living through an upper middle first world version of the distending confusing indefinite temporality of a global pandemic, subjectively experiencing a range of feelings about that – but objectively feeding more data to Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon while I remain the implicated beneficiary of the wealth transfer racket that is my employer.
However, the problem might actually be ‘worse’ than capitalist realism, both in the pop cultural sense of the garbage compactor scene in A New Hope, and in the sense sent to us in theory in different ways by Wolfgang Streeck and Adam Curtis in the years after Fisher’s influential little red and dark book.
The years after the GFC gave Streeck a platform to publish interesting work – including in NLR! – that returned to what, I felt, was overdue direct social theoretical attention to capitalism. The left had re-learned to say the ‘c’ word – about time – after a long period where only unreconstructed Leninists, anarchists and deep ecologists dared say it. In fact, it’s arguably another hallmark of the brief, passing era leading up to Capitalist Realism that capitalism was the mode of production that none dare mention. Yet by the early 2010s, perhaps it was no longer sacred, unless you were Goldman Sachs, which, if you were, you were evil, “a vampire squid on the face of humanity”.
For Streeck, capitalism isn’t just economic, it is a social order and way of life “vitally dependent on the uninterrupted progress of private capital accumulation” (Streeck, 2014, 35). To be sure, this has continued since 2014, and has thrived for those already thriving: look at the neoliberal university’s embiggenment, look at the Vampire Squid, look at the landscaped lawns and renovated holiday homes of the upper middle classes in any of the coastal retreats of the OECD countries. The already rich did better than ever in the 2010s, and as Alec MagGillis’ brilliant analysis of Amazon’s impact shows, the societal effects are hugely regional: coastal winner cities of hyper affluence and gentrification where everyone commutes and no one can afford the rent and there are homeless guys shitting in the drains outside fancy brewpubs, connected by logistical systems to loser regions where people are eke out their survival in towns comprised of the wreckage of the twentieth century, synthetic opiods, and smartphones.
But Streeck’s deeper point is that even in a society like MacGillis’ ‘one-click America’, capitalism a social order, way of life and an historical form, a set of social relations that emerged. As such, it will end at some point, presumably long before the dying sun swallows the earth, perhaps before the seas inundate our coastal cities, which may well happen far sooner than we’re ready to accept may already be happening. We don’t know how or when, whether it will morph into some other social formation, erode into nothing, implode under the weight of its own contradictions and become an anarcho-syndicalist utopia, or fall into the sea. So, a decade after Fisher, it’s all-too-easy to imagine the end of capitalism: we just don’t know what would replace it; or we’re scared we think we suspect we know what will.
Skywalker: It could be worse.
(sound of rumbling beast in garbage compactor)
Solo: It’s worse.
In his penultimate (to date) documentary series Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis diffusely explores a set of ideas consonant with Fisher’s and Streeck’s: the fact that, yes, nothing seems to have changed for a prolonged, distended period of time, in ways that entrench and perpetuate the slow cancellation of the future and kill off the innovation that gives youth cultures hope and vitality. Hypernormalisation intensifies capitalist realism by reaching back to the Brezhnev era of the USSR for its key illustrative point. In those years, the USSR was a society in which everyone continued to play along with and uphold the pretence that everything was fine and normal, although everyone secretly new that nothing worked anymore, hadn’t for years, that the whole political project of soviet socialism was finished, yet that things would carry on deadeningly, although they were over, for some unspecificed and far-too-long time, until the huge morbid momentum of causes and conditions played themselves out. For Curtis, in the USSR, this happened because neither the dream of the soviets, proper socialism, nor even the the sclerotic bureaucracy enforced by the party and the secret police, could work anymore, finished from the inside, dead on the inside. For us, hypernormalisation recurs as a metaphor with a difference, for Curtis’ basic view is that cybernetics in all its implications – instantiated as Silicon Valley and as Wall Street – has a fundamentally homeostatic orientation; it is always trying to return things to a steady state. By design, it is about keeping things as same as possible, for as long as possible, as much as possible. Cybernetic governmentality as finance capital and disruption is not radical change, it prevents all change, it strives to make everything eternally normie, because this is the only way that the the progess of privage accumulation can continue without interruption. So whereas 2001-7 made do with critiques of US foreign policy and neoliberalism, and 2008-11 felt like capitalist realism, the 2010s, and the years 2000-2020, retroactively feel like ones where capitalism has been nonliving for sometime, but continues its hold on the living, not only because we uphold its pretence, keep posting, and keep ordering shit online, but because it is automated, and we’ve programmed it to keep everything as same as possible for as long as systemically possible.
Did any of us really clock China? Not only the cast of critics and characters of the left implied in the micro-epochs I’ve just tried to summarise, but like: any of us, really? Even Curtis barely mentioned China until 2020’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Did China even really clock China; did the Party clock Xi? Is the problem always, as Solnit’s influential little book on hope argues, that we radically underestimate how surprising the world actually is; that we always project linearly into a future in order to story, narrative and master worlds that have not yet come into being, in a world which the future is too dark to see into?
Moreover, is it also the case that, sometimes, social change has happened because the future is already here and has been for some time – or, as theorists are wont to say, was always-already there – but that most people were too busy being preoccupied with America and its preoccupations with itself, the NSA, Wall Street, Iraq, Afghanistan, and/or too busy not knowing what we’ve all known about ecology since at least the mid 80s, and possibly the 60s? Yes, the Anglocapitalist world knew China was rising and knew well enough how the CCP operated, yet failed to clock the rise to dominance of Xi Xinping between 2012 and 2019 as well as who (not Hu) he was and what his modus operandi might be once, he had consolidated control over the Party and dealt with his factional enemies.
Most commentators failed to really see Xi for what he was and where, in hindsight, it’s now seems so obvious China would be headed under his rule. On some level, the hubris of the Anglocapitalist West was to think that, with enough data, once Silicon Valley and Wall Street and Hollywood had its prongs in, once the Vampire Squid was there, that China would badabing badaboom into Enormous Taiwan, a manufacturing powerhouse that would be congenial to letting America remain the designer-innovator who as such gets to keep its secure global position of cultural, consumptive hegemony, for which, in exchange, Chinese people would be so glad to watch the NBA, google things go buy on Amazon, with money they earned as the cogs in the manufacturing powerhouse they were still cool with being, an endless industrial proletariat tht would somehow become middle class while the peasants woujd still keep stitching our Nikes and send us plastic shit to buy at K Mart? As Curtis might say: ‘but they were living in a fantasy’.
So we are beyond capitalism, although it’s not over? Not only because Anglocapitalism seems to be breaking down right now, but also because contemporary China both is and is not capitalist, is and is not global and part of our systems, just as it is and is not socialist, is and is not Leninist? Xi, man and syllable, voices the one ‘new’ and paradoxical (non)capitalist formation that already exists, and that, for now, matters more than any other. By the end of the 2010s, therefore, with Trump – a surprise that/when he was elected, and a surprise in that/how he was defeated – it no longer looks as if the capitalist realism thesis really applies in the way Jameson and Fisher meant it. We could say, with dark irony, that it is now all-the-more easy to imagine both the end of the world and the end of capitalism and the social formations that are coming next.
Yet now what? Any kind of ‘replacement’ with something like Xi Xinping’s China, or even Future Trump’s America or Putin or Murdoch’s deathless endless empire, doesn’t seem like it’s up to the task, certainly not here, and in many ways, not even in China, especially not in China. One can get a long way with surveillance capitalism, ethnic nationalism, and totalitarianism, but only so far, and only for so long. Perhaps for far too long, as Suharto, Mugabe and Murdoch teach us, but still, only so long. And like everywhere else, even Xi’s China seems weak; everyone seems so weak and not up to the task right now. Every political formation is suffering the effects of long covid; all covid is long covid, far too long. This is how it feels – surreally, indefinitely – from where I write in 2022. Most people are working from home, or they’re shitting themselves, it’s the week of code brown, the first in a set of symptoms that will morph through strange dreams of being choked, the replacement of smell with a metallic taste, and the all-too-real inability to breathe, which hopefully passes. Crapitalist surrealism; which hopefully passes.
And yet, capitalism seems to continue, somehow. And moreover, could one seriously imagine a Jacobin or Leninist revolution in the midst of any of this? And even if there were one tomorrow, what difference would it make? This is why, to conclude, I think it’s important to think again about freedom now, for the following reasons.
We live in a community of fate. Not only because we are embarked – always-already embarked – on Spaceship Earth, but because we have to address climate change, this decade, with only existing resources; the people around us, most of all. This is like Sim City with pharmacolocigal disadvantages, sunk costs, and momentum: your task si to maek revolution, or at least community, but you have to do it now with the people around you on the train. Could you; would you want to?
Given the community of fate we’re in, given the people we share society with, can we live together somehow? Of course we must, somehow. This is the underlying question guiding the following few posts, and in a sense all of what I’m attempting to sketch out in this blog. For make no mistake, in any possible revolution, or any society, no matter how radically transformed for the better or different, the only people involved in that are those in front and behind you at the vaccination or check out queue.
So in the midst of this, I’ve become freshly sceptical about the Jacobin-Leninist response, very broadly taken: the idea that we could do away with the exploitation and alienation by imposing radical change turning workers into owners and consumers into producers, and that this would produce a good society, in a modern industrial society like ours, with our division of labour, with our passions, our aggressions, our ignorance and our struggles and strivings… well, I’m not the first to be become sceptical that changing the order of ownership through a political process of overthrow would change things for the better. Moreover, I’m sceptical that any revolution in property relations – which still points at the central issue, as it always has – would also change people’s behaviour and desires enough to make that new mode of production work, and hold together, keep going, and withstand all the probable attacks on it. That is: even if a political revolution were possible now, which I highly doubt, I am also even more sceptical about whether it would give us what we think we want, because of how people now are, including ourselves, recursively: because of how we’ve been formed by these modern industrial capitalist societies we’ve been living in. Again, as Curtis said to Russell Brand in 2018, do we really want a revolution, or just nicer bankers?
But I also see the urgent necessity of transforming, reforming, rebuilding and creating institutions – work that seems at least as daunting as it is necessary and worthwhile. Yet I do not see meaningful points of agency at most scales at the present moment: the university I work in no longer seems to produce knowledge or education for 95% of people 95% of the time; the instituted political systems of parliamentary democracy no longer seem to produce anything but an entrenchment of a bad status quo from the year 2000; and the technical and ecological transformations – that have accelerated, that are accelerating – seem to slip through any attempt on our part to intervene and regulate them, although we are all – if we’re privileged enough – implicated beneficiaries ‘vitally dependent on the uninterrupted progress’ of its expansive hold over our lives.
I would like to end with a digression from Mary Douglas that speaks to the time sensitive existence of political cultures of commitment. I don’t think it needs much comment, beyond saying that I think it’s clear to everyone that we do not live in a cultural moment like Mishima’s. In a way, this is also fantastic: Mishima was in deep with some pretty reprehensible miso-gynistic fascist nationalist mysticism. Commitment isn’t always fantastic. But anyway, I now quote Douglas at length, breaking frame and finishing:
To make the context for this, permit a digression on the idea of political and professional purity. I select three works of fiction on the theme of personal involvement in politics. Gustave Flaubert’s The Sentimental Education, written in 1869, sets a student hero in Paris, at the time of the revolutionary turmoils of 1848. Sartre’s Les Mains Sales, published in 1948, is a comment on the idealism of young French radical revolutionaries. Yukio Mishima’s Runaway Horses was written about the same theme of compromise and commitment as the other two novels, but with triple emphasis: the student hero lives in the turmoil of Osaka and Tokyo in the 1930s, while action in the story is deliberately plotted upon an earlier failed uprising of 1873, and the author is situated in the aftermath of the world-wide student revolts of 1968. (I apologize for the fact that as a European my interpretation of Mishima’s great book must seem inevitably clumsy and even false to Japanese readers.)
All three writers deal with the theme of revolutionary ardour and political compromise. In Flaubert’s story the young hero accommodates only too easily to the tarnished loyalties and venal consciences around him. The treatment is unheroic; no one has pure motives or takes personal risks and the country is eventually plunged into war. In Sartre’s story the young hero vows to carry out a political assassination to prove to his fellow conspirators his perfect commitment to their common revolutionary cause. He discovers his friends’ duplicity and though at the end of the story he commits the promised assassination, his reasons for doing it have changed so that he cannot regard it as an act of patriotism— but it is unscrupulously used as such by the co-conspirators who betrayed him. The treatment is cynical, but with more contained passion than Flaubert musters. For Sartre, as for Flaubert, the society is not admirable in which commitment is scorned.
Mishima’s story, about the extreme of total commitment, reserves biting scorn for compromise and self-serving. The Japanese student, brilliant, articulate, and dedicated, finds himself caught in a web of contradictory obligations. In his mind the problem is very simple: Japan is in deep trouble, the Emperor is badly served, the gods are insulted, the farmers are ruined, unemployment is rife. The solution is equally simple: a loyal band must assassinate the enemies of the nation, and give themselves a glorious death by seppuku. Through the story successive betrayals and fallings away do not shake the hero’s resolution. Then to his dismay he finds that his father has for years been a secret pensioner of the villain he has vowed to assassinate. Now he faces the dire conflict of duty, impossible to honour his vow without dishonouring his father, and so defiling himself. His dilemma is resolved when he eventually discovers that it was his own father who originally betrayed him to the police. Then he goes forth with a clear conscience to murder the man who is the cause of all Japan’s pain and of his father’s dishonour, thus purifying himself and his father at the same stroke. All three tales, Flaubert’s, Sartre’s, and Mishima’s, are social commentaries which condemn the society for which risks are not worth taking (Douglas, Risk and Danger, 42-3).