Monday, October 14, 2013

The power of words (2)

In my blog last week I wrote about Simone Weil’s analysis of the use of empty words in politics. Later this phenomenon has been exposed so well by George Orwell. The slogan “War is Peace” from his novel 1984 is a good example of how meaningless words can be used for manipulation. Weil gives also a few instances of vague words with a baleful influence on the practice of politics, just because of this vagueness: nation, security, democracy … Still today these words are often used for justifying political measures and even war. The problem is not that these words have to be skipped from our vocabulary (I certainly do not want to deny that the idea of democracy is important!). The problem is that, so Weil, “each of these words seems to represent for us an absolute reality, unaffected by conditions, or an absolute objective, independent of methods of action, or an absolute evil; and at the same time we make all these words mean … anything whatsoever” (242). Nevertheless, “we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related to one or another or to any concrete facts.” (243) Many fights are fought only in the name of abstract words that haven’t been translated into concrete aims. With right Weil speaks here of “lethal absurdity” (243).
“The prime specimen [of this lethal absurdity] is the antagonism between nations”, Weil continues. Nothing could be more true, if one realizes that the nations that a few years after she had written these words begun to fight against each other in one of the most lethal wars in history, six years after the end of this war concluded a treaty of cooperation transferring powers of these same nations to a supranational organ: The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), one of the foundations of the present European Community. The ECSC exemplifies what Weil writes just after the quotation: that national rivalries are meaningless in the light of many international networks that exist at the same time, and that, for instance, “the German steel industry may be regarded with hostility by producers of steel goods in France; but it makes little difference to the mining companies whether the iron of Lorraine [in France] is worked in France or Germany…” (243). How absurd would the establishment of an organisation like the ECSC would have sounded when Weil wrote this at the end of the 1930s!
In view of the many actual relations in the world between individuals, groups, companies and peoples, the relations between national states is only one way of how we go along with each other globally. The importance of it is simply overstressed. However, the interest of the nation cannot be in the relations with people outside the nation; it would mean that the nation would disaffirm itself. According to Weil, a study of history has shown that its interest is in its capacity to make war. Weil doesn’t say it, but I think that this can be reduced to the sociological phenomenon of ingroup-outgroup, which explains much of the social behaviour of man. Here, I cannot take notice of this complex problem, but in the end it makes that man is prepared to use violence in order to defend its own group, the ingroup, against the outgroup. “Right or wrong my country”, as the British say (and not only they do!). As soon as we see this, much of what happens internationally becomes comprehensible: “What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war; petrol is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict. Thus when war is waged it is for the purpose of safeguarding or increasing one’s capacity to make war.” (244) However, as the singer Country Joe McDonald song in his famous chorus of the “Fish" Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag”: “What are we fighting for?”. What are the real interests of a nation? Again Weil puts the finger on the problem: “If the countries were divided by a real opposition of interests, it would be possible to arrive at satisfactory compromises. But when economic and political interests have no meaning apart from war, how can they peacefully be reconciled? It is the very concept of the nation that needs to be suppressed – or rather, the manner in which the word is used”. (245) That’s what’s done today by the European Union, for instance. The EU has been successful insofar since its foundation no war has been fought anymore between its member countries, although before the history of the relations between these countries has been a history of war (so the Netherlands, “my” country, fought at least four wars against Britain; an eighty years lasting war against Spain; several wars against France; one against Belgium; one against Germany and others against its founding states; etc.). How sad then that the EU meets with so much nationalistic opposition now. “For the word national and the expressions of which it forms part are empty of all meaning; their only content is millions of corpses, and orphans, and disabled men, and tears and despair.” (245)
The quotations are from “The power of words" in Simone Weil, An Anthology, London: Penguin Books, 2005. Here you can listen to the I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag:

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