Recalibrating the ‘No’

Frédéric Gros – Disobey! The Philosophy of Resistance (Verso)

Gros begins with the historic inequality, the 1% vs the 99%, before turning to the other staggering divide it is connected to – the utterly world-historic lack of effective resistance to it. ‘Talk of “injustice” has become obsolete’ Gros says, we ‘are in an age of indecency’. ‘Cupidity and enjoyment of power are the rule.’ He is right.

He continues. Nature is threatened by us, of course we are threatened by nature again, in new ways, but we are part of nature too. Gros describes the spiral of resistance and attack, between us and our environment. The enlightenment. Overcoming nature through ‘technique’. This seems such a lightweight word when it involved the whole of industrial modernity, mass production, and learning from the economics of world war.

Gros tells us the renaissance cycle is over, it is ‘the end of springtime’. This seems like a note from the nineteenth century somehow. I thought we’d had summer, didn’t you? And that everything was a bit wrecked by the end of it, too.

He moves onto the parable of Christ and the Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The possibility of a god-for-us is questioned in this story. It is a well studied section of modern literature. Gros then discusses Machiavelli’s The Prince. This Preface is as effective as Marshall Berman’s use of the Faust myth in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. It is clearly Gros’s territory, literature and philosophy.

What Gros calls the ‘reversal of monstrosities’ comes from reflecting on the Nuremberg Trials. From here men are punished not because they disobeyed, but because they obeyed. Eichmann famously complained that he was being targeted for taking orders and counter-signing actions along with others.

Gros then conducts his entire (but short) chapter on Submission without mentioning money in any significant way. Why do we submit? ‘Because we cannot do otherwise’ is the answer here. There are social forces, of course, but the economy too, surely? Georg Simmel’s blasé attitude and money. Many people have direct social forces breathing down their necks, but others live in something they consider to be freedom, a freedom by money.

Surely this is ‘why it is so easy to come to agreement on the desperate state of the world today, and yet so hard to disobey it.’ Surely individual rebellion, like the possibility of an individual saviour explored by Dostoyevsky, is impossible without addressing the root power of money. The left always addresses the bad side of money. To read Marx properly is to see the way in which money freed up, as well.

In ‘Surplus Obedience’ Gros explores the history of philosophical surprise – that one little man can rule nations despotically. But surely what we have in Britain – on one level only – is what I want to call slack despotism. In the week the report on Russian interference arrived – a government report – government leaders buried it.

Gros quotes Spinoza ‘I see everywhere people fighting for their enslavement as if it was a matter of salvation for them.’ It is tempting to agree that we are in this era again, but not so fast. Gros tells us people must overcome their worship of the little man of power, but perhaps the conundrum in post-truth populist politics is precisely that people choose the little man knowing he is a liar and a fraud. How else would Johnson be Prime Minister?

Via a discussion of Foucault’s ‘conjugal fidelity’ Gros asks how we might develop an ethic of resistance. How might we have fidelity to a ‘No’ and a care of self, and a responsibility to others.

It seems to me that one of the cracks in the current power facade is that of a government which does not really want to govern. We also see the paradox of a nation who think leaders are bunk and so vote for the most venal because of that. Their rebellion is only a rebellion against a prior era of smug middle class reasonableness which was – they are right – quite fake.

If that is the case then perhaps we must govern ourselves instead and break the ties of taxes and everyday obedience to the social contract. But we have seen that naive anarchist road. Anyone who has been to Christiana in Denmark will understand what an idealistic notion it is.

I weave in and out of hope and despair in similar ways throughout my reading of Gros’s book. As you can see, it made me spar with it, and that is exactly its strength and the basis of the recommendation we pass to you to engage with it.

– Steve Hanson

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