TO MY SISTER SOPHIA
Nocturnal the river of hours flows,
from its source, the eternal tomorrow...
—MIGUEL DE UNAMUNO
Our society is experiencing a process of profound transformation in the understanding of the social order, strengthened by a significant decline on political faith. This situation is giving space to new and old forms of populism and fascism to convey their miserable views on life, while polarising and radicalising our society, assaulting and dismantling our democratic values and institutions, and ignoring our shared history. The social, political, economic and cultural apparatus has become so hardened, that what was once tangible as a possibility of fulfilment, it is presented to us as radically impossible. As a consequence, we are living in a constant state of emergency, anguish, fear and disillusion, with a permanent feeling of insecurity that is leading our citizens to embrace false promises from irresponsible leaders. Sadly enough, the idea of power as an act of faith continues to move the masses: the spell, the wonder and the unconsciousness that produces in people the figure of the leader who governs and leads us to nowhere—the messiah.
In many cases, unfortunately, it is not indoctrination: it is ideology as an act of faith. It is not that there has been a malicious attempt by superior and perverse minds to “deceive the people”, as it is often said, no. It is a reality that those fanatics not only want to believe their leaders and their values, no. That is how they really think, that is how they feel, that is how they see and interpret the world, life and history. Do they want to be deceived? Who knows, perhaps, but not innocently. The political fervour of many is that of mythical and religious thought: alienation from a political party, a leader, an ideology. In our time, alienation comes without the ritual and aesthetic greatness of the past: it is a faith without beauty, without mystery. Nevertheless, the old habit is there: the myth of power as salvation, the vanity of life—horror vacui.
What is most surprising about this sad and decadent landscape is that technological progress, social networks and the whole Internet have an overwhelming influence on it. Once thought as the antidote and the remedy—the utopian Global Village—is now the cause of the disease, its worst aggravating factor; a utopia that turned into hell, like all of them. Fanaticism flourishes and champions from time to time—as the course of history has shown us. However, the danger of our present time is that it has now become the norm.
In a world flooded as never before in history with a vast and almost endless access to information and knowledge, with unlimited possibilities for learning more—and learning on our own, whatever one wants—it is as if that superabundance was harmful, as if it produces boredom, heaviness, to the point that many people prefer to live blinded in their false beliefs, seeing their reflection on a mirror, rather than to sit down to review them.
Madness spreads unstoppably also in the virtual realm, like a great snowball—of snow and fire. Everyone seeks only to confirm their prejudices, to reaffirm their obsessions, their hatreds and their whims. Moreover, the tremendous digital marasmus in which we are mired is always dragging us to the same place: that island that is individualism, narcissism and vanity—ignorance and selfishness in action.
The obscurantism of our time only will rest until it finds confirmation and acceptance of its nonsense and slogans, of its foolishness, when supported by the majorities—well, maybe it is already too late. Political parties have become churches, sects, and their leaders are untouchable messiahs. No arguments or valid reasons; only revealed truths. Lies. That is: the fascist’s raised hand goes on with a smartphone and governs with less than 140 characters today—the cynicism of power has no limits. Our leaders rule through social media, our new “direct democracy”, while denigrating and denying history: perverting it, ignoring it. Yes, it is true, this has always happened and it will happen again. However, what is disconcerting is that there was never in the course of history a more educated society, with free access to information—all novelty, unfortunately, is but oblivion.
There is nothing to celebrate. Fun ist ein Stahlbad, sentenced Theodor W. Adorno in Dialektik der Aufklärung. The cheap and tasteless aestheticization of politics and that of our consequent leaders that is championing nowadays celebrates any historical date as if it were their own achievement; instrumentalising history so to promote anachronistic identity values—oh Heimat, that fiction! Our society in general but politics, in particular, became a spectacle, a farce, a show where everyone assists as voyeurs willing to be entertained, thus reproducing the system in their ignorance, apathy and vanity—the free will for self-alienation.
Without resistance, we are amused and possessed by the Donald Duck syndrome, “so we can learn to take our own punishment”, as Adorno pointed out. Life became a pose, a façade, a simulacrum: it is enough to pose, to shine and to be “socially accepted” against a black mirror: the dictatorship of narcissism—what else. The world has become a parody of itself. The humankind has no salvation, but not only for destroying the planet based on an economic system driven by consume and by an ideology that rewards individuality, no. It is not only because of the effects of climate change, no. It is because of stupidity.
In the course of history, when a civilisation went into decline and decadence, the flowering of another compensated for the void left. Or different civilisations were flourishing, or were at their peak at the same time. Nowadays nothing blooms, only active ignorance, entertainment and narcissism. Additionally—and unfortunately—we are not able to recognise the importance of history, its raison d’être.
History, with the succession of lives, civilizations and worlds that has left its course, it is at the same time deciphering, building and inventing—in the most profound sense of the word (in Latin, inventing is also discover- ing)—its identity, its way of being. In that sense, history is also an agreed and collective fiction: a story that it is also an act of faith. However, it does not lack objective data, clues, certainties and documents, testimonies and facts, and processes that science and memory are decanting, hovering, until achieving an increasingly faithful vision of whatever it was and happened. Among other things because “progress”, that obsession of the modernity, constitutes not only a broadening of the horizon but also humankind’s memory.
The more humankind advances towards the fulfilment of a dystopian present—if that can be called advancing, and the discussion is valid, but it is another discussion—the more knowledge it also has of its history, its origins, its remote antiquity. That is why is depressing the actual state of apathy, ignorance and constant use and abuse towards history. We progress forward and backwards.
Time also flows, as in the verse of the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno: from the eternal tomorrow. Nevertheless, in the end, each present time decides what to tell and what to remember, and definitely, what to ignore and forget. It also decides how to do it and why, and when, and where. Thus, commemorations tell us more about those who make them, those who celebrated them, than what they actually commemorate. In their different voices and debates there is much more to tell about the present than of the past. Commemorations are an exceptional document of its time, but especially of the present that celebrates them. Has the past been transformed? Do we know it better? Without a doubt: yes. The problem is that we want to ignore it, sadly because of disinterest and apathy.
We are the sum of all the past that precedes us, but also, as Jorge Luis Borges pointed out, we are also the sum of the worlds to come, a kind of yesterdays and tomorrows. Time is a palimpsest, so in parades, speech- es, books, congresses, coffee meetings or university discussions, controversies, debates, radio or television programs, tweets, memes, family albums, Instagram pictures, sounds, flavours, smells, we find history. Yes, it is there too; that is history. Moreover, it belongs to all of us. One of the essential features of history, and one of its main problems and charms as social science, is that it usually refers to facts and things that have already happened, that are in the past. That is why we try to understand the past, to think it and tell it—because with it we go to the river of time to discover its course while it reaches our present.
With history, walking makes the path, as in the verse of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. However, it walks backwards, like Walter Benjamin’s notion of the Angelus Novus: “while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress”. In that sense, it could be said that we already know what could happen: we already know the outcome of the plot, the end, but our goal is to understand its causes.
Louis Althusser defined it as “every process is governed by its end”. In this sense, the present is like a pedestal that allows us to order everything, understand everything, judge everything, or so we believe, because everything already happened—and so it is effortless. So, by looking back, by thinking and telling our shared history, we have with us the keys that allow us to know the scope of a gesture that at that time—in the past— seemed insignificant and was definitive, or vice versa.
Every fact of the past to which we look from the present has another value. Moreover, it is also a reference for what could happen in the future. That is what we already know, and what makes us see history with an order that in its day it never had. If we think for example of Nazism, which is a recurring and famous historical case, we already know its outcome of horror and ignominy, its atrocities. All the gestures and habits that made it possible are for us that: a clear and latent indication of what was going to happen; a small, shy sign that later led to the holocaust, the war, the degradation of humanity—Dialektik der Aufklärung. We see then images: flags waving, troops marching, broken glasses, power, madness— the consummation of a destiny that no one could change any more. However, if we return to its origins, like editing a movie (we hear the sounds of the tape as we play the film back), we see those germinal gestures that nobody was aware of at that time; nobody knew then what those gestures were going to end.
Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a doctor and a magnificent writer who kept a diary while Adolf Hitler ascended to power—or instead, he kept a diary about his life that coincided with that moment in history—tells that the first signs of Nazism were tenuous and apparently minor, but shouting in the streets became more frequent, small aggressions became normal. There were no fires yet; there were no killings or extermination. Nevertheless, hostility and lynching, the spirit of a mob, took over the streets. What was previously impossible because courtesy or because so-called civilisation or wisdom, or whatever prevented it, became then more common, the norm, a nightmare. To outrage the neighbour, to humiliate him/her, began to be a gesture that many celebrated and considered lawful and necessary.
That is the most profound origin of fascism, which is not only an Italian political movement, rather an entire conception of the world: a way of being; a mood that blooms equally on the left or on the right, at any time, anywhere. Messianism and barbarism nullify true confrontation, the only one that exists and matters, however, as difficult and fierce as it is, that of ideas. Nowadays, this method of defamation has returned, the shameless and vulgar face-to-face, now live, in real-time, direct on social media, is promoted and instigated by many politicians, by our new messiahs: they want it; they need it.
The account on history makes us think of it as something with solemnity and greatness, as if everything were very logical. The future—the sum of the successive presents—looks to the past with a providential vocation, as if what happened had been written before, as if it was very easy to decipher. And it is, yes, but when it has already happened, not before. The historian, therefore, predicts the past, however, we must be careful with those little gestures of the present, hoping that the future does not see them as the origin of something much worse. Hopefully, that is not what is left.