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Humanism and Violence
by Stefan Silber
Tuesday Apr 2nd, 2013 6:12 AM
The ideology of the invisible hand of the market transforms all barbarism that is committed into human service... The modern age is a doubled humanism... State terrorism presents itself as humanist realism, as the only true way of protecting life.

by Stefan Silber

[This blog commentary from 2007 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

When humanism is invoked today, the doubling of humanism must be addressed. When another world is possible is emphasized, the humane has to be promoted and regained while we simultaneously criticize humanism. Concretizing another world is not a technical problem although many technical problems must be solved. It is a problem of regaining humanism.

We face a world of dehumanization. But the dehumanization pretends to be a human service.

To relate critically to humanism, we need an insight that leads the way or precedes everything: the modern age is humanism. Renaissance, liberalism, socialism and even fascism all speak in the name of the humane to be regained. We cannot speak differently. But it is doubled humanism. A classical formulation of humanism comes from Marx in which Marx speaks of the categorical imperative:

“ overthrow all conditions in which a person is a humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and contemptible being.” (MEW, p.385)

This is only one side of modern humanism. It would obviously be naive to believe the modern age is this humanism. In the Kosovo war, another humanism was present that was not new but was given a new name: humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian interventions change whole countries into scorched earth: Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly Iran in the next step. A war can only be a total war when it is lived and experienced and not only interpreted as humanitarian interventions. Humanitarian interventions that we experienced are all total wars in which there are no humane limits to violence. However this is also true for all totalitarian societies. They only become totalitarian in the name of regaining the humane. This is also true for the present totalizing of the market by the dominant globalization strategy. The ideology of the invisible hand of the market transforms all barbarism that is committed into human service.

This is also expressed in the names of the ministries. First they were war ministries, then defense ministries and in the future will probably be ministries of humanitarian interventions, a kind of inverted welfare ministries. But everything is humanism.

This is the doubling of humanism. Therefore if the modern age is called humanism, we must always add that the modern age is a doubled humanism. Otherwise we become bewitched to a pure illusion. This is the doubling of concrete and abstract humanism.


Abstract, inverted and mistaken humanism is the most immediately visible. All colonialization of the world was carried out by humanitarian interventions although this term had not been invented yet. This had a religious expression in America's conquest by Spain and Portugal. After the conquerors acknowledged that the population there consisted of persons with eternal souls, they were conquered to secure their eternal salvation. However human rights were not forgotten. They declared the population cannibals and persons who committed human sacrifice and saved them from cannibalism and human sacrifice while simultaneously burning heretics alive in the home countries, burning witched before the cathedrals and singing the Te Deum. The person and concern for persons stood in the center. English imperialism expressed the same thing in a secular way. When India was conquered, the “white man's burden” was borne to bring culture and middle class law to India at last. Locke had shown this is the realistic way of setting the person in the center of life. English imperialism sacrificed for this mission and as a return favor deserved India's wealth being brought to England.

Slavery was also human service. Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the US, declared slavery necessary to “civilize” the imported Africans... In socialist China, the camps had the goal of “reeducating” people. Abstract humanism has never recognized limits. The GULAG was also human service. One only needs to read the speeches of Wischinsky, the prosecutor of the purges in the Soviet Union of the 1930s to hear the GULAG was necessary to lead humanity into the light of communism, the true humane society...

However this abstract humanism which is still the soul of the colonialization of the world today also defined middle class society and capitalism itself. A true spirituality of the market arose. Mandeville declared: private vices become public virtues. Adam Smith changed this into the invisible hand of the market: the evil is the good. The evil, the exploitation, is only seemingly evil. The invisible hand of the market transforms it into a contribution to the general interest so it becomes the good. Neoclassical theory changed this again in proclaiming the automatic tendency to the balance of the markets and continues to exist in this form in contemporary neoliberalism: the evil is the good whenever it happens in the framework of the market. This has been refuted a thousand times but economists of these schools simply look away and repeat their dogma. Without this dogma, capitalism cannot really be justified and therefore it is immunized again and again. This can be read today in Greenspan's autobiography: The Age of Turbulence. A real spirituality kept Greenspan from falling back into concrete humanism. [1]

This human service of abstract humanism today inverts the constitutional state into its opposite. In the meantime the constitutional state in the US is compatible with the existence of concentration camps like Guantanamo, systematic torture and the disappearance of persons. All this becomes part of today's public spirit. Even torture becomes human service. In this sense, the news about a prominent torturer of Camp Delta in Guantanamo appearing in the Washington Post is revealing:

Van Natta ended his assignment as superintendent of Camp Delta in September. He says he is proud today about what he and his troops accomplished.

“That was the most important year I ever lived because I am convinced we saved lives,” said Van Natta who now directs the high security prison north of Indianapolis.

“...If the information we collect saves lives, Camp David will be regarded as a good project. If there is no information (intelligence), Camp David will be seen as a result of a superpower that exercised its power in an uncontrolled way. [2]

There is an anecdote about the Spanish inquisitor Torquemada from the 15th century. In a dialogue, he raised the question: is it allowed not to torture a heretic? He gave the answer: not torturing a heretic is not allowed because that would take away his last chance of saving his soul.

This has obviously changed although it continues. The question today is: is it allowed not to torture a terrorism suspect? The answer is: not torturing him is not allowed because one would lose the chance of saving the life of an innocent person. In the cited memorandum of the Department of Justice, we read:

… according to the memo, the international laws against torture may be unconstitutional when they are applied to interrogations carried out in the Bush war against terrorism...

When an employee of the government tortures a captured suspect, “he does this to prevent further attacks against the US by the terror network Al Qaeda,” says the memo of the office of legal advice to the Justice Department given as an answer to a request of the CIA for legal consultation. An argumentation that relies on “necessity and self-defense gives a degree of justification that removes all criminal responsibility.” [3]

Not torturing is changed into an act of barbarism. Not torturing is unconstitutional, inhumane, irresponsibility and cooperation with terrorism. Torture promotes life. This is a secularized Torquemada. It isn't easy to say which is worse.

This kind of argument appears on many sides and also in relation to dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The pilot of the aircraft that dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima answered the question about the most important act of his life.

Group 509 was trained, formed and carried out its task of dropping the bomb... Originally, Europe and Japan were to be bombarded simultaneously.

I saved millions of lives by what I did, a work for which I needed 10 and a half months...[4]

Torture, the atom bomb and the globalization strategy – everything saves lives. Not to drop the atom bomb would have even been irresponsible and unconstitutional. State terrorism presents itself as humanist realism, as the only true way to protect life. [5]

The Chilean general Cordon, the head of the CNI security service in the time of Pinochet who administered the torture camps in Chile in the name of national security, said:

“National security is like love. There is never enough of it” (El Mercurio, Santiago de Chile, 12/4/1983).

In Orwell's language, he was head of the Ministry of Love in the service of humanitarian interventions of those who say: war is peace.

In his time, Camdessus, former president of the International Monetary Fund, loved to give speeches on the theme “The Market and God's Reign.” He spoke of the “option for the poor” as advocated by liberation theology. Actually this option for the poor is an expression of a concrete humanism, parallel to Marx's categorical imperative. He celebrated it enthusiastically. Whoever realistically defends the option for the poor can only do this by realizing the structural adjustments of the International Monetary Fund. Camdessus declared the market is the most perfect approach to God's reign possible for people. The Vatican was so enthusiastic it nominated Camdessus at the end of his mandate to be a member of its justitia et pax commission and annulled past social teaching. All this is the spirituality of the market and its sacralization.

Fascism was also human service although not as abstract humanism. Quite the contrary! In an essential part, it originates from a criticism of abstract humanism. However following Nietzsche, it seeks the abolition of all humanism so a person realizes himself as a person. It doesn't seek to regain concrete humanism. Karl Schmitt devised the formula humanity-bestiality and added: whoever says humanity is deceived. In today's sense, whoever says humanity wants to capture petroleum. Not surprisingly the founder of the Spanish Falange Juan Antonio Primo de Rivera said: When I hear the word humanity, I draw my pistol.

Schmitt seeks a war not falsified by this abstract humanism in which real enemies face one another without being changed into absolute enemies in a concocted total war.

This medicine was certainly much worse than the sickness. Human service can lead to perversions. The Jews even had to be exterminated since the tradition of humanism (which includes utopia) has much to do with the Jewish tradition or comes from that tradition. Therefore people believed the root of evil would be stamped out when the Jews were eradicated. Schmitt sees in humanism the reason that total war is transformed into total peace. However the abolition of humanism brought the most total war of world history.


Regaining concrete humanism is crucial today. This regaining presupposes that humanism is seen critically in its doubling. Otherwise one is naïve and begins the whole process from the beginning. Concrete humanism has the tendency of changing suddenly into abstract humanism and thus vi8olence. It transforms itself into the categorical imperative for violence. This is not simply a resultof human malice but follows from the conditio humana itself. For this sudden change, we can use a word applied by Marx for the sudden change of the French Revolution in Bonapartismus: Thermidor. The Thermidor of humanism is constantly just around the corner.

For that reason, every attempt at regaining concrete humanism must always reflect this tendency to Thermidor on all sides. This danger is not only true for the system but ultimately for all human relations. This danger is visible and must be reflected and anticipated on all planes. This danger cannot be removed because all instituitionalizations institutionalize this danger. All institutions are administrations of death – despite the fact that people cannot live without them. As administrations of death, they inevitably develop the tendency to Thermidor from the side of abstract humanism and its categorical imperative to kill and destroy everything human. This happens on all planes, not only on the market. Violence becomes true human service; the negation of the human being becomes the illusion of the humanly. This occurs particularly when an institution is declared the human presence as in the totalization of the market or the plan. The institution then changes itself into the categorical imperative for violence.

All human rights of concrete persons are dissolved. The market is no longer flexible when it is totalized. Therefore persons must become flexible. In that way, they lose their human rights.

Obviously there is more than abstract humanism. The great emancipation movements of the modern age that arose after the French Revolution developed parallel to that. A concrete humanism operates here: slave emancipation, women's emancipation, emancipation of the working class to which many new emancipation movements follow up to today. This history of these movements shows that even if they start from concrete humanism they are themselves part of the problem of the doubling of humanism. With Stalinism, the socialist workers movement experienced its great Thermidor which had many analogies with the Thermidor of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Christian Thermidor is not very far removed when Christianity changed suddenly into its opposite in the 3rd and 4th centuries with Emperors Constantine and Augustus. Their origins from concrete humanism were stamped and written off as heresy. That is what is common to all these Thermidors.

The self-reflection of humanism cannot be limited to reflection on its emancipatory goals. Humanism must also reflect on its means. The relation of emancipation to its goals cannot be reduced to an ends-means calculation. The means jointly determine what goals are reachable. This is true for violence as a means of the emancipation- and humanization process. Violence cannot be a means of emancipation when it is used as a strategic part of the way. This does not imply an absolute pacifism. When it becomes a principle, a great tendency develops into the abstract humanism of war for peace. Violence can only be an extreme means as self-defense. But as an extreme means, it must always stand under criticism. No war is a just war even if it seems inevitable.

The subject must be subject to realistic judgment. I am when you are. No conflict may make this basic relation of every ethical judgment disappear.


This analysis of humanism in its doubling shows in what sense the modern age is humanism. Expressed differently, in the modern age God becomes a person who is human. All religious significance of this assumption is in parentheses... Everything is humanism; everything can be understood as service to human existence.

The modern age is a labyrinth. Without the threads of Ariadne, there is no orientation. This thread of Ariadne is the knowledge that God becomes a person in the modern age: in very different, even opposite and sometimes inverted and mistaken ways. A world arose where the inhuman can be realized without relation to the humane and hatred without relation to love.

Becoming conscious of this would be the change that the modern age needs. That is not the post-modern but the modern age in awareness of what it is. It would be the other modern age, the other world, a humanity that manifests a concrete humanism.

That God was a person is the result of a two-thousand year historical process that cannot be reduced to a specific event that happened in Bethlehem to thousand years ago even if the process had its starting point there. Walter Benjamin said capitalism was the result of a transformation of Christian orthodoxy in capitalism. I believe that is true. But it is more. The modern age is the result of a transformation of Christianity itself and not only of Christian orthodoxy...

Allow me a final remark. The double character of humanism is an expansion of the Marxist analysis of the double character of the commodity. This analysis must become an indispensable part of the criticism of political economy.


[1] He learned this through a book by Ayn Rand, according to Naomi Klein: “What she did was move me to reflect why capitalism is moral and not only efficient and practical,” Greenspan said in 1974. He had solved his conscience problems and did human service his whole life.

[2] Van Natta ended his tour as superintendent of Camp Delta in September. Today he says he is proud of what he and his troops accomplished: “That was my most important year because I think we saved lives,” said Van Natta, now back running the maximum security prison north of Indianapolis.

“If it comes out the way I think it will, it will be viewed as the most unique prison environment ever created. If it comes out that the information we collected did save lives, it will be viewed as one of the smartest moves ever made. If it's proven that there was no intelligence, then it's going to be viewed as a superpower using its power unchecked. Torture Policy, The Washington Post Company,, June 16, 2004; Page A26

[3] ...that international laws against torture “may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations” conducted in President Bush's war on terrorism, according to a newly obtained memo...

If a government employee were to torture a suspect in captivity, “he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the Al Qaeda terrorist network,” said the memo from the Justice Department's office of legal counsel, written in response to a CIA request for legal guidance, it added that arguments centering on “necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability” later...segun: Memo offered Justification for Use of Torture, Justice Dept Gave Advice in 2002 by Dana Priest and R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post Staff Writers, June 8, 2004, Page A01.

[4] Interview with Paul Tibbets, colonel who with 27 years as chief pilot dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The bomb bore the name Little Boy and the aircraft had the name of the mother of the pilot, Enola Gay. The interview was quoted in the Columbian journal Semana La Nacion, San Jose 8/22/99

[5] These arguments refer back to past conservative arguments. Cardinal Hoffner, former archbishop of Koln, said: “The state's right of the sword is an acknowledgment of the inviolability of the highest human goods, particularly human life. The sanctity of God's order is proven as `mighty' even in this aeon throughe death penalty” (Hoffner, Josef: Christliche Gesellschaftslehre, 1975).
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