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The Enemy and the Libidinal Economy of the Apocalypse

by Fabio Vighi
The West continues to avoid introspection by invoking the Other as pure evil. While the terminal crisis of capitalist civilization is truly global, and no emancipatory model can be seen on the geopolitical chessboard, it is also evident that today’s anti-Russian sentiment stems from a consolidated ideological framework. Seen from the West, Russians have always been an inferior race, barbarians...
The Enemy and the Libidinal Economy of the Apocalypse
By Fabio Vighi
[This article posted on June 24, 2024 is available on the Internet, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-enemy-and-the-libidinal-economy-of-the-apocalypse/.]

The figure of the Enemy is probably the most precious asset of the imploding West. Just consider the recent celebrations for the 80th anniversary of the D-day, which, courtesy of the ubiquitous Volodymyr Zelensky (who a few days later turned up at the G7 meeting in Italy, and then at the bogus “peace summit” in Switzerland),[i] were transformed into yet another commercial against Russia – who in the fight against Nazism, supported by Ukraine, sacrificed around 27 million people (as USSR). Dressed up as Normandy, Ukraine was once again consecrated as the ontological frontier in the struggle of Good against Evil. The point to ponder here is the causal link between a panicky empire teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and the evocation of an Enemy to be fought, in this specific case, to the last Ukrainian (and to the detriment of the European vassals).

So, let’s confront reality head-on instead of fixating on its “political actors”. Russian disinformation, we are told, is everywhere. But what about Western disinformation? No mainstream media tells us that, after the new sanctions and the G7 decision to use frozen Russian assets to finance a new $50 billion package for Ukraine, the rouble has actually appreciated against the dollar. Why is the Russian currency strengthening? Weren’t we told for months on end that the sanctions would turn the rouble into toilet paper, which would then bring down Putin Ceausescu-style? In fact, how is it that the Russian economy is growing by more than 3%? And why does the Financial Times feel compelled to report that, in May this year, more Russian gas was exported to Europe than US liquefied gas (LNG)? Is it a coincidence that, after such “revelation”, the EU’s 14th sanctions package against Russia for the first time included gas – thus dealing the final blow to European industrial production? Also, why aren’t we informed that US debt securities worth approximately $10 trillion are due to mature in 2024? Isn’t it clear yet that, behind the Manichean media narratives we are fed, the West is engaged in an internal struggle for survival, which, as such, needs sacrificial lambs?

Anything can make the news these days except what would reveal that the matrix is no longer “sustainable.” This, of course, doesn’t mean that the world will fall off its axis tomorrow. Rather, more soberly, it means that Western economies will continue their race to the bottom while inflation ticks higher. Not only is inflation now structural, but it also serves to mitigate the costs of refinancing the ever-growing tsunami of debt which erodes the “sustainability” of the financial house of cards. In short, an economic model that thrives on artificial monetary expansion and endless debt securitization – a model of capitalism in an advanced stage of decay – can only attempt to capitalize on the currency devaluation it spontaneously engenders. Regardless of what one thinks of Russia, China, and other capitalist autocracies, can we really blame the growing number of countries from the Global South that are rushing to join the BRICS alliance? After all, these nations are seeking to escape the economic stranglehold imposed by their dependency on the US dollar, which has persisted for decades.

The dominance of the Western financial sector has imposed a model of “destructive creation” rather than “creative destruction” (as famously theorised by Joseph Schumpeter). “Creation” here refers to the leveraged expansion of derivative-driven speculative capital which necessitates the abandonment of the traditional framework of liberal-democratic values designed to safeguard industrial capitalism. This means that the Western elites (the 0.1 percenters) manage the terminal crisis of capital by inflicting its consequences upon increasingly impoverished masses, who are also “distracted” by relentless eschatological hype: catastrophic scenarios originating in the “misbehaviour” of an external Enemy (Virus, Russia, Iran, China, Climate Change, etc.). So, what does “sustainability” actually refer to? One thing is clear: it bears no relation to the United Nation’s 17 “sustainable development” goals (defeating poverty and hunger, increasing health and well-being, fighting climate change, gender equality, etc.) – those, unfortunately, are just decoys. “Sustainable development” concerns an elitist economic model that pushes Wall Street to record-breaking highs while making ordinary folks pay for such achievement through real economic contraction and the erosion of purchasing power. The question, then, is: are we happy to take the hit to protect the wealth of the ultra-rich and their sinister idea of “the best of possible worlds”?

A sinister idea like “sustainable neo-feudal capitalism” requires sinister (and often farcical) ceremonies. After decades of stable decline, the Western “advanced” economies are now accelerating toward collapse, and simultaneously grappling with a delusion-of-omnipotence complex which exploits the threat of ineffable exogenous Enemies. For around three decades after WWII, the capitalist matrix functioned by cajoling surplus-value producers through the carrot of social mobility and consumerism, while also using violence when necessary. It was almost effortless, then, to pretend to be good, democratic, and liberal. The choreography that obscured the collective prison was still credible, almost realistic, even attractive. The bloodstains on the walls were erased by strokes of paint called “progress”, “democracy”, “growth”. In short, capital and its bureaucrats managed to represent the aspirations of the Western masses that they also exploited, or worse, that they persistently looted in various regions of the “Third World.”

But now the party is over. The most powerful social illusion in modern history dupes only the dupers, and all those who believe they can still cash in on an obsolescent system. As the American Dream slowly morphs into a nightmare also for the middle classes, the only realistic option left is to turn the screw on entire populations: propaganda, censorship, war escalations, daily administrations of calamitous scenarios, ethnic cleansing, even the return of political violence against the non-aligned. This, to be sure, is the autopilot of a socioeconomic discourse which represses its destructive madness by turning every vision of the future – therefore, of the possible – into a vision of terror. The logic at work is as cunning as it is desperate. The eschatological kernel of a financial simulation of growth driven by quantum machine learning algorithms, which forces entire societies into stagnation, is first disavowed and then released into the geopolitical scene. The combination of accelerating financial metastasis and depressive social inertia is now steadily offset by the threat of exogenous catastrophes.

Amin Samman and Stefano Sgambati have noted that ‘the current financial system operates on the basis of a “rolling apocalypse”, perpetually scheduling and deferring millions of endpoints around which lives and livelihoods are organised.’ More precisely:

“The financialisation of capitalism in this way installs eschatology at the heart of daily life, binding the contemporary subject to the ends of finance through the unending circulation and leveraging of debt. We all live under the shadow of the financial eschaton, no matter how we find ourselves plugged into the financial machine, and the result is a transference onto indebtedness of all the psychological charge previously reserved for the end of history.”[ii]

This perceptive argument could be developed further through the following observation: insofar as it is increasingly fragile and unmanageable in financial terms alone, the apocalyptic threat that haunts the “leveraged economy” of the West is now deployed directly as a bio- or geopolitical weapon. This brings to light the repressed content of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, for his famous claim that Western liberal democracy is the final form of human government comes true in the ongoing collapse of the future into a claustrophobic present trapped amidst the violent dynamics of debt and the continuous threat of global disasters. This way, the financial eschaton morphs into a discourse of explicit social and geopolitical end-time. With the sustained and deliberate promotion of war theatres like the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and the Palestinian genocide, the eschatological dimension inscribed in the libidinal economy of leverage spills over into what I have called “emergency capitalism,” or the “libidinal economy of the apocalypse”.

It is vital to reiterate that the disabling of the future, which binds us to a depressive presentism (while also erasing traces of the past), originates in the terminal crisis of capital, as best represented by the insubstantial character of money in our hyper-financialised universe. As the real value of capital is shrinking, so does capital’s capacity to reproduce our societies. Money capital is now emerging as the nothing of self-reflexive performativity, the endless circulation of rolled-over debt that vainly attempts to hide its own void – de facto accomplishing nothing except its own proliferation. In the era of financial capitalism, money is created ex nihilo as electronic bytes on banks’ computer screens, and the faster it circulates as debt, the more it reveals its ruinous destiny. While debts are not supposed to be settled but instead packaged and invested as assets in a potentially infinite loop,[iii] in truth their proliferation is exposed to growing systemic fragilities – which is why, I argue, the financial eschaton needs to promote fear of Armageddon by breeding conflicts and emergencies that must be perceived as part of an apocalyptic destiny devoid of redemption. The main feature of contemporary Power is a type of totalitarian rule based on the weaponization of impending doom.

At the heart of this process is the reliance on the toxic fetish of the speculative bubble: trillions (quadrillions if we count derivatives) of insubstantial money orbiting above our heads at the speed of light. The virtualization of the economy – monetary capital that multiplies without valorising itself, that is, without passing through the living bodies of commodity-producing workers – now generates terrifying “returns in the Real”. It is therefore no surprise that Western capitalism, which on account of its advanced financial structure is the first to experience implosion, increasingly resembles a drunk looking for a fight. This is somewhat inevitable, as an empire that parts ways peacefully with the idols that have marked its history is hard to fathom.

Typically, the internal contradictions of our hyper-financialised constellation are unloaded onto the figure of an external Enemy who targets innocent victims, and therefore must be (or, in the case of Russia, should be) re-educated with bombs. In the past, it was enough to blow on the flames of an existing conflict. This was the case, for example, in the former Yugoslavia when the Saudis secretly funded an operation to supply $300 million worth of weapons to the Bosnian government (starting from 1993), with the tacit collaboration of the United States and in direct violation of United Nations embargo, which Washington itself had committed to enforcing. This paved the way for the criminal NATO bombing of Serbia. As Jeffrey Sachs summarized in a recent interview: ‘In 1999 we bombed Belgrade [without UN authorization] for 78 days, and the point of that was to break Serbia through the creation of a new state, Kosovo, where we now have the largest NATO military base in South-eastern Europe (Bondsteel).’

But now that the US-centred globalisation project is on the way out, we are witnessing a seemingly unstoppable acceleration of blind hostility. The NATO master instructs the European lapdogs to bark louder at the Enemy. And the latter, caught as they are in a knot of ancient jealousies, find nothing better to do than compete with each other for the Warholian fifteen minutes of geopolitical fame. This, after all, is the role assigned to subordinates: to willingly sacrifice for the Emperor. Such a reckless strategy, however, will prove as counterproductive as the punitive sanctions that boomeranged to hit Europe on the head. Adding to the predicament, the European Central Bank’s recent decision to cut interest rates (while simultaneously raising inflation estimates!) appears to be yet another sacrifice aimed at delaying the popping of the US stock market bubble. This move, a 0.25% devaluation of the euro, serves no purpose other than divert capitals towards the US market. Incidentally, even Bloomberg has highlighted that the breadth of the US financial market, measured by the ratio of rising to falling shares in a given index, has reached its lowest point since 2009, and is solely supported by the tech sector (essentially, Nvidia).

Yet, the West continues to avoid introspection by invoking the Other as pure evil. While the terminal crisis of capitalist civilization is truly global, and no emancipatory model can be seen on the geopolitical chessboard, it is also evident that today’s anti-Russian sentiment stems from a consolidated ideological framework. Seen from the West, Russians have always been an inferior race, barbarians related by blood to the Mongols and therefore of a treacherous nature, with “Asian characteristics.” It is no surprise that such sentiment was always a major weapon in the Western geopolitical arsenal. Regardless of whether tsarists, socialists, or new-gen capitalists, Russians have consistently been portrayed as underdeveloped tyrants driven by a lust for power that, somehow, horrifies us Western liberals. Freud would say, correctly, that we project onto the depraved Enemy the violent drives cultivated in our home garden. The key point is that this long-standing hostility towards Russia, acting as dumping ground for repressed Western anxieties, now serves to hide the fact that the most advanced form of capitalism has reached the age of impotence. In Hegel’s famous words, the West is a ‘form of life grown old’ – which, however, desperately wants to believe it is still young and full of energy.

In geopolitical terms, it is enough to revisit Zbigniew Brzezinsky’s The Grand Chessboard, published in 1997, to realize that “operation Ukraine” had long been factored into NATO’s eastward expansion. Brzezinsky – national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, co-founder with David Rockefeller of the Trilateral Commission (1973), and well-known eminence dean of US foreign policy from Lyndon Johnson’s to Barack Obama’s administrations – clearly lays out the critical importance of Ukraine as a geopolitical pivot in maintaining US supremacy in the Eurasian continent. The backing of Ukrainian independence by offering NATO and EU memberships (Brzezinsky talks of the 2005-2015 decade as a ‘reasonable time frame’),[iv] was key to this. Explicitly stated, the short-term goal was for the United States to ‘put a premium on manoever and manipulation in order to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that could eventually seek to challenge America’s primacy. […] The most immediate task is to make certain that no state or combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive arbitrating role.’ The conditions for Russia were equally clear: either it abides to global US dominance (by promoting ‘a decentralized political system, based on free market’,[v] which Boris Yeltsin was facilitating in the 1990s), or it would ‘become a Eurasian outcast’,[vi] effectively “Asianising itself into insignificance.” While Brzezinsky did foresee that US global dominance would not last forever,[vii] with regard to Russia he was counting on Yeltsin’s economic shock therapy of widespread privatizations to continue to favor US geopolitical interests for a long time.

But soon the optimism of the 1990s faded and a different picture emerged. The recovery of Russia, China’s sustained economic growth, and the failure of the neocons foreign policy after 9/11 effectively made Brzezinski’s doctrine of geopolitical supremacy look outdated. While still trying to prevent the EU from developing strong economic relations with Eurasian partners, Washington was forced to put all its capitalist eggs in the financial basket. It is in this context that we should place the escalation of that strategy of ‘manoever and manipulation’ of which Brzezinsky wrote. By now, we should have realized what was obvious in 2022: that the plan to collapse Russia through sanctions and weapons poured into Ukraine was a bluff. It was never supposed to work because it couldn’t work. Rather, it was meant to destabilize the region (in typical CIA style) while hoping to prolong US hegemony. Along these lines, the recent authorization to strike deep into Russian territory with Western weapons appears to be aimed at increasing the perception of geopolitical risk in the hope of protecting the last two fragile Western imperial bastions: the US dollar as (increasingly uncertain) global reserve currency, and the (increasingly obsolete) military-industrial complex. Both are instrumental in supporting the tech-centered and debt-addicted equities bubble on whose inflation the fate of empire hangs.

In the meantime, on the Palestinian front, the West deliberately perpetuates an even more gruesome “theater of war”: human beings who’ve been treated worse than cattle for more than 70 years are moved around among the rubble and then mercilessly exterminated, burned alive in their miserable camps, pulverized by bombs in schools and hospitals. The sheer magnitude of this act of barbarism, which shatters any remaining illusion of Western moral superiority, is hypocritically understated, or distorted, in nauseating “free media” and “democratic” debates among moralists who have suddenly awoken from their lethargy, and the usual regime stooges. No one has the courage to connect the dots and call into question a socioeconomic model that is structurally stagnant and overtly destructive.

Indeed, it would seem that the system needs a qualitative leap in this game of massacre, a human sacrifice of unprecedented magnitude that would allow capital to do what it has always done: reproduce itself. In its anemic and solipsistic dance, financial capitalism has painted itself into a corner. For at least half a century it was busy working at its own dissolution, which now it wants to manage by sowing further destruction, up to the eschatological promise of the Apocalypse. Politicians and the elites no longer hide behind pseudo-idealistic liberal narratives like “exporting democracy”. Rather, they read from the same dystopian script. NATO frontman Jens Stoltenberg calls for head-on confrontation with Russia. Larry Fink, head of BlackRock, endorses depopulation as an incentive to competitiveness: ‘the big winners are countries with a shrinking population […] social problems linked to the replacement of human beings with machines will be far easier to manage in those countries that have declining populations.’ (And we’d better believe him – he’s definitely not bluffing).

Capital’s alliance with technologies of the third and fourth industrial revolution is necessarily asocial and intrinsically eugenic. There is nothing left to do on this front: either we seek a collective way out or we can only accelerate towards the abyss. Or do we think that there are other solutions, perhaps reformist ones? Is there still anyone who uses the term “reform” in good faith, without feeling overwhelmed by a profound sense of existential futility? We are well past the deadline for reforms. We have entered the phase in which capital devours everything, including itself, in order to sustain the illusion of its own immortality (an illusion that is particularly hard to die).

Arguably, then, what we see at work in our collapsing universe of sense is nothing other than the formal underlying logic of anti-Semitism, where the image of a perceived external danger (such as the Jew in Nazi Germany) is cultivated to establish a semblance of internal cohesion. The negativity of the social constellation is projected onto the malevolent Other so that the system can immunise itself against its own deadly contradictions. Today, for instance, US-backed Zionism itself has come to adopt an anti-Semitic rationale in its attempted obliteration of the Palestinian Other. But is the ruse of conjuring the Enemy still effective in supporting the people’s belief in a decaying system? And, furthermore, to what extent can the threat of unheard-of catastrophes be prevented from turning real?

A double logic would seem to be at work here, which bears witness to the divided nature of Power itself. On the one hand, emergency capitalism and its addiction to the figure of the Enemy functions as a way to defer the day of reckoning while tying us to the de-socialising noose of the financial eschaton: as we were shown in 2020, a psycho-pandemic can serve to print trillions of dollars that are then injected into the ailing speculative sector, so that financial collapse is postponed via global fearmongering. However, such devious attempts at “crisis management” are haunted by their double, inasmuch as they generate explosive contradictions that they struggle to bring under control. Today’s manipulation of eschatological narratives through the reminder that nuclear escalation is just around the corner could very easily turn into runaway barbarism. To assume that those in power are able to bluff their way into capitalist eternity is to fall for the most dangerous type of delusion.

Notes:

[i] How can you hold a peace summit without inviting the principal belligerent? Interestingly, Zelensky offered peace to an uninvited Enemy who is winning the war, and on condition that the Enemy declares himself defeated.

[ii] Amin Samman and Stefano Sgambati, ‘Financialising the Eschaton’, in Clickbait Capitalism. Economies of Desire in the Twenty-First Century (ed. Amin Samman and Earl Gammon), pp. 191-208 (193).

[iii] Of course, a distinction has to be made between two types of borrowers: ‘There are those who borrow to buy goods, to pay rent, to fund their studies and make themselves attractive to employers. These are the 99%, the indebted masses for whom indebtedness has become “a condition in which to invest”. Then there are those who borrow for an altogether different set of investment purposes, to invest in real estate, stocks and bonds, and an array of more complex, structured financial products, many of which are built precisely on the debts of others. These are the 1%, the indebted elites for whom indebtedness is a ticket to power, wealth, and luxury. Indeed, over the past forty years (and especially in the last two decades), the rich and ultra-rich have made most of their gains not by lending to the rest of society (let alone to the poor), but by borrowing money with a view to leveraging their positions in financial and property markets. Rentiers, shareholders, and financial market investors have been able to make high returns only because their asset portfolios have been so levered-up. […] Class struggle in the age of financial capitalism is a struggle between debtors and debtors, between the greater borrowers and the lesser ones, the indebted rich and the burdened poor’ (Ibid, p. 198).

[iv] Zbigniew Brzezinsky, The Grand Chessboard. American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York: Basic Books, p. 121).

[v] Ibid, p. 202.

[vi] Ibid, p. 122.

[vii] ‘And since America’s unprecedented power is bound to diminish over time, the priority must be to manage the rise of other regional powers in ways that do not threaten America’s global primacy. As in chess, American global planners must think several moves ahead, anticipating possible countermoves.’ (Ibid, p. 198).

The Author
Fabio Vighi is Professor of Critical Theory and Italian at Cardiff University, UK. His recent work includes Critical Theory and the Crisis of Contemporary Capitalism (Bloomsbury 2015, with Heiko Feldner) and Crisi di valore: Lacan, Marx e il crepuscolo della società del lavoro (Mimesis 2018).


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