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Carlo Strenger talks about the failures of Obama, how humans are like chimpanzees, and why we should ...
2017-08-20 10:00:00

History Did Not End
An Interview with Carlo Strenger

History Did Not End

Actually, I was convinced it wouldn’t happen.

Read in 20 minutes

I kept telling myself that Carlo Strenger had suddenly changed his mind. Or died. I know how that sounds, but, after all, he often writes in his books that the fundamental problem of modern culture is the denial of mortality. I’m about to board a plane to Tel Aviv and still no word from him. Before, he was answering my messages in a couple of minutes, or a couple of hours at most. Now there’s silence. It’s Thursday. On Monday, I e-mailed him asking for confirmation of our appointment. On Tuesday, I sent him another e-mail. Then another, plus a couple of text messages begging for a reply, because I already had the tickets, the hotel was booked, and so on. Now I’m at the airport and the worst case scenarios are going through my mind. Why this sudden communication breakdown?

I almost give up and go home – with all this silence, if I knocked on his door tomorrow I would feel almost like a stalker – when suddenly a pithy SMS shows up on my screen: “Interview is on. Looking forward.” What a relief. I board the plane and a couple of hours later I’m in Israel.

The next morning, I go to the house where we’re supposed to meet, but it turns out my information is incomplete. First of all, entrance B is nowhere to be seen. Second of all, a girl I ask for help in dealing with the Hebrew alphabet tells me that the name ‘Strenger’ doesn’t appear on any post box.

And he doesn’t answer the phone.

Well, that’s that, I think after a quarter of an hour. It won’t happen after all. I’m just about to go back to my hotel, when I notice an elderly lady watering flowers on a balcony. So I ask her, without much hope, whether she knows Professor Strenger.

She does, second entrance, top apartment.

I feel relieved again.

But then I’m at the door, I’m ringing the bell, and all I hear is a dog’s barking. He forgot. He won’t answer the door. Once again I lose all hope, and then the doors open. “You must be Tomasz,” Carlo Strenger invites me in, smiling broadly. “Meet Freud,” he adds, pointing to the dog, who barks, but is otherwise very friendly.

Freud will accompany us throughout our conversation, both the man (as a point of reference, for Strenger is, after all, a psychiatrist), and the canine, who wants to be petted the whole time. His owner talks to me spread out on some sort of couch in his book-filled study. Usually the couch is for a patient. This time the situation is reversed, because the psychiatrist is the one who’ll do most of the talking.

Before I ask my first question, he swallows a Nicorette pill. It turns out he gave up smoking four years ago, but he has an agreement with his wife that he’ll be allowed to take it up again once he’s 70. “Twelve more years to go, unfortunately,” he sighs. And he adds that he can’t quit nicotine once and for all, as he is simply too neurotic.

“Well, me too,” I answer. That’s why I was convinced it wouldn’t happen.


Tomasz Stawiszyński: Visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk is working on a technology that would enable connecting the human body to a computer in order for a man to achieve immortality. So we may one day exist as immaterial minds on artificial storage media, free of the limitations resulting from having a body, instead of which we’ll have access to all the information available online. Would you like to live like that?

Carlo Strenger: Only if in the process they’d fix my mind and get rid of all my neuroses [laughs]. I actually think immortality is a pretty frightening idea. Would there would be anything good in it? If indeed there was a way not to make us immortal, but let’s say, get us to four or five hundred years, it would change our psychology in a way that we cannot even understand at this point. And I don’t find it attractive. We would get to a point where no individual moment would matter because we would have endless possibilities to redo everything.

It would be boring?

Yes, and I think our lives would lose some of their poignancy.

But then it would be a dream come true for Homo globalis, the global man about whom you wrote many times in your books, a modern being of problematic identity, who doesn’t feel rooted anywhere and is also frightened of old age and dying, therefore trying to pretend those things don’t exist.

But I also think that in a way Homo globalis has some very positive aspects. In one of my books, I called one aspect of Homo globalis ‘new cosmopolitans’, that is people who are really thinking in universalist terms and believe that we should be trying to overcome nationalist, racial or religious boundaries, and to really get humanity to understand that we are one species. A species that has to try to survive.

These are also your own beliefs. You stress that you are a cosmopolitan and identify primarily as a human being, a citizen of the world, not a member of any one nation or religious group.

Let me disappoint you. I wrote The Fear of Insignificance, in which I stated those beliefs, in 2008–2009. Since then I became much more pessimistic. It looks like the genetic endowment of human beings is deeply tribal. We can’t really get over the limits of tribal thinking. I belong to a generation whose worldview was shaped by the Kantian dream of humankind evolving towards true reason and of there being something like a liberal world order in the deep sense of the word. First the League of Nations and then the UN were an attempt to put that into practice.

You were convinced the end of history was approaching?

Yes, I together with Francis Fukuyama thought that history was at its end, and it was just a matter of time until everybody saw the light. Now I am very much Huntingtonian, in other words, I think that in the end we’re going to live in a multipolar world where liberal democracy will not be the only model. Liberal democracy at this point is a very severe danger. The democratic country that saved the free world twice in the 20th century is now ruled by a man who, to use Shakespearean language, doesn’t give a damn about liberal democracy. One day you may remember the age of liberal democracy as the paradise lost.

Why are we losing it?

We have 98.5% of our genes in common with chimpanzees and gorillas. Basically, we’re chimpanzees with a huge neocortex. So our instincts seems to be basically the same as those of chimpanzees. When two groups of chimpanzees meet, mostly what happens is that the stronger group kills all the males, kills all the babies, and takes the females in order to impregnate them. Now, this huge neocortex allowed us to build civilization, but it seems to be incapable of controlling our genetic heritage. As a result, we have gained enormous destructive capacities. On the one hand, we are the chimpanzees that created things like St. Peter’s Dome or Mass in B minor and the Critique of Pure Reason, and those are miracles I’m willing to defend. On the other hand, when you ask me whether I’m optimistic, I have to answer with a negative.

We don’t need genetics – psychoanalysis is enough. One of Freud’s most important discoveries was that man doesn’t try to attain happiness and stability, therefore it’s natural that humankind didn’t achieve it either. So are you formulating those opinions as a psychoanalyst, or a political scientist?

First of all, 98% of Freud’s specific theses are wrong. Freud was shaped by the 19th century and the natural sciences of that time. His enduring legacy is that he was one of the first people to say that if we want to understand human psychology, we need to take into account its evolutionary layers. For me, as someone who was an optimistic Kantian in the 1990s, it’s now obvious that I’ve made a mistake ignoring those, because what we have seen in the last fifteen years or so is a return of tribal instincts. First we thought it was just a problem of religion, but now it’s becoming clear how much of it is also about nationalism and basically about tribalism as such. Towards the end of The Fear of Insignificance, I wrote about the competition between on the one hand the tribal aspects of our psyche, and on the other hand our ability to understand that we all share this tiny little planet with very limited resources, so if we don’t get along with each other and don’t work out a common framework together, we’re basically in danger of wiping ourselves out of existence. I still stand by many things in that book, but one of the advantages of being an intellectual, not a politician, is the ability to say: “I was wrong.” I wrote this book very much under the influence of Obama’s election. For me, there was something incredibly moving about it: a country that had abolished slavery only in the mid-19th century elected a man who is half black. It’s interesting, by the way, that he’s always only seen as half black, even though this is also half white. Still, he was elected and today I think Obama’s presidency is a deep reminder of how limited we are as human beings. Obama wasn’t just the first black president of the United States; he was also the first truly cosmopolitan one. And it pains me to say this, but I think his foreign policy failed miserably. He was too idealistic. His campaign promised that we can change everything, that we are able to bring huge improvements. There was a lot of expectations that everything’s going to be better. Then came the crash with reality.

You are very critical about slogans such as “Just do it”. They seduce Homo globalis, presenting him with an illusion of omnipotence. Weren’t Obama’s campaign slogans the manifestations of this same happy-go-lucky thinking, devoid of any awareness of limits and boundaries?

You’re literally reading in my mind. On the one hand, I criticize “Just do it”; on the other hand, I wanted to believe in “Yes, we can”. I think that was the last part of my Kantian self, the one looking toward a rational world, that wanted to believe that the government could do what Obama wanted to do. But, for example, in the Middle East he failed completely. Two kilometres from where we sit there is Syria and Putin’s forces. In 2011, I wrote quite a lot of opinion pieces about those who don’t see the chance and the opportunity in the Arab Spring, about how they don’t realize where the world could be headed. Well, as you know, the Arab Spring has turned into a nightmare. The only country where something positive might come out of it is Tunisia. I don’t even want to talk about Syria. Large parts of my mother’s family were killed in the Holocaust. Today, when thinking about Syria, I’m asking myself: why didn’t you do anything? We were watching the ongoing genocide on TV and on the internet. And what did we do?

We didn’t do anything. Why? Because all that news seems like a virtual reality? Because we got used to it?

Obama made two huge, tragic mistakes. First, he refused to support the Syrian rebels that were not ISIS, because he had no way of knowing where the weapons he would supply to them would end up. His other huge mistake was drawing a line and saying: “If Assad will use chemical weapons against his own people again, I will intervene.” But, probably because of his universalist outlook, he refrained from doing do. He was afraid that innocent people would die. And at that moment, he lost all credibility. Vladimir Putin doesn’t care who lives or dies; he kills as long as it serves his interests. You may have read the piece in Forbes recently in which it was estimated that he is now wealthier than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett put together.

Do you find such cynicism impressive? From a Kantian idealist you’ve turned into someone who points out to Putin as a paradigm of efficiency. It’s hard to believe.

Oh no, my heart is still with Obama, but my mind realizes that’s not the way the world works. A few weeks ago, the Syrians tried to shoot down an Israeli jet. The missile didn’t hit the jet and went on in the direction of Jerusalem. Israel shot it down with the Arrow system, which is probably the most advanced anti-ballistic system in the world. If it hadn’t worked and this missile landed in the middle of Jerusalem, World War III might have started. Israel would respond with an all-out attack on Lebanon and Syria, and in Syria there are Putin’s troops. So we’re sitting on a powder keg.

Five, six years ago nobody would take seriously any warnings about World War III. Psychoanalysis teaches us, however, that in the realm of human interactions there are no accidents. We felt calm and secure because we didn’t notice some things, we were in denial. Of what exactly?

I think what we had suppressed or repressed was the 98.5% of genetics that we have in common with gorillas and chimpanzees. People always misunderstand Huntington. They think he said there should be a clash of civilizations. But he was a lifelong Democrat, an adviser to a number of Democratic presidents. And his point was not that there should be a clash of civilizations – by the way, the term was coined by a historian Bernard Lewis – he just wanted the West to be modest and not to try to enforce liberal democracy on the rest of the world. He said, look, it’s just one model of civilization and it grew out of the Judeo-Christian civilization.

And this Western, Promethean impulse was the reason for the catastrophe?

Probably the trigger for the mess that we’re in was George W. Bush’s horrible decision to attack Iraq in 2003. First, it showed the weakness of the West. Bush and his advisers thought America would march into Iraq and soon liberal democracy would bloom all around the Middle East. Second, I think the deep ressentiment against the West present in many cultures got an enormous boost by the failure of the “coalition of the willing”, as Bush had called it, to import liberal democracy to the rest of the world.

These decisions were made by specific people in specific circumstances. Do you mean to say that if something went differently, we would be living in a different world?

Imagine if Al Gore had become President of the United States. He may not have prevented 9/11, he probably would have attacked Afghanistan, but he would not have attacked Iraq. And he would have invested all his energy to stop climate change. How did Trump get elected? It was all about sixty thousand votes. We forget Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of three million, but small differences in three states would have changed history. I just came back from Berlin where I had participated in a conference organized by the Aspen Institute, an organization deeply invested in promoting Western values. One of the conference organizers said: there is a little bit too much panicking at this conference. My response to him was that on the contrary, duelling gloom is not enough, and we should panic.

But panic is not conducive to reflection. So I’ll ask again: what did we miss?

Let’s go back to Hillary Clinton. She lost that election because of hubris. She felt she had the victory in the bag. And given that Mr Trump is in ignorance about his own ignorance, none of us has the slightest idea what the world is going to look like in two or three years. And here again, we merge this topic of geopolitics and the topic of human psyche. After World War II, we were too optimistic, because humanity entered a completely unprecedented period of economic growth. In addition, incredible scientific and technological advances were made, and that is what led us to believe that history has to be teleological and that our side was winning.

But maybe those who were happy and secure systematically ignored those who didn’t get into this liberal paradise? The marginalized, the unemployed, badly educated, unable to cope with challenges of this supposedly the-best-of-all-possible-worlds.

You’re much more of a humanist than I am now.

I’m just trying to understand what is going on.

I’m saying this to you with a lot of sympathy, because until a few years ago I was exactly the same. I kept asking: What did we do wrong in Israel? Why did the Oslo Agreement go down the drain? There must have been something we could have done right that we got wrong. We’ve missed something. I see in you an earlier version of myself, who was thinking: since we have the right ideas, it has to work out in the end. Now I see the situation very differently. The catastrophe of World War I and World War II and the rise of fascism and communism were a function of the breakdown of a social, economic and political order in the Industrial Revolution.

And are we witnessing the breakdown of another order right now?

I think we’re going through a similar shock, the difference being that things are going much faster. The Industrial Revolution took about a hundred years to transform Europe, but globalization happened in a flash and has changed the world completely in just a couple of decades. A whole class of people who used to have self-respect and a sense of its place in society has lost that. There is no working class anymore. It’s not just about the outsourcing of labour to cheaper labour markets – the blue collar jobs are also being wiped out by technology, therefore in some countries people consider introducing basic income for those who don’t work, because there isn’t enough work and there won’t be. I don’t believe it’s a good solution, for I have no clue whatsoever what the socio-economic structure is going to look like in the future, and I don’t think anybody else has. Similarly, in the 1920s and 1930s nobody knew what the new system was going to look like. What came was the age of the populists who said: “We have simple answers, it’s the capitalists’ fault, it’s the Jews, it’s the Bolsheviks. And we need to go back to, you know, our original peoplehoods, etc., etc.” I think we’re in exactly the same way.

Jews, refugees, Muslims – the repertoire doesn’t change that much.

I live in Israel and the history of Jewish people is part of my heritage. But you can quote me when I say this: there are the total idiots on Israel’s Right who say: “It’s great that in Europe now there is an Islamophobic Right, because the enemy of our enemy is our friend.” They don’t understand that the Jews are going to be next in line. Developments about which we are talking seem unstoppable, because the social structures are disintegrating. There are too many people who are deeply enraged and angry and look for an enemy to blame. So you guys are going to blame the Muslims or they’re going to blame the Jews or banking system, etc. And the populist politicians will come and channel that rage.

I still hear in your words the refusal of deeper analysis. You are saying: “It’s not a time for thinking, it’s a time for fighting.” You reject the tools of psychoanalysis and philosophy for a politically-engaged diagnosis: the situation is bad and it shouldn’t be so.

I don’t reject those tools. For twenty years, I was in the situation of somebody who thought that I could function as a sort of therapist for politics, that if I understood it, I could change its direction. At this point, however, I am just a diagnostician. The forces of history right now are beyond our therapeutic ability. The anthropologist Jared Diamond in his last few books has been trying to show how civilizations destroyed themselves because they couldn’t stop the dynamic that was driving them. Another thinker who I very much appreciate is John Gray. First he was a Thatcherite, then he believed in Blair, and now in his new book called Black Mass he wrote that we are simply like other biological species, but we think that by understanding our own dynamic, we can change it.

Well, the main idea of psychoanalysis is that understanding leads to change.

Yes, but don’t forget that Freud, for example, said that Marx is lovely, but he thinks he can actually change human nature, and human nature always pushes back. I want to emphasize once again: as long as I have the possibility to at least voice views that on the one hand diagnose and on the one hand give ideas as to how we might each stop the catastrophe, I will do so. But if you think about the fact that Trump is now abolishing everything Obama did in terms of climate change, I don’t see how one can be optimistic. You probably read the same publications as I do. The New York Times at this point is in a state of total panic. The commentators keep writing what they write, but it doesn’t help, because what is so frightening in the current state of affairs is that for many people it will just be “alternative facts”.

It’s hard not to become neurotic when you follow the media. At the same time you, a psychoanalytic, are saying: “You aren’t frightened enough.”

One of the participants of the conference that I mentioned had said: “We shouldn’t panic, we should be alarmed.” If you’re alarmed, maybe you could try to fight. If you panic, you just run. I’m still fighting. What I’m telling you is: insight is not going to do the job. You have to fight.

Now, to go back to Freud: I think lucidity shouldn’t paralyse us, lucidity should allow us to see evil where it is. It’s kind of an easy way out to say: “There’s evil in Islam, and if we fight radical Islam and bomb them out of existence, we’re going to solve the problem.” I’m not at all underestimating the destructive power of radical Islam. My point is: we have to pick our fights. We have to be willing to say Putin is evil. We have to be able to say the Iranian system is evil. We have to be able to say Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is evil. We have to be able to say continuing to burn coal in the United States to create energy is killing us.

We have to engage in the war on social media, we have to engage with television. We have to engage everywhere we can. And one of the most important things is not talking down to other people. Because I think that’s the mistake of the elites. Telling people that they’re stupid is not going to make them change. You have to tell them: “Look, your real interests are X, Y, Z. You’re being manipulated. We’re all in the same boat. Together.” We, intellectuals, for far too long have been taking a luxurious position of commenting about things from above. That’s not going to work anymore.

But people in the West are mainly concerned with their earnings, with the pressure of capitalism, with avoiding depression or neurosis…

All of us at this point have enough time, enough resources and enough energy to get involved. And getting involved also gives you a lot more of a sense of meaning. The more of us that are getting involved, the more the chances that maybe we can turn the world around.

And you say that to your patients?

Absolutely. Incidentally, we must end now, for I have another appointment with a patient in just a few moments.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Carlo Strenger. Photo by Ofer Chen / Wikimedia Commons
Carlo Strenger. Photo by Ofer Chen / Wikimedia Commons

Carlo Strenger:

An Israeli psychologist, philosopher and psychoanalyst of Swiss descent, professor at Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, and School of Psychological Sciences at Tel Aviv University, senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Terrorism at John Jay College in New York. Author of The Designed Self (2004), The Fear of Insignificance (2010), Freud’s Legacy in the Global Era (2016). Regularly writes for The New York Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post and Foreign Policy.


Introduction translated by Jan Dzierzgowski

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