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To see the Holocaust in a grain of sand

The Holocaust

Part 2 of "Thoughts on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust." Part 1 is here. While the industrialized murder of six million people is in a category all its own, one can observe in daily life many of the tendencies that make it possible. The thinking that sees the machinery of death as solely a thing of the past, an incomprehensible anomaly that we have decisively overcome in our more enlightened age, is deeply embedded in us but, as the “enormous condescension of posterity” always is, deeply wrong.

One needn’t invoke the obvious monstrosities to show how a semi-Holocaustic spirit, a spirit of distanced disregard for all human and natural considerations (including the very survival of the species), still suffuses our society. One needn’t, for instance, point to the U.S.’s bureaucratically administered near-annihilation of Vietnam for the sake of preventing a national liberation movement from starting a “domino effect.” One needn’t mention the U.S.’s provision of arms to Indonesia between the 1970s and 1990s with which to slaughter hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, nor the Reagan administration’s torture of Central America to “shock and awe” the population into acceptance of reactionary governments and domination by U.S. business.

One needn’t invoke the Clinton administration’s murder of maybe half a million Iraqi children by means of economic sanctions, nor the second Bush administration’s destruction of Iraq to get control of the country’s oil and benefit politically connected companies like Halliburton, nor, in general, any of the thousands of heinous Western political crimes documented in books by Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Edward Said, Naomi Klein, Jeremy Scahill, left-wing historians like Gabriel Kolko and Walter LaFeber, and too many other critical voices to list.

It’s not even necessary to mention the most recent abominations of drone warfare—murder by video-game—or killing of particular people (including American citizens) by executive fiat, or indefinite detention without trial, or construction of a surveillance state that dwarfs anything even dreamed of by Hitler or Stalin. All this is in direct continuity with traditions that eventuated in the Holocaust, but to discuss these obscenities is superfluous. It makes it too easy for me to make my case.

No, I see the machinery of death—can’t help seeing it—in the very words spoken by low-level bureaucrats, in gestures of contempt by police officers (quite apart from rampant police brutality), in someone’s command to “Get away, this is private property!,” in a corporation’s laying off a thousand workers for the sake of the bottom line, in pop culture’s erasure of individuality, in academia’s enforcement of “politically neutral” scholarly norms, in intellectuals’ use of the Holocaust to justify Israeli apartheid (or slander those who criticize it), and in the very anonymous structure of capitalist mass society.

When an airport security guard callously rifles through someone’s luggage or behaves in an intentionally brutish way—indeed, when an airport employee simply commands you, in the I-will-not-be-contradicted tone of authority, to step back behind the line because it’s not your turn yet—the kernel of moral horror and human degeneration is evident. When an employee says, “I’m sorry, it’s the rules; I didn’t make them, I just follow them,” he has already placed one foot on the path to Nazism. All it takes now is the right circumstances and a succession of nudges for him to become a gas-chamber attendant or an SS officer. For he has begun to forsake rationality, independence, freedom, and sympathy for others, and to absolve himself of responsibility and the need to have a conscience.

Because of its rarity, few things impress me more than when someone “doing his job” momentarily disregards the rules and makes an exception for you out of his sympathy. “The fee is ten dollars,” he says, “but forget it, I’ll waive that.” A glimmer of humanity! “Maybe there’s hope for the species after all,” I then think. But I’m quickly disabused of that delusion when I reflect on the absence of rationality and compassion in social relations themselves, a fact that pressures us all to act in socially irrational and impersonally cruel ways.

Even the most seemingly innocent and ubiquitous actions can have the seed of anti-personal amorality—lack of identification with others, or groupthink and mindless conformism, contempt for people who are “different” or don’t follow the common norms—that bears fruit in Nazism and genocide. He who ignores a homeless person on the street has the stain of moral corruption in him, however he rationalizes his behavior. (So much the worse for humanity that we all do that, from time to time.) He who automatically recoils from a working-class black or Hispanic or white man approaching him in the subway with a friendly air, just to talk, must be profoundly alienated from his fellow human beings, a stranger to them, unconcerned with the majority of them, in fact slightly disgusted by those who show a little independence vis-à-vis conventional styles of dress and behavior. Their fates, their lives and hardships, leave him cold; he simply doesn’t care. This is usually true, indeed, even with respect to strangers who belong to one’s own social stratum: since they’re strangers, what happens to them is not a matter of concern.

Men are accomplices to that which leaves them indifferent,” George Steiner said. Are you indifferent to the suffering of another person, whether in the neighboring house or on the other side of the world? Then, in a sense, you’re an accomplice to it. You let it happen—or you may even indirectly participate in it, say by paying taxes to a militaristic government. After World War II people reproached themselves and were reproached for their silence as the Holocaust was happening, their having done nothing to make it stop. Well, why is that question not asked now? The world is in as much agony as ever, and most people are as silent as ever. Nothing has changed. Even now, as in the 1940s, people are being systematically murdered, tortured, enslaved, made superfluous by the hundreds of millions (being herded into gargantuan slums where they merely subsist animal-like, or, in the U.S., being imprisoned en masse for having black skin and not having a vital economic role in society).

The point isn’t only that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”; it is that modern, impersonal evil largely consists of people doing seemingly nothing—following rules, showing indifference, ignoring the plea for help. That way lies barbarism.

Of course there are other manifestations of the barbarity. It isn’t only because of individual stupidity that millions of Americans deny global warming, detest homosexuals, revile “liberals,” and nurse secret race-hatred. It isn’t only, or even mainly, an individual’s genes that make possible the phenomenon of the latently fascist “authoritarian personality.” There are far more diabolical social forces at work. Such stupid and prejudiced attitudes, which by their nature cannot be based on dispassionate reasoning about facts or impartial openness to experiences, to new people and new ideas—such attitudes well up out of the impersonal, defensive, diffusely resentful, beset-from-all-sides mode of experience that has disfigured so many millions of minds since mass society made the individual superfluous. Without self-validation, one becomes a moral and intellectual homunculus.

To some extent we moderns are all les étrangers, but evidently some feel more so than others—often from their greater material grievances—and embrace in their alienation emotional notions of belongingness versus otherness, Us versus Them. Contempt and hatred for the outsider, comforting submission to the authority of the insider. The question is, who will get to these alienated masses first, the left or the right? As it turns out, the right has far more resources than the left, since the right is precisely big business, and so the winners in the race are usually the forces that blame all woes on everything except the one thing that matters, class.

And so instead of a more productive semi-submission to left-wing authority—(for, after all, there is an authoritarianism of the “left,” an undemocratic institutional and personality structure, deplorably common among leftist political parties and fringe groups)—what you get is a counterproductive submission to fascist authority. And thus a pullulating of radically illogical thinking, which, combined with mass anonymity and impersonality, gets you—the Holocaust. Or, more recently, enthusiastic marching into global environmental destruction, the goose-stepping elite leading its goose-stepping followers straight off the cliff.

The market mode of behavior is therefore, humanistically speaking, the twin of the authoritarian, or rather totalitarian, mode of behavior. Corporations, of course, are totalitarian entities (hierarchies that rent employees, suppress dissent, enforce a common ideology, etc.), and capitalism is just fragmented totalitarianism, profit-making machines competing against each other and trying to destroy each other. An unfortunate externality of which is the destruction of life and nature.

So, in addition to plowing full steam ahead to end millions of species and hundreds of millions of human lives, companies have now accomplished the grotesquerie of profiting by means of this very apocalypse. Capitalism can make money from its own self-immolation! For example, companies are buying water rights and farmland because “drought and food shortages can mean big profit”; the greater frequency of natural disasters means insurers can raise rates; and melting ice in the Arctic exposes oil reserves for BP and Shell to exploit. Just as a brave new world of species-holocaust lies ahead, so new frontiers of profit thus tantalize our intrepid corporate world-conquerors. Vive capitalism and its commodification of all!

The point, however, is that the potential for humanity’s self-extinction by means of Weberian formal rationality—methodical calculation, quantitative reasoning, mechanical adoption of the proper means to an end—is implicit not only in the operation of any bureaucracy but also in the simplest market transaction. For each side seeks personal profit of some sort in disregard of “externalities” and non-market values.

Someone with an idealist turn of mind could even interpret the modern world, in Hegelian fashion, as a progressive, dialectical unfolding of all the human and anti-human dimensions latent in the logic of the market transaction, revealed as the all-devouring market economy has colonized the world. All the modern reduction of people and nature to commodities, and the mass movements of workers’ resistance, and the extermination of whole peoples, and the despairing cultural reactions against market-driven alienation, and the subordination of society and politics to the power of money—a left-wing Hegel would say it’s all there, in potentiality, in the mere act of selling a product to a customer for a profit.

Cosmic evil can be present in a grain of sand.

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