The novelty of the “new ethics” (hereinafter, “NE”), which has become a catch-all Russian-language term, should not be sought at the level of doctrine. We had better start with signifiers: what is new about NE is that it is called “new.” That is, it has become a metalinguistic term, in contrast to the names of such ethical concepts as consequentialism, utilitarianism and deontology. It is neither particularly meaningful nor innovative to name the novelty, but it does testify to the new situation of “ethics” as such. It points to the homonymy of ethics: in addition to the different “ethics,” there is a “new” ethics, whose novelty, perhaps, has turned it into something different from ethics. The new situation is threefold, testifying to the current state of knowledge, ontology, and politics.
In terms of knowledge, the multitude of ethical concepts that existed in the past, suspicious by current standards, implied the uncertainty of human action, that is, the different names spoke to the possibility of ethical choice as the choice of a particular ethical doctrine. Thus, a Kantian, comical in his love of the truth, could betray an honest man to the enemy or to the police. This choice itself meant that, ultimately, we did not know who we were and what was good for us, that is, we could find out our essence and our good only by reflecting on our own actions. NE requires consolidation, and emphasizes a lack of alternatives, while simultaneously promising certainty, which previously could be possessed only by the evidence of consciousness or experience. By claiming the certainty and obviousness of the stance of victim, insult, or interference, NE provides an unbreakable foundation, re-establishing an almost Cartesian fundamentum inconcussum that ethics has never had, while framing this foundation as an exception and a rarity, the only thing that in today’s situation is not subject to exploitation, not liable to calculation and opportunism. The heart of a heartless world seemingly has finally begun to beat within it, and a shrine has been found that, theoretically, is not subject to secularization. In a world totally defined by the economy, it has happened upon a non-economic solution.
This revolution is not directly related to the content of ethical principles, that is, NE has become the domain of ethical truism and moral self-evidence. Similarly, John Rawls, in Political Liberalism, suggested, in the spirit of the early twentieth century’s ecumenical fantasies, that all great religions converged in a single set of legal and ethical norms, while all moral oddities and idioms (from the advice not to eat meat boiled in milk to Christian soteriology) could be tossed into history’s dustbin. NE is a Rawlsian “overlapping consensus,” successfully crossed with intersectionalism. Genealogically, NE hearkens back to the late liberal syntheses, but its place and name indicate an operation that can be understood by taking into account its emphasis on negative freedoms. In fact, NE is primarily recognized in these terms—as a protective and compensatory code.
The fact is that, in terms of ontology or political ecology, the grounds and justification for negative freedoms have today radically changed. Moreover, proclaiming them has taken on a different function. If once upon a time they had a real basis and were formulated in response to various threats (royalist, clerical, etc.), nowadays the new ethical gesture demands, first of all, the subject’s inviolability and interprets any injustice as an intervention, pointing to a situation in which such threats turn out to be basic social fantasies that conceal not so much an excess of interpellation and direct violence, but, on the contrary, a lack of interest in anyone (which, of course, does not rule out violence, but rather the opposite). Social integration, which was the crucial imperative of the post-war period, dating back to nineteenth-century liberalism and, simultaneously, relating to the nation-state, was paradoxically recoded in the outdated dictionary of negative personal freedoms—meaning that insufficient integration has been conceived as a consequence of invasion and encroachment. The vocabulary of integration itself (welfare state, social democracy, communicative reason, republicanism, etc.) has been symptomatically forgotten or has drifted to the academic periphery, while the goals for which it was once created are now supposed to be achieved using an anachronistic dictionary of negative freedoms. But doesn’t this mean that NE is a negative freedom that functions as a basic programming level (the level to which the social system has collapsed), that is, as a kind of Basic, a tool that has to be used for lack of a better one? Does NE serve as a kind of obsessive reaction, trying to use improvised means (first of all, increased attention to interpersonal relations) to solve the unfulfilled task of creating a society of equal opportunities and justice? It would seem that NE interprets the classic psychoanalytic question—Che vuoi? (What do you want?)—quite straightforwardly: “What is your problem?” Thus, the very instantiation of the question appears here as the absolute givenness of assault and intrusion, of perverse, criminal or self-serving interest, of attempts to subdue, indoctrinate or bring to heel, only to prevent the emergence of autonomy, which serves as a self-evident ethical nucleus.
Thus, each and every time NE has to recreate the external conditions originally accompanying the traditional liberal theory of negative freedoms, posing the question “What do you want? / What is your problem?” to conceal the fact that the energy of social interpellation addressed to the individual has finally evaporated and no one really wants anything from anybody—which, in fact, is the current dilemma. The lack of interpellation is indicated by the fact that ethics now implies a peculiarly global short-circuiting, due to which ethical vigilance has to be the solution to all problems—from failed careers to global warming. Moreover, solutions to environmental problems are to be happily combined with unfettered and equal job opportunities for everyone within the permanent social coordinates of late capitalism. (It is not without reason that theories of degrowth or décroissance remain under the same ban today as they were before.) NE’s ontological wager is that the victim lives in a world whose storyline has been fundamentally distorted by the fact that they are a victim (because, otherwise, they would be living quite differently and achieving different and greater things). The victim’s world has been falsified and faked, but NE paradoxically insists on admitting the falsity, believing that recognizing the falsification (i.e., victim-as-world) enables us to arrive at a victimless world, the world of the original, undistorted storyline. The world as we know it now is thus consecrated as the ultimate social fantasy while its contradictions, reduced to a sort of “capitalist realism” (per Mark Fisher), are eliminated by means of ethics, ensuring that, if it is applied properly, you can have a successful career and stop the glaciers from melting.
However, the difference between the two worlds or two storylines (the violent and, therefore, victimized one, and the one devoid of violence and victims) conceals a much greater danger: the lack of interpellation as the fundamental violence, the world’s rarefaction or impoverishment, which makes it impossible for us to distinguish anyone except in the statistical mode. It is amid such a deficit that the vertical relations of reprisal and belittlement (“us” vs. “them”) are horizontally privatized, enabling us to connect to reality at any point: everyone can function as the Wi-Fi access point of oppression and, conversely, experience the latter in a passive, receptive mode. The absence of basic interpellation is bound up, generally speaking, with the actual hyper-Malthusian state in which there are simply more people than “world” (in the Heideggerian sense). This state has been precisely recognized in the humanities as “posthumanism”—recognized, however, in a transfigured, peacefully communicative form, which attempts to see new opportunities for interaction—with non-people, nature, objects, slime, etc.—making up for the fundamental lack of signifiers for world and sociality, which would be fairly shared among people. Accordingly, the new ethical subject is defined by the hyper-Malthusian lack of world as such. This subject is, therefore, an ascetic that must be besieged by alien desires, by curious and malicious interests, by interference into personal freedom and encroachment on personal boundaries. The new ethical struggle is waged against the specific density of the social, its viscosity and stickiness—hence, the adoption of “toxicity” as a canonical term aptly describing all the numerous excessively dense social ties that threaten the individual’s negative freedom, namely, by reminding him or her that he or she cannot get rid of them at will. The only problem is that the very scene of this struggle is not the same as it was in the early twentieth century.
We can understand this in general terms if we note that, in recent history, NE has functioned as a kind of patch (or “fix,” as defined by David Harvey) for the latest radical protests that pointed out the social’s extreme sparsity—namely, Occupy Wall Street and the slogan “We are the 99%.” The 99% were direct evidence that society’s growth now paradoxically meant a reduction in its accessibility to individuals: the bigger society got (in terms of wealth and opportunities), the fewer the people were admitted into it, or just served any of its purposes. In contrast to the classical practices of exclusion, oppression, and enslavement, the twinned dot-com and real estate crises showed that something else was at issue: creating a society without labor in the literal sense of the word, in which the absence of labor was tantamount not to pleasant and creative leisure, but the absence of any basic interpellation of the individual, the interpellation of love or hatred, as traditionally articulated by the logic of the division of labor. Anarchists such as David Graeber seized on this change, seeing it as a chance to restructure the bulk of social relations, which could manage without interpellation, without the distribution of goods and signifiers, since the latter should be shared in a mild mode within humanitarian communities of mutual aid and care. Having forfeited the world, humanity must find a means of humanitarian salvation. In fact, what is at issue is the fact that the “world” has proven to have been falsified, and therefore anarchist communities resemble outer-space fugitives whose only mission is enacting their own human essence and maintaining themselves as a human species. NE, however, has chosen a different path—a decentralized protocol for monitoring tyranny and repression that no longer requires a central station since everyone can produce microdoses of violence or oppression while simultaneously suffering from them.
The social machine, which for the time being has been supporting the 1%, has learned to do without the masses, even in their role as consumers, a role that had seem ineradicable in the mid-twentieth century. Following the fall of the consumer society and the welfare state, the speculative but absolutely real possibility of a society ruled by capital, but devoid of people, was opened up. Empirically, this generated a quasi-vacuum of desire, an environment devoid of all compulsion, which the political analyst Edward Luttwak wrote about almost thirty years ago in his essay “Why Fascism Is the Wave of the Future,” showing how all those who were still mainstream yesterday were now in the process of being scrapped. (This, by the way, was the best description of Trumpism, albeit avant la lettre.) The specificity of the situation is such that when yesterday’s masters of the universe go to the landfill, it does not mean that someone else replaces them. The people left behind are stripped of their world, becoming classic outer-space travelers, fragments of a species jettisoned into the gig economy of affective management.
In other words, when dealing with the same situation, quite clearly expressed by the slogan “We are the 99%” (that is, with a kind of inverted Malthusianism), Trumpism, theoretical anarchism and NE have chosen fundamentally different paths that are incapable of intersecting. Trumpism tried to restore and reconstruct reality itself along with hegemony, but it failed to notice that the structure of hegemony has radically changed, and it no longer has need of “shopkeepers,” “apothecaries,” and “craftsmen,” etc.—that is, of the numerous relatively free people who were the protagonists of the history of modern age, as it has been written since some date. It was not just the managerial classes and businessmen, as Luttwak had argued, that had disappeared and were rendered superfluous, but also a huge number of menu peuple, that is, people not inscribed in the circulation of power, but also not dependent on welfare and patronage, the bourgeoisie in the broadest sense of the word, which should be understood not as controlling the means of production, but as possessing a huge archive of social identities that stood for ordinariness and were imagined as non-exclusivity, as open and accessible opportunity, as default signifiers. Trumpism could think of nothing better to do than roll back the situation, but this proved impossible in the highly rarefied atmosphere.
On the contrary, NE has settled on a more complex option. We do not need to restore the hegemon’s position or create it anew, since it has been eroded and is hardly tenable in its old guise. Instead, we must virtualize the battlefield itself, phantasmatically recreating the situation in which the fight for negative freedoms made sense when the density of relations actually threatened autonomy’s construction. In other words, the discursive situation that was fully articulated in nineteenth-century literature has now become the content of a virtual reality for whose creation NE was required as a self-fulfilling prophecy of violence, desire and danger.
This practice was anticipated by Philip K. Dick in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965). Trapped in the rarefied atmosphere of worldlessness, Martian colonists escape the meaninglessness that surrounds them by projecting themselves into “layouts,” Barbie doll houses in which they experience what the heroes of classic commercials might have felt as they sped towards the surf in luxury cars. In the same way, NE projects itself into the world of at least two centuries ago, because this virtualization enables it to grope about for an empirically observed and, simultaneously, operable, potentially eradicable threat, and thus restore its reference points. Of course, this does not mean that we exist empirically in a “safe space” (whatever that means), but the very task of securing safe spaces works as a filter highlighting operable episodes of violence, discrimination, etc., since we can imagine them as prospects for linear development and outline a “road map” for humankind’s ethical evolution.
That is, ethics has begun to function like a lantern, illuminating the available terrain where it is convenient to look for solutions, especially since they are already known from history, whereas solutions to the latest major crises have not only not been found, but the task of finding them has officially been banned. Succumbing to “availability bias,” NE proves the fundamental immutability of social reality from the epoch of the caveman, who was certainly patriarchal, to the present day. This, in fact, is its triumph, indicating that the ethical revolution is prepared to become permanent.
Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas H. Campbell