The role of conflict

Liberty guiding the people, by Eugène Delacroix

Recently, I watched for the first time an entire episode of a famous Brazilian podcast called Flow Podcast. The guests were Rogério Skylab, Supla and Rafael Bittencourt, all of them Brazilian musicians. Skylab is known by his transgressive and hilarious lyrics, Bittencourt was the guitar player for the metal band Angra, and Supla is a rocker whose personality made him become one of those larger than life characters in Brazil. Skylab is also very well known, but I think he's not as well known as Supla. Bittencourt is known, but mainly among metal fans, and his personality doesn't turn him into one of those burlesque characters.

During the podcast they discussed politics and recent history. Both during the recording of the podcast and after in his social networks, Skylab confronted Bittencourt and Supla's bland opinions, effect statements, and common sense ideas — especially Bittencourt's. In the case of Bittencourt, Skylab was very emphatic about his blank intellectuality and lack of basic knowledge when it came to political philosophy. During some moments it became embarrassing seeing Bittencourt in that situation, without having a clue, not knowing where to stand while he talked to Skylab.

At a certain time, Bittencourt tried to say that in order for a society to work respect should be the primary value, and that respect should be inculcated from an early age in children. This way, he argued, there wouldn't be so much bullying in schools and adult society would be less damned. Skylab became enraged by this naïve proposal, typical of a dominant class that believes itself to be thinking, but in the end Bittencourt's proposal was nothing more than an idea that tries to maintain the brutal status quo in which we live. He retorted saying that Bittencourt didn't understand the role of conflict in human life, in politics, and in history. And I add: and in existence. I agree with Skylab when he criticizes types such as Bittencourt.

For types such as Bittencourt, all we have to do is be respectful and things will start to change. A member of a historically dominant class, he does not realize that a few generations ago he would have been advocating a race-based slavery mode of production. At most, if he were a little more progressive, he would advocate gradual changes. But most likely he wouldn't. It is likely, moreover, that he would be a violent and detestable defender of slavery. Of course, types like him don't imagine themselves that way, and if they went back in time, with today's eyes, they might not be enthusiasts of past oppressions. Maybe they would even wake up and be emphatically against the oppressions of the day. But there is no time travel. What we can do is remember what types like him — members of the dominant class and ethnicity — have done in the past in their respective societies.

Slavery in Brazil ended without conflict. I mean, there were conflicts, several of them, but they were not so decisive for the end of slavery. Slavery here ended due to internal and external political pressures 1. The role of conflict really is fundamental in political life and in human history. But this is where I start to separate myself from Skylab — without, however, going to Bittencourt's side and his naïve idea of respect. It is true that the bulk of human civilizational progress has come through conflict. Whether in the form of emphatic debates and non-peaceful protests, or in the form of wars and revolutions. Regarding this point, the French Revolution serves as a milestone not only for France, but for the whole world. At that moment in history, it became clear that the Old Regime — still linked to feudalism even though we were already in modernity — was over. Its days were numbered not only in France, but around the world.

It was a very violent revolution. Through it came progress. But both the revolution and the wars that followed it produced a far greater number of dead and wounded than any previous war. Does this mean that the Middle Ages were better? No. It just means that progress brings with it a lot of blood. No wonder Hegel said that the times of peace are the blank pages of history 2. But times of peace are not peaceful and harmonious. There are tensions in them, recognized and pointed out by the most famous of Hegel's disciples, Marx 3. It is these kinds of tensions — class tensions, tensions between the dominant and the dominated — that people like Bittencourt seem to ignore and dismiss as irrelevant when they propose that the answer to all societal problems must be respecting one another. How can one respect while being oppressed?

What separates me from Skylab is not that I don't recognize these things. I do. As I wrote earlier, I recognize that the conflict goes further: existence itself is conflict, something that Hegel 4 also recognized. A grain, in order to become a plant, denies itself, ceases to be a grain and becomes the plant. Animals tear themselves apart all the time. And we humans also tear ourselves apart, often for nothing, but we go through time, and in many ways we advance in terms of civilizational, scientific and technological progress. The cost is high, but advances do occur. However, what are its guarantees? They don't seem to exist.

In the United States, slavery ended by conflict, unlike in Brazil. Soon after, though, the South was left relatively free to enforce laws of racial segregation and oppression of blacks. Nearly a century after the American Civil War, in the 1950s, it took a strong civil rights movement and new federal legislation to change that — but things didn't change completely, they became more implicit. Instead of explicit segregation, there exists to this day an obvious and measurable implicit segregation, and not just in the South of the United States, but throughout the country 5, 6.

In other words: the Americans had a brutal civil war, which brought progress since it ended slavery, but even so, they continue to be an extremely racist country. Brazil did not have a civil war, but it is an extremely racist country. We can say that in both countries there is still conflict to be carried out — and it is being done, the fight against racism and against various other types of domination is happening. However, in many ways, we've stagnated. In other things, we seem to be going backwards. Would anyone who does not defend the neo-medieval barbarism deny that the last few years in Brazil, and also in the United States, were of civilizational setbacks?

Yes, all life is conflict, including human life, which is conflict raised to the millionth degree. What separates me from Skylab is what would separate Schopenhauer, Cioran and any other pessimist who rejects becoming from any thinker who embraces becoming, either explicitly or implicitly. Ironically, Nietzsche would not be separated from him. For all his critique of Hegelianism and the philosophies of history, 7 Nietzsche stands with Hegel and all other thinkers who embrace becoming, who do not reject existence. Nietzsche defends becoming, with all its pain, explicitly and emphatically. He claims that it is impossible for us to judge life from within it 8, a poor argument according to Julio Cabrera, another pessimist who rejects existence.

Hegel and his intellectual descendants defend becoming in a more implicit manner. They can say that this is not the case, that they do not make a value judgment and that they are neutral regarding becoming — that is, regarding an existence filled with conflict. But this is problematic and they themselves are not truly convinced by it. For example, much is said about how being neutral or impartial between civilization and fascist barbarism is the same as choosing the side of fascist barbarism. I agree that it is. And I think most contemporary Hegelians would say the same — although, perhaps, not every Hegelian would agree with this definition of sides; that is, there may be some Hegelians on the right side of the spectrum that truly believe that the barbarians are on the other side, not theirs.

Here I support the thesis that to remain neutral between civilization and barbarism is to implicitly choose barbarism, even if the person claiming neutrality believes that his or her hands are not dirty because they feel "above" this conflict. Likewise, I maintain that remaining neutral with regard to becoming and its brutality is the same as implicitly supporting it, even if the person claiming neutrality believes that his or her hands are not dirty.

The neutrality regarding becoming and existence amounts to an implicit support: it's saying that, yes, when zebras are ripped alive by lions on the savanna, that is necessary, perhaps even beautiful; and that when humans die, from whatever cause and for whatever reason, that is necessary, perhaps even beautiful. The pains and woes of becoming, of which humanity is a part of even though it believes itself to be above it, are implicitly accepted as necessary, as part of a process that unfolds through conflict, denial and overcoming — a process that supposedly points to perfection, in the case of humanity.

What we call injustices, what we see as violence, genocide, death, are part of the process of existing. Faced with this diagnosis, I argue that there are only two alternatives: embrace it or reject it. These two alternatives are given in two ways: explicitly and implicitly. There is no real neutrality towards politics, why should there be towards existence? Only if we go back to Nietzsche and his idea that it is impossible to judge life or existence by being inside it — and since there is only life or existence, since there is nothing on the other side, we cannot make any judgment. Even Hegelians end up having to agree with this Nietzschean thinking (but they will only do so implicitly, for obvious reasons; i.e. they hate each other). However, Cabrera refutes the Nietzschean argument:
[...] it is not necessary to postulate an ideal, eternal and immutable world to “negatively” evaluate this life, ethically and sensibly. Indeed, human life can be seen as terrible without needing any comparison with a better or sublime “other life”, but simply by virtue of its sheer impact (or discomfort) value as it manifests itself in humans. If I'm being tortured, or imprisoned in a concentration camp, that's pretty bad for its impact value, not compared to an ideal situation in which it wouldn't be happening. Suffering is punctual and sinks its teeth into human skin. This world does not “let us down” (by having frustrated some sublime ideal), but, quite simply, hurts and humiliates us. Auschwitz isn't horrible because it's compared to a stroll down the Champs Elyses. It's just awful. Any suffering is concentrated in a point of my existence that dispenses with any comparison with a “better world”. 9
Refuting the idea that life always returns, that it is impossible to judge life because we are always inside it, Cabrera continues:
That life insists on returning even when we have denied it is a finding that confirms the ethical-negative view rather than disqualifies it. Precisely, life that is punctually arduous and painful, discouraging and morally disabling, can never be totally denied once it is established, not even by refraining from procreating, not even by accepting death itself. But Nietzsche's amor fati, the vital and barbaric acceptance of life with all its hardships, does not follow from this (this, as said, is only a possibility). One could also infer from this the horror fati, the astonishment in the face of a destructive force from which we cannot get rid of. Of course, life “comes back through the back door”, but this is precisely what closes the circle: in addition to the frictions that the terminal-being constantly inflicts on us, it is impossible to escape them. The only thing we can hope for is to have been able to save someone, by abstaining, from being subjected to these frictions. 10
As we can see, we can judge existence and life. It's what we do all the time, either in an open way or in a silent way. There is no neutrality. Yes, if we are going to perpetuate ourselves indefinitely in becoming, let us understand the role of conflict, which is fundamental. In fact, even if we don't individually want to perpetuate becoming, it is good to learn the role of conflict, precisely so that we are not naïve in believing in magical solutions to real tensions. But it is not necessary that we perpetuate ourselves forever, and it is perfectly valid that we reject existence.

by Fernando Olszewski


Notes:
1. LEAO, D. A abolição da escravatura brasileira. Politize!, 2021. Available at: https://www.politize.com.br/abolicao-da-escravatura-brasileira/
2. HEGEL, F. A Razão na História. Tradução de Beatriz Sidou. São Paulo: Centauro, 2001. p. 73.
3. MARX, K. ENGELS, F. A ideologia alemã. Tradução de Luis Claudio de Castro e Costa. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2001. pp. 28-29, pp. 48-52.
4. HEGEL, F. op. cit., p. 129.
5. GATES JR, H. How Reconstruction Still Shapes American Racism. Time, 2019. Available at: https://time.com/5562869/reconstruction-history/
6. CIVIL War to Civil Rights. NPS, 2020. Available at: https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/civil-war-to-civil-rights.htm
7. NIETZSCHE, F. Segunda consideração intempestiva. Tradução de Marco Antônio Casanova. Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumará, 2003. E-book. p. 54.
8. NIETZSCHE, F. Crepúsculo dos ídolos: ou como se filosofa com o martelo. Tradução de Paulo César de Souza. 1. ed. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2006. E-book. pp. 52-53.
9. CABRERA, J. Mal-estar e moralidade: situação humana, ética e procriação responsável. Brasília: Editora UnB, 2018. p. 651.
10. Ibid., p. 652.