“Cultures of memory are organized by round numbers, intervals of ten; but somehow the remembrance of the dead is easier when the numbers are not round, when the final digit is not a zero … [I]t is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 different people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes clung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfman, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber … Each of the 21,892 Polish prisoners of war shot by the NKVD in 1940 was in the midst of life. The two at the end might be Dobiesław Jakubowicz, the father who dreamed about his daughter, and Adam Solski, the husband who wrote of his wedding ring on the day that the bullet entered his brain. The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate, some of which we can reconstruct with fair precision. It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.
Timothy Snyder, “Bloodlands”.
The article that I’d like to discuss today, “The Body Count” by Elliot Sperling, the late professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, starts out with a quote by Timothy Snyder that reminds me of the essentially Foucaultian thesis about the increasing dominance of state power over life and death of its subjects. I consider myself a socialist because I believe that anarchism is simply not politically feasible, however we should continue to ask the question: can the horrors of the 20th century repeat themselves? I will situate this question within the context of Foucaultian ideas of biopower, the unique history of Tibet in the 20th century, and the idea of modernity.
It is this question, which answered in a wrong way, gives us the continuation of US military industrial complex, the Orwellian state of perpetual war for perpetual peace. The conditions for the continuation of adventurist imperialism in the 21st century is just the continuation of the logic of capital from the 20th to the 21st centuries, unimpeded by the Communist takeovers in China and Russia, the anticolonial liberations in Africa, because humans in mass state regimes of Russia and China are still regarded as pawns in the grand historical struggle for a perfect world, as envisioned by either side. Granted, that the most brutal manifestation of biopolitcs in history, Nazi fascism, was largely defeated due to the sacrifice of individuals from the Communist Soviet Union under its most brutal realpolitik leader, Josef Stalin, but to attribute the death of fascism to the Soviet Union, the nation, and not to the people, relies on the idea that the Soviet Union leadership was uniquely suited to take on fascism because of technological capabilities made possible under Lenin and Stalin’s modernization. However, this relies on the thesis that modernization itself, in the sense of purely technological progress, is a justifiable end in itself, and is the primary driver behind gains in quality of life. This is the essential “developmentality” shared by 20th century communism and capitalism. In retrospect, Marxism, as it was developed by Marx, can be seen as a philosophical way to tame the brutalities of the Industrial Revolution, by taking the scientific advances made by society and socializing them, spreading their benefits to all. This relies on the thesis that even “primitive communist” societies (as Marxist materialists liked to call tribal societies) must inevitably be brought into the fore of the developed or industrialized world.
The history of Tibet in the 20th century offers us a unique chance to explore complex dynamics relating to global capitalism, anti-capitalist movements, state atrocities, and their relationship to non-modern peoples. The same could be said about what happened in Russian Siberia during the time of Lenin and Stalin, but the case of Tibet gives us a chance not only to put what happened in China in the 20th century into a more objective light, but also to put Tibet into the perspective of world history, from which Tibet becomes a battleground for ideas about what the proper society should be like.
First, the relevant quote by Michel Foucault:
“Outside the Western world, famine exists, on a greater scale than ever; and the biological risks confronting the species are perhaps greater, and certainly more serious, than before the birth of microbiology. But what might be called a society’s “threshold of modernity” has been reached when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies. For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence;
modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.”
Grand political schemes to save the world have so far ended in total and complete disaster, the result of which is more fodder for the existing authoritarian capitalist structures to present no viable alternative. Foucault situates this moment where politics places life into question for the whole of man with the advent of modernity. Foucault is not only referring here to capacity of states to total war, but also to the invention of nuclear weapons which place the entire human species at existential risk. The dangers facing humanity, in the perspective of the entire history of our species, has never been higher. One can only appreciate this fully if one knows the truth about the actual lifespans and lifestyles experienced by hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, which were in no way “nasty, brutish, and short”. Adorno and many others have realized- civilization itself poses its own existential risks, and unfortunately we can no longer turn back the clock.
Industrial civilization also affords many benefits, or rather, informational society: all the information we could ever imagine at our fingertips at the press of a button, as well as all the entertainment. This comes steeply at a price: at the price of the exploitation of the whole mass of the Third World who live under the yoke of poverty and corrupt regimes, who are forced to be proleterianized, disenfranchised, and form the new global class of wage slaves. They work producing our iPhones, computers, in the mines of the Congo, in the factories of Asia. This is the face of violence in the 21st century.
Thus, partially counter to what Slavoj Zizek’s thesis in Did Someone Say Totalitarianism?, that the idea of totalitarianism is only set up as a foil to justify capitalist regimes claims to democracy and therefore to “liberate the oppressed nations”, one should realize that this idea of “liberation” of allegedly oppressed nations, i.e the logic of colonialism carried over to the 20th century, was also perpetrated by non-capitalist states. Here, one must move to an analysis of Maoism in the 20th century.
Maoism sought to eliminate some of the biases of orthodox Marxism in which the agricultural labor force, the peasantry of Asia, could not be liberated without first industrializing. Mao Tse Tung took a different approach- industrialization should be pursued hand in hand with agricultural development and the liberation of the peasantry from the hands of the ruling landlord classes. While Lenin and the Bolsheviks rose to power within the context of the struggle against a feudal monarchy, the Chinese Communist Party rose to power within the context of the anti-imperial struggle against Japan. These historical dynamics cannot be ignored or denied. However, as the Great Leap Forward is a testament to, grand experiments on the scale of Maoist agrarian communism led to the largest loss of life in the 20th century- larger than even the deaths attributable to the Holocaust.
This is the why the idea of the Body Count matters. There is a Body Count to any horrific event of any scale- the Holocaust, World War II, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. However, any kind of post hoc rationalization of “acceptable losses” is part of the logic of biopolitics. It is this ends justify the means logic that created the brutalities experienced by regimes that tried to get out of cycles of violence and exploitation. Granted, there are justifiable violent struggles- the war against Nazism and fascist totalitarianism being the most obvious- but this logic is endlessly extended by those who see violence as the only answer to the worlds problems, rather than an extension of the logic of using people as cannon fodder. Not all biopolitical tragedies have capitalism at their root, or class. This could be considered an obvious statement to make for some, but to imagine that the logic of capitalism is in all consuming Evil, in such a Manichean way, misses the important complexities and contradictions within the existing system, such as how an entire ancient race of people can be wholly slaughtered, their culture brutalized, all in the name of ending feudalism. I am referring of course to Tibet, where there is ample evidence, despite the faulty body count figure of 1.2 million dead in the 20th century, of massacre after massacre by the PLA.
This plays into the question of what is considered a genocide, and the obviously horribly controversial and political dimension of this. However, it may be that what happened in Tibet was not a “genocide”- perhaps the term genocide does not apply to Tibet, or the liberal use of the term genocide in “cultural genocide”. There is obvious political connotations to calling the bombing of Hiroshima an “act of war”, a “war crime” (the preferred terminology by serious people), or a genocide. However, to get lost in issues of semantics misses the real point of the tragedy of Tibet- that many people were slaughtered wholesale by the military. What I am referring to, in detail, is largely before the Cultural Revolution even took place. So, thus, is the Great Leap Forward a genocide? Under the strict definition of the term, no, because the Great Leap Forward was not engineered for the purpose of killing a specific group of people. It was the result of drastic mismanagement, government neglect, and policies which encouraged ludicrous lack of disregard for human life in the name of fast progress. The tragedy of 20th century communism was that it was motivated by the genuine desire to help entire mass of the population, through state engineering.
Thus, it calls into question the very necessity of the need to engineer society on a mass level and the totalitarian undertones this implies. However, I’m not advocating hands-off laissez faire economics- the state and capitalism are both the culprits of exploitation, not just “crony capitalism”. My thesis is that modernization and the colonial mentality is the other motivating historical driver in this process. One must never forget that colonialism was not only motivated by the desire to exploit the wealth and labor of the colonies- it was also the way to civilize the lower races, to bring them into the fold of modernity and Progress. These beliefs are still prevalent in society, even among so-called advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples and anthropologists.
By looking at the historical drivers behind the colonization of indigenous peoples, as well as other traditional societies around the world who fall under the broader definition of indigenous, including the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Tibet and Southeast Asia, we see that the cultural logic of biopower plays out in the dimension of Cold War Tibet.
As a final note, I’d like to see a brief word on the value of testimonial. Testimonial and the spoken word are often the only thing we have when reliable statistics and hard evidence of atrocities are scant. It is a testament to the enduring valuing of scientific logocentrism that eye-witness accounts by real victims are not believed. This tool was used by Rios-Montt and the Guatemalan government to deny witnesses of the massacres- simply call them liars and propagandists. Therefore, the pro-government regime of truth is maintained. The burden should always be on power and the State to provide proof of its innocence or culpability. To accept the Party line, the state line, always comes with a potential for abuse of the truth. This is why Foucault said that truth is a product of power, because sociologically speaking, what people accept as true is a product of power dynamics. Thus, I’ll end with a harrowing quote by a witness to the massacres in Tibet, which should be appreciated not only for its essential veracity, but for the measured way in which the speaker tries to convey his experience to the world. The devil is always in the details.
“As we rode alongside the river, we began to smell something rotten … A little further on, the bodies of dead men lay scattered on both sides of the river. They were naked and dark blue … I had lost my fear of dead bodies. Further on were the bodies of many dead children lying alone, and mothers and children holding each other. In that area altogether there were around twenty six or seven corpses. Looking at their hair one could see that most of them were women and children … There was a higher and a lower shelf on the mountainside … Father and Lochu were sitting on the higher shelf. “Oh, the Protector bear witness!” everyone said when we got there, so great was our amazement. The ground was completely covered by the corpses of men, women, monks, yaks and horses… Wherever I looked there was death …”