Alfie Evans and the Pursuit of the Universal

The definitive moment of revolution in our rising post-neoliberal era came, for me, on Saturday, carried from sublimity on the backs of long-grieving English parents.  Tom Evans and Kate James had been at the center of a global political controversy since December 2016, when his six-month-old son Alfie was rushed to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, suffering from seizures.  When Alfie, despite urgent and radical treatments, entered what his doctors recognized as “a semi-vegetative state,” Alder Hey applied to withdraw life support, claiming that to keep the child alive with no hope of recovery from a neurodegenerative disease would be “unkind and inhumane.”  Evans and James resisted, hoping to fly their son to Italy for further treatment and legal protection, and the hospital sued to remove their parental rights.  After two Supreme Court cases and a failed appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, the hospital won the right to turn off Alfie’s ventilator and begin palliative care.  Alfie died on April 28.

Alfie’s twenty-three months of life unfolded in front of millions.  Almost immediately, his case was publicized by the Right to Life movement, popular among secular Britain’s Catholic minority.  From there it resonated across the Atlantic to the anti-abortion Evangelicals of the United States, where conservative policymakers have guaranteed that family members can keep their loved ones alive regardless of medical input.  Even Pope Francis weighed in, meeting personally with Tom Evans and lobbying the Italian government to grant the infant citizenship and protection.  Hundreds of people calling themselves Alfie’s army began picketing outside of Alder Hey, taunting worker and patients alike, while members of Alfie’s care staff report being barraged with threatening and harassing messages.  Alfie’s critics and the courts maintained similar, though less violent, indignity – a judge blunted the coy liberal innuendos when he used the phrase “emotive nonsense” while dismissing the appeal of two parents who were watching their infant son slowly die.

It was a horrible situation with no redemption in sight – as the Guardian editorial board noted, a classical tragedy in which both protagonists, in their fight for what they are convinced is best for a dying child, find themselves tangled in a horrifying knot.  “[I]f Alfie Evans can feel nothing, as the doctors believe, then moving his profoundly unconscious body to Rome cannot harm him…yet the doctors oppose it; if, on the other hand, he is capable of sensation and response, as his parents believe in the teeth of medical opinion, then moving him will cause pain and distress, and cannot lead to a cure – yet this is what the parents want.”

And somehow, with death, the storm broke.  Amid rumors that he was considering murder charges against doctors, Alfie’s father Tom came forward on Thursday, the day after his son was taken off a ventilator, to offer peace.  In front of the hospital where his son spent almost his entire life, Tom thanked the staff “for their dignity and professionalism during what must have been an incredibly difficult time for them, too.”  He urged Alfie’s Army to back down – which, to a certain extent, they did – and asked for a reprieve from the constant media attention he had been subjected to throughout his unimaginable ordeal.  And two days later, when Alfie passed away, he was cared for by the medical professionals who had, despite their protests, guaranteed his life and well-being for more than a year.

In an era of acceleration, we almost never make the time to reflect on the division of the personal and the political.  Our personal lives, after all, are constantly distorted in the magnifying glass of lazy politicking – regardless of what we believe, or what we think we believe, we know that we must believe it urgently and with our entire being or succumb to crisis.  So-called “identity politics,” usually dismissed as a hallmark of the Left but even more pervasive and successful on the Trumpist Right, have embraced a macabre inversion of Louis Althusser’s theory of ideological interpellation.  Instead of individual identities being subconsciously absorbed into ideology, as Althusser feared, individuals now embrace their ideology as their identity – whether it is the anti-ism liberal who, as Cornell West and Cedric Johnson argue, “fetishizes” constructs like race and sexuality, or the white conservative who, overtly or otherwise, exists in existential fear of the racialized Other.  Politics is essential today from the chromosome and phenotype up to the subjective actor – and not without reason.

Of course, as Carol Hanisch famously wrote in 1969, the personal is political.  Even the most innocuous personal act echoes throughout a dense matrix of oppressions and exploitations to reinforce the growth of capital and defend the status quo.  As the sheen of the personal has chipped away even in the past two decades, the American mainstream has reacted to a perceived politicization by filing into two reactionary camps – conservatives, most from factions of relative privilege, have mobilized against what they call “political correctness” (ironically displaying substantial political acuity and organizing power), while liberals have raced to adopt a pseudo-academic esoterica of apologetics, centering activism increasingly on vocabulary and decreasingly on policy or materialism.  Meanwhile, the extremely narrow minority who actually hold power over political mechanisms slip quietly back and forth, or more often stay out of the debate entirely; witness Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, telling CNBC last month about the “apolitical culture” of his trillion-dollar-plus banking system.

The legal struggle over Alfie Evans’s fate was immensely political – as his parents, understandably, struggled to prolong his life, they were enacting profoundly personal desires, yet various increasingly sinister political factions draped flags over their backs.  Ethno-nationalists and nostalgic fascists throughout Europe, such as the far-right Polish politician Beata Szydło, cited Alfie as “proof that the civilization of death is starting to win.”  Thugs for privatization in the United States, most conspicuously the failed presidential candidate Ted Cruz, blamed his death on “socialized medicine” for “transforming citizens into subjects,” ignoring the obvious bankruptcy Evans and James would face if they tried to keep their son alive in the for-profit jungle of American healthcare.  Former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, foreshadowing threats of violence against hospital staff from Alfie’s Army, tweeted that an American would “need an AR-15” in order to “make sure what’s happening to #AlfieEvans never happens here.”

Alfie’s parents, who have been conspicuously quiet about their own political preferences, were willing to embrace whatever ideological allies they could when they believed they would be able to save him.  But they had no attachment in the conclusions of the ideologies making use of their crisis.  It was not at Tom Evans’s insistence that religious fundamentalists and foreign pilgrims swarmed a hospital for dying infants, nor did Kate James call for what police called “unprecedented personal abuse” of the people treating her son and hundreds of other desperately ill children.  And at the moment of ultimate escalation, as the Pope had a private jet on standby to carry the dying infant across a continent to the Vatican’s Bambino Gesù Hospital, as right-wing tabloids cried murder and pounded the drums of mob justice, the family broke with their backers completely and did what ideology can not do, but what individuals do all the time.  They called for empathy, they called for reconciliation, they acknowledged the shared humanity instead of the Otherness of the medical and legal workers they had been fighting, they worked together with other well-meaning people striving, as they were, for their son’s wellbeing in his final days of life.  Similarly, Alfie’s care staff turned away from the state ideology – that the family were backwards, ignorant, and abusive – to increase communication with the parents and gain their consent for humane palliative care.

In Althusserian terms, Alfie’s parents and the hospital staff exhibit a failure of ideology to perfectly interpellate the subject.  Though for the most part, Althusser argued, our behaviors are dictated by ideological repression in the service of state and capital, there are times when ideology does not settle comfortably into its subjects and they act, momentarily, on their own accord.  The gap between the ideological “perfect subject,” who acts exactly as the ideology predicts, and the “bad subject,” who does not, suggests a true agency that not only opposes ideology but actually transcends it.  The impulses that guide our behavior in that gap are personal but not political.

Like much of Althusser’s work, his analysis of the “bad subject” is cryptic and contradictory.  His most obvious successors, the post-Marxists, were openly hostile to the possibility.  Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe revived the Gramscian vision of a “counter-hegemony” in 1985, in effect implying that the Left’s only hope lies with perfect ideological subjects accepting revolutionary ideology.  The legacies of their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy are strikingly visible, though divorced from socialism itself, in the contemporary Left’s drive to conform to a mainstream ideological model of “woke.”  But their argument that the bad subject rejects only bad (i.e. insufficient, contradictory, liberal capitalist) ideology is an anxious reaction to the other possible explanation.  What if a space exists within the human subject which is impervious to ideology?

If there is a non-ideological space, a void in what is politically constructed and socially structured, it follows that such a gap must be filled by an essential human core – which must be, to go a step farther, a universal human core.  The premise of universal human nature was long ago abandoned by the Left as outdated and even religious – an argument, interestingly, that began with the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger’s conception of the human being as an existence without essence, a pure experience he called Dasein.  Heidegger echoes curiously at the opposite end of the political spectrum in Mao Tse-tung’s 1942 lectures discussing a human nature of the proletariat and a human nature of the bourgeoisie: “there is no human nature above classes.”  Perhaps the Chairman truly believed that the ruling and working classes were divided at a fundamental level of substance, perhaps he needed to believe that to justify the sweeping purges and mass killings that kept him in power for the ensuing three decades.  Either way, his theories had an immense impact.

Michel Foucault, who at times considered himself a follower of both Mao and Heidegger, went so far as to argue that truth itself is socially constructed – how could we presume to achieve knowledge of a universal, he asked, in a word where there is no “knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute and the same time power relations”?  Foucault’s step away from Marxist conceptions of alienation and materialism and toward deconstructionism and a discourse of “vectors of power” predicted the rise of the identarian Left.  To understand their step back from the universal, we must look to his legendary debate on human nature with the American anarchist Noam Chomsky in 1971:

I will take an example now by greatly simplifying it.  The socialism from a certain period, at the end of the nineteenth century, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, admitted in effect that man hadn’t realized the full potential for his development and self-realization; that human nature was effectively alienated in the capitalist system.  And it dreamed of an ultimately liberated human nature.

What model did it use to conceive, project, and eventually realize that human nature?  It was in fact the bourgeois model.

It considered that an alienated society was a society which, for example, gave pride of place to the benefit of all, to a sexuality of a bourgeois type, to a family of a bourgeois type, to an aesthetic of a bourgeois type…

The result is that you too realized, I think, that it is difficult to say exactly what human nature is.

Isn’t there a risk that we will be led into error?

In Left circles, particularly academic Left circles, Foucault is often considered the winner of that landmark debate.  Because, as Foucault said, we risk erring in our search for any universal truth, the Left has abandoned that search altogether.  The contemporary Left instead turns to the subjective truths of those most marginalized by vectors of power – hence the importance of “representation,” etc. – in the hopes that such subjectivisms will inspire positive reversals in those vectors.  In a series of dueling essays with Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek in 2000, Laclau put the transition in bluntly strategic terms: universality, unlike the particularity of race and gender, is “an empty signifier…incapable of proposing itself as a set of symbols able to stir the imagination of vast sectors of the population.”  Here he makes clear that he does not necessary agree with the Foucault’s politics of deconstruction and particularity, but sees them as necessary to gain the upper hand in a Gramscian “war of position.”  And in the war of position, across the political spectrum, particularity has certainly won.

And as a result, we have adopted an understanding of reality where the personal seems to drive the political, but in fact the personal is reduced to discourse in the cynical service of ideology.

What has that accomplished?  Though, as Nancy Fraser brilliantly catalogues, many capitalist behemoths have gotten wealthy off of identity-based initiatives for diversity and inclusion, the Left has failed to “stir the imagination” of masses powerful enough to reduce global inequality, racial wealth disparity, environmental destruction, nuclear acceleration, or imperialist state violence.  Neoliberal capitalism remains the norm from Beijing to San Francisco, interrupted only by the even more disturbing excursions into pseudo-fascist nationalism.  Mental illness, which Foucault considered exceptional and enlightened, is now terrifyingly commonplace – though Foucault was being dismissive of the Frankfurt School in his characterization, the evidence suggests that indeed “human nature was effectively alienated in the capitalist system.”  Though we may be perfect subjects to ideology, which is more widespread than at any point in history, we are certainly unhappy ones.

I believe Ernesto Laclau and Antonio Gramsci, whose theories he modernized, have been proven wrong.  Ideological struggles, struggles in which we mobilize defensively to fight for our own particularity (however noble or cynical that particular struggle may be), can not achieve successful mobilization in the age of global emergency.  Ideology may have an answer for every political question, but it fails at total interpellation because it does not, can not, apply to the universal face of the human subject.  For that reason, though ideology is carried to its conclusion far too often, we also see even in the time of complete indoctrination an increase in bad subjects resisting their ideological base.  See this week’s testimony of Israeli soldier Avner Gvaryahu to the Intercept’s Medhi Hassan, where he admits to defecting from the regime after being forced to abuse an 80-year-old Palestinian man.  Or the pop superstar Kanye West, who tearfully retreated from his paranoid, alt-right inspired rant about slavery being a “choice” this week when he was confronted by a reporter (from TMZ, of all places) who told him he felt “hurt.”  Or Alfie Evans’s parents, who knew that their son’s wellbeing would be better served by reconciliation than destruction.

Last year’s hit film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, drew its appeal from the human truism that we find meaning only after ideology and intention have been stripped away.  Left ideologues accused McDonagh of justifying police brutality by offering the racist cop Jason Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell) a path to redemption.  But it is clear in the film that Dixon’s actions (including torturing a black suspect and throwing a sympathetic character out of a window) and the ideologies of southern pride and precarious masculinity that fuel them, are unacceptable – nobody mourns when he loses his badge.  Healing begins only at the point when Dixon is severely burned and shares a hospital with Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the man he horrifically assaulted.  His face unrecognizably obscured by bandages, Dixon is a blank human subject, and Welby, sharing his pain, offers him some orange juice.  McDonagh’s brilliant invention is having Dixon then confess his true identity – and having Welby, through his tears, once again offer his attacker the juice.

Welby and Dixon share the experience of pain and life-altering injury.  Both maimed beyond the point of action, both forcibly ripped away from carrying through their intentions and ideologies, they have no option but to wallow, agonizingly, in mutual humanity.  Similarly, Evans and James broke with their ideological backers only after the European Court of Human Rights denied their claim, leaving them with no recourse other than reconciliation with the hospital.  The true universal thrives only when we bear witness to profound suffering, only where the half-answers of ideology are too weak to provide comfort.  But the fact that it does, consistently, seem to thrive there is significant.  It confronts us, time and time again, with evidence that a human universal must be more than an illusion.

Consider Chomsky’s rebuttal to the Foucault remarks quoted earlier:

[I]n the intellectual domain, one is faced with the uncertainties that you correctly pose.  Our concept of human nature is certainly limited; it’s partially socially conditioned, constrained by our own character defects and the limits of the intellectual culture in which we exist.  Yet at the same time it is of critical importance that we know what impossible goals we are trying to achieve, if we hope to achieve some of the possible goals.  And that means that we have to be bold enough to speculate and create social theories on the basis of partial knowledge.

It should go without saying that there is not, yet, a comprehensive theory of a human universal, nor likely will we ever find one.  But, as Žižek puts it, “Universality is always simultaneously necessary and impossible.”  Without it, every movement of the Left towards a more just, a more sustainable, a more humane world is crippled before it begins.  Our ideologies can only get us so far – and the abject failures of both twentieth century communism and liberal humanism both suggest that “so far” is not very far at all – before they crumple under their own weight.  If true catastrophe is to be averted, it will require a union not just of the workers of the world, or the Leftists of the world, or racial unity or sexual unity or political unity or what have you.  We must unite the People of the world.  That will only be possible with an appeal not to politics, identity, or ideology, all of which are externally imposed, but to the universal, which is innate.  In fact, we must go farther and judge any initiative – political, material, or otherwise – by its proximity to such a universal.

Gramsci himself never faltered in reminding his followers to keep “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”  I offer a negation: we must embrace a pessimism of the will, an unqualified acceptance of pain, loss, grief, inhumanity, hopelessness, to find the true human universal.  We then, I believe, will have cause for sincere optimism of the intellect.  It seems that the universal manifests itself, time and again, in moments of pain, specifically because the universal’s original bio-psychological purpose was to bring a collective comfort.  Our impulse to reconcile at the moment of greatest duress seems to cement Peter Kropotkin’s old thesis that mutual aid is a fundamental factor of evolution.  Human nature, we can then surmise, is not the Hobbesian, proto-capitalist brutality of competition or selfishness.  It manifests itself in mutualism, in solidarity, in an impulse for empathy and care.

Susan Buck-Morss points to the Haitian revolutionaries, self-emancipated slaves of the French, singing France’s ebulliently liberated national anthem as they surrounded Napoleon’s troops on their island.  Faced with humiliation and suffering we can never imagine, they appealed to the universal ideal, the revolutionary ideal, which was so powerful it shattered the grip of the ideal’s original explicators.  She writes that “universality emerges at the point of rupture.  It is in the discontinuities of history that people whose culture has been strained to the breaking point give expression to a humanity that goes beyond cultural limits.”  And here we can truly find hope: there has truly been no point of rupture, no discontinuity of history, as immense as the one looming before us.

So as the crisis of capitalism in the twenty-first century continues to unfold, watch for moments of ideological transcendence like the one that unfolded around Alfie Evans in the final hours of his life.  These fleeting exposures to the universal are persistent facets of a force in our selves that can not and will not be governed by the walls and instructions that lace this doomed way of life.  Accept your intrinsic solidarity with the human pull to care, to give, to reconcile, to fight, to love completely and without exception.  This is the only future we have left.


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