May 21, 2013
On ask.fm someone asked me the following question:
Are you really a Marxist – or more of social democrat with higher standards of social and democracy?
My answer got so long that it exceeded the space provided in an ask.fm answer box – so I’m posting it here. Apologies for the disproportionate length – I find it helpful though, to articulate some of this stuff…
I’m happy with both characterisations – I don’t think they’re incompatible (with some provisos that I’ll mention below).
W/r/t social democracy: I don’t like the way social democracy is dismissed on the (radical) left, or written out of the history of Marxism. A large proportion of early (and many not-so-early) social democrats *were* Marxists – a large proportion of early (and many not-so-early) Marxists were social democrats. Social Democratic Marxism is one of the major strands of the Marxist political tradition. For some reason, though, social democracy gets treated in a lot of contemporary Marxist discourse as if it’s sort of the opposite of Marxism (within a very broadly understood ‘left’ space) – as if one of the defining features of Marxism is opposition to social democracy. I don’t think that makes much sense analytically, and it certainly isn’t adequate to the history.
I say “for some reason” – but in fact I think this is the result of several different factors:
- The successful right propagandisation against Marxism across the 20th century, such that social democrats themselves increasingly tended to disavow their tradition’s links to Marxism.
- The gradual corruption and takeover from the right of actually-existing social democracy, and thus the collapse of any practical relationship between real social-democratic parties and Marxist political goals, fully accomplished by the last decades of the 20th century. (This roughly parallels a similar transformation in the PRC and USSR, of course.)
- The USSR’s very great influence over Marx scholarship across much of the 20th century. The Soviet Union had the manuscripts; its scholars were regarded as authoritative by most Marxists; and Soviet scholars whose read of Marx put him at too great a distance from Leninism and Stalinism were killed. This most ‘crass’ way of influencing the scholarly reception of Marx has had lasting effects: the ongoing widespread confusion between Marx’s politics and Lenin’s politics owes a lot to those decades of coercive state influence over scholarly endeavour. Official Soviet Marxological positions continue to replicate in the academic literature, because they have the weight of academic ‘consensus’ behind them, even though that ‘consensus’ was to a large extent created under threat of imprisonment and death.
- A tendency towards in-group out-group social testing, and distaste for ideological contamination, in a lot of contemporary self-defining Marxist political spaces.
So, the ways in which I take myself to be a Marxist include:
In terms of analysis:
- I think Marx’s analysis of capitalism is about the best there is. I’ve got various quibbles with ‘Capital’ – mostly related to presentation and emphasis – but I struggle to think of anything of much significance that I think Marx actually got wrong, w/r/t the dynamics of the capitalist system.
[I do have some 'heterodox' - though I believe textually well supported - views about what the analysis in Capital is - but this is not the time for Marxology.]
In terms of politics:
- I want the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a more equitable and humane system of global political-economic organisation
- I think that a mass movement of the exploited and disenfranchised is the most likely way to achieve this – which in practice, under capitalism, almost certainly means a movement that is largely proletarian (understood in broad terms).
[It's not of course impossible that you could get a small 'vanguardist' movement gaining power in a coup of some sort and implementing left policies that lack mass support - but I don't think that a movement that lacks mass support is going to be able to sustain itself in even medium term without turning authoritarian - and an authoritarian state is inimical to the emancipatory politics I take the be the goal here. (Even though, yes, many states that identified as Marxist have, historically, been authoritarian. The authoritarian nature of those states was a betrayal of Marxist political goals - that's my view.)]
- I think that workers’ movements that valorise labour are often politically essential (in shifting the workplace balance of power towards workers), but are also often conservative in some of their broader political commitments. (“Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”)
There are obviously lots of more detailed ways in which I take both my analysis of capitalism and my politics to be Marxist and Marxian – but this’ll do as a first pass.
In terms of social democracy – this is a bit trickier. Marxist critics of social democracy often, I think, couch their opposition in terms of a preference for revolution over reform – so one way to approach this is through that opposition.
Reform vs. revolution means, in much left debate, two distinct things.
First: this opposition is often understood in terms of how to gain power. Reform is taken to be aligned with electoral politics – gaining control over the levers of power through means compatible with the current electoral system; revolution is taken to be aligned with violent and/or mass uprising that either seizes or abolishes the current oppressive levers of power through non-electoral means (this is probably the main thing that ‘revolution’ means, in this sort of political discourse).
A lot of the radical (and Marxist) left is contemptuous of electoral politics, and thinks that revolution (in the mass or violent uprising sense) is the only way to achieve real political change. I don’t agree with this. I think that the choice between electoral and non-electoral politics should be determined in large part by the type of existing political structures in the relevant political unit (usually, in practice, a nation state) – and what this makes possible. In a scenario in which there are no real democratic structures in place, revolutionary politics is likely to be the best – potentially the only – way in which left political goals can be accomplished. This still applies in much of the world. And it applied most everywhere when Marx was writing.
On the other hand, in many countries now – thanks in large part to the past victories of left politics – we have democratic institutions. That is, we have an institutional set-up in which an important segment of the ruling class is elected by popular vote – voters can determine, to some extent, who governs them. In this scenario, I think it is more reasonable and desirable to attempt to gain power by broadly electoral means, than it is to aim for revolution. Reasonable, because it is, for most, easier to vote than it is to participate in mass uprising, so it should be easier to organise the former than the latter. More desirable, because democratic institutions, and the societal norms and habits that support them, are a good thing in themselves, and are weakened every time they are disregarded. It’ll be easier to create a democratic post-capitalist society if those making and implementing policy achieved their positions through democratic mechanisms, than otherwise.
(What about the view that our democracy is a sham, and that therefore democratic change is a pipe dream and existing democratic institutions worthless? I don’t agree. Our democracy is ‘flawed’ (by design, of course) in very many ways – corruption, capture by the interests of a ruling elite, propagandistic media influence, etc. But I do not believe that these obstacles are sufficient to render a left electoral movement an impossibility in the core democracies I’m familiar with. These factors (and others) all have their impact – but if an effective left political movement cannot be built, this is in large part a problem for the left, not just for actually-existing democratic institutions.)
(Finally, what about the view that the policies that need to be implemented will never gain popular assent, and that therefore democracy is not a desirable political outcome at all? I disagree, in two ways. First, pessimistic though I am about ‘human nature’ in many respects, I also believe that emancipatory politics can gain broad, lasting support: I think history shows us that this is possible, even if it’s not the norm. Second, I see no reason to believe that those with power will, on average, be less reactionary than those without; more often the reverse. Trusting a sufficiently enlightened and radical elite to implement plans that the benighted masses would never themselves endorse, is (in my judgement) a reliable recipe for despotism – it fails to understand (or does not care about) the impact of power and interests upon political action. The actions of elites must be dramatically restricted if elites are not to run riot, serving their own interests above those of the great mass of humanity. Relying on a specific sub-elite to overcome this dynamic, without (at the very least) stringent checks and balances on that elite’s own behaviour is, in my view, misguided and naive.)
So – that’s the electoral politics vs. popular uprising side of the reform/revolution dichotomy.
In addition, the reform vs. revolution debate can often refer to another question: how radically do we wish society to be transformed by left politics? Do we need a wholesale abolition of existing institutional structures and a blank-slate start with a new politics and a new economics; or can reform of existing institutional structures achieve the political goals we’re after?
Here, again, I am more on the ‘reform’ than the ‘revolution’ side of the debate (though again see below for elaboration). The changes I would like to see to our political and economic institutions are very substantial, but they do not require an absolute rupture with existing society.
To expand on that:
Some folk on the radical left are of the view that if many institutions from our present society are carried over into our future (purportedly post-capitalist) society, this will be a betrayal of our revolutionary goals – and, indeed, may well render that future society capitalist after all, despite our best intentions. For example, it is not uncommon for radicals to argue that a post-capitalist society should not or cannot involve markets; or money; or the division of labour; or any kind of hierarchical organisation – some or all of these things must be abolished if we are to achieve an emancipated post-capitalist society.
I think this attitude misunderstands the historical specificity of capitalism – all of these phenomena existed prior to capitalism, and therefore there is no intrinsic reason why they could not persist into a post-capitalist society.
At the same time, capitalism can persist through quite dramatic transformations of institutional structures. (“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”) So it is also easy to make the opposite mistake – to think that the abolition of a specific institutional structure will result in the abolition of capitalism, when in fact it will only be a moment in capitalism’s own ‘revolutionary’ dynamic.
This question therefore probably needs to be addressed more specifically. What is capitalism? What’s wrong with capitalism? What would be required to abolish capitalism? And what kind of post-capitalist society do we want instead?
Following N Pepperell’s work on Marx, I define capitalism in the following way: capitalism is a mode of economic production or organisation characterised by a specific dynamic around labouring activity. In capitalism, the great majority of people can only gain access to the means of life via labour performed to serve another’s economic interests. Further, there is, under capitalism, a systemic tendency for labourers to be eliminated from fields of productive activity, heavily restricting or eliminating their access to general social resources, and then be re-employed in new fields of productive activity that are regularly being created. This dynamic – the recurrent expulsion and reincorporation of labouring activity, out of and back into changing economic structures – is the dynamic that differentiates capitalism from all other modes of political-economic organisation.
That’s what capitalism is. What’s wrong with it?
In terms of the ‘economic problem’, these are the most central things wrong with capitalism:
- The creation of incredible poverty in the midst of plenty.
- The coercive enforcement of labour on the bulk of humanity.
And there are also plenty of important oppressive structures in capitalism that don’t fall under either of those categories – e.g. the various kinds of repressive apparatus that maintain class rule.
What is required to abolish capitalism? Well – I define capitalism in terms of this specific dynamic around labour. So to abolish capitalism, one needs to end this dynamic. Assuming one doesn’t want to replace capitalism with a similarly coercive system that simply lacks capitalism’s ‘revolutionary’ character, this means the abolition of labour. And the abolition of labour means the creation of an economic system in which the bulk of humanity’s access to the necessities – and luxuries – of life is not principally mediated by coercively imposed work carried out for others.
Is the abolition of labour an end in itself? Yes – labour is a coercive institution, and so its abolition is a good. But the abolition of labour also serves a broader set of political goals. Those need to be put front and centre when considering the post-capitalist society we envision.
What kind of post-capitalist society is that?
In terms of abstract generalities: I want a free society. That means negative freedom: a society in which people can live their lives without arbitrary coercive constraint – and positive freedom: freedom from want; a decent standard of living for all. These are exemplarily liberal political goals, and often denigrated as such on the radical left. But they are good political goals. A decent standard of living for all; free time to pursue personal interests; respect for human rights; collective self-government; checks and balances on institutions of power – these are the pretty straightforward goals of communist politics as I would wish them realized.
Does all this make me a liberal? Yes, I think so. Does that mean I am not a Marxist? No, I don’t think so (though I’m sure some would disagree). Whether I differ from mainstream left-liberalism is in my evaluation of what transformations of society are necessary to realize these goals.
So – the leisure required to allow the great mass of people to pursue their own interests and lives as they please is simply incompatible with capitalism.
What about poverty? Is capitalism compatible with the provision of a decent standard of living for all?
Here, I must admit, I am less certain. My impulse is that capitalism is incompatible with the eradication of poverty, because I think the defining orientation of capitalism to the reproduction of labour requires that those who do not labour suffer for their non-participation in the workforce. This enforcement of the punishment of poverty on the reserve army of unemployed seems to me key to the reproduction of capitalism as labour-dynamic. I must admit that I haven’t worked this line of reasoning through to my satisfaction, however – or fully considered possible counter-scenarios (is this characteristic dynamic of capitalism compatible with guaranteed basic income?). So my opinions in this area are still somewhat tentative.
This doesn’t matter w/r/t the thrust of the question here, though. That question is how much can be carried over from capitalist to post-capitalist society. My view is – and I think this is very Marxist – a great deal will be carried over. Although the achievement of an emancipated post-capitalist society would involve, in some respects, a sea-change in our institutions, in other respects it would be like the coming of Benjamin’s messiah, “of whom a great rabbi once said that he did not wish to change the world by force, but would only make a slight adjustment in it”. The technologies, institutions and sensibilities out of which post-capitalist society will be built are already present in capitalism – but they need to be rearranged, to serve emancipatory rather than oppressive ends. So the division of labour – for example – should certainly persist into a post-capitalist society; as should mass production (both industrial and agricultural) (how else are we going to feed everyone?) I’m open to the possibility of alternatives to markets and money – but I see no reason to demonise these things, which are millennia old and have no intrinsic connection to capital. At base, if everyone has both a decent standard of living and freedom from unjust coercion, I don’t see why we should flip out if people are still using money or eating burgers, etc.
So – my vision of a post-capitalist society is a vision of a society much like our own, but where everyone has enough resources to live comfortably, enough free time to pursue their own personal interests, and where institutions of governance are not notably coercive. That’s it: a banal vision, if you like. But that banality is good. People can provide their own excitement – we’ve never been short of the ability to do that.
One more thing I should say about this vision of a post-capitalist future: the collective self-governance should involve greater democratic control over the large-scale uses to which our collective resources are put. Capitalism is characterized by an orientation towards growth – but at the level of the global system, that orientation to growth serves simply the valorization of capital. It is ‘blind’ as regards the social consequences of this growth.
I don’t think a post-capitalist society should be anti-growth – some level of economic growth is desirable for its potential consequences for living standards. But an emancipated post-capitalist society should be anti-‘blind’ growth. We should have a higher level of collective self-determination of the uses to which the incredible surpluses of our economic system are put. And this has some obvious connections to environmentalist politics.
Much more that could be said – but that’s probably more than enough already. Hopefully that gives some sense of what I mean when I say that I don’t see a real opposition between social democracy and Marxism…
April 2, 2013
Note that I’m no kind of activist; these are very idle thoughts.
- The UK is a country with relatively well functioning democratic institutions (by which I mean: it has regular elections in which political leaders are voted in and out of office by the broader populace, with low enough levels of fraud for such outcomes to be meaningful representations of voters’ preferences.)
- In this scenario, I’m of the view that electoral politics is by far the best way to acquire power. The most commonly advocated-for alternative – armed seizure of power – is very likely to do damage to the democratic institutions currently in place.
- Also, if you’ve got broad enough support for armed revolution for its leaders to at all plausibly represent ‘the people’, then you should be able to muster the votes to gain power democratically anyway.
- So how could a political movement oriented towards emancipatory politics gain power electorally?
- The Labour party is in no sense a Social Democratic party any more – the ‘New Labour’ years turned it into a neoliberalising party; under Miliband it seems committed to ‘austerity’ and moving towards fascism.
- It’s possible that the Labour party could be taken over and made a vehicle for emancipatory politics. I think this is possible but unlikely.
- An alternative scenario is the creation of a whole new alternative party and party apparatus, to rival Labour. This doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to happening, but is considerably more likely than a successful takeover of Labour for emancipatory politics, I think.
- In either of these scenarios you’re also of course going to need a broader movement to exert pressure on party leaders and push public discourse in a broadly emancipatory direction.
- It’s also possible that neither will happen, and we’re just screwed in the long as well as the short term.
Conclusion: short term diagnosis – bleak; long term – uncertain.
March 8, 2013
I’m reading Zizek’s ‘Violence’ on the commute. I’m going to write up notes on it here, as I go. Page numbers, quotes, my comments. We’ll see how far I get.
1. “A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance.”
The fascist move: tolerance is really intolerance; opposition to violence is really violence; those who claim to criticise ugly deeds are really just denying their own ugliness; therefore to be more honest, more knowledgeable, more authentic we should acknowledge the violence that is intrinsic to our natures: own it. An advocacy of evil presented under the guise of a more thorough critique of evil than that offered by liberals and ordinary wimpy leftists.
1. “embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call ‘our house of being’”
Really people need to stop wielding Heidegger as if a) he’s an authority (in fact, Heidegger’s just making this stuff up – the fact that it seems compelling may be because of affective or intellectual resonance, but there’s no particular reason to accord Heidegger’s ideas any warrant – certainly there’s no evidence for them), b) he’s a leftist authority. If a work of theory is allied with fascism, or centrally using the work of a fascist (which of course is what Heidegger was), that doesn’t in itself mean that the work must be on the right: but we should adjust our priors in that direction.
1. Tripartite categorisation of violence: subjective, & two kinds of objective: political-economic and symbolic (=language)
2. “The Congo today has effectively re-emerged as a Conradean ‘heart of darkness’. No one dares to confront it head on.”
3. “My underlying premise is that there is something inherently mystifying in a direct confrontation with it: the overpowering horror of violent acts and empathy with the victims inexorably functions as a lure which prevents us from thinking.”
This isn’t true at all – we can (obviously!) both exhibit empathy and think about the content of that empathy. In fact, there’s plenty of stuff (violence, in fact, included) that one can’t think about in many of its dimensions without empathy.
That aside, the book here states one of its goals: to persuade its readers not to think about the victims of violence with empathy, not to experience horror at violent acts, but to train themselves out of these attitudes and approaches.
3. “What renders a report of a raped woman (or any other narrative of a trauma) truthful is its very factual unreliability, its confusion, its inconsistency.”
Zizek promotes the idea of the unreliability of reports of rape – indeed, elevates this to a general principle – all reports of rape must always be unreliable.
Apart from illustrating what a scumbag he is, this also illustrates why Zizek’s fans must at some level be reactionaries, even if they don’t ‘get’ the overall thrust of the theoretical approach. To admire this passage one has to read it and think something like: “Yes! That’s right! Zizek’s really nailed it, as to why women’s testimony of rape is so unreliable!” The passage relies on the reader’s acceptance of an intrinsically reactionary, totally false position. And, of course, by relying on that acceptance it promotes that acceptance – treating a position as self-evidently true is a way of advocating for it.
4. Now he has the nerve to cite Primo Levi as an example of the unreliability of trauma victims’ testimony. (Introduction; endnote 2).
4. Zizek quotes Akhmatova’s famous introduction to her poem ‘Requiem’ (one of the most famous passages of twentieth century Russian literature – possibly the most famous(?)). Except Zizek doesn’t know that it’s the introduction to ‘Requiem’ – he thinks it’s an extract from Akhmatova’s memoirs (!).
5. The beginning of a discussion of “the fake sense of urgency that pervades the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence”. Zizek writes about “the staging of the scene of violence – against women, blacks, the homeless, gays” – here Zizek participating in the usual reactionary making fun of ‘victim poltics’ – no doubt black disabled feminist lesbians will be showing up soon. “Underlying all this is a hypocritical sense of moral outrage.”
Again, the purpose is to attack moral objections to violence, domination and atrocity – to ridicule these moral objections – to present them as hypocritical or naive.
6. “As Bill Gates recently put it: ‘What do computers matter when millions are still unnecessarily dying of dysentry?’”
For some reason we’re supposed to find the sentiment that Gates expresses here risible.
6. Zizek refers (without citation, as is his customary practice) to an 1870 letter from Marx to Engels in which Marx expresses the wish that the (I presume French) revolutionaries not succeed until he has finished ‘Capital’. I don’t know this letter, and it doesn’t seem to be on marxists.org. Does anyone have a reference for it?
6. “‘Do you mean we should do nothing? Just sit and wait?’ One should gather the courage to answer: ‘YES, precisely that!’”
It should be obvious what the appeal of this is to Zizek’s audience: people who want to regard and present themselves as radical, who also want to spend their time reading works of theory and consuming cultural products, and are uncertain about how to reconcile these impulses. Simple: those (like the despicable Bill Gates – symbol of any kind of political intervention any time and any where) who wish to improve lives with their actions, or even who wish to think about the fact of suffering with some empathy or compassion – these people are hypocrites who deny their own essential violence. Unlike these hypocrites, we must refrain from any kind of ameliorative political action or empathy for those who suffer, and instead do nothing… except consume and analyse cultural products. And this lack of engagement with actual politics makes us, in fact, by the transformative magic of Zizek’s work, into more politically astute and engaged people than those who actually do stuff or feel compassion.
9. Zizek returns to his tripartite division: subjective, objective and symbolic violence. Subjective violence is “that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds”. Zizek says that there is “something suspicious, indeed symptomatic” in the liberal focus on subjective violence.
10. “the task is precisely to change the topic” … “subjective violence is just the most visible of the three”.
10-12. Discussion of ‘objective’ violence. This section is quite interesting, as an example of Zizek ‘on game’: it draws a distinction that is well worth making, turns the distinction into metaphysical nonsense, then redirects the nonsense into reactionary historical revisionism. This is Zizek working well – redirecting potentially useful critique towards fascism. I’ll quote at some length, then discuss.
10-11. “The notion of objective violence needs to be thoroughly historicised: it took on a new shape with capitalism… It is far too simple to claim that the spectre of this self-engendering monster that pursues its path disregarding any human or environmental concern is an ideological abstraction and that behind this abstraction there are real people and natural objects on whose productive capacities and resources capital’s circulation is based and on which it feeds like a gigantic parasite. The problem is that this ‘abstraction’ is not only in our financial speculators’ misperception of social reality, but that it is ‘real’ in the precise sense of determining the structure of the material social processes: the fate of whole strata of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the ‘solipsistic’ speculative dance of capital…”
11. “Therein resides the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their ‘evil’ intentions, but is purely ‘objective’, systemic, anonymous… One can experience this gap in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist’s report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country’s economic situation is ‘financially sound’ – reality doesn’t matter, what matters is the situation of capital.”
11-12. “In short, the highest form of ideology does not reside in getting caught in ideological spectrality, forgetting about its foundation is real people and their relations, but precisely in overlooking this Real of spectrality and in pretending directly to address ‘real people with their real worries.’”
Ok, what’s happening in this section?
Zizek is mushing together a number of analytic distinctions that, taken independently, could be valuable, but that conflated in this way make a (deliberately) ideological mess. What exactly is Zizek saying in this passage – what distinctions is he drawing? I’m going to list various ways in which some of these remarks could be interpreted, then show how Zizek shuffles between these senses to enable his historical revisionism.
First: the distinction between violence that is intended by agents, versus violence that is an unintended, unwitting consequence of multiple agents’ aggregate actions. This distinction is the sense that can be given to Zizek’s remarks about “concrete individuals and their ‘evil’ intentions” versus violence that is “‘objective’, systemic, anonymous.” – if Zizek’s distinction is to be given social-theoretic content, this must be that content. (Note that I’m not saying Zizek’s distinction actually does mean this, in his text – I don’t think it does – just that this is what it would have to mean to render the distinction meaningful, accurate, and analytically useful.)
To elaborate on the content that I am temporarily granting Zizek’s distinction… Take as an example of intended violence, the institution of slavery. Slave owners obviously know and intend the violence they perpetrate on the slaves that are their property. Against this, we can give an example of the violence of unintended consequences: Let’s say a technological innovation greatly improves farming yields for a given crop. Now that yields have improved, the global market is flooded with the crop, and its price falls. Poor farmers, who had relied on exports of that crop as their principle source of income, find their income dramatically reduced. They must consume more of their own crops themselves, to survive, which reduces their income still further. They also cannot afford their principle investment expenditure. Without this investment, the subsequent year’s crop is dramatically worse. Famine; many deaths.
This socially-effected violence is not ‘intended’ by anyone – but it is objective, and it is a product of specific decisions by a very large number of social actors. Of course even this latter ‘objective’ violence requires a ‘subjective’ violence in order to occur: the social structures that generate this outcome are created and maintained, in significant part, by deliberate force. Still, this way of drawing a distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ violence can be understood in a meaningful way, I believe. [It should go without saying that this example of 'objective' violence is not more hypothetical than is the institution of slavery - Amartya Sen's work on famines and Mike Davis's 'Late Victorian Holocausts' are useful reference points here.]
This isn’t how Zizek understands his distinction, though – as we’ll see. What else is happening in this section?
Second: the distinction between “ideological abstraction” and “real people and natural objects”. This could be understood as a critique of a kind of vulgar materialism (again – I’m granting Zizek’s words content here, rather than offering an interpretation of their actual function in his text). One might think that ‘abstractions’, in the sense of concepts in one’s head, don’t have material force – but in fact of course they do. Zizek writes (to quote this passage again)
The problem is that this ‘abstraction’ is not only in our financial speculators’ misperception of social reality, but that it is ‘real’ in the precise sense of determining the structure of the material social processes
We could take this to mean that misperceptions by powerful actors have a material impact, because those power actors act on their misperceptions, granting them real social force. Or we could mean the first thing, about unintended consequences – Zizek could be saying (he isn’t) that the ‘abstractions’ he is referring to are the aggregate effects of many actors’ actions.
Third: Zizek could be referring here to an actual metaphysical entity independent of social actors. This passage doesn’t particularly suggest this, I don’t think – but I’m putting it out there anyway, as I’m sure this is how Zizek is understood by some of his readers.
Fourth: Zizek could be drawing a distinction between spheres of social action. On the one hand, the social action of financial speculators; on the other hand the social action of other economic actors. This doesn’t, in fact, map well at all onto the ‘abstract’ versus ‘real’ distinction Zizek is discussing, here: financial speculators are in fact also real social actors. But this is probably the most obvious way to interpret what he is saying. Zizek’s final example – of a country filled with human misery, but valuable to capital, could be taken as an example of this: an economy that is valuable to capital is, of course, valuable to the capitalist social actors who are profitably investing in the country. Whatever else Zizek is saying about ‘objective’ and ‘anonymous’ economic structures, we know that differentials in the benefits accrued from these social structures are real and large.
Now watch as Zizek moves through several of these very different possible meanings of his remarks, exploiting his own unclarity and assuming a reader who cannot be bothered to pin him down.
First Zizek talks about an ‘objective’ violence that is “systemic, anonymous” – that no one intends, that is associated with no specific agent, but that is a feature of the system as a whole. Then he shifts to talking about the perspective of the economist, as against the perspective of those in ‘human misery’. Then we reach this extraordinary passage, which returns to the earlier thematised Congo (“re-emerged as a Conradean ‘heart of darkness’”), and reveals what that earlier Conrad reference was foreshadowing:
12. “Our blindness to the results of systemic violence is perhaps most clearly perceptible in debates about communist crimes. Responsibility for communist crimes is easy to allocate: we are dealing with subjective evil, with agents who did wrong… But when one draws attention to the millions who died as the result of capitalist globalisation, from the tragedy of Mexico in the sixteenth century through to the Belgian Congo holocaust a century ago, responsibility is largely denied. All this seems just to have happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process, which nobody planned and executed and for which there was no ‘Capitalist Manifesto’… The fact that the Belgian king Leopold II who presided over the Congo holocaust was a great humanitarian and proclaimed a saint by the Pope cannot be dismissed as a mere case of ideological hypocrisy and cynicism. Subjectively, he may well have been a sincere humanitarian, even modestly counteracting the catastrophic consequences of the vast economic project which was the ruthless exploitation of the natural resources of the Congo over which he presided. The country was his personal fiefdom! The ultimate irony is that even most of the profits from this endeavour were for the benefit of the Belgian people, for public works, museums and so on.”
Let’s remind ourselves and Zizek of the administration of the Belgian Congo under Leopold II. Here’s an excellent short video; Here’s Adam Hochschild’s ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ on Amazon [full disclosure - I haven't read the Hochschild]; here’s a review of the latter from the New York Times, from which I will quote:
It shows, above all, that during Leopold’s rule in Africa from 1885 to 1908, and in the years on either side of it, the peoples of the Congo River Basin suffered, in Hochschild’s words, ”a death toll of Holocaust dimensions.” This is not said lightly. The strategy adopted to plunder the area was, in effect, a war of enslavement against the indigenous population.
Much of the death toll was the result of killing, pure and simple. Villages were dragooned into tapping rubber, and if they refused to comply, or complied but failed to meet European quotas, they were punished. The hands of dead Congolese were severed and kept by militias to account to their quartermasters for spent ammunition. And, as Morel said, the practice of mutilation was extended to the living. By far the greatest number of deaths, however, were caused by sickness and starvation. The effect of the terror was to drive communities from their sources of food.
A Belgian Government commission estimated that from the late 1870′s, when the explorer Henry Morton Stanley made his first forays into the Congo on King Leopold’s behalf, until 1919, the year the commission published its findings, the population of the Congo Basin had been reduced by half. In 1924 there were thought to be some 10 million inhabitants — which means, Hochschild says, that ”during the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath the population of the territory dropped by approximately 10 million.”
Now return to Zizek’s description of the Belgian Congo holocaust:
All this seems just to have happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process, which nobody planned and executed
Is this an accurate characterisation of the policies and atrocities of Leopold’s Belgium in the Congo? Of course it is not. It is an obscenity. Leopold’s Belgium’s actions in the Congo are one of the most unambiguously centralised, planned, deliberately administered, exploitative, violent, murderous sets of state actions in capitalist history. It is hard to think of a case that would be more clearly a) capitalist; b) centrally planned and knowingly directed; and c) an atrocity of this scale.
But wait? Does Zizek mean it? Defenders of Zizek will, I believe or predict, at this point leap into the fray and insist that I am overlooking the crucial word “seems”. Zizek is not himself describing the Belgian Congo holocaust in these terms – he is ventriloquising liberal capitalist ideology (or some such perspective).
If this defense is your first impulse, reader, I invite you to review the structure of this section of the chapter again, yourself. In addition, let me talk it through again one more time.
- Zizek draws a distinction between ‘subjective’ violence – planned and intended by agents – and ‘objective’ violence – anonymous, unintended, systemic.
- He says that his goal is to direct attention away from ‘subjective’ violence, towards ‘objective’ violence.
- Zizek states that communism’s violence is obviously ‘subjective’, because clearly planned and intended.
- He states that capitalism’s violence is much more often ‘objective’, because it is not intended, but the results of the anonymous operation of an impersonal system.
- He gives as an example of this ‘objective’ violence the Belgian Congo under Leopold II
- This example amounts to extreme reactionary historical revisionism.
Zizek is not ventriloquising capitalist ideology here – the distinction between subjective and objective violence is his own, and has been offered as his valuable contribution to debates around violence. The example he chooses is his own. And the chapter has clearly been written with this example in mind, because he has foreshadowed it: the murder of Congolese by Congolese is ‘subjective’ violence; the murder of Congolese by Belgian colonialists is ‘objective’ violence.
In addition, note how Zizek is repurposing his own choice of technical vocabulary. In drawing the distinction between violence that is intended by an agent, and violence that is perpetrated by agents without intent… in drawing this distinction, Zizek chose the rather idiosyncratic terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ to characterise the types of violence that he had in mind. Now, at this crucial point in his argument, Zizek is – without flagging it – abandoning his previous technical definitions of these terms and returning to their ordinary language usage; he thinks he can count on most readers not to notice. Zizek writes -
Subjectively, he may well have been a sincere humanitarian
- meaning that in his own subjectivity Leopold may have sincerely regarded himself as a humanitarian. But of course this is not what the nexus of terms around “subjective” means in the technical vocabulary Zizek has just introduced. If we read this passage using Zizek’s own definitions of his terms, Zizek is here saying that Leopold may well not have directed the policies implemented in his rule of the Belgian Congo. This is, self-evidently, false.
Finally, no passage of Zizek would be complete without a more straightforward factual error: Leopold II was not “proclaimed a saint by the Pope”, as Zizek claims. It’s possible Zizek has in mind Leopold III (1095 – 1136), patron saint of Austria. Or it’s possible that he’s just flinging around whatever falsehoods suit his argument, as he is wont to do.
My reading has gotten ahead of my note-taking, but I wanted to skip ahead to mention this. Not the worst thing in the book by a long way, but particularly striking to me for some reason:
42-3. “When the United Airlines Flight 93 and three other planes were skyjacked on 9/11, it is significant that the gist of the phone calls to their closest relatives from the passengers who knew they were about to die was ‘I love you’. Martin Amis emphasised the Pauline point that all that ultimately matters is love:”
[NB: I think Amis himself would probably tether this closer to Larkin - "our almost-instinct almost true: what will survive of us is love" is the sentiment Amis has cited every other time he's made remarks of this kind that I've read - though I've not read the piece Zizek cites here - but no matter.]
[NB#2: Well, after a bit of googling, here it is:
Like the victims on the other three planes, but unlike them, because they knew, the passengers called their families and said that they loved them. It is an extraordinary validation, or fulfilment, of Larkin's lines at the end of An Arundel Tomb:
...To prove Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
See? Larkin (who, whatever else you can say about him, was properly secular - really not necessary to bring Paul in.)]
43-44. “[Zizek quoting Amis:]‘Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black.’ However, a suspicion remains here: is this desperate confession of love also not something of a sham, the same kind of fakery as the sudden turn to God and prayer of someone who suddenly faces the danger or proximity of death – a hypocritical opportunistic move born of fear, not of true conviction? Why should there be more truth in what we do in such desperate moments? Is it not rather that, in such moments, the survival instinct makes us betray our desire? In this sense, deathbed conversions or confessions of love are sacrifices of desire… (This, incidentally, brings us to what would have been a true ethical act: imagine a wife phoning her husband in the last seconds of her life to tell him: ‘Just wanted to let you know that our marriage was a sham, that I cannot stand the sight of you…’)”
Ok – as I say, there’s plenty that’s objectively worse than this passage in ‘Violence’, but for some reason this strikes me as particularly revolting. Zizek doesn’t understand that most of us actually love those we choose to spend our lives with. He really doesn’t understand – he doesn’t believe it. Oh, sure, there are plenty of people who live unhappily with their partners – it’s perfectly plausible that some of those on Flight 93 called people they did not, in fact, love, and told them that they loved them – because this was a lie the relationship was based on, and they wanted to maintain that lie until the end. Even this scenario – even this – strikes me as an act of generosity, rather than of cowardice. But in fact for most people, when we call those who are closest to us in moments that we believe to be our last, and tell them that we love them… we are doing this because their and our lives’ meanings are bound together, because this expression of love is the most meaningful thing we can do for us and them with those last remaining minutes and seconds, because we want those who mean most to us to know that they were in our hearts, that we care for them and wish them to know that we care for them – this is what’s going on in such calls.
But because Zizek doesn’t share these attitudes – because he doesn’t care for those he pretends to – because he himself never means it when he says “I love you” – Zizek doesn’t believe it. This passage is as pristine an example as you’ll find of a common ‘theoretical’ move: 1) project your emotional problems onto all humanity; 2) congratulate yourself on the remarkable fact that you, almost alone, have the self-knowledge required to understand this invariant quality of human nature; 3) berate everyone else for concealing their true wretched state from themselves.
Again, Zizek’s fans, when reading this, presumably participate in this circuit of self-congratulation. These people (mostly male, I think) are overgrown adolescents – emotionally immature, incapable of even really imagining a full, loving relationship of any kind – and they snigger and high-five each other as Zizek says what they take everyone else to be hiding – taking their incapacities as insights, their emotional ignorance as emotional depth. (But I think the huge aggression in passages like these comes from a level of suppression, probably. If Zizek and his fans were secure in their analysis there wouldn’t be quite this level of obvious aggressive glee in its articulation. Zizek can’t quite decide if he’s soberly revealing that everyone is like this, or if he’s resentfully attacking those who aren’t like this; I think the affect wavers a bit between these stances.)
52. “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?”
Zizek contrasts his view with that of Jean-Marie Muller. Quoting Muller:
“Speaking is the foundation and structures of socialisation, and happens to be characterised by the renunciation of violence”
Against this view, Zizek cites Lacan.
52-3 “for Lacan – at least for his theory of four discourses elaborated in the late 1960s – human communication in its most basic, constitutive dimension does not involve a space of egalitarian intersubjectivity…. On the contrary, what Lacan indicates with his notion of the discourse of the Master as the first (inaugural, constitutive) from of discourse is that every concrete, ‘really existing’ space of discourse is ultimately grounded in a violent imposition of a Master-Signifier which is stricto sensu ‘irrational’: it cannot be further grounded in reasons. It is the point at which one can only say that ‘the buck stops here’; a point at which, in order to stop the endless regress, somebody has to say, ‘It is so because I say it is so!‘”
Brandom is a valuable counterweight to this false view of the functioning of language. I’ve discussed the Brandomian apparatus in great detail elsewhere on this blog. To summarise the relevant points briefly: yes, Zizek is right that any given ‘actually existing’ discursive chain of reasons must come to a halt at some point, when it reaches a point that (for whatever reason) the discursive community in question has chosen to treat as a ‘material inference’ – as, if you like, axiomatic. But it does not follow from this (as Zizek suggests) that such ‘stopping points’ themselves cannot be grounded in reasons. Brandom has a ‘default>challenge>response’ model of asking for and giving reasons: any ground can be challenged, and further reasons for it can be adduced. But no specific ground has to be challenged in any given interaction. So for any given interaction there will be heaps of unchallenged ‘axiomatic’ claims; but for the community as a whole, over time, any of these ‘grounds’ can be challenged and, potentially, rejected. There need be no ‘Master Signifier’. Neurath’s boat cannot be entirely dismantled at any one time; but every plank can be changed over the course of time (and, in principle, as part of this ongoing reconstructive work, the structure of the ‘boat’ itself can be transformed.)
So Zizek’s leap to irrationalism here – and his claim that an act of force that exists only as force, without any possibility of rational justification, must form the substrate of reason – all this is unwarranted.
February 22, 2013
Our actions have impacts, and before we take action we try to evaluate what impacts they will have. Will people be hurt by our actions? Will they be helped? Will our goals be furthered by a given action, or will they be hindered? What are the possible outcomes? What are the risks?
Before we take action we consider the great branching tree of possible future worlds, and try to evaluate which – if any – of the actions we could take will send us down a more desirable, less appalling path. We try to map the space of possibilities, evaluate the ways our own deeds can interact with that space, and, implicitly or overtly, we assign weights – of likelihood, and of preference – to different possible futures. We try to understand the world, so we can assess these weights appropriately: so we can map the possibilities accurately and well.
Sometimes — often — outcomes do not match our intentions. The world’s force may overwhelm our puny powers to change it. Our actions may have impact, but not in the ways we hoped. Most ‘tragically’ (in the sense, among others, that this is the formal structure that distinguishes tragedy as a literary form…) our actions may have the opposite effects of those desired: destroying that which we wished to nurture; advancing causes we wished to destroy. Our knowledge of the world was incomplete – we missevaluated the space of possibilities… or we evaluated it well enough, but an outlying possibility turned itself into reality, and the best-laid, most informed plans were undone. Part of what we evaluate, when we evaluate the space of possibilities, is how well we feel we know that space; how likely we are to be surprised.
Or we can refuse to consider the space of possibilities altogether – we can act on an internal sense of ethics; do what is ‘right’, in our eyes, regardless of consequence. The Brandomian metatheoretical apparatus I endorse has an account of such ethical judgements, in terms of the attribution of deontic statuses. To act ethically by some internally legible principle, without regard to consequence, on this account, is to act in such a way that one’s action will be approved by those judges (who are, perhaps, imagined) that one takes to be entitled to validly attribute such deontic statuses. In a sense, then, even this ‘inner ethical’ account is a consequentialist one, from a Brandomian perspective, but the consequences are attributions of deontic status (even if only your own attributions, to an imagined judge).
Of course, all ‘objective consequentialism’ can be re-embedded within an account of deontic attitudes, for a Brandomian phenomenalist approach. Thus, if we take the consequences of our actions to be the source of their justification, this is because we take the consequences of our actions to be the source of their justification – we, again, believe that those with the capacity to rightly judge our actions will judge them on the basis of an evaluation of those consequences.
So a Brandomian account need not be consequentialist in the broader sense – that objective consequences of our actions are the source of their justification. But it will always be consequentialist in a narrower sense – that the normative sanctions of deontic attitudes are the final source of ethical standing, and that sanctions are a real-world thing: consequences of actions. The latter narrow consequentialism becomes the former broader consequentialism if the perspectives we take to have the right to attribute deontic statuses only do so by means of their judgement of objective consequence.
Put more bluntly, without the Brandomian jargon (valuable though it is, in its precision): we think our deeds are good if others, whose thoughts and feelings we value, think they are good. Our ethics will depend on what judgements we value – and whose.*
Who are ‘we’, in this picture? Maybe an individual – the isolated bourgeois self, with its inner depths navigated an alienating world; or maybe a collectivity – of which there can be as many as there are social groupings available in this world of intricate loyalties and betrayals. Whether individual or collective, ‘we’ are divided against ourselves. But some groupings come more to the fore than others, due – in part – to ‘objective’ social factors. More on all that another day.
What about the substance of the judgements that guide action? Here we move from metatheory to theory – or at least from metametatheory to mere metatheory, if that is an improvement. In my mind – and I urge you to concur with me, bolstering our fragile community of agreement – those who rightly judge our actions judge them, in the main, on the basis of consequences. Consequences, in the broader sense, are the principal arbiter, the ‘in the last instance’ from which ethical evaluation principally derives. But those just judges of our imaginations – and, on occasion, of our reality – also have a sympathetic eye for the limits of human capacity; they, like us (since, for most of us, they are us) understand the constraints under which we operate – and while those constraints can never wholly eradicate the shame of an intention gone awry, or of a better impulse betrayed, they evoke pity and compassion in the eyes of those who judge our actions, and provoke dispensations of forgiveness. They know not what they do. The child is not blameworthy whose actions bring bad consequences; those acting under coercion are not blameworthy, for their actions are not their own. And those who act with greater understanding and responsibility, are still part of a web of possible consequences that is difficult to chart, and with limited capacity for their actions to hit home.
How do we navigate that branching tree of possibilities? How do we decide which actions are the right ones?
In recent months my reading time online has been preoccupied by political debates on the ‘left’, about the limits and virtues of ‘reformism’, ‘compromise’, ‘extremism’ and other such controversial values. Schematically (and I’m thinking about fights on twitter, now, to be clear) there are two broad positions that I see attack each other again and again: the ‘radical’ position, which sees the mainstream left as utterly complicit with the forces of reaction, and the ‘mainstream’ position, which sees the ‘radical’ position as a politics of posture – the performance of personal virtue, or ideological purity – rather than as oriented to any kind of realistic goal.
To be honest, my impulses, here, as readers may guess, usually lie with the ‘radical’ side of the fight. But ‘intellectually’ I find myself in a slightly different position, in that both ‘sides’ have more or less convinced me of the legitimacy of their critique of the other. (There are, of course, large, important, praiseworthy exceptions to almost everything I’m saying here – as I say, this is all very very schematic.) I’m persuaded, at this point, that significant portions of the self-identified radical left are centrally motivated by a desire for purity – a desire to escape the taint of compromise with the exercise of power (in the case of the critique that sees itself as always coming from the ‘margins’), or the taint of compromise involved in negotiating outcomes with others who do not fully share our politics (in the case of the authoritarians), or the taint of compromise with a degenerate bourgeois culture (in the case of the new fascist ‘left’), or some similar set of desires to separate self from tainted world. I’m also persuaded that most mainstream advocates of compromise – as mature, adult, realistic, sensible, worldly, considered, judicious, praiseworthy – are mostly just shills for power, whether they ‘mean’ to be or not. At best their imagination is limited – and I think culpably limited, given the privilege (and thus opportunity for education and reflection) typically associated with ‘mainstream’ status – by the limits of their social milieu; and those limits are in turn influenced by the sanctions against critical opinion effected by the power of the power elite. At (frequent) worst they’re just cynical propagandists. Or both, of course, and other things besides.
What to get out of these reflections? Well, firstly – though sort of incidentally – I’m increasingly persuaded that the ‘left-right’ way of thinking about political alignment is of sharply limited use; my remarks above could hardly be more schematic, but I want, in future, to spend much more time thinking and writing about political alignment in terms of substance – different substantive political goals; different organisational strategies; different motivating interests and affects; different social positions – these things can ‘fill out’ an attribution of political alignment much more usefully than any placement on a reified and often contradictory ‘left-right’ scale (that I still find myself using more often than not).
And, relatedly, I’ve basically convinced myself, as it were, at this point, that there is no intrinsic right answer to the questions ‘compromise or not?’, ‘revolution or reform?’, ‘work within the system, or aim to change it?’ etc. etc. – the questions that seem to guide these fierce debates I am a bystander to – these can only ever be answered contextually; and not just in the sense that (‘philosophically’ speaking) everything must be understood contextually, but in the much more concrete sense that these questions need to be evaluated afresh again and again, with changing circumstance.** I’m weary, for example, of complaints from the self-identified radical left, that charity workers, or social-democratic welfare programs, which save millions of lives and ameliorate suffering on a huge scale, serve “merely to prop up the system!”, etc. I see no reason to think that people with the in-principle commitment to total social and political transformation don’t end up with wholly reformist practical commitments very often indeed, because this is what – given their evaluation of the current state of the space of possibilities – they feel is most likely to be of concrete value, here and now. Nor do I see why intent should matter – if actions save lives and diminish pain, I’ll take them, regardless of ideological origin. At the same time, I see no reason at all to cater to the mainstream’s discomfort with ‘radical’ critique and contestation: the hatred directed at those who aim for more than the compromises currently advocated in the name of realism speaks – at best – to an intense narcissism, which cannot tolerate any sense that the ‘mainstream’ ‘left’s’ own compromises might not indisputably be the only rational and humane choice. At best. Putting aside more cynical and malign perspectives, of which there are plenty.
This ‘pox on both their houses’ attitude of mine is, of course, completely useless – its only real likely impact to insult people needlessly. That is not my intent; I am aiming just to think these things through, at my own snail pace, and, for some reason, in public.
Still, what I want to know – what I want to think about – is: what are our goals? What range of action is available to us? How does that range of action intersect with our goals? What are the likely outcomes of a given set of actions? How do we weight the possibilities, and how do we make our judgements on the basis of those weights? Interested in these questions both for myself, in my own ‘individual’ life, and as contributor to a set of collective enterprises.
Of course, my interest in or preoccupation with the politics of compromise, here, may in part be a consequence of my own shifting social position, and its demands. But not altogether, I think.
In any case – in my intellectual work – which is what this blog is for – I am mostly interested, when it comes to politics, in goals, not strategy or tactics. So I can continue to ruminate on these things somewhat idly while I pursue the intellectual project I’ve got going on here; these thoughts have no real consequences for the intellectual project I’m committed to. ***
* The bluntness brings a lack of precision here; but the crass point is worth making, and the more subtle version has already, I think, been articulated elsewhere on this blog.
** I’m aware, of course, that these remarks provide nothing that is new, and may already taken as given by many – though not, I am confident, all – of those participating in such arguments.
*** Though that intellectual project will remain on the backburner, as it has been, for months.
January 24, 2013
Austerity is above all an ‘ethical’ program, not an economic one: it is driven by visceral affects, not technocratic reason. The visceral reaction is to the appetites of the poor – to the poor as appetitive, defined as such, as gorging hungry mouths and terrifyingly fertile loins, drowning the refinement of the noble and restrained investment class in animal wants that must be disciplined if they are not to run literal riot, the destruction of property (property in which the wealthy have invested, saving their vital substance to allow it to grow, rather than consuming it in riotous living), this destruction evidence of the sheer wanton uncontrollable hunger of the underclass, their unconstrained urges to consumeconsumeconsume, beyond the bounds of all reason and rectitude, in defiance of the law (rather than, say, in response to violence and death inflicted by agents of that law), this appetite demanding coercive constraint, demanding the harshest treatment possible if it is to be tamed or destroyed. The vision here is of the poor as rampant despoiling life, and the distinction between the uncontrollable and repulsive appetites of the poor, as against the refined, restrained, enriching and civilised appetites of the wealthy, is a defining difference: axiomatic. If the wealthy consume moremoremore, this just means more refinement, which is Good; but even the most meagre scraps, in the hands of the needy, are too much, partaking as they do in animal insatiability. Austerity as class war is a cosmology, or a bestiary, whatever the economic interests that enable and incentivise its reproduction – always close to eugenicism: the unkempt hungry wilderness encroaching on the stately manor with its gentle sloping lawns – this wilderness must be hacked away by the experienced civilised gardeners, cutting down the human weeds for the health of the organic body politic, giving its tall and beautiful flowers room to breath and grow in our shared earth and bask in our shared sun whose enriching rays shine on us all alike, one nation, old and young, rich and poor, no matter who or what we are.
December 8, 2012
Nietzsche’s thought is bravely, corrosively, excoriatingly sceptical – letting no piety stand before it; destroying the platitudes of our decadent time in its lordly conflagration of received opinions: so we are told, most of all by Nietzsche himself, who informs us – boldly yet bashfully – that, when we read him, we are in the presence of
a characteristic scepticism to which I confess only reluctantly… a scepticism which sprang up in my life so early, so unbidden, so unstoppably, and which was in such conflict with my surroundings, age, precedents, and lineage that I would almost me justified in calling it my ‘a priori’ (The Geneaology of Morality, 1994, Cambridge University Press, p. 4-5)
Nothing escapes this scepticism – all thought and action is subjected to it, as Nietzsche ruthlessly pursues his genealogies of morality and truth, uncovering the tarnished origins of our most cherished convictions, aided by his “innate fastidiousness with regard to all psychological problems”.
Curiously, though, something escapes this scepticism: the source of Nietzsche’s own claims. On this epistemological matter – the legitimacy of his views – Nietzsche informs us:
The fact that I still stick to them today, and that they themselves in the meantime have stuck together increasingly firmly, even growing into one another and growing into one, makes me all the more blithely confident that from the first, they did not arise in me individually, randomly or sporadically but as stemming from a single root, from a fundamental will to knowledge deep inside me which took control, speaking more and more clearly and making clearer and clearer demands. And this is the only thing proper for a philosopher. We have no right to stand out individually: we must not either make mistakes or hit on the truth individually. Instead, our thoughts, values, every ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘if’, and ‘but’ grow from us with the same inevitability as fruits borne on the tree – all related and referring to one another and a testimonial to one will, one health, one earth, one sun. (p. 4)
Nietzsche’s scepticism is remorseless – except when it comes to Nietzsche. Should you doubt Nietzsche’s historical conjectures or political preferences, remind yourself that Nietzsche possesses “a fundamental will to knowledge” deep inside him – bound to one health, one earth and one sun. Do you have such a fundamental will? Is it deep inside you? No? Then fuck you: let Nietzsche speak.
The shamelessness of this rhetorical move – all should be doubted, except the world-historical profundity of Nietzsche’s vision – has not damaged its effectiveness. Nietzsche appeals to those vulnerable to being bullied by his certainty, and to those who wish also to inhabit the privileged clique of world-historical visionaries, alongside him. Nietzsche does not appeal to those who care about the basis of their claims.
Nietzschean ‘scepticism’, then, and its derivatives, should be seen for what it is: a lack of scepticism, a self-deluding gullibility, a willingness to believe the most unsupported fantasies if they provide a particularly gratifying self-understanding – all presented, falsely, bizarrely, as coruscating willingness to subject everything to critique.
Obvious points, I realise – but still.
December 5, 2012
In the introduction to the first edition of his classic The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Durkheim inquires into the possibility of a science of morality. He writes that it is untenable to begin one’s scientific investigation of morality with the underlying rules that guide ethical behaviour, because there is considerable disagreement as to what those rules might be:
each moralist has his own particular doctrine, and the diversity of doctrines proves the flimsiness of the so-called objective value. (Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, 1964, The Free Press: Toronto, p. 411)
He discusses some of the most prominent attempts to prove the objectivity of a given universal moral law (most notably Kant’s ‘derivation’ of the categorical imperative), and argues that they fail to establish the objectivity of the laws they advocate. If we begin with a dogmatic conviction that a given moral law is the right one, Durkheim argues, then our investigation cannot be a scientific one, for this conviction cannot be scientifically established.
Possibly, there is an eternal law of morality, written by some transcendental power, or perhaps immanent in the nature of things, and perhaps historical morality is only a series of successive approximations; but this is a metaphysical hypothesis that we do not have to discuss. (423)
How then should a scientific study of morality begin? It should look at observable behaviour, and make this the starting point of its analysis. Specifically, it should look at social sanctions.
This predetermined reaction, exercised by society on the agent who has violated the rule, constitutes what is called a sanction. (425)