philosophy


Our friend, GWF, has a knack of turning out some juicy observations. Take this one from The Philosophy of Right (319), on freedom of the press:

To define freedom of the press as freedom to say and write whatever one pleases is equivalent to declaring that freedom in general means freedom to do whatever one pleases. – Such talk is the product of completely uneducated, crude, and superficial thinking [Vorstellens].

What is the Chinese version of having an argument with yourself?

The mind questions the mouth and the mouth questions the mind (Journey to the West, p. 1710).

In his long and intriguing piece from 1906-7, called ‘Anarchism or Socialism?’, Stalin writes on the fortunate reality that human beings walk upright on two legs. One can only imagine what the philosophy of a quadruped might look like.

It is wrong to think that in its development the ideal side, and consciousness in general, precedes the development of the material side. So-called external “non-living” nature existed before there were any living beings. The first living matter possessed no consciousness, it possessed only irritability and the first rudiments of sensation. Later, animals gradually developed the power of sensation, which slowly passed into consciousness, in conformity with the development of the structure of their organisms and nervous systems. If the ape had always walked on all fours, if it had never stood upright, its descendant — man — would not have been able freely to use his lungs and vocal chords and, therefore, would not have been able to speak; and that would have fundamentally retarded the development of his consciousness. If, furthermore, the ape had not risen up on its hind legs, its descendant — man — would have been compelled always to walk on all fours, to look downwards and obtain his impressions only from there; he would have been unable to look up and around himself and, consequently, his brain would have obtained no more impressions than the brain of a quadruped. All this would have fundamentally retarded the development of human consciousness (Works, vol. 1, pp. 315-16).

A suitable subtitle might be: party struggle as a mode of philosophy. Running through Stalin’s early debates with the Georgian Mensheviks (published in Proletariatis Brdzola) are the matters of dialectics, class, politics and philosophy. All of them turn, it seems to me, on the relationship between immanence and transcendence. The question: does socialist consciousness arise spontaneously and naturally among the working class, or does it require a party to clarify and introduce such a consciousness? Is it one or the other?

Stalin’s answer is that the question raises a false dichotomy, for it is both. On this matter, he follows Kautsky and Lenin very closely, but gives the answer his own sharp formulation. For instance:

Modern social life is built on capitalist lines. There exist two large classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and between them a life-and-death struggle is going on. The conditions of life of the bourgeoisie compel it to strengthen the capitalist system. But the conditions of life of the proletariat compel it to undermine the capitalist system, to destroy it. Corresponding to these two classes, two kinds of consciousness are worked out: the bourgeois and the socialist. Socialist consciousness corresponds to the position of the proletariat. Hence, the proletariat accepts this consciousness, assimilates it, and fights the capitalist system with redoubled vigour. Needless to say, if there were no capitalism and no class struggle, there would be no socialist consciousness. But the question now is: who works out, who is able to work out this socialist consciousness (i.e., scientific socialism)? Kautsky says, and I repeat his idea, that the masses of proletarians, as long as they remain proletarians, have neither the time nor the opportunity to work out socialist consciousness. “Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge,” says Kautsky. The vehicles of science are the intellectuals, including, for example, Marx, Engels and others, who have both the time and opportunity to put themselves in the van of science and work out socialist consciousness. Clearly, socialist consciousness is worked out by a few Social-Democratic intellectuals who possess the time and opportunity to do so.

But what importance can socialist consciousness have in itself if it is not disseminated among the proletariat? It can remain only an empty phrase! Things will take an altogether different turn when that consciousness is disseminated among the proletariat: the proletariat will become conscious of its position and will more rapidly move towards the socialist way of life. It is here that Social-Democracy (and not only Social-Democratic intellectuals) comes in and introduces socialist consciousnessinto the working-class movement. This is what Kautsky has in mind when he says “socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without.” (A Repy to Social-Democrat, Collected Works, vol. 1, pp. 163-64).

I am more interested in the form of the argument, for it deploys one of his first efforts at what maybe called a dialectic of immanence and transcendence. Socialist consciousness arises from within and without, not in some queer conjunction, but in a mode that is dialectical. Another instance appears in his discussion of provisional government as a way to foster the revolution:

Let us turn to Engels. In the seventies an uprising broke out in Spain. The question of a provisional revolutionary government came up. At that time the Bakuninists (Anarchists) were active there. They repudiated all action from above, and this gave rise to a controversy between them and Engels. The Bakuninists preached the very thing that the “minority” are saying today. “The Bakuninists,” says Engels, “for years had been propagating the idea that all revolutionary action from above downward was pernicious, and that everything must be organised and carried out from below upward.” In their opinion, “every organisation of a political, so-called provisional or revolutionary power, could only be a new fraud and would be as dangerous to the proletariat as all now existing governments.” Engels ridicules this view and says that life has ruthlessly refuted this doctrine of the Bakuninists. The Bakuninists were obliged to yield to the demands of life and they . . . “wholly against their anarchist principles, had to form a revolutionary government.” Thus, they “trampled upon the dogma which they had only just proclaimed: that the establishment of the revolutionary government was only a deception and a new betrayal of the working class.”

This is what Engels says.

It turns out, therefore, that the principle of the “minority” — action only from “below” — is an anarchist principle, which does, indeed, fundamentally contradict Social-Democratic tactics. The view of the “minority” that participation in a provisional government in any way would be fatal to the workers is an anarchist phrase, which Engels ridiculed in his day. It also turns out that life will refute the views of the “minority” and will easily smash them as it did in the case of the Bakuninists. (The Provisional Revolutionary Government and Social-Democracy, Collected Works, vol. 1, pp. 148-49).

Lining up the Mensheviks with the anarchists was of course a rhetorical move, for the Mensheviks too sought to distance themselves from anarchists (not a good idea). But the issue here is revolution from below and from above. Once again, Stalin comes out in favour of both. Here already lie the seeds of the the later valorization of the (often maligned) revolution from above in the 1930s – in terms of collectivization of industry and agriculture. But even this would not have been possible without a massive impetus from below.

Obviously, there’s a chapter brewing here for my study of Stalin. But I would like to pick up my earlier mention of ‘queer.’ At one point, Stalin refers to an opponent as the ‘queer knight.’ For some strange reason, it sounds like a great epithet for the man of steel himself: Stalin the queer knight.

As one does, I have been reflecting on how I relate to my grandson, Zac, while reading Jameson’s The Hegel Variations. What fascinates me is the way Zac looks intently at me (all over my face, I’m told), responds and gurgles and chatters, knows my voice and smell and so on, and yet he is not conscious of being a person.

IMG_2806 (2)b

I have seen him now four times in his first five weeks of existence, so we have become quite familiar. OK, so he’s a baby. But the fascinating catch is that what is happening now, absorbed in the sheer immediacy of encounter on a daily basis, constitutes the building blocks of an identity. It’s the most formative period of his life, precisely when he has no consciousness of being anyone. My youngest daughter, who is in her senior years of studying psychology, tells me that if a baby is neglected in these early days – left perhaps with a bottle in a crib – then it will never catch up for the rest of its life. No risk of missing out on attention for Zac.

So where does Jameson come in? Riffing off Kant and Hegel, he explores the paradox that “consciousness is one of those philosophical problems which human beings are structurally unfit to solve” (p. 32). We know it exists at some level, but it remains perpetually unknowable as a thing-in-itself. So Zac’s current state is really the situation of all of us, except that he has the advantage of not yet having a consciousness. When he constructs one, he won’t be able to know it anyway, since it will then be a constitutive part of his being. The only way to know a consciousness as a thing-in-itself is not to have one, but then you are unable to know it.

I might discuss this with him when we next meet (in a few days).

This question arose during a recent, brief stay in hospital. I had my third bout of atrial fibrillation in the last 17 years and went to emergency. They pumped me full of various drugs for the next 24 hours – flecainide, metropol, and amiodarone. None of them made much difference (good to know next time), so they zapped me with a low voltage electric shock the following day and I reverted to regular sinus rhythm immediately. I already knew this, since the shock had the same result five years ago.

So what has all this to do with a cause or its absence? I found last time, in 2007, that everyone is a cardiac specialist, keen to find causes. It’s due to stress, said one. You have a weak heart, said another. Too much exercise, said a third. Perhaps your heart is too big … and on they went. And I too sought for causes. In my discussions with my cardiologist at that time, I suggested excess coffee in the past, heavy smoking, periods of lack of sleep, inheritance … On each occasion, he simply shook his head.

‘There’s no cause in your case.’ He said. ‘You’re a lone fibrillator.’

To explain. There are three causes: heart disease, heart surgery, hyper-thyroidism (Graves Disease). I have none of those. The following data also applies:

Blood pressure: 95/65

Pulse: 46

Calcification: zero

Cholesterol: normal (i.e. nothing bad)

In other words, I have a “strong and healthy” heart, as they said at the hospital. All of this means that the atrial fibrillation is not particularly dangerous for me, although when older (70 plus) the risk of a blood clot in the heart does rise.

Of course, given the well nigh inescapable philosophical and scientific horizon within which we operate, there must be a cause for everything. So if I say there is no cause (as I do), the stock reply is, ‘not yet.’ Or, ‘are you a religious nut?’ But what if there is really isn’t a cause for some things? They just happen despite all the evidence that they shouldn’t. In this situation, that seems to be the case. My cardiologist sure thinks so.

As I work through the proofs of In the Vale of TearsI am reminded of Max Horkheimer’s finely dialectical  definition of theology:

Theology has always tried to reconcile the demands of the Gospels and of power. In view of the clear utterances of the founder, enormous ingenuity was required. Theology drew its strength from the fact that whatever is to be permanent on earth must conform to the laws of nature: the right of the stronger. Its indispensable task was to reconcile Christianity and power, to give a satisfactory self-awareness to both high and low with which they could do their work in a corrupt world. Like the founder who paid the price for refusing to show any concern for his own life and was murdered for it, and like all who really followed him and shared his fate or at least were left to perish helplessly, his later followers would have perished like fools if they had not concluded a pact or at least found a modus vivendi with the blood-thirsty Merovingians and Carolingians, with the demagogues of crusades and with the holy inquisition. Civilization with its tall cathedrals, the madonnas of Raphael and even the poetry of Baudelaire owes its existence to the terror once perpetrated by such tyrants and their accomplices. There is blood sticking to all good things. (Critique of Instrumental Reason, p. 36)

A new piece of mine as part of the Agamben love-in at Political Theology. It’s called ‘Agamben and the Arctic Lily: Some Thoughts on The Kingdom and the Glory’.

Given that my opposition to ethics is not as yet clearly understood, a summary of a very long argument that will appear soon:

Picture the following situation. It may be a discussion over global warming or environmental politics and someone will say, ‘ethically speaking …’ Or it may the question of asylum seekers and refugees and another will say, ‘if we approach this ethically …’ Or I may acquire some spare toilet paper from my work place, a pair of scissors perhaps; a moral warrior will look at me sourly and pronounce, ‘that’s not ethical.’ Or I may be talking with an apostate lefty over a beer and she will suggest I become involved in that oxymoron, ‘ethical investment’.

The invocation of ‘ethical’ effectively seeks a closure to argument by means of an unassailable position with which we must agree, for it really seems to mean what is ‘good’, or more often ‘I think this is correct and you had better not disagree, for my position invokes a higher order before which your position counts for nothing’. After all, who does not want to be ethical?

All such approaches are actually moralising, telling people what they should or should not do. I have always been quite suspicious of ethics, a suspicion shared by a varied but fascinating collection – such as Marx for whom ethics is a mystifying ideology that justifies the status quo and keeps the ruling class in position, or Calvin, for whom ethics is a form of salvation by works, or Adorno for whom any moral philosophy ultimately comes to grief on the rocks of the false universal, or even Badiou, for whom the ‘ethical ideology’ of the other is merely a justification for the ‘state of the situation’.

Why the negative reaction? Is not politics inherently ethical? And does not the left seek to take a better ethical approach to economics, society and politics? Do we all not want apply the ethical grease to our social relations, and indeed our sense of connectedness to nature, so that they may work better than they do? That is, do we not wish to connect with those multiple others with whom and between whom social relations are problematic, seeking to overcome those problems in order to make social relations operate in a more improved manner?

A long chapter from In the Vale of Tears, due out early next year, outlines the reasons for my suspicions (a taster will appear in Rethinking Marxism). A brief outline of the main points:

1. A critique of some of the key forms that ethics takes today, as either,

a) ‘care of the self’, focusing on Foucault, who is rather close to Alain de Botton here.

b) relations to the ‘other’, with a focus on Butler and Eagleton, who end up quite close to one another, urging that we should simply be nice, loving and good to one another while recognising our failings.

2. Producing the other. I ask a preliminary question: how is the ‘other’, a given of so much ethics, produced in the first place? The answer is that the discourse of ethics does so, but in the process it obfuscates its arrogation of other discourses that also produce others, as well as concealing the socioeconomic connections that enable such productions. The result is that ethics gives the impression that the other is a given upon which ethics may set to work.

3. Chosen people. That concealment requires further interrogation, specifically in terms of its biblical and class dimensions. On the biblical side, the ‘other’ trails the dust of the pernicious theme of the chosen people. The process of claiming to be chosen requires the production of all manner of ‘others’, of strangers who are not part of that select group.

4. Goodness. By this time, someone may well object that ethics is not so much an issue of self, other, stranger, neighbour, social relations or chosen people, but actually of goodness. In response, I tackle goodness in terms of its problematic theological associations. The problem here is that one ends up in all manner of theological knots attempting to distinguish good from evil. The most consistent theological position, but one that few theologians or indeed biblical scholars wish to touch is that God is responsible for both good and evil.

5. Class. Goodness and ethics ultimately have inescapable class associations. When Plato asked, ‘What is good?, it was not an abstract question. Goodness was applicable only to the well-born, wealthy, propertied, lucky ruling class. And Aristotle, who coined the term ethics (ta ethika), states bluntly that ethics is appropriate not for persons of low tastes, who are the vast majority: ‘The utter vulgarity of the herd of men comes out in their preference for the sort of existence a cow leads’. In other words, only ruling class males are capable of ethical lives, as well as philosophical reflection, rhetorical training and political leadership. It certainly does not include all those class others, such as slaves, peasants, artisans and women – even though the ruling ideology is applicable to them. The purpose of ethics is thereby to ensure that existing custom and habit (ethos and mos) remain in place, get some much-needed lubrication and work a little better.

The very structure of the discourse of ethics, whether framed in terms of ‘self’, ‘other’, goodness, an ‘ought’, has ever since borne these implicit class assumptions. As soon as we use it, we play the same game.

6. Unethics. Can the term can be appropriated, emptied and refilled by those opposed to the ruling classes? Many have tried and failed, for a form inevitably trails the dust of its former associations. That is, the enmeshment of form and content ensures that a term such as ethics is never quite free of its ruling class dimensions. So I suggest that a position opposed to ruling class custom and habit be pursued, that is, aēthēs and praeter morem, an unethical and unmoral politics.

It may be objected that these terms too are part of ruling class discourse, designating the class other, that they are still within that framework. In response, I suggest that the valorisation of the realm of those opposed to the ruling class then becomes an act of subverting the very ideology of ethics and its class associations. That is, such a position may be regarded as a taking of sides, for these terms indicate what is disruptive, unwelcome, what shakes up the customary and comfortable social order – unethical and unmoral politics. It seizes ruling class ideology and turns it against itself. In the end, even these terms should be understood as place-holders for an entirely other terminology that may be more appropriate, a terminology that maybe found among the masses silenced in the elite literature of ethics.

Foucault als eines intellektuell unredlichen, empirisch absolut unzuverlässigen kryptonormativistischen ‘Rattenfänger’ für die Postmoderne.

Foucault – intellectually dishonest, thoroughly unreliable at an empirical level, a crypto-normative ‘Pied Piper’ of the postmodern.

(Hans-Urlich Wehler, Die Herausforderungen der Kulturgeschichte, Munich 1998, p. 91)

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