Friday, August 23, 2013

Utopia and Pragmatics

I have just finished two books by Russel Jacoby, The End of Utopia and Picture Imperfect.  Both are nominally about the decline of utopian thought, why this is a problem, and something akin to its causes.  The books are very different, which I suppose justifies two separate works, but Picture Imperfect definitely has the feel of left over material from the last chapter of The End of Utopia and picks up and develops the themes of the culpability (or not) or utopians for the travesties of the 20th century.  The End of Utopia has a very different character for most of the text.  It is essentially Jacoby's confrontation with so-called post-modernism as a philosophical just-so story that is complicit with contemporary capitalism despite a supposedly ultra-radical character.  However, the limits of Jacoby's works resonates with Maurizio Lazzarato's The Making of Indebted Man, and so a few words on that work will illuminate Jacoby's limitations.

I want to take up what I like about the books as a whole first because I believe what he wants to say is valuable.  He also happens to be correct in associating the hatred of universality and universals with a hatred of utopian thought and an all-too-easy intellectual complicity with the world as it is.  There is something crucial for the human imagination in a sense of a truly other, better world that is not a heavenly beyond, but a this-worldly potential.

Jacoby is right to defend utopian thought.  Most of the bloodshed of the 20th century was not the product of utopian dreamers.  As he is at pains to show, Naziism was not utopian.  Nationalism is not utopian.  Religious sectarianism and racialism are not utopian.  That is, by utopian was always meant a vision of a universal emancipation of humanity from poverty, ignorance, cupidity, and collective misery.  As a result, philosophies which attack universalism and universality sans phrase evince a reactionary fore-shortening of human potential, a restriction of humanity to an eternal present, which is a present largely composed of a range of experiences from utter horror (genocides, perpetual hunger, homelessness, war) to a dulling herd-like conformity and repetition absent of artistic passion, intellectual grandeur and all the other things that would go hand-in-hand with freedom from work.

I have no investment in what is called post-modernism, whether of the Levi-Strauss/Althusser/Lacan structuralisms or the Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze & Guattari post-structuralisms, but I have to say that in many respects Jacoby's work is a hatchet job.  Is he wrong that these writers and their progeny, who are considerably worse in many cases, conflate obfuscation with depth?  No.  Is he wrong that multiculturalism easily slides into a relativism that can become an apology for tyranny and oppression?  No.  In fact, I rather like his argument that multiculturalism in particular manages to define "culture" so closely akin to the way advertisers define "niche markets" that every difference indicates a different "culture" without really delving into what the nature of the cultural difference is, except that it validates claims of particularistic identities that allow elites to both politically manage and economically exploit these cultural constituencies.  Race, for example, in the United States does not create two cultures, one black, one white.  Rather, racialism constitutes United States "culture" and there is no separation of black from white or white from black because neither one makes any sense without the other.  Or rather, the utter non-sense of both relies on each side of the antagonism.  There is no "black particularity" separate from "white particularity" and there is no American history that is not African-American history.  At the same time, and against black nationalism, there is no African-American history that is not American history.  The blade cuts both ways.

This is a different claim, however, than arguing in favor of a generic universalism, which is a trap that Jacoby falls into.  Matthew Arnold may be a more interesting and complex thinker than intellectuals now hold him, but this in no way validates that species of universalism and cannot hold a a vindication of a Hegelian or Marxian universalism.  In fact, there is an odd failure by someone so immersed in Frankfurt School critical theory to make this kind of differentiation. 

This failure is nowhere more evident than in his treatment of science as an example of universal truth.  I find it singularly depressing that Jacoby simply rehearses the "Sokal Affair" as if Sokal was a heroic leftist scientist attacking the obscurantist "pomos".  There is something disingenuous in Sokal's treatment of science that obliterates the tentative, imperfect nature of scientific work and knowledge.  If the knowledge of the natural world was not imperfect, we would have had no reason to replace the Newtonian understanding of astrophysics with Einsteinian conceptions, and the crisis of that understanding is itself evident today in the kinds of acrobatic intellectual tricks required to maintain it, such as theories of dark matter.  Or, in a much more politically charged way pointed out with admirable clarity by Paul Gilroy in Against Race, it was the official opinion of biology for many decades after Darwin that the human species was divided into a hierarchy of fundamentally different races or even that "human = white" and "non-white < human".  The typical defense that science has "self-correcting mechanisms of reason" can only be held with a blindingly naive ignorance of the role of struggles for emancipation in practically challenging the irrational character of that "knowledge".  It also requires a failure to grasp the possibility of backsliding by official science, such as the mainstream scientific adoption over and against logic and evidence to the contrary, of the tenets of sociobiology, especially by "Leftist" defenders of Sokal like "The Chronicle of Higher Education".  That science can un-correct itself in an atmosphere of generalized intellectual reaction is completely missed by Jacoby.  If he means nothing more than "the chemical composition of water is H2O everywhere, for everyone", then he is saying something almost trivial.  If he is saying that "race doesn't exist in nature" then he is sorely mistaken if he believes there is scientific consensus on this among the scientists.  He would be correct in noting that anti-utopians of all political stripes, including racial nationalists on all sides disavow a universal humanity, not merely as something not yet practically achieved, which seems self-evident, but as something biologically impossible.

Again, it is especially odd in light of his immersion in the critical theory.  Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment is a thoroughgoing indictment not of Enlightenment, but of an Enlightenment which does not treat itself to the same critical self-assessment it subject all other thought to.  By the end of the book it is not hard to feel that Jacoby has lost that critical element in his eagerness to defend universalism against the overwhelming relativism of contemporary philosophy posing as "radical".  He is right that it is a radicalism without an emancipatory vision, but he is wrong to not deal with the reasons that the old radicalism with its emancipatory vision failed and has fallen in the face of such an otherwise impoverished philosophical turn.  The universalism to which Jacoby appeals is by the end no less a fetishized, abstract universality than the particularity of his erstwhile opponents is fetishized and abstract.  As any careful student of Hegel or Marx or the Frankfurters should know, neither of these can hold and each falls in some respect to criticism by the other.

This brings me to what seems like the key moment of the book.  On page 158 Jacoby summarizes what sees as the reason for the loss of a vision of universal emancipation, of a utopian impulse, in the ideas even among college-aged youths:

"It is also inexplicable inasmuch as the economic situation is not dramatically worse than it was twenty of thirty years ago, when a buffer seemed to exist - at for some - providing a momentary protective space from crushing economic imperatives.  The danger that the good sons and daughters of the middle and upper middle class will end up homeless may keep people on a narrow career path, but has little basis.  What has led to a jump in careerism and practicality among students is not the collapse of the economy, which has not collapsed, but the collapse of a belief in a future that might be different.  The conviction that the future will replicate the present stifles utopian longings."

At least three problems are evident in this paragraph.  Firstly, the only way in which Jacoby can imagine these privileged youth lacking a utopian imagination could come about would be an economic collapse.  Why a collapse would do that is not clear.  There was a definite economic collapse in the 1890's and again in the 1930's and there was no lack of utopian vision.  This is a red herring.  Secondly, it assumes that utopian visions arise from the privileged youth more than from elsewhere.  Lastly, he draws the conclusion that the problem is one of faith.  This might explain why both of the books spend more time on religious thinkers of utopia like Landauer and More and proponents of universalism like John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold than on Marx or most of the other "utopian" Marxian and anarchist thinkers, of whom there is quite a long list, all of whom were intellectuals of the sort Jacoby laments the loss of and none of whom turned their backs on a universal, emancipatory vision.

What Jacoby lacks is a comprehension of what has happened in actuality since the 1930's, of the actual transformations of society that has undermined the conditions of the imaginary he has in mind.  This is where the otherwise philosophically crippled work The Making of Indebted Man makes a definite contribution.  This work points out the extent to which the general human condition under capitalism beginning after World War II is one of debtor-creditor.  Lazzarato may not quite be able to grasp that this new condition is itself an outcome of the revolutionary rising and counter-revolutionary triumph that took place from 1917-1945, but he is quite right to note that the transformation of the majority of individuals into debtors has altered their relation to capital.  If this process of becoming-indebted was under way after 1945, and went hand in hand with this breaking of the emancipatory institutions of the working class, often of their transformation into bulwarks of the capital-labor relation, it was also expressed in the ongoing displacement of living labor by dead labor, of the practical knowledge of the worker by the direct application of the haute-bourgeois scientific knowledge of the engineer and scientist that undermined the relation of the laborer to the labor process in ways that have undone the world which gave rise to an emancipatory imagination connected to workers' control of production or the working class winning the war over who ran society.  The the creation of the mass consumer through the massive extension of debt (home, appliance, and car loans from the 1940's on, and then in the 1970's forward as "neoliberalism" took full effect, the extension of debt to student loans, medical bills, and many other areas of life) has both ended the threat of immediate immiseration, something Marcuse noted in One-Dimensional Man, and at the same time more completely than ever tied the individual to the imperatives of capital not merely in the present but into the future as well.  The real fount of emancipatory dreams in the 19th and 20th century, a revolutionary proletariat with its own culture and institutions, parties and newspapers, has ceased to exist.  That working class lost the battle for control over society and the practical cut of its utopian visions is irrevocably blunted.

Further, if the capacity to imagine the future is reduced, at best, to moderately improved visions of the present it has something to do to the degree to which the future of ourselves, our children and our children's children is already leveraged as debt.  In his example, one need look no further than the amount of debt those same students will accrue to get their education and the paucity of positions for people not engaged in glorified technical programs under the rubric of "Business Schools" or "Liberal Arts and Science" programs which primarily service law offices and think tanks and NGOs and which provide no end in themselves.

A new emancipatory vision will not be bred by the hope of proletarian democracy and workers' control of production and confederations of councils.  It has to go deeper, to the vision of Marx and others that was not limited to this or that phenomenal configuration of the working class around a specific labor process, but one that saw emancipation in terms of the emancipation from labor.  Marx expressed it in Volume 3 of Capital as follows:

"In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite." (italics mine)

Jacoby seems to get this, but what he seems to not be able to get is that capital has in fact already made most human labor unnecessary, but without having abolished Labor (as Marx describes it in Capital, Vol. 1) as the mediating form of social relations.  That is, what I have laid out briefly above has more to do with the death of the utopian than Jacoby's demonic (anti-)intellectualsThey are a pernicious symptom, indeed, and one that if left untreated further the course of the disease, but they are not the disease itself.  

The problem, to whit, is not Derrida, though Derrida's philosophy as a structurally implicit apologia for capital is a problem, but a capitalism that has come close to abolishing labor while doing everything in its power to not abolish itself.  That is a crisis felt by the college students of today, as opposed to the college students of the 1960's, and it is one in which the future, for the moment, seems foreclosed by obligations of debt and guilt to a capitalism seemingly without opposition.  

It is not without opposition, however.  Capitalism brings about its own demise.  Capital as social form determined by the mediation of labor cannot subsist indefinitely without coming into a general crisis through its own logic of domination and exploitation.  We live today in a world where labor (the realm of necessity and thus of domination) is conflated with freedom (the realm of freedom from necessity, of freely disposed time)  to a hitherto unimagined degree, and yet it is a world in which the end of hunger, homelessness, ignorance, cupidity, and collective misery has never been materially closer to hand.  Maybe we live in a moment where we stand so close to so huge that we cannot see it or bring it into focus.

No comments:

Post a Comment