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On “America’s Hidden Philosophy” by John McCumber

John McCumber recently posted an article in aeon about rational choice theory as “America’s Hidden Philosophy,” describing how it grew up in the Cold War and has created any number of perverse effects on American society. While I agree with some of his basic premises, I think that he misconstrues the significance of rational choice theory, and also misrepresents its genesis.

Quite reasonably, McCumber represents American pragmatism as a philosophical rival that rational choice theory and its ally logical positivism defeated in the American academy following World War II. Describing the crest of pragmatist influence, he writes:

…as the country emerged from the Second World War, things were different. John Dewey and other pragmatists were still central figures in US intellectual life, attempting to summon the better angels of American nature in the service, as one of Dewey’s most influential titles had it, of democracy and education’. In this they were continuing one of US philosophy’s oldest traditions, that of educating students and the general public to appreciate their place in a larger order of values. But they had reconceived the nature of that order: where previous generations of US philosophers had understood it as divinely ordained, the pragmatists had come to see it as a social order.

All this is true. Dewey was widely respected, even if his leftism rendered him suspect in the eyes of many, and he was certainly committed to a philosophy of education and democratic social purpose. It is also the case that American pragmatism was the path by which American academia escaped its intimate ties to religion. Dewey was a trained Hegelian in his younger years, when Hegel was the philosopher used by many academics (particularly in the UK and the US) to secularize their disciplines while maintaining the basic value orientation that they had when tied to Christianity. Taking up the causes of Darwinism and socialism, Dewey continued this move away from religion while continuing a focus on the good society. As McCumber notes: “This attracted suspicion from conservative religious groups, who kept sharp eyes on philosophy departments on the grounds that they were the only place in the universities where atheism might be taught…” Dewey and the pragmatists’ battle with the Neo-Thomists had to do with this conflict, and it was part of the reason why Dewey had to leave the University of Chicago to teach in New York.

The next issue McCumber raises is that of the battle over Communism in the American academy. He writes that in the face of the rise of Marxism’s popularity first during the Great Depression, and then in the Global South an as anti-colonial ideology, the conservative American establishment believed that: “A new philosophy was needed, one that provided what the nuanced approaches of pragmatism could not: an uncompromising vindication of free markets and contested elections.” There is a good deal of truth to this. The threat of Marxism as a coherent oppositional worldview was acutely felt at this time. Looking back on the period, Walt Rostow, the father of the American answer to the Marxist theory of history wrote: “I decided as an undergraduate I would work on two problems. One was economic history and the other was Karl Marx. Marx raised some interesting questions but gave some bloody bad answers. I would do an answer one day to Marx’s theory of history.” The Cold War response to Communism in every area of intellectual life was a real trend at this time, and it did extend to philosophy.

McCumber argues that the philosophical response to Marxism was pioneered by Raymond Allen in his efforts to freeze out the hiring of Marxists into Californian universities as part of the McCarthyist political purges. He claims that Allen advanced a philosophical claim that the arguments of Marxist intellectuals were not censored when they were blacklisted because they had lost their reason and were merely parroting the line of Moscow. In having lost their reason these intellectuals were deemed unfit to teach philosophy, whose business was, after all, reasoning. They were in this sense “incompetent.” This contribution to Cold War “anti-totalitarian” ideology was, according to McCumber, given a philosophical foundation by identification with the “scientific” concerns of logical positivism:

Like the logical positivists of his day, Allen identified reason with science, which he defined in terms of a narrow version of the ‘scientific method’, according to which it consists in formulating and testing hypotheses. This applied, he claimed in a 1953 interview with The Daily Bruin, even in ‘the realm of the moral and spiritual life’: Buddha under the banyan tree, Moses on Sinai, and Jesus in the desert were all, it appears, formulating hypotheses and designing experiments to test them.

This obsession with scientific objectivity dovetailed with the desire of senior academics to avoid political conflict, and pass the responsibility for intellectual purges over to government officials. Thus was born the California Plan, that involved the cooperation of Californian universities with the state senate’s committee on un-American activities to bar “unscientific” researchers from teaching positions. This extended not only to Communists and other Marxists, but also to pragmatists, existentialists, and phenomenologists, and was emulated in other states to varying degrees.

The intellectual side of this reactionary movement was found in Rational Choice Theory:

It holds that people make (or should make) choices rationally by ranking the alternatives presented to them with regard to the mathematical properties of transitivity and completeness. They then choose the alternative that maximises their utility, advancing their relevant goals at minimal cost. Each individual is solely responsible for her preferences and goals, so rational choice theory takes a strongly individualistic view of human life. The ‘iron laws of history’ have no place here, and large-scale historical forces, such as social classes and revolutions, do not really exist except as shorthand for lots of people making up their minds. To patriotic US intellectuals, rational choice theory thus held great promise as a weapon in the Cold War of ideas.

From its origins in “empirical contexts of market choice and voting behaviour” RCT was elevated into an all-encompassing ideology through its identification with scientific method:

Facts always underdetermine theories, and this requires scientists to choose from an array of alternative theories, under a preference for highest probability. Science thus becomes a series of rational choices. Which meant that by 1951 there was a unified intellectual response to the two pressures: appeals to science fought the domestic subversives, and when science was integrated with rational choice theory it entered the global conflict.

My qualms with this account do not so much have to do with the particulars it does state, as what it leaves out and to what ends the argument is turned. McCumber claims that the failings of the SAT, the prevalence of “Greed is Good” thinking, the dominance of science, law, business, and medicine over the humanities in the university, and the ethical bankruptcy of American politics can all be traced to RCT. While RCT is certainly implicated in all areas of American intellectual life, and taught to everyone from lawyers, to economists, to biologists, to psychologists, McCumber’s claim that the problems he lists have to do with an abandonment of identity and a loss of “wider horizons of value” ring hollow to me. There are two main points where I think that McCumber’s analysis goes wide of the mark. First, it claims that:

…Cold War philosophy has some obvious problems. Its ‘ethics’, for example, is not a traditional philosophical ethics at all. From Plato to the pragmatists, philosophical ethics has concerned the integration of the individual into a wider moral universe, whether divine (as in Platonic ethics) or social (as in the pragmatists). This is explicitly rejected by Cold War philosophy’s individualism and moral neutrality as regards to ends. Where Adam Smith had all sorts of arguments as to why greed was socially beneficial, Cold War ethics dispenses with them in favour of Gordon Gekko’s simple ‘Greed is good.’

As a one-time scholar of economics, this argument is utterly laughable. As I have discussed in other posts, the absolute bedrock of neoclassical economics (The postwar bedfellow of RCT) is an argument “as to why greed [is] socially beneficial” and the defense of capitalism on the basis of this argument for social welfare is the entire raison d’être of the economics profession in its contemporary form. In a sometimes discreet, sometimes blatant way, the arguments of Rational Choice Theory are tied to into a broader value structure, and the opportunistic deployment of its “objectivity” is used precisely to defend this value structure of class supremacy, white supremacy, male supremacy, and any number of other reactionary bigotries. We do not live in an age that has been deprived of values, nor should we assume that having a “wider horizon of value” is necessarily laudable!

Second, McCumber attempts to maintain a distinction where pragmatism exists on the side of the humanities, while logical positivism exists on the side of science. This is certainly how things shook out in the aftermath of the McCarthyist purges and concurrent institutionalization of science as a part of the military-industrial complex, but to appeal to Dewey as a champion of good old fashioned humanism is a fool’s errand. This is the same Dewey who wrote in his Theory of Valuation:

The breach will disappear, the gap be filled, and science be manifest as an operating unity in fact and not merely in idea when the conclusions of impersonal non-humanistic science are employed in guiding the course of distinctively human behavior…In this integration not only is science itself a value…it is the supreme means of the valid determination of all valuations in all aspects of human and social life.

In fact, Dewey wrote the Theory of Valuation for the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, a publication edited by the logical positivists Otto Neurath and Rudolph Carnap. To emphasize the point, let me underline the fact that Dewey wrote his definitive statement on valuation itself in a science publication arguing that “science…is the supreme means of the valid determination of all valuations in all aspects of human and social life”!

Certainly, there are documented disagreements between Neurath and Dewey about whether the use of the term value is overly “metaphysical,” but it nevertheless remains the case that a leading logical positivist happily published Dewey’s essay and that both were very much in agreement that the maintenance of a separate preserve of values apart from science was an outmoded way of thinking. The pragmatists and the logical positivists made common cause in the years leading up to and during World War II because they had common enemies in the fascists, and conservatives represented by Neo-Thomism. The pro-science rhetoric and methods of logical positivism developed in the charged political atmosphere of Interwar Vienna, where it was used to combat the rhetoric of the various fascisms that were on the ascendancy at that time. At the time it was not “apolitical,” but like American pragmatism was associated with the socialist cause. McCumber notes the association of pragmatism with science at one point in his article:

Many pragmatists did not even believe that there was a single scientific method: true to their name, they believed that scientific enquiry should be free to apply whatever procedures worked. Moreover, whether a method ‘worked’ or not in a given case should be a matter of its social benefit, a dangerously collectivist standard in those difficult days.

But fails to note that this was also the position of at least some of the logical positivists at the time. This commonality is an inconvenient truth that has been largely forgotten in the bitter aftermath of the McCarthy era.

Like McCumber states, logical positivism did become associated with both the American establishment and, in the form of analytic philosophy, with Rational Choice Theory. It also was the decisive winner in the war over philosophy departments in the United States during the Cold War and it did displace pragmatism, which was pushed to ally with other peripheral schools like phenomenology, existentialism, Hegelianism, and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics. However the present moment of heightened political tensions, establishment destabilization, rising fascism, environmental crisis, and alienation of at least portions of the scientific profession from power raise the possibility of revisiting earlier pragmatist formulations that were not about reviving “wider horizons of value” in contradistinction to a “disidentifying” and valueless science¸ so much as they were about advancing a value-laden science in opposition to bigoted and reactionary identitarian movements. This was the cause that brought Dewey in contact with Marxists like Trotsky, and it should not be forgotten in times like these.


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Thoughts on “The Great Federation of Sorrows…”

I was very affected by reading Richard Seymour’s recent semi-review of Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia, and particularly struck by this passage:

“…what collapsed with the disintegration of the USSR was not just an appalling dictatorship, but an ‘entire representation of the twentieth century’ filled with revolutionary hopes. The Velvet Revolutions, unlike their forebears, did not arouse new utopias, but confirmed a regression to minimal liberal ideas of freedom and representation, already underway since the late Seventies…For some reason, this was not a sinless defeat. A sin can, in secular terms, be seen as a special kind of defeat, a capitulation which attracts guilt. And the internalised stigma and guilt arising from the reduction of communism to its ‘totalitarian dimension’ became, even in dissident, anti-Stalinist strains of socialism which had never invested their hopes in the Kafka’s Castle of the East, a resistance to working through this defeat. This ‘impossible mourning’ is one way to understand the pervasiveness of left melancholia. Even the spurious ‘optimism’ of some of the remaining shards of the Left after 1989 was a result of disavowed melancholia, the refusal to mourn, the refusal to accept a loss.”

I feel like all my failed attempts to write 20th century history have been so difficult because they are trying to do the work of “impossible mourning” of an object that has lost its representation. Whenever I attend a gathering of leftists such as the JSPE I find it impossible to avoid the profound atmosphere of sadness that envelopes everything at the event and the inability of the participants to sufficiently mourn our loss, always talking around the issue and never able to get at the heart of it. Reading this essay I was reminded of a statement written by the economist Makoto Itoh in the 1990s that the collapse of the USSR and the stagnation of the capitalist world had made it difficult to discern a progressive trajectory in events. This is exactly what is meant by the “representation of the twentieth century.”

I started studying the history of the socialist calculation debate because the ideas of the Austrian School developed in that debate were held up as fundamental to the neoliberal structure of thought and I hoped that studying them could help undermine neoliberalism. However my great error in researching this topic was to read the documents of the era and those that were written during and after the collapse of the USSR without reading those written in the period of Soviet vitality when the arguments of Mises seemed to be archaic nonsense. The force of the Austrian arguments became overwhelming because they were useful as a means of post-hoc rationalization of historical events, not because they had some timeless genius to them. I would like to say that I came to this realization because of a more thorough research effort, but that seems to me to be a stupid professional conceit when it seems much more likely that events of 2016 gave me a new perspective I could not have seen before.

In particular, I am referring to the collapse of neoliberalism due to the rise of the “post-liberal” right and the work of mourning that was made possible by the death of Fidel Castro.

The “Austrian School” as a body of thought was not formed during a period of triumph. It was created by a collection of defeated liberals who felt that history had passed them by but held desperately to the correctness of the beliefs formed during the period of liberalism’s vitality in Austria. It has often been noted that this embattled mentality made the ideas of the Austrian School well suited for use by the right wing fringe that would act as the vanguard of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s, but these comments were made during a period when neoliberal dominance was already an accomplished fact. Seeing the desperate rear guard actions of neoliberals against the insurgent ultra-reactionary right shone a very different light on the Austrian School and their ideas, highlighting not their triumph against all odds but the position of vulnerability and desperation in which they were formed.

On the other hand, the death of Fidel Castro provided the opportunity to see beyond the “sin” associated with the defeat of communism. Despite all of his faults, Fidel Castro was such an outstanding historical personage that even the obligatory smear campaign that followed his death felt half-hearted and weak. The weakened and conflicted liberal and conservative press could not take the recognition of the real accomplishments of Cuban socialism from us in that moment and even the smouldering embers of his revolutionary memory cast some light in the all-encompassing darkness of our times, allow for some things to be seen that had been previously obscured.

2016 was a hard year, 2017 will likely be just as difficult, but let us take the opportunities afforded us when we can.

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Demonstration of “Crisis Theory” by David Cribb

Crisis Theory is a new educational indie video game by the developer David Cribb. In Cribb’s words:

In Crisis Theory you play as the spirit of capitalism, as described by the Marxist model of accumulation. Your singular goal is profit. But beware, contradictions abound, and you will have to use every tool at your disposal to avoid falling into crisis!

Earlier this month I recorded a demonstration “Let’s Play” video of the game, and explained some of the concepts that it tries to teach the player. For those new to the ideas of Marxist political economy this video may serve as a useful introduction.

The video can be found here.

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Review of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics by Richard Seymour

To those unfamiliar with Seymour’s previous The Meaning of David Cameron, Corbyn may come as a surprise. While the book features a large portrait photograph of Jeremy Corbyn on the cover, it is emphatically not a biography of Corbyn, not even a political biography. Corbyn is in fact somewhat incidental to the analysis that Seymour is interested in doing. Corbyn is in fact a history of “Labourism,” written with an eye to the political conjuncture that Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party leadership represents. In the spirit of the Salvage quarterly that he has contributed to, Seymour takes a pessimistic view of “Corbynism” and its prospects. While Seymour’s comments on Corbyn on his blog have generally been more optimistic, in this book he takes a “big picture” and “longer term” view of the prospects of the kind of social democracy and (perhaps) democratic socialism that Corbyn represents.

In the “big picture,” there are a number of competing ways to view the history of social democracy. The dominant view is the one advocated by socialists like Bernie Sanders and most social democrats. In this story, there was a growth of union organization in the early 20th century, which built to a climax in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, where unions were powerful enough to be given a certain degree of respect and consultation in the organization of society. In conjunction with this pro-labour turn, there was a turn towards state management of economic organization, with the aims of maintaining broad-based growth and avoiding economic chaos such as slumps, crashes and recessions. This sort of social democracy learned its lessons from the Great Depression and strongly curtailed the power of finance, instead focusing on industrial growth, full employment, low income inequality, and redistributive public spending programs. However this golden age came to an end in the 1970s, and at the first sign of trouble capital made common cause with shadowy cabals of neoliberal intellectuals, who seized control of key government institutions, first in South America, then in the United States and the UK with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher. These leaders and their advisers crushed inflation by depressing the wages of the working class and opening the flood gates of free trade and privatization of public institutions. They also engaged in broad based programs of social repression that shattered the 1970s left in both countries, and began waves of police violence to suppress dissent from marginalized groups. As free trade spread, so to did the dominance of the finance industry, and the centers of working class strength atrophied under the pressure of globalized competition, leading to the growth of rust belts that neoliberals looked on coldly, leading to an ever-growing increase in social inequality.

The degree to which the two key inflection points in this story (The golden age of the 1950s-1970s and the 1970s-1980s degeneration of social democracy) are analyzed by advocates of this story varies considerably. In the simplest case, there is an appeal to the nostalgia of lost stability and social harmony, usurped by the greed and cruelty of bankers and other plutocrats. This is the message that Bernie Sanders ran on in the Democratic Party primary. More sophisticated analyses try to identify the causes of the decline of the postwar “Fordist” system, and the reasons why labour lost so badly as that system collapsed. This sort of analysis tends to take two overlapping views, with the emphasis put on one or the other. The first view focuses on political history, on the dreamers, humanitarians, and rebels who could have plotted a different course of history if they had only won a crucial victory at some given point in time. This point of view also focuses on the failure different groups either defending the old order or trying to build a new future of the left to combine forces effectively. We can find this kind of analysis, for example, in Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive and countless other histories. The other point of view focuses on the growth of globalization and the way that the finance industry undermined the ability of state to manage their national economies. This is the sort of perspective we find in Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century. The point at which these two points of view converge is in their so-called “political determinism.” They typically recommend a larger-scale and/or more forceful type of state regulation of the economy in order to revitalize social democracy as a workable system of class compromise. The losers of this story are typically seen as unlucky, disorganized, short-sighted, or weak-willed. If a stronger political alliance could be “articulated” in a Gramscian bid for political hegemony, then presumably capital could be forced into a class compromise. In terms of economics, advocates of this view typically favour “Post-Keynesian” thought, since it focuses on the importance of demand management and the way that this can be used to create the economic basis for a sustainable social democratic “mixed-economy.”

This is not the school of thought that Seymour draws on in Corbyn, although it is the school of thought that “Corbynism” belongs to. Faced with the string of social democratic defeats in the aftermath of the 2007 crisis, Seymour instead draws on the opposed tradition of “hard left” analysis that views the postwar “golden age” as an extreme abnormality in the history of capitalism, and one that cannot be reproduced through any amount of political will or organization. This is a school of thought often associated with Henryk Grossman, and his split from the Frankfurt School in the aftermath of World War Two. Where the Frankfurt School distanced itself from Marxist economics in this period, Grossman continued to hold to the views that he developed in the 1920s and published in his landmark work The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System (1929). Grossman was the first major modern advocate of the view that capitalist crises were caused by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) and the view that this tendency would lead the secular stagnation and breakdown of the capitalist system. While Marx himself wrote about this tendency, and the idea of a secular falling profit rate was common to many classical political economists, and even Keynes, the Marxist view of the TRPF had very distinct political implications for the labour movement. In particular, it implied that there was under capitalism a continuous pressure to increase the exploitation of workers (by lower wages or speed-up) as a way of offsetting a falling profit rate. Not only is this pressure argued to exist, it is also argued that such efforts at offsetting the fall in profitability are ultimately futile and undermined by the competitive dynamics of capitalism itself, leading to a situation of high unemployment, financial instability, and frequent crises. Ultimately, this tendency will force capitalism to the point of “breakdown.” Therefore attempts at social democratic class compromise are short-sighted, and can only succeed in periods of extraordinary profitability, such as that which was afforded after World War Two by the massive destruction of capital. The inescapable conclusion this view leads to is that labour long-term interest is in the replacement of the capitalist system with socialism. However much the capitalist system increases productivity, in the long term the gains of this productivity will not go to labour, and the social chaos that the growing instability of the system will cause will hit workers the hardest. It is important to note that this type of economics has nothing whatsoever to say about how to organize socialism, except in a minimal negative sense. It is a view of capitalism, and nothing more. Nevertheless, its uncompromising pessimism about capitalism has made it the standard around which the “hard left” has often rallied. Today, the most famous advocates of this style of argument are Michael Roberts, Andrew Kliman, and Anwar Shaikh. Unlike Post-Keynesianism, which focuses on the management of demand, this school focuses on the “supply” of profit and how it determines the rate of investment. This so-called “supply-side Marxism” is often paired with a more critical analysis of social democracy that casts doubt on the benevolence of postwar class compromise, seeing it as a dead-end that allowed capitalism to recover from the war while laying the groundwork for the future destruction of the labour movement and its profound demoralization in the face of the failure of “Keynesianism.”

Seymour’s own analysis of the Labour Party’s history tends to follow this model, emphasizing its political roots in liberalism, its tenuous connection to the working class, the patrician disdain of its leaders for socialism, its automatic respect for “family, faith, and flag” which lead it to engage not only in domestic campaigns of political repression but also in imperialist adventures abroad, and finally its emphasis on winning elections within the existing political system to the exclusion of any other goal. Within the Labour Party, the left is seen as perpetually frustrated not only by the opposition of the media and other institutions of the ruling class, but also by the long-term (and often short-term) impossibility of managing capitalism in such a way as to both increase profitability and redistribute wealth to the working class.

As Seymour writes:

So many of Corbyn’s supporters – admittedly less so the younger variety – want ‘real’ Labour, ‘old’ Labour, ‘traditional’ Labour, what Labour is supposed to stand for. The allure of this idea is difficult to overstate. If there are risks in being too impressed by Corbynism, there is an equivalent danger in being transfixed by an idea of Labour that has never really been close to reality. The only remedy for this is a cold, unsentimental look at what ‘real’ Labour might be (or have been), and why it might not be an satisfactory basis for what is to come. Rather than demonising New Labour as a cuckoo in the nest tearing up the fabric of social democracy, it would be useful to look at where the germs of Blairism were already present, and how they came to the fore. We should at least make space for the possibility that the problem, one way or another, is Labour

…not only is the story of Labour overwhelmingly one of failure. It is one wherein the conditions for any success once enjoyed have long since passed. The doctrinal coordinates which once underpinned social democracy everywhere – from the ‘mixed economy’ to welfarism, from public ownership to Keynesian intervention – will no longer avail, because global capitalism would reject these policy nostrums, much as a body rejects an organ implant.

The only era of Labour that Seymour genuinely praises is that of the Attlee government, and even this era is subject to critical examination. Attlee is described as “a monarchist from the party’s Right” who “disowned” the Jarrow March and “quietly endorsed extensive fascist intervention on Franco’s side” in the Spanish Civil War. Under Attlee (and his successors) newly nationalized “public corporations were preserved on the model of private industry, with the usual worker-management hierarchies, and their production decisions made on the basis of what was good for private business.” The wave of political change was held back by “the architects of the nationalisation programme, such as Herbert Morrison…” who were “…reluctant to extend it, arguing that Labour had to ‘consolidate’ its gains before attempting further transformation.” This transformation was never to come, as the ruling class recovered from the postwar upset and first halted, later reversed the campaign of social ownership. The Attlee government was also one of “…financial orthodoxy, the continuation of rationing alongside increased exports, a willingness to use troops to break strikes, and wage freezes.” The government is described as “pungently authoritarian…in some respects more avid than the Conservatives in prosecuting the war against organised labour and, later, social movements.” It “…repeatedly deployed armed forces against striking workers, invoking wartime anti-strike legislation.” Finally, the “…post-war consensus was also bought in part with American dollars, which ensured Britain’s orientation in a new axis of power which demanded continuity in foreign policy justified by a staunch anti-communist line.” Labour is indicted for supporting “the policy of crushing the Greek partisans and supporting monarchist forces” as well as maintaining imperialism in Kenya, Malasyia, and Vietnam. It also supported NATO and developed the much hated nuclear weapons that today take the form of the Trident program. The “zenith of social democracy…achieved as much as it was ever likely to” but still remained firmly committed to a pro-imperialist foreign policy.

The point of all this is to suggest that the exceptional period of Labour’s history was not so exceptional. The “origins [of the party] in Victorian Liberalism” remained significant, and the notable deviations from liberal ideals found in the postwar height of social democracy were largely shed in the era of “new Labour.” In other words, New Labour was a return to business as usual, not a deviation from “old Labour.” Seymour strongly emphasizes that this makes J
remy Corbyn a highly unusual leader in Labour’s history. He claims that the comparisons of Corbyn with Michael Foot are misplaced, given that Foot came from a background of “radicalised Liberalism,” and argues that Corbyn is better compared to George Lansbury, Attlee’s predecessor as Labour leader and “…a left-wing pacifist with an activist past…” Notably, Lansbury was unseated by a hostile Labour leadership who did not agree with his pacifism or leftism. Still, Seymour notes that Lansbury had experience in office as a “popular local mayor and a cabinet member” before being elected, unlike Corbyn, who was a perpetual outsider and who was elected on the unpopularity of the “governing strata” of Labour. Therefore Corbyn has little in common with Foot, and even less in common with Attlee. In this sense Corbynism is the really exceptional event in the history of Labour, not the rise of New Labour.

One of the most notable sections of the book is in fact Seymour’s settling of accounts with the intellectuals of Marxism Today, who stressed the novelty of the “new times” that New Labour came to represent. The dominance of “new times” thinking during my youth is hard to overstate, and even at the time of the 2007 crisis I still had to struggle greatly with the ideas of intellectuals like Anthony Giddens and Manuel Castells, who preached a very similar gospel. It seems to me that with the publication of works such as Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Seymour’s Corbyn, as well as the return of talk of class-struggle to regular discourse, we have finally overcome this episode and can look at the era with fresh eyes. While Seymour certainly owes an intellectual debt to Stuart Hall, both in his writing style and his interest in structuralism, his analysis of New Labour sharply differs from Hall’s. Generally speaking, the “new times” were taken to represent “…a great shift in capitalist civilisation…” where “[e]conomies were now global rather than national, the mass media was increasingly trending toward twenty-four-hour coverage, the working class was fragmenting and identities were increasingly plural.” In the overlap of its focus on identities, signification, informationalism, and the dynamic changes being wrought by globalising capital, this brand of thought ruled out the possibility that the fluid identities of a global informational capitalism might acquire a certain stability in the matrix of social class and class struggle. In fact, this seems to be the worldview that is today emerging, and one that is quite different from that of “New Times,” which even where it was transfixed by social change remained within intellectual horizons dominated by the history of postwar social democracy. “Fordism” remained the baseline against which change was measured in this era, whereas in Seymour’s (and, it should be said, Piketty’s) account it is liberalism that is taken as the norm, and social democracy as the aberration. From this point of view, the 1990s appear considerably more bleak. While thinkers like Castells did critique the times they were writing in through frameworks like the “fourth world,” they tended to frame the immmiseration of some sections of society as a problem of exclusion from a great dynamic upswell of social-technological change. This perspective is much less plausible in a world where capitalist stagnation is the recognized norm and class politics are openly conducted.

In retrospect, the watchwords of New Labour appear as “reactionary old cliche[s],” and the worn glamour of Britpop fails to conceal the liberal moralism of the era’s politics, whose “Third Way” who imposed its “flexibility” and “dynamism” through social programs that drew on intensely racist and classist norms to support campaigns of almost unprecedented violence against its enemies. Social democratic parties, often in concert, adopted structures of rigid internal hierarchy, both to deal with the new news cycle and to suppress the influence of the grassroots and the left on their policies. For example, New Labour adopted a system of “One Member One Vote” that was in fact the imposition of an anti-democratic electoral college that would insulate the leadership from outside influence. Everywhere, the buoyancy of white middle class culture and wealth concealed brutally reactionary politics such as the concentration of minorities in declining council housing stock, the imposition of strongly deflationary fiscal policy based on the myth of the “non-accelerating rate of unemployment” or NAIRU, which became the orthodoxy that replaced the norm of so-called “full employment,” the full fledged support of the growth of finance capital, wage suppression, tax cuts, the construction of “private public partnerships” that starved providers of public services while enriching the well-connected, social policies that justified massively expanded policing in the name of imposing “family structure” on the “anti-social” and placing them in the wage-suppressing bureaucratic nightmare of “workfare,” if not in jail. Finally, of course, came Blair’s crusading zeal in invading Iraq in the name of “western values,” a campaign of violence that was mirrored at home with a campaign of demonisation of foreign cultures that has borne its worst fruit in the xenophobic hysteria that has become commonplace in the UK. As Seymour writes: “The demonisation of the poor, the rise of stereotypes about council estate dwelles, single mothers, ‘feral’ teens and ‘chavs’ was the logical terminus to which New Labour’s ideological thrust moved Britain – and on such terrain, neither the Tories nor UKIP have had much difficulty making gains.” While many of these developments were recognized at the time, they were not generally seen as the norm of capitalist society driven by the need to sustain profitability. It is only with the ongoing stagnation of the capitalist system since the 2007 crisis and the manifest failure of anyone, including the left, to address this stagnation that a new historical horizon has become visible to us, and it is one that finds more commonality with the prewar era than that of the postwar.

If the long-run history of Labour has been one of defeat and betrayal, it raises the question of whether Corbyn can achieve unprecedented success. Certainly, to someone who grew up in the era of New Labourism, Corbyn’s speeches in defense of the poor and the excluded of society can feel unprecedented, but Seymour’s intent is to take the long view, and in the long view Corbyn’s prospects look bleak. Sooner or later the endless stream of opposition to his leadership from every institution of the ruling class, including those of the Labour Party itself, will overwhelm him and his supporters. However the more acute problem that Seymour identifies is that of social democracy itself. As he writes: “Corbyn’s most pressing task is to demonstrate that there is a coherent alternative economic model. Only on this basis can he support his policies of protecting welfare and public services.” He furthermore argues that:

Even if their persuasive powers are ultimately ineffective, Corbyn and McDonnell still face the problem that they cannot force businesses to invest. They are still in the same bind as previous social-democratic governments, which is that they aim to represent workers and the poor while necessarily, desperately needing the cooperation of business. Should Corbyn inherit an economy in recession and a government whose finances are in dire straits, he would face the choice of having to govern from a position of weakness, constant crisis, under fire from all sides, or of having to adjust and accept the orthodoxy, implement spending cuts and do as much as he can to humanise the worst effects of what he is compelled to do. The term for this, following on from ‘Pasokification’ is ‘syrizafication’, a process wherein the radical Left is swiftly chewed up and metabolised by the institutions it seeks to govern, becoming in effect an instrument of the neoliberal centre that it was elected to displace. The only possible counterpoint to such a scenario, and the inevitable unedifying cries of ‘betrayal’ that it would precipitate, would be a vibrant and mobilised grass-roots Left in the unions and beyond – a possible, yet by no means inevitable, political outcome.

Yet if we accept the economic view that Seymour has adopted in his history of Labour, that of “supply side Marxism,” even this slim hope appears to be wishful thinking. The prestigious Post-Keynesians that McDonnell has brought on board to form Corbyn’s economic platform are working from exactly the opposite assumptions that Seymour takes for granted. Given that the general rate of profit is not high at the moment, whether or not capitalists can be cajoled into supporting an expansionary fiscal program makes little long-term difference. The whip of competition will force them to oppose Corbyn in the name of not “throwing good money after bad,” destroying unprofitable capital, and increasing the rate of exploitation. In that case the only available option (assuming widespread popular support) is the replacement of capitalist economic organization with socialist economic organization, and that would no doubt raise the specter of first international fiscal discipline (such as that which enforced the original “syrizafication”), and in the extreme case civil war. It is unsurprising that Labour leaders have backed down from this prospect in the past, and that Corbyn’s team have welcomed the school of economics that promises class compromise if only the right ideology can gain ascendency. However as the gloom of stagnation, the growth of global inequality, and the strain of the international regime of labour control grow more acute the doctrines of the “hard left” continue to become more plausible, no matter how unwelcome they may be.

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Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Everything – Notes on Less Than Nothing and Ontology

The following are some thoughts I have assembled after finishing Less Than Nothing, and I cannot claim that they represent anything like an expert and complete analysis of this vast text. Certainly I do not have the scientific background required to evaluate Žižek’s analysis of physics and can only attempt to provide an analysis of what he has written on the subject. The highly abstract discussion here has no obvious connection to politics, so next month I will attempt to write a follow-up post connecting my interpretation of Žižek’s philosophy to political thought.

Some reviews of Less Than Nothing suggest that the book does not have a traditional structure of presentation to its argument, but this is only true to a point. Generally speaking the structure of the book is quite clear – it begins with an introduction, is followed by four body sections, and concludes with a political commentary based on the philosophy presented in the rest of the book. The four body sections “The Drink Before”, “The Thing Itself: Hegel”, “The Thing Itself: Lacan”, and “The Cigarette After” form a clear progression (And a typically Žižekian joke). “The Drink Before” deals with precursors to Hegel. First, ancient Greek philosophy, then Christianity, and finally German Idealism, focusing mainly on the work of Fichte. The next two sections, dealing with Hegel and Lacan respectively, attempt first to present Žižek’s unorthodox interpretation of Hegel and then advance his argument that Lacan represents a “repetition” of Hegel (In the specifically Hegelian sense of the term). “The Cigarette After” then combines insights into both Hegel and Lacan. These chapters are interspersed with interludes that deal with issues first related to Hegel, and then issues related to Lacan. Finally we have the “Conclusion”, which is like the concluding chapter to Capital: Volume I in that it is somewhat extraneous to the main argument – a kind of coda or “conclusion after the conclusion.” The real conclusion of the book is arguably its penultimate chapter “The Ontology of Quantum Physics”, which brings together the whole book into a kind of “theory of everything.”

It is when we lose sight of this big picture and look only at the contents of individual chapters that we find Žižek’s style to be unusual. Within and across chapters, Žižek repetitively deploys a method of logical homology. He repeatedly makes use of a small collection of logical forms in his consideration of a vast variety of topics, and this formal structure is at the same time the content of the text as a work of philosophy. This is to say that the “big idea” of the book is the repetition of these logical forms across a variety of fields. While Žižek does make a great number of points about many topics and intervenes in a vast number of intellectual debates in Less Than Nothing he does this through homology in a kind of textual ostinato. This is why Žižek is able to present a topic, suddenly change topics, and then take the original topic up again in another chapter – a form that many of his reviewers have noted. The homologies he employs form the consistency of his argument against the dissonant presentation of content. In this way the changing content reveals slowly to the reader the form of Žižek’s logic at work; the scope of its application and frequency of its repetition impressing upon them its general character.

What specifically then is the big idea that Žižek is attempting to get across in this book, and why can we label it a “theory of everything?” In order to explain this idea, it is important to first understand what the traditional understanding of Hegelian philosophy has been, and how Žižek’s interpretation differs from it. This is accomplished very well in Todd McGowan’s article “The Insubstantiality of Substance, Or, Why We Should Read Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature. McGowan describes the “traditional view” as follows:

According to this view, Hegel sets out to describe the structure of being itself without taking into account the epistemological barrier limiting the subject’s access to this structure. It is as if Hegel is able to read the mind of God. To this day, this remains the received wisdom concerning Hegel among those yet to read any of his works. This view of Hegel finds its baldest expression in Hegel’s arch-enemy Arthur Schopenhauer, who attacks “the attempt specifically introduced by the Hegelian pseudo-philosophy … to comprehend the history of the world as a planned whole.”…This interpretation of Hegel views him as committing all the philosophical errors that Kant had corrected in the Critique of Pure Reason.

The abandonment of Kant’s distinction between thought and being manifests itself in a seemingly straightforward way in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Here, Hegel claims that “everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.” This statement provides one of the pillars of the panlogical interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy. According to this view, here Hegel is conceiving the external world, the world of independent substances, as the manifestation of the thinking subject. The subject can know the world because the world is the product of the subject’s own activity. Not only does Hegel toss aside Kant’s caution about our capacity to know, he also grants the subject an extraordinary power to create the world in its own image.

McGowan first outlines the view of the late 19th and early 20th century Hegelians:

…the contingencies of history and nature exist within the necessity of the subject’s self-expression and self-externalization. There is no fundamental barrier to the subject’s knowledge of the world because the subject participates in spirit’s production of the world. When the subject attempts to understand what appears external to itself, it is engaged, even if unknowingly, in an act of self-understanding.

According to McGowan this “panlogical” Hegel was not accepted as respectable within the philosophical community, and Hegel’s thought was carried on in the academic world only through “a radical amputation” that moved the focus of Hegelianism away from “the structure of the universe” (Ontology) and towards the structure of subjectivity – In other words by moving to grounds more acceptable to Neo-Kantian – “critical” – thought. This was the trend represented by Sartre, Fanon, Kojève, and the “Critical Theory” of Lukács and the Frankfurt School. As McGowan writes, this Hegel “…could become the ally of Heidegger and the friend of Marxism.” On the level of purely philosophical interpretation of Hegel, McGowan argues that Kojève was the most influential interpreter in this trend of thought, and characterizes his argument as follows:

Kojève centers Hegel’s philosophy on its thoroughgoing commitment to the fact of human reality as the sole province of thought and as the sole source for thought. Far from being a panlogical philosopher, Hegel shows us that thought never escapes the subject itself. As he puts it, “Hegel rejects all species of ‘revelation’ in philosophy. Nothing can come from God: nothing can come from any extra-worldly non-temporal reality whatever. It is the temporal creative action of humanity or History that created the reality that Philosophy reveals.” For Kojève, Hegel has value for what he says about the struggle of the human being in the history that humanity itself creates and not for what he has to say about the nature of being. As a result, Kojève dismisses the entirety of the Philosophy of Nature as a fantasy that anyone who takes Hegel seriously must toss aside…In Kojève’s interpretation, Hegel’s philosophical project comes to resemble that of the early Marx or that of Heidegger in Being and Time.

McGowan sees this subjective interpretation of Hegel at work in Merleau-Ponty’s theory of time and the hostility to ontology in Foucault’s critique of dialectics. Subsequent philosophers went on to develop Hegel’s epistemology (Reading Hegelian thought as an extension of Kant) or elaborated a view of Hegel as a speculative-political thinker, but Hegel’s ontology remained the “amputated limb” that formed the basis for Hegelian philosophical legitimacy. Into this space steps Slavoj Žižek, and his project of reviving Hegel’s ontology, which ultimately culminates in Less Than Nothing.

As McGowan puts it, Žižek re-establishes the legitimacy of Hegel’s ontology primarily through relating it to language. According to Žižek’s account, Hegel’s ontology does not return to a naive pre-critical stance which sees philosophy as a speculative inquiry into the self-sufficient and knowable truth of being, but rather radicalizes Kant’s epistemology by exploring its ontological implications:

There is no being that is entirely independent and self-sustaining, and we know this because our very act of speaking testifies to an incompleteness both in ourselves and in what we are speaking about. Hegel’s ontology begins with this rejection of pure substance and affirmation of the inherent self-division of being… The speaking being’€™s division from itself-its inability to realize its desires or achieve wholeness-€”must have a condition of possibility within being itself. Thus, we can work our way backward from the self-division of the subject to the self-division of being. Our ability to pose the question of our subjectivity testifies to the subject’s non-coincidence with itself, and this non-coincidence appears to separate speaking beings from rocks. This leads Kojève to confine Hegel’s philosophical purview to the speaking subject and its history. But Žižek sees the error in positing this artificial limit to Hegel’s reach. Even beings that cannot speak and demonstrate their self-division through speech nonetheless participate in an ontological self-division, and we know about this ontological self-division because of beings who exhibit it explicitly-that is, speaking subjects. The speaking subject retroactively reveals the contradictory nature of being. Hegel is a philosopher of language who recognizes that the nature of language reveals a fundamental truth about the nature of being.

The point then is to consider the Kantian account of the limited subject in terms of an ontological totality, recognize the logical antinomies that this produces within the linguistic exploration of the matter, and then accept these antinomies as an ontological reality. We could not reach the antinomies in thought if they did not have some real condition of possibility, and the fact that there is such a condition of possibility implies that there is a contradiction in the world that exists in the strongest sense possible: “Hegelian reconciliation is a reconciliation with the irreducibility of the antinomy, and it is in this way that the antinomy loses its antagonistic character” (Less Than Nothing, 950). Therefore Žižek accepts the subjectivist Hegelians’ division of the world into beings-with-speech and beings-without-speech, but he argues that the division of the world into language and nature cuts across both of these categories:

It is therefore not enough to say that, while things exist out there in their meaningless reality, language performatively adds meaning to them: the symbolic transcendentally constitutes reality in a much stronger ontological sense, in its being itself. (Less Than Nothing, 960)

Natural beings without language such as rocks or animals do not exist in a kind of stupid self-sufficiency (e.g. Sartre’s famous door knob in Nausea) but are as alienated in language as beings-with-speech without a capacity for reconciliation with this alienation through language and thought.

Žižek sees this language-oriented philosophy as validated by the theories of language found in structualism and psychoanalysis (and their union in the thought of Lacan). Structuralism teaches us that language is in some sense always “out of joint” because of an ambivalence in the relationship between signifiers and signifieds, where the universality of signifiers in language is never firmly anchored in real things out there in the world, but is rather determined by oppositions between signifiers themselves. In this way signifiers are alien to signifieds, and therefore to sense perception at its most basic. Nevertheless, these alien terms coexist in their antagonism.

The validation that Žižek finds in psychoanalysis comes from its discovery (As McGowan puts it) of the “…split between what the subject desires and
what the subject says” – simply put, a subject’s desire never directly coincides with what it says it desires, or even with what an analyst says it desires. This constitutes another form of linguistic alienation, which Žižek sees as validating the split character of Hegel’s ontology.

The structure of Less Than Nothing is based on Žižek’s desire to establish the connection between Hegel’s philosophy and Lacan’s development of psychoanalysis in a structuralist mode. This is the concern that motivates its more or less straightforward “big picture” narrative. However if we accept this unorthodox Hegelianism as valid, we then are left with an ontology that is everywhere in antagonism and contradiction. If it is the case that language is alienated from sense/nature, that this alienation applies to all things, and that this implies the omnipresence of contradiction, then the Hegelian logic of contradiction (dialectics) applies to all things. In other words the Žižekian Hegel is the “panlogical” Hegel seen in a different light. “The real is the rational and the rational is the real” but rationality is not what we thought it was:

Here, we need only introduce a little displacement, and the entire image of a grand metaphysical process turns into a freakish monstrosity…Yes, antagonism is “reconciled;’ but not in the sense that it magically disappears-what Hegel calls “reconciliation” is, at its most basic, a reconciliation with the antagonism. (Less Than Nothing 951)

Rationality is not a clear and self-sufficient “deployment” of subjectivity, but rather split, impoverished, contradictory, tortured, and so on. The Hegelian real is a real of negativity, nothingness, and evil, but through thought and reason we can grasp it another light:

…in its positive aspect, as a condition of possibility: what appears as the ultimate obstacle is in itself a positive condition of possibility, for the universe of meaning can only arise against the background of its annihilation, Furthermore, the properly dialectical reversal is not only the reversal of negative into positive, of the condition of impossibility into the condition of possibility, of obstacle into enabling agency, but, simultaneously, the reversal of transcendence into immanence, and the inclusion of the subject of enunciation in the enunciated content.

This reversal-into-itself-the shift in the status of what-is-at-stake from sign to Thing, from predicate to subject-is crucial for the dialectical process: what first appears as a mere sign (property, reflection, distortion) of the Thing turns out to be the Thing itself. If the Idea cannot adequately represent itself; if its representation is distorted or deficient, then this Simultaneously signals a limitation or deficiency of the Idea itself. Furthermore, not only does the universal Idea always appear in a distorted or displaced way; this Idea is nothing but the distortion or displacement, the self-inadequacy, of the particular with regard to itself.

This brings us to the most radical dimension of the (in)famous “identity of opposites”: insofar as “contradiction’ is the Hegelian name for the Real, this means that the Real is simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is impossible and the obstacle which prevents this direct access; the Thing which eludes our grasp and the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. (Less Than Nothing, 535)

A recognition of these ideas is what constitutes Hegelian “reconciliation.” We become reconciled with reality, but this is reconciliation one stage removed from any positive fact – it is a reconciliation with negation itself and is therefore not a license for the kind of “social adjustment” that is the stock-in-trade of all the therapeutic and disciplinary apparatuses of the state. Given the all-encompassing nature of this theory, it is important to understand why Žižek characterizes it as “materialist” and therefore to understand how Žižek relates it to the physical sciences – for this is an area of his thought that strongly diverges from the subjectivist Hegelians who preceded him (Marcuse famously called for a “new science” that would exist in harmony with his philosophy of life, but he was an exception in this and was strongly criticized for it, notably by Habermas).

It is noteworthy that the culmination of Žižek philosophical arguments in Less Than Nothing is his chapter on quantum physics, which attempts to salvage the reputation of Hegel’s much maligned Philosophy of Nature and develop its themes in a modern context. If Žižek’s Hegelianism cannot be applied to nature, then its claims to refute arguments for the self-sufficiency of nature cannot be taken seriously. In this sense, Less Than Nothing is an all-or-nothing venture.

Žižek approaches contemporary physics through its intersections with ontology, and understanding why Žižek calls himself a materialist despite identifying himself with the “absolute idealist” Hegel will clarify his approach to physics considerably. In the first place, it is important to understand why there has historically been a connection between materialism, communism, and democracy. Simply put, any idealist system of thought will tend to rely on a distinction between spiritual and base-material orders of being. Whether the higher order is spirit, the soul, the intellect, or any other such thing, this higher order can always be used to justify hierarchy in the name of maintaining the proper authority of the higher order of being (Whether it is spiritual or meritocratic or cultural). Certainly revolts can also be carried out in the name of this higher order, but these are in the end necessarily conservative, as they can only aim to reestablish a hierarchy after the dust has settled.

On the other hand, materialism is inherently democratic insofar as it does not recognize a higher order of being. For the materialist, on the most fundamental level of ontology we are all equal. As a matter of practice though it has generally been the case that materialism has also been used to justify hierarchy, except with a secular gloss that claims the authority of knowledge instead of the authority of some higher order of being. Nevertheless, materialism does hold an enduring sort of democratic/communist promise, and this is the promise that Žižek is attempt to hold faithful to in his philosophy.

That being said, Žižek’s materialism is highly unorthodox in that is rejects the “naive empiricist” or “naive realist” form of materialism wherein there is only the self-sufficient determinism of the material whole, within which we as material beings with limited senses and cognitive capabilities grasp an illusory figment of reality we experience as consciousness. As we have seen above, Žižek instead strongly emphasizes the reality of the symbolic, but in doing so he opens himself up immediately to the criticism that he is in fact an idealist in disguise. If we have the natural and the symbolic as two separate orders, a materialist account must find a way to somehow unify them in some common material order. This is where the gap plays such a crucial role in Žižek’s ontology, and it is with this concept that he takes up a consideration of contemporary science.

Žižek chooses quantum physics as his point of entry into the world of physics because as he says, this strange physical world is similar in many ways to the world of language – which we will recall is the cornerstone of Hegelian philosophy. As Žižek writes:

A fact rarely noticed is that the propositions of quantum physics which defy our common-sense view of material reality strangely echo another domain, that of language, of the symbolic order-it is as if quantum processes are closer to the universe of language than anything one finds in “nature;’ as if, in the quantum universe, the human spirit encounters itself outside itself…(918)

It is important to note that Žižek qualifies this statement with “as if,” because the notion that the human spirit encounters its double in the quantum physical world has of course been the starting point for all sorts of idealist and spiritualist obscurantism (a popular example of which is the documentary What the Bleep do We Know!?) which he aggressively attacks. Žižek makes his case for discussing quantum physics in dialectical terms through four main points:

  1. The virtual is efficacious in both the symbolic order and quantum physics. In the symbolic order the potential of exerting coercive force itself has a real effect, in quantum physics the potential trajectories in the wave function of a particle determine its actual trajectory.
  2. In both the symbolic and quantum worlds we find “knowledge in the real” – that is, what we take something as, conditions what it actually is. This has to do with the famous fact that an electron “knows” whether or not it is being observed, and “displays itself” as either a wave or a particle accordingly, almost as if it is following an expected social role.
  3. In both the symbolic and quantum worlds something only “becomes what it is” when it is “registered” in the broader network surrounding it. The wave function collapses when it is “registered” by the observing instrument, a signifier acquires a meaning only in specific context of use.
  4. Both the symbolic and quantum worlds display the phenomenon of retroactivity. In the symbolic world a new master signifier “rewrites history” (e.g. With the dawn of Christianity all of history became a story leading up to the birth and death of Christ, and a path to his second coming) and similarly the “registration” of an electron changes not only its current form, but also the trace it left of its past to be consistent with its particle form. The “history” of the electron is determined retroactively.

Žižek then claims that these four characteristics of quantum physics produce two main reactions: Either the spiritualist claim that the observing subject’s mind creates reality, or the “naive realist” claim that “registration” of electrons is done by instruments with no subject neccesarily involved at all (Which allows the claim that consciousness is an illusion of no real ontological consequence to be sustained):

The basic enigma is the following: insofar as the result of our measurement depends on our free choice of what to measure, the only way to avoid the implication that our observation creates reality is either to deny our free will or to adopt a Malebranchean solution (“the world conspires to correlate our free choices with the physical situations we then observe”). (923)

Žižek rejects the “naive realist” position on the grounds that it can only be defended in terms of an abstract mathematical understanding of reality that is overly abstracted from any basic experience of reality:

“objective reality” as a mathematicized set of relations is “for us” the result of a long process of conceptual abstraction. This does not devalue the result, making it simply dependent on our “subjective standpoint;’ but it does involve a paradox: objective reality”(the way we construct it through science) is a Real which cannot be experienced as reality. In its effort to grasp reality “independently of me;’ mathematicized science erases “me” from reality, ignoring (not the transcendental way I constitute reality, but) the way I am part of this reality. The true question is therefore how I (as the site where reality appears to itself) emerge in “objective reality” (or, more pointedly, how can a universe of meaning arise in the meaningless Real).

He then also rejects the spiritualist claim, on the grounds that it cannot account for the fact that any observer of an experiment will obtain the same results (given the same object being observed and the same apparatus). To Žižek, this suggests that the “finitude” of the observation should be instead read as the “incompleteness” of reality itself. In other words the issue is “to conceive how our knowing of reality is included in reality itself” – to move from epistemology to ontology. Typically, the “transcendental materialism” that Žižek is advocating here is not simply a compromise position between the spiritualist and naive realist positions, but instead focuses on the gap or contradiction that structures their opposition in the first place, producing a new position altogether.

Žižek’s point is that this sort of gap is not only real but “Reality-in-itself” (926):

Reality-in-itself is Nothingness, the Void, and out of this Void, partial, not yet fully constituted constellations of reality appear; these constellations are never “all;’ they are always ontologically truncated, as if visible (and existing) only from a certain limited perspective. There is only a multiplicity of truncated universes: from the standpoint of the All, there is nothing but the Void. Or, to risk a simplified formulation: “objectively” there is nothing, since all determinate universes exist only from a limited perspective. (926)

In other words, if we take what is common to multiple perspectives as what is “objective” we should recognize that the most common property of everything is in fact finitude – nothingness. However as noted above, Hegelian reconciliation is a reconciliation with negation, not with “the Void” as a fundamental reality against which all phenomena are taken as illusory. The void is in fact fecund and active, because in negating itself it produces things which still bear the mark of finitude and are themselves destined to be negated, producing something else. Žižek explains this in terms of the Higgs field:

Left to their own devices in an environment in which they can pass on their energy, all physical systems will eventually assume a state of lowest energy; to put it another way, the more mass we take from a system, the more we lower its energy, until we reach the vacuum state of zero energy. There are, however, phenomena which compel us to posit the hypothesis that there has to be something (some substance) that we cannot take away from a given system without raising that systems energy. This “something” is called the Higgs field: once this field appears in a vessel that has been pumped empty and whose temperature has been lowered as much as possible, its energy will be further lowered. The “something” which thus appears is a something that contains less energy than nothing, a “something” that is characterized by an overall negative energy-in short, what we get here is the physical version of how “something appears out of nothing:’

Therefore Žižek’s argument is that reality as a “negation of the negation” is in fact less than nothing – If we take “the Void” as “Reality-in-itself” and self-sufficient, reality-with-consciousness is a subtraction from that strange plenitude, and, like with the Higgs field, there is a natural tendency of reality to continue negating itself (which Žižek identifies with Lacan’s interpretation of the “death drive”). This is the “negation” with which one can become reconciled. It is “immortal” in the sense that every particular negation is survived by yet another negation.

This leads Žižek to a discussion of “the Vacuum” in an attempt to elaborate on this ontology. Žižek argues that “the Void” is always in fact divided against itself into the “false vacuum” and the “true vacuum.” Žižek associates the false vacuum with Buddhist “Nirvana as the return to a pre-organic peace” (945) – it is the Void self-sufficient in itself. The true vacuum on the other hand is the “negated nothing”, it is the nothing which has become something by negating itself. As in the case of the Higgs field it is the “less than nothing” that emerges out of the false vacuum, or taking another of Žižek’s examples, it is like the particle that emerges out of the collapse of the wave in quantum physics.

Žižek then brings the discussion back to Hegel by claiming that this move from the false vacuum to the true vacuum is homologous to Hegel’s claim that reality exists not only as substance but also as subject. The false vacuum is substance “in-itself” and the true vacuum is the subject which disturbs it, the subtracted abstraction that causes substance to appear to itself as alienated. This is why Žižek argues that:

It is crucial that this tension between the two vacuums be maintained: the “false vacuum” cannot simply be dismissed as a mere illusion, leaving only the “true” vacuum, so that the only true peace is that of incessant activity, of balanced circular motion-the “true” vacuum itself remains forever a traumatic disturbance. (950)

The subject then is properly “alienated” from substance. If we simply had substance reality would be “stupid” – there would be no self-reflection and therefore no antagonism. On the other hand if we simply had subject (i.e. the “mind of God”) reality would be just as stupid because it would lack all distinctions and would be without any “content.” Finally if substance could be truly “sublated” into subject so that we could reach the “true peace” of “incessant activity” (as is sometimes argued in Daoist texts, or in the work of the ‘panlogical’ Hegelians) the result would be functionally equivalent to the case of the “mind of God” since substance would no longer be alien to subject. What Žižek calls the “properly dialectical reconciliation” is none of these things:

…the two dimensions are not mediated or united in a higher “synthesis;’ they are merely accepted in their incommensurability. This is why the insurmountable parallax gap, the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible, is not a Kantian revenge over Hegel, that is, yet another name for a fundamental antinomy which can never be dialectically mediated or sublated. Hegelian reconciliation is a reconciliation with the irreducibility of the antinomy, and it is in this way that the antinomy loses its antagonistic character. (950)

Finally Žižek restates this point in ontological terms by drawing a distinction between Being and the Real, arguing that “there is no ontology of the Real” (958). Ontology attempts to give us a complete picture of Being, but it therefore has to “ignore the inconsistency or incompleteness of the order of being, the immanent impossibility which thwarts every ontology” (961). The abstract, alienated “real” thing we call the subject is therefore never successfully included in any ontology, except of course the sort of “reconciled” ontology that Žižek offers, which only gives us a “complete” picture by recognizing the “incompleteness” of the order of Being created by the subtraction of the subject.

This conclusion allows Žižek to provide the “transcendental materialist” ontology he has been aiming at. The “third term” that unites the symbolic and the natural is the “Real”: “We touch the Real-in-itself in our very failure to touch it, since the Real is, at its most radical, the gap, the “minimal difference;’ that separates the One from itself” (959). There is no “higher” and “lower” orders of being in this ontology, only a reality sustained by its failure to be complete and identical to itself.

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On Marx’s Name and its Exorcists

All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;

-Tennyson, “Ulysses”


The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

-Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte


After the financial crisis, however, it seemed like capitalists had flunked a test they had themselves designed. Marxism might have failed as a political project, but the conditions were set for its recovery as critique, both because of where it diverged from the consensus and what it affirmed. It was easy to swap one kind of economism for another. Like a photographic negative, the Marxist critique took what was light in the capitalist worldview and made it dark. The outlines of the picture were the same, but the shadings reversed. The resulting image was arresting—definitely worth putting on Instagram.

-Timothy Shenk, “Thomas Piketty and Millenial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality”

As a teenager I was always struck by the ambiguity of Ulysses’ “name” that I have quoted here. At first glance Ulysses’ statement “I am become a name” appears to be a part of his boasting of his worldliness – his person and his exploits are so grand that he is recognized by everyone as a “big name.” However we can also read this passage in the opposite sense. Ulysses is old and tired, nothing more than a “name” that has faded from the time of his younger adventures and become a degenerate copy of his younger self. In fact the pathos of the poem arises from the distance between these two different senses of what Ulysses is. Tennyson’s poem powerfully elicits a sense of finitude, loss, nostalgia, and masculinity, but it also points to how we are a part of language and how it is a part of us. More specifically it speaks to the distance between ourselves as “empirically” existing finite creatures of flesh and blood and ourselves as figures existing in the medium of language. One of the strange characteristics of our existence is how these two selves do not quite fit together. It is a commonplace of fiction about celebrity culture that celebrities must struggle mightily to control and not be undone by the simultaneously terrifying  and thrilling power of their names as “stars,” and this is an endless source of fascination for those caught up in the world of the tabloids. To a lesser extent it is a preoccupation of all of us in an age of social networks and omnipresent surveillance, in some sense abolishing the anonymity that grew up with the end of village life and mass migration to the cities in the 19th century. However the phenomenon that Tennyson points to is not quite that of stardom (Which of course he was personally familiar with in its early form) nor that of common personal reputation. He is instead pointing to the sort of names that are recognized by history as agents. These personages are agents in the sense that they are recognized as influencing their immediate historical situation, but more importantly they are agents in the sense that they hold an influence over the present moment through their presence in our conceptual world. Ulysses speaks to us at an imagined moment of parting between himself as a living person of flesh and blood and himself as a disembodied “name” possessing continuing power and agency in its linguistic and conceptual presence. These are the “spirits of the past” that Marx invokes in the Eighteenth Brumaire and although they are often not individuals (The Ancient Romans), they often are (Napoleon).

The fact that Marx’s “specter” continues to haunt us even after the fall of the USSR was well explored and established by Derrida in his Specters of Marx and I do not intend to add much more to the topic in this article other than to note that Marx’s “name” has recently once again become a point of great controversy.  As Shenk notes, Marxism has undergone a “[a] small but serious…renaissance” since the 2007 crisis began because Marx continues to exist for us as a “negative” of capitalism.  Speak the word “capitalism” and you will find Marx’s specter there protesting its continuation. He remains a part of our language, or “tradition” as Marx himself put it. Shenk, for his part, is part of that group of intellectuals who want to see this “nightmare” exorcised from our presence. Shenk’s objection to the force of the Marxist critique is that “Capitalism did not create socialism; socialists invented capitalism” – it was a narrow totalizing concept invented by the socialists, and especially Marxists, that they could use to tar all their opponents with.  In Shenk’s view then, Marx’s name is an obstacle to clear thought and progress.  The discourse of socialism and capitalism is an incestous little language game that weighs like a nightmare on our minds and obscures the truth. The neoliberals were just as entrapped in the Marxist game as the Marxists originally were and all we have been experiencing is a futile series of reversals of these related “economistic” terms. It is unquestionably the case that neoliberal thought is strongly conditioned by Marxist thought, and that the Marxist thought of today is in turn strongly conditioned by that of neoliberalism, however it seems to me that Shenk misses the point when he describes the birth of “capitalism.” Shenk’s objection is that the term that socialists have critiqued was in fact posited by the socialists themselves and therefore a kind of vicious and dogmatic solipcism, but the origins of critique can be seen in a different way. As Zizek writes in his recent book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism:

…one should not confuse dogma with the immediate pre-reflexive acceptance of an attitude. Medieval Christians were not ‘dogmatic’ (just as it is senseless to say that the ancient Greeks ‘dogmatically’ believed in Zeus and other Olympian divinities: they were simply part of their life world ), they become ‘dogmatic’ only when modern Reason started to doubt religious truths. A ‘dogmatic’ stance is always already mediated by its opposite, and this is also why contemporary fundamentalism really is ‘dogmatic’: it clings to its articles of faith against the threat of modern secular rationalism. In short, ‘dogma’ is always already the result of the decomposition of a substantial organic Whole (382).

From this point of view, it is only the critic that can give a name to the object of criticism. The critical negation is what rendered capitalism “in-itself” into capitalism “for-itself” as a entity “dogmatically” opposed to the socialist criticism. This dogmatism should be familiar to any socialist who has met the standard defenses of capitalism (The argument from human nature, the argument from information, etc…) which all amount to the assertion that “There Is No Alternative.” It is not that social truths are there to be discovered as self-evident facts and are obscured by dogmatism, but that they appear to us as truths through their own negation. Shenk’s objection to Marxism then is essentially its own dogmatic position that “There is No Alternative to Our Alternative”, that all other critiques of capitalism are insufficiently radical. Shenk’s complaint is not new – it is exactly the sort of complaint Marx himself made when he called for the poetry of the future to replace the poetry of the past. What is strange about the present moment is that the fall of the USSR was proceeded by the development of “Post-Marxism” and “Third Wayism” which raised just these sort of objections and yet this Post-Marxist moment was followed by the crisis of 2007 which revealed its own blindness to exactly the fundamental questions that Marx had posed. There is therefore a kind of intellectual superposition we are confronted with where it is unclear who occupies the dogmatic position and who occupies the critical position. Is the Marxist criticism of the Post-Marxist and neoliberal dogma of “the new economy” a dogmatic or a critical one? It has been my conviction that it is only through a committed Marxist criticism of the prior dogma that we can arrive at a new critical moment of rupture. It has been my wager that attacking the dogmas of the 1990s with Marxist criticisms in a considered and engaged would allow for the negation of both in the form of a new point of view. In the aftermath of the crisis Marx’s name was on everyone’s lips. We have to remain faithful to that memory of the terrifying power of the alien force of capital in order to challenge the thought that was blind to its growth.

Opposed to this view is Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteeth Century Life which attempts to exorcise the name of Marx through a collection of empirical and biographical facts. Sperber wants to deny the “specter” of Marx by asserting that he was in fact just a person of flesh and blood, and engaged in the immediate commitments of his time. This is a Marx who was a committed political activist but never wrote the abstract theories found in Capital. And yet Marx’s thought did in fact rise to this level of abstraction and his name is still with us today influencing our way of thinking. Sperber’s protestations to the contrary betray their own futility. Every time he points to Marx the man he cannot help but invoke Marx’s name.

Marx’s name also haunts the current hubbub surrounding Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Every review of the book points to its large accumulations of data on inequality to explain its current sensation, yet these reviews also invariably point to its title and to its preoccupation with the concept of capital and its contradictions, which is genetically linked to the Marxist project – a point which Piketty protests, but which the books own title betrays. Before the book was even published in English the controversy over inequality was well underway, engendered by the resurgence of criticisms of capitalism brought about by the crisis. Yet what Piketty has done is allowed for these criticisms to be voiced without any excessive risk of being contaminated by the Marxist label. Piketty’s faith in his data acts as a shield separating him and his supporters from association with the communist project. Nevertheless I believe that it is exactly this proximity-but-not-identity with the Marxist taboo that has generated such a buzz. Like Elvis’ appropriation of early R&B for white audiences, Piketty’s work allows for a consumption of the critique of capitalism at a comfortable distance.

All these denials of Marx’s name only serve to make it stronger. It is my belief that is only through an affirmation of this name that we can in fact overcome its weight on our brains.


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11 Books From 2013

I haven’t posted anything on here for some time, having been busy trying to write journal articles to get me through my PhD. 2013 has in any case been a year of small victories for radical politics in a sea of gloomy reaction.

The situation here in Japan is especially concerning, as a convergence of factor has allowed for a kind of recreation of the Cold War order in Asia, and the near total identification of a shockingly reinvigorated Japanese ruling class with the American imperial interest. The definitive analysis of this dismal turn of events remains to be written, although it seems clear that it is a result of a combination of global political and economic factors that span well beyond the Japan-US-China relationship alone. For those interested in the subject, and who have access to the journals, I highly recommend reading Ho-Fung Hung’s “China: Saviour or Challenger of the Dollar Hegemony?” and Perry Anderson’s “Imperium” – two recent articles that have done a great deal to clarify the current situation through historical perspective and political economic analysis. In any case there seems to be a sort of agreement between the US and Japan, wherein the US will encourage the success of “Abenomics” through its trade and monetary policy in exchange for Japan’s unwavering support of its policy of containing China (And of course, once the containment succeeds handing over as many Chinese assets as possible to Wall Street) and endorsement of the TPP, a matter which remains politically controversial here in a way it is not in Canada.

While there is a great deal of scare-mongering about China done these days, usually in the midst of talk about the similarity of the situation in Asia now to the pre-World War I situation in Europe, I feel it is important to emphasize that China’s situation is worse in almost every conceivable way than Germany’s was prior to World War I. Germany before World War I was not only industrially, but also intellectually dynamic, with many of the world’s leading intellectuals in a variety of fields living there. Its capital was largely domestically owned, and the surplus value it accrued from its capitalist production was frequently reinvested nationally. Furthermore, Britain never had the immense productive and strategic advantages that the United States does. China on the other hand, is a laggard intellectually, much of the surplus value it produces is snapped up by multinational corporations, and it is surrounded by at least mildly hostile states while the United States remains in splendid isolation, able to present a real threat to a rival half the world away. This is not to make apologies for the Chinese regime, but rather to try to give some perspective to the situation. The CCP has very few cards available to try to maintain Chinese sovereignty and if there is indeed a war in the near future between China and the US and its allies, the Chinese will be sorely outmatched. I feel that leftists need to maintain this perspective in order to work against the escalating atmosphere of jingoism.

The situation in Canada is somewhat less grim, although it is by no means positive. The Tory government has been every bit as much a nightmare of reaction as I had feared upon their election, and it is only on the issues of the Enbridge and Keystone XL pipelines, where activists have made common cause with Aboriginal Canadians’ struggles that the government has been frustrated. The best we seem to be able to hope for as a result of the fight is a greater recognition of treaty rights, but it seems from here that there is not a clear sense on the Left of what the end game is for their fight. It is all very well and good to propose a pipeline running to Eastern Canada in order to increase the number of value added jobs in Canada and to build East-West solidarity, but if the oil is still extracted under extremely lax regulations by capitalist firms it brings us no closer to social management of the resource and our victory will only be a parochial one against our fellow workers in the United States. Furthermore that proposal is concerning in that it could be just as detrimental to Aboriginals as ones currently under discussion. Thinking of the problem in terms of the struggle for an inclusive socialism in Canada that can reconcile the interests of the Aboriginal population with the rest of Canadian workers seems to me a more fruitful direction for thinking.

My contribution to politics this year has been minor, but I thought that perhaps sharing some of the interesting books I read might be of value to those who are engaging more directly in praxis and struggle. The following are a number of the most interesting books I read in no particular order.

Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea – Alberto Toscano

Toscano gives us a genealogical account of the development of debates on fanaticism in Western history. Beginning with the German Peasant Revolts of the Middle Ages, and concluding with a discussion of current Islamophobia. While the conclusions one can draw from the book are a bit muddled, Toscano’s investigation of how the charge of Fanaticism is used by reactionaries to suppress threats to their rule, and how fanaticism has an ambiguous cousin in the concept of “enthusiasm,” as well as a great number of historical points of interest make this book worth reading.

The Reactionary Mind – Corey Robin

Robin’s book pairs well with Toscano’s, both investigating similar phenomena. Robin attempts to articulate a theory of conservative ideology, and his results are very interesting. In the midst of the debt ceiling crisis in the US this year I found this book to be illuminating compared to the lazy Democratic truisms passed off as analysis that were found in much of the liberal press.

The Hegel Variations: on the Phenomenology of Spirit – Fredric Jameson

Like most of Jameson’s books, this is by no means a clearly written text. Yet Jameson’s “variations” on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit were interesting to me because his anti-teleological interpretation of Hegel – which describes the dialectic as a succession of failures – seemed to me to be the philosophical counterpart to the historical theory we find in regulationism, a theory which is so influential today through its critique of neoliberalism. Having at least a basic understanding of the Phenomenology of Spirit would be useful for reading this book.

After Capitalism – David Schweickart

Scheweickart provides one of the most readable accounts of what a future market socialism might look like. I will address this in more detail with a future post comparing his ideas to those of Cockshott and Cottrell, but for now I will simply recommend the book for those who wish to expand their understanding of future socialist possibilities.

A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger – Michael Friedman

This is another difficult read that is not easily accessible to those without training in philosophy, and it is made more difficult by the fact that in order to address its subject matter (The split between analytic and continental philosophy in the 1930s) it has to bridge both varieties of philosophy in order to do so. While I am familiar with continental philosophy, I struggled to get a grasp on the discussions of the analytic philosopher Rudolf Carnap in this book. Nevertheless I found the discussion to be of great historical interest, and the book to be valuable in understanding a wide range of 20th century thought, including the debates regarding socialism that were taking place during and after the period it covers.

Lenin – Lars T. Lih

Any socialist most likely wants to read at least one account of the life of the most famous socialist of the 20th century. Lih’s work attempts to give a fair account of Lenin, and is mainly interesting because of how it attempts to outline the continuities as well as differences between his thought and that of Kautsky and the Germany SPD. This book should do much to impress upon the reader that Lenin was BOTH a Russian and a European intellectual and not simply one or the other.

The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change – Randall Collins

While I have not read this whole book, I recommend it because it brings the methods of sociology (such as network analysis) to bear on intellectual history in a way that is both illuminating and consistent with a historical materialist analysis.Although the author distances himself from Marxism, a Marxist reading of this text is still fruitful. The historical and geographical scope of this book is so massive that I would advise reading the sections of the book that are of interest to you and leaving the rest, unless you have a great deal of time available.

Paris: Capital of Modernity – David Harvey

I consider this to be Harvey’s best book, even though his work on Capital remains of considerable interest. Harvey’s blending of literature, popular and high art, politics, economics, and urban studies into one brilliant historical narrative that culminates in the great catastrophe of the Paris Commune is deeply moving. This book is also notable in how deftly it rejects all the revisionist accounts that attempt to write class struggle out of the history of Second Empire Paris.

The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town – Sharryn Kasmir

This controversial book presents a critical account of the celebrated Mondragon cooperatives in Spain. Kasmir provides a sociological analysis that draws on the often ignored history of the Basque region and an ethnography of the Mondragon workers instead of the sorts of management analysis that are more common to discussion of the cooperative corporation. While I do not believe that Kasmir’s account is so damning as to provide grounds for rejecting cooperatives, I do believe that it is essential reading for any socialist so as to appreciate the complex challenges that the cooperative form of organization presents.

Hayek on Liberty – John Gray

Written by Gray first when he was a disciple of the famous Austian economist and vociferous critic of socialism Friedrich Hayek, and later when he became disillusioned with Hayek’s ideas, Gray provides a brilliant synthetic account of Hayek’s ideas and the theories behind them, even though his prose is marred by occasionally sliding into outright hero worship. This is the account of Hayek that Hayek himself endorsed, and it is a valuable read for socialists who want to know what the substance of Hayek’s criticisms were.

The Player of Games – Iain Banks

The only novel I am including on this list. The Player of Games includes a fairly detailed description of Banks’ far future communist utopia called the Culture, as well as some of his strongest criticism of class society. It is easy to become consumed by the details of the struggle for socialism and lose sight of the sorts of possibilities we are fighting for. Banks’ Culture novels give us a glimpse into what a world without class antagonism, gender discrimination, private property and material want might look like. Orwell complained that leftist novelists were bores, but thankfully this criticism done not apply to Banks’ imaginative work.

I wish everyone the best of prospects in creating a better world in 2014.

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