Tag Archives: Philosophy

Recovering Modernity

“Post-modernism” is not something I’ve previously really engaged with as a concept or got to grips with what it means, other than in a superficial way. Which is why I was interested to read the refreshingly simple description of “modernity” presented by Goran Therborn in his book “From Marxism to Post-Marxism?” against which to assess “post-modernism”:

“Modernity is a culture claiming to be modern, in the sense of turning it’s back on the past… and looking into the future as a reachable, novel horizon”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

He then goes on to give a little more context to this basic statement:

“Rather than trivialising the concept of modernity by attempting to translate it into a set of concrete institutions , whether of capitalism of politics, or into a particular conception of rationality or agency so that it can more easily be philosophically targeted, it is more useful to deploy it solely as a temporal signifier, in order to allow it to retain its analytical edge.”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

“Modernity” is therefore a world view focused on progress, one in which things are getting better, which looks to the future and is actively seeking ways of moving towards it. In a brief segment at the end of her book “The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View” Ellen Meiksins Wood characterises this as developing from the Enlightenment based on increasing “rationalisation”.

“rationalisation of the state in bureaucratic organisation, the rationalisation of the economy in industrial capitalism, the rationalisation of culture in the spread of education, the decline of superstition, and the progress of science and technology.”

(Meiksins Wood 2017, p. 182)

Modernism therefore implies belief in an overarching view of the world that defines how progress happens and the mechanisms that drive change. Throughout much of the twentieth century at least two world views were available that might be thought of as upholding this view of progress, including both Soviet Communism and post war liberal democracy.

With this in mind, Postmodernism can then be defined in opposition to ‘modernity’ as:

“a questioning of, or loss of belief in, the future narratives of the modern.”

“Insofar as ‘forward’ and ‘backward’, progressive and reactionary, have lost all meaning, we have entered a post-modern world.”

(Therborn 2018, p.122)

Boltanski and Chiapello in their book “The New Spirit of Capitalism” similarly describe a postmodernist approach as viewing the state of the world as “chaos unamenable to any general interpretation”. (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p. 345).

This loss of belief in “the future” means the loss of a set of criteria against which to judge things. The old analyses are no longer valid, and therefore no longer provide a guide for future actions. Politically this shift was one of the factors underpinning the move of left wing parties from socialism to a “third way“. If capitalism is not progressing towards it’s eventual supercession then the best that can be hoped for is to reach an accommodation with it. With collapse of Soviet communism and the perceived irrelevance of Marxism, the left lacked any overarching analysis of the shape of the world, and therefore any view of what it was ‘for’. The only rational choice left to progressives in a post-modern world is working out how to make capitalism a bit nicer.

The end result has been a consensus of support across the political spectrum for a neo-liberal economics that has delivered a world which is increasingly unequal, polarised between asset holders and non-asset holders. There is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction, particularly among the young who have been disproportionately impacted by the implementation of nearly unopposed capitalism.

But without a strongly organised left articulating an alternative view of what is possible, that dissatisfaction has nowhere progressive to go. That doesn’t mean it disappears. Rather it migrates to political movements which are prepared to critique the current state of affairs and offer an explanation, even if it is not a rational one. In recent years this has meant Trump and Brexit.

In other words, the progressive left needs to recover its belief in the modern and find the overarching analysis of the world to underpin a call to action, and which can then be used to create a coherent manifesto for practical policies for change. I think there are some signs of this analysis developing but there’s still a long way to go.

Therborn, Goran From Marxism to Post-Marxism? (Verso, London, 2018)

Meiksins Wood, Ellen The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)

Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)

Advertisements

Review: In Defense of Lost Causes

This book is typical of Zizek’s style, in other words an eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary. The opening proposal is to defend a range of revolutionary thinkers and events which history looks on unfavourably. This ranges from Robespierre to Heidegger’s flirtation with Nazi Germany, to Mao and the Cultural Revolution. From this initial premise Zizek spins out across his usual dizzyingly wide frame of reference.

One theme is repetition. History is not pre-determined presenting instead a range of possibilities, some of which are retro-actively identified in the past to justify where we are today. This underpins the discussion in particular of Stalinism. Zizek urges the left to accept that Stalin represents one path out of the civil war in Russia in 1918-20 and the situation Lenin had reached by his death in 1924. But this does not make it the only possible path. It is odd that liberal thinkers who are so keen to criticise Marx for a perceived economic determinism in his approach to history also often see a direct line from Marx to the gulag. Instead, rather than trying to deny Stalin as ‘deviating’ from Marx we should accept it as one path, while seeking to ‘repeat’ Lenin so that we can seek a different outcome to the revolution. A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in his “Communist Hypothesis”.

Written in 2008, and therefore before the financial crisis, Zizek also takes aim at the liberal ‘third way’ with it’s acceptance of capitalism as the background of life, and something which we can only seek to ameliorate. The resulting failure to pursue radical outcomes ends with a gap where a progressive left ought to be, leading to all sorts of distortions from radical Islam to right wing populist demagogues. This is a common Zizek theme which he has discussed before, but which is prescient in the context of when the book was written.

The afterword to the second edition finishes by discussing the uses of violence, drawing a line between violence used in pursuit of revolution and that used to defend the existing order. I’m not sure this is entirely successful, but it certainly delivers what I suspect Zizek was aiming for, which is a provocative challenge to the standard liberal left view of the world.

If it is slightly less successful than some of his other books, that is probably for two reasons. First that having been written ten years ago it feels somewhat dated after the financial crisis. Second it includes several long sections where Zizek responds to criticisms levelled at him by other writers, which I’m sure are important to Zizek but sit oddly with the rest of the book and seem quite abstruse.

The related post I wrote on ‘repeating the past’ is here.

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

Review: Society of the Spectacle

Despite being written in the 1960’s this book feels very current. It’s depiction of a world where even time is commodified and where we are all in thrall to alienated images built to bind us into the class relations that underpin the modern world, fits well with our world of ‘reality’ television and celebrity. A world in which the abundance delivered by capitalism remains under the control of existing property relations, and as a result the majority of us remain dominated by the ‘machinery of modern consumption’. Things have only accelerated since this book was written.

In some ways this book is part of the “rediscovery” of Hegelian Marxism. Certainly it emphasises dialectical analysis and the ‘humanist’ side of Marx, the need for us to take control of our own future and create a world where we are connected to, rather than separated from, reality. It also emphasises the importance of the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”. We can only understand how to theorise about how the world should change by actively seeking to change it.

It shows an open antipathy to Stalinism specifically and to ‘standard’ soviet communism in general, and there is an interesting critique of the communism of bolshevism and the second international. While this probably felt radical in the 1960’s when the book was written, 27 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union it feels more routine. We have moved beyond the opposition to capitalism consisting only of a single monolithic alternative state, and in that sense this book feels ahead of it’s time.

Despite it’s association with the situationist movement in art, it is in fact the sections on art which feel least successful, the most over-intellectualised. While it makes good points about the commodification of art from across history, it is unclear what a more ‘real’ art, one less in thrall to the status quo, might be composed of or how it will come about.

That said this is a fascinating reflection on the impact of modern consumer capitalism on contemporary culture, and no less relevant to today for being 50 years old.

Debord, Guy Society of the Spectacle (Rebel Press, London, 1983)

Review: The Politics of Friendship

I know I’m supposed to find Derrida interesting and challenging and stimulating… etc.. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to follow his line of argument, certainly my background is not in philosophy. There is surely however an unnecessary level of obfuscation in the language Derrida uses in this book. Phrases such as:

“possibilisation of the impossible possible”

and

“the long time of a time that does not belong to time”

defy any meaning that I can uncover. This is not the language of someone trying to get complex philosophical points across to the reader, it is the language of someone showing off.

Buried underneath all this are some interesting points. The analysis of the need for an enemy in political discourse chimes well with the experience of the west since the fall of Communism. The interaction between this need for an enemy and the nature of modern warfare, and its impact on democratic politics is insightful. There are interesting points about the nature of friendship built on three separate bases: virtue, utility, and pleasure.

It’s just a shame that it is so hard to get to these points you have to wade through such a cascade of meaningless literary contortions.

While there is mention of how friendship and ‘fraternity’ influences the democratic polity this is essentially a bourgeois vision. The focus is on how the connections between individuals are created and maintained, with some discussion of what might be thought of as ‘identity’ – race, gender, etc.. What is entirely missing is any sense of solidarity, of a group finding common cause, of class.

There is no doubt that this is complex work of philosophy with insights to offer. I just can’t help thinking that the same points could have been made much easier to understand and in about half the space. And it doesn’t have an index either, which seems odd for a non-fiction book looking to be taken seriously.

Derrida, Jacques The Politics of Friendship (Verso, London, 2005)

Friends and Enemies

As I wrote in my review of it, I found Jacques Derrida’s book on the “Politics of Friendship” often jumbled and confused, full of complication that seems to be there simply for the sake of it. But buried underneath the obfuscation he does make some insightful points.

One section in particular discusses the importance of enemies in politics. This might seem counterintuitive in the context of a discussion about friendship but on reflection makes sense. Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – even after a second reading I couldn’t find a suitable quote to summarise Derrida’s thought. The key chapter is five “On Absolute Hostility”.

Post war western democracy was founded on the fear that a viable alternative existed. The communism of the Soviet Union had survived the turbulence of the Great Crash in better shape than the west, and had mobilised enormous resources to defeat Nazi Germany. The west defined itself by its opposition to the eastern bloc. Nations considered friendly were those which shared the same enemy, and included some that might not otherwise have been thought friends (and whom the west later turned on once communism had disappeared, such as Saddam Hussein).

When the communist bloc collapsed in the early 1990’s there was initial euphoria among the political class in the west, followed quickly by a palpable sense of panic. Organisations such as NATO were left wondering what their role in the new world might be. Countries including Britain and the United States struggled to define an effective foreign policy based on ethical standards rather than global struggle, leading to much hand wringing and subsequently to difficult interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and elsewhere.

9/11 presented the United States with a new enemy and the “war on terror” provided a new sense of purpose. Once again the identification of an enemy has driven not just foreign interventions, but also who is thought of as a friend. And in a mirror of the ‘mccarthyite‘ period of the 1950’s and the fear of a ‘red terror’ this split between friend and enemy is both external and internal, with widespread and unjustified suspicion of local Muslim populations and concern about ‘domestic terrorism’.

In other words the sense of certainty, grounding politics with an understanding of what it is “for”, has returned bringing an almost visible sense of relief. Once again the west can define what it is against, who it’s friends are. Whether this represents anything more than a means to channel support into the incumbent regime is another question.

Derrida, Jacques The Politics of Friendship (Verso, London, 2005)

Basic Badiou

I have read some Alain Badiou before, but his short book “Ethics, An Essay on the Understanding of Evil” seems to me to be a good basic introduction and I wanted to capture some basic notes on the key elements as I see them for future reference.

One caveat, I am no Badiou scholar, and my background in philosophy is ropey at best. So if a real philosophy student should stumble across this, please forgive my naivete.

A ‘situation‘ represents the world as it is now. This is the status quo – but also the ground on which radical change can take place. Within this world as it exists ‘knowledge‘ describes how we think that world works.

The ‘void‘ of a situation is the blind spot of the status quo. Something that exists as a gap or a hole that does not form part of existing knowledge. The world as it is does not see this void and cannot address it.

An ‘event‘ is the key break in a situation – in the current state of things – that opens the possibility of radical change. An ephemeral things which but one which has high impact, it

“brings to pass ‘something other’ than the situation, opinions, instituted knowledges; the event is a hazardous, unpredictable supplement, which vanishes as soon as it appears;”

(Badiou 2012, p.67)

An event ‘forces‘ knowledge to change, causes both a rapid and a radical development of what we think we know about the way the world works.

The ‘subject‘ is then not an isolated individual or some kind of subject of history. Rather subjects are ordinary individuals who are faithful to an event and to the truth it brings into being. They then cease to be ‘mortal’ individuals and instead realise their potential to be ‘immortal’. Despite the slightly opaque language I read this as reflecting the impact of the radical break represented by an event, something that changes how people see the world and react to it. For example, after the Russian Revolution, for a long time the working class outside Russia saw their struggle within capitalism in a different light. This subject therefore does not exist before the event.

Fidelity‘ represents the ongoing and continuing break in the situation. Subjects who stay true to the event are faithful to it, and their fidelity is what drives the truth-process.

Truth‘ and a ‘truth-process‘ is then a description of the complete process. That is subjects acting in the situation but faithful to an event which drives radical change. Truth is used in the sense of ‘holding true’ to something.

There are four specific categories which Badiou sees as being subject to this procedure: politics, art, love, and science, and it is possible fairly easily to think of examples of ‘events’ and the influence that they hold over subsequent history – the revolutions of 1789 and 1917 being the most obvious in the political arena where you can see their influence echoing through subsequent history well beyond the actual historic events. The influence of both revolutions on subsequent radical struggle is clear to see.

I think this way of thinking provides a powerful way of describing progressive movements and how the driving forces behind radical change are created and perpetuated. Time to re-read Badiou’s “The Communist Hypothesis“.

Badiou, Alain Ethics, An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Verso, London, 2012)

Lukacs, Dialectics, & Monbiot

I’ve been reading Tactics and Ethics by Georg Lukacs (see my review elsewhere), and among a number of interesting short essays are reviews of the collected letters of both Ferdinand Lassalle and Moses Hess. Lukacs’ criticism of the theoretical positions of both these thinkers, in particular Hess, gives him a platform to discuss Hegel’s dialectics and their influence on the thought of Marx.

Lukacs’ fundamental point is that a dialectical approach to history is one that emphasises progress and change. Modern society is founded on what has come before, and has a trajectory towards what it is going to be. The current structure of society is just one moment in its progress from what was and into what will be. While Hegel may have been misguided in basing this progress on the development of the ‘world spirit’, his basic approach was correct in seeing society as a progress from the past to the future with the present as simply one point along the path.

It is this connection of the  current structure of society both to it’s past as the ground on which it stands and to it’s future as the point towards which it is developing which marks Hegel’s profound contribution. A similar point is made about Marx’s approach by Bertell Ollman’s Dance of the Dialectic in particular in the segment on studying history ‘backwards’ (Ollman, 2003). It is something which when written down seems so obvious that it needs no emphasis.

And yet it is this point which Lukacs describes Hess as missing, with his emphasis instead on moral judgement, on the ‘malevolence of a handful of privileged individuals’ (Lukacs, 2014 p.223) and the way things ‘ought’ to be. Hess separates theory from practice by describing a theory of what needs to change that is separated from society as it exists now.

This is a debate that continues to this day. A recent article by George Monbiot based on his latest book talks about building a vision of a future society around how humans ‘ought’ to be based on an assumed natural state if only society could see past capitalism. Monbiot misses entirely that any future society must stand securely on the foundations of where we are now rather than on a ‘return’ to some pure human nature before capitalism. Progress will only be made when it is based on changing society as it is.

Lukacs underlines the importance of a dialectical approach, one that joins theorising about how the world is to how it must be changed. One of Marx’s most important statements is and remains the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

Lukacs, Georg Tactics and Ethics (Verso, London, 2014)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)