Tag Archives: Philosophy

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)

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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)

Dance of the Dialectic notes #4

A fourth and final set of rough notes taken while reading “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman, following the first, second, and third chunks.

Step 5

Critical Realism in Light of Marx’s Process of Abstraction

Broadly a restatement of earlier parts of Ollman’s book, particularly the use of abstraction and a philosophy of internal relations, as it might be used to alter and enhance the work of “Critical Realism”, primarily the work of Roy Bhaskar.

Marx’s Dialectical Method is More Than a Mode of Exposition

This section takes issue with an analysis which considers dialectics to be solely Marx’s means of exposition, of expressing his analysis. Rather that dialectics used by Marx in a complex intellectual process – first using the process to analyse and gain insight, then  reconstruct that analysis in his own thought. Only then can Marx uses what is in fact a carefully calibrated subset to attempt to explain his analysis to others.

In fact, Marx’s internal analysis is more complex and nuanced than shown in his published works which were carefully written for a more general audience. Therefore the key works to understand what he “really thought” are the Paris Manuscripts and Grundisse.

Why Does the Emperor Need the Yakuza?

In the final chapter, Ollman uses some of this mechanism of analysis to assess the Japanese state as a practical demonstration.

Dance of the Dialectic notes #3

A third batch of rough notes while reading Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” following on from the first and second installments.

Step 4

Studying History Backwards

For Marx, the best approach to studying how the past developed into the present is to work backwards from effect to cause – instead of more usual assessments of the influence of the “economic factor” in tracing causality forwards. This is rooted again the philosophy of internal relations. His approach is therefore rather “precondition and result”, the two things viewed dynamically. Investigating how something comes into being is done from results backwards through the necessary preconditions – ie. from the vantage point of what things turned into.

Ollman emphasises that this is not teleological – nothing is inevitable. Rather it is a question of what had to happen to make just this present possible. This is not to deny human agency – people could have chosen differently. Vantage point is the key. The alternative in writing history is to make choices about what to focus on based on criteria outside the historical process itself.

Marx’s interest in eg. feudalism is therefore not in explaining feudalism but looking for the things which were important in the rise of capitalism.

The section on the future is far less convincing. Marx projects current trends into the future to identify what communism might look like using the same tools, but this short segment is weak.

Dialectic as Inquiry and Exposition

As inquiry, the methods outlined (internal relations, abstraction, and the various dialectical tools) provide the means by which Marx investigates his subject. “The dialectic as inquiry is the search for internal relations within and between abstracted units”.

As exposition, the dialectic “is Marx’s means of expounding these relations to his readers”. The difficulty of making language explain the analysis explains why Marx continually reworked Capital for example. Main features include dealing with each subject from many vantage points, along with following each subject through the particular forms it assumes at different times and in different contexts.

Marx assumes or masks the larger part of what he identifies in a Relation in order to be able to express and explain the point he is trying to bring out. In other words we only see part of the meaning he sees or is trying to convey. He uses many different phrases to signal this, including ‘reflection’, ‘manifestation’, ‘in one of its aspects’.

The ‘identity’ of things which are seemingly different (“division of labour and private property are identical expressions”) causes confusion among critics. Critics also tend to look for causal relationships “setting apart horse and cart where Marx meant each conception to convey both”.

Marxism and Political Science

Marxism has not to date formed a significant part in political science. But he does have a theory of the state, albeit not one that is written clearly in a single place. Underneath these theories is Marx’s concern to locate relations within a system and depicting the effects of that system on the relational parts.

Ollman then restates Marx’s method, stating that it exists on 5 levels:

  1. Ontology: study of ‘being’. Marx asserts that reality exists outside us, but as a totality of internally related parts.
  2. Epistemology: how what is known is arranged in thought.
  3. Inquiry: what Marx is looking for and how he understands what he finds.
  4. Intellectual reconstruction.
  5. Exposition: how to explain capitalism as a system of structural interdependence relationally contained in each of it’s parts.

Ontology: the conception of ‘totality’ is the structured independence of its parts – interacting events, processes, and conditions – as viewed from any major part. This is contrasted to a structuralist conception which asserts the predominance of the parts over the whole.

Epistemology: four interlocking processes – perception; abstraction (how Marx separates what is perceived into distinct units); conceptualisation (the translation of what is abstracted into concepts with which to think and communicate); orientation (the effects abstractions have on his beliefs, judgements, and action). This last point is important. What any group believes and does is inextricably linked to the ways in which it grasps and defends both.

Inquiry: tracing out relations between units, frequently changing vantage point to see it from all angles.

Intellectual reconstruction: Marx’s ontology is the world as an internally related whole; he breaks this down into relational units with structured independence which through inquiry he traces the links between. Ollman suggests that Marx’s personal understanding is not the same as the analysis in his published work. The key difference in his work is not between the young or old Marx, but between the published and unpublished. The key texts to trace his personal understanding are the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundisse.

His reconstruction is a success because a) having connected the main parts he is able to catch a glimpse of the overall system at work in each of them; b) the reconstruction is both ‘superstructure’ and ‘base’, the key contradiction being between social production and private appropriation.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

Exposition: comprehension and explanation are distinct functions and involve different techniques. Marx attempts to explain capitalism from the perspective of each major social Relation. It seems that he was broadly dissatisfied though as he continually revised Capital for each new edition. As a book it is best approached as offering “successive approximations” looking at various different angles in turn.

“force the frozen circumstances to dance by singing to them their own melody.”

Why Dialectics, Why Now?

A recapitulation of the analysis that history should be studied “backwards”, using abstraction to bring out the patterns in which most change and interaction occur, and study in a way which never loses sight of how the whole is present in the part.

Four stages to this study:

  1. Look for relations between the main capitalist features of society;
  2. Find the necessary preconditions of just those relations;
  3. Project these into the future;
  4. Look backwards from the projected future to identify what in the present would form the preconditions for that future state.

We can differentiate between near and far futures, marking the need for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.