Friday, 19 December 2008

Habermas's Shoes

After seeing the footage of Al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at President Bush, who seemed to be almost smiling, I couldn't help wondering what Habermas would have made of it all. Shoe throwing is certainly not communicative action of the sort that Jurgen analysed at such great length; but then he never intended communicative action to be the only form of moral action. What would Habermas say? Would he say that we should always do what we can to promote dialogue, even if the other side recently decided to bomb your capital city without previously discussing the plan with the citizens and persuading them that it was indeed in their best interests to be bombed? At the time Al-Zaidi took his shoes off Bush was in Iraq and he was talking; a discourse of sorts was going on - a discourse which certainly wasn't improved by the throwing of the shoes. My guess is that this would be the crux for Habermas: as long as there is some kind of dialogue there is both hope and the obligation to continue it, however imperfect it might be. Al-Zaidi should have kept his shoes on and tried a little harder to put his case to the president, even if it had to be somehow distilled into the briefest of questions and even if it meant that he might not be admitted to any future press conferences.

But when so many of your fellow citizens have been killed or maimed or orphaned or turfed out of their property or forced into exile, and the man responsible is opposite you with a wry smile on his face and you feel the anger boiling within you and you expect him to say something dumb like: "Let's discuss this calmly," is it not completely reasonable to take your shoes off and throw them at that ridiculously smiling face? Surely the absence of a moral justification (assuming there isn't one) is no reason to condemn the act. The act is not only an act of violence; it is also an expression of the anger felt by someone who would be moral but who finds himself in a situation where morality is everywhere thwarted. Worse, he finds himself in a situation where the grossest immorality has been packaged and presented as a step forward for democracy, and where the conscientious participation in the little dialogue that is allowed inevitably lends a veneer of justification to the whole bloody episode. The virtuous man is not a man of the mildest emotions. Montaigne was quite right (in his essay on cruelty) that the virtuous man is one who can feel intense anger. In a situation like the one Al-Zaidi found himself in it is to be expected that the anger of the virtuous man will boil over (we are looking for virtuous men, not for saints). And we, as people concerned with the fate of virtue, should lend our support, even though we know that there is no moral justification for the act.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Poet, Christ, and a Girl Called Pam

Always on the lookout for torn halves we came across this odd little juxtaposition in a short piece about the eminent British poet John Betjeman. This section begins by emphasising the religious faith of the poet.

"Betjeman longed for unthinking belief, for an end to reflection and doubt:

The church is just the same, though now I know
Fowler of Louth restored it.
Time, bring back
The rapturous ignorance of long ago,
The peace, before the dreadful daylight starts,
Of unkept promises and broken hearts.
(Norfolk, 1954)

"This yearning to be overwhelmed by something greater than himself sometimes took physical forms. His poetry often expresses a longing to be mastered by large, athletic women:

Pam, I adore you,
Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl,
Whizzing them over the net, full of the strength of five.
(Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1940)

Monday, 15 December 2008

(Not) Learning to live better on less

A book that made a massive impression on me was "Living Better on Less". I came across it during the Age of the Yuppie and it played a (small) part in persuading me to take a vow of voluntary poverty - one I have kept.

When the economy really started to fall apart recently I thought: "This is my chance - my chance to write a sequel, perhaps with the title 'Living (Even) Better on (Even) Less.'" For a moment it seemed as if the crisis might prompt a kind of globalised soul-searching and lead to a fundamental change of values, with people not just resentfully trying to get by on a falling income but embracing the idea of actually living better on less, warming to the idea of, for instance, darning a few socks instead of immediately binning them and buying new ones. People, it seemed, would soon find a pleasure in not having to buy so much, and in not having to work so hard to buy so much that just ends up on the scrap heap. With a forced halt to over-consumption, wouldn't people inevitably sit down and rework their old, unthought assumptions about the Good Life?

But I have just heard on the BBC world business report that HMV reports that although its book sales are declining, the meltdown has had no effect whatsoever on sales of electronic games. Figures are also out from Play.com, which, apparently, is reporting that this will be its best festive season ever for sales. With this my hopes are dashed. Global soul searching and the hoped-for rethink of the Good Life would require a little more reading (not much, but enough to give booksellers a bit of a lift in these hard times). Instead, people are flocking to the bright, pixel-lit world of digital distraction to take their mind off things while the economy bottoms out.

Conclusion: Nothing will change and I will be wasting my time writing the above-mentioned sequel.

Unfortunately I do not remember any of the poem by Holderlin except the fragment "von Klippe zu Klippe", which appears in his description of a terrible waterfall cascading down a hillside and crashing horribly from one rocky ledge to another (if I remember the image correctly). What a perfect depiction of our failure to learn absolutely anything whatsoever from mistakes made in the past.

Confession of a Sickly Lad

Why were we never encouraged to read Hazlitt's essays? Had we been so, we might have come across the following paragraph (from essay 8 "Of the Ignorance of the Learned" in the collection entitled "Table Talk"), and we might have realised how etiolated and sickly we were becoming before it was too late (and now, of course, it is far, far too late).

"Any one who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape. It is an old remark, that boys who shine at school do not make the greatest figure when they grow up and come out into the world. The things, in fact, which a boy is set to learn at school, and on which his success depends, are things which do not require the exercise either of the highest or the most useful faculties of the mind. Memory (and that of the lowest kind) is the chief faculty called into play in conning over and repeating lessons by rote in grammar, in languages, in geography, arithmetic, etc., so that he who has the most of this technical memory, with the least turn for other things, which have a stronger and more natural claim upon his childish attention, will make the most forward school-boy. The jargon containing the definitions of the parts of speech, the rules for casting up an account, or the inflections of a Greek verb, can have no attraction to the tyro of ten years old, except as they are imposed as a task upon him by others, or from his feeling the want of sufficient relish of amusement in other things. A lad with a sickly constitution and no very active mind, who can just retain what is pointed out to him, and has neither sagacity to distinguish nor spirit to enjoy for himself, will generally be at the head of his form. An idler at school, on the other hand, is one who has high health and spirits, who has the free use of his limbs, with all his wits about him, who feels the circulation of his blood and the motion of his heart, who is ready to laugh and cry in a breath, and who had rather chase a ball or a butterfly, feel the open air in his face, look at the fields or the sky, follow a winding path, or enter with eagerness into all the little conflicts and interests of his acquaintances and friends, than doze over a musty spelling-book, repeat barbarous distichs after his master, sit so many hours pinioned to a writing-desk, and receive his reward for the loss of time and pleasure in paltry prize-medals at Christmas and Midsummer."

Deconstruction as Nihilism

We always had this hunch that deconstruction was a rather sophisticated game played with words, not something that had any intrinsic connection with the critical impulse - the need to engage with what feels like a social malaise - which had originally led us to philosophy, having spent some time on the barricades and been troubled by questions concerning the truth of our protest. In short, it just seemed obvious that deconstruction was a form of nihilism. So we didn't see the point in spending much time wading through the turgid Derridean monologues, and consequently never actually came up with a cogent critique.

Still, it would be nice to have a critique, which is why we were delighted to come across (14 years too late) a lovely paper by Jack M. Balkin entitled "Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent Justice." Balkin wants to rescue deconstruction and establish that it can be part of a movement for greater justice, and apparently it is in terms of justice that the moral/ethical/political/practical import of deconstruction can best be panned out, according to Derrida. Prior to rescuing deconstruction Balkin conveniently points out why it is need of a helping hand - and this is the bit we like.

Balkin picks up the argument in a lecture given at the Cardozo Law School in 1989, in which Derrida was responding specifically to criticisms of political quietism and irrelevance. In a nutshell, Derrida maintained that people fighting for justice were calling into question certain identities and differences in the prevailing discourse of justice enshrined in law, which is just the sort of thing deconstruction does. The deconstruction of the human/animal distinction would tie in, for instance, with the arguments and intentions of animal rights activists who want animals to be accorded rights previously reserved for persons. "Hence, Derrida wants to insist, deconstruction is relevant to justice because we can deconstruct the boundaries of who is considered a "person" or, more generally, a proper subject of justice. By challenging these boundaries, we can move from a world in which the conception of a subject of justice is wrongfully limited to one in which it receives a just expansion."

And now the criticism:

"Derrida has not shown that the only way in which these oppositions might be deconstructed leads to increasingly just results. If deconstruction calls into question the boundaries of subjects of justice, it does not follow that the only way to question these boundaries is to advocate their expansion. They may well be unstable, as Derrida insists. Yet their instability might be evidence that they are about to implode, rather than expand. Furthermore, even if there must be an expansion, one can expand the boundary in two opposite directions - by expanding the scope of what is assigned to the "human," who is a subject of justice, or by expanding the scope of what is assigned to the "nonhuman," which is not a proper subject of justice. In this way, the instability of these boundaries might well be used, as it has in the past, to show that blacks, or Asians, or women are not fully human beings, or that the distinction between women and animals, for example, is so unstable that it cannot fully be maintained.

"Indeed, one can understand the history of bigotry as the continuous deconstruction of an imagined unity of humankind. It is the perpetual claim that the unity of humankind is a pious fiction, a papered-over discontinuity and heterogeneity, and that the Other within this imagined unity must be located and understood in all of its difference and inferiority. The egalitarian claims to rediscover the true similarity of the subjects of justice by reclaiming those who were wrongly grouped with nonsubjects; the bigot claims to rediscover the true similarity of nonsubjects of justice by rejecting those who were wrongly grouped with the subjects of justice. Both deconstruct boundaries and categories, and the act of deconstruction does not decide between them."

So deconstruction is a tool that can be put in the service of both our favorite or our most hated social movements. Balkin tries to rescue deconstruction from this nihilistic conclusion by saying that both the discourse and practice of justice rely on and ultimately spring from an inchoate sense of justice - a sense that achieves its determinacy through our local cultural mediations - and this is just what the practice of deconstruction relies on and is guided by. And a deconstruction so guided could not be called nihilistic.

But this is singularly unconvincing. There are many inchoate senses - some of them nice and some not so nice - and my hunch is that deconstruction just doesn't have the resources to come down on one side or the other. The reason may be that it does not self-consciously speak out of and tie itself to a particular historical situation. A useful contrast here is with Adorno, who never hides the fact that his thinking is orientated by the experience of surviving the holocaust and of reacting to its horror. However general and philosophical the discourse becomes, Adorno insists on that connection with a particular historical situation. And Adorno continually comes back to the way philosophy is implicated in or complicit in that historical situation. There is nothing comparable - is there? - in Derrida's philosophical works.

By the way, Balkin's paper really is nice. He is sympathetic to Derrida but cuts through opaque generalities with ease and brings them face to face with the nitty gritty of trying to do justice in a court of law. He beautifully shows how the idea of an infinite responsibility to the Other, which sounds so unequivocally moral on first hearing, would promote injustice without some way of seeing that the victim is not duty-bound to see her situation from the point of view of the oppressor. This - another by the way - ties in with our immediate moral predicament of whether or not to carry on being a hunt saboteur.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Doubting Hegel #1

Hegel doesn't have to worry about the pineal gland because consciousness is, from the beginning, embodied. Is this not, though, just the idea of embodiment? "What else could it be?" you might reply. "Hegel is an ideas man and could not possibly paste the body itself into his text." No, the probem is otherwise: Hegel seems to do the sort of thing we see in Kant and try to rely on a super-thin notion of embodiment that might encompass all self-conscious historical agents – thin enough to capture merely the conditions for the possibility of self-consciousness. But does the particularity of the body not make some very important differences? Can Hegel really hold apart the ideal from the empirical?

For the married man the doubts might be prompted by the realisation that his domestic relationship bears so little resemblance to the master-slave dialectic. "Why is my wife not interested in the sort of struggle for recognition that Hegel describes? Why does she show no inclination to risk her life in a battle of wills, or just show an interest in doing something exciting like skydiving?" he might wonder. Is Hegel not describing a dynamic that is peculiarly patriarchal and ascribing it (falsely) to the eternal structure of self-consciousness?

Our hunch is that psychology does make a difference, and that Hegel errs in assuming he can write the phenomenology of spirit without relying on the empirical stuff that psychology tries to fathom.

Which is why – to be honest – we are more tempted to read Nietzsche now than Hegel. The strength of Nietzsche was to put the psyche – with all its abysmal opacity – at the centre.

Apocalypse Now... and again

Flashes of torn things keep coming back to us. One of them is a scene from the film "Apocalypse Now", in which Martin Sheen is on a small boat heading up a winding river into the dark depths of Vietnam in search of Kurt, played by the unforgettable Marlon Brando. Somehow Sheen is handed his mail along the way, begins reading a letter from his wife, and reflecting, which is when we hear him say that when he is in the jungle he thinks of his wife, and when he is with his wife he thinks of the jungle.

In our experience, it is not necessary to spend time in some God-foresaken Vietnamese jungle in order to experience this ambivalence towards both domestic life and its opposite.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Marx's complicity: a voice from the cave

Quite by chance we came across some biographical notes about Millican Dalton - the insurance clerk who, in his mid 30s sometime between the wars, dropped out of the rat race and went to live in a cave on a bed of bracken leaves in Borrowdale in the English Lake District. The vegetarian pacifist with an addiction to very strong coffee died in the winter of 1947 at the age of 79 when he had moved from his cave to a tent in the valley to escape the worst of the weather.

To say that his story strikes a chord with us is an understatement. If we were looking for a guru (which we definitely are not) Dalton would be our man (although Dalton was only really interested in taking people on walks through the wilder parts of the Lake District, not in becoming some hideous lifestyle coach).

We mention him here, though, for another reason - because the story of him and his cave in Borrowdale reminds us of a sort of Marxist blindspot. It is a source of immense sadness to us (and one reason why we left the country of our birth) that we could not follow in Dalton's footsteps even if we had wanted to. The entirety of the Lake District has been turned into a National Park with rules and men and women in uniform on patrol. And the hillside with the cave is now the property of the National Trust who have fixed a cast iron sign to the entrance of the cave forbidding fires (even, presumably on damp autumnal evenings when a man would have to light a fire in his cave just to survive). The collection of fallen branches as firewood is also prohibited, regardless of whether the collector ever puts a match to them.

Everywhere, it seems (and is it not so?) in that land that was once a haven for the eccentric has been fenced off and patroled so that there is absolutely nowhere left to escape to.


Now, from the point of view of the Marxist I imagine there is nothing to object to here. Nature is nothing of value until it is worked on, and Nature as a whole is there to be dominated in the great historical advance of the forces of production and their corresponding relations of production, and there must be more such domination because socialism or communism or whatever you want to call the Good Life will only be possible when those forces of production have reached a tremendous pitch. The idea that there should be things that are untouched and that should remain untouched - the idea that, in an act of humility, it might be good to lie down amongst them (on your bed of bracken leaves) or simply walk through in wonder - this just cannot make sense within the Marxist framework.

Of course the National Trust is not a Marxist organisation, but I guess the Marxist is duty bound to support it (or something similar to it) and affirm the historical neccessity and the trememdous progressive value of an organisation that will at last manage these natural resources and ensure that nothing - even what now passes for wilderness - is beyond social control and does not bear the stamp of society.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The mind and the arse

Another unformed idea that we will probably never follow up: There is a mysterious connection between the arse and the mind.

Background: Freud talks somewhere about phases in very early childhood development and in connection with this develops a typology of characters (people whose development has been arrested at one stage or another?). One phase is the anal. When I first read this I thought it was just the product of a truly perverse imagination. And then the recollection of some very odd bowel-related behaviour in my own youth (I will spare you the details – it was not nice).

Only now has it occurred to me that there might be some connection between being anal and my inability to stop this obsessive grappling with my ideas – holding onto them instead of letting them drift away as ideas naturally tend to do in order to take pleasure in less intellectual pursuits. Is this cogitation not repulsively anal? Was there, in the end, no need for Descartes to resort to the ridiculous idea of the pineal gland to link up the mind and the body because, in truth, they were one and the same thing – the mind being not the body in general but the part at the greatest poetic distance from the lofty seat of ratiocination: the arse?

Hang on, though. Am I not according some priority to the arse, as if it comes first and the mind is some outgrowth of it – some hideous protruberance? But, as any mother knows, the arse in its original form is an orifice with no self-control. It poses no obstruction to the natural evacuation of the bowels, hence the importance of wrapping the loins of the infant well when it is taken to the supermarket. If the natural evacuative process is interrupted, this only starts occuring later on. And could this not be the work of the nascent mind? Could this nether region not be the place where the mind first flexes its mental muscles – the first muscle being the sphincter – feeling for the first time its ability to go against nature, to arrest the otherwise relentless flow of nature?

Of course there can be no biological determinism here. At best, the anal sphincter can only be a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for the evolution of the mind, as we can see from another bearer of that important ring of muscle: the goldfish, which, if we are to judge from its behaviour, is a stranger to philosophical reflection.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Real people: Where are they?

Werther wrote a nice piece entitled The Grad Student about a meeting with someone nasty in academia and including a reference to real people beyond the confines of the college. That connected so strongly with the memory of a little epiphanic moment I had decades ago when it seemed, having wandered off campus, that I had found myself amongst truly real people. (Alas, how the mind plays tricks on one.) So I wrote a lengthy comment describing my little epiphany and my subsequent disillusion (although I don't think there was anything necessary about my disillusion or that any great generalisation can be made on the base of it).

By the way, Werther begins with an interesting comment about character. Yes, I am all for character (but my interest in it may be a function of my lack of it). More - much more - needs to be written about character. (And another by the way: one of my gripes about Marxism - or a Marxism that has ignored Nietzsche - is that it seems to say nothing about character. Too much forces of production and relations of production and surplus value and reification and commodification, but no character and no reflection on what happened to character and how we might get it back - assuming it could still be rescued.)

First thought about freedom

A thought to be followed up later (blogging, after all, seems to allow for just thinking off the top of your head): the political discourse over here puts freedom as the number one value (if I am not mistaken) but people seem to have very, very little interest in any meaningful notion of freedom (I doubt whether many people in those flag waving crowds at election rallies were thinking to themselves: "Hey, we're free" or "I'm so free" or "This is it - this is me free - at last - free at last") so it seems there are two choices: drop the nonsense about freedom because it just doesn't connect with social reality or damn well do something to get people interested in their freedom (but what would that be? a military coup? Mmm?).

That needs thinking through (or binning maybe).

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The folly of EU grants

It will probably all stop now that so much wealth has gone up in smoke, but up to now there has been wave after wave of EU funding for various projects in Greece. They all seem to be organised in the same way and backed up by the same line of thinking. One example: grants given to the thousands of little private schools in Greece to help them connect to the internet and gain a presence on the web. It works like this: There is a short list of things the grant scheme covers, schools pay for those things and then fill in an application form to have the cost covered by grant money minus the VAT (sales tax).

Does that sound sensible? Does that sound like the best way to raise educational facilities?

In practice, what happens is that everyone simply sees a great opportunity to cash in instead of being inspired to fundamentally overhaul the way teaching and learning is organised. The typical school, I imagine, finds a way to get a web site made, but has little idea how to use internet technology in the educational process. The scheme seems to assume that with the financial incentive schools will take an interest in new technology and somehow educate themselves. But no. The web site is made; the grant money is gratefully received; and the school goes back to teaching in the way that it has done for decades before the idea of the hypertext transfer protocol ever dawned on the likes of Tim Berners and his team. A lot of money for very little gain.

And in Brussels (or wherever these schemes are hatched) do they not see that they are setting things up for a huge scam? In a country like Greece (perhaps the same as elsewhere) every self-respecting businesswoman can find someone to sell them IT stuff and write a receipt for twice the money they actually paid. And the sums are large. A little school with only three or four classrooms can make thousands of euros in this scam. The computers will find their way into schools, but the EU will have paid a massively inflated price for them.

My only conclusion is that the people in Brussels (if that is where they are) overlook this massive and predictable financial loss because of an ideological commitment to a half-baked free market philosophy. The money must be given directly to individual business people as a spur to private enterprise (in practice: pocket-lining) rather than give it to some public sector group, which would smack too much of socialism.

But wouldn't it have been so much better for education (and supposedly advances in education were what was really at stake here) to do just that: use the money to set up public sector initiatives: free seminars and workshops organised locally for school owners to find out about all the useful things that can be done with new technology (including all the free things that can be done - another oversight of a scheme which assumes that progress can only be made by purchasing things). And as for the hardware, the state could have set up its own bulk-purchasing organisation and bought everything for a quarter of the price the EU finally paid for it, and then give it to the schools for free - to schools that have attended a few seminars and workshops and shown that they are most probably in a position to do something useful with the hardware.

Would that be socialism or just common sense?

The persistence of religion

Back at the University of Essex in the 1980s religion simply wasn't an issue for us. I suspect that there were a few (more?) quietly religious people attracted more to Heidegger, Derrida and writers talking about the Other with a capital "O", but they never made their faith, or faith as such, into an issue. It just never came up for discussion, as far as I can remember.

In truth, religion persists. Take a short walk from the academy in any direction and you will soon meet people for whom there is more than can be grasped by the modern mix of science, epistemology and the dubious ethics within the limits of modern rationality (Kant, Rawls, Habermas, et al).

The question is: is this a sign that the Enlightenment didn't drive its message home hard enough and really sweep away the last vestiges of medieval mysticism or is the persistence of religion a sign that the Enlightenment was lacking? I used to believe the former but slowly I have come to feel that the latter is where the truth lies.

One issue is death. For the Enlightenment death is passed over in silence or left as a fact among other facts (perhaps being lumped in with an understanding of how organic matter is composted). Is it necessary to argue that this is a failing, that it is just plain unacceptable when seen from the standpoint of someone whose loved one has died?

The shortcoming is evident in Marxism. Does Marx anywhere concern himself with the death of the worker? How will the worker die? What will his/her death mean? How important is it that the culture (any culture worth affirming) embrace death and give it significance instead of ignoring it or treating it as just another moment in a cycle that is adequately described by organic chemistry?

Saturday, 29 November 2008

A hunt saboteur beyond good and evil?

Actually he had no intention and no interest in becoming a hunt saboteur in the beginning. He was angry but he tried to speak to the red necks in fatigues in a polite way - as polite as possible given how worked up he was and how out of breath after rushing up the footpath - asking them to move further away from the house because the sound of the shots was so irritating (disturbing, actually, for someone who retreated to the countryside for the quiet only to find a few months later when the hunting season started that almost every evening and weekend in the winter grown men with guns and with their sights set on the quivering breasts of birds that are barely more than two mouthfuls big make you feel that you have been transported back to Sarajevo during the siege). He thought there might be an appeal to the idea of respect for others. No need to bring animal rights into it, so he emphasised the nuisance, the annoyance they were causing to others, and how it would be so easy to remedy the situation by just walking further away from the house. He could point to a huge sweep of land stretching all the way to the hills in the far distance, without houses or roads - seemingly just as suitable for blasting lead pellets into the soft flesh of our winged kin. No, they would not budge an inch. No, they were not causing a nuisance to anyone, they said. They and their fathers and their fathers' fathers had been hunting at that very spot year in, year out for literally ages. Bang! They carry on hunting, and the sound is deafening. (And those pellets are made of lead by the way. The European Union has gone to such lengths to ban lead in petrol, but it remains permissible to spray the countryside with lead pellets - especially worrying when it is on our side of the watershed.)

A man with a dog that shows no interest in barking faced with a red neck with a gun who refuses to stop shooting feels an acute mix of frustration, impotence and rage. As he walks back down the hillside with the gunfire behind him and the pellets audibly falling around him, he feels something has to be done. Action must be taken. A protest must be made. It is an imperative from the guts (one is tempted to say from the blood, but maybe not).

For the record, he phoned the police, who - it turned out - saw nothing wrong with shooting so close to the place where peace-loving people live. Just out of interest, he asked if the policeman was a hunter. Yes, he was.

Since then he has become a hunt saboteur. Reluctantly and with a bad conscience, but he has done it.

The problem now is the pricks of his conscience. If he had to justify it, could he? He wanted to feel he was on some kind of moral high ground - that there was some kind of moral/ethical justification for these little, hamfisted acts of sabotage. But it soon seemed as if there was no moral justification. Sabotage goes beyond morality, does it not? The moral life presupposes what Kant called in the Critique of Judgment (admittedly not about morality) the sensus communis (a shared background of values). Without that, the person for whom morality is an issue and who objects to hearing the few remaining birds being shot has two choices: passive resignation or amoral action.

While trying to get things clear the image of Habermas floated into view. There must be dialogue, together with a respect for everything that a good dialogue presupposes, like letting the best argument rule the day. Hmmm. But what if the red necks refuse to enter into any kind of meaningful dialogue? Suddenly it seems that Habermas takes dialogue for granted. If the other refuses to discuss the matter, dialogue breaks down and further talk is pointless. The red neck is convinced he is in the right (it is a tradition here, after all, for grown men to put on camouflage clothing and shoot animals for fun in their free time). He and all his fellow red necks, however, see absolutely no need for the distressed resident to be convinced of the rightness of what they are doing. It is all well and good to argue that communication is a privileged locus of morality because there are principles implied there that map so nicely onto the Kantian paradigm, but if the bastards refuse to communicate, what do you do? You inevitably have to break some rules, destroy a few things, make the lives of some others difficult. This is to throw Kant out of the window (even if the hope is that after you rush downstairs you may later be able to go outside and pick him up again).

He wonders: Does anger not have its right? If you keep pushing me and angering me, eventually I will respond in an unpleasant way. Is this not life (our sort of life)? Is it not a denial of this life to turn the other cheek? (And in this case what would it be to turn the other cheek? "You shot that bird. Hey, shoot another bird."?) It is not as if this could ever melt the hard heart of the hunter, so nothing would be gained. (Not that this saboteur on his own really believes that there is something to be gained.)

So is the hunt saboteur not, in a sense, beyond good and evil? He acts in the name of morality but is acutely aware that what he is doing is unjustifiable in the present circumstances. (And how horribly those paternal echoes of "Two wrongs do not make a right" ring in his ear.)

And then a Kantian thought: If he were not alone in this reaction, would the sabotage not help to clear the ground for a new evaluation of things - a new sensus communis that would marginalise the hunter and make him lose his narrow-minded cockiness?

Is this, though, an abandonment of morality for the sake of morality or an abandonment of it simply because one just has to get something off one's chest?

Friday, 28 November 2008

Driving with Hegel on my mind

A couple in a car. Lost. He from a gloomy part of northern Europe. She from sunnier parts much further south. Married long enough for the hours of silence to have ceased being an issue. He - driving, because he is expected to drive but also because he wants to drive, because it is less boring and it takes his mind off the fact that there is so little to be said now - reaches for the map, again. She notices, sleepily at first, then says they are lost - that he doesn't know where he is going. Immediately she sits up and urges that they ask someone. Pull over and ask that man over there, she says. Every fibre of his being resists the idea. He tries to ignore her insistence and looks at the map. If he can only work out where he is, he will be able to find the route they need to take. A little time, a little searching is all it will take. Patience. Calmness. We/he/I can find the way. She loses her temper.

....

Back at home. It is cold but not very cold. She curls up on the sofa under a duvet and complains of how cold it is - of how it is so very cold and how she cannot stand it. Won't you light the stove, she asks. He cannot remember a time when she lit the stove.

....

He is a skeptic. She has found the path that will hopefully lead to spiritual fullfilment. There are spiritual leaders who show the way - leaders who can even predict the future, it seems. The Turk will lose Constantinople. The writing is on the wall. It is only a matter of time.

....

Thinking back to "The Phenomenology of Spirit" and watching his wife, he feels that something in the dynamic of this relationship is absent from that intriguing (if ultimately incomprehensible) book - something that ought really to be there. That oh-so famous master-slave dialectic now seems more dubious than ever. Was it really supposed to sum up THE wellspring of history? But it seems to assume that humanity strives for freedom, autonomy, dominance - all of humanity. The slave was one who wanted to be the master but who gave up first in the struggle. The man who reaches for the map and who lights the stove and who is so skeptical sees a woman who chose heteronomy before the struggle even started. Surely there are many, many more who are only too happy to be led - who want to be led - who do not want to drive - who do not put a priority on their independence? Does this not reveal a little psychological blindspot on Hegel's part, or is it I who have missed something?

Is it fair, though, to call this heteronomy? It implies a lack that could just be a figment of the imagination of the one who refuses to wind down the window and ask for help. With a great intellectual effort he can just about glimpse the suggestion that she wants to ask because it is enjoyable to do so. She has a reason to speak to a new person - a new person who might add a new shade, a new touch, a new story to her already rich social world - her personal world. He is not completely immune to that, but it has long since ceased to be an instinct (if it ever was). There is something in him that denies it - that refuses it. People are met, of course, despite this. And after the fact he appreciates it. But the feeling is weak and never manages to connect with the springs of action in the future. He will always prefer to reach for the map instead of wind the window down and ask the stranger.

At the end of the day, which of the two is to be found lacking?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

A Paradigmatic Pessimist

Psychologists - I have been told - occasionally put a glass half full of water on the desk and ask the patient to describe what they see. The pessimists are said to be those who see not the visible plenitude but the lack, calling the glass half empty.

I confess: Show me a glass that is full to the brim and overflowing and I will say: "Hah! The glass is full now, but it won't be long before it is half empty."

Protectionism: the power of a suffix

As political leaders feel the sand slip between their fingers and start to panic, pronouncements are made about what must not be done. An oft-heard soundbite is that there must be no return to protectionism.

What amazes is how this very word has acquired a power to close off debate. There really is no need for debate once it has been uttered. If something can be called protectionism, it must simply be bad - very bad. Isn't that just obvious?

Hang on, though. Isn't this a bit odd? Protectionism is about protecting things and isn't this - prima facie - good? Since the verb "protect" is not short of positive connotations, how have they managed to make such a closely related noun into a word that sounds so bad?

An odd sort of language game (would Wittgenstein recognise it as such?) is being played which puts the onus where it ought not to be. Because it is so easy to label a policy protectionist without any argument to justify such a slur, the onus immediately falls on the person who would protect - they have to justify curtailing economic liberties (known simply as "freedom" - another dubious identification that has also been pulled off by another linguistic sleight of hand (strange how spin gets so firmly sedimented in language)). The game is set up in such a way that there is no assumption about anything being worthy of protection. "Protect what?" The forces of this dubious "freedom" are on the offensive - they set the terms of the debate - and who are you to stand in their way? "A detour? Why? Justify yourself? Try and justify diverting the course of world history?" The attempt to justify it has come to sound almost blasphemous.

This was a topic that came up very briefly yesterday in a paintshop. Somehow my joking complaint about the price of five litres of undercoat (25 euros) touched off a short exchange about globalisation and the free market. The shopkeeper indicated gruffly that he was having none of it. The spin had not got to him. But he was a man of very few words - very firm opinions but with little to say about them. Perhaps those most affected are those who play the language game - those who inevitably have to accept the terms of the debate that have already been established by the mysterious forces of linguistic imperialism (hegemony someone said - was it Laclau?).

At the risk of mixing up too many metaphors, the shoe should really be on the other foot. If people are in work in a country and feel some sense of security and some sense that life is not the bitch that elsewhere it is said to be, then whoever wants to throw the borders open and make a mess of the situation ought to be grilled long and hard and forced to come up with a bloody good explanation for why this is necessary. Why does this not occur? It is simply announced that these are the Forces of Freedom and it is taken for granted that the gates must be opened.

Despite the recent harranging of that blackguard protectionism, it is to be hoped that the present catastrophe will provide an opportunity for the terms of the debate to shift somewhat. The promise of unending economic growth, which was always twinkl ing in the eye of the economic libertarian, has proved to be a deceit. Greed has lost its theoretical underpinning and is now seen for what it really is. Is the ideology not going to collapse? Is the table on which the language game is played not going to be turned?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Returning from the monastery

Wouldn't it be better to dwell for ten or fifteen minutes upon eternity instead of switching on the telly to see the news?

The believer will argue at great length about the Truth of what he believes in, but it is almost certainly the case that this argument has no connection whatsoever with the reasons why he is such a passionate believer.

How can people pursue their own salvation so calmly while the rest of the world is damned? ("You are in our prayers," though.)

What angers the Orthodox Greek is not so much atheism as Catholicism. The stranger walks by unmolested while an unholy row goes on within the family.

How odd it is that some people can still talk in all earnestness about sin when, for so many others, the word is little more than the echo of a myth.

Although it sounds somewhat trivial on his lips, John Lennon's "Imagine" is not entirely unconnected to the message of Christ. Was the "Good News" not supposed to spread the message of peace and harmony? If so, what are we to make of the total lack of progress in that direction over the last 2,000 years? Is that not time enough to judge whether the Christian ideal of selfless sociality can lead anywhere?

Is it not said somewhere that the meek shall inherit the earth? If earthly inheritance matters, is it wise to put everything off until the apocalyptic day of divine intervention, which might mean having to wait another 2,000 years or perhaps a lot, lot longer?

It is interesting to listen to believers telling each other about the various miracles. They listen so eagerly. This is what they want to hear. They must believe that miracles have occurred. Above all, they want to hear, not about icons that weep, but about the miracles performed by those with an unshakeable faith. The subtext is: Faith is salvation.

The message today was: humility is far more important than doing good deeds. The introversion of the Orthodox Church is remarkable. Society really is left to rot.

What would be more difficult for a Protestant: entertaining the idea that the Orthodox dogma concerning the Holy Spirit might be right or kissing an Orthodox icon? Isn't the dogma more of a balcony than a corner stone of the religious edifice?

The skeptical world-weary Protestant can sense an echo of a lost significance in an Orthodox Church with its dark interior and the oil lamps flickering before the glimmering icons and the chanting in a language that goes back to the time of Saint Paul. There is a real pull. Even the atheist is moved. But how all that evaporates as soon as the theological discussion begins over coffee and biscuits in the Arhondariki. How repulsive the beating of that dogmatic drum is.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Meltdown and Fordist Nostalgia

Does anyone really understand credit default swaps? "Arcane" is really an understatement, and yet it seems that the market in credit default swaps rose to something like three times the U.S. gross domestic product. From what we can gather, credit default swaps are effectively a way of betting that a company will go bust.

Then there is the degree of leverage. Everyone, it seems, speculating with huge sums of borrowed money. Why just invest the thousand dollars you own when you can borrow another 99 and play the tables in the capitalist casino with $100,000? Apparently, this kind of leverage ratio (around 100:1) was behind the collapse of the two largest companies in the mortgage business in the U.S. (Fanny May and Freddie Mac - and who chose the names by the way?).

Trying to make sense of this huge parasitic economy almost makes you nostalgic for the old image of the capitalist who built a real business with bricks and mortar and employed people (even if there was a questionable extraction of surplus value) to manufacture real things that could go in a showroom or on a shelf. Heck, that almost seems like an idyllic state of affairs in comparison to the crazy business of pure speculation where there is no commitment to the kind of real economic activity that creates jobs and keeps communities together.

Suicide

Suicide rates were used by Durkheim as an indication of levels of anomie (if I remember correctly). Now that the economy is collapsing, aren't levels of anomie rising? Shouldn't a small percentage of players in the leveraged lido of speculative capitalism feel some of that anomie?

In the media, at least, I haven't come across any reports of suicides. Wall St, it seems, is a long way from India, where we heard of the farmers who had taken out loans (miniscule by Western standards) to buy new GM produce from Monsanto promising an unprecedented yield and invulnerability to pests - crops that were then destroyed by pests, plunging the farmers into debt - a debt which was so shameful for them that they chose to drink lethal quantities of pesticide rather than contintue to live.

Does no one in the credit default swaps business feel like drinking pesticide? Is it just impoverished Indian farmers who have a sense of honour?

Monday, 6 October 2008

Castoriadis on the Meaninglessness of Capitalism

In a minor essay entitled The Crisis of the Identification Process Castoriadis really touches base. He sums up the crisis of meaning in capitalist societies - the crisis which is at the root of our search for alternatives.

Every society, he says, needs to develop a self-representation - it needs to come up with an idea, or an image (this being the work of what Castoriadis calls the social imaginary) of what it is (in our case, an idea of who we are) and an idea of what it is up to (an idea of the ends of social action). This self-representation has to move people - Castoriadis goes on to talk about societies loving themselves - and the conception of the ends of social action needs to motivate people. In the words of the psychoanalyst, these must be representations that people cathect.

Modern societies instituted two central significations: the ever-increasing rational mastery of nature and society, and the search for a form of social freedom, whether it be liberal, socialist or revolutionary. The second has virtually withered away, and what remains is no more than rare acts of voting and frequent acts of shopping - neither of them capable of defining a "we" that has some solidity.

To quote: "The sole signification truly present and dominant today is the capitalist one, that of the indefinite expansion of "mastery," which at the same time-and here we come to our central point-finds itself emptied of all the content that might endow it with the vitality it once enjoyed and that could, for better or for worse, allow the processes of identification to be carried out.

"One essential part of this signification was its mythology of "progress," which gave a meaning both to history and to future-oriented aims and which also gave a meaning to society, such as it was, as supposedly the best support for this kind of "progress." We know that this mythology is now falling into ruin. But what, we may ask, is today the subjective expression, for individuals, of this signification and this reality that is the "expansion," apparently "unlimited," of "mastery"?

"For a small number, it is, of course, a certain "power," whether real or illusory, and the increase thereof. For the overwhelming majority of people, however, it is not and cannot be anything but a continual increase in consumption, including alleged leisure, which has now become an end in itself. What is becoming, then, of thegeneral model of identification that the institution offers to society and that it proposes to and imposes on individuals as social individuals? The model is now the individual who earns the most and enjoys the most. Things are as simple and banal as that."

This reminds me of Thatcher's rise to power in the U.K., which was supposed to be some kind of renaissance of British culture - a re-invigoration of what Castoriadis would have called the British imaginary. In practice I don't remember much more happening than a war with the Argentinians (over a handful of islands whose real value was never made particularly clear) and a campaign launched in the media to "Buy British".

It also makes me think of the prevailing image of governments in the West - especially in Europe. The government tries to project itself as little more than a competent manager of the economy. In Europe there is absolutely no attempt to engender a self-consciously European culture with a new social identity and a new sense of purpose as Europeans. From the standpoint of the party politician, society is little more than the market and the institutions that support it. Once society is identified as the coexistence of consuming monads the need to define - to create - some sense of "we" simply cannot register.

As a psychoanalyst Castoriadis emphasizes the psychological role that an enduring sense of this "we" can play for the individual. The identification serves as a defense against death - the identification with an imagined imperishable collectivity is a way of living with one's mortality. The absence of this helps to explain the modern individual's desperate need for a continual supply of distractions. In the words of Cornelius: "The modern individual lives in a headlong flight from the knowledge both that he is going to die and that nothing he does, strictly speaking, has the slightest meaning. So he runs, he jogs, he shops in supermarkets, he goes channel surfing, and so on-he distracts himself."

However much liberals insist that there is a liberal society (and for the market to work there must be a society of sorts) there is still this lack of a meaningful sense of who we are, what we are doing and where we are heading. Some liberal theoreticians might have an answer to that question and feel happy with it, but in actually existing liberal cultures no answer is instituted - we are not (consciously) doing something together, striving to achieve some collective goal. As individuals we are just out to maximize our personal happiness, and as politicians we are just trying to tweak the money supply to ensure that there is continual economic growth (because if gaps started to appear on the supermarket shelves the entire liberal edifice would crumble).

Toward the end of the essay Castoriadis makes a point that has been on my mind for a while now: going beyond capitalism requires going back to the past. History has become virtually meaningless. The liberation of the individual as a consumer presupposes that the past is made irrelevant (because history is our past, not mine). As he puts it: "I do not see how a new historical creation could effectively and lucidly stand up to and oppose this bizarre formlessness in which we live unless it were to instaurate a new and fecund relation to tradition. ...Thatdoes not mean that we should restore traditional values as such or because they are traditional; rather, we should establish a critical attitude whereby we are capable of granting recognition to some values that have been lost."

In a sense, a new radicalism will also have to be a new conservatism.

Marcuse, the Media and Perpetual War

Here is a quotation from Herbert Marcuse (from his essay "Repressive Tolerance") that touches on the issue of peace.

"The authorities in education, morals, and psychology are vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency; they are less vociferous against the proud presentation, in word and deed and pictures, of ever more powerful missiles, rockets, bombs - the mature delinquency of a whole civilization."

In connection with the debate about peace Marcuse's essay has an interesting implication: We need to understand the delinquency of our civilization. The cause of peace needs more John Lennons and more songs in the style of "Imagine" but it also needs more thoughtfulness. The thinking is especially necessary because of a strange phenomenon - the strange coexistence of a popular belief in peace and a popular tolerance of perpetual conflict and war. Many people have got John Lennon's message and they support the ideal of peace, but they see it as nothing more than a dim and distant goal - little more than a pleasant dream - and they accept that in the meantime the fighting is bound to continue. For the sake of peace we need to understand how people can believe in peace but tolerate war.

Undoubtedly there are numerous causes. One of them, though, must be the influence of the media. In addition to turning violence into a form of entertainment and allowing each child to see thousands and thousands of entertaining murders, there is also the peculiar way that violence is treated in the news.

For the editors of news programmes, terrible acts of violence make good news. If Palestinian rockets hit an Israeli house, this is news. People must see the house, the hole in the roof and the fragments of the rocket. They must hear the local people denouncing Palestinian terrorists. The average viewer is left with the impression that the world is filled with warring parties. There cannot possibly appear to be a solution because nothing is explained. The terrorists appear to be incomprehensible beings who were presumably born to hate. But behind every Palestinian rocket is a long history - almost invisible in the media - of injustice. I don't think I have ever seen a report on the news of Israeli checkpoints on Palestinian soil, and it does not take much imagination to appreciate the damage that is done when the Israeli army controls the movements of Palestinians in and out of their villages on land that is internationally recognised as theirs. Similarly, I have never seen a report about the Israeli policy of cutting the supply of water to Palestinian villages in the area where the Israeli Wall is being built. If the events leading up to the violent outbursts were better understood, people might be able to see how easy it would be to prevent the violence and the so-called terrorists would cease to be incomprehensible aggressors.

Another questionable aspect of the news is its attempt to be "objective" or "impartial" or "neutral". There are two sides to every coin. If there is an interview with the spokesperson of one side, there must be an interview with the spokesperson of the other side, and the interviewer cannot appear to take anyone's side. Every report of a violent outburst carries the silent message that we cannot say who is in the right and who is in the wrong; there are just these two parties fighting and so far the death toll is X and the number of injured is Y. In this message there is a lesson for the viewer: Like us (we who speak and write in the media) you should not take sides; just tolerate the fact that there is so much conflict in the world.

The cause of peace does not need this kind of objectivity, impartiality and neutrality. Rather it needs people to speak out against injustice. It also needs people to speak out against the lying declarations of those who profit from war. If someone says: "To stop the spread of the weapons of mass destruction we must use our weapons of mass destruction and unleash the mother of all battles," they must be criticised ruthlessly, not treated with impartiality. No one promotes the cause of peace by treating oppression and injustice with neutrality.

Although the media want to project an image of impartiality, they always end up on the side of the victors. In many cases there are vested interests in the background or there is simply the assumption that every government announcement is news whereas the reports from peace groups and human rights groups are not. Because of the refusal to criticise they also have to accept the terms of the debate which are usually set by the strongest groups in society and those with the funds and the connections needed to promote their views. Hence, the "objective" reporter will tell us about the "violence" caused by the terrorists in one place and about how "effective" the army (our army) has been in another place. Similarly, before the war in Iraq American spokespeople were matched with their Iraqi counterparts on the news. After the defeat of the Iraqis few people in the media see any point in giving the defeated an opportunity to express their point of view. The war becomes history and the media (the writers of the news, at least) just accept the new status quo.

If the media were on the side of peace they would also be more careful about their coverage of protests and demonstrations. Demonstrations for very honourable causes are not seen by the media as occasions to highlight people's grievances. Instead, the cameras wait for the inevitable clashes with the police and the impression is created that demonstrators are aggressive hot heads who have nothing coherent to say.

With satellite television and the internet there are now some alternative channels that are commited to the cause of peace - channels such as Democracy Now. Unfortunately, they are not able to gain a wide audience. Partly, this is a problem of funding but it is also because most people have already been quietly persuaded that peace is a lost cause, and that, anyway, it is much better to just sit back and enjoy the entertainment than worry about issues that require a little thought. It's nice to imagine a world of peace, but let's face the facts, it's just not possible, is it?

Thursday, 2 October 2008

What is (not) to be done. Castoriadis on Lenin.

It has been a long, long time since we read Lenin's "What is to be done?" - so long that we couldn't remember why we were so reluctant to call ourselves Leninists. By chance, though, we have just come across a gorgeous little essay by Castoriadis entitled "The Role of Bolshevik Ideology in the Birth of the Bureaucracy" (going back to 1964) and now we remember just what is so cock-eyed about Leninism (and the Trotskyite version to boot).

What it boils down to is our disagreement with the idea that people ought to be subordinated both to the will of the Party and to the drive to increase the forces of production. Castoriadis emphasizes the way work is organised. Workers ought to be directly involved in determining what is done and how it is done. For Trotsky, apparently, there was no need for this because the aspirations of the workers had already been achieved once the Party had gained ascendance. Henceforth the priority was the fastest possible industrialisation, and the prevailing view was that this meant beating the capitalists at their own game - pushing the rationalisation of production further and faster, and cutting out the anarchy of the market. Although it was supposed to be a dictatorship of the proletariat, in practice the workers had no option but to do what they were damn well told to do. As Trotsky put it: "The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed in the abolition of private property in the means of production, in the supremacy over the whole Soviet mechanism of the collective will of the workers, and not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered."

Castoriadis has a nice summary of Lenin's advocacy of a rampant instrumental reason, borrowed from bourgeois/capitalist culture as if it were something entirely neutral: "In all Lenin's speeches and writings of this period, what recurs again and again like an obsession is the idea that Russia ought to learn from the advanced capitalist countries; that there are not a hundred and one different ways of developing production and labour productivity if one wants to emerge from backwardness and chaos; that one must adopt capitalist methods of rationalisation and management as well as capitalist forms of work "incentives." All these, for Lenin, are just "means" that apparently could freely be placed in the service of a radically different historical end, the building of socialism."

Castoriadis lets loose and slams into this ridiculous idea of the neutrality of technique: "The idea that like means cannot be placed indifferently into the service of different ends; that there is an intrinsic relationship between the instruments used and the result obtained; that, especially, neither the army nor the factory are simple "means" or instruments," but social structures in which are organised two fundamental aspects of human relations (production and violence); that in them can be seen in condensed form the essential expression of the type of social relations that characterise an era - this idea, though perfectly obvious and banal for Marxists, was totally "forgotten."

What a great guy? Why did we forget about Castoriadis? We were lucky enough to see him speak in Essex back in the 1980s, but then we stupidly forgot about him as everyone became obsessed with Derrida, Lacan and some rubbish about bodies without organs.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Habermas's Discourse Ethic In A Nutshell

Habermas's moral theory is meant to address a particular historical situation in which morality may appear to be on shaky ground. Broadly speaking, the situation in question is a modern, liberal society in which the older, metaphysical understanding (that could, for instance, assume that natural rights were moral absolutes) has collapsed and given way to a more historical and sociologically sophisticated understanding that all our categories, including the moral ones, are social constructs. To the post-metaphysical self-understanding that is not uncommon in modern, pluralistic societies there are no absolutes, and it can then appear that the prevailing morality is groundless.

The task Habermas sets himself is to reassure the post-metaphysical pluralist that there is a foundation for morality in the pragmatic presuppositions of discourse itself. Morality doesn't need a metaphysical ground because one is provided by the nature of language itself.

The morality in question is characterised by the concern to accord everyone equal respect - and this is treated as an uncontentious principle that virtually everyone in a post-traditional society accepts. It is fair to call this morality Kantian, and it is fair to say that Habermas has been trying to bring Kant's moral philosophy up to date in a way that ditches Kant's solipsism.

Habermas first reinterprets Kantian morality so that it ceases to assume that moral agents can judge for themselves with an autonomy that implies a historical vacuum. The new Kantian moralists recognise that their deliberations can only get going because of a background of inherited values that are part and parcel of their particular culture, and they accept that partly because of their own fallibility the truth about moral rightness is something that can only be established through dialogue. Instead of the Kantian moral subject trying to work out in a solipsistic way which policies would meet with universal agreement, the concern for universality is played out through a dialogue which is open to everyone. The dialogue upholds the Kantian concern for universal respect as long as no voice is excluded and the norms that come out of it are those that everyone can agree to.

In Habermas's words: Kant's principle of universal respect - known as the categorical imperative - "receives a discourse-theoretical interpretation in which its place is taken by the discourse principle (D), according to which only those norms can claim validity that could meet with the agreement of all those concerned in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse."

In addition to this reinterpretation, Habermas wants to come up with a better justification as to why we ought to uphold the principle of universality that is at the core of our morality in a pluralistic society.

The justification begins from the idea that anyone who says anything about what is moral or immoral participates in a form of (discursive) action that has a particular set of pragmatic presuppositions. It is worth clarifying that this is a not a discussion in which people express what they want and try to come to a compromise - it is a discussion in which people try to establish what norms it is right for society to follow. To put the crux of Habermas's argument as simply as possible: Anyone who claims to say something true about morality implicitly raises an issue that can be criticised and in order for this claim to win out it must meet with the rational assent of those who join the discussion. Whether the speaker realizes it or not, if truth is the issue here, the speaker is obliged to appeal equally to the rational assent of everyone else. In this way the discourse ethic is uncovered by identifying what debates about moral norms presuppose, and Habermas's claim is that something very similar to Kant's categorical imperative is presupposed by the discursive act of saying what is or is not moral. Speakers concerned to establish the truth about morality are inevitably obliged to accord equal respect to all those whose assent must be relied on in the collective endeavour to establish what the truth of the matter is.

(Note: the use of "truth" in this reconstruction of Habermas's argument is misleading since Habermas draws a distinction between the truth of claims that refer to an independent objective reality - as is the case in science - and the validity of moral claims that do not refer to some reality indpendent of our history and culture. However, in the context of the critique we want to develop here the distinction is irrelevant. The important point is that the morality of the discourse ethic is all about debating moral norms with all the impartiality and the concern for the strongest arguments that characterise the endeavour to establish the truth of the matter.)

Having found a ground for the principle of universal respect in the pragmatic presuppositions of discourse, Habermas restates how significant this discourse ethic ought to be in our current historical situation:

"The discourse principle provides an answer to the predicament in which the members of any moral community find themselves when, in making the transition to a modern, pluralistic society, they find themselves faced with the dilemma that though they still argue with reasons about moral judgments and beliefs, their substantive background consensus on the underlying moral norms has been shattered. They find themselves embroiled in global and domestic practical conflicts in need of regulation that they continue to regard as moral, and hence as rationally resolvable, conflicts; but their shared ethos has disintegrated."

Habermas also acknowledges that it is possible for the pluralist to give up on morality, accepting perhaps that man is a wolf to man and believing that within the framework provided by liberal society pretty much anything goes. He also acknowledges that people can resolve their differences without recourse to moral discussion. It is still not uncommon for those who are not expected to agree with us to get shot or bombed before being given a chance to participate in the kind of discussion Habermas describes. Interestingly, the discourse ethic does not call this into question because it implies nothing about what ought to be discussed or what ought to be seen as a moral issue. We can quite consistently observe the principle of universal respect when trying to establish the truth about morality on Monday and then resume shooting on Tuesday because, apparently, national interests are at stake, not moral principles. He assumes that people want to resolve their differences through a discussion of what is the morally right thing to do, and with his discourse ethic he wants to say that participants in that discussion are bound by a principle of universal respect because this is something that their discursive activity presupposes.

Interestingly, Habermas envisages the possibility that some unworlded individuals in this pluralistic society might want to collectively work out a shared ethical framework as rich as the older one but now with a secular basis. Quite bluntly he says that "such an effort is doomed to fail." The problem is that without an old-fashioned ethical life it seems inconceivable that there could be agreement about what constitutes a good life or what ought to be our highest aims.
Although the members of the pluralistic society cannot agree on whether football is a sin (because they can't agree whether the word "sin" has a meaning any longer) they can agree on the morality of keeping the discussion open and respecting everyone's point of view.

Habermas wants to go beyond this because anyone wanting to participate in this discussion will soon face the question of how people are to judge what, in reference to any particular practice, is the right thing to do. Okay, they must keep the discussion open so as not to sacrifice the search for truth/validity, but how are they to come to any agreement in a pluralistic society in which agreements are so hard to reach?

Habermas proposes the principle of universalisation: "A norm is valid when the foreseeable consequences and side effects of its general observance for the interests and value-orientations of each individual could be jointly accepted by all concerned without coercion." Presumably this is derived from an interpretation of what is required by genuine respect for the other parties to the moral debate. From his clarification of the reference to coercion here, it is clear that any kind of emotive language or rhetorical arm-twisting or spin is prohibited to ensure that it is the truth (or validity based on the strongest argument) that holds sway, not, for instance, the charisma of personalities or the power of images. As he puts it, if this principle is followed, "nothing but reasons can tip the balance in favor of the acceptance of a controversial norm."

Habermas is not adamant about that particular formulation of the principle of universalisation, but he insists that some such principle will have to be adopted in order to ensure that norms capable of commanding universal agreement are selected.

Footnote: There is an excellent section from: The inclusion of the Other. Studies in Political Theory. J├╝rgen Habermas. MIT Press, 1998 available on the marxists.org website. It sums up perfectly the point of Habermas's communicative ethics.

The Irrelevance of Habermas's Discourse Ethic

First of all it has to be admitted that there is something quite neat about the discourse ethic. It very neatly fits the Kantian concern with the universalisability of our norms into a modern understanding of truth as socially and historically mediated. However, despite the neat updating of Kantian morality and despite the way the discourse ethic is able to make connections with a contemporary democratic and human rights discourse, there is still so much that makes it ethically irrelevant.

First of all there is the practical irrelevance of the principle of universality when people actually discuss moral issues. As Habermas points out, the discussion always relies on a background of shared beliefs and this means that on most, if not all, substantive moral issues it will be impossible to reach agreement with everyone who might have an opinion about the matter. Hence, for a decision to actually be reached some points of view will have to be disregarded. In practice boundaries have to be drawn, meaning that we specifically do not seek the agreement of everyone.

Furthermore, Habermas's universality is not as universal as it might at first appear. He acknowledges that the discourse ethic says nothing that would unsettle those who still belong to traditional ethical communities. As he puts it: "To be sure, structural features of communicative forms of life alone are not sufficient to justify the claim that members of a particular historical community ought to transcend their particularistic value-orientations and make the transition to the fully symmetrical and inclusive relations of an egalitarian universalism." So the pluralist is not looking for the agreement of anyone who still feels bound to a traditional way of life. The all important debate is a debate for commited pluralists - a debate which will inevitably involve dismissing the views of dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists for whom the principle of universality can not yet mean very much.

Another feature of the discourse ethic that renders it well-nigh irrelevant is its formalism. By simply describing the ideal form of a moral debate it cuts itself off from saying anything whatsoever about substantice moral issues. Most of those who are concerned about morality in the modern world are probably concerned with the withering of ethical life - the way in which morality is becoming increasingly irrelevant. This is one of many trends that those who are concerned about morality might well want to criticise. In relation to these concerns the discourse ethic is completely irrelevant.

One of the advantages of the discourse ethic for Habermas is its neutrality. Only a neutral principle (one that is all form and no content) can provide a sure basis for consensus in a pluralistic society. The theory is also supported by a narrative of increasing universality, which is his answer to the question of how the transition to a post-traditional morality can be justified. Older forms of ethical life were limited to the family, the tribe or the city, but Kantian morality in its discursive incarnation surpasses all such limitations in the direction of a pure universality. Because in practice there is no universal community to address, the claim to universality can only be made good if the universal principles achieve neutrality, and this is what squeezes out all the substance of the culturally specific ethical life. Habermas seems to say: If the substance has to go in order to achieve universality, so be it. But for many of us it is that very lack of substance - the withering of ethical life - that is the primary issue.

It is becoming harder and harder to say anything meaningful in public about morality. Anyone who tries to speak out about the morality of short selling on the stock market, for intance, sounds like some quaint relic from the past rather than someone raising a claim to truth that must be taken seriously and debated impartially. The detailed arguments of economists about the beneficial effect of short selling on the liquidity of the markets sound much more authoritative, and these purely technical considerations completely brush aside the issue of the morality or immorality of the practice. The discourse ethic is silent here, having nothing to say about that marginalisation of a substantive matter like this.

Another reason for the irrelevance of the discourse ethic springs from the sort of rationalism entailed by the claim that norms must be agreed upon solely because of the rational force of better reasons. This just doesn't connect with, for instance, the concern about the degradation of the environment. Those concerns are based not on some kind of theoretical knowledge but on a recognition of things like the beauty of nature, the power of the sublime in nature, the value of diversity and the significance of maintaining some semblance of harmony. People have to be brought up to recognise and appreciate these values. If they don't "see" them, there won't be the necessary shared background for meaningful arguments about particular environmental policies.

Then there is the problem of the apparent irrelevance of action for the discourse ethic, even though moral discourse is all about what ought to be done. Older forms of ethical life were guided by, for instance, the hope for salvation, which helps to motivate moral action. Hopes like this are excluded from the procedural morality of discourse. Those who participate in the discourse are presumably motivated to find the truth, or something resembling it, but this is not a motivation which would then inspire action once a norm has been agreed upon. Whether or not one actually does anything seems to be completely irrelevant.

Habermas is aware of this: "uncoupling morality from questions of the good life leads to a
motivational deficit...Discourse ethics intensifies the intellectualistic separation of moral judgment from action even further by locating the moral point of view in rational discourse. There is no direct route from discursively achieved consensus to action. Certainly, moral judgments tell us what we should do, and good reasons affect our will; this is shown by the bad conscience that "plagues" us when we act against our better judgment. But the problem of weakness of will also shows that moral insight is based on the weak force of epistemic reasons and, in contrast with pragmatic reasons, does not itself constitute a rational motive. When we know what it is morally right for us to do, we know that there are no good (epistemic) reasons to act otherwise. But that does not mean that other motives will not prevail."

An example: We might have a discussion about war and decide that no war is ever moral because it is never in anyone's interest to be shot, and then we might just go home and mow the lawn while the shooting continues in some suitably distant land. There is no contradiction in believing that war is immoral and doing nothing to stop it.

Even speaking out against war seems to be pointless because that kind of speech is not directed at identifying the truth but at forcing the immoral to pay attention to the voice of morality even while they dismiss the relevance of the arguments.

Although Habermas passes over this as if it were a minor hitch, but it is surely a damning indictment of a moral theory if it makes talking about morality seem to be the only morally valuable pursuit.

Part of what makes action seem irrelevant is the absence of any concern with particulars. The discourse in question is always a discourse about generalities: "Is abortion morally acceptable?" "Is human cloning acceptable?" etc, etc. It is a discussion of the norms society is to recognise, not a discussion of what ought to be done in the particular cases that we find ourselves involved in. this is really where the greatest irrelevance of the discourse ethic becomes apparent. If I am called up to fight I must take a stance with respect to my country, the war and the reasons for it, the death and suffering that will be caused, my own possible death and the way my actions will be judged. This situation in which I have to act one way or the other is far removed from the debate about when a war might be considered just and under what circumstances.

To put it bluntly, the discourse ethic is not an ethic for life but just for the practice of talking about life. What could be more irrelevant that an ethic that has nothing to say about life?

So many of our ethical concerns are concerns with the fate of particulars caught up and abused by various social systems - they are not concerns with a lack of universality. The concerns for the environment are concerns with the fate of this very particular earth and the very particular places of value that it still has. In a similar way, we are more concerned with the disappearance of indigenous cultures than we are with the fact that so few of their beliefs could ever gain universal agreement. We are concerned about them in their particularity not as mere instances of the universal. For Habermas, though, the universality of reason is everything and the particulars pale into some prerational insignificance.

In a sense, the central moral issue of the age is the reconciliation of the social universal and particularity. Apart from the environment there are issues about the disintegration of (very particular) communities and their increasing powerlessness in the face of globalised economic forces, the increasing irrelevance of history and a loss of a sense of identity and rootedness. From the perspective of the prevailing forces of rationalisation (that insist upon the removal of distortions from an increasingly global market) these fail to register as issues that might call the rationality of a liberated market into question. Habermas's one-sided concern with universality affirms this, making it irrelevant to those of us who see that there has to be some other rearticulation of the universal and the particular.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Reification and Post-Revolutionary Sex in "History and Class Consciousness"

Unfortunately, Lukacs says nothing in "History and Class Consciousness" about what happens to sex once the identical subject-object of history comes onto the world stage. Will it be better?

Although Lukacs is quiet on this subject he does point out how awful the reified view of sex can be, and as an example he quotes Kant's comments about marriage:

"Sexual community", says Kant, "is the reciprocal use made by one person of the sexual organs and faculties of another . . . marriage ... is the union of two people of different sexes with a view to the mutual possession of each other's sexual attributes for' the duration of their lives."

Here is the reified fragmentation of the subject (the person signing the marriage contract and claiming possession of various kinds of property) and the object (the body). Sex would seem to be a merely bodily need - an urge that must be satisfied sooner or later with all the necessity of the natural laws observed by the scientist.

The question is whether the identical subject-object of history will inevitably overcome this fragmentation and also become the identical subject-object of love (assuming love combines both sex and something more mental, intellectual perhaps even spiritual). Will proletarians necessarily become better lovers? I can find nothing in "History and Class Consciousness" that implies they will.

The proletarian identity with which the new historical agents must identify utterly is a very abstract one with no connection to gender. Since the proletarian identity is the only one that matters there is plenty of scope here for excluding any more meaningful definition of the feminine and the masculine. But then the proletarian becomes indistinguishable from the Kantian. Two heroic proletarians marry to ensure that their sexual needs will not disrupt the heroic course of the proletarian revolution.

What characterises the Kantian is an instrumental approach to things that ought to be part of that organic unity that Lukacs refers to so often in the earlier sections of "History and Class Consciousness". Unfortunately a similar kind of instrumentalism seems to be implied by later sections of "History and Class Consciousness." The revolution is supposed to overcome it, but only for the proletariat considered as a whole as the proletariat ceases to be the passive object of blind market forces, industrial rationalisation and the machinations of the ruling class, becoming instead the subject of history. But since the class is everything won't individuals be treated in an instrumental way? To maintain the power of the proletariat individuals will have to make sacrifices - perhaps (heaven forbid) some individuals will have to be sacrificed. Will not the ends justify the means (especially since a defining feature of the proletariat is that they have been shorn of ideals and presumably have no commitment to the bourgeois principles that protected the rights of individuals)? Seen from the standpoint of the individual the revolution appears as the apotheosis of instrumental reason, not its overthrow.

If instrumental reason runs rampant and if gender roles pale into insignificance with the rise of a proletarian uniformity, there is little reason to think that the number of sexual Kantians will drop after the revolution.

Love and the Revolution in "History and Class Consciousness"

The fact that the course of history was so different from the one envisaged by Lukacs gives some indication that something was missing from the scheme of things in "History and Class Consciousness." One of these was surely love.

We will deal with sexual love in the next post. Here the issue is love of a more political nature - like the love of the patriot. According to Lukacs' scheme of things patriotic love must be dismissed as irrational or bourgeois or counter-revolutionary. It must be dismissed because there is no place for it in the concept of the identical subject-object of history. Now there is the question of whether patriotism really is irrational, but what interests me here is more the question of whether love must not be part of the revolution.

Unfortunately Lukacs says nothing about the love of the revolutionary in "History and Class Consciousness." Revolution seems to arise as a matter of necessity as the proletariat struggles for its very survival against a ruling class that insists on squeezing more and more out of it. At a moment of crisis the working class might fight back to defend itself, but for this to spill over into a revolution that would be sustained in the way that is envisaged in "History and Class Consciousness" wouldn't people have to start to love being proletarians or revolutionaries?

In "History and Class Consciousness" it all sounds completely intellectual once the crisis forces the proletariat to fight back. The philosopher-historians in the party help the workers to understand how they are the real source of all value in capitalism whilst being treated as an expendable resource and whilst being denied any power. And the workers are also supposed to gradually understand their role as the first historical agents who are guided by an insight into the real essence of history (the insight that history is absolutely unconditioned because all categories are historical to their very core). But this is all so theoretical, however true it may be. Once the crisis is past, will the revolutionary momentum be sustained simply by the idea that now history has achieved its true form? Must there not be an affective tie to the revolutionary movement? Must we not love being proletarians? Must we not love the revolution and the situation it creates where nothing any longer seems to be solid or fixed - where everything is up for negotiation or reform or obliteration by the party?

But doesn't revolution appear to be chaotic, and is it not difficult to love revolution? There are many other things to love - things that the white heat of the revolution might jeopardize. These stand in the way of the revolution, and Lukacs would need to come up with a persuasive critique of them. He seems to say so little about them in "History and Class Consciousness" because of the assumption that the proletariat are being pushed into such a desperate situation that these other objects of love cease to be of much significance. The struggle for survival, which has to be waged collectively to match the power of the ruling class, is the only priority. But are these people who have nothing to love but the revolution the people we would want to hold up as exemplary?

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Lukacs, commodification and historical nihilism in "History and Class Consciousness"

Lukacs on commodification in "History and Class Consciousness"

Lukacs leaves us in no doubt about the importance of commodification. As he puts it in History and Class Consciousness (HCC): "It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities ... [for] at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure." To clarify, he says that " the structure of commodity-relations [can] be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them."

The claim that the entire structure of society revolves around the phenomenon of commodification is a very strong one.

According to "History and Class Consciousness" commodification is the defining phenomenon of what could be called bourgeois society or capitalism. Of course commodities did not appear for the first time with capitalism. What is new with capitalism is organising society so that the highest end is the production of commodities. Other ends are pursued but only insofar as they do not interfere with the markets on which things can be commodities.

There is a second crucial feature of a society in which commodification is the universal structuring principle: the creation of a labour market in which labour also exists as a commodity. Lukacs quotes Marx: "What is characteristic of the capitalist age is that in the eyes of the labourer himself labour-power assumes the form of a commodity belonging to him. ...it is only at this moment that the commodity form of the products of labour becomes general."

One consequence of this analysis is that commodification beomes THE political issue. Hence, Lukacs says little about unpleasant working and living conditions or inequality in wages or inequality of opportunity and access to education, health care, etc. No, the top issues are the commodification of labour and the organisation of society for the production of commodities, and whatever flows from those phenomena.

Lukacs' objection to commodification

Lukacs has two objections to this in "History and Class Consciousness". Firstly, it is inhuman. This seems to imply a concern for the individual and the alienating effect of the mechanically rationalised labour process exemplified by the factory assembly line. He refers to "a mechanical existence hostile to life and a scientific formalism alien to it." And again, of the labourer he says, "he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not." He also has an interesting reference to the "journalist's 'lack of convictions', the prostitution of his experiences and beliefs" entailing that "his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic par of his personality." On the mathematical rationalisation of work processes in factories and offices he agrees with Marx that "Time is everything, man is nothing." And in relation to commodification: "this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation."

There are many such comments in the earlier parts of "History and Class Consciousness" where Lukacs seems to be motivated by a humanistic concern for the quality of the individual's experience of life in a capitalist society, and the comments which often include references to an organic unity that has been lost imply a retrospective view of aspects of life that need to be recovered from the pre-capitalistic past.

However, this is a misleading impression because Lukacs ends up affirming the alienating effects of both the labour market and of rationalisation in the workplace. So his real objection must lie elsewhere.

It arises out of Lukacs' underlying concern with history. More important than the alienation of individuals is the alienation of history - an alienation which might be redescribed as history not being true to itself, or as historical agents not yet understanding the true nature of history - not yet seeing that everything in society is historical. Although capitalism disrupts settled communities and frees up the historical process, the idea still prevails that there is a natural order (the market with its atomised players and its apparently natural laws of supply and demand, etc) that should not be disturbed (or distorted as Milton Friedman would have it). The objectification involved in commodification goes along with a view of society as a system governed by quasi-natural laws.

The idea that there is an economic system that can be studied scientifically and that political decisions must conform to the insights of the science of economics is the intellectual correlate of the practice of commodification. But if historical agents still see themselves as having to conform to some kind of natural order, then the historical process has not yet achieved what might be called authenticity - it is not yet for itself what it is in itself.

What is reification?

The reified view of society is one which is - for Lukacs in "History and Class Consciousness" - insufficiently historical. Instead of seeing the social as utterly historical, some aspect is assumed to be 'natural' or prescribed by some moral imperative that limits historical action.

The reified attitude treats history as if it were a part of nature, governed by laws that are not themselves historical and subject to change. This is the objectification implicit in the term 'reification'.

For there to be no reification people would clearly have to believe that there is no natural substratum to society - no natural order and no fixed rational order that might put an end to history. Although our particular society has its quasi-objective historical tendencies that historical agents need to understand and work with, these are relative to our society with its particular history and they will doubtless cease to be effective once the prevailing social order has been overturned.

What is good about capitalism?

For Marx capitalism was a necessary stage in the development of the forces of production - especially important since a liberated society requires an advanced system of automated production so that people are not obliged to spend the best part of their lives doing unfulfilling tasks in the production process. For Lukacs capitalism succeeds in producing the kind of subjectivity needed for a genuinely historical movement.

What initially appear to be the worst aspects of capitalism are, for Lukacs, the necessary preconditions for the emergence of a new class that will allow history to achieve its authentic form:

"On the one hand, this transformation of labour into a commodity removes every human' element from the immediate existence of the proletariat, on the other hand the same development progressively eliminates everything 'organic', every direct link with nature from the forms of society so that socialised man can stand revealed in an objectivity remote from or even opposed to humanity."
This might sound like a criticism but actually it is a process that Lukacs affirms. Lukacs' ideal historical agents must have no vested interests in the status quo. Hence, the value of the way capitalism destroys the settled communities that might give proletarians affective ties to a particular social order. Hence also the value of industrial labour and urban life that remove workers from the connection with the soil and the countryside felt in agricultural communities. Although some would call this alienation, according to the Lukacs scheme of things it is the liberation of subjectivity necessary for the emergence of the first authentically historical society.
Beyond this, capitalism also produces just the kind of class that will enable history to come into its own: the proletariat.

Why the proletariat?

Any authentic historical movement must have a collective subject that understands itself as such. For Lukacs, the bourgeoisie is a collective subject but it is trapped in an individualistic self-understanding. Workers, on the other hand, tend to be forced by conditions at work to see themselves in collective terms and readily see that they need to join forces in order to defend their interests.

The significance of the proletariat follows partly from the idea of history as a process of becoming. Since it is not an act of pure creation it involves both objectivity and subjectivity. We don't create ourselves anew with each generation, rather we find ourselves as objects in a process that also involves our subjectivity (the way we see ourselves and the world around us).
Lukacs' idea of the proletarian combines this moment of objectivity and subjectivity. The proletarian is an object insofar as his labour power is treated as a commodity and as something to be calculated and rationalised and fitted into a mechanistic process. The proletariat is the collective subject of the capitalistic process insofar as proletarian labour is the source of all exchange value (assuming the truth of the labour theory of value).

As Lukacs puts it in "History and Class Consciousness": "By becoming aware of the commodity relationship the proletariat can only become conscious of itself as the object of the economic process. For the commodity is produced and even the worker in his quality as commodity, as an immediate producer is at best a mechanical driving wheel in the machine. But if the reification of capital is dissolved into an unbroken process of its production and reproduction, it is possible for the proletariat to discover that it is itself the subject of this process even though it is in chains and is for the time being unconscious of the fact. As soon, therefore, as the readymade, immediate reality is abandoned the question arises: "Does a worker in a cotton factory produce merely cotton textiles? No, he produces capital. He produces values which serve afresh to command his labour and by means of it to create new values.""

Another important factor for Lukacs is that "The proletariat "has no ideals to realise." When its consciousness is put into practice it can only breathe life into the things which the dialectics of history have forced to a crisis; it can never 'in practice' ignore the course of history, forcing on it what are no more than its own desires or knowledge. For it is itself nothing but the contradictions of history that have become conscious."

If the proletariat could become conscious of itself as both the object and the subject of history, and see itself as simply realising a historical potential (as opposed to imposing an ideal on the historical substratum) then it would be the first subject in history with "an adequate social consciousness." In his famous phrase it would become the "identical subject-object of history" - one that understands society as thoroughly historical (with no natural substratum) and one that is capable of changing society in accordance with historical tendencies.

History would then be "uncontaminated by any trace of reification", allowing "the process-like essence to prevail in all its purity" - and this is the process which "should represent the authentic, higher reality."

A critique of Lukacs

The standard criticism - which Lukacs also made in 1967 looking back at what he had written in "History and Class Consciousness" - is that he failed to distinguish between reification and objectification. In a nutshell, the objectification involved in having your own house, for instance, is an essential part of human self-realisation, whereas reification only refers to alienating forms of self-objectification.

For me this is too much of a technical issue. The more disturbing issue comes out when I try to imagine what Lukacs' proletariat would do. An authentically Lukacsian proletariat would have to overthrow the bourgeois order because it allows blind market forces to shape social life. But once the negation is taken care of what might give them a positive orientation?

The proletariat are to have no ideals, which presumably includes principles of justice. They are to have no vested interests in or attachments to the prevailing order: property, savings in pension funds, entitlement to health care, kids in schools that they don't want to disrupt, etc. They must presumably value their identity as proletarians of the world over and above their local identities as family members and neighbours, for instance, implying that local ties lose their value. They must also have lost any deep feeling for nature, partly because urban industrial life has cut them off from it but also because they have learnt that nature is an utterly social and historical category and not something that might be a source of value standing in a critical relationship with the urban industrial order - as it does for the utterly unLukacsian Romantic ramblers.

With no ties to anything and with no feeling for something other than the alienating industrial order, and with no ideals beyond the idea of history at last gathering momentum and sweeping all before it, what is there to fight for?

Lukacs says there will be some quasi-objective historical tendencies that the proletariat will instinctively want to realize. But what will they be if the proletariat has nothing positive to defend?

This is where objectivity becomes a problem. The supposedly identical subject-object of history seems to have no genuine feel for objectivity. Commodification - the only form of objectification that has really come into view - is seen as a living contradiction that must be overcome in practice. Doesn't that overcoming, though, seem as if it would just be an annulment? Doesn't it seem as if the inevitable historical tendency of an authentic Lukacsian subject of history would be to revolt against anything that tried to fix or settle or root that revolutionary subjectivity? And since the proletariat must act as the proletariat to fulfil its historical destiny, must it not turn its revolutionary energies against any expression of eccentric individuality and against anyone who suggests that the claims of the proletarian collectivity need to be balanced against the claims of individuals, families, neighbourhoods, regions and other lesser collectivities?

At the time Lukacs was writing it was still possible to imagine immiserated proletarians with nothing to lose but their chains identifying utterly with their economic class. But why think that this provides a model for the desired reconciliation of the individual and society? And after the revolution when there is no longer the historical force of capital to struggle against and unite against, what forces will have to be put in place to ensure that individuals put aside their individuality and maintain the unity of the new historical subject?

What about our feelings for others and for nature? Do these have no cognitive significance whatsoever? Are they to be dismissed as bourgeois - as reactionary?

The prospect of a global levelling - of, for instance, the disappearance of the last traces of pre-modern, rural communities - is thoroughly unpleasant. Isn't this feeling for the value of difference and variety a source of insight? Of course nature is a social and therefore historical category, but can't certain experiences of nature throw a critical light on other cultural assumptions and practices?

The image of rootless Lukacsian proles with no feeling for anything but the white heat of history is a very disturbing one.

In contrast to this, the great strength of Adorno's work is the way it does justice to the experiences of alterity that call into question not only the bourgeois order but also the kind of revolutionary nihilism that we see in Lukacs.