Published on Heathwood Press, 21 December 2015
In Salisbury, Maryland, from Thursday 12 November 2015 to Saturday the 14th, the sixth biennual International Herbert Marcuse Society conference took place: “Praxis and Critique: Liberation, Pedagogy, and the University.” Held at Salisbury University (SU), the conference was hosted by Professor Sarah Surak. It was comprised of approximately 23 panels, together with a few workshops—notably including a collective art-making effort to “Express Your Fantasies,” inspired in part by reflecting on the above image of Marcuse speaking in Paris. The convergence brought together a number of radical philosophers and activists who spoke on historical and contemporary struggles and their relationship to Critical Theory, the Frankfurt School theorists—particularly Herbert Marcuse, of course—Marxism, and anarchism.
At the panel on “Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century” held on Friday afternoon, speakers reflected on the meaning of Critical Theory today: the question of its relevance for the present world, and its relationship to the project of liberatory social transformation. Professor Arnold Farr, host of the 2013 Marcuse Society conference at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, spoke to the multiple sites of oppression in capitalist society—race, gender, and sexuality, alongside class—that constitute the various contradictions through which capitalist society is “shot through.” In parallel, Farr identified the cycle whereby critique opens the possibility of change, while the possibility of change helps critique along in turn. Co-panelist Lauren Langman then observed that Critical Theory and its theorists should be primarily concerned with three matters: critiquing society, promoting open-mindedness, and having a vision. He optimistically observed that the strength of the transnational capitalist class is “based on a bowl of jello,” and that humanity “will get a better society” eventually. Stefan Gandler, author of Critical Marxism in Mexico, discussed autonomous Mexican movements, including the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), other armed left-wing guerrilla forces, and the mass-popular resistance evinced throughout the country in response to the State’s forcible disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in September 2014, as well as the popular mobilizations that undermined the heavy-handed response the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) initially had launched against the EZLN during the latter’s insurrection of January 1994. In terms of militarism and non-cooperation, Gandler mentioned that several Mexican Army units refused to follow orders mandating suppression of the Zapatista rebellion, thus greatly limiting the amount of blood shed during the twelve days of war. Andrew Lamas, host of the 2011 “Critical Refusals” conference at the University of Pennsylvania, affirmed the continued relevance of W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis, emphasizing that capitalism can only be overcome in unison with the abolition of white supremacy.
Simultaneously, on the “Rationalizing Environments” panel, SU undergraduate student Jake O’Neil examined environmental and “green” discourse, posing the question, “Is Going Green Enough?” Applying a Marcusean analysis of one-dimensionality, instrumental reason, and the performance principle to the ever-failing project of attempting to “solve” the ecological crisis within the strictures of capital and the State, O’Neil provided a genealogy of the rise of “green consumerism” and the “green economy” over the past generation, contrasting the colonization of the concept from its original association with anti-capitalist politics. Once one becomes enthralled to green consumerism, one’s commitment to a better future is individualized and commodified, thus serving the end of recuperation—that is to say, falsely to integrate the contradictions of capitalism, in turn shoring up that very same system. O’Neil’s clearly Marcusean alternative is to “open up” the realm of environmental discourse, subject hegemonic approaches to critique, and hence allow for “the possibility of liberating, radical change”: namely, a global transformation propelled by the flowering of a Marcusean “new sensibility” among the general populace that would valorize the importance of all terrestrial and marine life, in place of the prevailing valorization of capital and destruction.
Meanwhile, at the panel “Popular Culture and Prefigurative Politics—on which the Brazilian Marcuse scholar Imaculada Kangussu addressed the question of how art can help to advance the new sensibility and provoke “inner revolutions”—John-Patrick Schultz intervened on “Walter Benjamin and Prefigurative Politics: The Utopian Hermeneutic of Space.” Schultz opened immediately by juxtaposing the Benjaminian concept of the “dialectical image”—whereby “capitalist materiality converges with radically democratic possibility” through direct action and decolonization—with the 30 November 1999 (“N30”) actions taken by the ACME collective, the anarchist Black Bloc, and the Global Justice Movement (GJM) as a whole against the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle—otherwise known as the “Battle of Seattle.” The speaker stressed how the GJM instituted prefigurative politics in its actions, seeking not a utopian futural break with capital but instead the immediate founding of “an alternative social order” based on direct or horizontal democracy—these being demands and orientations that “reject[ed] the idea that there can be no other future and provid[ed] a concrete illustration of that alternative.” In Benjaminian terms, Schultz detects in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and in the recent “movement of squares” of 2011 to the present a “surviving historical desire for democratic social control.” Through their prefiguration of a “novel future,” Schultz emphasized, such movements disprove David Harvey’s questionable claim in Rebel Cities (2013) that autonomous, decentralized models of opposition are incapable of presenting a serious challenge to capitalism and the State. Instead, as Schultz writes, their “utopian hermeneutic […] entails a highly antagonistic demand for collective, egalitarian enjoyment [that is] wholly at odds with neoliberalism” and the capitalist system.
On the evening of Friday the 13th, a number of conference-goers attended a reception at an art gallery in downtown Salisbury, featuring a number of beautiful surrealistic paintings by Antje Wichtrey that appear in the volume Versprechen, dass e sanders sein kann (“Promises that it can be different”), edited by Peter Erwin-Jansen. Besides this, the gallery exhibited works that had been created by graduate students attending the “Express Your Fantasies” workshop on Thursday. Apparently, the discrepancy seen between the original Marcuse photograph discovered in the Paris lectures that served as the conference’s main image and the edited version reproduced by the university administration on campus—one lacking the graffiti depicting female breasts, as above—inspired many of the students to express artistic fantasies involving breasts. In addition, those assembled at the gallery celebrated the birthday of Herbert’s son Peter that night—in the presence of Peter himself and his wife—but negatively, it was while we were indulging in art and enjoying the gathering that we first learned about the attacks in Paris. One of the participants made an announcement about the scores of lives taken, and he invited conference-goers to share in a collective discussion about the events and their likely impacts on war, international relations, and the fate of refugees at lunch-time the next day.
At our Saturday morning panel on “Post-Soviet Marxism: Marcuse in the Developing World,” George Katsiaficas began with a presentation on “Eurocentric Views of Civil Society.” Katsiaficas argued that the established power of Western capitalism has often led to the repression of consideration of alternative views of the meaning of civil society, especially in non-bourgeois and non-Western terms. He offered the politeness and fairness of Confucian social norms on hand in Korea and the enlightening thought of Islamic thinkers like Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126-1198 CE) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as promotive of different forms of individuality. Furthermore, he mentioned the early republican governance structure of Lugash under Gudea in classical Mesopotamia (ca. 2144-2124 BCE) as well as the assembly-based republics that arose along the Ganges River from approximately 600 to 300 BCE, together with the parallel birth of Buddhism and Jainism as more egalitarian off-shoots of Hinduism. Moreover, the investigator declared forthrightly that the “theory of Oriental despotism” which permeates much of Western political sociology vastly underplays the very real Western despotism imposed on the non-Western world through imperialism—as starkly illustrated in the estimated 10 million Asians who were murdered by the U.S. military during the twentieth century. Katsiaficas remarked that civil society played an enormously important role in the Gwanju Commune (1980), adding that it still has a great task to accomplish today, in light of the propulsion of domination—the “gangsters running society” and “freedom of war and private property”—intensifying reification and what Jürgen Habermas has called outright “refeudalization” of the globe. I then followed, examining Marcuse’s views on authority and the transition away from capitalism—the question of whether the critical theorist is more in keeping with anarchism and libertarian socialism or Jacobinism and authoritarian socialism. Though the answer is not entirely clear, given the ambiguity Marcuse expressed at times about the need for an “intellectual” or “education” dictatorship to lead humanity and history out of the capitalist impasse, my view is that Marcuse’s political philosophy is more consistently libertarian than authoritarian—it is more concerned with decentralization and autonomy than temporary or “transitional” dictatorship. This is clear from “Protosocialism and Late Capitalism: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis Based on Bahro’s Method” (1979), Marcuse’s last essay. Still, like the EZLN, which has a political system governed by assemblies and a parallel military command-structure, Marcuse may have felt that there was some degree of a need for both: a “Committee for Public Safety” alongside mass-popular intervention and the creation of the commune. Next, comrade Nick Zeller spoke on the fascinating case of Marxism in Thailand, a cause advanced by one Jit Phumisak, who originally and dialectically had been contracted by the CIA to translate Capital into Thai in an attempt to pressure the Chakri monarchy to take evermore authoritarian-repressive measures against the regional specter of agrarian and proletarian revolution. While translating and thus confronting Marx’s work on political economy, Phumisak himself became a communist militant. He went on to write The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and was for this reason imprisoned. After being released, Phumisak joined Thai communist guerrillas—this being a commitment that would lead to his martyrdom in battle against the State. Zeller shared the radical theorist’s analysis of the joint exploitation of the Thai masses, as prosecuted by imperialism and feudalism (saktiná); discussed the similarities and differences between this analysis and that of Marx’s views on non-Western societies like India and Russia; and related the stress Phumisak placed on an alliance between the peasantry and the small but expanding industrial proletariat of Thailand and Southeast Asia in overthrowing the “Western saktiná stage” of world-history. Zeller even mentioned the possibility of engaging in historiography from the vantage point of “saktiná history”—that is, of analyzing history as domination and the struggle against it. Such could be a dialectical counterpart to the “dharma history” or “Bodhisattva history” Kim Stanley Robinson envisions in his alternate-history book, The Years of Rice and Salt: namely, “any history that believed there was progress toward some goal making itself manifest in the world [… or] which suggested that there were enlightened cultures that had sprung ahead somehow, and then gone back to the rest and worked to bring them forward […]” (Stanley Robinson, 2002, p. 733).
At the panel “Biopolitical Spaces of Resistance and Domination,” Jennifer Lawrence presented on critical artworks developed in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the emancipatory potential for aesthetic eco-resistance as a means of speaking to truth to power and its propaganda in a talk called “In Order Not to Die from the Truth: Disaster, Art, Resistance.” Lawrence’s co-panelist James Stanescu then expounded on stupidity, rationality, and animality. He noted that we humans cannot suppress our similarity with the other animals with whom we have co-evolved: that children cannot but recognize themselves in apes and vice versa, and that the interest we take in clowns, metaphysics, and the aesthetic dimension reflects our prehistorical, primordial animality. The “idiot,” in the sense of an intellectually challenged person, slows everything down, and asks the questions which need answering. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote, it is a question of becoming-minor, or “becoming-animal.” Stanescu cited Marcuse’s observation in One-Dimensional Man (1964) that materialism demands the overcoming of the ill-treatment of non-human animals in the historical process, and that our profound commonality with the other animals should lead us to conceive of our own selves as potential “meat,” and thus to reject speciesism on the one hand while practically adopting veganism or vegetarianism on the other. Alexander Stoner spoke next on “Human-Ecological Transformation and Contemporary Ecological Subjectivity,” addressing the dynamics of capitalism and discontents revolving around catastrophic climate change and the environmental crisis writ large. Taking an historical view, Stoner examined the challenges presented by environmentalism during the third quarter of the twentieth century (1950-1975), as more people came to question the superfluousness of work and the utter irrationality of environmental destructiveness, but he noted how the realm of necessity re-asserted itself in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and “stagflation,” much as the Empire strikes back. Stoner spoke to the seeming paradox of increased environmental attention and concern amidst accelerating planetary degradation, and asked whether, as eco-crisis becomes increasingly apparent, the causes of this crisis are becoming increasingly illusory. Stoner took Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) to task in this sense, for Klein identifies the problem as neoliberal capitalism—a surface phenomenon—rather than the capitalist system as such. The speaker expressed concern that radical environmentalists who fail to advance the understanding that it is capitalism which is the problem—as expressed, for example, in Allan Schnaiberg’s formulation of the “treadmill of production”—we will in fact run the risk of enabling capital. Stoner nonetheless conceded that Klein’s examination of the alternative represented by “Blockadia” has value, though he clearly indicated the superiority of anti-capitalist analyses that concern themselves with the productive apparatus, as compared with primarily redistributional approaches like social democracy or Keynesianism.
During the final session Saturday afternoon, SU Professor Michael O’Loughlin gave a presentation on “Dispelling Ideology: Marx, Marcuse, and Chomsky.” During this talk, O’Loughlin principally counterposed the philosophies of Marcuse and Chomsky, stressing that the former—that is to say, the Marcuse of One-Dimensional Man—is far more pessimistic than Chomsky, who believes that the various problematics of capitalism and domination can be resolved through progressive activism and anarcho-syndicalism. Whereas Marx believed the subject in struggle to be the proletariat, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man more or less expresses the thought that false consciousness is all-consuming, that class-consciousness is marginal, and that there is “No Exit” from the capitalist hell. Yet O’Loughlin conceded in passing that, by the time Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969) had been published, numerous radical movements had arisen across the globe to challenge regnant one-dimensionality. The professor argued that Chomsky, throughout his sustained and productive career as radical public intellectual, has sought to undermine ruling mystifications through empirical “takedowns” which activate public reason and the instinct for freedom he, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believes humans innately to possess, as well as by promoting alternative modes of social organization rooted in equality, justice, and democracy. Chomsky’s intellectual and political activism was portrayed as following from the dissident’s faith in ordinary’s people capacity for reason and his belief that intellectuals must be with “the people,” and that the revolution will be made by everyday people themselves. Though O’Loughlin did not explicitly proclaim the inverse of such comments—that is, that Marcuse was an aloof elitist and authoritarian who despaired of the people’s incapacity for critical thought and revolutionary social transformation—it was to a degree implied, however great a distortion of Marcuse’s life and work such an interpretation would be! It is quite unjust to limit “Marcuse” to his most pessimistic book, One-Dimensional Man, and to suggest that he, like Vladimir Lenin or the Jacobins, did not believe that the common people proper were capable of changing the world. One need only consult Marcuse’s 1978 conversation with Habermas and company, “Theory and Politics,” to be freed of such an illusion, for in this intervention, the critical theorist declares faithfully that “everyone knows what is necessary,” and that the truth of a revolutionary general will and “the possibilities for its realization” are demonstrable to all (Marcuse et al. 1978/1979, pp. 136-138).
O’Loughlin concluded his presentation by considering three future scenarios for the U.S. in January 2016: the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, thus confirming the deepest pessimism of One-Dimensional Man; the alternate presidential inauguration of Bernie Sanders, an eventuality which O’Loughlin believed would be consonant with the spirit of Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation; and the inauguration of Hillary Rodham Clinton, signifying a compromise between these two options, and a “partial” victory for social movements, in O’Loughlin’s analysis. Whatever the outcome of the elections, though, it ultimately remains puzzling to associate Marcuse with electoral politics at all, given his well-established emphasis on extra-parliamentary opposition as the primary means of historical progress.
Marcuse, H, Habermas, J, Lubasz, H, & Spengler, T. (1978/1979). “Theory and Politics,” Telos 38.
Stanley Robinson, K. (2002). The Years of Rice and Salt. New York: Bantam.