Posts Tagged ‘critical theory’

Call for Papers – 8th Biennial Conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society: “Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right”

April 15, 2019

Please see the following call for papers, panels, and presentations at the 8th biennial Herbert Marcuse International Society conference, entitled “Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right,” to be hosted from October 10-13, 2019, at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I’ve presented at three of these conferences and can highly recommend them. The deadline for proposals is May 1st. Abstracts of no more than 300 words should be sent to ihms2019@gmail.com by that date. Panel proposals and student abstracts are welcomed and encouraged.

A populism of the radical right is on the rise across the globe. What are the counter-strategies of the left? What role does critical theory play in the current context? Embedded in the critical theory of Herbert Marcuse is the promise that reason, with a proper critical orientation, can provide an emancipatory alternative to the deforming oppressions of a given order. But critical reason is occluded in a one-dimensional society, resulting in a society without meaningful alternatives.

Marcuse reminds us that a one-dimensional society with a “smooth, democratic unfreedom” is a society in which there is no fundamental opposition, or where opposition is absorbed and reified into the logic of the system itself. From openly nationalist/fascist/racist parties gaining power in governments across the globe, to institutions manipulated by elites to widen inequalities of wealth and power, to ecological degradation and climate change, to debt traps as a result of uneven development, to mass incarceration and refugee detention policies, freedom becomes an increasingly abstract illusion under the guise of the “normally” functioning global economic system.

We seek papers that address the concerns, challenges, commonalities, and spaces for opposition in the current political context of one-dimensional neoliberal authoritarianism, as well as papers that engage the continued relevance of Herbert Marcuse’s analyses/theoretical insights to critical theory. This includes, but is not limited to addressing questions such as:


  • What is Marcuse”s influence today toward a Critical Theory from the Americas? How might we draw on his theoretical perspectives to interpret structural violence, as well as relations among race, class, and gender and the rise of right-wing populism on both American continents?
  • As the crises and contradictions of neoliberalism expand, how does a Marcusean analysis sharpen the criticism or explain the rise of the radical right? What networks and/or apparatuses are sustaining authoritarianism(s)?
  • Since one-dimensional societies absorb oppositional movements, what steps can we take to move towards a more multi-dimensional consciousness? In what ways are the Black radical tradition, youth, LGBTQ, labor, workers, and indigenous peoples at the forefront of fundamental resistance?
  • What are the pathways for revolutionary and systemic change? What are the dialectics of resistance today?
  • What role can or should forms of education, including higher education, play as and in forms of resistance?
  • Can violence play a role as a means of support and resistance? For precipitating system change?
  • How might we theorize an alternative to the “democratic” unfreedom of today that engages human rights?
  • What are the implications for radical class or group consciousness in a time of rising right-wing populism? What role might it play? Is there potential for a populism of/on the left?
  • How might Marcuse”s vision of radical socialism, a new social order committed to economic, racial and gender equality, sexual liberation, liberation of labor, preservation and restoration of nature, leisure, abundance and peace, inspire organizing today? What is the role of Marcusean aesthetic theory/praxis today?
  • How do the culture industry and digital culture create new forms of propaganda and/or sites of resistance?
  • What is the relationship between movements or organizing ideas such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MariellePresente, #MeToo, #EnoughisEnough, #EleNão and Refugees Welcome, and the “new left”?
  • As basic liberal-democratic values and institutions break down or suffer crises of legitimacy, in what ways does a Marcusean critical theory reveal alternatives to the xenophobic nationalism of the radical right?
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Eros and Revolution Now Available

July 17, 2016

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Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse is now available in hardcover from Brill Academic Publishers.  Being the eighty-sixth title in the Studies in Critical Social Sciences (SCSS), this 400-page political and intellectual biography examines Marcuse’s life, focusing on the German critical theorist’s contributions to the realms of philosophy, radical politics, and social revolution, while also reflecting on critiques made of Marcuse and the continued relevance of critical theory, libertarian communism, Marxist-Hegelianism, utopian socialism, radical ecology, and anti-authoritarianism today.

The volume will be republished in paperback in a year’s time with Haymarket Books.

For review copies, please contact Anne Tilanus: reviews@brill.com

For author inquiries, contact jscastro@riseup.net

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

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On April 11, I was invited to speak with Chris Burnett, host of the Indymedia on Air program (KPFK 90.7, Los Angeles), about my forthcoming book, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.  The recording of our conversation can be found below.

Review – The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left

February 9, 2016

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First published on Marx and Philosophy, 8 February 2016

The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique
Mehring Books, Oak Park, Michigan, 2015. 320pp., $24.95 pb
ISBN 9781893638501

In his “Marxist Critique” of The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism, and The Politics of the Pseudo-Left, David North, a high-ranking member within the Trotskyist Fourth International, chairman of the U.S. Socialist Equality Party (SEP), and editor of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), reprints polemical essays (2003-2012) voicing the response of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) to the heterodox theoretical suggestions made by fellow travelers Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner to incorporate greater concern for psychology, utopia, gender, and sexuality into the ICFI’s program. Whereas Steiner and Brenner sought to open the Fourth International to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Wilhelm Reich’s sex-pol approach, North repudiates any such suggestion as beyond the pale and plainly communicates his revulsion with the Frankfurt School as an alternative to Marxism-Leninism. To rationalize his dismissal of Critical Theory, he rather baselessly ties its legacy to the rise of postmodernist irrationalism. North essentially claims any left-wing intellectual “deviation” from the ICFI’s Trotskyism irredeemably to espouse “pseudo-left,” “petty bourgeois,” “anti-Marxist,” even “anti-socialist” politics. To sustain such fantasies, North presents a highly dishonest, even unhinged analysis of the Frankfurt School theorists and theories.

Starting in his Foreword (2015), North clarifies the association he sees among the “anti-materialist and anti-Marxist intellectual tendencies” represented by the Frankfurt School, existentialism, and postmodernism, which for him converge to form the “pseudo-left” (v). North facilely groups the Frankfurt School theorists together with the thought of Nietzsche, Sorel, and postmodernists like Foucault, Laclau, and Badiou (vii). Centered on “race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference,” “pseudo-left” approaches have in North’s opinion “come to play a critical role in suppressing opposition to capitalism, by rejecting class […] and by legitimizing imperialist interventions and wars in the name of ‘human rights’” (vii). North cites SYRIZA (Greece) and “the remnants and descendants of the ‘Occupy’ movements influenced by anarchist and post-anarchist tendencies” as typifying “pseudo-leftism” (xxii). He then enumerates the following accusations against the “pseudo-left”:

  • that it rejects Marxism,
  • advances “subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism” in place of historical materialism,
  • opposes class struggle and socialism,
  • denies the centrality of the proletariat and the need for revolution,
  • promotes identity politics,
  • and advances militarism and imperialism (xxii-xxiii, 205).

In his stentorian 2006 letter to Steiner and Brenner, “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consiousness,” North dismisses his counterparts’ attempts to “infiltrate the disoriented anti-Marxist pseudo-utopianism of Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Bloch, and Herbert Marcuse” into the ICFI’s program, and dismisses the sexual-psychological dimensions of Steiner’s concern for the development of socialist consciousness (24, 30). Almost in passing, in an attempt to discredit Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, North opportunistically claims that these thinkers supported Stalin’s Moscow Trials, yet no evidence is produced for such serious charges (44). North employs the same line against Bloch, who, unlike Adorno and Marcuse, admittedly was a Stalinist for some time: the author hypothesizes that Bloch’s utopianism “has something to do” with the “political swinishness” Bloch evinced during Stalin’s purges (44).

In this essay, North identifies communism as the culmination of Enlightenment materialism and rationalism, while dissociating Steiner and Brenner from Marxism altogether. In North’s words, these latter take after the “demoralized petty-bourgeois theorists of the Frankfurt School,” who for the SEP chairman are supposed to have rejected Marxism and the Enlightenment wholesale (64-9). Turning to a discussion of utopianism, the author indicates that “Utopia […] is not part of a Marxist program” (72, original emphasis). North argues that the relevance of utopia had been superseded even in Marx and Engels’ day (76-80). Yet tellingly, North boasts of Marx and Engels’ “brutally critical” approach toward “any tendency expressing a retreat from these theoretical conquests [they had made]” in the early years of international communism (80).

North then associates utopianism with idealism, presenting a deterministic account of the development of these philosophies, such that socialism remained “utopian” before the onset of industrial capitalism (82-4). He accuses Steiner and Brenner of resurrecting Bernstein’s reformism because Bernstein disagreed with Engels’ repudiation of utopianism, and of sympathizing with Kant due to their concern for morality (98-102).

The author then launches a tirade against Wilhelm Reich, whom he denounces for being “pessimistic” in his analysis of the rise of Nazism (Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933]), an account that challenges the inevitability of revolution under sexually repressive monopoly capitalism (113-21). Against Steiner’s recommendations, North clarifies that contemplation of Reich’s sex-pol “can only result in the worst forms of political disorientation” (114-5).

In “The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner” (2008), the ICFI’s response to Steiner and Brenner’s reply to “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consciousness,” North expounds more invective against the Frankfurt School. Sketching his view of the affinities among Critical Theory, Marxist humanism, and the New Left’s “middle-class radicalism,” North explains his view of how such “pseudo-left” thinking has penetrated the academy: that is, through the efforts of the “ex-radicals” of the 1960s, who putatively propagated an “unrelenting war—not against capitalism, but, rather, against Marxism” (134). He proceeds to slanderously claim Critical Theory as being “grounded in a reactionary philosophical tradition—irrationalist, idealist, and individualistic” (140, emphasis added). Passing to comment on Steiner’s “apologetic defense” of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), North observes that his counterpart’s affirmation of Marcuse’s account cannot be separated from the critical theorist’s “rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class” (193-5). The author peremptorily concludes by reiterating the charge of “petty-bourgeois” ways of thinking—all the while counterposing the thought of Marx and Trotsky, who epitomized the petty bourgeoisie; of Engels the grand capitalist; and of Plekhanov and Lenin, Russian nobles.

In “The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left” (2012), North endorses the continued centrality of Trotsky’s concern for resolving the “historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” and dismisses accusations of state capitalism raised against the USSR (202-3, 206-7). North contrasts Trotsky’s structured vanguardism to the “petty-bourgeois despair” he sees Adorno and Max Horkheimer advancing in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947) (207-10). North asserts the revisionist repudiation of reason and the proletariat to be fundamental to the thought of Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and “countless anarchist, post-anarchist, and post-structuralist tendencies,” and he ties together Marcuse’s Freudianism with the “post-Marxist Left” that arose after 1968 (210-9). On North’s account, the affinity that the “petty-bourgeois” and “affluent” left has for heresies such as Critical Theory, post-Marxism, and even postmodernism putatively reflects its “hostility to the struggles of the working class” (219-20, emphasis in original).

Besides the centrality of ad hominem attacks within these “interventions” by North, one is struck that the essays in this volume actually contain only a handful of oblique references to Critical Theory. North offers no serious analysis of the Frankfurt School here. Instead, he resorts to slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association. The text often repeats the point either that Critical Theory is non-identical to Trotskyism and as such merits little attention, or that the Frankfurt School served as a major inspiration for postmodernism due to the challenges it raised against orthodox Marxism, and as such should be considered taboo. Both claims are nonsensical. Part of the issue, clearly, is North’s reduction of Marxism to Trotskyism, particularly that of the ICFI/SEP.

In assessing North’s account, one must firstly examine the author’s most inflammatory charge: that Adorno and Marcuse “went along” with the Moscow Trials (1936-1938). North provides no evidence for this accusation, though it is quoted without citation in WSWS writer Stefan Steinberg’s “Letter and reply on Theodor Adorno” (2009). North’s source for the accusation is a 1938 letter Adorno wrote to Horkheimer, identifying Hitler as a capitalist pawn who would soon attack the USSR, expressing his disappointment with the Moscow show trials and Soviet cultural policies, yet concluding that “the most loyal attitude to Russia at the moment is probably shown by keeping quiet” (Wiggershaus 162). This is not definitive proof of North’s charge. The allegation is belied by Adorno’s May 1938 letter to Walter Benjamin, commenting on a meeting with Hans Eisler: “I listened with not a little patience to his feeble defence of the Moscow trials, and with considerable disgust to the joke he cracked about the murder of [Nikolai] Bukharin” (Claussen 237-8, emphasis added). Adorno’s biographer explains that Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer all disagreed with Bloch’s support for the Moscow Trials (ibid). Thus is North’s charge against Adorno disarmed. And Marcuse? He mentions the trials in the 1968 preface to Negations: “The last time that freedom, solidarity, and humanity were the goals of a revolutionary struggle was on the battlefields of the Spanish civil war […]. The end of a historical period and the horror of the one to come were announced in the simultaneity of the civil war in Spain and the trials in Moscow” (Marcuse 1968, xv).

While this does not evidence Marcuse’s contemporary views of the Moscow Trials, it speaks for itself. I asked Peter Marcuse, Herbert’s son, what he thought of the accusation that his father had supported or “gone along” with the Moscow Trials: “That’s absurd. Though my father had identified tendencies within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that he felt intended to subvert the Soviet Constitution, he didn’t believe the Moscow Trials were the proper means of dealing with this” (personal conversation, 13 January 2016). North’s accusations against Adorno and Marcuse thus appear baseless.

Another clear issue is North’s conflation of Critical Theory with postmodernism—a gross distortion. While the critical theorists certainly challenged several fundamental points of orthodox Marxism, it is untrue that all of them rejected revolution and opposed class struggle and socialism, as postmodernists do. One cannot reasonably charge the libertarian-socialist revolutionists Marcuse and Benjamin with repudiating the Enlightenment or advancing “irrationalist […] and individualistic” politics.

Regarding the claim that Critical Theory rejects class struggle and the revolutionary role of the proletariat, it bears noting that the various members of the Frankfurt School differed on these questions and shifted their views over time. While Adorno generally disagreed with the historical-materialist view of the proletariat, the same is not true of Benjamin, Marcuse, or the young Horkheimer. Marcuse challenges Marx’s analysis of the proletariat when examining U.S. society in One-Dimensional Man (1964), but by the end of the same decade, he had jettisoned such pessimism. In An Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse clarifies his belief that the proletariat retains its revolutionary role, amidst the “historical power of the general strike and the factory occupation, of the red flag and the International” (Marcuse 1969, 51-3, 69).

For Adorno, the relationship with the proletariat is complex. In “Society,” one of his final essays, Adorno writes that “[s]ociety remains class struggle, today just as in the period when that concept originated” (Adorno, 272). This quote definitively illustrates the falsehood of North’s accusations and clearly delineates Critical Theory from postmodernism. Though Adorno is no syndicalist, given his decentering of the proletariat as world-historical subject, his negative-dialectical approach remains revolutionary, expanding the Marxian concern with exploitation and class society into an overarching anarchistic critique of domination. Class struggle thus is not “disappeared” in Adorno’s thought, or in Critical Theory, but rather forms one current within a confluence of generalized anti-systemic revolt.

References

Adorno, Theodor W. 1989. “Society,” in Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner (eds), Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (New York: Routledge).

Claussen, Detlev 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1968. Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1969. An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press).

Wiggershaus, Rolf 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press)

At The Base in Brooklyn: Investigating the Mutual Affinities among Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin

December 9, 2015

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On Saturday 12/19 at 7pm, I will speak at The Base in Brooklyn on “Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin: Investigating Mutual Affinities.”  This will be a revised and improved version of the talk I gave at the 2015 New York City Anarchist Bookfair (NYC ABF) eight months ago.  An abstract follows:

This talk examines the close affinities among four important historical radicals, half of them renowned anarchists from Russia and Mexico—Mikhail Bakunin and Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively—and the other half German Jewish critical theorists: Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The similarities between Marcuse and Bakunin on the one hand and Magón and Benjamin on the other are striking, in terms of philosophy, revolutionary commitment, and personal lives. Marcuse and Bakunin share a common passion for Hegelian dialectics, the radical negation of the status quo, and the critique of Karl Marx, while Magón and Benjamin enthusiastically committed themselves to journalism and the written word as a means of subverting bourgeois society—beyond both of these latter having been martyred in U.S. federal prison and at the hands of Fascists, respectively, due to their revolutionary militancy. Indeed, all four thinkers have numerous affinities among themselves that transcend this convenient dyadic coupling suggested in the title. With this presentation, the speaker seeks to review the mutual affinities among these radicals and to open space for reflection on the meaning of their thoughts and lives for anarchist and anti-systemic struggle today.

Dialectical Light, Nature, Negation: Modern Minima Moralia Project

December 3, 2015

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Published on Heathwood Press, 30 November 2015

 

Nature-History Walk. To take a walking tour within a natural-history museum located in New York City amidst the sixth mass-extinction of life on Earth is to experience the contradictions of reveling in the profundity of natural beauty while consciously or subconsciously bearing witness to capital’s ceaseless war on existence and evolution. It is true that, in contradistinction to most other museum exhibits on display in the heart of empire—by nature affirmative—the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York at least provides some critical perspectives on the profundity of the present environmental crisis: the curators have recognized that we “may” be in the throes of this sixth mass-extinction event. Within the museum’s Hall of Biodiversity is emblazoned a warning made by the politically authoritarian biologist Paul R. Ehrlich: that, in “pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” The AMNH has also promoted Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 investigative volume into this most distressing of realities, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.[1] Yet the spirit of absolute negativity to which the sixth extinction attests hardly can be said to permeate the exhibits within the museum that examine the relationship between nature and humanity: quite naturally, these presentations in no way explicitly recognize the responsibility that capitalism and domination bear for the current ecocidal and suicidal natural-historical trajectory. To a degree, then, the clear link that exists between the social relations imperant in the world outside the museum—as well, indeed, as inside it—and the unmitigated destruction of life on Earth’s continents and oceans can thus only be made intuitively. The unity of all living things—and hence the vast disunity which ecocide implies—can indeed be perceived in the contemplation of the great similarities between the human visitor and the numerous other species on display in the Great Hall of Biodiversity, as in the compelling hall on oceanography, the exhibits on African, Asian, and North American mammals, the Hall of Primates, and the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

As the museum’s displays are directed primarily toward children, and considering the multitudes of minors who visit the museum with their families and on school-trips, it is to be hoped that these children, as well as their adult counterparts, grasp the more subversive meanings that the encounter with life and evolution can yield, activating Eros, biophilia, and—yes—revolutionary sadness in a counter-move to hegemonic brutality and unreason. However, childhood in late capitalism is little more than a preparatory stage for getting along: conformity, adjustment, and alienated labor. The system progressively negates the radical potential of the unintegrated child. For our part, we adults have overwhelmingly abdicated. The coral reefs are in the process of practically all being boiled off, the Arctic is melting, and Amazonia is choked by drought, while every successive year brings record-breaking global temperature rises together with record-breaking aggregate carbon emissions. In the destruction of the life-world has the nightmare of childhood come true.

 

Denial of Affirmation. Theodor W. Adorno writes that “[t]he will to live finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live.”[2] Whether the philosopher meant with this to comment on evolutionary processes as a whole or human social organization more narrowly, it is certainly well-said as a description of existence in late capitalism. The seeming contemporary universality of Android and iPhones in U.S. society, for instance, presupposes the super-exploitation of Chinese proletarians who produce the devices directly, as well as slavery and genocidal wars in central Africa related to control over the extraction of the various minerals necessary for such cellular technologies. The libidinal attachment many of us users have to our smartphones, the means with which we connect, rests precisely on the suicide, suffering, and death of our fellow laborers elsewhere—just as the casual use of air travel for work (or “business”), study, vacations, weddings, funerals, political meetings, and even revolutionary summits implies the destruction of the lives of those imperiled by the droughts, famines, and superstorms brought on by anthropogenic climate disruption, to say nothing of our poor future human generations, or the millions of other species devastated by the cancerous capitalist growth economy. In psychological terms, it would seem that people who are complicit in these systems of oppression regularly repress their participation in them in a parallel manner to the way the thought of death is continuously warded off: that is, to avoid inducing terror and Angst. The solipsism of such interpersonal brutality is reflected as well in the thoughtless and entirely unnecessary consumption of non-human animals and their products for sustenance, as in the utilization of animals for medical ‘research’—whether it is a matter of “testing out” the latest pharmaceutical absurdity, or developing drugs that are actually needed for human welfare. Even if one were to be a strict vegan for whom no medication involving vivisection would be indicated, the vegetables, fruits, and legumes one consumes to maintain one’s constitution are almost invariably cultivated by migrant workers who labor and survive in neo-feudal conditions. Practically the same is true for any new article of clothing one may purchase at present. What is more, those who can regularly afford organic food in the U.S. are usually more economically privileged—while a mass-turn to popular urban agriculture as a progressive-collective movement may not be advisable in many U.S. cities, due to the very accumulated and ongoing pollution spewed by the workplaces, cars, and trucks that underpin the monopolist-capitalist everyday.[3] No individual or individualist solution is possible for such negative realities; clearly, it is capitalism and the domination of nature that are the primary problems. Yet amidst the negative context, one cannot reproach others for adopting positions of personal resistance: for non-cooperation embodies the “Great Refusal” that is radically opposed to consumerism and getting along, with all the vast suffering, exploitation, and destruction these imply. As negations of what exist, the ideas and practices of voluntary simplicity and anarchism, together with the militant minority that strives quixotically to be faithful to these ideals, prefigure the possibility of an entirely different and potentially reconciled world-order, one that humanity in concert is capable of bringing into being. Yet the observed conformist attachment to the dominant values and badly misnamed “goods” handed down by the capitalist system, for example, in mainstream U.S. society, presents a great challenge to this potentially hopeful prospect for transformation—does it not?

 

Historical Climates, Dialectical Light. Disconcerting is the experience of visiting familiar places—cities, states, and regions—and observing how their climates have changed so drastically over the course of just the past ten to fifteen years. Summers in southern California reach much higher temperatures now as compared to the average experienced during my adolescence, while the falls retain the vernal warmth too long in the Pacific Northwest and mid-Atlantic U.S. East Coast. Moreover, there is so little rain, such that wildfires have raged, burning up at least 11 million acres in 2015.[4]

Diagnostic impression: the planet is running a fever that may prove fatal. Featuring a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), 2015 is the hottest year on record, with seven of the first nine months of this year having been the hottest recorded since 1880.[5] The Indonesian peat-bog fires of 2015 can be clearly observed from a satellite a million miles from Earth, and half the myriad tree species of the Amazon are threatened with immediate extinction.[6] The ongoing destruction of life on Earth thus illustrates the world “radiant with triumphant calamity” identified by Max Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947)—together with the “allied […] melancholy hope” Adorno feels “for other stars,” as he expresses in reflections on Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth, for “the earth that has grown remote to itself is without the hope the stars once promised” (1971).[7] Since the time during which such words were written, monopoly capitalism’s “Great Acceleration” has expanded calamity and irrationality to unbounded dimensions, and the fate of human and non-human life is at stake. In this way, the negative hegemonic light which falsely illuminates the world constitutes the inversion of the “Luz” (“Light”) which guided the Mexican anarchist movement as part of the anti-authoritarian syndicalist wing of the International—together with the “Lucha” (“Struggle”) that its constituents recognized as the dialectical means by which to counterpose the emancipatory spectrum of colors: that is, through rationalist education and anarcho-syndicalist federations, inter alia.[8] It is negative-dialectical thought and spirit that seeks the total overturning of atrocity and authority, as both mobilize to ensure the inertial reproduction of the social-property relations impelling self-destruction.

 

Medical-Industrial Waste. Is it not a contradiction for one to work to promote health while acting to degrade human-environmental health—to affirm wanton wastefulness in the provision of healthcare? One thinks of mobile vans that open access to medical services within particularly oppressed communities, but that continuously emit noxious, nauseating, and cancerous gases during their hours of operation. In parallel, the present “best practice” in several U.S. cities seemingly is to run ambulances incessantly on diesel, a known carcinogen.[9] A not dissimilar dynamic governs the driving of personal cars to any work-site, though the contradiction seems most evident in terms of labor, for example, at community clinics—the pollution emitted by workers’ and providers’ commute rains down from the highways onto the very communities whose individuals, particularly children, present to such clinics for treatment of various ailments, many of them indeed related to the normalization of environmental racism and class apartheid within capitalist society. “[A]t no time have all powers been so horribly fettered as [the present], where children go hungry and the hands of the fathers are busy churning out bombs,” writes Horkheimer.[10] Just where do doctors and nurses think all the waste produced by mainstream medical practice goes? To be fair, this problem is in no way limited to the fields of medicine and nursing. Few of us wish to think of the ever-burgeoning landfills filled with plastic and the vast chemical pollution born through production and consumption patterns in the West, the medical-industrial complex, and global capitalism taken as a whole. “Out of sight, out of mind.” This is the dynamic of bourgeois society externalizing its problems to the detriment of the commons—reflected in turn in the frequent compulsion to “just focus on the details,” not the larger picture or world, and never to “get distracted.” According to their own maxims, practitioners of medicine and nursing must firstly do no harm, and it is for this reason that they should resist the “business-as-usual” imperatives of mass-wastefulness together with the rackets trading internationally in wastes, in effect dumping hazardous wastes—medical-industrial and nuclear—on impoverished societies like Haiti, Somalia, Angola, and Côte d’Ivoire.[11] Perhaps the increased adoption of the practice of sterilizing medical equipment, as in autoclaves, and the use of vegetable oil-powered mobile vans and ambulances could represent but two facets of elements of a rational transition toward a health-care model instituting a holistic, Hegelian-anarchist perspective, integrating concern for the means to the desired end of collective, social, and terrestrial well-being: an overcoming of the bad present that, in seeking to attend to the wounds and other ailments caused by prevailing power, as by historical circumstances, greatly avoids the generation of new ones in the overall healing process.

 

Locomotive Ride. Global class society, as Walter Benjamin knew, resembles a train headed to disaster.[12] On this ride the passengers are governed by necessity, coercion, distraction, and integration. Intuitively they sense the falsity and danger of the established course, and though they sympathize with the erotic cry of life—the beauty in the lands passed by, as well as nature’s marked recent deadening—their immediate concerns are with particulars, like family, work, and entertainment. By design, some of the cars lack windows with which to even regard the outside world, while in others—particularly the work-sites of the laboring classes—they are shuttered, and external reality ignored. The laborers exhaust, injure, sicken, and kill themselves to keep the engine running, while the members of the upper classes dine in the luxury sleepers. Ubiquitous police, surveillance, and security measures ensure that the system continues on lock. As the train accelerates, those on board increasingly sense the abyss toward which the conductors are driving them. Over the intercom system they are not informed of the train’s route, whether precisely or generally speaking, other than to be told that all is well, that they should soon expect some minor alleviation in their conditions in recognition of their hard work, and not to worry about matters that are the exclusive concern of the administration anyway.

Amidst the directional negativity of this train, dissident groups in the working-class cars regard the given course as increasingly alarming, and they seek to distribute their findings and organize alternatives among the multitude. Even among the privileged there is a minority that concurs with the analysis for general alarm, and these renegade aristocrats surreptitiously share the knowledge to which they are privy with the workers, emphasizing the need to coordinate rebellion. Yet the train evermore accelerates, and a palpable sense of powerlessness and atomization dominates the passengers as a whole. Numerically speaking, most people on board this train would not be expected to favor the course taken by the administration, in light of the terminal consequences that are becoming increasingly evident. But what is to be done practically? Rational-collective choices self-evidently will not assert themselves ex nihilo under the reign of the Iron Cage. In light of the strict established security measures on board the class-divided train, it may well be that the workers cannot at this time storm the engine room to pull the emergency brake directly, as necessary as such a move might be—yet they could refuse their labor and disrupt the train’s route that careens to oblivion. Clearly, such a radical syndicalist approach would not be entirely without its losses, considering the injuries and deaths that would be outrightly inflicted by the police in reprisal to strikes, as well as the question of how non-cooperation would affect the well-being of workers’ children, and the possibility indeed that the rebellion would be crushed altogether. If it did not come at the right time, when would hope for social revolution return?

In the first place, the trajectory of the current course is clear enough. Beyond this, and to the question of the success or failure of the revolution, human history repeatedly demonstrates the anti-systemic activation of Eros under conditions of mass-rebellion.[13] It follows that the sacrifices of the rebels and martyrs of today and tomorrow disrupting the normal functioning of the system in an attempt to avert the destruction of self and Other would pale in comparison to the alternatives—if Eros cannot assert itself.

 

Images of Protest. I will say that the strongest protest-action in which I have participated was the general strike called for by Occupy Oakland on 2 November 2011. Though the strike in fact proved to be far from general, hundreds of thousands took part in rebellion and refusal that day. The climax of the day—which for many protestors likely also represented something of a peak life-experience—came in the late afternoon, as the mass-multitude converged on Oakland’s ports from the east, where the day of action had been based: Oscar Grant Plaza, or Frank Ogawa Plaza. The police could not stop the multitude as it took over the ramps and highways normally dedicated to the movement of capital and goods, pouring into the shipping terminals like alluvial fans. Once the port was taken over, protestors climbed on top of trucks, danced, cheered. Anarchist flags were waved, and one comrade knowingly expressed with a banner that said, “The People are Strong.” The port shut-down was truly a prefiguration of the radical change that could and can be accomplished through the collective organization of those from below—the reordering of the productive apparatus, its occupation and disarticulation. In this sense it was an action that has to my knowledge not been surpassed in scope in the U.S. since—to the detriment of the struggle, clearly, as capital markedly intensifies its destructiveness. Another recent mass-protest effort was made with the People’s Climate March (PCM) of September 2014, but as the organizers of this action in no way wanted to replicate the experience of Occupy, let alone the riots against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle (1999), the march was channeled into a non-threatening route, had no practical target, and made no demands, much less substantive ones.[14] Still, to recognize problems with the PCM’s organization is not to discount the authentic concern evinced by the hundreds of thousands who took part in the actions that day, including a number of explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-systemic contingents. The PCM’s approach was one that bears little in common with radical actions like the Oakland port shut-down and eco-socialist concepts of “Climate Satyagraha.”[15] The “Flood Wall Street” protest that followed the day after the PCM was more clearly in the militant spirit of Oakland, as it aimed to shut down New York’s financial district—though realistically, all we flooders accomplished was to blockade road access to the trading floor, and not to interrupt the normal functioning of capital inside.

Alongside the Oakland port shut-down, two other rebel-experiences I will share include the 2 October 2010 protests in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, and the anti-COP protests in Cancún in December 2010. 2 October, of course, marks the day on which the Mexican military murdered and forcibly disappeared hundreds of students and protestors assembled in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City in 1968, ten days before the opening of the Olympics being hosted in the same city. For this reason this date is commemorated every year in Mexico—and indeed, it was to join the protest-action for the observance of the anniversary in Mexico City in 2014 that the 43 student-teachers from Ayotzinapa were forcibly disappeared in Iguala by the State. In the highland city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, university students and other youth led the protest in 2010, occupying the main streets, disrupting the existing order, and distributing flyers to inform the public of their actions, in addition to engaging in direct action against symbolic and actual centers of reified power, such as the local headquarters of the National Action Party (PAN) and the transnationally owned OXXO convenience stores. In Cancún three months later, La Via Campesina organized a counter-summit to the official UN summit, COP-16, at which the member-states were supposedly meeting to discuss how to address the problem of climate change—a meeting which Obama did not deign to grace with his presence—and from this alternative summit in downtown Cancún some of the largest counter-mobilizations were organized. The Anti-C@P, a grouping of autonomous youth who proclaimed their opposition both to the COP process and to capitalism, engaged in a number of unpermitted actions in the streets, and had even planned to disrupt official celebrations being held at the luxury hotels on the city’s eastern peninsula, including one featuring the Mexican president, the head of the World Bank, and the owner of Walmart. However, the ubiquitous police check-points erected near the tourist zone dissuaded anti-C@P from following through on these plans. As with the general strike in Oakland proclaimed nearly a year later, and following the mass-action against the Copenhagen COP the year prior, the culmination of rebellion against COP-16 came during a mass-march from downtown Cancún to the Moon Palace several kilometers to the south, where the negotiations were in fact being held. By the end of the several hours-long counter-mobilization, which had been monitored closely by several military helicopters, most protestors were really quite tired. As we finally approached the Moon Palace, the official organizers of the march stopped and organized a rally, while the bolder among us pressed on. Though we did approximate the Moon Palace, eventually we came face-to-face with a police cordon several lines deep. Then suddenly, scores of more riot police appeared from the inauspiciously small building in which they had been hidden, awaiting us. None of us was prepared to resist such a show of force directly, so we retreated back to the rally, hopeful that our spirit of rebellion temporarily beyond the limits of the accepted and given was meaningful.

I can recall a far more desperate spirit during the counter-inauguration demos in Washington, D.C., in January 2005, as those assembled expressed displeasure with the legal continuation of the Bush regime. Access to the parade route was entirely blocked off by fences; police presence was heavy; and snipers could be readily perceived, perched atop several buildings. The presidential limo sped quickly past the section containing the protest block—no doubt just another “focus group” to Bush—what a despotic fool, reminiscent of the tsars. A similarly absurd and negating atmosphere surrounded Israel’s massacres in Gaza during December 2008 and January 2009. I can never forget the expressions of rage and pain I encountered on the faces of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem during one of the first few days of the airstrikes and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008. I had entered the Old City and the Occupied Palestinian Territories after having restfully visited Jordan’s Wadi Rum for Christmas. While being driven north from Jerusalem to Nablus, I saw that rocks were strewn on several roads, evidence of direct action taken by Palestinians against the reified, hated power of occupation and destruction. In Nablus itself, a protest camp was established in the dewar, or downtown circle, with the participation of several children (‘otfal), that involved art-making activities, speeches, denunciations, providence of news, publication of the faces of all those martyred. This solidarity arose despite the clear overall tensions between the Fateh-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Palestinian multitude participating in the commemorations and protests evinced a collectivist-humanist concern for the fate of their sisters and brothers suffering under the Israeli bombs in the other major Occupied Palestinian Territory, rather than any adherence to divisive political ideologies. The same however cannot be said of the Palestinian Authority forces, who repressed numerous public expressions of sympathy with the people of Gaza, particularly in Ramallah.[16] I recall that on the New Year’s Friday demonstrations in Bi’lin—where the local Palestinian population has been cut off from its agrarian lands due to the erection of the Apartheid Wall—the Israeli forces were especially brutal, opening fire straightaway on the adolescent and youth sections of the weekly communal mobilization to resist colonization, rather than beginning by launching tear-gas grenades first. Among the Palestinians a great rage and outrage could thus readily be gleaned. “How dare they try to take our lives away from us, how dare they treat us like that?”[17] As a negative mirror-image of human rebellion, the cruelty of the occupying force was obvious for all to see.

The seemingly eternal return of negative historical developments in Palestine would re-assert itself most acutely in summer 2014, when the Israeli military once again engaged in a massively murderous campaign in Gaza. In New York, Direct Action for Palestine (DA4P) organized several emergency protest mobilizations in midtown Manhattan directed against the Israeli consulate; a number of banks financing Zionist crimes, including expropriation of land and settlement of the West Bank; and the Diamond District, comprised of numerous jewelry shops owned by Zionist Jews. In this last locale, we protestors encountered the fury of a number of Zionist chauvinists, thoughtlessly and incessantly chanting “Israel!” as we defied them, all the while the State they championed extinguished hundreds and thousands of Palestinian lives. Had it not been for the police cordon accompanying the march, ironically, several of us Palestinian sympathizers would likely have been attacked and injured by this proto-fascist mob. In such a strongly pro-Israeli city, we represented the militant minority opposing itself to authority, authoritarianism, settler-colonialism, and militarism, revindicating the right to rebel against despotism, injustice, domination, and absurdity. Retrospectively, though, in parallel to the counter-protests against COP and Wall Street, one can question whether DA4P concretely helped to stay Israel’s iron fist in any way. As Subcomandate Marcos—now Galeano—movingly observed during the winter 2008-2009 assault: “Is it useful to say something? Do our cries stop even one bomb? Does our word save the life of even one Palestinian?”[18] Yet, as Marcos/Galeano remarks, and as the resistance of Palestinians and their comrades demonstrates, it becomes necessary forthrightly to express one’s repudiation of events once these come to surpass basic principles of humanity so brazenly. “Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people” (Adorno).[19]

 

Theses on Repressive Tolerance

1. I am in full agreement with Herbert Marcuse: there can be no right to advocate imperial war, exploitation, racism, sexism, fascism, or genocide.[20] The numerous victims of capital, colonialism, white supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy—prisoners; the institutionalized; racial minorities in the West; women and children; LGBTQ individuals; workers; anti-imperialist movements in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; the millions of non-human animal species; and the biosphere as a whole—demand the overthrow of these systems of domination. Rather than any sense of expediency or conformism, concern for the fate of nature and history brutalized by hegemony must become central to radical ethics and politics today.

2. The concept of tolerance must return to its original sense of being a “weapon for humanity,” moving into the future victorious against the counterparts of the clerical-absolutist regimes of yesteryear.[21] This implies an active counter-movement from below incorporating direct action and dual-power to take down capitalism, militarism, and all other forms of oppression. Marcuse is right to stress that the revolt of the oppressed against the system historically has served to pause the continuum of domination—if only momentarily. One thinks of numerous historical examples illuminating the path: the French Revolution; Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals; the Paris Commune; the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and the Mexican Revolution; the February Revolution, deposing tsarism; the Spanish Revolution of 1936; Rubén Jaramillo, Genaro Vázquez, and Lucio Cabañas, Mexican guerrilleros; the global uprising of 1968; the Gwanju Commune; the Tahrir Commune; the Palestinian Intifada; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN); and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), among many others. As Marcuse observes rightly:

The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions […] only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities […]—minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.[22]

[1]     Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2]     Adorno, T. W. (1974). Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (p. 229, E. F. N. Jephcott, trans.) London: Verso, 1974.

[3]     Engel-Di Mauro, S. (2014). Ecology, Soils, and the Left: An Eco-Social Approach. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan..

[4]     Agence France-Press. (2015, 14 October). “2015 becomes worst US wildfire year on record,” Phys.org. Retrieved 22 October 2015 from http://phys.org/news/2015-10-worst-wildfire-year.html.

[5]     Associated Press. (2015, 21 October). “Warmest September ever points to 2015 being world’s hottest year on record,” Guardian.

[6]     Plait, P. (2015, 27 October). “Indonesia Fires Seen From a Million Miles Away,” Slate. Retrieved 22 November from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/10/27/earth_from_space_indonesian_peat_fires_show_up_in_satellite_photos.html; Carrington, D. (2015, 20 November).“Half of tree species in the Amazon at risk of extinction, say scientists,” Guardian.

[7]     Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (2002/1947/1944). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (p. 1E. Jephcott trans.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press; Adorno, T. W. (1993). Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (p. 154, E. Jephcott, trans.). Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

[8]     Hart, J. M. (1978). Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class (pp. 111-120). Austin: University of Texas Press This affirmation of Luz/Lucha in no way seeks to overlook its metamorphosis into the House of the Global Worker (COM), which during the Mexican Revolution unfortunately played the reactionary role of serving in the counter-insurgent war waged by Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón against the Zapatistas (ibid, pp. 126-135).

[9]     Gani, A. and Nicholson, B. (2015, 28 October). “The 116 things that can give you cancer—the full list,” Guardian.

[10]   Horkheimer, M. (1993). Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Writings (p. 35, G. F. Hunter. trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[11]   Clapp, J. (2000). “Africa and the International Toxic Waste Trade” (pp. 103-124). In The Environment and Development in Africa (M. K. Tesi, ed). Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

[12]   Benjamin, W. (1977). Gesammelte Schriften I/3 (p. 1232). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag..

[13]   Katsiaficas, G. (2012-2013). Asia’s Unknown Uprisings: Volumes 1 and 2. Oakland, California: PM Press.

[14]   Gupta, A. (2014, 19 September). “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,” Counterpunch Retrieved 22 November 2015 from “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,”; Saul, Q (2014, 16 September). “Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate ‘Farce,’” Truthout. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26215-like-a-dull-knife-the-peoples-climate-farce.

[15]   Saul, Q. and Sethness Castro, J. (2015, 10 April). “On Climate Satyagraha,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/10/on-climate-satyagraha/.

[16]   Juma’, J. (2012, 3 July). “PA repression feeds flames of Palestinian discontent,” Electronic Intifada. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from https://electronicintifada.net/content/pa-repression-feeds-flames-palestinian-discontent/11456.

[17]   Holloway, J. (2010). “Of Despair and Hope,” Interventionistische Linke. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.dazwischengehen.org/node/669.

[18]   Subcomandante Marcos (2009, 1 February). “Gaza Will Survive,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/02/01/gaza-will-survive/.

[19]   Adorno, op. cit. (1974), p. 233.

[20]   Marcuse, H. (2014). Marxism, Revolution, Utopia: Collected Papers, Volume Six (pp. 293-297D. Kellner and C. Pierce, eds.). London: Routledge, 2014.

[21]   Ibid, pp. 218-221.

[22]   Marcuse, H. (1965). “Repressive Tolerance.” In A Critique of Pure Tolerance (p, 123, R. P. Wolff and B. Moore, Jr., eds.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Review of Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University (1974)

October 27, 2015

The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/TW1258

J. M. W. Turner, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Published on Heathwood Press on 27 October 2015.  Co-written with R.C. Smith

Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University
ed. Peter-Erwin Jansen, Charles Reitz
142 pp. – $20
ISBN: 1512319023
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Discovered in 2014 by Peter-Erwin Jansen, then annotated and edited by Jansen and Charles Reitz for publication in 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University do not necessarily provide any radical new material in comparison to some of the well-known works which he was already writing at the time when these lectures originally took place. That is to say that there is no grand treasure of previously unseen revolutionary insight waiting to be discovered in these hitherto unpublished manuscripts. With that observation in mind, what makes these lectures significant and worth reading for the Marcuse scholar has to do with some of the finer nuances of analysis that Marcuse presents regarding American society as the most advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. His discussion on the dynamic forces of revolution and counterrevolution are also notable in this regard. When considered in the context of his more major works, these lectures provide further insight into Marcuse’s overall critical theory. For the non-Marcuse scholar on the other hand – that is, the conscious citizen looking to understand the dynamic context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its historic genesis – this book offers an entry point into Marcuse’s thought and his excellent, highly reliable analysis of our modern times. This potential entry into Marcuse’s social philosophy is further reinforced by supplementary commentary by Sarah Surak, Detlev Claussen, and Douglas Kellner.

Integration, the dialectic between rulers and ruled, and new social movements

Though these lectures were first presented in 1974, Marcuse’s sharp analysis of some of the key trends of American society at the time highlight much of what we continue to observe today. In some instances, it could be said that Marcuse even anticipates what we now identify as neoliberalism, not to mention the rise of the mass-surveillance state and the underlying struggle and emergence of contemporary social movements.

Consider, for example, his discussion on the integration of the population with the dominant and coercive system of capital. By “integration” Marcuse means to describe: “the acceptance of, and even the identification with, the capitalist system among the majority of the population, including the majority of the working class” (p. 22). The general thrust of Marcuse’s analysis in this regard is the manner in which the dominant forces of contemporary society (the ‘bad totality’) attempt to keep people “within the framework of the capitalist system and, perhaps, even within the frame work of the capabilities of capitalism” (p. 22). As Marcuse explains, this integration is understood to take place “on three very different levels” (p. 22). The first is the sphere of consumption in which, “In satisfying the needs beyond the mere subsistence needs for a large part […] of the population, the increasing productivity of the service industries churns out more and more comforts, luxuries, and services like organized vacations, traveling, and so on and so on. These are powerful mechanisms which bind people to the established system” (pp. 22-23). In a sense these mechanisms of control help mask over surplus repression. They deflect from the suffering and misery which, in many ways, becomes the hidden reality of capitalist society. This is especially so, Marcuse explains, “when the people cannot imagine a better alternative” (p. 23).

The second level is what Marcuse terms “the management of the mind” (p. 23), which means “the consciousness as well as the unconscious” of the subject. In a sense, what Marcuse is surveying here is a reality we now know all too well: the maintenance of the present social order through structural and systemic mechanisms, albeit sometimes subtle, of control and coercion. The rise of the mass-surveillance state, as Edward Snowden has disclosed, is a perfect example. It is worth noting that it is an example that Marcuse also references in his lectures, decades before Snowden’s leaks revealed the hidden reality of state surveillance programs. Other examples can be found in what Marcuse describes as “two less noticeable phenomena, namely, the release and the satisfaction of primary aggression” (p. 23). In other words, “The increasing violence of films and television” as well as “The increasing aggressiveness in sports and entertainment, and so on” are exemplifications of a sinister psychological paradigm, one which we first learn about in the work of Freud. This paradigm, this play of psychic forces, can be described according “to the degree to which a social system frees the aggressive instincts of man and woman and at the same time succeeds in keeping them within the established framework so that they don’t blow up the society, that this satisfaction of aggressiveness strengthens the society which produces such satisfaction” (pp. 23-24).

To further describe the reality that Marcuse is pointing toward, we could cite several other phenomena as practical examples, including the self-deceiving satisfaction of consumerism. At the heart of consumerism and, equally, the greed and egoism commonly observed in contemporary society, is the unleashing and ultimate rationalization of excessive or rapacious desire for material goods, which, in many ways, is linked to deepening repression. On the one hand, consumerism reinforces the existing system; it strengthens some of the basic drives of contemporary capitalist society. On the other hand, in unleashing greed and egoism and rapacious desire, there is a sort of strange rationale on a systemic level which moralizes greed and attempts to keep the ailing psychology of consumerism in check. Thus, in the case of the Libor scandal for example, where it was discovered that banks were falsely inflating or deflating their rates so as to profit from trades, the bankers involved were condemned on a moral level. They were labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘immoral’ and, in some cases, it was even argued that these bankers were in no way a representation of the system they inhabit. In popular discourse and reaction, it was rare to see any question of the capitalist context, of the logic or rational of modern political economy, which fosters the sort of behaviour of the bankers in question on the basis of the very impulses the contemporary social system unleashes. Thus, in an odd way, we observe another case of the degree to which the contemporary social system fosters, supports or frees antagonistic forces of man and woman while at the same time endeavouring to keep these destructive forces and impulses within the established framework. The satisfaction of greed and rapacious desire, as opposed to generosity, solidarity and egalitarianism, strengthens the system which produces such satisfaction; but it is moralized so as to ensure the maintenance of that system.

The final, third level “on which integration takes place is systematic and overt repression” (p. 24). Marcuse cites a particularly relevant example which concerns many young people today. To quote in full:

Students know all too well, for example, that if there is anything that indicates radical activity on their record, it will be all but impossible for them to find a job, especially with the entirely negative job market.

Allied with this systematic repression we witness a reduction of civilized sensibilities. You only have to look at some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last years in order to see the dangerous extent of this reduction of civil liberties and, at the same time, the systematic and methodical increase in the power of the police, the National Guard, and other so-called forces of law and order.

This may suffice in order at least to outline the integration, the popular support of the system and some of the basic mechanisms which engender this support.

Following this, Marcuse turns his attention to a fruitful discussion “on the question of who is the actual agent of this repression”, or, as he rephrases, “who is actually the dominant class, the ruling class which is in control of American society” (p. 25). Here another example of particular relevance in our attempt to understand the broader social trends of contemporary society might be found, as Marcuse discusses the dialectic between rulers and ruled, offering some key passages which could be said to describe certain aspects of the unfolding of the contemporary neoliberal context (pp. 27-29). Referring back to the analyses offered by C. Wright Mills, Marcuse reiterates that “domination over the capitalist societies today is shared and organized by three groups” (p. 27), namely corporate leaders, politicians and the military. He then describes how this ruling class, “which not only is not monolithic but permeated with antagonisms, has a common feature, namely, the preservation of the established system” (p. 28). It is along these lines where Marcuse offers a valuable insight which further highlights the importance of this text in these early years of the 21st Century. He argues, when discussing the dialectical relationship between rulers and ruled, that the “various components of indoctrination, manipulation, and management of the mind also become […] instruments for expressing the will and the interests of the indoctrinated population” (p. 28). In essence, Marcuse is explaining the relation between structure and agency, in which “the government and its institutions, the ruling class, systematically makes what is called public opinion, but once made, this public opinion, which is constantly being reasserted, has in turn its own influence on the policy makers” (p. 28). One could argue that this practice is even more prevalent now, after decades of liberalization, in which the growing appearance of freedom – to debate policy or to vote according to one’s own will – is actually countered insofar that the people participate in the rule of society – that is, in the perpetuation of the misery of dominant, coercive and hierarchical social, economic and political conditions.

The people can indeed express their will, which is no longer their will but has been made their will by the ruling class and its instrumentalities. The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. […] There is no doubt that the people who cast their vote in any election are even, in the sense of the system, free people because nobody forces them to vote. But, still, are these the same people who can become subjects of radical change? (p. 29)

There is something horrifying about the reality that Marcuse is surveying here – a trend which, perhaps now more than ever, can be observed in its fullest. It is debatable, firstly, whether one’s vote can actually influence the policy of rulers. The crisis in Greece is a clear example of why such a question is justified. Even in the so-called radical party politics in the UK and the US led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively, there is still an element of conformism – an element of conservativism, which, in essence, attests to the deepening of the status quo. The “oppositional” economic policies outlined by Corbyn and Sanders alike are really not that radical. They are viewed as progressive precisely because the social, political and economic context has, after so many years – perhaps beginning with the fall of the movements from the 60s and 70s – moved so far to the right. The arguably general absence of radical political subjectivity within these two examples of so-called radical Left party politics today attests to what Marcuse was indicating decades earlier. In a sense, the dialectic between rulers and ruled has developed beyond Marcuse’s conception, if we consider that, in the very existence of the party itself, the status quo of a less-than-revolutionary politics is upheld. Moreover, there is a distinction which must be drawn today – a distinction between the radical subjectivity of autonomous participatory (democratic) movements and the so-called radical subjectivity of the party, particularly as the politics of the latter persists as an extension of the hierarchical and institutional world, and, generally speaking, is framed largely by the ideology of representative democracy (i.e., democratic capitalism). It is debatable whether Marcuse was feeling his way toward this distinction in his 1974 lectures, but one could interpret his argument along such lines when he writes: “that there is a feedback, there is indeed a considerable degree of activity, opinions, and attitudes by the people influencing the government, and that on the other hand at least recognize themselves in their leaders” (p. 31). He then leaves us with one remark which is particularly telling:

The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. And it is interesting to think back, and not too long back, when among the American Left the slogan was “Power to the People.” “Power to the People.” The slogan is now used to far less a degree because the question “Who are the people?” cannot for any length of time be postponed (p. 29).

In some respects, the distinction highlighted above seems to be playing out today between the emergence of new social movements – which are grassroots, participatory, generally prefigurative, and more or less horizontal – and the lingering ideology of party representation. One could argue that it is, in part, the question “Who are the people?” that contemporary movements are attempting to answer in precisely the same way that they are also responding to the crisis of democracy. In other words, the question “Who are the people?” is symptomatic of alienation, socially and politically. The correct response is not a turn further away from democratic assembly and participation, to a further deepening of the questionable satisfaction of collective reliance on a leader; it is instead a revitalizing of the idea of the commons, of the grassroots, of collective struggle and solidarity – that is, dealienation on several levels. Occupy-style movements are a perfect example of the general political horizon contemporary social movements are suggestive of in this regard. Attempting on the level of praxis to answer questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and what it means to be ‘public’ in twenty-first century society, the very political concept and definition of “the people” is brought into direct focus, so much so that the existence of hierarchy is challenged on the basis of a ‘mutually recognising’ politics which insists that the ultimate goal of emancipatory change must be, from the start, a product of (dealienating) interaction.

For Marcuse, the real possibility of a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries is one “not on a basis of poverty and misery, but rather on the basis of wasted abundance” (p. 49). Even though misery and suffering and struggle still play more of a role than what Marcuse may let on, especially now in the context of neoliberal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, he is nevertheless on to something when he writes:

The result of the ever more explosive contradiction is the gradual development of what we may call an anti-capitalist consciousness; the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and of an anti-capitalist mental structure, unconscious, among the population in the metropoles, a consciousness still largely unorganized, spontaneous, without definite goals, but, in any case, the consciousness and instincts, drives, “compulsions,” which very definitely come into conflict with the operational values required to sustain the capitalist system. That is to say, the protest comes into conflict with the so-called performance principle, which is the reality principle governing capitalist society. And against this performance principle, we see now the gradual emergence of an opposition―and I repeat, an opposition still unorganized, still to a great extent spontaneous―an opposition against toil as such, an opposition against alienated labor as a full-time job, opposition against the fact that life for the vast majority of the population, is to cite the phrase from Marx, “life as a means to an end and not as an end in itself,” namely life as a means to make a living, as one says, as a means for daily reproducing one’s own existence without ever, or only when it is too late, getting at the joy of really enjoying life (pp. 56-57).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in various instances of Occupy-style events and the ‘movements of the squares’, protest and struggle are just as present in action and language as joy, solidarity, and collective caring. Returning back to the joy of life, while practicing and experimenting with variations of participatory democracy and actual egalitarian possibilities – public and co-operative libraries, public medical tents, solidarity kitchens, social clinics, mutual aid networks, sustainability initiatives, self-managed workplaces – can it be that contemporary movements represent a more developed politics than what Marcuse saw fragments of in his own time? Is it not that these occupied spaces, these commons-oriented and participatory spaces of practice, are built on the idea of alternative forms of social relations which, in the process, seem to demonstrate a more mature form of the sort of new revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s?  That contemporary social movements are beginning to emerge in challenge against not only the economic status quo but also the social, relational, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, and so on, attests in many ways to the many-sided transformative politics that Marcuse spent years arguing toward. To conclude this thought, consider the passage below in relation to some of the social movements we are witnessing throughout the world today, who aim toward a radical egalitarian and democratic horizon and seem to suggest some sense of a critically retrieved and holistic notion of social progress:

What is required to bring out the full, entire, and qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is not so much the continued ever more efficient development of the productive forces, but the total redirection of the productive forces altogether towards new goals and toward a new quality of life. Now, in view of this fact, there must be not only the political and economic revolution, not only new institutions and basic social relationships, but also the reversal and subversion of the entire system of values that kept at least Western civilization going, going on the ever more repressive and destructive aspects, until this very day (pp. 59-60).

Capital, radical consciousness, and world-historical revolution

As alluded earlier, one of Marcuse’s principal concerns in the 1974 Vincennes lectures is to continue with a lifetime of investigation into the conditions underpinning the reproduction of the “bad totality” that is global capitalism, as juxtaposed with the possibilities of breaking free from this “Iron Cage,” to use Weberian terminology. As in his “Assessment” of “The Movement in a New Era of Repression” (1971), he observes in these lectures that the contemporary U.S. left lacks a “mass base” among the populace precisely because of the strength of integration, while on the other hand he laments the “sad phenomenon” whereby the oppressed racial and national minorities in the U.S. have been depoliticized and suppressed (p. 4)—thus blunting the revolutionary hopes he had identified as emanating from militant people of color at the conclusion of One-Dimensional Man (1964). The critical theorist moreover notes that, on the international stage, the “arrangement” the U.S. ruling class has made with the Soviet Union contributes to the overall stabilization of world capitalism, and he presciently speculates that a similar “arrangement” would be made with the People’s Republic of China (p. 7). Defining the “objective conditions” as “the strength or weakness of the State or the ruling class [versus] the strength or weakness of the working class,” Marcuse soberly acknowledges that the prevailing tendency is toward neo-fascism rather than any kind of socialism (p. 13, 10). In this sense, Marcuse observes knowingly that the problem of consciousness—the “subjective conditions”—does not have to do with any lack of knowledge regarding the factual situation, for the implicit and expressed political philosophy of the conformist majority in late-capitalist society would seem to be driven much more by powerlessness:

Yes, there are the objective conditions which one knows well: It is repression; it is corruption; capitalism no longer works without   inflation, unemployment, etc., etc. But what can one do? Nothing at all. (p. 18)

In idealistic terms, Marcuse counterposes against such widespread resignation the radical consciousness, which in Kantian terms mobilizes the “imagination as a cognitive faculty” to show “that the impossible is not impossible” (p. 16). It is in this sense that the radical consciousness is “way ahead” of the objective conditions, for it dialectically “projects potentiality in the objective conditions” and “anticipates possibilities not yet realized” (p. 18). Though Marcuse clearly sympathizes with this latter approach, he defines both the conformist and radical consciousness alike as manifestations of false consciousness—insofar as the latter refuses to apply a Marxist analysis to the changes in the capitalist system since the nineteenth century (p. 19). Speaking to the disillusionment felt by many of those formerly in opposition when ‘the Revolution’ was not consummated at the end of the 1960s, Marcuse criticizes the disengagement into which many radicals fell: “Any absenteeism from political life, any absenteeism from links with political activity is escapist and is conformist” (p. 33). Taking an historical view, the critical theorist observes that social revolution is a process, and that it cannot be presumed to be without its regressions. This is particularly the case for the world-historical revolution that Marcuse anticipated as possible for the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: being “more radical and more sweeping in scope than all preceding historical revolutions,” this “would be a revolution not only in the political and economic institutions, not only a revolution in class structure, but also a total transformation and subversion of values in all spheres and dimensions of the material and intellectual cultures” (p. 59; emphasis added). The philosopher observes that:

we cannot possibly assume that the largest and most radical revolution in history […] would come about in a straightly ascending curve and would come about in a relatively short time. (p. 34)

Though Marcuse remains faithful to the possibility of this world-historical revolutionary transformation, and agrees with Marx that it would have to centrally include the advanced-capitalist core of the world-system, he specifies in the Vincennes lectures that he expects this revolution to be the work of “75 to 150 years” (p. 34)—in an echo of the closing lines to Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). He clarifies that, though he believes the prospects for this revolution to be long-term, it will never come if the radical opposition does not strive to incubate it now.

As in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse in these lectures also discusses the phenomenon of the vast extension of the U.S. working class. Citing statistics compiled by Stanley Aronowitz and the U.S. government, Marcuse shows that monopoly capital has largely suppressed the middle class and made 90 percent of the population into a dependent class (pp. 40-42). The theorist then cites a famous letter from Marx to Engels (1865) in which the former tells the latter that the “working class is revolutionary or it is nothing at all” (p. 61). Marcuse interprets Marx’s statement here as suggesting that the laboring class is revolutionary insofar as its “needs and aspiration […] are irreconcilable and incompatible with the capitalist system” (p. 62). Returning to the discussion on conformist consciousness, he then declares the contemporary U.S. working class not to be revolutionary as a whole, though he does endorse Marx’s general point about the conflict between capital and labor, concluding that this antagonism is “bound to explode in the long run” (p. 62). As in a number of other addresses from this time-period, the critical theorist points out the militancy of a radical minority among the U.S. working class, compelled as it is by the combination of workplace alienation and revolutionary consciousness to engage in spontaneous acts of subversion, such as absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes (p. 63-64). Marcuse sees in such acts, and in the parallel vague public awareness of the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production, the decline of the performance principle and a growing threat to regnant obedience (pp. 64, 52).

The critical theorist concludes by suggesting that this militant minority among the workers could, like radical students and people of color in struggle, serve as the catalyst for the future disintegration of U.S. and thus global capitalism (pp. 66-67). Closing on an ecological and syndicalist note, Marcuse anticipates laborers challenging workplace hierarchy and humanity engaging in a “total redirection of production […] towards the abolition of poverty and scarcity wherever it exists in the world today,” together with a “total reconstruction of the environment and the creation of space and time for creative work” (p. 69). Anticipating the profound exacerbation of the environmental crisis which was already evident at the end of his life, Marcuse announces that the “abolition of waste, luxury, planned obsolescence, [and] unnecessary services and commodities of all kind” would imply a lower standard of living for the world’s privileged minority, but that such a ‘sacrifice’ in capitalist terms would not be an excessively high price to pay for the possible “advent” of libertarian socialism (p. 69).

Closing thoughts

It is a testament to the fundamental character of Marcuse’s thought that he was able to identify, decades earlier, some of the deepest trends underlying the evolution of late-capitalist society. That he could, with remarkable precision, analyze the earliest developments of what we now understand as neoliberalism is one of many examples of the acute, incisive and penetrating qualities of Marcuse’s social philosophy (and also that, more generally, of the early Frankfurt School). Though it is certainly true that there are dated aspects to Marcuse’s argument in these lectures, this is only understandable considering that it is a basic principle of critical theory to remain rooted in history. Looking back, there may be concepts and arguments which can be retrieved and advanced. But this does not take away from Marcuse’s overall theses, formulated by way of remarkably complex and comprehensive research on the dynamic processes and forces of modern dominant, coercive and authoritarian society – as well as the foundational basis for emancipatory praxis and the development of an actual democratic, egalitarian social conditions.

At a time of endless “critical studies” and commentary, which do not always reach down to the levels of fundamental interdisciplinary analysis representative of the very essence of critical theory, we would do well to reflect on the crisis of contemporary social theory and the need to return to the roots of the Frankfurt School. In confronting the crisis of apolitical social theory, Marcuse can help show us the way forward as almost every sentence he composed in these lectures and elsewhere reminds us of the precisely foundational nature and transformative potential of critical theory.

The manner in which the critical theorist identifies, for example, the changing dynamics of capitalist society—whereby Marcuse suggests that revolution within the most advanced industrial nations will no longer be primarily based on hunger and misery but on wasted abundance (p. 49)—in many ways anticipates what we’re witnessing in these early decades of the 21st Century. Popular movements today – such as the sustainability movement, the circular economy, or the rise of eco-socialism, to name a few – are emerging in response to this very concept. The question of whether these movements are actually revolutionary and evidence an emancipatory politics is a legitimate one. In many cases, these mainstream initiatives – consider, again, the rise in the notion of the circular economy – seem to lack a more fundamental transformative project of thought. But what these movements are responding to – their language, their direction of imagination, and their efforts at re-designing modern political economy, no doubt exemplifies one of Marcuse’s basic arguments in his 1974 Paris lectures. Efforts in the realms of voluntary simplicity, political veganism, green syndicalism, and direct action for the climate represent more radical and direct manifestations of Marcuse’s argument with regard to ecological politics.

It unfortunately seems to be the case that many commonalities can be seen between the world-political situation today as compared to the case forty years ago. In light of the endless wars, extreme and burgeoning economic disparities, and ever-worsening environmental-health indicators, it is evident that capitalism continues to hold all of humanity and nature ransom in the Iron Cage. Though Occupy and the popular uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the significant potential for resistance and even revolution, the pendulum has clearly swung back again toward the consolidation of the system in recent years, as seen especially in Egypt, Syria, and the U.S. Perhaps the radical consciousness is more widespread now than before these breakthroughs, but it still confronts an entrenched conformist consciousness among the general populace, at least in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a fascistic concentration of power, wealth, and military might that is coordinated by the transnational capitalist class. Recent events in Greece evidence precisely this point. Here, a counterhegemonic movement emerged as a significant wave of grassroots energy only to crash upon the counter-revolutionary shores of the European Union, its entrenched neoliberal governments, and institutional politics. Greece may have seen mass mobilization, but much of Europe left revolutionary Greek movements to struggle for themselves (aside, perhaps, from the odd ‘solidarity’ march). In this sense, Marcuse’s comments on the glaring absence of a “mass base” for revolutionary social transformation remain apposite, as is the theorist’s analysis of the ideological basis for conformism, underpinned as it is by nihilistic fatalism and a mistaken feeling of powerlessness. Marcuse’s conclusion in the 1975 assessment of the “Failure of the New Left?” remains entirely true today: “[t]he transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the counterrevolution is dominant.”[1] Though the inertial perpetuation of these negative conditions over time might lead one to conclude that a change in tactics and strategy would be justified, the problem of capitalism and domination still remains, such that the response in parallel likely remains radical mass-struggle to construct an anti-systemic multitude to disrupt and reorganize the hegemonic social, economic, and political institutions in all their facets.

Moving forward, the challenge for emerging scholars and writers in critical theory is to understand what key concepts need retrieval, critical sharpening or abandoning. In light of this challenge, an important question might be raised: how might these previously unpublished lectures inspire a project aimed toward advancing the Frankfurt School? What new ideas do they inspire? In what ways might Marcuse’s thought assist the pressing question of emancipatory politics and contemporary critical theory as we move forward in the 21st Century?

Another key challenge, as Marcuse would have it, is to engage with popular movements and help inform and guide their diversity of struggle today. Marcuse understood, in many ways, that revolutionary societal transformation is a complex, dynamic and many-sided process. In essence, we could say that it is subject to an extended social-historical process of revolutionary transition which could very well “take a time of at least 75 to 150 years” (p. 34). How can critical theory assist new social movements in establishing the basis for emancipatory societal transformation? Marcuse teaches us that, in the years past and in the years ahead, critical theory must constantly and normatively present the challenges of theory to movements in the field of practice. It is always possible that, in an actionist rush of blood for the thrill of practice, movements become inclined to abandon theory, usually to the detriment of practice which then turns incomplete, contradictory and incoherent. To borrow from Andrew Feenberg, theory must be a ‘philosophy of praxis’ – a ‘philosophy of praxis’ that engages on the level of practical action. If Marcuse (and arguably the first generation of the Frankfurt School in general) are the torch bearers when it comes to this philosophy of praxis, it is the challenge of the new wave of thinkers in this tradition to claim this torch and further illuminate the path forward. In doing so, theory must continue to draws its concepts and its inspiration from the revolutionary activity of new social movements and, as Charles Reitz recently commented, normatively challenge them to work for the radical rather than the minimal goals of socialism. If one were to take a single stirring inspiration from these lectures, this would be it.

[1]     Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2004), 189.

At the 2015 NYC Anarchist Bookfair: Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin

April 12, 2015

MAB MAB poster 1-1

I will be speaking at this year’s New York City Anarchist Bookfair (NYC ABF), this Saturday, 18 April, at 3:30pm in the New School.  The topic of my comments will be “Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin: Investigating Mutual Affinities.”  I hope to see you there!  A description follows:

“This talk will examine the close affinities among four important historical radicals, half of them renowned anarchists from Russia and Mexico—Mikhail Bakunin and Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively—and the other half German critical theorists: Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The similarities between Marcuse and Bakunin on the one hand and Magón and Benjamin on the other are striking, in terms of philosophy, revolutionary commitment, and biographies. Marcuse and Bakunin share a common passion for Hegelian dialectics, the radical negation of the status quo, and the critique of Karl Marx, while Magón and Benjamin share an enthusiasm for journalism and the written word in subverting bourgeois society and converge in their views on revolutionary armed struggle, in addition to having both experienced a sordidly tragic fate in U.S. federal prison and at the hands of European Fascists, respectively, due to their revolutionary militancy. Indeed, all four thinkers have numerous affinities among themselves that transcend this convenient dyadic coupling I have suggested. With this presentation, I seek to review the mutual affinities among these radicals and then to present some reflections on the meaning of their thoughts and lives for anarchist and anti-systemic struggle today, particularly in terms of ecology, feminism, and global anti-authoritarianism.”

NYC ABF