Posts Tagged ‘critical theory’

Video Recordings: “Erich Fromm’s Critical Psychology and Left Strategy Today”

May 13, 2022

Please find below audio-visual recordings of last month’s conference on “Erich Fromm’s Critical Psychology and Left Strategy Today,” which took place on April 30, 2022.

This is the recording of the entire conference, save for the first panel. Please find links to moments in the conference that correspond to specific panels and presentations below:

This was the first panel (“Fromm, Sex, and Gender”), which I moderated.

“Erich Fromm’s Critical Psychology and Left Strategy Today”: April 30, 2022

December 19, 2021

The world is in turmoil. Although Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, his aggressive spirit lives on. Global leaders meet at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to watch the planet burn. The U.S. Congress can’t even pass popular, much-needed socio-economic or environmental reforms. Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic rages unchecked, in no small part due to the everyday capitalist exploitation of workers, not to mention resistance to vaccines and masks, as amplified by conspiracist, right-wing mass-media.

Given these dire circumstances, we believe that the Jewish German-American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) can equip us with profound insights for the struggle for a more egalitarian society.

Toward this end, we invite you to a one-day online conference on April 30, 2022, dedicated to reflecting on the importance of Erich Fromm’s critical and humanist social psychology for leftist strategy today.

We plan to use Zoom Webinar to cast the conference. Please visit the conference website, consider registering, and stay tuned for more details.

Video Recording: “Ecology and Revolution”

November 18, 2021

This is the recording of a panel on “Ecology and Revolution,” which took place at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference, on October 9, 2021.

Speakers in order of appearance:

– Thais Gobo, “Authentic Ecology and Liberation: The Refusal of the Domination of Nature Against the Apparatus”
– Sergio Bedoya Cortés, “Ecological crisis, Capitalism and Critique”
– Dan Fischer, “Let Nature Play: Total Liberation from Compulsory Work”
– Myself, “Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home”

A Critical Theory of Authority

October 11, 2021

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “Marcusean Politics Today.” My co-panelists were Shon Meckfessel and Rocío Lopez.

In Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (1954), the sociologists Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills observe that, “from a psychological point of view, the crux of the problem of power rests in understanding the origin, constitution, and maintenance of voluntary obedience.” They add that “Authority, or legitimated power, involves voluntary obedience based on some idea which the obedient holds of the powerful or of his position” (Gerth and Mills 194-5). Indeed, in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1577), Étienne de la Boetie came to much the same conclusion: namely, that authority persists because we allow it to. Although the reproduction of hierarchy under capitalism is not so simple as that, considering the threats of unemployment, imprisonment, starvation, and assassination for those who rebel, there is something to Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment about a kind of “complicity between the oppressor and the oppressed” (Sartre 338).

In turn, the models of sexual sadomasochism and socio-political authoritarianism developed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Jessica Benjamin, and Lynn Chancer highlight the psychodynamic dimensions of erotic frustration and gender and class oppression. In other words, under generalized relations of dependence on capital and male authority, the power of the boss, man, sadist, and/or ‘top’ is ultimately derived from the psychological self-subordination of the worker, woman, masochist, and/or ‘bottom.’ In this sense, the specter of revolt can function as a destituent power that reverberates throughout society, as we have seen on many occasions in history, up to and including the present.

At the same time, not all revolt is emancipatory, and “there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression” (Rancière xvii). In Reason and Revolution (1941), Marcuse controversially defends G. W. F. Hegel’s criticism of the “pseudo-democratic” opponents of the post-Napoleonic Restoration régime, likening them—in their xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and German nationalism—to precursors of the Nazis (Marcuse 1999: 179-81).1 Along similar lines, Ze’ev Sternhell sees the fascist cultural and political revolt against Enlightenment values like humanism and rationalism not as anomalous to European history, but rather, as integral to it (Sternhell 3, 250-1). The anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker likewise saw in fascism a “reaction to progress […] rooted in German history but concerning the whole of Europe” (Bernardini 9). Unfortunately, as was confirmed not only by the descent of the Russian Revolution into a Stalinist nightmare, but also by the collaboration of revolutionary syndicalists in the birth of national socialism, the phenomenon of the “leftist right,” or what Jürgen Habermas termed a “left fascism,” certainly exists (Rancière 72; Gandesha). Both in the past, as in the present, we see “discourse[s] of order composed in the vocabulary of subversion” (Rancière 116). In this sense, the Russian Marxist Georgii Plekhanov was right to accuse Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the “Father of Anarchy,” of having combined “extreme Radicalism of mind with extreme Conservatism of mind” (Plechanoff 57, 63). Along similar lines, the neo-Stalinism of the GrayZone bloggers and the Trumpists’ coup attempt at the Capitol in January 2021 are arguably just two sides of the same coin.

Thus, in this presentation, I will analyze the ‘reactionary rebellion’ of the revolutionary French syndicalist Georges Sorel (1847-1922), follower of Proudhon and mentor to Benito Mussolini, the first Fascist leader, whose 1922 March on Rome animated Adolf Hitler’s failed “beer hall putsch” (1923). I will also explore the bureaucratic anti-humanism of Louis Althusser (1918-1990), who sided with his Party (the French Communist, or PCF) in rejecting the May 1968 uprising. I will then conclude with an analysis of national-socialist currents among ‘anti-imperialists’ today, and offer some reconstructive, anti-authoritarian ideas for anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists going forward.

Georges Sorel’s National Revolution

Perhaps ironically, George Sorel—who infamously synthesized revolutionary syndicalism with ultra-nationalism to inspire Fascism—shared some concerns with the anti-fascist Marxists of the Institute for Social Research, otherwise known as the Frankfurt School theorists. They commonly focused on symbols, emotions, and socio-political psychology in their respective intellectual projects, although admittedly, for vastly different reasons: Sorel sought to “mobilize the masses and to change the world” by annihilating bourgeois society while upholding the authority principle and the place of “revolutionary ‘élites,’” whereas the critical theorists aimed at a non-repressive, anti-authoritarian transformation of global society (Marcuse 2008: 105; Sternhell 59). Across different generations, both the Frankfurters and the Sorelians worried that the working classes of advanced-industrial societies had been integrated into capitalism. Sorel despaired that the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) was more interested in reform than revolution, and Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man (1964) under the impression that workers in the U.S. would not rise up against capitalism (Sternhell 96). In the prologue to Negative Dialectics (1970), Theodor W. Adorno laments that “Philosophy […] remains alive, because the moment of its realization was missed,” given that “the transformation of the world failed.” Along similar lines, Sorel and Walter Benjamin shared a belief in the heroic potential of pessimism.

Of course, neither Adorno nor Marcuse (much less Benjamin) turned, as Sorel and Martin Heidegger did, to national socialism as a “new revolutionary path” (Sternhell 25, 123). Rather, as German-Jewish Marxists, they were forced to flee Nazi Germany and relocate to New York as refugees. After scaling the Pyrenees Mountains in late September 1940, Benjamin poignantly lost his life in the Spanish border town of Portbou, where he overdosed on morphine rather than be deported by Franco’s guards to the Nazi-collaborating Vichy régime. In the U.S., their newfound home, the surviving Frankfurt School theorists continued their principled anti-authoritarian analysis of society, rather than betray the cause, as Sorel so egregiously did.

According to Sternhell’s account in The Birth of Fascist Ideology (1989), fascism can be interpreted as a revolt against the principles of the Enlightenment (3). Certainly, this thesis can explain Heidegger’s own attraction to, and promotion of, Nazism. Like his intellectual mentor Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger sought to demolish the “post-1789 moral-political dispensation [and] replace it with a new radically illiberal and anti-egalitarian dispensation” (Beiner). In Reason and Revolution, Marcuse analyzes the Counter-Enlightenment philosophers who rejected German Idealism and inspired Nazism. In this sense, he highlights F. J. Stahl (1802-1861), who affirmed anti-rationalism, repudiated natural law, and sought to replace the category of reason with obedience (Marcuse 1999: 360-74). Likewise Sorel: “a horror of the Enlightenment [was] basic to his thinking” (Sternhell 69). Indeed, this devout Catholic had no truck with the anti-clerical cause. As a white supremacist, Sorel condemned what he saw as the Jacobins’ “recklessness” for “abruptly abolishing slavery in the colonies’”—particularly, in Haiti (Abromeit 396). Many of his followers encouraged Italy’s invasions of Libya (1911) and Ethiopia (1936) as “labor imperialist” projects. Like his protégé and fellow revolutionary syndicalist Mussolini, Sorel found Nietzsche’s ideas attractive, especially the philosopher’s contempt for “English ideas,” liberalism, and bourgeois society—and presumably, as well, the Nietzschean affirmation of slavery (Beiner; Sternhell 101, 110, 126, 196, 200). Sorel attacked the idealist tradition while hailing “proletarian ‘violence’” as a new form of authority (Marcuse 2008: 104).

Like Stahl, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, Sorel rejected rationalism, humanism, and natural law. His infamous “revision” of Marxism involved advocacy of the destruction of liberal democracy and parliamentary socialism through class struggle. Paradoxically, like Proudhon, Sorel “refused to touch private property and […] believed neither in equality nor in social justice […].” In reality, this “antidemocratic socialis[t]” envisioned the creation of a “producers’ civilization,” which would effectively function as a “revolutionary capitalism—[or] a capitalism of producers.” In this vein, the Sorelians “had nothing to put in place of capitalism and they did not conceive of a postcapitalist era.” As such, it is not hard to see how such a vision of stripping away liberal norms while retaining the capitalist mode of production could morph into Mussolini’s class-collaborationist, corporatist strategy (Sternhell 22, 28-9, 33, 37, 46-50, 69, 75, 80-2, 91, 117).

In this sense, the birthplace of fascism was neither Italy nor Germany, but rather, France. Though Mussolini would not seize power until 1922, on Sternhell’s account, all the requisite conditions for the propagation of the fascist ideal were in place before the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918). In the years after the publication of his Reflections on Violence (1908), a volume that exhorted the proletariat to wield violence to annihilate the bourgeoisie, Sorel abandoned socialism in favor of ultra-nationalism and the “conservative revolution.” In turn, Sorel inspired the founding of the national-syndicalist Cercle Proudhon in late 1911 as a clearing house for “nationalists and leftist anti-democrats.” The futurists and Sorelians in this Cercle highlighted Proudhon’s defense of private property, militarism, traditionalism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. As champions of anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, pessimism, a “revolutionary” hatred of democracy, and fidelity to Sorel’s masculinist cult of violence, these left-right syncretists proclaimed their ideal “the nonproletarian revolution, the national revolution” (Sternhell 4, 7, 27-9, 69, 75, 78, 80, 86, 90, 124, 130). As Marcuse might say, the Sorelians failed to question, much less overcome, technical reason; instead, they inspired Mussolini and Hitler to build on Sorel’s vision of a future wherein the “cult of energy” and “authority would emerge victorious all along the line” (Sternhell 24-7, 129, 168, 236-7).

Crucially, Sternhell distinguishes between the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism and anarchists. For Sorel and his followers, “the principle of authority was never in question.” In fact, “Sorelism detested anarchism,” and the master’s right-hand man, Édouard Berth, “wrote that ‘a real abyss’ divided the ideas of the syndicalists from those of the anarchists.” Paradoxically, the Sorelians opposed the concept of self-management, whether individual or collective; effectively, they proposed a hierarchical and productivist society run by syndicates (Sternhell 31, 103-104, 127, 218-223). Ultimately, these revolutionary unionists were just used by the Fascists to seize power. After all, conceptually speaking, national syndicalism and corporatism utterly contradict the cause of worker autonomy. As we know from Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), the Nazi regime was run in the interests of the industrialists, the bureaucracy, the military leaders, and the National Socialist Party (Neumann). Accordingly, Sternhell is right to conclude that fascists’ use of leftist discourse always has “’rightist’ results” (211), just as Rocker is right to denounce Stalinism and Fascism as totalitarian ideologies that “both grew on the same tree” (Bernardini 7).

Even so, the case of Sorel is a disturbing one, considering how it illuminates the overlap between left and right, which are categories that are often considered to be mutually exclusive. How can it be that Jacques Rancière describes Sorel (perhaps unfairly) as an anarcho-syndicalist, that Mussolini and the Sorelian George Valois had had anarchist sympathies before embracing national socialism, and that so many Italian revolutionary syndicalists became Fascists? (Rancière 61; Sternhell 96, 143) In reality, many leftists and fascists commonly emphasize direct action, energy, violence, heroism, and sacrifice, while championing the will to power and conquest and critiquing “moralism” (Sternhell 29, 176-9). Mussolini and the Nazis admired Bolshevik authoritarianism, and Stalin trusted and allied with Hitler—rather irrationally, it turns out (Arendt 308-9; Bernardini). Part of the appeal of Sorelianism to syndicalists and nationalists alike was (and remains) its claim that both groups share(d) common enemies in liberalism and parliamentarism. Especially in the wake of postmodernism, many self-proclaimed leftists share a reactionary commitment to anti-universalism (Sternhell 163, 250-1). Whether a century ago or now, it is apparent that Sorelians, neo-Stalinists, and national socialists merely seek the worst of all possible worlds: that is, capitalism without any rights at all (Hensman).

Althusser’s Lesson

In Althusser’s Lesson (1974), the French philosopher Jacques Rancière takes his former professor to task for siding with the Communist Party of France (PCF), which opposed the revolutionary student movement of May 1968 as “petit bourgeois.” In regurgitating the Party line, Althusser effectively defended the division between mental and manual labor, privileging the former over the latter, while affirming the “very model prescribed by the philosophy of educators: enlightened despotism.” (In contrast, Sartre supported May 1968.) Besides Althusser’s disgrace, Rancière’s volume is focused “on the much broader logic by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order” (Rancière xvi, 11, 19, 54).

In this vein, Rancière identifies Althusserianism as a discourse of order wrapped up “in the language of leftism.” He traces its origin to “the desire to combat the revisionist tendencies that had seeped into philosophy following the Twentieth Congress” of 1956, when Nikita Khrushchëv denounced the crimes of Stalin, his then-deceased predecessor. In other words, Althusser followed Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in their questionable defense of Stalin, announced during the Sino-Soviet split in the post-1956 context. Broadly speaking, for Rancière, Althusser’s career amounted to the “fight of a ‘communist philosopher’ against that which threatens both the authority of his Party and of his philosophy: [namely,] Cultural Revolution on a global scale.” Both Althusser and the PCF leadership were anxious about the discovery of Marx’s Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which so moved Fromm, Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and others, because they feared the creation of a “political authority other than the Party.” Accordingly, Althusser maligned these pieces as having been written during Marx’s “petit bourgeois” as opposed to “proletarian” communist phase—despite the fact that this distinction is entirely arbitrary. In terms of theory, Althusser insisted that “Marxism is a[n] anti-humanism,” proposing instead that humanism is “bourgeois idealism,” while championing Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies through his promotion of “an unofficial version of Stalinism” (Rancière xx, 9, 21, 23, 33, 72, 78-9, 83, 113, 116).

Indeed, by the time the May 1968 uprising began with student revolt, Althusser had long given up on any ideas he may have had about questioning and dissolving State power, factory despotism, or wage labor. His attacks on the syndicalist left, and his disgrace over May 1968, speak for themselves. Some of the reconstructive proposals that Rancière considers in closing are ideas about proletarian humanism, self-management, and the independence of labor leading to the autonomy of producers and “a world [re]made for and by the labour community.” At its best, society would operate as a network of cooperatives “which impos[e their] own rhythm on the work [through] non-hierarchical organization” and the democratic recognition of human equality (Rancière 37, 89-90, 93, 108, 117; May).

Conclusion: National Socialism, ‘Anti-Imperialism,’ and Anarcho-Syndicalism

Returning to the attempted Capitol putsch of 2021, we see that this disturbing neo-fascist moment united hyper-masculinity, white-male rage, anddirect action with anti-parliamentarian and anti-democratic politics. As Eric Alterman describes, “Trumpism’s release of suppressed sexual and aggressive drives is a far cry from [what Marcuse termed Eros]. Rather, it represents what Marcuse called the ‘political utilization of sex’ and aggression to reinforce social domination” (Alterman). That being said, this moribund marriage of opportunism with authoritarianism has not been limited in recent years to the far right. In the wake of the rise of self-described ‘leftist’ streamers and ‘anti-imperialist’ bloggers who claim independence from mainstream media while reproducing their brand competitiveness and associated ‘spins’ on reality, many neophyte ‘socialist celebrities’ have profited from “preach[ing] a contempt for democracy and parliamentarism,” as revolutionary syndicalists and ultra-nationalists did a century ago (Sternhell 108, 153).

Along these very same lines, the political comedian Jimmy Dore bases his appeal in a call for the left and the right to “join forces” against “the Establishment.” Likewise, the GrayZone conspiracy theorists deny the existence of concentration camps for Uyghurs and other ethno-religious minorities that are maintained by the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang. Appallingly, one of GrayZone’s main shticks is to deny Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for hundreds of chemical-weapons attacks carried out against insurgents and civilian communities alike in Syria over the past decade. We shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised that Dore and GrayZone have now switched to promoting disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, and agitating in favor of the use of ivermectin to treat COVID.

Rancière mentions the case of Pierre Daix (1922-2014), a journalist who first “denied the existence of labour camps in the Soviet Union [in 1949]; he never convinced anybody,” and then he resigned from the PCF in 1974, after having engaged with Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago (1973) (Rancière 107). Given the profit and self-promotion involved, we cannot expect the GrayZone editors to argue in good faith about history or current events, much less renounce their absurd positions. The problem is that they do seem to convince their audiences, who admittedly may already be predisposed to aggressive, delusional, and sadistic thought-patterns and behaviors. Like Althusser over May 1968, ‘anti-imperialist’ authoritarians—ostensibly on the left—have built up their brands by denying the existence of the Syrian Revolution over the past decade on the one hand, and covering up the egregious atrocities carried out by the counter-revolutionary axis on the other: that is, Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. With nearly a million Syrians murdered, and millions more displaced internally and across borders, the “line” of GrayZone and its sympathizers—of allying with the executioners—is a fundamental violation of leftist and Enlightenment principles around internationalism, humanism, and egalitarianism. In short, this ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse is merely another discourse of order and a “consecration of the [status quo] in the language of revolution” (Rancière 124).

Around Syria, the Trump regime, and COVID-19, we have seen a clear convergence between Stalinists and fascists who seek to marry revolution with tradition by advancing anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, and a hatred of democracy (Stites 250; Sternhell 240-1). The risk is that contrarian bloggers and streamers in touch with these currents are implicitly and paradoxically promoting neo-Nazism by espousing “an authoritarian and corporatist national revolution based on an ‘anticapitalist’ alliance” (Sternhell 248). Though this risk may seem exaggerated, the experience of four years of Trump, plus the resentment that persists over his electoral loss, show us just how much support the Counter-Enlightenment continues to enjoy.

Within this struggle, in the hopes of avoiding contributing to a reinvigorated fascism in our time, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists should restate our opposition to private property, and our universal support for worker and community self-control of the economy and polity. Plus, we should revisit implicit or explicit futurism, anti-rationalism, and anti-humanism in the movement, and in our history, plus reconsider to what extent sharing a Nietzschean, Heideggerian, or Sorelian critique of liberal democracy is helpful. Furthermore, the cause of worker autonomy, which is realistically the only means of ensuring the preconditions for collective liberation and protection of the Earth from climate destruction, might greatly be assisted by integrating the insights from Critical Theory about the psychological dimensions of overcoming hierarchy, which ultimately is based on voluntary obedience, into labor organizing. Therefore, I conclude: anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists, unite!

Works Cited

Abromeit, John. “Transformations of Producerist Populism in Western Europe.” Transformations of Populism in Europe, the United States and Latin America: History, Theories and Recent Tendencies. Ed. John Abromeit. Unpublished manuscript. 367-413.

Alterman, Eric 2021. “Altercation: Authoritarians Amok.” The American Prospect. Available online: https://prospect.org/politics/altercation-authoritarians-amok. Accessed 25 September 2021.

Arendt, Hannah 1968. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt.

Beiner, Ronald 2021. “Dangerous Minds in Dangerous Times.” Thesis Eleven, vol. 163, no. 1. 29-42. doi:10.1177/07255136211005989.

Bernardini, David 2021. “A different antifascism. An analysis of the Rise of Nazism as seen by anarchists during the Weimar period.” History of European Ideas. DOI: 10.1080/01916599.2021.1963629.

Gandesha, Samir 2019. “The “Authoritarian Personality” Reconsidered: the Phantom of ‘Left Fascism.’” American Journal of Psychoanalysis. 79(4): 601-624. doi: 10.1057/s11231-019-09227-w. PMID: 31745203.

Hensman, Rohini 2018. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Marcuse, Herbert 1999. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

— 2008. A Study on Authority. Trans. Joris de Bres. London: Verso.

May, Todd 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

Neumann, Franz 1942. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. London: Victor Gollancz.

Plechanoff, George 2014. Anarchism and Socialism. Trans. Eleanor Marx. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

Rancière, Jacques 2017. Althusser’s Lesson. Trans. Emiliano Battista. London: Bloomsbury.

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1983. Cahiers pour une morale. Paris: Gallimard.

Sternhell, Ze’ev 1994. The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution. Trans. David Maisel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1Marcuse comments: “Hegel wrote his Philosophy of Right as a defense of the state against this pseudo-democratic ideology, in which he saw a more serious threat to freedom than in the continued rule of the vested authorities” (1999: 180).

Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

October 11, 2021

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “Ecology and Revolution.” My co-panelists were Thais Gobo, Sergio Bedoya Cortés, and Dan Fischer.

“’Is the world at its end?’

[…] ‘There is no end.’” (Le Guin 281)

In the realm of speculative fiction, the late historian Richard Stites identified three emergent themes in art from the early Soviet period: namely, portrayals of capitalist hells (or dystopias), alternative and anti-modern utopias, and communist heavens (Stites).1 In the century since the Russian Revolution, utopian and dystopian anti-capitalist themes have resonated in science fiction, including literature, films, and games. For instance, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) inspired George Orwell’s 1984 (1948), while the visionary anarcha-feminist Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985) pays tribute not only to Zamyatin but also to their common predecessors: namely, the anarchist novelist Lev Tolstoy, and the anarcho-communist theorist Peter Kropotkin. A generation before the Russian Revolution overthrew Tsarism and landlordism, the British poet William Morris had written News from Nowhere (1890) as an imaginative journey to a liberated England of the future, organized along free-communist and ecological lines.

In this sense, Le Guin’s award-winning2 novel Always Coming Home combines elements of heavenly communism with anti-modern and alternative utopianism to seek out a “good place” for humanity, even within the precarious context of a future climate-devastated Earth (Le Guin 19). In the words of John P. Clark, this book “is a critique of ‘living outside the World.’ And it is a critique aimed at us” (Clark). In this presentation, I will elucidate Le Guin’s reconstructive vision, which heralds our potential for harmony and “liv[ing] inside the world,” while also contemplating her portrayal of the grim realities of socio-political oppression and ecological crisis (156). I will then compare Le Guin’s views on technology, gender, and authoritarianism with the critical perspectives of Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, before concluding.

Always Coming Home

Rendering homage to her parents, the ethnologists Alfred Louis and Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin (1929-2018) uses anthropological approaches to narrate this exploration of ‘future history.’ As an interdisciplinary work, Always Coming Home combines speculative ethnology with poetry, parables, music, spiritual journeys, and emblematic memoirs to (re)construct the world of so-called Kesh culture. In “the Valley” of California in the deep future, the Kesh have set up an egalitarian society based on anarcha-feminist principles of care, free love, and the gift economy.3 Among the Kesh, hierarchies between mental and manual labor are relics of the past. Valley people practice both hunting and gathering as well as communal horticulture, insofar as the two-season climate (wet-dry) allows. The lands surrounding each Kesh settlement are divided into “hunting” and “planting” sides. Although five Houses exist in the Valley, they are “not arranged in any hierarchy of power, value, etc., nor [i]s there rivalry among them for status.” On the one hand, to be “rich” in Kesh society means to be generous; on the other, Kesh culture associates violence with masculinity (Le Guin 44, 70-1, 83, 93, 128n123, 158, 175), such that, in this work, “[t]he patriarchal […] is identified with the imperialistic” (Jameson 67).

The Kesh practice matrilineal exogamy: in other words, men go live with their wives’ families after marriage, and partners bond across communities (8-9, 44). They are also sex-positive: men proposition women erotically from positions of supplication, not domination, as adolescent boys engage in gay banter, and LGBT couples freely cohabitate (219, 366). The Kesh “dance the Moon” every year, when all marriages and partnerships are temporarily dissolved, and men and women ritualistically join together for nights of lunar-inspired group sex. Comprised of groups of towns within the wilderness rather than cities dominating the countryside, Kesh settlements are organized around the heyimas, a sacred space dedicated to learning, book-making, and the creation of art (Le Guin 242-50, 274, 298, 314-6).

Through the practice of “heyiya,” or the recognition of the sacred and boundless interconnectedness of humanity, flora, and fauna,Valley peoples practice a religion lacking gods. As such, their belief-system recalls Daoism, Buddhism, Hermann Cohen’s vision of a “religion of reason,” and the Lakota philosophy of mitakuye oyasin (or the interrelatedness of all life). It hearkens back to the Neolithic, when it is believed that there was “no separation between the secular and the sacred” (Eisler 23). Moreover, Le Guin’s concept of heyiya resembles the traditional Chinese idea of qi, or “life-force,”and the Freudian libido. The interconnected spirals of the heyiya-if, known as “the visual form of an idea which pervaded the thought and culture of the Valley,” strongly resemble the Daoist taijitu, with the latter’s dualities of light and dark (Le Guin 45).

Through heyiya, the Kesh do not repress contemplation of mortality, but rather, integrate reflection on death into song, dance, and poetry. Like Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, they acknowledge that existence is pervaded by pain and suffering. Valley people recognize rather than deny humans’ animality, and seek to emulate the mutual aid practiced by our cousins, who “live softly” and peacefully, and “don’t make it hard to live.” Though they utilize animal products, the Kesh refer to non-human animals as people, as in the Russian животные (“living beings”) (Le Guin 83-94, 112, 114, 160, 366-7).

In ecological terms, this future-world is marked by capital’s desolation of the global climate. Implicitly speaking to the threat of sea-level rise posed by the melting of the world’s glaciers and polar ice caps, Grey Bull recalls a journey by sailboat to what must previously have been the San Francisco Bay Area, whose houses, buildings, streets, and roads now lie at “the bottom of the sea” (Le Guin 138).

“Under the mud in the dark of the sea there

books are, bones are […].

There are too many souls there” (Le Guin 390).

Speculatively, there may be an intertextual connection between this estranging journey into the effects of global warming portrayed by Le Guin, and the premise of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), which features a future wherein the polar icecaps have melted, with New York—like other low-lying cities—irreversibly inundated. Steven Spielberg’s film Artificial Intelligence (2001) is similarly set in a flooded Earth of the future. Likewise, at the conclusion of Planet of the Apes (1968), audiences learn that this dystopian world is in fact our own, deep in the future, after human society has collapsed. By contrast, in Always Coming Home—despite the ecological constraints imposed not only by catastrophic global warming, but also by chemical and radioactive pollution of the environment—Le Guin’s sympathetic portrayal of Kesh society arguably constitutes an (an)archaeology of the future: a vision, in other words, of “what [we] can become” (Le Guin 136-41, 159; Eisler 5). With the help of an information “Exchange,” the Kesh use soft technologies, including cybernetics, railways, and solar energy, to decentralize production and decision-making—thus integrating the past visions of Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, Lev Tolstoy, Murray Bookchin, and Marshall Sahlins, among others (Le Guin 379-80).

Valley vs. Condor: Kesh vs. Dayao

Le Guin’s narrator and alter ego Stone Telling emblematically experiences “two radically different cultures” (Clark): namely, that of the “introverted but cooperative” Valley people (or Kesh), and that of the Condor people, otherwise known as the Dayao. The Condor are a nomadic group of marauders who practice militarism, ultra-misogyny, slavery, and cruelty toward animals (Le Guin 29). Being the daughter of a Valley woman known as Willow and the Condor commander Terter Abhao, Stone Telling finds herself between worlds. As an adolescent, she embarks on a dystopian spiritual journey of exile from the Valley north with Abhao, and suffers in the City of Condor for seven years.

Named by the Kesh for the gruesome carrion bird, the Condor are “Men of no House [or home],” who are “at war with every peoples of the lands […]” (Le Guin 16, 192, 379). Theirs is a dominator society, where “male dominance, male violence, and a generally hierarchic and authoritarian social structure [are] the norm” (Eisler 45). Farmers known as tyon serve the military bureaucracy, which in turn invests in “Great Weapons” with which to conquer, extract, and enslave. Stone Telling describes with dismay how Condor men brutalize non-human animals, and questions why they ever had tried to resurrect imperialism. For the author, hyper-masculinity, domination, and violence are all linked: “Everything among the Dayao had to have a chief […]. Everything they did was war.” In other words, they “stood in no relation to anything in the world” (Le Guin 38, 190, 199, 349, 380).

In this pyramidal society, “True Condors” can only be men, and literacy is violently restricted to the soldier caste. “Condor Women” occupy an intermediate position in the social hierarchy, while “all other women, foreigners, and animals” are viewed with contempt as “hontik,” or “half-animal[s].” The Dayao effectively practice purdah, or gender apartheid, as well as polygamy, and wives are expected “to have babies continuously.” Given the hegemonic view among the Dayao that women are viewed as men’s property, honor killings are normalized and even encouraged. This contrast starkly with Kesh grammar, thought, and social practice, which—like the Anarresti language in Le Guin’s other ‘ambiguous’ anarchist utopia, The Dispossessed (1974)—“makes no provision for a relation of ownership between human beings” (Le Guin 42n40, 193-9, 200, 340-8, 345-6).

Through their casteism, gross sexism, and ultra-violence, the Condor soldiers recall the ancient Greeks, Vikings, Mongols, conquistadores, and other slaveowners of yore, plus the Hindutva and Taliban of today—not to mention Frank Herbert’s fictional portrayal of House Harkonnen in Dune (1965). The reactionary modernism and technical reason they practice—evinced in their use of napalm, and in their reconstruction of battle tanks—bring to mind U.S. and Nazi imperialism.

Having realized the “wrong way” of life in the City of Condor, Stone Telling recruits her father into helping her leave with her infant daughter Ekwerkwe and servant Esiryu. Though Terter is killed for his insubordination, the female trio succeed in escaping. Returning to the Valley not to intimidate or colonize, as Abhao—who “was in mind and heart no warrior at all”—had done under orders decades prior, Stone Telling renames herself “Woman Coming Home” (Le Guin 34-6, 353-8, 368). Ultimately, the author closes by denouncing “the manipulative world of domination we actually find ourselves in,” and affirming “the cooperative world of freedom we are capable of creating” (Clark).

Elements of Critical Theory in Always Coming Home

Le Guin was an anarcha-feminist who was well-versed in the writings of Bookchin, Kropotkin, and presumably also Tolstoy. I am unaware of her having read or directly engaged the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. Nonetheless, they were contemporary radicals for many years, and many of the concerns raised in Always Coming Home closely parallel the critical analyses made by Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. Indeed, Le Guin all but cites Fromm’s The Sane Society (1955) when she concludes that “[w]hat we call strength [the Condor] calls sickness; what we call success it calls death” (Le Guin 380). Here, I will briefly examine three common themes found in Le Guin, Fromm, and Marcuse’s social theories: the dialectical analysis of technology, the avowal of feminist humanism, and the framing of psychosexual sadomasochism and political authoritarianism as dynamic systems.

Considering that the Kesh ‘economy’—such as it is—bases itself on hunting, gathering, and communal horticulture, and that the world depicted in Always Coming Home has been devastated by global warming and industrial pollution, some might take Le Guin to be a Luddite, and/or sympathetic to undialectical “anti-civ” discourses. Yet, neither such interpretation would be convincing. The author clearly favors literacy, learning, and life-long education for all, together with the egalitarian practice of medicine, and the use of “soft” technologies, such as gardening, sailboats, trains, and solar energy. In this sense, Le Guin takes a dialectical view of technology, whereby the so-called “Exchange” can help the Kesh designs tools with which to build an anarchist society, but it can also facilitate the Dayao’s militarist and genocidal expansionism.4 In turn, as we know, Marcuse and Fromm saw modern technology as a double-edged sword that could radically reduce the need for alienated labor and provide enough for all while also greasing the wheels toward fascist authoritarianism and collective self-destruction through war and ecological collapse.

Beyond this, Le Guin’s anarcha-feminist vision overlaps with aspects of Marcuse’s socialist feminism and Fromm’s psychosocial interest in matriarchies. Dialectically, the psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow critiques Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) as advancing an “anti-masculinist stance,” while also “manifest[ing] a near-complete invisibility […] of women as subjects” (Chodorow 140). Although it is true that Marcuse took several decades to advance a specifically feminist critique, in his last decade of life, he strongly endorsed the feminist movement for the potential he saw in it to transform society in a non-repressive way. In “Marxism and Feminism,” Marcuse hails the women’s rights movement, envisions a “feminist socialist” future, and endorses the androgynous ideal (Marcuse 165-172). Likewise, Fromm studied the findings of anthropologists like Robert Briffault to contest the orthodox-Freudian idea that the Oedipus complex is universal. Taking into account matriarchal and matrilineal societies of the past, such as Minoan Crete and Çatal-Hüyük, Fromm proposed that all love and altruism derives from the relationship between mother and child. Like Le Guin, he found in matrilineal societies a life-affirming alternative to Puritan and capitalist oppression (Jay 94-6).

Lastly, Le Guin closely echoes Fromm’s humanistic psychology in her examination of the psychodynamics of hierarchy: that is, of “the slave mind” (Le Guin 358). Particularly regarding gender, Le Guin illuminates domination as contingent: she shows that patriarchy and women’s self-derogation are upheld by attitudes, behaviors, and institutions that affirm male privilege and authority, and that, for the same reasons, such forms of oppression can be undone. For Le Guin, as for Fromm, defective social relations—including sexism, authoritarianism, and exploitation—persist because the less powerful party within such relationships—whether they be partners, workers, or slaves—resign themselves to such dehumanization. At the same time, as Hegel recognized in his dialectic of lordship and bondage, such relations of domination can be upset, if and when the subordinated party chooses to rebel. After all, mutual recognition is the humanistic alternative to involuntary sadomasochism (Chancer).

In Always Coming Home, we see how Terter Abhao professes his thoughtless faith in hierarchy: “As I give orders, I obey orders. In this matter I have no choice.” Additionally, when Stone Telling is enthralled to Condor culture in exile, she considers Esiryu “my slave, whom I obeyed.” Yet, back in the Valley, expressing anarcha-feminist humanism, Stone Telling returns to reason. She proclaims that “[t]here is no way that men could make women into slaves and dependents if the women did not choose to be so” (Le Guin 39, 198, 355).

Conclusion

Ursula Le Guin’s ‘ambiguously’ utopian anarchist masterpiece, Always Coming Home, is not only a classic of visionary fiction, but also an allegorical exploration of how we might salvage the future, within the context of catastrophic global warming. Following Bookchin’s framework of social ecology, and echoing the foundational message of Critical Theory, Le Guin shows how social, political, and economic domination are irrevocably tied in with ecological destruction. Her anarcha-feminist critique is disturbing in its persistent relevance: like the shocking recent femicides of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in London, and of Gabby Petito in Wyoming, Le Guin’s book speaks to the centrality of “[m]ale violence against women […] in the fabric of our society,” and the need to “rip[ it] out” (Bate). Ultimately, against those who, with “their heads on wrong,” would perpetuate authoritarianism and self-destruction, Always Coming Home proposes that our best recourse is mutiny, rebellion, exile, and autonomy (Le Guin 159).

Works Cited

Bate, Marisa 2021. “Sarah Everard’s murderer has been sentenced. Now, Cressida Dick must go.” Open Democracy, 30 September. Available online: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/sarah-everards-murderer-has-been-sentenced-now-cressida-dick-must-go. Accessed 3 October 2021.

Chancer, Lynn S. 2020. “Feminism, Humanism, and Erich Fromm.” Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future. Eds. Kieran Durkin and Joan Braune. London: Bloomsbury. 96-107.

Chodorow, Nancy 1999. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Clark, John P. “On Living in the World: Always Coming Home Revisited.” Fifth Estate, forthcoming.

Eisler, Riane 1987. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. New York: HarperCollins.

Enzinna, Wes 2017. “Bizarre and Wonderful.” London Review of Books, vol. 39, no. 9.

Jameson, Fredric 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso: London.

Jay, Martin 1973. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1985. Always Coming Home. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marcuse, Herbert 2004. “Marxism and Feminism.” The New Left and the 1960’s: Collected Papers, volume 3. Ed. Douglas Kellner. London: Routledge. 165-172.

Stites, Richard 1989. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Notes

1For example, Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908), Alexander V. Chayanov’s My Brother Alexei’s Journey into the Land of Peasant Utopia (1920), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Yakov Okunev’s Tomorrow (1924), Alexander Belyaev’s Battle in the Ether (1927), V. D. Nikolsky’s In A Thousand Years (1927), or A. R. Palei’s Gulfstream (1928).

2The Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize (1985).

3Indeed, the portrayal of this “Valley” in California may be Le Guin’s tribute to the peaceful, stateless Valley community envisioned in the Daoist story, “Peach Blossom Spring,” written by Tao Qian in 421 C.E.

4Referencing her earlier work, The Dispossessed, Le Guin wrote to Bookchin, saying that she had based her novel in part on his idea of post-scarcity anarchism (Enzinna).

Panels on “Alternative Futures” at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference

September 27, 2021

On Saturday, October 9, 2021, I’ll be participating on three panels at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference. The theme this year is “Alternative Futures: Marcuse’s Dialectic of Technology.” While the conference will be held both virtually and in-person at the University of Arizona in Tempe, all panels will be accessible online via Zoom.

“Ecology and Revolution”: Saturday, October 9, 2021, 8:00-9:50am Pacific/local Phoenix Time

Video Recording

Chair: Thais Gobo

  • Thais Gobo, “Authentic Ecology and Liberation: The Refusal of the Domination of Nature Against the Apparatus
  • Sergio Bedoya Cortés, “Ecological crisis, capitalism and critique
  • Dan Fischer, “Let Nature Play: Total Liberation from Compulsory Work
  • Myself, “Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

“The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the Twenty-First Century”: Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, 10:00-11:50am Pacific/local Phoenix Time

Video Recording

Chair: Javier Sethness

  • Myself, “Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism
  • Bill Weinberg, “For Solidarity; Against Dictators and Campism
  • Anner G., “The Responsibility to Protect in Tigray”

“Marcusean Politics Today”: Saturday, October 9, 2021, 3:00-4:50pm Pacific/local Phoenix Time

Video Recording

Chair: Andrew T. Lamas

  • Shon Meckfessel, “Anti-Humanism on the Left”
  • Rocío Lopez, “Fascism as Bourgeois Reaction”
  • Myself, “A Critical Theory of Authority”

We welcome discussion, and hope you can join us!

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?

Eros and Revolution Now Available

July 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

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