Posts Tagged ‘dialectic’

Review: The Anarchist Roots of Geography

March 29, 2017

Springer cover

Originally published on Marx and Philosophy, 28 March 2017

In The Anarchist Roots of Geography, a “proverbial call to nonviolent arms,” Simon Springer discusses some of the past, present, and future relationships between anarchism and geography. He mobilizes the thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, and Lev Tolstoy to denounce global capitalism and oppression—declaring, with Kropotkin, that anarchism is “what geography ought to be”—while also affirming the more contemporary approaches of Saul Newman and Todd May, who have advanced the idea of “post-structuralist anarchism” in opposition to classical approaches through a turn to thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, among others. Springer therefore presents his own perspective as amounting variably to “anarchism without adjectives” or “post-anarchism,” neither of which is the same. The former refers to the synthesist approach favored by Voline and others in opposition to the anarcho-communist Platformism advanced by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, and other exiled militants following the defeat of the Russian Revolution. Post-anarchism, a more recent development, integrates the nihilism, irrationalism, and defeatism of postmodern analyses in expressing opposition to social revolution and universalism as “totalizing narratives.” In this way, while The Anarchist Roots of Geography provides many compelling insights, it itself presents a synthesis of a number of anarchist or anarchistic approaches that cannot so readily be melded together.

Springer’s main project in this volume is to bring geography back to its radical anarchist roots, thus issuing a course correction of sorts beyond those set by the hegemonic presence of Marxists within academic geography departments starting in the late 1960s. The author presents the works of Kropotkin and Reclus as luminous alternatives to the ethnocentrism and state-centricity that has plagued the discipline since its origins. Springer wishes to wield anarchism, defined as the practice of mutual aid with the concern for universal geography in mind, to undermine statism, capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, and speciesism (or anthroparchy). For him, anarchism is the “only meaningful form of postcolonialism” (38), as the State-form effectively continues colonization even after formal independence, and—following Reclus—it must centrally express concern for the integrity of the planetary system by means of nature conservation, vegetarianism, and opposition to animal cruelty. Springer here traces the philosophical arc linking Reclus with social ecology and the animal-rights and animal-liberation movements. The author holds that direct action, cooperation, and prefigurative politics can allow humanity to affiliate by free federation, reestablish equality among humans, rebuild the commons, and overturn the domination of nature. Taking after Proudhon (1840), who analyzed property as originating in the Roman concept of sovereignty, or patriarchal despotism, Springer defines property as violence and calls for insurrection—but not revolution—against oppression. Echoing Reclus, he emphasizes the place of beauty in the struggle, citing Albert Einstein’s view that “[o]ur task” must be to “wide[n] our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (137), and he declares the importance of unity for anarchy, in parallel to the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Baruch de Spinoza.

Some of the specific suggestions Springer makes for future research into the intersection of anarchism with geography include the following topics:

  • State theory and sovereignty
  • Capital accumulation and flows, land rights, property relations
  • Gentrification, homelessness, housing, environmental justice
  • Labor, logistics, policing, and incarceration geographies
  • Critical geopolitics, geographies of debt and economic crisis, geographies of war and peace, etc.

In advocating an anarchist understanding of geography, Springer seeks to depose the dominance of Marxian and Marxist approaches within the discipline, holding these responsible for the perpetuation of State-centric analyses in place of a geographical exploration of alternatives to the State altogether. Springer argues against Marx’s statism and “dialectical” enthusiasm for colonialism, defending instead the anarchist emphasis on the need for consistency between means and ends. Stating openly that “[f]lirtation with authority has always been a central problem with Marxism” (158), he discusses how anarchists do not share Marx’s positivistic-utilitarian enthusiasm for the centralizing and despotic features of capitalism. In the anarchist view, capitalist exploitation and imperial domination are not considered necessary parts of the Geist. “The means of capitalism and its violences do not justify the eventual end state of communism, nor does this end justify such means” (52). For Springer, then, anarchism is a more integral approach than Marxism, as the former recognizes the multiple dimensions of oppression in opposition to the latter, which is said to focus almost exclusively on class, while misrepresenting anarchism as being opposed only to the State. Springer believes that Marxism allows no space for addressing oppressions outside of exploitation. Moreover, anarchists prescribe action in the here and now, rather than advocating a dialectical waiting period until the “objective conditions” are supposedly ripe.

Indeed, Springer shows how Proudhon’s analyses of property, the State, wage labor, exploitation, and religion were highly influential for Marx, despite the fact that the German Communist was reticent to acknowledge as much. As Proudhon wrote after Marx’s diatribe against him in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847): “The true meaning of Marx’s work is that he regrets that I have thought like him everywhere and that I was the first to say it.”

Springer also communicates the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker’s view that it was Proudhon who first expressed the labor theory of value, and he hypothesizes that it was Kropotkin’s years spent in Siberia which led this anarcho-communist to emphasize a naturalist, decentralized, agrarian, and cooperative vision for the future, in contrast to Marx’s centralist and industrialist-positivist views. For the present and future, the author calls for the creation of radical democracy, which arises when la part sans-part (“the part without part”) intervenes to disturb the established sovereign order, rebuilding the commons where now prevail exclusive spaces, whether they be private or public. Springer particularly endorses Murray Bookchin’s concept of the “Commune of communes” as a restatement of the “continua[l] unfolding” of organization by free federation, and affirms Giorgio Agamben’s conceptualization of struggle to be a means without end, or infinitely demanding (Simon Critchley).

Springer certainly presents several critical contributions to a revolutionary analysis and understanding of geography. Yet as stated before, there are philosophical and political tensions among the variegated sources he calls on to develop his argument. To take one example, he initially affirms the views of several classical anarchist revolutionists but then challenges Neil Smith’s call for a “revival of the revolutionary imperative” against capitalism and the State, preferring instead insurrection—defined as prefiguration, spontaneity, and a Stirnerist sense of disregarding oppressive structures rather than overthrowing them—because revolution is putatively governed by a “totalizing logic” and somehow “ageographical” (68). This questionable understanding of revolution to the side for the moment, it bears clarifying that Max Stirner was a reactionary individualist whose views are incompatible with those of the anarcho-communists. Yet this lapse on Springer’s part is one with his general approach of blurring distinct anarchist philosophies with ones that may seem anarchistic—most prominently, post-structuralism. To return to the question of revolution, the author favorably reproduces Newman’s dismissal of social revolution as a rationalist, Promethean, and authoritarian project, noting that “not everything needs to be remade” and that revolution is inseparable from tyranny (88). This attitude fundamentally contradicts the thought of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Reclus, and other anarchist militants. Indeed, absent a commitment to revolutionism, it becomes difficult to claim that “post-structuralist anarchism” is anarchist. The same is true for “post-anarchism,” a category that Springer embraces on multiple occasions in the text. To weld “post-anarchism” together with classical anarchism would require more than passing references to the supposed superiority of more contemporary anti-essentialist perspectives informed by Foucault, Butler, and company. Amidst the Sixth Mass Extinction, the accelerating destabilization of the climate, and Donald Trump’s war on the scientific method, why should we accept post-anarchism’s rejection of science, truth, and ethics? In point of fact, classical anarchism shows itself more appropriate to the times.

In distinction to the author’s endorsement of post-anarchism, Springer’s Tolstoyan advocacy of a peaceful uprising is intriguing but not entirely clear. The author argues that anarchism typically had a pacifist orientation to social change before Errico Malatesta, Alexander Berkman, and other militants came to publicly endorse tactics of assassination. Springer fails to mention that Kropotkin did so as well, and he misrepresents Emma Goldman’s trajectory as initially being supportive of counter-violence but then coming to pacifism by her life’s end—for the geographer overlooks Goldman’s support for armed struggle in the Spanish Revolution. Like Goldman, Springer is not a strict pacifist in that he allows for violent self-defense and endorses insurrection as forms of “permanent resistance.” Still, he is not very precise in the parameters of violence, nonviolence, and self-defense he discusses. What is clear is that the very possibilities for peace and emancipation require a different society. In this sense, Springer’s citation of Edward Said is poignantly apt: the “stability of the victors and rulers” must be “consider[ed] […] a state of emergency threatening the less fortunate with the danger of complete extinction.” Under the prevailing conditions in which capitalism and militarism indeed threaten human survival and planetary integrity, Springer is correct to emphasize the importance of “perpetual contestation” and “[e]xperimentation in and through space” (3). We must become the horizon!

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

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 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

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.