Posts Tagged ‘Ernst Bloch’

Review: Critical Marxism in Mexico

November 25, 2016


Published on Marx and Philosophy25 November 2016

Stefan Gandler’s volume Critical Marxism in Mexico investigates the radical political philosophy of two twentieth-century exiles who became naturalized citizens of Mexico: the Spanish Marxist Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez (1915-2011) and the Ecuadorean leftist Bolívar Echeverría (1914-2010). Focusing on Latin America, this text places at its center the philosophical and practical critique of Eurocentrism. Indeed, the German Gandler envisions the book as being an initial step toward “overcoming Eurocentric bigotry,” and he declares that he is “profoundly convinced that Eurocentrism in its ‘philosophical’ and general forms […] is one of the principal reasons for the current disaster that humanity is living through at the global level,” considering its responsibility for vast material suffering and for repressing alternative forms of social organization. Given that Eurocentrism underpins capitalism, the critique of Eurocentrism in turn forms a central pillar of the “critical Marxism” developed by Sánchez Vázquez and Echeverría, in terms of their repudiation of the racism and positivism evinced at times by Marx, Engels, and many who have claimed Marxism. This alternative Marxism is critical also in that it is anti-Stalinist, non-Marxist-Leninist, relatively libertarian, and non-dogmatic.

Sánchez Vázquez is more practical, more revolutionary, and more based in Marx’s philosophical-humanist early writings than Echeverría, his fellow radical exile who took up residence in Mexico City in 1968, nearly three decades after Sánchez Vázquez arrived there as a refugee fleeing Franco’s victory in Spain. According to Gandler, the trajectory of Sánchez Vázquez’s life demonstrates that of the self-emancipation of a formerly orthodox socialist from intellectual error without his becoming a reformist or apologist or “forgetting the radical critique of everything existing which would be unthinkable without Marx.” For Sánchez Vázquez, theoretical knowledge depends on social transformation through praxis, defined by Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach” as “revolutionary, practical-critical activity.” Theory, in Sánchez Vázquez’s view, “cannot exist […] without reference to praxis.” The Spanish thinker considers Marx’s very emphasis on praxis the German communist’s philosophical revolution, as summarized in the well-known final thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Such immersion in Marx’s early writings strengthened Sánchez Vázquez’s resolve to resist the Soviet Union’s corruption of Marxism, as seen in the philosopher’s critique of Diamat in his 1955 masters thesis, and his resignation from the Communist Party following Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956). The Cuban Revolution, the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Prague Spring, and the Mexican student movement of 1968 greatly moved Sánchez Vázquez. His doctoral dissertation and book Philosophy of Praxis (1967) provide a libertarian presentation of Marxism that is critical of Marx, Lenin, and their followers. Such an unorthodox interpretation led Sánchez Vázquez to be criticized precisely by Marxist-Leninists such as the Cuban Jorge Luis Acanda Gonzalez, who condemned the thinker in 1988 for denying the “importance of Lenin’s political & philosophical legacy” and advancing “practical and spontaneous conceptions of the revolution.” Yet Sánchez Vázquez’s very stress on praxis—echoing Marx—led him to become one of the foremost intellectuals of emancipation of his time. He engaged with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and focused his late efforts on Marxism and aesthetics, identifying the need for “a new sensibility, a new audience, a new aesthetic attitude” to be cultivated in post-revolutionary Cuba and more broadly. Sánchez Vázquez summarizes his philosophy in his 1985 autobiography, declaring that “socialism […] continues to be a necessary, desirable, and possible alternative.”

In contrast, Echeverría tells Gandler that, while he “agreed fully” with Sánchez Vázquez’s “critical vision of Marxism,” he was not his contemporary’s follower or disciple. Whereas Sánchez Vázquez privileges emancipatory consciousness and praxis, Echeverría focuses more on ordinary consciousness and is skeptical about the possibilities of praxis. For this reason, for him, it is more a “question of discovering political possibilities within alienation.” Influenced by Heidegger, Echeverría traveled to West Germany in 1961 to study with him, for he considered the phenomenologist to be “the true revolutionary” philosopher. Gandler rightly takes issue with Echeverría’s failure to recognize Heidegger’s enthusiasm for the 1933 Nazi takeover of Germany, in parallel to the thinker’s questionable reflections on the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In addition, Gandler discusses Echeverría’s questionably uncritical stance on the USSR, situating it as being typical of the Latin American left at the time, which considered the Soviet Union a necessary counterbalance to US imperialism. Nonetheless, despite these problematic aspects, Echeverría developed a revolutionary concept of the intellect, which he believed must “abandon the European-bourgeois principles and ideology to complete philosophically the definitive process of decolonization, which is demanded practically by the dominated classes.” In this sense, the Ecuadorean philosopher considered Marxism “the “philosophy of workers’ struggle, the culmination and overcoming of all metaphysical European traditions.”

Yet to the matter of the fall—or, rather, destruction—of the Berlin Wall that took place on November 9, 1989, Gandler criticizes Echeverría for his perceived celebration in the Cuadernos Políticos he edited of the smashing of the “anti-fascist protective barrier,” as it was known in East Germany, on the fifty-first anniversary of Kristallnacht. In contrast to the dominant narrative of that historical event as being liberatory or anti-authoritarian, Gandler frames it as the action of a hysterically reactionary, State-sanctioned mob that sought to tear down an “unwanted monument to the millions” murdered in impunity by the Nazis. This lucid and challenging assessment yields at times in the text to questionable endorsements of the claims made by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) regarding the putatively enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans in the genocide of the European Jews (Ha’Shoah), as based in the idea of an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” supposedly deeply-rooted in German civilization and Christianity. These historical distortions about German participation in the Holocaust have been refuted adroitly by Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn in their Nation on Trial (1997), and it is unfortunate to see Gandler resurrect them within a revolutionary analysis of genocide. Nevertheless, continuing in this sense, he shares Echeverría’s moving commentary on the Shoah as being, rather than merely “an accidental holocaust provoked by a madman,” the “result of a failure of the Left itself: the excessive sacrifice to be paid by the social body for the triumph of the anti-communist counter-revolution in the Europe of bourgeois civilization.”

In light of the genocides for which capitalism bears responsibility, the notion of praxis takes on a special urgency. In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx defines praxis as revolutionary because it “transforms reality.” The stress that Sánchez Vázquez places on this category echoes that previously made by Gramsci, who referred to Marxism in his Prison Notebooks as the “philosophy of praxis” in order precisely to recognize the centrality of revolutionary activity to this philosophy. Praxis poses a great threat to authority, capital, and the State precisely because it represents the ever-present risk of the “spontaneous rebellion of the oppressed and exploited” beyond the strictures of the Iron Cage. As Gandler declares, “[t]he concept of praxis […] contains an element of rebellion against all those who, from their desk, from the Party headquarters, or from the workers’ fatherland, aspire to lead the activities of the rebels of all countries.”

In parallel to Sánchez Vázquez’s emphasis on praxis, Echeverría contributes to the deepening of a non-dogmatic Marxism by criticizing Marx, Engels, and many of their followers for their ethnocentrism, naïve progressivism, and determinism—this, while dialectically acknowledging the clearly emancipatory and revolutionary analyses pervading Marxian analysis. After all, as Gandler stresses, it was Marx’s horror at “the destruction of human existences, of children, of the populations of entire regions” that led him to “pic[k] up his pen and wr[i]te Capital” (1867). Yet Marx and Engels, particularly early on, held racist views that are not totally inseparable from their overall method: in 1849, after the U.S. defeated Mexico and appropriated the Southwest, Engels hailed the result, which he considered to have been “waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization,” as California had been “taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it.” Moreover, Marx and Engels employed anti-Slavic prejudice during their struggle against Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists in the First International—doubtless in part in response to Bakunin’s own Germanophobia—while both Marx and Bakunin are known for their anti-Semitic comments, however much worse the latter’s were.

For his part, Echeverría uses Marxist analysis to theorize that the oppressed countries of the Global South are not in a “pre-capitalist phase,” but rather that they have been fully subjected to capitalism since its birth. In this sense, all the world’s countries are capitalist, but the system of accumulation requires differing levels of industrialization and political power for different regions. Moreover, the philosopher takes issues with the deterministic, mechanical interpretation of history that Marx and Engels bequeathed to the world, and he outright claims Revolution to be a modern myth and a mirror-image of bourgeois delusion. Thus, whereas he clearly identifies the twentieth century as the “era of unprecedented genocides and ecocides” and wishes for an egalitarian universalism of all peoples, Echeverría is left with only conceptually envisioning the chance for a non- or post-capitalist modernity.

Echeverría identifies four ethe, or cultural spirits, as upholding Eurocentrism and capitalist modernity.

  • The currently dominant realist ethos, which is associated with Nordic-Protestant Europe, defined as principally engaging in denial regarding the destructiveness of capitalism precisely while it pretends that production and consumption are more important than anything else. It also denies the possibility of an alternative world.
  • The classic ethos, associated with Western Europe, which differs from realism only in terms of its recognition of the tragedy but necessity of capital.
  • The romantic ethos, associated with Central Europe, which supposedly transforms all of life under capitalism into a great adventure wherein entrepreneurs become heroes.
  • The baroque ethos, associated with the Mediterranean region, Catholicism, and the Iberian conquest of the New World, which is said to identify some of the contradictions in capitalist society but not be able to conceive of the possibility of abolishing it.

Perhaps a combination in the surge of realistic-romantic sentiments can help explain the recent election of Trump, bolstered by white nationalism—while Clinton and Obama’s concession speeches could be considered expressions of the classic ethos. Yet Echeverría can justly be critiqued for reducing Romanticism to an approach that naturalizes capitalism and oppression, for it certainly has served to propagate liberatory impulses. Writing in the text’s prologue, Michael Löwy is right to declare that the Romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Hölderlin, William Morris, Ernst Bloch, and others is hostile to capitalism, not integral to it.

In sum, Gandler has provided his readers an illuminating investigation into critical Marxism, the necessity of praxis, and the critique of Eurocentrism. Yet the question must be raised, as the author does, of just how anti-Eurocentric it is to explore the thought of two intellectuals—one of them Spanish—who focused above all on European writers. This doubt notwithstanding, in a world in which the Western core-imperial societies are lurching evermore to right-wing reaction, fascism, and “open-self destruction,” it may well be the case, as Gandler asserts, that only movements from the periphery will be able to stop the capitalist death-train. It is to be hoped, then, that resistance elements in imperialist countries can join with their international comrades to advance the cause of critical Marxism or libertarian socialism, which “continues to be the most fertile theory for those of us who are convinced of the need to transform the world in which today there exists not only the exploitation and oppression of [humanity] and peoples, but also a mortal risk for the survival of humanity [and nature].”

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

February 9, 2016


First published on Marx and Philosophy, 8 February 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Review of Robert Lanning’s In the Hotel Abyss, by Ignacio Guerrero

June 29, 2015

hotel abyss

Published by Ignacio Guerrero on Heathwood Press, 25 June 2015

“What is negative is ne
gative until it has passed.”

– Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

In his newly published In the Hotel Abyss, Robert Lanning presents an Hegelian-Marxist critique of Theodor W. Adorno, the famous twentieth-century critical theorist, aesthetician, and musicologist. In the work’s title and content, Lanning reiterates and expands György Lukács’ charge that Adorno and other like-minded contemporary German philosophers had effectively followed the pessimistic example of Arthur Schopenhauer and metaphorically taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” which affords its guests “the daily sight of the abyss between the leisurely enjoyment of meals or works of art,” thus “enhanc[ing their] pleasure in this elegant comfort.”1 With his colleague Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s predecessor as director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (also known as the Frankfurt School) and his writing partner for Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), “Teddy” shares a common theoretical inspiration emanating from Marxism, as reflected in the profound critique he advances of bourgeois social relations, yet he largely rejects the “positive” moment of historical materialism, which foresees the birth of communism through global proletarian uprisings, the “parliamentary road to socialism,” or some combination of the two.

In this sense, Adorno almost merits the accusation of having advanced the paradoxical concept of a “Marxism without the proletariat.” The very opening of his last work, Negative Dialectics (1966), is illustrative in this sense: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” For Adorno the leftist German Jew, the “attempt to change the world miscarried.” If one reflects even for a moment on the vast atrocities and historical errors that marred the twentieth century, the latter claim here cited would certainly be justified—but then one asks, what next? Why the sense that history has ended—that the chance for social revolution or even relative improvement has been “missed,” never to return? Can there be no rebirth of rebellion? Lanning is right to stress that Adorno’s politics are not especially helpful as regards reconstructive anti-systemic action, or praxis. Hence, a palpable conflict can be seen between the constant demand Adorno’s political philosophy makes for negation, following Hegel’s example, and his practical suggestion that corrective action is useless and revolution inconceivable, amidst the putatively “absolute power of capitalism.”2

Lanning argues that Adorno’s political philosophy, though highly critical of capitalism and authority, is excessively negative: his view is that it can be summarized as amounting to “unfettered negativity” (172). Lanning denounces Adorno’s seemingly wholesale rejection of the actuality or even potentiality of proletarian resistance and the development of anti-capitalist and anti-systemic alternatives, in light of the established power of monopoly capitalism and its culture industries. In Adorno’s presentation, as is known, the working-class majorities of capitalist societies are reduced to thoughtless “masses,” both colonized by and integrated into capitalism—supposedly willingly, on this account. Lanning posits that such a point of view leads Adorno inexorably to adopt an “essentially […] defeatist perspective”: “to him the class struggle was already lost” (18, 25). Having repudiated the positive and practical aspects of historical materialism, Adorno concerned himself with specializing in high art and writing in an exceedingly inaccessible style—as in the image of the Grand Hotel Abyss, indeed—and his few forays into social studies suffer from significant methodological problems, in Lanning’s view. Above all, as Lanning emphasizes, Adorno’s theory of social change is basically non-existent, and the sparse work he focuses on this question rather problematic. Overall, the author of In the Hotel Abyss is concerned that Adorno’s readers are left dialectically disempowered, even subject to despair, as they contemplate the vast depravity of capitalism and the lack of resistance to the system that Adorno observes, and upon which he concentrates.

This new volume certainly presents many compelling criticisms of Adorno’s lifework, particularly with regard to the philosopher’s elitism and political aloofness—manifestations, to be sure, of his disregard for the unification of theory and praxis, or his doubts even about the possibility of such—and for this reason merits a great deal of consideration, discussion, and debate. Adorno’s philosophical system had many shortcomings, and Lanning helpfully illuminates a number of the most important ones. Yet some of the critique presented In The Hotel Abyss of the philosopher also reproduces Adorno’s own penchant for exaggeration, overlooking the real contributions he made and continues to make to anti-capitalist struggle.

In the Hotel Abyss: Challenging Adorno

Lanning’s critique of Adorno is at its most incisive in terms of the challenge it presents to those who may hold the critical theorist actually to have been left-wing or revolutionary. The evident disconnect between theory and practice highlighted by Lanning in Adorno’s case is notorious. Like Horkheimer, Adorno favored the total overcoming of bourgeois society—its
determinate negation, taking from Hegel’s dialectical method. Yet he dedicated exceedingly little of his intellectual life-work to theorizing about political action or change, and even less to concretely organizing against the system. While he is well-known for his radical critique of capital, as elaborated perhaps most systematically in Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951), Adorno doubtlessly errs in holding dialectical contradiction to come to be effectively arrested within the Iron Cage of monopoly capitalism. Speculatively, Lanning hypothesizes that the theorist’s self-assuredness on this point serves precisely as a means of ignoring the very “working class outside Adorno’s door” (11). Admittedly, the absence of discussion about class struggle or revolutionary political action of any sort in Adorno’s oeuvre is evident, and glaring. Lanning suggests that Adorno would do well to reconsider Hegel, who defined the dialectic fundamentally as movement and development, as in the image of the seed and the blossoming flower or fruit. “Where Adorno sees the acquiescence of the masses to the immediate environment he should also see […] the possibilities for developing the individual’s relation to such powers [of capital] and the possible alternatives in the face of it” (36).

From these legitimate points, Lanning proceeds to take issue with Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics for being too radical, or too demanding: the charge is that Adorno’s critical negativism lends itself to an approach which overlooks the necessary intermediary steps between prevailing conformist resignation and the possible emancipated futures. Adorno “reject[s …] any behavior that appears to be positively oriented to the appearance of advancement, progress, partial resolution or sublation of contradictions” (46). Nothing “short of the complete negativity and annihilation of existing conditions” will do for Adorno. Lanning relates his complaint here about the theorist’s effective ultra-leftism to his claim that Adorno adheres metaphorically to the Jewish Bilderverbot, or the ban on images of the divine, as a negative theology which denies the possibility of something different. He further argues that Adorno’s employment of the Bilderverbot marks a distinct break from the Messianism of Judaism and the Jewish socialist tradition. However, it could be argued instead that Adorno’s use of the Bilderverbot illustrates the very revolutionism of his dialectical method, which must remain negative until global capitalist society is overthrown. On this point, in fact, it would seem more than a bit perplexing to accuse Adorno of being insufficiently messianic or utopian. One need only consult the finale to Minima Moralia:

Knowledge has no light but that that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.3

Violating this liberatory messianic sense, nonetheless, Adorno took a rather problematic view of jazz—one that is consistent with his analysis of the hegemonic culture industries, yet reflective of chauvinism and even racism as well. For Adorno, who first encountered the new musical style in Germany before the fall of the Weimar Republic to Nazism (1933) and his forced exile the next year, jazz was “perennial fashion”: supposedly standardized, commodified, and expressive of pseudo-individuality, jazz on Adorno’s account reproduces the subjectification of the masses through diversion, gratification, and integration. Clearly, Adorno did not associate the development of jazz with its African ethnomusical origins, or seem to have much of any familiarity with its relationship to the historical experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. For him, instead, it was an affirmative musical form that in practice served European fascism, particularly in Italy and Germany. Consideration of this viewpoint can help explain Adorno’s disturbing comments in “Farewell to Jazz,” an essay written in response to the ban imposed on jazz and all other expressions of “Negro culture” in Thuringia state following the Nazi accession to power there in 1930. In this piece, Adorno declares characteristically that, “no matter what one wishes to understand about white or Negro jazz, there is nothing to salvage.”4

Rather self-evidently, then, Adorno’s take on jazz is shocking: to portray it as an affirmation of subordination and alienation and thus ignore its historical and ethnographical context is at best to provide a very partial picture, or indeed to openly declare one’s distinct lack of sympathy with the struggles of Black people—that is to say, one’s racism. On this point, Adorno surely merits all the criticism he has received, and more. Furthermore, Lanning makes the important point that to merely dismiss jazz or any other musical style out of hand for the mere fact of its being commodified on the market is to overlook the very real dialectical possibilities that music can have as regards the emergence and expression of attitudes critical of existing power-relations. Lanning’s analysis is similar in terms of Adorno’s research on radio broadcasts in U.S. society, carried out at Princeton University following his emigration to the U.S. in 1938: the refugee intellectual either was not knowledgeable of the extensive contemporary use of the radio to promote the causes of labor and racial equality in his new host country, or did not believe such alternative programming to bear mentioning, in light of the dominance of the capitalist monster.

Additionally, in parallel, Lanning subjects Adorno’s research on authoritarianism and fascist propaganda to critical review. Overseen by Adorno, The Authority Personality (1950) in its methodology and design followed the first study from the Frankfurt School into the political attitudes of German workers during Weimar, as directed by Erich Fromm in 1931. This previous study was never published, due to its politically negative conclusions: it anticipated that the majority of German workers could be expected to go along with Nazism if it came to power, with small minorities being either strongly pro-Nazi or strongly anti-fascist.5 In a similar way, Adorno and company were motivated to examine the psychological potential for fascism in U.S. society, both by investigating it descriptively, as by theorizing its causes, with the activist end of inhibiting its advance. The resulting study, based on interviews with about 2000 formally educated, white, middle-class men and women mostly from northern California, was conducted by presenting participants with questionnaires such as the Anti-Semitism (A-S) Scale, the Ethnocentrism (E) Scale, the Politico-Economic Conservatism (PEC) Scale, and the Fascism (F) Scale. Dividing the results into a bimodal distribution of high-scoring or prejudiced persons and low-scoring or relatively unprejudiced individuals, the study’s authors take heart in their findings that the majority of participants did not betray extreme ethnocentrism. Yet Lanning calls into question the external validity of The Authoritarian Personality, or its statistical generalizability across society as a whole, by noting that Jews and trade-unionists were excluded from participation, to say nothing of people of color. Presumably, a more diverse study sample could have yielded even greater anti-authoritarian conclusions.

Lanning also shows how Adorno’s investigations into the radio broadcasts of U.S. fascist agitator Martin Luther Thomas—investigations that have been considered innovative, given the theorist’s social-psychological conclusion that fascism advances not just through elite manipulation of the people, but also (and perhaps moreso) through working-class or “mass” complicity—themselves converge with the projected situation Thomas praises: that is, that “large sectors of the population” are sympathetic to fascism due to their putative mindlessness and brutalization in labor (133). Lanning here identifies an unfortunate and revealing affinity between Adorno’s conclusions and the irrationalist hopes of pro-fascist agitators: the view that rationality is possible only for a small sector of the population. This insightful point notwithstanding, the author does not in good faith acknowledge that Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality expressly seek to promote reason as a counter-move to the fascist threat.

Lanning is nevertheless correct in identifying the principal methodological problem in Adorno’s account of fascism as being the theorist’s systematic exclusion from consideration of the proletarian, anti-fascist, and anti-racist movements actively raging around him, first in Germany and then in the U.S. Adorno does not discuss or ever seem to mention the hundreds of street-battles between the German Social Democrats’ self-defense group, the Reichsbanner, and the German Communist Party’s “Proletarian Hundreds” against the Nazi SA in the years before 1933,6 nor did he dedicate much of any attention to struggles for racial equality during his exile in the U.S. (1938-1945). One wonders how Adorno the radical could have overlooked the latter, having lived years in Harlem on Morningside Heights before his wartime move to Los Angeles. For Lanning, then, much of what Adorno claimed regarding authoritarianism was based on little more than “imagery” and self-serving “esotericism”; worst of all, it has functioned to “denigrate the legitimacy of working-class politics by ignoring [them], thus affirming the non-existence of an historical agent for socialism” (150). The author of In the Hotel Abyss identifies Adorno’s sometimes-colleague Ernst Bloch as a more insightful commentator on these matters, given the latter’s view that, however acquiescent the “masses” may be with capital and authority at any given time, this situation should not be taken as final, but rather should be interpreted as a process that can dialectically be “disrupted and redirected,” as reflected in the Blochian concept of the “Not-Yet.”

Lanning’s concluding chapter focuses specifically on Negative Dialectics, and scrutinizes Adorno’s seemingly circular sociological argumentation. In essence, Lanning’s claim is that Adorno holds history’s dialectical dynamic to have been effectively strangled under late capitalism—hence the view imputed to Adorno that culture and consciousness cannot be other than what they are, and that psychological and material subordination within bourgeois society themselves reproduce capitalist domination. Lanning concludes that Adorno broke from the Marxist tradition and “chose to freeze the relations he observed as real […]. His position is that […] these are insurmountable conditions” (191-2). Though the author of In the Hotel Abyss concedes in passing that parts of Adorno’s critique of reified consciousness have merit, he notes that such criticism itself only reflects the alienation resulting from bourgeois society, and he reiterates the charge that Adorno presents no alternative—thus in fact yielding a significant regression in comparison with Marx’s communist method. In closing, Lanning returns to his chastisement of the critical theorist for the latter’s supposedly boundless negativity as well as his undifferentiated critique of “the masses,” which papers over distinctions in class and the division of labor, and he charges Adorno with limiting resistance to the life of the mind and imagination, as in German Idealism, rather than advancing radical political struggle, as materialism does.

Discussion: Negative Dialectics and Anti-Capitalism

Lanning clearly presents a number of serious charges against Adorno’s critical theory. This reviewer concedes that the philosopher’s essentially theoretical orientation is of little use for the political question of how to displace and possibly overthrow capital and authoritarianism, and the contempt Adorno often expressed in life for workers and common people is profoundly lamentable. Both of these negative aspects can be said to reflect Adorno’s considerable privilege, as the male child of a Jewish wine merchant and a Franco-German artist for whom labor was an unknown experience in youth and early adulthood. It would seem that Lanning has something of a point in hypothesizing that Adorno’s elitism perpetuated itself as a “career-building” experiment in “abstruseness” (13)—though Lanning’s claim that Adorno can justly be portrayed as the forerunner of postmodernism is less tenable, as this academic trend lacks the German theorist’s anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. In addition, Adorno’s highly insensitive and even implicitly racist comments on jazz speak for themselves, and may justly cause those encountering them to reject a thinker with whom they may share other affinities. Yet it would be wrong to hold Adorno to have been an ethnic chauvinist, as ethnocentrism is one of the main critical foci of The Authoritarian Personality. In Minima Moralia, Adorno identifies white supremacism as the basis not only of anti-Semitism and the Nazi death camps, but also the repression of people of color in the U.S.: “The outrage over atrocities decreases, the more that the ones affected are unlike normal readers […]. The ceaselessly recurrent expression that savages, blacks, Japanese resemble animals, or something like apes, already contains the key to the pogrom.”7 In this same work, as well, Adorno recalls a childhood memory which complicates the view that his critical theory is irredeemably anti-worker:

In early childhood I saw the first snow-shovellers in thin shabby clothes. Asking about them, I was told they were men without work who were given this job so that they could earn their bread. Serves them right, having to shovel snow, I cried out in rage, bursting uncontrollably into tears.8

Though this passage is ambiguous—it is unclear whether the young Adorno’s emotional reaction is directed against the workers themselves, the injustice they face, or the normalization of such oppression that is expected of him—it at the least shows sympathy for the cause of repudiating class inequality and the realm of necessity. In naturalistic and Freudian terms, moreover, it is significant that this experience took place early in Adorno’s personal development. Of course, the link between the sharing of this memory and a commitment to a concrete syndicalist program is tenuous in Adorno’s case. Similarly, to return to the question of race, one would be hard-pressed to find Adorno expressing support as a public intellectual for contemporary anti-racist and decolonization movements. While Adorno opposed the Vietnam War on a philosophical level, claiming it to carry on the genocidal specter of Auschwitz, he did little to concretely resist it, in contrast to radicals like Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre. Meanwhile, the militant German student movement of the 1960s had arisen largely in response to the Vietnam War and the Federal Republic of Germany’s collaboration with its prosecution, as seen in the U.S. military’s utilization of West German air-bases. The student radicals’ demand that Adorno and Horkheimer publicly come out against the war was one of many that resulted in the conflict which ultimately led to the Institute director’s death on vacations in Switzerland in 1969.

Reading In the Hotel Abyss, it becomes clear how much Lanning dislikes Adorno’s negative-dialectical approach. This disapproval toward the Adornian system may in fact mirror a dismissal of the anti-authoritarianism of Adorno’s seemingly intransigent negativity. In what sense might this be the case? We have seen how Lanning repeatedly rebukes Adorno for his ultra-leftism—his “position […] that capitalism must be completely defeated in all its aspects before the possibility of meaningful change can be considered” (208). One wonders if Lanning realizes he is chastising Adorno here for being faithful to the young Marx’s admonition to engage in the “ruthless criticism of all things existing.” Lanning’s argument against Adorno is thus more than a bit reminiscent of Lenin’s designation of “left-wing communism”—that is, anarchism or syndicalism—as an “infantile disorder”: consider the author’s rejection of Fromm’s designation of expressed political sympathy for Lenin as an historical figure as reflecting an “authoritarian” rather than “radical” attitude within the study on workers in Weimar Germany (144n12). The resort to Lukács for the title and spirit of the work is also telling, given that, while Adorno the unattached intellectual is subjected to critique—no doubt, to repeat, much of it merited—Lukács the advocate of Party Socialism is not.

A fundamental point within Lanning’s argument that bears reconsideration is the author’s very presentation of Adorno’s putatively unrelenting negativity. In his discussions of Bloch and Walter Benjamin, Lanning seeks to depict considerable differences between them and Adorno, when in fact all three held similar political and philosophical views, and greatly influenced one another. While it may be true that Adorno is overall more negative than these two, there certainly are a few positive moments in his oeuvre which anticipate the possibilities of a post-revolutionary society. In his final work, Adorno defines the “objective goal” of dialectics as being the task of “break[ing] out of the context from within.” Further, “[i]t lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope.”9 Here, at the conclusion of Negative Dialectics, Adorno posits a vision that is heterotopic to Lanning’s account. Criticizing Schopenhauer’s fatalism and other Kafka-esque manifestations of the belief that the world is irrevocably absurd, Adorno makes the following observations:

However void every trace of otherness in it, however much all happiness is marred by irrevocability: in the breaks that belie identity, entity is still pervaded by the everbroken pledges of that otherness. All happiness is but a fragment of the entire happiness [humans] are denied, and are denied by themselves […].

What art, notably the art decried as nihilistic, says in refraining from judgments is that everything is not just nothing. If it were, whatever is would be pale, colorless, indifferent. No light falls on [humans] and things without reflecting transcendence. Indelible from the resistance to the fungible world of barter is the resistance of the eye that does not want the colors of the world to fade.10

This utopian underside of Adorno’s thought is similarly expressed in Minima Moralia, where the philosopher presents the following images as an alternative for the possible communist future: “Rien faire comme une bête [Doing nothing, like an animal], lying on the water and looking peacefully into the heavens—’being, nothing else, without any further determination and fulfillment’—might step in place of process, doing, fulfilling, and so truly deliver the promise of dialectical logic, of culminating in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to the fulfilled utopia than that of eternal peace.”11 Thus we see the selectivity of Lanning’s charge of Adorno’s “endless negativity” (208), and the inaccuracy of the claim that Adorno adhered entirely to the Bilderverbot. In this sense, it is unfortunate as well that Lanning ignores Adorno’s 1969 essay on “Resignation,” which was written in response to the criticisms raised precisely by Lukács and the radical student movement against Adorno and the Institute for Social Research. In this momentous intervention, Adorno defends autonomous thought as resistance and praxis: “the uncompromisingly critical thinker […] is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway.” As the “universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such,” the “happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity,” and whoever has not let her thought atrophy “has not resigned.”12

Whether one accepts Adorno’s defense of the prioritization of theory over action here or not, consideration of this essay and the other positive dialectical images mentioned above problematizes Lanning’s characterization of Adorno’s thought as being entirely negative. Incidentally, Lanning himself almost unconsciously recognizes this at the outset of his discussion of Negative Dialectics, which he presents as demanding a “second” negation to follow the insufficiently radical “first” negation of capitalism—the Soviet Union, say, or social democracy. Lanning then proceeds to write that the Hegelian “negation of negation” amounts to a “positive moment” (174), but he chooses not to connect Adorno’s thought to this point. On this matter, in point of fact, Adorno’s finale to Minima Moralia bears revisiting: “consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite.”13 From this perspective, the dialectical interplay between the fallenness of bourgeois society and its envisioned inversion in Adorno’s system comes to be seen as having subversive and even hopeful rather than quietistic implications.

The present review will end by raising an important problem in Adorno’s thought that Lanning points to but does not sufficiently develop: the problem of false consciousness and social determination, or who it is that determines social reality. Lanning argues that Adorno’s account of worker or “mass” acceptance of fascism and capitalism represents an exercise in victim-blaming. In Negative Dialectics and other works, Adorno does note that humanity is effectively imprisoned by the system which it reproduces and upholds—in an echo of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, a concept the transcendental Idealist describes as being inhibited by humanity’s “self-imposed immaturity,” which results from “indecision and lack of courage.” Lanning picks up on this, claiming Adorno to have viewed proletarian conformism as willful. While this charge against Adorno is partly true, as far as it goes, it is also too quick, in that it offers no alternative means of thinking through the observed problem of proletarian integration into capitalist society, and how this might be resisted and overcome. Certainly, a great deal of coercion goes into the reproduction of class society, as Adorno recognizes: “Proletarian language is dictated by hunger.”14 Yet one should not simply hold the capitalist game to proceed through the duping of the workers—for such a view removes the personal and collective agency of the subordinated, and all practical possibility of achieving something different. The present discussion on this complicated matter will close here, though the reviewer firstly should like to mention that autonomous Marxism has tried to address these issues in creative ways, in an echo of Étienne de la Boétie’s innovative Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1548), and lastly to emphasize that the interrelated problems of conformism and bourgeois destructiveness retain all of their acuity in the present day, nearly a half-century after Adorno’s passing.

1 György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 243.

2 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1982), 120.

3 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), §153 (emphasis added).

4 Theodor W. Adorno, “Farewell to Jazz,” in Essays on Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 496.

5 Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby, Social Character in a Mexican Village (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 23-30.

6 M. Testa, Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years of Resistance (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 53-84.

7 Adorno, Minima Moralia, §68.

8 Ibid §122.

9 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (Routledge: London, 1973 [1966]), 406.

10 Ibid 403-5 (emphasis added).

11 Adorno, Minima Moralia §100.

12 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 289-93.

13 Adorno, Minima Moralia §153.

14 Ibid §65.

After the Climate Movement: Ecology and Politics in the 21st Century (1/2)

September 12, 2014


[This is part one of a two-part interview. The next part is forthcoming.]

Also published on Counterpunch, 15 September 2014

Edited by Counterpunch regular Alexander Reid Ross and newly published by AK Press, Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab assembles a formidable collection of articles and reports written by scholars and activists from North and South alike who are concerned with the distressing acceleration of massive land-expropriations executed by capitalist interests in recent years. Otherwise known as the “New Scramble for Africa,” the “New Great Game,” or the “Global Land Rush,” the global land grab has involved the acquisition by foreign power-groups of anywhere between 56 and 203 million hectares of lands belonging to Southern societies since the turn of the millennium. The corporations responsible for this massive privatization scheme hail from both wealthy and middle-income countries: India, South Korea, Israel, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, China, and the U.S., among others.

In part, the global land grab can be explained by the progression of ecological degradation, particularly through climate change, as combined with the desire of the ruling classes of these countries to ensure food security for their populations—the fate of local populations in the countries whose lands are colonized for export-oriented production be damned. Another factor has to do with the vast concentration of wealth in the hands of the transnational financial aristocracy, who are lending out capital less readily now during the Great Recession than before, such that they have more capital on hand with which to invest in overseas land ventures. However, not all the territory which has been usurped by corporations and banks of late is to be dedicated exclusively to food production; much of it instead will be directed toward the cultivation of agrofuels (biofuels) that are slated to replace petroleum to a limited extent as a base or transitional fossil fuel, with this being a situation that can be expected greatly to exacerbate food insecurity and starvation in the countries whose governments welcome (re)colonization. The scale of investment in agrofuels is truly staggering, in light of plans to occupy almost 6 percent of the territory of Liberia and 10 percent of that of Sierra Leone with African palm plantations; a similar if more immediately acute dynamic is unfolding in Indonesia and Malaysia, whose vast swathes of tropical rainforests are being expeditiously torn down in favor of palm oil crops. Summarized briefly and correctly by Sasha and Helen Yost, this process is one whereby land-based communities are dispossessed in order to “feed the industrial nightmare of climate change.”

The focus of Grabbing Back, as the title suggests, however, is not exclusively to analyze the machinations of global capital, but rather much more to investigate a multitude of forms of resistance to the land grab, from militant ecological direct actions to port strikes and land occupations (or decolonizations). Bringing together such dissident writers as Vandana Shiva, Silvia Federici, Benjamin Dangl, Andrej Grubačić, Noam Chomsky, Max Rameau, scott crow, and Grace Lee Boggs, Grabbing Back presents a number of critically important perspectives on resisting the land grab in particular and global capitalism in general. It is with great pleasure, then, that I have had the opportunity to interview Sasha on the magnificent volume he has edited.

Sasha, your editorial introduction to Grabbing Back frames the collection of essays within a tour de force overview of what you see as the most important factors driving the global land grab. You list these origins—quite rightly, in my view—as climate change, financial speculation, the “Great Recession” of 2008, resource scarcity and extractivist policies and orientations, as well as established imperialist history. Of these, I would like to examine the last of these concerns, in light of the clearly neo-colonial implications of mass-capitalist land expropriations today.

Given that empire is yet to be abolished, analyses of past experiments in European colonialism are quite germane to the present predicament, as you observe, like Hannah Arendt did before you in The Origins of Totalitarianism. The madman capitalist Cecil B. Rhodes, who sought to found a “Red” (or British) Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to the Nile Delta, is famous for his saying that he would “annex the planets if [he] could.” The domination and enslavement of peoples of color seen in formal colonialism, coupled with the mass-suffering, deprivation, and super-exploitation of said peoples for which neoliberalism and the “Mafia Doctrine” are responsible, has severely constrained the latitude which Southern societies have been able to exercise in terms of alternatives to capital in the modern and postcolonial periods.

Within the schools of political economy and critical development studies, this problematic is known as the “path dependence” imposed by historical circumstance:1 for humans “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances already existing, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon [1852]). Please discuss examples of resistance to the imposition of thanotic capital, as examined in Grabbing Back and beyond.

The three discursive positions of the Mafia Doctrine, Dependency Theory, and Marxism that you cite are extremely important in breaking down, or attempting to understand, the critical movements against land grabs around the world, and they each encircle one another in a growing overview of the processes at work. I think we can approach this triad with a claim that resistance to the Global Land Grab, and the capitalist process of accumulation outlined above, might counter the dominant paradigm with a three-part response.

1. From what I have observed, virtually every position against the current swathe of land grabs formulates itself as a small community-led movement, linked to one another by a generalized refusal of the schema of globalization. Not every movement has achieved the kind of generality necessary to comprise a mass rejection of the system, as with the People Power movements that swept through the Asia Pacific in the 1980s and the rise of Latin American populism in the late 1990s, but they all reject the position of North Atlantic hegemony. 

2. Neocolonial dependency is at the heart of the Global Land Grab, which is essentially becoming a hegemonic struggle over resources between the growing BRICS sphere of influence and the NATO bloc. As has been shown in the Central Africa Republic, both during the Scramble for Africa and today, Imperialist countries are perfectly happy to watch a country implode, as long as their resources stay out of the hands of Imperialist rivals. Resistance to the Global Land Grab, therefore, can emerge within a developmentalist paradigm as a kind of radical synthesis of a movement that is antithetical to globalization. This is what we see in Bolivia and Ecuador today, where Indigenous peoples are rising up against the developmentalist model forwarded by governments who seek to remain independent from the North Atlantic, but cannot maintain their integrity as sovereign nations without making concessions to capital.

3. The problem with transforming the diplomatic relations of a nation state lies in the continuing failure of the model of the nation state, itself, which is what Marx points to in the 18th Brumaire. So the last position that I would say that many resistance movements take to the Global Land Grab is one of tacit refusal, not only of globalization and of developmentalism (or extractivism), but of the idea of diplomatic relations as they stand today. It is as impossible for the idea of the nation state to move “beyond capital” as it is for the modern field of geo-politics (developed at the turn of the 20th Century by German nationalists) to recognize alternative forms of power. For this reason, I would argue, many formations of resistance to the Global Land Grab share characteristics of what Maia Ramnath calls a kind of “decolonizing anarchism.”2

So this triad of (1) resistance to neoliberalism, (2) formulation of alternate diplomatic articulation, and (3) rejection of the geopolitical paradigm is somewhat interpenetrating, moving, it would appear, from generality to particularity in one perspective (generally against globalization, specifically towards the slogan “a new world is possible”) and then in the opposite direction from another perspective (specifically against globalization and generally in favor of what Chatterjee calls “timeless” liberation outside of historicity).3

Ward Anseeuw and Mike Taylor’s essay in Grabbing Back on “Factors Shaping the Global Land Rush” identifies the Weberian tendency toward neo-patrimonialism as contributing to the “corruption” of the authorities who facilitate land expropriations in the global South, and they furthermore point to a lack of decentralization of power; a widespread institutional disregard for the customary, informal, and usufruct property regimes utilized by the majority of the world’s rural denizens; statist ideological and policy biases against small-holder agriculture in favor of industrialization and the maximization of growth; and a brutally business-oriented global governance structure—as manifested for example in the World Trade Organization (WTO), the myriad treaties on investment, and the machinations of international commercial arbitration bodies—as other key drivers of the present land grab. Concluding their article, Anseeuw and Taylor close by highlighting the greatly accelerated trend toward foreign expropriation of territory in the global South since 2005, and they grimly observe that “today’s enhanced investor interest in land resources is unlikely to go away for the foreseeable future” (my emphasis). Would you say that you agree with such an assessment? In one of your editorial sections, you do write that “[w]hat we have to look forward to, then, is a twenty-first century full of oil palm land grabs.”

It is a pretty terrible situation, and I can’t pretend to predict the future. In Thailand, just a few months after a military coup overthrew the democratically elected, populist government of Yingluck Shinawatra [in May 2014], the military junta installed a new constitution, put into place a fully-military cabinet, abolished the farm subsidy program, and announced an agricultural switch to palm oil plantations in the South where most of the insurgency is happening. At the same time, people in countries like Liberia and Indonesia continue to fight the spread of multinational corporations’ oil palm land grabs on their land, while the REDD+ climate accords seem to be opening the door for more transformation of biodiverse forests into monocrop palm oil plantations. In the US, something like half of agricultural land is going to be put on the market over the next 20 years, and Wall Street is more than interested. As long as palm oil is seen as a solution to the climate crisis, the demand will increase, and so will the number and size of plantations. As long as the financialization of markets, the deregulation on derivatives and speculation on commodities continues, food crises and the accumulation of capital will continue apace. It’s not just a question of resource scarcity; it’s about waste, overproduction, and the unequal distribution of knowledge and power through capitalism.

In her essay for Grabbing Back, “Women, Land-Struggles, and Globalization: An International Perspective,” Silvia Federici highlights the global participation of women in forest-defense and reafforestation struggles—Chipko in northern India and the “Green Belt Movement,” for instance—and she notes the crucial contributions made by the world’s female subsistence farmers, who ensure that billions of our sisters and brothers survive while instituting organic, anti-capitalist practices that hold great promise as regards the cause of self-management. Similarly, in “Black Women on the Edge,” Keisha-Khan Y. Perry and Cristina da Silva Caminha converse on a black women’s uprising for land and housing rights in Gamboa de Baixo, Brazil, which has resulted in a process that has significantly expanded ordinary women’s economic and sexual freedoms in that community. How do you see militant feminism and women’s liberation movements intervening to disrupt the vast concentrations of power and wealth of our day?

I think that these movements for gender and sexual liberation are absolutely essential. What Keisha-Khan Y. Perry and Cristina da Silva Caminha show us in their discussion is that the fight for land binds these women together through a shared sense of place, giving them greater power within their community to stand against patriarchy not only in the city, but in their small enclave. Really, I think that like Mike Taylor and Ward Anseeuw say, the struggle against extractivism has become a struggle against neo-patrimonialism as well as patriarchy; it is a struggle, in Uganda for instance, against the combination of witch trials and antihomosexuality laws that are instigated and encouraged through US religious-right groups like the abhorrent International House of Prayer (IHOP).4

In her essays, Federici shows that women are so often in the lead as to become the object of repression when the corporation or State (or both) want to take over, and as Fanon noted in Wretched of the Earth, adulterated tradition often becomes the fulcrum by which colonial power is able to deploy a “native” population against itself. The sense of standing up on one’s own, being joined by a community of participants, and working to establish a sense of place and self-management is really what is at the heart of the resistance movements that we are discussing in Grabbing Back, and the leadership of powerful feminisms of Vandana Shiva, Helen Yost, Federici, Perry, and da Silva Caminha have been important in guiding my own thought and action.

Graham Peebles presents a moving anti-authoritarian analysis of the Ethiopian State’s forcible displacement (“resettlement” or “villagization”) of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples from the southwestern Gambella region and the Lower Omo Valley to make way for massive foreign-owned export-oriented agricultural schemes and a hydroelectric megaproject named Gibe III, respectively, in “Destructive Development and Land Sales in Ethiopia.” Indeed, in some ways this essay brings to mind the chapter James C. Scott dedicates in Seeing Like a State (1998) to the mass-forcible resettlement campaigns engaged in by Julius Nyerere’s authoritarian-socialist government in Tanzania (1973-1976), which are not so different the State-led agricultural collectivization imposed by the Derg that overthrew Haile Selassie in Ethiopia itself (1974). Yet Peebles closes his report for Grabbing Back by hailing the prospect of a legal case against the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) for its contributions to the financing of the Gibe III project, and he waxes almost utopian about the obligations which all involved parties—the Ethiopian State, foreign investors, DFID, and the World Bank—have as regards the people whose fundamental rights they are violating through dispossession. My question to you in this case, as in the case of the land grab more generally and naked power politics or Realpolitik broadly conceived, is what potential—if any—you see in legalistic and incrementalist approaches to accountability for corporate and State crimes and the larger struggle for anti-systemic social change?

I’m glad you brought up Julius Nyerere. It is hard to disagree with Scott. I believe very strongly, as he does, that it is important to create dewesternizing models of power. The difference between Nyerere’s villagizaton project in Tanzania and what we are seeing in Ethiopia now is that the former was an attempt to modernize and generate a technical base for the subjective engagement in global hegemony, such that the IMF and World Bank could be avoided. It did not work, in the end, but Nyerere stood out as a symbol of resistance to the debt crisis when much of the Global South had been submerged in crisis.5

In a way, Nyerere’s ideal was a kind of autogestion, but of course its failure was that the government cannot mandate autogestion. I would almost venture to say that the neo-Sandinistas are closer to Nyerere’s ideals, although they have followed it up with a far less modernist (and more egalitarian) appraisal of how to “do” land reform. Of course, on the other hand, when you think of Nicaragua today, you think of the huge canal that a Chinese aristocrat has decided to cut through the land, which would have drastic consequences for Lake Cocibolca and the Rama and Garifuna communities. This is why state politics is always “dancing with dynamite,” in the phrase that Ben Dangl uses.

Is there the possibility for some accountability for egregious offenders through state and international entities? Yes, but only when it’s “in their interests.” Take the trial of the leaders of the RUF [Revolutionary United Front, i.e. anti-government opposition in Sierra Leone], for example. The trial was not controversial in the North Atlantic. Clearly these people had engaged in the training and deployment of child soldiers, and numerous atrocities were executed in their names. Yet, the trials came only after the leaders disarmed the RUF and engaged in a successful peace process; how unheard of is it to undergo a peace process in good faith, and then try and convict the leaders of the combating force?6 Yes, they are international violators of human rights and should be convicted, but it seems as though that frame of mind only works when you also have to look at the hypocrisy of the countries involved in the convicting—do the leaders of the US and EU not have war crimes executed in their names? Should they not also be held accountable? If there is such a thing as justice, then of course they should.

This is the same argument that Ahjamu Umi makes in Grabbing Back about people of color, mostly African American youths, sent to prison for emulating the gangsterism of the bankers, lobbyists, and politicians—did they do something wrong? Yes. But what about the rich who are getting away with the same kind of crime, only on a far grander scale? It goes back to the British imperialist Benjamin Disraeli’s famous missive, “what is a crime among the multitude is only a vice among the few.” The racist prison industry and militarization of the police is part of the transformation of the spatial composition of the city and the disempowerment of communities of color, which has been going on since the 1970s, and is precisely what we are seeing with police harassment in places like Furgeson. The same paradigm goes on in the diplomatic arena for all to see when the US points out a humanitarian crisis (Libya in 2011, for instance) that it’s in its interests to solve (through more civilian bloodshed, of course).

The problem of universal justice is where the flaws in international institutions always lie, and why it is critical to maintain organizational distance from them, even when working within or with them. Who defines justice, freedom, virtue, liberation?—these are all questions that boil down to hegemony. But I don’t see a complete separation from state apparatuses as exigent; if I believed that, I would say our movement doesn’t need lawyers or professors, workers who practice their values on the shop floor, and so on. You have written about Robespierre in the past; do you believe in an antagonistic force against the state, or do you believe that a “State of Virtue” can be established, as he did?

I think this “State of Virtue” is a very interesting idea. Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Robespierre’s youthful lieutenant in the Committee of Public Safety, famously desired virtue and reason to come to be instituted by popular custom, rather than merely be mandated from above—as from the Committee of Public Safety itself! Idealistically, Robespierre and Saint-Just believed the people to act as a sort of reservoir for reason and virtue, such that history is not indefinitely compromised if the counter-revolution is seen to be hegemonic. One must contrast the hopes that the most radical Jacobins and the members of the Committee had for France as well as European and world history with the disagreeable means they resorted to in self-defense—in defense of the Revolution, or simply for self-preservation, depending on your perspective—particularly during the Reign of Terror of 1793-1794. In more than a few cases, the punishments meted out by the Revolution in this period were undeniably disproportionate, as anti-government insurgents of Lyons and Nantes would learn after being defeated by Jacobin forces. Certainly, Robespierre and Saint-Just had a point in emphasizing natural law, freedom, human happiness, and Enlightenment progress as guiding principles which were embodied to varying degrees during the Revolution—yet their facile resort to the guillotine and centralization forever mar their example, particularly when we think of Robespierre’s elimination of rival left-wing currents shortly before his fall: Georges Danton and his followers the Dantonists, in addition to the Hébertists, who subscribed to the thought of enragé Jacques Hébert—himself executed like Danton. That Robespierre and the Committee were overthrown by the Thermidorian reaction shortly after performing such purges is quite telling. Personally, I find the example of Gracchus Babeuf and the members of the Conspiracy of Equals, who drew up plans for insurrection against the Directory two years after the fall of Robespierre, far more inspiring than the Jacobin experience while in power—even though Babeuf and his co-conspirators admittedly were arrested before the planned uprising could be carried out, such that the “post-revolutionary” legacy of Jacobins and Babouvists can in no way be compared.

To return to present rather than historical questions of inequality and revolution, though—in “Biofuels, Land Grabs, Revolution,” you quite plainly note the “biofuel boom [to be] truly an extension of a prolonged colonial affair designed to displace subsistence, food-based autonomy for global commodity production,” and you show how international capital has little to offer the peoples of the world other than “sweat shops and extractive industries, make sancrosanct by International Financial Institutions and global trade partnerships.” I definitely agree with you, though I would argue that instead of calling them biofuels we refer to them as agrofuels, for there is certainly nothing biotic about this blight on humanity and nature—if we return to the etymological origins of the word βίος (bios), or life!

You point out the macabre relations imperialism and international finance have had with the meteoric expansion of agrofuel production in recent history, particularly in the case of Sukarno and Suharto in Indonesia and Lever and the United Africa Company (UAC) in West Africa. However, in spite of the disconcerting implications the “agrofuel boom” has had for forest ecosystems and biodiversity in Malaysia especially—think of the fate of the orangutan (“person of the forest”) as a stand-in for the hundreds of thousands of species similarly imperiled by agrofuel-driven deforestation—you discuss the case of Madagascar, where the people overthrew the government after learning of its handing over of nearly half of the island-nation’s arable land to foreign investors, and of the Somali pirates as promising countercurrents. How do you see resistance trends developing effectively to check the suicidal trajectory of agrofuel expansion and capitalist imperialism more broadly?

Agrofuels, as you call them, are something that drive me up the wall. But it’s hilarious, because you can get someone from the oil industry talking about how bad land grabs are and how agrofuels don’t help the environment, but then you ask them about the tar sands, and a halo on their head glows a bit brighter. They act like the tar sands are just as clean as God’s toothbrush. Of course there’s lots of resistance to all of these things throughout the world, but they’re all different and shouldn’t be romanticized.

For instance, I’m not sure I would call Somali pirates “promising.” First of all, the shift of piracy is taking place towards the Gulf of Guinea, which has a direct relationship both to the peace agreements with MEND and the increasing amount of commodities shipped out of West Africa. They are better than some so-called “resistance movements,” but I would generally take note of them as a kind of necessary internality of the current system of global trade.

This is generally how resistance works, as Baudrillard tries to explain apropos terrorism—terrorism is not some sort of external enemy that attacks capitalism but rather is a product of capitalism almost to the same extent as a commodity is the product of capitalist exchange. Baudrillard claims that through its very totalization, capital creates a necessity within its structure for explosive events of difference. Through its dismissal and repression, it generates a kind of sublime internal enemy.

Insurgency is similar, but somewhat different, because insurgency represents not a media strategy to attract attention to a greater violence through a smaller act of seemingly random violence (which terrorism is in its basic form), but a more generalized and networked opposition that takes place on deeper, cultural levels. This is generally the response of colonized people to colonialism, which is why counterinsurgency arose during the British colonial experience in Malay and Kenya and the French colonial experience in Algeria, and it explains the proliferation of counterinsurgency operations throughout the world, not just by the US, but also Brazil, Russia, and Israel as a result of the global land grab. The more “multipolar” the global matrix of hegemony becomes, the more land grabs are resisted both internally and on the periphery.

In Madagascar, the resistance was generated through alternative structures, which were the traditional basis for the community sense of responsibility and justice (very different from our understanding of such a concept), and it spread through the rural areas into more generalized unrest. I see this happening in the US as well; while most geographers look to the metropolis as the center of unrest, I think there is a much more open field of resistance in the world today, partly as a result of extractivism, which is transforming the demographics of the world. It is relatively clear to me that we have environmentalism on the side of class consciousness on the one hand fighting things like oil trains, tar sands, and fracking, and then on the other hand, we have the forces of capital and extractivism in the forms of the ultra-right tea party, logging and oil companies, and ranchers.

Against all neoliberal Hegelianism and capitalist apologism, Andrew Herod in his Grabbing Back essay on “Ports as Places of Stickiness in a World of Global Flows” details the profound revocability and contingency of the capitalist monster, as revealed through an autonomous-Marxist or anarcho-syndicalist analysis of the great potential that workers—particularly dockers—have for impeding the smooth movement of capital flows. Like Chomsky, Herod sees solid community support as an important precondition for the successful intensification of worker militancy against the capitalist everyday. Indeed, his discussion of the sustained resistance engaged in by workers belonging to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) calls to mind the general strike organized by Occupy Oakland in November 2011, and his examination of the mutual aid shared between Australian and South African unions to resist formal Apartheid on the one hand and the anti-labor legislation contemplated by the Australian government in the 1990s on the other illuminates the fundamental reality that proletarian struggle is necessarily internationalist—as Marx and the (other) anarchists knew well. We can hope that coming waves of increased worker militancy will come to affirm the ecological general strike advocated by the Environmental Union Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW EUC), so as to unite radical ecology with proletarian self-management in a militant struggle to defend nature and humanity. Keeping in mind the encouraging recent example of the blockades of the Israeli Zim ship on the U.S. West Coast in the wake of the Zionist State’s genocidal “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, what can you say about the future promise of such “logistical” approaches to anti-capitalist struggle?

I think it’s critical to remain open to tactics, but I think that you’re onto the right strategy. I don’t think it’s responsible to talk about land grabs without also talking about global trade, which is synonymous with the capitalist world-system. The simple truck and transport of so many useless manufactured goods and raw materials from one port to another to another is an important contributor to climate change in and of itself, but ports and shipping networks have also become central to the global land grab and extractivism.

You mention the port shutdown in Oakland, and I’d like to add the Longview, Oregon, cooperation between Rising Tide and the ILWU, which has been shut out of a bargaining agreement for a grain terminal. These two groups, ostensibly with little in common, have joined to shut down the port of Longview twice now, not only because of the grain terminal, but because of a prospective oil terminal to ship Bakken shale oil out through the West Coast. The ILWU respects their allies in the working class climate movement, and also thinks of the “bomb trains” as a hazard to the community.

There’s a point of collective interest that centers around both environmental concerns and the treatment of workers that has created a much needed and fully beneficial alliance. We do need more local systems of production and consumption, and we need greater emphasis on use value, rather than a constant system of symbolic exchange that effectively “borrows from itself” (as Adorno said of Heidegger’s philosophy). With this in mind, we need to develop those systems of social and ecological value that can translate into an equal or greater value than the capitalist paradigm, and that can only happen by sharing ideas, mobilizing together, and building community roots.

In the meantime, I think workers and ecologically-minded people (who are usually also workers!) need to organize together to build global resistance to the demented regimes of apartheid in Palestine as well as here in the US. In recent months, we have seen solidarity work magic through national protests against police brutality and military brutality abroad. Of course those things go together, and it’s that kind of double movement that will bring class consciousness (really also the consciousness of the urgent, historic task with which we are charged) that can bring us out of this “imperiled life,” as you describe it.

Apropos titles, what can you say about the conception of Grabbing Back‘s title? To me it is reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine’s song “Take the Power Back.”

Well, I was corresponding with Sam Moyo who teaches in South Africa and Zimbabwe, because I wanted to include some of his work in the compilation. Moyo’s work on postcolonial Zimbabwe illustrates the very complex hegemony that emerges out of decolonization and land reform. Incidentally, Johannes Wilm’s work chronicling land reform in Nicaragua is similar. Decolonization is not a process of leadership switching hands; it is a very intense transformation of a society, right down to the individual level, and this involves a kind of centripetal force that drives a postcolonial nation surging towards further liberation, land reform, and land occupations. When governments, like the Algerian coup [executed by Houari Boumédiène against Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965], try to control the surge of popular liberation, they are often met with widespread resistance, and then postcolonial countries become dragged down into dynamics of power and control.

So “grabbing back” is related to this complicated internal and external struggle of popular liberation movements fighting to take land back from multinational corporations by any means necessary, and then often fighting the new governments in a continuing and often frustrating rupture. It is not a kind of wishful or abstract thinking that puts all land grabs on the side of evil, but is in fact a complex power struggle where land is grabbed, grabbed back, territorialized and deterritorialized.

I do frequently have that line running through my head where Zach de la Rocha screams, “Take it back y’all, take it back y’all, take it back, take it back, take it back y’all!” I was actually in an anti-Arpaio march with him back in 2009, but he was up front I think. It was that infamous march where everybody got pepper sprayed, but that was my 15 minutes of habanero-eyed fame.

Many if not most of the essays collected in Grabbing Back explore direct action as a critical resistance measure, whether taken to block infernal industrial-capitalist megaprojects—as throughout much of rural China, where thousands of socio-ecological “group events” or mass disturbances have surged in the decades since trade liberalization, among the Mi’kmaq peoples resisting the “gas grab” in eastern Canada, and as instituted by members of the Wild Idaho and Portland Rising Tide chapters who have physically blockaded the movement of tar-sands megaloads—or as a means of land- and eviction-defense, as seen in Portland (Blazing Arrow and allied organizations), post-Katrina New Orleans (N.O.H.E.A.T.), and Haiti and South Africa (Take Back the Land and Abahlali Basemjondolo). Do you see all these direct actions made for the sake of humanity and nature as somehow coalescing in the future into a generalized anti-systemic multitude, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have theorized?

This is really a deeply philosophical question. I like Negri and Hardt very much; they are such wonderful people! Insofar as they are positing the multitude into the future, I think that they see a kind of avenire, “time-to-come,” as a futurity in the sense that [Ernst] Bloch talks about the “not yet.”

In his writings on Spinoza, Negri takes a route past reaction towards a sense of joy that is distinguished through an active coexistence: “For Spinoza, time exists only as liberation. Liberated time becomes the productive imagination, rooted in ethics. Liberated time is neither becoming, nor dialectic, nor mediation, but rather being that constructs itself, dynamic constitution, realized imagination. Time is not measure but ethics. Imagination also unveils the hidden dimensions of Spinozian being—this ethical being that is the being of revolution, the continuous ethical choice of production.” Together, Negri and Hardt write about “autonomous times” that are produced in the process of being together, which is very similar to what Grubačić’s essay in Grabbing Back refers to as “exilic spaces.”

In Declaration, Negri and Hardt write, “You can’t beat the prison, and you can’t fight the army. All you can do is flee… Since security functions so often by making you visible, you have to escape by refusing to be seen. Becoming invisible, too, is a kind of flight. The fugitive, the deserter, and the invisible are the real heroes (or antiheroes) of the struggle of the securitized to be free. But when you run, think of George Jackson and grab a weapon as you go.” This returns us to the Pan-African style of direct action written about by Ahjamu Umi and Max Rameau in Grabbing Back as well—not a flight of cowardice, but self-defense. This is how we ultimately have to view scott crow’s essay about Common Ground as well—a kind of radical space of exile that brings together people from all over the world to help others who are also struggling with their forced removal. This is what presents itself as liberation in time and space, a kind of being-for-others, which spreads through attraction.

But with this, are we not also assuming a kind of utopian futurity, which requires a different way of presenting ourselves in the here-and-now? Jürgen Habermas calls Bloch a “Marxist Schelling,” but I really think we have to understand the importance of [Johann Gottlieb] Fichte here as well to turn utopia into action. Fichte writes that freedom “is always posited into the future… to the extent that the individual himself is posited into the future.” Noting an ethical crisis of the individual in time, Martin Luther King, Jr., writes, “Ethics for Fichte deals with the internal conflict which arises within each person between his natural impulse for self-preservation and his rational impulse to secure freedom through conformity to the moral law. The two impulses must be reconciled in such a way that rational freedom will prevail, and the individual will do his duty and fulfill his vocation. This can never be completely achieved in time, so the individual is immortal so that he may achieve his infinite duty.” We have this sense of the “future anterior,” the problem of what “would have been” that accompanies both the “not-yet-present” and the “alteriority of the past.” Our ethical task is to expiate our conscience through the present action of being, playing, and working together. This effectively generates what Katsiaficas calls the “eros effect,” the mass-spreading of autonomous struggle.

No stranger to such autonomous struggle, King continues in his philosophical contemplation of Fichte: “Man’s behavior is not only reactional. And there is always resentment in a reactionTo educate man to be actional, preserving in all his relations the basic respect for the basic values that constitute a human world, is the prime task of him who, having taken thought, prepares to act.” So the action, or the active life, brings us to a behavior consistent with liberation and hope, and a collective uprising of freedom becomes a matter of assuming a dignified role in history.

While the resilience identified by Grace Lee Boggs and company in their Grabbing Back essay exploring the life-affirming possibilities for a new, post-industrial Detroit is quite inspiring, one is struck by the proposal so rapidly to convert this historical center of industrial capitalism into a self-sufficient urban-agricultural oasis. Given the saturation of the city’s soils by the heavy metals emitted by all the polluting industries formerly concentrated there, does this recommendation not run the risk of worsening health outcomes for Detroit residents? Capitalism Nature Socialism editor Salvatore Engel-di Mauro has warned about this possibility, especially in his Ecology, Soils, and the Leftas elsewhere.

There are lots of ways of bringing soil back to health, which you can find in various permaculture books. Composting makes soil that is perfectly healthy, and some cities have compost programs that collect people’s food waste with the garbage, makes compose, and sells it back to people as soil for cheap. Other than this, lots of communities experiment with humanure, which actually creates tons of nutritious soil in a relatively short time period. In reality, this outdated notion of defecating in clean water in the midst of climate changed induced droughts should be viewed with the utmost shame and contempt, and our societies should be learning about how to live resilient, natural systems.

I am skeptical that composting and humanure can effectively negate the effects of heavy metals accumulated in soils.

Of course I share your opinion that cities aren’t just going to turn into utopias overnight, nor should we focus all of our efforts on the metropolis, as thinkers have tended to wish for in the past. There is a lot to be said for supporting rural movements that do not abide by the status quo, and for taking land away from the huge agribusiness cartels and (1) returning it to the Indigenous peoples; (2) if it’s possible, given the amount of affective trauma caused by the settler population on the Indigenous peoples and land, restoring the tradition of local farming in the US. I just don’t believe in a movement driven by white settlers in the US—it will turn out like the populist movement of the late 19th Century: horribly racist, politically opportunist, and cursed by its leaders to dissolve into the mire of party politics. You can call me a raging skeptic or a sunny idealist on that issue, but I would rather take that as a compliment than believe that we can overcome the colonial legacy through white leadership.

In an article examining Israel’s genocidal “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, acclaimed Guardian columnist Nafeez Ahmed presents the thesis that the latest Zionist pogrom finds its basis in the Israeli State’s desire to “uproot Hamas” to make way for the exploitation of the estimated $4 billion worth of gas deposits discovered off the coast of Gaza in 2000. Personally, I find such a view to typify “vulgar Marxism,” or economic determinism, the idea that all actions taken by States and capital are based in crass material interests. Of course, materialism is critical for understanding the Zionist project of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and mass-colonial land expropriation, as it is for the struggle to overcome Zionism altogether, as through BDS, direct action, and armed struggle—yet to rely solely or even largely on such a type of analysis would seem crucially to overlook the psychological, subjective, and ideological reasons for the perpetuation of Israeli racism and fascism toward the Palestinians, other Arabs, and Africans. What are your thoughts?

I think Nafeez Ahmed is a terrific and responsible journalist, and there are many dimensions to the fight in Gaza. In this case, he might be approaching the problem from a more old-fashioned geopolitical side, but in any case, you’re right to assert the many psychological dialectics of colonialism. I rely principally on the tremendous works of feminists like Valentine Moghadam (who even writes about Earth First!), Lila Abu-Lughod, and Saba Mahmood who provide some of the critical nuances on the impacts of globalization and diaspora on the consciousness of peoples, and whose observations on the dialectics of religion, gender, and postcolonial hegemony offer a kind of understanding that is very difficult to find in contemporary discourse.

We all know so little about the extent of suffering, the need for action, and the capacity to collaborate; there has been so much violence, so much hatred all in the name of this little, tiny place on a map, and why? Much of it is based on strange, spiritual conceptions of the sacred, even for people living thousands of miles away—simply because that’s what they were taught in their respective place of worship. For that reason, I think it’s important to maintain a materialist analysis of place, Indigeneity, and human dignity that resists a kind of religious claim to universalism, but I also agree that we are not going far enough when that materialism boils down to natural resources.

The settlers during the internal colonization of the US did not simply move to Oregon because of its natural resources; they moved there, because they believed they were on a spiritual mission to take land from the Natives and produce civilization. The hard Zionist right-wing represented in the Knesset is like this—as Moshe Dayan’s famous saying goes, “we are fated to live in a permanent state of fighting against the Arabs… for two things: the building of the land and the building of the people.” Just like most analyses of Tahrir Square and Diren Gezi Parki do not boil down to qualitative analyses of consumer economics, our analyses of “the other side” should not be so monolithic. In particular, we need to analyze the rise of populism throughout the world today, whether religious or cultural, and note how deterritorialization of the marketplace and “hegemonic masculinity” (to use Moghadam’s term) is leading to a backlash that Samir Amin likens to the rise of a new fascism.

1 Thandika Mkandawire and Charles C. Soludo, Our Continent, Our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999).

2 Maia Ramnath, Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle, (Oakland: AK Press, 2011)

3 Partha Chaterjee, “For an Indian History of Peasant Struggle,” Social Scientist 16, no. 11 (1988): 15.

4 See the unsettling film, God Loves Uganda, dir: Roger Ross Williams (Pull Credit Productions: Brooklyn, 2013)

5 See Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso: New York, 2012)

6 For an interesting insight into this trial, see the film about Issa Sesay, War Don Don, dir: Rebecca Richman Cohen, Racing Horse Productions, Naked Edge Films, 2010

“Happy End”: Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope

August 25, 2014


This is the conclusion to volume I of Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope),[i] written by German Marxist Ernst Bloch during his exile in New York from 1938-1947.  Here, at the close of the first of three volumes dedicated to the exploration of hope, Bloch shares his thoughts on optimism, pessimism, the trajectory of history, and revolutionary duty.  This final section is entitled “Happy End.”

“See the outcome of things as friendly, that is then not always foolish or stupid […]. Unconditional pessimism therefore promotes the business of reaction not much less than artificially conditioned optimism; the latter is nevertheless not so stupid that it does not believe in anything at all. It does not immortalize the trudging of the little life, does not give humanity the face of a chloroformed gravestone. It does not give the world the deathly sad background in front of which it is not worth doing anything at all. In contrast to a pessimism which itself belongs to rottenness and may serve it, a tested optimism, when the scales fall from its eyes, does not deny the goal-belief in general; on the contrary, what matters now is to find the right one and to prove it. For this reason there is more possible pleasure in the idea of a converted Nazi than from all the cynics and nihilists. That is why the most dogged enemy of [libertarian] socialism is not only, as is understandable, great capital, but equally the load of indifference, hopelessness; otherwise great capital would stand alone. Otherwise there would not in fact be, despite all mistakes in propaganda, the delays until socialism ignites in the massive majority whose interests belong to it, without it knowing. Thus pessimism is paralysis per se, whereas even the most rotten optimism can still be the stupefaction from which there is an awakening. Even the contentment with the minimum for existence so long as it is there, the shortsightedness in the daily struggle for bread and the miserable triumphs in this struggle ultimately stem from the disbelief in the goal; the first thing is therefore to break into this. It is no coincidence that capitalism has striven to spread, apart from the false happy end, its own genuine nihilism. Because this is the stronger danger and, in contrast to the happy end, cannot be corrected at all, except through its own demise. The truth is its demise, as expropriating and as liberating truth, towards a humanity which is finally socially possible. So truth then, sweeping clean, an instruction to build, becomes, remains critical-militant optimism, and this orientates itself in the Become always towards the Not-Yet-Become, towards viable possibilities of the light. It creates the readiness, which is uninterrupted and informed of tendency, to risk the intervention into what has not yet been achieved. As long as no absolute In-Vain (triumph of evil) has appeared, then the happy end of the right direction and path is not only our pleasure, but our duty. Where the dead bury the dead, grieving may rightly take place and failure may be the existential condition. Where snobs participated as traitors in the revolution until it broke out, all that that is left to pray may in fact be: Give us this day our daily illusion. Where the capitalist sum no longer works out anywhere, the bankrupt may in fact be forced to pour and spread a blot over the ledger of the whole of existence, so that the world in general looks coal-black and no inspector will call the nightmaker to account. All this is an even worse deception than that of the radiant facades which can no longer be kept up. The work against this, with which history continues, indeed has been continuing for a long time, leads to the matter which could be good, not as abyss, but as mountain into the future. [Humanity] and the world carry enough good future; no plan is itself good without this fundamental belief within it.”

[i] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, Paul Knight (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1959 (1986), 446-7.