Posts Tagged ‘Immanuel Kant’

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.

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Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism: In Conversation with Noam Chomsky (transcript)

April 3, 2014

chomsky and javier

First published on Truthout on 3 April 2014 (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

 

There can be little doubt about the centrality and severity of the environmental crisis in the present day. Driven by the mindless “grow-or-die” imperative of capitalism, humanity’s destruction of the biosphere has reached and even surpassed various critical thresholds, whether in terms of carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, freshwater depletion, or chemical pollution. Extreme weather events can be seen pummeling the globe, from the Philippines—devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November of last year—to California, which is presently suffering from the worst drought in centuries. As Nafeez Ahmed has shown, a recently published study funded in part by NASA warns of impending civilizational collapse without radical changes to address social inequality and overconsumption. Truthout’s own Dahr Jamail has written a number of critical pieces lately that have documented the profundity of the current trajectory toward anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) and global ecocide; in a telling metaphor, he likens the increasingly mad weather patterns brought about by ACD to an electrocardiogram of a “heart in defibrillation.”

Rather than conclude that such distressing trends follow intrinsically from an “aggressive” and “sociopathic” human nature, reasonable observers should likely associate the outgrowth of these tendencies with the dominance of the capitalist system, for, as Oxfam noted in a January 2014 report, the richest 85 individuals in the world possess as much wealth as a whole half of humanity—the 3.5 billion poorest people—while just 90 corporations have been responsible for a full two-thirds of the carbon emissions generated since the onset of industrialism. As these staggering statistics show, then, the ecological and climatic crises correspond to the extreme concentration of power and wealth produced by capitalism and upheld by the world’s governments. As a counter-move to these realities, the political philosophy of anarchism—which opposes the rule of both State and capital—may hold a great deal of promise for ameliorating and perhaps even overturning these trends toward destruction. Apropos, I had the great fortune recently to interview Professor Noam Chomsky, renowned anarcho-syndicalist, to discuss the question of ecological crisis and anarchism as a remedy. Following is a transcript of our conversation.

Professor Chomsky, thank you so kindly for taking the time today to converse with me about ecology and anarchism. It is a true honor to have this opportunity to speak with you. Before we pass to these subjects, though, I would like to ask you initially about ethics and solidarity. Would you say that Immanuel Kant’s notion of treating humanity as an end in itself has influenced anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought in any way? The concept of natural law arguably has a “natural” affinity with anarchism.

Indirectly, but I think it’s actually more general. My own view is that anarchism flows quite naturally out of major concerns and commitments of the Enlightnment, which found an expression in classical liberalism, and classical liberalism essentially was destroyed by the rise of capitalism—it’s inconsistent with it. But anarchism I think is the inheritor of the ideals that were developed in one or another form during the Enlighnment—Kant’s expression is one exmple—exemplified in a particular way in classical liberal doctrine, wrecked on the shoals of capitalism, and picked up by the libertarian left movements, which are the natural inheritors of them. So in that sense, yes, but it’s broader.

You have described humanity as being imperiled by the destructive trends on hand in capitalist society—or what you have termed “really existing capitalist democracies” (RECD). Particularly of late, you have emphasized the brutally anti-ecological trends being implemented by the dominant powers of settler-colonial societies, as reflected in the tar sands of Canada, Australia’s massive exploitation and export of coal resources, and of course the immense energy profligacy on hand in this country. You certainly have a point, and I share your concerns, as I detail in Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, a book that frames the climate crisis as the outgrowth of capitalism and the domination of nature generally understood. Please explain how you see RECD as profoundly at odds with ecological balance.

RECD – not accidentally, pronounced “wrecked” — is really existing capitalist democracy, really a kind of state capitalism, with a powerful State component in the economy, but with some reliance on market forces. The market forces that exist are shaped and distorted in the interests of the powerful—by State power, which is heavily under the control of concentrations of private power—so there’s close interaction. Well if you take a look at markets, they are a recipe for suicide. Period. In market systems you don’t take account of what economists call externalities. So say you sell me a car. In a market system we’re supposed to look after our own interests, so I make the best deal I can for me, you make the best deal you can for you. We do not take into account the effect on him. That’s not part of a market transaction. Well there is an effect on him: there’s another car on the road, there’s a greater possibility of accidents, there’s more pollution, there’s more traffic jams. For him individually it might be a slight increase, but this is extended over the whole population. Now, when you get to other kinds of transactions, the externalities get much larger. So take the financial crisis. One of the reasons for it is that—there are several, but one is—say if Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction, they—if they’re paying attention—cover their own potential losses. They do not take into account what’s called systemic risk, that is, the possibility that the whole system will crash, if one of their risky transactions goes bad. That just about happened with AIG, the huge insurance company. They were involved in risky transactions which they couldn’t cover. The whole system was really going to collapse, but of course State power intervened to rescue them. The task of the State is to rescue the rich and the powerful and to protect them, and if that violates market principles, okay, we don’t care about market principles. The market principles are essentially for the poor. But systemic risk is an externality that’s not considered, which would take down the system repeatedly, if you didn’t have State power intervening. Well there’s another one, that’s even bigger—that’s destruction of the environment. Destruction of the environment is an externality: in market interactions you don’t pay attention to it. So take tar sands. If you’re a major energy corporation and you can make profit out of exploiting tar sands, you simply do not take into account the fact that your grandchildren may not have a possibility of survival—that’s an externality. And in the moral calculus of capitalism, greater profits in the next quarter outweigh the fate of your grandchildren, and of course it’s not your grandchildren, but everyone’s.

Now the settler-colonial societies are particularly interesting in this regard, because you have a conflict within them. Settler-colonial societies are different than most forms of imperialism; in traditional imperialism, say the British in India, the British kind of ran the place: they sent the bureaucrats, the administrators, the officer corps, and so on, but the place was run by Indians. Settler-colonial societies are different; they eliminate the indigenous population. Read, say, George Washington, a leading figure in the settler-colonial society we live in. His view was—his words—was that we have to ‘extirpate’ the Iroquois, they’re in our way. They were an advanced civilization, in fact they provided some of the basis for the American constitutional system, but they were in the way, so we have to extirpate them. Thomas Jefferson, another great figure, he said, well, we have no choice but to exterminate the indigenous population, the Native Americans; the reason is they’re attacking us. Why are they attacking us? Because we’re taking everything away from them. But since we’re taking their land and resources away and they defend themselves, we have to exterminate them. And that’s pretty much what happened—in the United States almost totally—huge extermination. Some residues remain, but under horrible conditions. Australia, same thing. Tasmania, almost total extermination. Canada, they didn’t quite make it. There’s residues of what are called First Nations around the periphery. Now, those are settler-colonial societies: there are elements of the indigenous populations remaining, and a very striking feature of contemporary society is that, throughout the world—in Canada, Latin America, Australia, India, all over the world, the indigenous societies—what we call tribal or aboriginal or whatever name we use—they’re the ones who are trying to prevent the race to destruction. Everywhere, they’re the ones leading the opposition to destruction of the environment. In countries with substantial indigenous populations, like say in Ecuador and Bolivia, they’ve passed legislation, even constitutional provisions, calling for rights of nature, which is kind of laughed at in the rich, powerful countries, but is the hope for survival.

Ecuador, for example, made an offer to Europe—they have a fair amount of oil—to leave the oil in the ground, where it ought to be, at a great loss to them—huge loss for development. The request was that Europe would provide them with a fraction—payment—of the loss—a small fraction—but the Europeans refused, so now they’re exploiting the oil. And if you go to southern Colombia, you find indigenous people, campesinos, Afro-Americans struggling against gold mining, just horrible destruction. Same in Australia, against uranium mining, and so on. At the same time, in the settler-colonial societies, which are the most advanced and richest, that’s where the drive is strongest toward the destruction of the environment. So you read a speech by say Obama, for example, at Cushing, Oklahoma—Cushing is kind of the center for bringing together and storing the fossil fuels which flow into there and are distributed. It was an audience of oil types. To enormous applause, he said that during his administration more oil had been lifted than any previous one—for many, many years. He said pipelines are crossing America under his administration to the extent that practically everywhere you go, you’re tripping across a pipeline; we’re going to have 100 years of energy independence; we’ll be the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century—in short, we’ll lead the way to disaster. At the same time, the remnants of the indigenous societies are trying to prevent the race to disaster. So in this respect, the settler-colonial societies are a striking illustration of first of all the massive destructive power of European imperialism, which of course includes us and Australia, and so on. And also the –I don’t know if you’d call it irony, but the strange phenomenon of the most so-called “advanced,” educated, richest segments of global society trying to destroy all of us, and the so-called ‘backward’ people, the pre-technological people, who remain on the periphery, trying to restrain the race to disaster. If some extra-terrestrial observer were watching this, they’d think the species was insane. And in fact it is. But the insanity goes back to the basic institutional structure of RECD. That’s the way it works. It’s built into the institutions. It’s one of the reasons it’s going to be very hard to change.

In Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (2013), you argue that global society must be reorganized so that “care for ‘the commons’ […] become[s] a very high priority, as it has been in traditional societies, quite often.”[1] You make similar conclusions in an essay from last summer reflecting on the importance of the efforts to defend Gezi Park in Istanbul, which you frame as being part of a “a struggle in which we must all take part, with dedication and resolve, if there is to be any hope for decent human survival in a world that has no borders.” How do you see the possibility of thoroughgoing social transformation and the devolution of power taking place in the near future—through the emergence and sustained replication of workers’ and community councils, as in the participatory economic model (Parecon), for example?

That’s a well-worked out, detailed proposal for one form of democratic control of popular institutions—social, economic, political, others. And it is particularly well-worked out, in extensive detail. Whether that’s the right form or something other, I think it’s a little early to tell. My own feeling is that a fair amount of experimentation has to be done to see how societies can and should function. I’m a little skeptical about the possibility of sketching it in detail in advance. But that certainly should be taken very seriously, along with other proposals. But something along those lines seems to me a prerequisite first of all for reasonable life, put aside the environment—just the way a society ought to work, with people in a position where they can make decisions about the things that matter to them. But also I think it is a prerequisite for survival at this point. I mean, the human species is reaching a point which is unique in human history—just take a look at species’ destruction, forget humans. Species destruction now is at the level of 65 million years ago, when an asteroid hit the Earth and destroyed the dinosaurs and a huge number of species—massive species destruction. That’s being replicated right now, and humans are the asteroid. And we’re on the list, not far.

In a speech reproduced over 20 years ago in the film version of Manufacturing Consent, you describe hegemonic capitalist ideology as reducing the life-world of Earth to an “infinite resource” and “an infinite garbage-can.” Even then you had identified the capitalist tendency toward total destruction: you speak of a looming cancellation of destiny for humanity if the madness of capitalism is not halted within this, the “possibly terminal phase of human existence.” The very title and argumentation of Hegemony or Survival (2003)continue in this line, and in Hopes and Prospects (2010), you claim the threat to the chance for decent survival to be one of the major externalities produced, again, by RECD. How do you think a resurgent international anarchist movement might respond positively to such alarming trends?

In my view anarchism is just the most advanced form of political thought. As I’ve said, it draws from the Enlightenment, its best ideals; the primary contributions of classical liberalism carry it forward. Parecon, which you mentioned, is one illustration—they don’t call themselves anarchists—but there are others like it. So I think that a resurgent anarchist movement, which would be the peak of human intellectual civilization, should join with the indigenous societies of the world so that they don’t have the burden to save humanity from its own craziness. This should take place within the richest, most powerful societies. It’s kind of a moral truism that the more privilege you have, the more responsibility you have. It’s elementary in every domain: you have privilege, you have opportunities, you have choices, you have responsibilities. In the rich, powerful societies, privileged people like us—we’re all privileged people—we have the responsibility to take the lead in trying to prevent the disasters that our own social institutions are creating. It’s outrageous to demand or even observe the poorest, most repressed people in the world taking the lead in trying to save the human species and in fact innumerable other species from destruction. So we should join them. That’s the role of an anarchist movement.

In “Human Intelligence and the Environment” (2010), you raise the possibility of factory workers taking control of the means of production and autonomously deciding to break with business as usual, opting instead to produce solar panels or high-speed rail. This recommendation is entirely anarcho-syndicalist in nature, in keeping with your own proclivities: indeed, it bears much affinity with the prospect of an ecological anarcho-syndicalism, a concept that has been advanced by the Environment Union Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW-EUC) recently. A particularly promising proposal the EUC has made is that of an ecological general strike. In a similar vein, economic historian Richard Smith recently called for the mass-shuttering of large corporations and vast swathes of industry as a means of giving humanity and nature a chance against climate destruction. Moreover, since the U.S. military is the single largest contributor to the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption, the Pentagon should effectively be dismantled for this reason, among others, of course. How might activists present these pressing goals in ways that do not lend themselves to being dismissed as mere utopianism?

Well, let’s take the idea of converting industry to producing solar panels, mass-transportation, and so on. That was not utopian. The US government virtually nationalized the auto industry a couple years ago—not entirely, but took over large parts of it. There were choices at that point. If there had been a powerful movement of the kind that we’re discussing, with a popular base, it could have pressed for something very realistic, which I think would have had the support of the working class. A strike will be regarded as a weapon against them—it’s taking away their livelihoods, their survival. The choices were two, really: either the government rescues the auto industry at the taxpayers’ expense and hands it back to pretty much the original owners, maybe different faces, but structurally the same owners, and have them produce what they were doing before, which is destructive. That was one possibility; that was the one that was taken. The other possibility, which could have been taken, and with a sufficient powerful popular movement might well have been taken, is to put those factories into the hands in the working class, and have them make their choices rationally, in the interests of themselves, their communities, the general society—and do exactly what you were describing: produce solar panels.

Take mass-transportation. Going back to markets—if you take an economics course, they tell you markets offer choices. That’s partly true, but very narrowly. Markets restrict choices, sharply restrict choices. Mass transportation is an example. Mass transportation is not a choice offered on the market. If I want to go home today, the market does offer me a choice between a Ford and a Toyota, but not between a car and a subway. That’s just not one of the choices available in market systems, and this is not a small point. Choices that involve common effort and solidarity and mutual support and concern for others—those are out of the market system. The market system is based on maximization of individual consumption, and that is highly destructive in itself. It’s destructive even for the human beings involved—it turns them into sociopathic individuals.. But it also means that the kinds of things that are needed for survival are out of the market system—like mass-transportation. That’s the form of economic growth that could help preserve the hopes for survival. I don’t think that it was at all unrealistic for that to have been done; there was nothing utopian about that.

Now as compared with things like say general strikes, I think that’s much a better step to take. It’s not saying, let’s throw a wrench in the machine and harm everybody in the interest of some longer-term goal. It’s saying, let’s take a wrench and fix the machine, so it can function right now, with all you guys working, doing better jobs, running it yourselves. You’re better off psychologically, socially, in every respect, and you’re also producing a world that makes sense to live in. That’s I think the better way to proceed, in general.

According to German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, revolution can be defined in part as action which seeks to secure the life, freedom, and happiness of future generations.[2] In light of looming catastrophic climate change, this definition would seem to hold a great amount of importance today. Within the modern Western revolutionary tradition, some of the most promising movements have arguably been Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals, Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League, and the Spanish anarchists. What would you say is the role of direct action in revolutionary struggle?

First of all, I think we shouldn’t assume that revolutionary struggle is the only option. What we’ve just been discussing, for example, you can call reformist if you like: it’s taking the institutions, reshaping them, reconstructing them, turning them into democratic institutions, and carrying out actions that are quite feasible and would be beneficial for all of us. Is that a revolution, is it a reform? Who knows? What’s the role of direct action, say, in that? Well, the role of direct action would have been realistically for popular movements to have pressured the government to take that direction, which would not have been impossible. In fact right now in the Rust Belt—something like this happened in the old Rust Belt, on a much smaller scale. Back in 1977, U.S. Steel, a major corporation, decided to close their operations in Youngstown, Ohio, which was a steel-town that had been built by steelworkers, by the union; it was a major steel town. That was going to destroy everyone’s occupation, the community, the society, everything—and it’s a decision made by bankers somewhere, who weren’t making enough profit. The steelworkers union offered to buy the plants and have them run by the workforce. This was an effort that the corporation didn’t want. Actually it’s kind of interesting—it would have been more profitable for them, but I think a class interest militated against it. This happens frequently. A multinational frequently will refuse an offer by the workers to buy out something they want to close and prefer to take the loss of just destroying it to having the precedent of worker-owned enterprises. That’s what is looks like to me; I can’t prove it. Corporations are totalitarian institutions—we don’t get access to their internal decisions—but that’s what it looks like.

Anyway, the company refused, and it went to the courts. I think it went all the way to the Supreme Court. Staughton Lynd argued the case for the community and the steelworkers; they lost, but they could have won, with enough popular support. Anyhow, after they lost, the steel [factories] were abandoned, but they didn’t give up. Working people started developing small enterprises—worker-owned—which they tried to integrate into the community, and it’s now proliferated significantly. Around Cleveland, northern Ohio, there’s quite a network of worker-owned enterprises—not worker-managed. There’s a gap. But worker-owned enterprises which can become worker-managed. It’s expanding. Right now there’s an effort by the US steelworkers union to make some sort of a deal with Mondragón, the huge Basque conglomerate which is again worker-owned, with management selected by workers, but not worker-managed. And that’s got some prospects, too.

So what is direct action? Well all of these things are direct action; they’re direct action geared to the existing circumstances. Direct action has to be based on an analysis of what the existing circumstances are, and how an action can modify them positively. There’s no general formula; you can’t say direct action is good or bad. Sometimes it can harmful, sometimes it can beneficial; sometimes it can be revolutionary, sometimes it can be reformist. You simply ask yourself what can be achieved now. So these developments in, say, northern Ohio really are reformist—they’re even supported by Republican governors and by some sectors of business, because it sort of fits their right-wing, libertarian conceptions. Fine, let’s pursue that—nothing wrong with it. But you just can’t give general formulas for tactical choices. They depend on an exact, close analysis of the situation.

The Sparticists are a good case in point. Rosa Luxemburg went along with the Spartacist uprising, though she was opposed to it. She was opposed to it not in principle but because she realized it was going to fail, was going to be crushed. But out of solidarity she went along with it, and she was killed.

Returning to the question of natural law, I would like to ask whether you think natural right applies to non-human animals? In an interview from 2010, you acknowledged that there exists a “moral case” for vegetarianism, but at a recent talk at University College London you claimed that animals cannot have the same rights as humans because, lacking reason, they cannot be considered to have responsibilities. Can you clarify what you mean by this? As you likely know, many anarchists and anti-authoritarians today consider vegetarianism and veganism essential to the project of reducing humanity’s domination over nature.

That makes sense, but that’s separate from the question of whether animals have the same rights as humans. It’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilities; we can’t overlook that. If I have a dog, the dog has no responsibilities. Maybe I’d like it to bark when a criminal comes, but I can’t say the dog’s guilty if it didn’t do it. So it’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilies. Responsibilities are related to rights. This does not say you should murder animals, but it is a recognition of reality. In fact, vegetarianism or veganism I think have a moral basis. But so do lots of other things. Like when you got here, you drove or took public transportation, meaning you used energy—that harms the environment. You made a choice: your choice was to harm the environment in order to come here so we could have this discussion. We’re making choices like that every moment of the day. Well, one of the choices has to do with people in countries where there is meat but not much else: should they eat it? That’s another choice. We have our own choices. We are always—we can’t overlook the fact that we are constantly making choices which have negative effects, and this is one of them. There is an opportunity cost to vegetarianism.

Personally, I’m not a vegetarian—I almost never eat meat. The reason is I just don’t have time for it; I don’t have the time to think about it, I don’t want to think about it. I just pick up whatever saves me time, which usually is not meat, but I don’t purposely check to see if there’s a piece of chicken in the salad. Okay, that’s a choice. I don’t like—I don’t think we should have factory farming, the free range business is mostly a joke—I understand that very well. With regard to rights and responsibilities, they do relate, and I don’t think we can overlook that. You can say the same about an infant: an infant doesn’t have responsibilities. But the reason we grant the infant rights is because of speciesism, and you can’t overlook that, either.

In theoretical terms, I sense a great affinity between the analysis you and Edward S. Herman present in Manufacturing Consent and the dissident cultural research engaged in by Western Marxists during the twentieth century. You are famously given to quoting Antonio Gramsci’s saying, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I would like to ask whether you believe the U.S. populace to be too conservative, distracted, and enthralled by the system to move radically against it? Do you think the public will become the “second superpower” you hope for in Hegemony or Survival?

I’m not sure the public is that conservative, frankly. There’s some interesting indications to the contrary. So for example in 1976, the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, there were polls taken in which people were asked what they thought was in the Constitution. Nobody has a clue what’s in the Constitution. But the answers basically were, do you think this is an obvious truth, and if it is—it’s probably in the Constitution. One of the questions was “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” and the majority of the population thought that was in the Constitution, because it’s obviously true. In the late 1980s, there were polls taken asking people, “do you think that a right to health care is in the Constitution?” A very large proportion, I think maybe a majority of the population, thought it was in the Constitution. If you take a look at polls generally, you find that even among sectors of the population that are considered very right-wing—you do studies of people who say, “get the government off my back, I don’t want the government”—they turn out to be social democrats. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, mothers with dependent children—but not welfare, because welfare was demonized by racists, Reagan and others. And this runs across the board, even on international affairs. So a majority of the population thinks that the US ought to give up the veto at the Security Council, and follow what the general world population believes is right. You take a look at taxes, and it’s striking. There’ve been polls on taxes for about forty years. Overwhelmingly, the population thinks the rich should be taxed more—they’re undertaxed. The policy goes in the opposite direction. Polls are not definitive: you have to inquire into why people are answering the way they do; there could be a lot of reasons. But they’re not insignificant, either.

My own feeling is that people like Adam Smith were basically right, that there is a natural sympathy for others. I think the rich and powerful understand that. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s such massive effort to destroy the institutions in the society that are based on solidarity. So for example why is the right wing—and in fact not just the right wing, because it goes over to Obama—so intent on undermining Social Security? It costs nothing, essentially; it’s a very efficient program; people survive on it; it works very well; there’s no economic problems that couldn’t be tinkered with—it’s really marginal. But there’s a major effort to destroy it. Why? It’s based on solidarity. It’s based on concern for others. There’s a major attack on the public schools—deep underfunding, vouchers, all kinds of things. Foundations are trying to undermine them. Why? Public schools are a major contribution to modern society. They’re one of the real contributions of American society—mass public education. Why destroy them? Well, they’re based on solidarity. If you take the ideology that we’re supposed to believe in, why should I pay taxes for the schools in my neighborhood? I don’t have kids in school, I don’t have grandchildren in school, and I never will. Why should I pay taxes? Well, you pay taxes so that the kid across the street will go to school, because you care about other people. But that has to be driven out of people’s heads. It’s a little like markets and consumption. Markets are favored by the economics profession, by the rich, and so on, up to a point—they really don’t believe in them, they want the powerful State to come in and save them if they’re in trouble. But ideologically they’re preferred, because they restrict human action to individual self-gratification—not mutual support, not protection of the commons.

Actually the commons are an interesting case. We’re coming up to the eight hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta had two parts. One part was the Charter of Liberties—the central part was presumption of innocence. That’s out the window. By now, being “guilty” means Obama wants to kill you tomorrow; that’s the definition of guilty. “Innocent” means he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. But the other part of the Magna Carta was the Charter of the Forests—that’s the part that you find in popular myth, like the Robin Hood myths. Robin Hood was protecting the commons from the predators. That’s a big part of our history—English history. The commons were cultivated by the general population. The commons were the forests, the fields, the source of fuel, food, welfare—you know, widows would pick things from the forest to survive. And it was nurtured—it was nurtured by the public, it was cared for—they weren’t let to grow into jungles. They were carefully cared for. The Charter of the Forests was an effort not by the population but by the barons to protect the commons from the king, but the population wanted to protect the commons for themselves.

Then you move into the capitalist period, beginning with the enclosure movements which drove people off the land and so on, and you have a destruction of the commons. Today, in the capitalist ethic, there’s a concept called the “tragedy of the commons” which you study in economics, which teaches you that if you don’t have private ownership of the commons, it’s going to be destroyed. Well, based on capitalist morality, that’s true. If I don’t own it, what should I do to try to preserve it? But in ordinary human life, that’s just totally false. Privatization is the tragedy of the commons. We can see that in fact: when you privatize the commons, it gets destroyed for private profit. If the commons are kept under common control, they are cultivated and nurtured, because people care about each other, and they care about the future. When you ask, is the population conservative? I doubt it. I think these are deeply rooted sentiments and understandings which show up all the time: they showed up in labor struggles against the industrial system which was dehumanizing people, in peasant societies they show up, in indigenous societies today struggling against, say, gold mines—maybe it’ll give them more material wealth, but it’ll destroy their lives. You find this everywhere. And in the great thinkers of the past, you know, in the people we aren’t supposed to admire, like Adam Smith, it’s a central doctrine.

Actually it’s kind of interesting, if you look at Smith—everybody knows the phrase “invisible hand,” but practically nobody looks at how he used the phrase. He rarely used it, a couple of times. One of the uses is when he discusses what would happen—it’s an agrarian society he’s talking about—what would happen if some landlord controlled almost all the land? What would happen? He says, well, out of his natural sympathy and concern for other people, he would distribute the wealth, so, as if by an invisible hand, society would end up being egalitarian. That’s the invisible hand. The other major usage of it actually is in an argument against—against—what we call neo-liberal globalization. He considers England and asks what would happen if in England the merchants and manufacturers decided to invest abroad and import from abroad. He says, they would gain, and England would suffer. However, they have a kind of natural tendency to want to function in their own society—a kind of a ‘home bias,’ it’s sometimes called, kind of like an affinity to their own societies. So as if by an invisible hand, England will be saved from the ravages of what we call neo-liberal globalization. That’s not what you’re taught. But they’re coming from a different era. That’s the precapitalist era, and conceptions were quite different before capitalist morality distorted them.

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[1] Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2013), 83.

[2] Herbert Marcuse, “Ethics and Revolution,” in Ethics and Society: Original Essays on Contemporary Moral Problems, ed. Richard T. De George (New York: Anchor Books,1964), 140-1.

Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism: In Conversation with Noam Chomsky (video)

March 31, 2014

This is a video of my interview with Noam Chomsky that took place at his office at MIT on Friday, 28 March 2014.  We discussed the place of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism vis-à-vis the profound and ever-worsening environmental and climatic crises today.  Specifically, we conversed about Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment, participatory economics (Parecon), indigenous struggle, the commons, direct action, really existing capitalist democracy (RECD), vegetarianism and veganism, conservatism, democracy, and reform vs. revolution.

A transcript of our conversation is forthcoming.

Herbert Marcuse and Absolute Struggle in 2013

December 16, 2013

marcuse

First published on Counterpunch16 December 2013

One can delineate the domain of philosophy however one likes, but in its search for truth, philosophy is always concerned with human existence. Authentic philosophizing refuses to remain at the stage of knowledge […]. Care for human existence and its truth makes philosophy a ‘practical science’ in the deepest sense, and it also leads philosophy—and this is the crucial point—into the concrete distress of human existence.” 

Herbert Marcuse, “On Concrete Philosophy” (1929)

From Thursday 7 to Saturday 9 November 2013, the fifth biannual conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society took place at the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington. With the theme this year being “Emancipation, New Sensibility, and the Challenge of a New Era: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy,” the conference opened space for 25 panels, three plenaries, and two keynote addresses dedicated to examining the thought of Marcuse’s Hegelian-Marxist critical theory and the myriad ways by which it might be applied to the difficulties of the present. The conference itself was co-sponsored by several UK departments, including philosophy, sociology, political science, international studies, and others, and UK philosophy professor Arnold Farr served as the conference’s host and master of ceremonies of sorts. As it was would have been difficult to attend all—let alone one-third—of the panels on offer at the conference over the course of its three days, this report-back will concentrate only on those I saw and found most stimulating. In the very first panel of the conference early on Thursday morning—some of which I missed, including Professor Robespierre de Oliviera’s intervention which had to do with the 2013 revolts in Brazil—Prof. Lauren Langman spoke to the “Interesting Times” in which we live. Reflecting on Marcuse’s 1963 lecture on the “Obsolescence of Freudian Man [Humanity]” 50 years later, he made the claim that the vast majority of people in the U.S. should now be considered as no longer having a Freudian character—that is to say, one whose ego and superego are formed through the primary conflict with the father-figure—but he stressed that Freudian analyses still retain importance in U.S. society, particularly as means of analyzing the Tea Party and emerging neo-fascist movements. Those individuals who make up these movements are conformists who resist change; as they are worried about losing their privileges, Langman claimed them to be beset by the “anal character” postulated by Freud. The professor contrasted these reactionary contemporary developments with the “Great Refusal” theorized by Marcuse a half-century ago, by which the human organism in its entirety is to rebel against organized destruction and alienation, in addition to the “SexPol” of fellow German social critic Wilhelm Reich, whereby the prospect of social liberation was to be improved by approaches which encouraged open and pleasurable sexual expression among adolescents. It should be noted here, as Langman did, that for such unorthodox views Reich was expelled from both the German Communist Party and the International Psychoanalytical Association—just as Marcuse was fired from Brandeis University in 1965 for his radical refusal to separate philosophy from its practical, revolutionary implications: the radical struggle (Radikalkampf) against domination. Returning to his analysis of the prevailing situation, Langman was happy to cite the December 2011 Pew Research Center polls indicating that about 50% of U.S. youth consider socialism preferable over capitalism. Acknowledging the very real risk of “planetary catastrophe” in this century because of the entrenched dominance of the capitalist mode of production, Langman closed his intervention by noting that the twenty-first century would like the twentieth face the choice of a liberatory socialism or a Mad Max sort of barbarism. After Langman’s talk came Andrés Ortiz Lemos’s intervention on “The Fata Morgana of Technology” within the “Citizen Revolution in Ecuador.” Presenting his paper on the subject, Ortiz Lemos sought to apply Marcuse’s critical analysis of instrumental rationality—or what Marcuse at times also terms technical rationality—to President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador. The process by which utilization of capitalist scientific methods leads inevitably to the reification of consciousness should not be considered as limited only to “advanced industrial” settings, argued Ortiz Lemos, for, in his argument, Correa has clearly employed science and technology as a means of silencing critics of his “Citizen Revolution.” As a prime example of this dynamic, Ortiz Lemos discussed Correa’s grandiose plan to build Yachay, or the “City of Knowledge” (Ciudad del Conocimiento) as a South American equivalent of sorts to Silicon Valley. The idea of Yachay, which has received the blessing of such scientific celebrities as Stephen Hawking, is to supplement Ecuador’s export of primary resources through extractivism with an ever-increasing export of advanced techno-knowledge. Naturally, as Ortiz Lemos discussed, Yachay is to be a highly exclusive institution, not one accessible to ordinary Ecuadoreans. Indeed, the speaker likened Correa’s plan for Yachay to Argentinian President Juan Perón’s fantastical scheme to green-light a plan hatched in 1950 by ex-Nazi scientists by which they would attempt to develop fusion power at a remote site in the Andes—as with Correa and Yachay, Perón employed the “technical rationality” represented by such a work toward the end of demobilizing his opponents. In closing, Ortiz Lemos contrasted the Correa government’s stipulated commitment to the indigenous concept of sumak kawsay, or “good-living,” given Correa’s increasingly techno-bureaucratic politics, and he noted in hopeful terms the strength of indigenous social movements in the country. Following the initial panel discussion on Marcuse and recent social movements came the panel “Ecology, Biopolitics, and Aesthetics,” which began with Brazilian doctoral student Silvio Ricardo Gomes Carneiro speaking to the aesthetic specters found in Marcuse’s work, from his very first scholarly work on The German Artist-Novel (1922), which examined the conflicts between the alienated artist and the surrounding capitalist society, to Eros and Civilization (1955), Marcuse’s famous synthesis of Marx and Freud, and beyond. For Gomes Carneiro, art in Marcuse’s conception constitutes a sort of guerrilla warfare against one-dimensional society and the administered life; at its best, aesthetics can help break the reification of consciousness. Professor Imaculada Kangussu followed by reflecting on Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969) with her talk on “The Aesthetic Ethos of Real Life.” Beginning dialectically by citing Augustine of Hippo’s saying that “Where the danger grows is also found what can save us,” Kangussu brought up Marcuse’s observation that radical political alternatives which are dismissed as “utopian” are considered so only because they are blocked from being realized by established power relations. According to Marcuse (and Kangussu), the struggle to bring to life the “utopian” possibilities of the present is one that takes place even and especially at the level of the individual organism, such that the individual’s progression beyond conformity to and complicity with the brutality and aggressiveness required under relations of domination serves as a forerunner prefiguring the overturning of such domination. In Marcuse’s view, as he famously develops it in the Essay on Liberation, morality is an inherent “’disposition’ of the organism,” one which works to counteract the grip of death (Thanatos) on the individual and societal levels.1 A sensitization to aesthetics can aid the organism to overcome established domination, as Kangussu argued (following Marcuse), for art is indelibly linked with the human imagination, which turns its focus onto “things that are not and things that should be.” In aiding in the development of a new human sensibility, aesthetics can assist emancipatory movements to realize liberation. Kangussu quotes Marcuse:

“This would be the sensibility of men and women who do not have to be ashamed of themselves anymore because they have overcome their sense of guilt: they have learned not to identify with the false fathers who have built and tolerated and and forgotten the Auschwitzs and Vietnams of history, the torture chambers of all the secular and ecclesiastical inquisitions and interrogations, the ghettos and the monumental temples of corporations, and who have worshiped the higher culture of this reality. If and when men and women act and think free from this identification, they will have broken the chain which linked the fathers and sons from generation to generation. They will not have redeemed the crimes against humanity, but they will have become free to stop them and to prevent their recommencement.”2

Transitioning to questions of ecology, Brandon Huson presented on agroecology as a form of “Food Production that Liberates.” He noted agroecological practices to be superior to dominant chemical-industrial ones, given their potential to be freed from market strictures and based on local knowledges. Additionally, he argued that observing agroecology could help considerably to reconstitute soils depleted by previous agricultural practices and pragmatically to improve crisis resilience for local communities in light of negating future eventualities such as oil-price shocks. I then presented my paper on “Ecology and Empire in Marx, Adorno, and Marcuse,” which I introduced by noting the “continued dire relevance of both such issues in our own day” and the “critical-dialectical perspectives” provided by these three theorists, which I believe “hold great promise in positive and practical terms with regard to the ongoing struggle to overturn capitalism and so resolve the threats to oppressed humanity and non-human nature taken together.” I began by considering Karl Marx’s views on imperialism, which are to a degree marred by the deterministic view that all non-capitalist societies of the world would have first to be subjected to the torturous path of capitalist industrialization as a precondition of later attaining communism—though he famously broke with this view late in life, particularly after studying ethnology and anthropology in depth. Marx ultimately came to conclude that the agricultural collectivism evinced for example in the Russian mir system presented an alternative that could allow for a direct path to communism, if those participating within the mir would be helped along by revolutionary proletarians in the West. Marx definitely presented some problematic views on the British Raj in India during his 1853-1858 journalistic work with the New York Tribune—views that would lead Edward W. Said to denounce him in Orientalism—yet he also precociously called for Indian independence from Britain long before any Indian nationalist had done so, and he certainly welcomed the 1857-1858 Sepoy Mutiny against the Raj. In Capital volume 1, moreover, Marx defines his theory of primitive accumulation in the following anti-imperialist fashion:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America; the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population; the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies; the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”3

Though greatly influenced by Marx, Theodor W. Adorno, on the other hand, did not share Marx’s impassioned humanism with regard to non-European peoples: it would seem that his social critique revolved principally around contemplation of the Shoah, such that the genocidal social exclusion imposed by fascism became primary within his thought, to the detriment of other important considerations. Adorno was unfortunately an unreflective Zionist, and he and his colleague Max Horkheimer called Gamel Abdel Nasser a “fascist chieftain” in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis.4 However, more than a decade later, Adorno rightly spoke of the “horror of the napalm bombs” dropped by the U.S. military in Vietnam, and he clearly locates the U.S. war against that country as being a crime which belongs within the fascist continuum responsible for Auschwitz. Though his anti-militarist position is far more legitimate than that of Horkheimer, who rather bizarrely supported the U.S. war effort, Adorno did not engage in any sort of concrete activism to resist the war drive during his last years of life in Germany, unlike Marcuse, who received several death-threats from right-wing groups in the U.S. due precisely to his opposition to the war and his agitating for radical social change more broadly. Marcuse himself considered national-liberation struggles as the most revolutionary developments on offer in the 1960s and 1970s, and he welcomed the coming of the Cuban and Chinese Revolutions. Marcuse also visited historical Palestine in 1971, and rather than parrot Zionist narratives at this time, his perspective as communicated in his Jerusalem Post article “Israel is Strong Enough to Concede” clearly acknowledges the vast injustices done to the native Palestinian population in the founding and maintenance of the Jewish State, and though he endorses Israel’s right to exist, he calls for Palestinian self-determination and just settlement of the refugees; he sees these “interim solutions” as stopgap measures which might lead one day to a Middle Eastern “socialist federation” in which Arabs and Jews would coexist as “equal partners.”5 During the visit he and his wife Inge made to Nablus in 1971, indeed, Marcuse expressed highly unorthodox views for a supporter of Israel, noting that, though he “had always felt sympathy toward Jews suffering persecution,” he “could find no sympathy for Jews who persecute others.”6 In terms of ecology, I sought to express my opposition to recent interpretations of Marx’s thought which have stressed his supposed contributions as an ecologist, as most notably advanced in the writings of John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology, The Ecological Revolution, and The Ecological Rift, among other titles. I am very far from convinced that contemplation of Marx’s passing references to the depletion of soils resulting from the introduction of capitalist agricultural practices should lead us to embrace him as a trailblazing environmentalist. Instead, in my view, Marx was far more concerned with communist humanism than ecology; he was largely a Promethean who held a relatively positivist—uncritical—view of industrialism, and I am sympathetic to Adorno’s declaration that Marx wanted to “turn the whole world into a giant workhouse.”7 It is important not to confuse Marx’s industrialism with the utopian romanticism of Charles Fourier or Friedrich Schiller. Adorno himself, on the other hand, expressed much concern for the destructive effects capitalism and industry have had on non-human nature, and he would often champion animal rights and vegetarianism. Indeed, the question of the domination of nature is central to the entirety of his social philosophy, from Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Aesthetic Theory (published posthumously in 1970). In the latter work, Adorno observes that experience of natural beauty “recollects a world without domination,” and he argues that, “under transformed relations of production,” technology could be employed to “assist nature” by reversing its destruction and even “on this sad earth [to] help it to attain what perhaps it wants.”8 Similarly, in his 1962 lecture “Progress,” Adorno presents a revolutionary definition of this concept, whereby it is to be attained only once humanity experiences an “awakening” which renders it capable of “becom[ing] aware of its own indigenousness to nature” and so “brin[ging] to a halt the domination it exacts over nature.”9 Lastly in this sense, environmentalism and concern for nature are rather evident in much of Marcuse’s mature works—his early, uncritical lapse on the nature-domineering philosophy of René Descartes in “The Concept of Essence” (1936) notwithstanding. In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse integrates Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory with the mythological figure of Orpheus to suggest that, in a future emancipated society, nature and the non-human should be taken not as objects of exploitation and manipulation but rather as intrinsically valuable, and in both One-Dimensional Man (1964) and Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Marcuse argues for the importance of vastly reducing the suffering humanity imposes on non-human animals, though he stops short of endorsing vegetarianism in the latter work. Identifying nature as an “ally” in the struggle against capitalism in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse takes issue with the Marxian concept of a “human appropriation of nature”: though this is clearly preferable to capitalism’s utter destruction of the biosphere, Marcuse criticizes Marx for reflecting a “hubris of domination” in considering nature as an object to be controlled, and he reiterates his Kantian alternative of a nonexploitative relationship with nature in this sense.10 Following this panel, the next major event at the conference was Professor Richard Wolin’s keynote address on “Marcuse and the New Left: Emancipatory Violence as a Problem of Political Philosophy.” Wolin, author of Heidegger’s Children and co-editor of a collection of Marcuse’s writings from his period of study with Martin Heidegger, Heideggerian Marxism, used his comments to discuss a brief period in the 1960’s when Marcuse is said to have flirted with the concepts of revolutionary violence and of a transitional dictatorship away from capitalism (1964-1968). He opened by arguing that Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, which famously theorizes the Marcusean pessimism which claimed the working classes of the advanced-industrial West to have been hopelessly integrated into the capitalist system, may well have over-exaggerated the claim that the established system enjoyed control over its subjects. Wolin noted that the negating fate of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 left Marcuse with a permanent distrust of liberalism, given that it was the reformist Social Democrats who ordered the insurgent proletarian and soldier movements at the end of World War I to be smashed; Wolin said that this experience indelibly left a gap in thought between Marcuse and the New Left in the U.S., even if Marcuse came to be known as the “guru” or even “father” of the New Left (terms he reportedly disliked); Wolin noted that the U.S. New Left was not so intransigently opposed to liberalist reformism. Marcuse’s view, then, that U.S. social institutions were politically unserviceable led him to hold out the need for an extra-systemic intervention; like Frantz Fanon, Marcuse saw this development—the veritable embodiment of the Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic—in the anti-colonial insurrections of the 1950’s and 1960’s: principally in Castro and Che as well as the Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. war. Meanwhile in Germany, student radical Rudi Dutschke applied Marcuse’s theories by holding the attainment of revolutionary progress to be a matter of will, given that the material conditions were already ripe for the jettisoning of capitalism; the idea, which influenced groups like the Weather Undeground and the Red Army Faaction (the Baader-Meinhof group), was that the national-liberation struggles must have parallel groupings in the metropole. It is doubtful that those attracted to Dutschke’s advocacy of direct action or “actionism” paid much heed in this sense to Jürgen Habermas’s much-reviled denunciation of a tendency he saw as leading toward “Left fascism” at this time. Within this tumultuous confluence of events and thought, argued Wolin, Marcuse came closer and closer to endorsing authoritarian methods of “forcing the people to be free”: from the lamentation over the pervasiveness of false consciousness and the identification of “totalitarian democracies” in the West as expressed in One-Dimensional Man, it was not so great of a leap to advocate revolutionary dictatorship as a temporary corrective of sorts. According to Wolin, Marcuse must have felt the risks of such a dictatorship to be less than those associated with liberal or Stalinist regimes; the speaker even cited Marcuse’s declaration in Eros and Civilization that, “From Plato to Rousseau, the only honest answer is the idea of an educational dictatorship, exercised by those who are supposed to have acquired knowledge of the real Good.” Curiously, though, Wolin failed to include Marcuse’s next sentence in his comments refuting the idea: “The answer has since become obsolete: knowledge of the available means for creating a humane existence for all is no longer confined to a privileged elite.”11 Wolin instead pressed on attempting to trace the influence of fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt on Marcuse’s thought during this period, as supposedly seen for example in Marcuse’s 1967 defense of the minoritarian insurrectional tactics of Gracchus Babeuf, who attempted to organize a “conspiracy” to forcibly overthrow the reactionary Directory in the final stages of the French Revolution (1796). Marcuse sides with Babeuf’s romantic project due to the belief the two share in the objective superiority of natural law over that of established law, coupled with their common view that “the people” can be ideologically misled, adopting conservativism, as many of the weary denizens of France arguably had by 1795. Wolin claims such considerations to form the basis of Marcuse’s justification of a revolutionary dictatorship—though, again, he failed here to mention the 1968 postscript to Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), where the critical theorist clearly states that the “alternative to the established semi-democratic process is not a dictatorship or elite, no matter how intellectual and intelligent, but the struggle for a real democracy.” It would seem, then, that Wolin proved disingenuous in at least some of his claims in this address, perhaps for controversy’s sake. He concluded by contrasting Marcuse’s supposed position on dictatorship in this period with the thought of Hannah Arendt, who theorizes the concept of power as people’s collective action in concert and considers violence the very antithesis of power—it is employed by states, for example, only when their control over their populations falters. Wolin also noted the “poor endings” of various radical currents within national-liberation or post-colonial movements, including the Naxalites, the Tamil Tigers, and Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), and he favorably cited Gene Sharp’s work on active nonviolence as an alternative. Wolin made no mention of Sharp’s established ties with the CIA and the Pentagon.12Apropos, during the discussion period, Professor Harold Marcuse (Herbert’s grandson) brought up the advocacy of violent tactics made late in life by Günther Anders (1987), who was Arendt’s husband for a time and himself marginally associated with the Frankfurt School; Anders felt popular, revolutionary violence to have been a necessity amidst the early growth of the Nazi movement within Weimar Germany, and he similarly held it to be legitimate as a means of attempting to resolve the looming threat of nuclear annihilation, given the marked irresponsibility of the world’s states on this matter. One wonders what Anders would have to say about catastrophic climate change. This stimulus from Prof. Marcuse led Wolin lucidly to mention the “honorable tradition of tyrannicide”, a tradition that can be seen to have been exercised for example in Russia against Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and Prime Minister Pëtr Stolypin in 1911. The final event for the first day of the conference—its first plenary—involved the playing of a fascinating audio recording of an interview between Professors Jeremy and Richard Popkin regarding the latter’s recollections of Marcuse during the time he taught in the philosophy department at UC San Diego (1965-1976, with emeritus status from 1976 until his death in 1979). The elder Popkin, who founded UCSD’s Philosophy Department in 1963, first encountered Marcuse during a symposium he and his colleagues hosted in 1964 regarding the contemporary relevance of Marx’s thought. This was a time which coincided with the publication of One-Dimensional Man and the heightening tensions between the mature radical intellectual and the administration overseeing him at Brandeis, which ultimately obliged Marcuse to “retire” following his open and public welcoming of the Cuban Revolution and his organizing of a class on campus to analyze the “Welfare-Warfare State.” At Popkin’s invitation after the 1964 Marx symposium—which itself generated a fair amount of controversy among the UC regents—Marcuse left Massachusetts to join the philosophy faculty at UCSD, settling in the rather unlikely locale of La Jolla, California, the grossly affluent neighborhood which served then (and still?) as a retirement destination for many ex-military officers, in addition to counting with the strong presence of the American Legion and plenty of other reactionary groups and individuals. As an illustration of the depth of the town’s conservatism, Popkin explained that over four-fifths of La Jolla’s residents voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Accompanying Marcuse in his move from the Northeast U.S. were several of his Brandeis graduate students, including Angela Y. Davis, who would receive her M.A. at UCSD in 1969, a year before Jonathan Jackson would take over a Marin County courtroom to demand the release of his imprisoned brother George Jackson, a confrontation that would lead to police killing him and imprisoning Davis for having bought the weapons Jackson used in the operation. During her studies in San Diego, though, Davis would assist with efforts to have a branch of the school renamed for anti-imperialist martyrs Patrice Lumumba and Emiliano Zapata. At UCSD, Marcuse taught both introductory and advanced philosophy courses, including the Social Philosophy course of 1967-1968 which Jeremy Popkin took as a student; according to the elder Popkin, students definitely liked the emigre German philosopher, and his classes were always well-attended. Rather inevitably, though, relations with local right-wing groups soon came to a head, with conservatives becoming initially alarmed upon learning of Prof. Marcuse’s brief departure to attend an international conference on Hegel in Czechoslovakia—that is, behind the Iron Curtain. At first, the American Legion pressured the UC administration to let Marcuse go, and when this tactic failed, the group boldly offered to buy Marcuse’s contract for $20,000. More grimly, in summer 1968 came the “Night of the Long Guns,” when, amidst a context beset by an increasing number of death-threats directed at Marcuse (including one from the KKK), the telephone line to the Marcuse household was mysteriously cut. This led to the mounting of a rapid response among Marcuse’s supporters and friends in La Jolla, with the somewhat amusing result that intrepid philosophy students armed themselves with shotguns and formed a protection detail to stay up through the night and watch over Herbert and Inge’s home. Fortunately, as Popkin recalls, the whole scare was a false alarm, and he speculated that the problem of the telephone line perhaps had to do with Inge’s failure to pay the utilities company on time. Besides his trip to the Hegel conference in Czechoslovakia, Marcuse traveled internationally quite a bit in his time at UCSD, visiting Germany to speak at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967 and observing the evénéments of May-June 1968 in Paris firsthand. Indeed, Jeremy Popkin recalls that, the very night Marcuse returned from revolutionary Paris, he gave students a two-hour presentation stressing the critical importance of the upsurge, yet urging them to recognize the great differences between French and U.S. societies at that time—such that their next move should not have been, for example, to storm LBJ’s White House! Popkin also shed light on Marcuse’s developing relationship with Israel, noting tensions on this question between him and Inge, who he claims to have been “very anti-Zionist” as well as effectively Maoist. One such controversy had to do with the Israeli ambassador’s personal request that Marcuse speak out publicly in favor of Jews facing repression in the Soviet Union, while another revolved around a call for notable public intellectuals to sign a statement declaring the Jewish State to desire peace in the Middle East, this less than a week before it attacked Egypt and so opened the Six Day War. Within this tumultuous national and international context, moreover, the newly elected governor of California, Ronald Reagan (1967-1975), was determined to remove Marcuse from the public eye. In no small part due to Reagan’s aggressive machinations, the UC at this time imposed the arbitrary rule that all professors older than 70 could not be promised contract renewals—with this being a threshold which Marcuse surpassed in 1969. Popkin observed that thinkers from Jean-Paul Sartre to Karl Popper wrote letters of recommendation in support of Marcuse’s bid to continue teaching in his last decade of life. Incidentally, these new regulations also affected another anti-war academic activist, the chemist Linus Pauling, who left UCSD for Stanford in 1969. Apparently, despite his well-known advocacy of social revolution, Marcuse insisted continuously during his time at UCSD that students not act in any way which might threaten the relative autonomy of the university, for he considered such to be their “safe space” in society. Both Popkins recall that Herbert was wont not to get overtly involved in political situations which might lead him to be arrested and so result in aggravated tensions with the Right and/or a jeopardization of his teaching position, but they did discuss one instance when Marcuse entered a UC space that had been occupied by protesting students, defended the occupation publicly, and offered to pay the trespassing fine the students had incurred for their action. The second day of the conference began with a plenary panel session on Crisis and Commonwealth: Marx, Marcuse, McClaren, a 2013 book edited by Marcuse scholar Charles Reitz which features original hitherto unpublished manuscripts by Marcuse together with interventions from various contemporary theorists who are, according to the book’s description, “deeply engaged with the foundational theories of Marcuse and Marx with regard to a future of freedom, equality, and justice.” Besides consideration of Marcuse and Marx, the title also includes a manifesto for radical educators written by the illustrious Peter McLaren. In his reflections on the volume, editor Reitz discussed the critical utopianism of Marcuse, as expressed well in the closing line on his dissertation on the German Artist-Novel: “We are in search of a new community.” Bringing Marcuse’s continued hopefulness to the present—in his essay “On Hedonism,” written in exile from Hitler, Marcuse writes of a “new, true community, against the established one”—Reitz held out the prospect for a rehumanized future that is within our grasp. Herbert’s son Peter then discussed a 1960s occupation of the institution where he currently teaches urban planning—Columbia University—taken by black revolutionaries together with more privileged radicals belonging to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Peter Marcuse explained that the former group sought practically to improve the material conditions of proletarian and oppressed communities in U.S. society, while SDS members wanted not “more” but rather something “other,” or different. Like his father, Marcuse suggested that both streams should be combined, so as to create alternative relationships among people. In terms of praxis, Marcuse for the present suggested an expansion of worker ownership as a means of securing better material conditions for workers and of developing relations of cooperation rather than competition generally within society, toward the end of giving rise to the commonwealth Reitz identifies in the title of his volume. Also on this panel, Professor Farr argued that there is currently no general commonwealth—no wealth held in common. Noting capitalism to be the crisis of history, Farr raised Kant’s argument against lying and recommended that theorists and activists reflect on the ways in which we lie to ourselves. During this morning, moreover, Prof. Farr playfully paraphrased the title of a 1968 panel discussion Marcuse participated in, saying that, while democracy doesn’t have a present, it could perhaps have a future. Besides a couple of presentations by Douglas Kellner and Peter-Erwin Jansen on recent publications of works researching Marcuse as well as on the forthcoming sixth volume of his collected Papers—attractively entitled Marxism, Revolution and Utopia—the rest of the following morning consisted of Prof. Andy Lamas discussing the concept of the “long march through the institutions” raised by Rudi Dutschke as an alternative to the “revolutionary terror” of the RAF. Stating his basic premise, Lamas argued that critical theory must be “anti-capitalist, democratic, participatory, and liberatory”; in his comments, he advanced the notion that the “long march” was a reformulation of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, part of the war of position against the capitalist class. Citing Angela Davis’s elucidation of Marcuse’s avowed support for the “long march” later in life, as in Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Lamas spoke to Marcuse’s late views on social change, whereby groups might take the “mining” or “undermining” approach by which to work against established institutions from the inside. With a nod to Peter Marcuse’s intervention, Lamas also pointed to the recent rise of interest in consumer and worker cooperatives as well as the commons generally understood as an encouraging sign in this sense. During the subsequent discussion period, militant writer George Katsiaficas raised the point that Dutschke’s call for integrating into given institutions was a controversial point among leftists, then as now—especially for anarchists. Another participant pointed out that the question might not be one of working through established institutions but rather of building counter-institutions, and he mentioned the origins of the term of the “long march”: that is, the Long March taken by Mao and the Communists as a tactical retreat from the Guomindang so as to regroup and ultimately defeat Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces. Harold Marcuse ironically observed that right-wing social critics in the U.S. feel Marcuse’s “long march” has in fact been successful, given their delusions regarding the reportedly progressive nature of much of academia, the mass media, and Hollywood. During the afternoon of the conference’s second day, I attended a panel on “Marcuse, Marx, and Marxisms,” which began with the intervention of Fred Mecklenburg, who spoke to the influence of Hegel on Marx’s thought. Mecklenburg noted the critic Hegel as holding freedom to be the driving force of history, and the Absolute the struggle of humans to realize such freedom. While Marx would integrate such revolutionary notions into his conception of communism, he also famously criticized Hegel’s mature acquiescence to the bourgeois society of post-Napoleonic Europe; Marx the pupil does not accept the world dominated by commodity, indelibly linked with slavery and genocide. Mecklenburg observed that Marx was aware of and concerned with the course of the U.S. Civil War in his lifetime, though he seemed to be unfamiliar with the Lakota people’s resistance to the expanding U.S. settler-colonial state. Focusing his concluding comments on the present situation, the speaker claimed the specter of catastrophic colimate change to illuminate the continued relevance of “Absolute struggle.” Next, David Peña-Guzman addressed the “Marxism-Heideggerianism Tension” by noting Marcuse to have considered Martin Heidegger’s 1927 magnum opus Being and Time as having the philosophical potential of displacing hegemonic positivism within a historical context in which the proletariat had yet to “fulfill its historical role”; Marcuse felt Heidegger’s stress on authenticity could be used as a supplement to the Marxist notion of class consciousness. Of course, when Heidegger publicly welcomed the coming of the Nazi regime in 1933, he forever forsook the possibility of remaining a great philosopher, and he expressly failed to clarify his relationship with National Socialism after its military defeat 12 years later, as Peña-Guzman discussed. In the speaker’s opinion, there are no clear politics or ethics to be discerned in Being and Time—a position similar to that of Marcuse, who in a 1977 interview re-evaluated his youthful admiration of the work, noting it to advance a “highly repressive” and “highly oppressive” view of human life, one that is “joyless” and “overshadowed by death and anxiety.”13 Karla Encalada Falconi followed with an intervention on Marx and Lacan on the “Comparison of the Impossible,” but I did not follow this well enough to be able to summarize her argument, other than to note her observation that Lacan considers separation a form of liberation, while for the young Marx separation is fundamental to his development of the concept of alienation. Lastly on this panel, Russell Rockwell, co-editor of the recently published Dunayevskaya-Marcuse-Fromm Correspondence, 1954-1978(2013), presented on the trajectories and intersections of the Marxisms advanced by Marcuse and critical psychoanalyst Erich Fromm respectively. Against established trends which would largely suppress consideration of Fromm’s significant contributions to the nascent Institute for Social Research, Rockwell explained how Fromm felt psychoanalysis could productively serve as a complement to Marxian economism, and he mentioned Fromm’s 1929 lecture to the Institute of Psychoanalysis which cited Marx favorably. He also brought up Fromm’s 1929 psychological study of workers in Weimar Germany, which was rejected for publication with the Institute for Social Research for practical political considerations—it held that some three-quarters of the German working population would not resist Hitler if he seized power, while only an estimated 15 percent had personality structures which Fromm felt would lead them to actively resist him. Indeed, the work did not see the light of day for over five decades. Rockwell stressed that both Fromm and Marcuse shared an interest in the humanism of the young Marx, unlike most of the rest of the theorists associated with the Frankfurt School. Lastly on the conference’s second day, Professor Cynthia Willett presented a keynote address on “Interspecies Ethics: Cosmopolitanism Across Species.” Reading from her forthcoming book of the same name, Willett sought to extend concern for the outcast from humans to non-human animals and to highlight some of the various ways animals resist the imposition of domination from their human exploiters—as in laughter, for example, which she claimed to be exhibited by many animals, including the macaw. Mentioning Franz de Waal’s (oppressive) observation of primates in confinement at Emory University, Willett dedicated part of her address to consideration of the bonobo, the “hippie” or “Marcusean” ape, which in its genetic closeness to humanity suggests the possibility for humans to behave in ways other than those demanded by capital. Speculatively, Willett assigned a hitherto unrecognized importance to the “gut brain” of humans—the enteric nervous system—which, as Donna Haraway argues, may produce indigestion in response to indulging in practices it considers disgusting, such as eating animal flesh or performing experimental testing on animals. (I will say here that her claim here was highly inauthentic in Marcusean and Heideggerian terms, given that she admitted to eating a beef hamburger before her address.) Willett argued for the criticality of disgust as a means of repudiating some of the ethically problematic practices imposed onto animals within late capitalism, such as the intensive factory farming. She also raised the case of a caged bonobo clearly expressing interspecies empathy, as seen in the gentle care it expressed for a bird that had fallen into its zoo habitat: the bonobo ultimately climbed to the top of the highest tree in the habitat and from there released the bird back into its own environment, beyond the confines of captivity. In closing, I will summarize the only panel I attended on the third and last day of the conference which I feel to be worth mentioning: one examining the Eros effect, as theorized by Marcuse’s student George Katsiaficas. First, Jason del Gandio defined the Eros effect as being the political expression of the life instinct (Eros) on the collective political level. Melding Marcuse’s insights with post-structuralism, he hypothesized the human body as having three defining characteristics relevant to radical inquiry: it is a sentient creature, a producer of reality, and one which emanates. Essentially, he argued that human bodies desire the resistance of inherited oppression by moving spontaneously, or of their own accord (emanations) . After del Gandio, AK Thompson, author of Black Bloc, White Riot, provided a highly original interpretation of the Eros effect, noting its activation in such moments as the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Euro-American upsurge which followed in time to be based in a lack, rather than be an affirming reflection of Eros itself. He also interestingly commented on his view of the closeness between Marxism and nihilism, given that the former philosophy would have the proletariat abolish its own self in the process of overcoming capitalism. George Katsiaficas himself then intervened, associating his take on the Eros effect with the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious; he proudly declared the Eros effect to be a concrete expression of the idea that the human spirit is indomitable, and—disagreeing implicitly with Thompson—that it speaks to humanity’s biological need for socialism and freedom. Bringing up the example of the 1980 Gwanju uprising in Korea, which can be likened to another Paris Commune, Katsiaficas asserted that the people’s love for each other becomes even more important than life itself in moments of an activated Eros, and he hypothesized the Eros effect might be taken to represent one explanation for the emergence of the radical wave of People’s Power in East Asia (1986-1992). After Katsiaficas spoke Kellner, who asked to what extent the embodied strength of Thanatos—as in the world’s military and police apparatuses—poses challenges to an erotic politics; he also sought to connect Eros to the development of a different relationship between humans and nature. I will leave the final word for Imaculada Kangussu, who from the audience remarked on the similarity between Katsiaficas’s account of the Eros effect and Kant’s idea of enthusiasm, or the sublime fusion of affect, idea, and imagination, which is capable of inspiring events that overturn the course of world history. —————————————————————————————————————-

1Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 10.
2Ibid, 24-5. Emphasis added.
3Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1, chapter 31, online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm.
4Quoted in Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 413.
5Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge, 2005), 54-6.
6Raymonda Hawa Tawil, My Home, My Prison (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 231-2.
7Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 57.
8Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), 66, 68.
9Ibid, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90-91.
10Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 59, 61, 69.
11Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 225.
12George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings volume 2 (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013), 416-7.
13Herbert Marcuse, Heideggerian Marxism, eds. Richard Wolin and John Abromeit (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2005), 169-170.

Dialectical Communitarian Anarchism as the Negation of Domination: A Review of The Impossible Community

December 8, 2013

imposs community

John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013)

First published on Truthout on 30 November 2013 (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

 

Professor John P. Clark’s The Impossible Community is a masterful work, one which seeks radically to invert the destruction of nature and oppression of humanity as prosecuted by capitalism, the State, and patriarchy by encouraging the intervention of a mass-confluence of anarcho-communist—or communitarian anarchist—socio-political movements. This project is only “impossible” because its realization is heterotopic—inherently contradictory—to the prevailing system of domination, such that it demands the very abolition of hegemony in favor of a different, liberated world: that of the “third great epoch of history,” in Clark’s vision, when “humanity finally frees itself and the earth from the yoke of dominion.” Taking equally from Buddhism as from dialectical philosophy, Clark stresses the importance of enlightenment, mindfulness, and awakening as preconditions of revolutionary political praxis, and though he implicitly seems to agree with the overall thesis of the (anti)catastrophist line developed by Sasha Lilley and company, he also affirms the productivity of a commitment to truth which squarely confronts the profoundly shocking, traumatic, and even convulsive nature of such truth: the very first page of his preface acknowledges the sixth mass extinction in which terrestrial life is at present entrapped and notes the “horror” of a capitalist world in which billions go without the basic necessities of a good life. Advancing the philosophy and practice of communitarian anarchism as an exit from the depraved present, Clark dedicates much of his text to examining the anti-authoritarian and cooperative spirit of humanity, as embodied in many of the customs of pre-modern or “traditional” societies, as in the history of Western revolutionary movements. In this sense, Clark does well to distance himself from the Eurocentrism advanced by many Western radical thinkers, including the social ecologist Murray Bookchin, whose imprint on The Impossible Community is otherwise nearly palpable.

Much of Clark’s introductory commentary focuses on the problem of individual and collective human enlightenment: the question is how to induce what Paulo Freire termed “conscientization” (conscientização), a catalyst for a societal awakening which would take into account normally overlooked social and ecological problems toward the end of engaging with and ultimately resolving them. How might a shattering intervention break the mass of humanity from much of its observed complacency and complicity with the capitalist everyday, which, “if we are to speak honestly, must be called a culture of extinction, a culture of extermination, and ecocidal culture”? In response, Clark presents a revival of classical anarchism, as developed in the thought of Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Gustav Landauer, and Murray Bookchin, and he works to integrate the perspectives of such theorists together with the life-affirming aspects of various traditional cultures of the world to advance his communitarian anarchist vision. Practically, Clark argues that the notion of communitarian anarchism (or anarcho-communism) should be understood as referring to activity which renders the life-world common, as against its largely privatized nature now. In Clark’s vision, a multitude of strong international communitarian anarchist movements would work together to overturn the historical trend toward popular disenfranchisement, as promulgated by the expanding hegemony of State and capital seen in modernity, in favor of decentralized participatory democracy. Philosophically resisting much of the dominant dogmatism, nihilism, cynicism, and relativism which he sees as evinced by many contemporary anarchists, Clark defends a dialectical theoretical vision, whereby the world comes to be seen as a “site of constant change and transformation that takes place through processes of mutual interaction, negation, and contradiction.” Clark declares that one of the main goals of his Impossible Community is “to be fully and consistently dialectical,” such that the given social reality comes under challenge and “new possibilities for radical social transformation” are opened up. I should note that it is within this vein strange that, next to declaring Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Sarvodaya (“common welfare”) movement the “largest anarchist-inspired movement to appear between the Spanish Revoluton and the present moment,” Clark favorably cites the “radical kibbutzim” of Palestine/Israel on two occasions in the first two chapters of the work without noting a word about the imperialist dispossession processes directed against indigenous Palestinians with which such kibbutzim were complicit. The recognition that the kibbutz might function as a “tool of colonialism and oppression” is made only in a footnote during its third and last mention in the book’s sixth chapter. One wonders how this lapse jibes with Clark’s stated desire to preserve the positive communalist customs of non-Western cultures and overcome the strong tendencies toward Eurocentrism within much of anarchist thought.

Within his discussion of the philosophy of communitarian anarchism, Clark notes the mainstream’s puzzling perpetuation of mechanisms of denial, even amidst the depths of the various interlinking crisis of corporate capital. Against such uninspiring trends, Clark argues for a “Phantom of Possibility,” one that presently haunts left-wing and ordinary consciousness alike: it is “the chance that revolutionary, liberatory social transformation is still possible.” Evaluating the prospect for the embodied realization of such rebellious specters, Clark here expresses pessimism for the “mass of humanity” which continues to fail to act autonomously and radically to resolve the threats which imperil its future existence, particularly through looming eco-apocalypse: in observing this alarming violation of collective human self-responsibility, Clark would seem to agree with Karl Marx, whom he cites as declaring that history “progresses by its bad side.” Gloomily, though perhaps rationally, the author declares a “spectrum of possible ecofascisms” to be the most likely future outgrowth of society’s present structure, though his focus clearly is on making visible the chance of a “turning”—as in the etymology of the word revolution, a “turning around.” Bracketing his recognition of the frightening power of reactionary grassroots movements in the U.S., Clark considers Occupy, cooperative labor, the possibility of economic decommodification, and the solidarity and marginalization of immigrant communities as important popular counter-trends which point the way forward. At both the individual and social levels, Clark calls for a total revolt of the organism, one reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse’s Great Refusal, whereby individuals associate and develop autonomous alternatives that promote an institutional framework, social ethos, and social imaginary different from those on offer from the dominant death-culture. Equating the ecological crisis with the “ultimate intrusion of the traumatic real” into human life—a veritable “death sentence for humanity and much of life” on Earth—Clark raises the question of why there still is nothing approximating an anarchist Masdar City, in reference to the project currently financed by the Emir of Abu Dhabi in conjunction with private capital to create a waste-free, carbon-neutral settlement for 50,000 people in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. Given the very real existence of strong left-wing movements—for example as seen in the solidarity volunteerism engaged in by many youth in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—Clark recognizes that the struggle continues, but, like Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach,” he leaves open the practical question of how to change the world at this point in the text.

One of Clark’s major contributions to anti-authoritarian struggle comes with his conceptualization of the “third concept of liberty,” a Hegelian-anarchist supplement to the two concepts of liberty identified famously by Isaiah Berlin: negative liberty, or freedom from arbitrary interference and coercion, and positive liberty, or the freedom to flourish as a human and experience happiness through self-realization. To these two—with the former historically more associated with right-wing propertarian and liberal thought, and the latter related more to German idealism, materialism, and socialism—Clark adds a third, which he takes largely from the youthful and critical Hegel: freedom as self-determination. In fact, such a positive concept of freedom echoes Immanuel Kant as well, given the importance this German idealist placed on enlightenment as autonomous reason. Hegel took this concept seriously, and in his early works the element of Freigabe—the “renunciation of attempts to dominate and control the other” while simultaneously “allowing the other to be […] as she determines herself to be”—is central to his thought. Clark points to the interest Hegel expresses in his early religious studies (the Theological Manuscripts) for the Christian anarchist Joachimite tradition which calls for a “third age” in which human society would be organized along the principles of love and solidarity. Clark integrates Hegel’s youthful rejection of all “coercion, force, and violence” into his concept of the free community, one which is to be comprised of “self-realizing beings who are agents in their own development.” Alongside Hegel, Clark here also calls on the romatic German anarchist Gustav Landauer in theorizing his third concept: Landauer, unlike Hegel, acknowledges the value of traditional communal culture and, breaking importantly with progressivism, recognizes the tremendous destruction which history can caused—in contradistinction to Hegel’s mature apologism for the various genocides and slave-regimes of history, given his view that such brutality is a necessary prologue to the realization of reason. Thus, Landauer takes the World Geist (Spirit) to mean solidarity, and he calls on humanity to work practically for liberation:

“The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by pepole relating to one another differently […]. We, who have imprisoned ourselves in the absolute state, must realize the truth: we are the state! And we will be the state as long as we are nothing different; as long as we have not yet created the institutions.”1

Clark sees Landauer’s advocacy of a new, liberated society based on human creativity and mutual respect as advanced in contemporary times by his comrade Joel Kovel, who in History and Spirit (1991) envisions political transformations aiming at a Hegelian reconciliation of society and individual, or universal and particular. Here, Clark importantly mentions Kovel’s relationship with the emerging ecosocialist movements, particularly given the theorist’s co-authoring of the 2001 “Ecosocialist Manifesto” and the 2007 “Belem Ecosocialist Declaration.” Clark affirms the necessity of such a melding of ecological and anti-capitalist thought, given the self-evidently profound nature of the environmental crisis, and he soberly declares the most likely means of addressing this world-historical problem to be some future form of eco-fascism, if a libertarian ecosocialism does not develop and intervene.

I will for the most part skip consideration of Clark’s fourth chapter, “Against Principalities and Powers,” which amounts to an elucidation of well-known anarchist critiques of liberalism, an ideology which bases itself in respect for the negative liberty mentioned above. Yet I will note two important points he makes in this intervention: one, that liberalist philosophy fails to acknowledge social domination in the present as deriving from an overarching system of domination manifested principally in the hegemony of patriarchy, capital, and State; and two, that liberalism fatally ignores the domination of nature, which as Clark rightly notes corresponds to “the most fateful form of domination presently existing.” In an intriguing amalgam of biocentric and anthropocentric thought, Clark here argues that interference with and destruction of the “self-activity of beings (organisms, populations, species, ecosystems, etc.) within the biosphere” and the concomitant prevention of “their flourishing, self-realization, and attainment of the good” must become realities with which social anarchists should concern themselves centrally today, toward the end of resisting such life-negating trends.

Clark provides a number of compelling reflections in “Anarchy and the Dialectic of Utopia,” where he distinguishes among different manifestations of utopianism: utopia as domination, utopia as escapism, and utopia as critique or (subversive) desire. With regard to the “dominant utopia,” Clark identifies some of the salient fantasies it advances, particularly its capture of the imagination via consumer spectacle on the one hand and the capitalist everyday labor routine on the other. As in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the “good life” advanced by the dominant imaginary is held out as available to “all who buy the right commodities, and know how to perpetually refashion their very selves into the right kinds of commodities.” Clark is clear to state that this false type of utopianism leads inexorably to the “destruction of all diversity and complexity—of ecosystems, cultures, personalities, and imaginations,” and indeed ultimately tends toward the very “reduction of the world” to a “condition of nowhere,” as through the threats hegemony poses to the future of life on Earth. As an alternative to this type of utopianism, Clark considers the escapist utopian forms which he finds notoriously to be subscribed to by academics and “leftist sectarians” like Leninists and libertarian municipalists; utopia for them becomes an idealist means of transcending their political frustrations with the state of society, or even “compensation for being denied real power or having real efficacy.” Clark criticizes such escapist utopians for their contempt for the people, given their belief that revolution will come “only [once] the masses finally learn how to pay attention and fall in line with the intended course of history.”

More positively, Clark comes to consider the concept of utopia as critique and desire. Against the deadening tendencies of late capitalism, Clark quotes a statement made by Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim: “[W]ith the relinquishment of utopias, man [sic] would lose his will to shape history and therewith his ability to understand it.”2 Naturally, this quote nicely mirrors the quip famously made by Oscar Wilde on the geography of utopia, that “[a] map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” In terms of geographical utopianism, Clark presents a fascinating discussion contrasting the repressive rationalism expressed by Kant with the sensual romanticism of Denis Diderot and Paul Gauguin in terms of these Europeans’ views of Polynesian society: the former was horrified by the prospect of social relations like those he saw as being practiced by the “inhabitants of the South Sea Islands”—“idleness, indulgence, and propagation”—while the latter two held such non-Western social environments to demonstrate the historical possibility of reconciling “pleasure, beauty, freedom, and harmony.” It is clear which of the two approaches Clark favors. Within this discussion, he approvingly cites the thought of Charles Fourier, William Blake, William Morris, and Gary Snyder as well, and declares forthrightly that “[t]he most liberatory utopianism affirms this existence of the eternal, the sublime, the marvellous, as a present reality and an object of present experience.” As concrete illustrations of this point, Clark considers the beauty of the lotus flower and the wondrous world experienced by many in childhood. He moreover mentions Reclus’ Man and the Earth, an encyclopedic examination of radical freedom movements which have represented undercurrents to the hegemonic course of world history, such as

“cooperative and egalitarian tribal traditions, anarchistic millenarian movements, dissident spiritualities, antiauthoritarian experiments in radical grassroots democracy and communalism, movements for the liberation of women, and the radically libertarian moments of many of the world’s revolutions and revolutionary movements.”

Practically, Clark notes some of the various impressive anarchist examples of modernity—from the sections of the French Revolution to the Paris Commune, the soviets of the Russian Revolution, and proletarian self-management in Spain and Hungary—and gives special consideration to the revolutionary anarchist culture developed in Spain for a half-century before Francisco Franco’s attempted coup in 1936: such cultural anarchism included movements for “libertarian schools, cooperatives, ‘free love’ advocacy, feminism, vegetarianism, nudism, rationalism and ‘free thought,’ mysticism, and early ecological and pro-nature tendencies.”

In “The Microecology of Community,” Clark considers social organization theory and applies it to the current situation in the U.S. Negatively, he claims grassroots organization today to be “overwhelmingly in the hands of the reactionaries,” given the well-funded right-wing coordination of fundamentalist churches and irrationalist media networks. The Left has largely failed to present any comparable base social movement since the end of the 1960s, argues Clark, when many former activists seem to have opted instead for reformism and a “long march through the institutions.” The question today then becomes whether there will develop a convergence of mass-radical social movements based on the principles of solidarity and liberation in time to save off looming socio-ecological catastrophe. Clark expresses hope in the catalyst model of small affinity groups which aim to secure “very joyful, fulfilling lives” for their participants and, it is to be hoped, society at large, as through an emanating radical cascade. As Clark notes, it is critical in this sense to ask whether such a small-scale model of transformation will be able to expand in scope and help along the struggle for a “new just, ecological society” and a “free life in common.” Clark seems to have an optimistic answer, for he endorses the evolutionary view that both biophilia and sociophilia are deeply rooted within us as humans, holding out promise for the eventual intervention of a “strong and hopeful movement for the liberation of humanity and nature.”

As he moves to close The Impossible Community, Clark provides an extended case study of the dialectical theories he has been examining throughout the text by considering the impacts—both negative and positive—Hurricane Katrina has had on his hometown of New Orleans. As he explains, his reflections on Katrina are written “a bit in the spirit of a jazz funeral,” for they “mourn” the “collective tragedy” yet “speak out also for our collective hope.” Incidentally, part of his chapter on Katrina had been written as a paper for an international conference in Milan on the thought of Reclus which was to take place just weeks after the hurricane struck, such that Reclus appears here as a sort of stand-in for Dante’s Virgil as we descend into an exploration of the hell of environmental destruction on the one hand and the affirmation of anarchist resurgence on the other. Situating the impacts of the storm systemically, Clark argues that the oil industry’s systematic destruction of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands—2000 square miles lost over the past half-century, as corporations extracted 20 billion barrels of oil from offshore sources—certainly worsened the impacts Katrina had on the population of New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers, the State, and the Red Cross similarly come under fire here—quite rightly, given their well-documented ineptitude. Clark also discusses the “disaster fascism” on hand in post-Katrina New Orleans, given “de facto ethnic cleansing” of African Americans, the “mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers,” as well as “widespread police brutality, denial of prisoners’ rights, collapse of the courts and legal system, […] and [the] gutting of the health care system.” Grimly, Clark also acknowledges the “troubling” thought that, however devastating Katrina proved, New Orleans stands to face even more intense and frequent tropical storms due to the ever-accelerating processes of global climate change; one can think similarly of the plight of the Philippines and many other climatically vulnerable regions of the world—the tropics—in this sense.

Against the twin “disaster capitalism” and “disaster fascism” seen before, during, and after Katrina, Clark nonetheless gives space to the “disaster anarchism” which flourished in the hurricane’s aftermath, as in the founding of the Common Ground collective and the radical volunteer work engaged in by thousands of anti-authoritarian youths in the months which followed. In these efforts Clark sees the embodiment of Reclus’ view of mutual aid, “the principal agent of human progress.” Indeed, as he writes dialectically, despite the great “suffering and tragedy” inflicted by the storm, the weeks after the hurricane “have undoubtedly been one of the most gratifying periods in [his] life,” for they demonstrated very clearly to him “a sense of the goodness of people, […] their ability to show love and compassion for one another, and […] their capacity to create spontaneous community.” Clark speaks to the critical opening provided by the Katrina disaster, given the very clear “break with conventional reality” this event signified: like John Holloway, author of Crack Capitalism, Clark identifies Katrina very clearly to have represented a “system crack” that provided for the possibility of different future realities. Clark cites the commonly shared view of many post-Katrina volunteers who held that the catastrophe provided an unprecedented possibility to experience “the beauty, the wonder, and the sacredness of the place, and of the people of the place.” The catastrophist shock-value of such experiences forms a critical basis for the mass-expression of a transformative disaster anarchism, argues Clark; in breaking radically with prevailing state of affairs, disaster anarchism provides for the chance of “a qualitatively different way of life,” one based in “love, compassion, solidarity, mutual aid, and voluntary cooperation.”

As another important case study of communitarian anarchism, Clark next examines the Gandhian Sarvodaya (“common good”) movement in India and the radical movement it inspired in neighboring Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya Shramadana. Clark here illuminates the general political philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, largely ignored despite his world-famous advocacy of nonviolence: that of an “Indian version of anarchism,” one commensurate with the communitarian anarchism Clark is advancing in The Impossible Community. Citing previous anarchist studies of Gandhi’s thought, Clark claims Gandhi to have desired an India freed from State rule, private property, organized religion, and police and military forces, and he sees several commonalities between Gandhianism and much of Western anarchism, particularly given the former’s support for decentralization, local control, and popular direct action, yet he notes important differences between the two, including the Gandhian stress on spirituality, asceticism, nonviolence, and gradualism. Moreover, clearly, Gandhi’s philosophy emerges from a different social and geographical context than that of Western Europe; it focuses more on the radicalization of traditional indigenous institutions and customs than on the insurrectional break desired by many Western anarchist theorists. Importantly, Gandhi’s concept of swaraj or “self-rule” depended in large part on the devolution of power from the State to the gram sabha, or village assembly, and the panchayat, the village committee elected by the gram sabha. Thus did Gandhi favor the council system, or a radical participatory democracy. Moreover, besides nonviolence, Gandhi’s philosophy emphasized the following anti-authoritarian values, as Clark recounts: truthfulness, vegetarianism, celibacy, nontheft, nonpossession, fearlesslessness, rejection of untouchability, and the promotion of the equality of women.

In practical terms, the Sarvodaya movement continued to work in Gandhi’s spirit after his assassination in 1948, promoting economic transformation in India through the application of the ideas of bhoodan and gramdan (“gift of the land” and “gift of the village”), such that millions of acres of land have been voluntarily redistributed as collective property to be managed by landless peasants and villages themselves. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, Gandhi’s philosophy has inspired the impressive rise of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, which, like the neo-Zapatistas of Chiapas, has promoted a “community-based, participatory, and ecologically conscious development movement” involving millions of people. Finding its basis more in Buddhism than in Gandhi’s Hinduism, Sarvodaya Shramadana stresses four basic virtue: upekkha, or mental balance; metta, or goodwill toward all beings; karuna, or compassion for the suffering of all beings; and mudita, or sympathetic joy for all those liberated from suffering. As with Gandhi, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana, is described as moving away from hegemonic technocratic and State-oriented development models in favor of the embrace of the “spiritual and ethical traditions” of Sri Lanka, particularly the self-help and mutual aid practiced at the local level. The movement also seeks to transform Sri Lanka into a commonwealth of village or community republics; concretely, it aids communities in bringing self-determined development projects to fruition. Additionally, Sarvodaya Shramadana has organized massive peace meditations, People’s Peace Dialogues, and Youth Peace Camps amidst the devastation of the nearly three-decade long civil war which raged in the country until 2009. Clark closes this section by noting the vast gap in wealth of community and self-management between places like Sri Lanka and the United States. He looks forward to the day when the villages of Sri Lanka will “send teams of advisors to the West to help it come to terms with its communitarian underdevelopment, and begin to discover a way out of its political poverty.” Finally, he calls on Western radicals to “make more serious attempts to learn from societies in which a long history of communal practice and a deeply rooted sense of social solidarity make possible exemplary experiments in social cooperation.”

Before turning to consideration of Clark’s final chapter, I would here like to note some problematic aspects of his discussion of Gandhianism and the Sarvodaya movement in India. Clark deals with Gandhi’s pacifism in only a handful of paragraphs in “The Common Good,” and he gives the Mahatma the benefit of the doubt when counterposing the non-violence of satyagraha (“truth-force”) with the horrible violence faced in recent years by indigenous adivasi communities at the hands of paramilitaries acting in the interests of mining companies and the Indian State, as Arundhati Roy has observed. On this, Clark merely says that “a case can be made that Gandhi himself would have rejected a rigid adherence to [strict pacifism] in situations such as this one,” and then drops the question entirely. There is no mention made in Clark’s chapter of the armed resistance undertaken by the Naxalites in central India for the past several decades, nor is the example of left-wing militant Bhagat Singh or the Telangana insurrection of 1946-1951 against the indigenous landowning aristocracy discussed at all. These lapses I find troubling, if not somewhat disingenuous. Moreover within this vein, Clark’s presentation of Gandhi’s advocacy of voluntary land redistribution is not terribly critical. Though Clark does acknowledge that Gandhi’s strategy is flawed, in that the goodwill of the wealthy will not likely result in the abolition of exploitation, there is little sense in his account that contemplation of such a deluded approach—which so radically contradicts the Western anarchist emphasis on the outright expropriation of capitalists and feudalists by revolutionary workers, whether urban or rural—should lead us precisely to call into question the putatively anarchist nature of Gandhi’s political philosophy. Lastly in these terms, Clark fails to discuss or even mention the fact that Gandhi’s views on the caste system evolved over time, such that in the 1920’s before meeting the Dalit radical intellectual Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Mahatma held the caste system in an uncritical light, declaring it to be the “natural order” of Hindu society. In 1921, indeed, Gandhi declared that he was “opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.3

Clark’s closing chapter, “Beyond the Limits of the City,” is comprised of rather severe criticisms of the mature political philosophy of his former friend and mentor Murray Bookchin, an approach the latter termed libertarian municipalism. For all the critique to which Clark subjects Bookchin’s late philosophy—granted, some of it certainly justified—it is important to note here the profound political commonalities between the two thinkers. It is unfortunate—and once again disingenuous—that Clark fails to acknowledge the great influence Bookchin has had on the development of his own perspectives, and indeed on many of the principal points set forth in The Impossible Community! To take but one example of this dynamic, the very list of “revolutions within revolutions” which Clark cites favorably in his chapter on utopia—the “impressive historical examples” which “continu[e] to inspire the radical imagination,” from the section assemblies of the French Revolution, self-management in the Paris Commune, the soviets of the Russian Revolution, and the embodied anarchism of the Spanish and Hungarian Revolutions—is literally the same one Bookchin repeatedly pointed to in his writings as hopeful historical developments which validated his dialectical social-anarchist approach. Yet Clark fails to mention Bookchin at all in this discussion. It would seem that Clark has allowed his issues with Bookchin’s late views to paper over the great deal the two have in common: near the outset of this last chapter, Clark defines Bookchin’s ultimate political goal as being “the creation of a free, ecological society in which human beings pursue self-realization through participation in a nondominating human community, and further planetary self-realization by playing a cooperative, nondominating role within the larger ecological community.” Rather obviously, these lines also describe the author’s political tasks in The Impossible Community rather well, but Clark refuses explicitly to make this evident.

As I have suggested, some of the criticisms Clark makes of Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism are justified. Bookchin was rather infamous for his sectarianism, and Clark illuminates this tendency well in his discussion of the rejection Bookchin and his partner Janet Biehl made of the 1991 Draft Program of the Left Green Network, which called for a 95% reduction in the Pentagon budget, a universal $10 minimum wage, a workers’ superfund, and a thirty-hour work-week, among other things. Bookchin and Biehl refused to support the proposal, for it did not mandate the elimination of the remaining 5% of the military budget. Clark argues that the main reason they rejected the Program, though, was that the Left Greens did not adopt libertarian municipalism as their specific socio-political approach—in this he likely has a point. Moreover, Clark makes the legitimate point that the mere devolution of decision-making power to “the People” may very well not result in the anti-authoritarian, rational outcomes Bookchin expects from an application en masse of his libertarian municipalist approach. Indeed, with regard to the U.S., Clark worries that a libertarian municipalist politics could well have “extremely reactionary consequences” within certain geographical contexts, considering the likelihood of a popular extension of anti-immigrant and anti-poor legislation, capital punishment, and religious impositions, to name a few examples. In the last few pages of the text, Clark ultimately leaves the question open as to whether people’s power is an appropriate strategy to pursue at present, but he does not suggest any alternatives here for realizing the admittedly “admirable goals” of libertarian municipalism. It is highly unlikely that he is implying support for some sort of enlightened Leninist vanguard here, but if the way forward is not through the people—then what?

In closing, I will say that Clark raises some good points against Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, particularly in challenging his former mentor’s questionable assumption that popular empowerment has an “almost miraculous” ability to nullify the negating socio-cultural values that have been ingrained so long by capitalist hegemony. Yet I am unconvinced that this consideration is reason enough to reject an approach to politics summarized well in the famous slogan of the Black Panthers: “All Power to the People!” Rationality and humanity will not arrive spontaneously through the machinations of State, capital, and patriarchy, as Clark makes clear throughout his text. Despite my problems with aspects of his final two chapters in The Impossible Community, Clark’s intervention with this book represents a crucial contribution to the struggle against domination and for liberation—with neither side of this struggle lacking evident justification in our day.

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1Gustav Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader, ed. and trans. Gabriel Kuhn (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010), 214.

2Karl Mannheim, Ideology and History (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1936), 263.

3Bhimrao Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches (12 vols., Bombay 1979-93), ix, 275f.

Ecology and Empire in Marx, Adorno, and Marcuse

November 20, 2013

cultural-marxists

NB: This is a slightly revised version of the paper I presented at the Fifth Biannual International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference at the University of Kentucky 

In essence, I wish to examine the treatment of imperialism and ecology in the thought of Karl Marx, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse precisely because of the continued dire relevance of both such issues in our own day, some three decades now after Marcuse’s death. The importance of the philosophies of these three thinkers to my own development aside, I believe their critical-dialectical perspectives to hold great promise in positive and practical terms with regard to the ongoing struggle to overturn capitalism and so resolve the threats to oppressed humanity and non-human nature taken together. 

On Empire, or Imperialism

Marx’s views on imperialism are variable: though they generally can be said to be humanistic, they are also at times vague and outright problematic. For example, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels note that

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian [sic] nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”1

Similarly in Capital, Marx notes that the “more industrially developed country only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”2 Thus is seen the modernist progressivism which underpins a great deal of Marx’s thought, from its early stages in 1848 to maturity some twenty years later. However, providing an alternative perspective in Capital, Marx definitively identifies the original brutality through which the capitalist system arose, as in his concept of primitive accumulation:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America; the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population; the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies; the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”3

This insurrectional sort of humanism previously had informed some of the journalism Marx had engaged in for the New York Tribune from 1853 to 1858, when he examined from afar the dialectical processes taking place in British-dominated India. Though Edward W. Said famously included Marx’s articles on India within his condemnation of Orientalism, he seems indeed to have overlooked the humanism which pervaded Marx’s analyses in part: as Aijaz Ahmad notes, Marx was entirely precocious even compared with Indian nationalists in his call for an independence struggle against Britain in 1853, and he certainly welcomed the 1857-1858 Sepoy Mutiny.4 Indeed, as noted Indian Marxist E.M.S. Namboodiripad argues, in light of the putatively ongoing stagnation of Hindu society in the centuries before the Raj, British colonialism served as an “unconscious tool of history” which might have accelerated the dialectical negation of class and caste—this being a perspective he takes from Marx.5 In his writings on India, Marx was clearly influenced by Hegel, given his claim that life in India was “stagnatory and vegetative,” and that “Indian society has no history at all.”6 With regard to developments in India, Marx favorably welcomed the British introduction of the telegraph, the “free press,” “private property in land,” modern science, and railroads; moreover, he applauded the actions taken by individual British governors to suppress the sati custom, whereby Hindu wives were forced to commit suicide upon the death of their husbands.7 Elsewhere, though, Marx compared Britain’s victimization of Indians to that of the Irish under the British boot, and he claimed the “misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan [to be] of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before.”8 Even before largely inverting his uncritical take on the Raj with the coming of the Sepoy Mutiny four years later, Marx would already see confirmed in British colonial rule in India the “inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization.”9 Later in life, moreover, Marx committed himself to engaging in extensive anthropological and historical investigations of different regions of the world—Russia, India, Algeria, Indonesia, and ancient Greece, among others.10 In a famous exchange of letters with Russian militant Vera Zasulich (1881), Marx in fact endorses an alternative path to communism different from the seemingly deterministic model he had previously favored—that is, capitalist industrialization as pre-requisite for communism—in light of the regard in which he held the Russian mir.11 With Engels, Marx writes in the 1882 preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto that, to truly “pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership,” the Russian people must be aided by proletarian revolution in Western Europe.12 Given this comment, the two were rather prescient in forseeing the future of the Russian Revolution 35 years later, given the suppression of the German Revolution and numerous other antagonistic social movements in Central Europe in the years following WWI. On this point, whether Marx would have welcomed the ideology and tactics of Leninism and the course of the Russian Revolution before Stalin’s ascendancy is a debatable question, though I tend to hold that the anarchism which permeates Marx’s work—from the 1844 Manuscripts denouncing Hegel’s accommodation with State and capital to his libertarian analysis of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France (1871)—would likely have led him to have some trepidations about the Bolshevik line.13

Adorno, though greatly marked by Marx’s work and Marxist critique, does not share the humanism which led Marx to take a dialectical view of imperialism, nor is it evident that he integrated much concern for the exercise of domination over non-European peoples in his day from other critical sources, such as Rosa Luxemburg. In general terms, it would seem that Adorno concerned himself principally with the question of anti-Jewish prejudice and violence amidst the evidently traumatic experience of the Nazi regime and the Shoah. If we consider Adorno’s psychological and sociological studies of prejudice and racism, moreover, his revolutionary contributions should not likely be doubted: with Horkheimer, he frames the fascist hatred of Jews as emanating from pre-existing liberal-capitalist society in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), and his later investigations into the Authoritarian Personality (1950) are similarly radical in anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist terms. Hence it is somewhat strange that Adorno never extended his concern for racism and prejudice to analyses of global capitalism, material inequality, and the clearly brutal exercise of Euro-American power against non-European peoples in the two and a half decades following WWII, a timeframe corresponding to the remainder of Adorno’s lifetime. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, the continent of Africa is mentioned in a thoughtful reflection on the domination exercised against non-human animals—under imperial capitalism, herds of elephants and giraffes are reduced to mere “obstacles to the landing of bombers in the latest war”—yet Adorno and Horkheimer make no direct mention of Africa’s humans here.14 In a less than liberatory fashion, Adorno begins his 6 June 1967 lecture by mentioning the “terrible threat to Israel” and the “countless Jews [there] who have fled a horrifying fate” as posed by the beginning of the Six-Day War; it does not seem to occur to this critical theorist par excellence that the war in fact began with Israeli aggression against Egypt.15 But perhaps such a culturally nationalistic perspective could already be seen in his and Horkheimer’s denunciation of Gamel Abdel Nasser as the “fascist chieftain who conspires with Moscow” following the 1956 Suez Crisis.16 In less reactionary terms, though, two years after the Six-Day War Adorno discusses the “horror of the napalm bombs” dropped by the U.S. military in Vietnam, and in his lectures on metaphysics he clearly locates the U.S. devastation of that country and its people as being a crime which belongs within the fascist continuum responsible for Auschwitz.17 Such statements on Adorno’s part demonstrates the profound disregard in which he held U.S. militarism, and his position here is undoubtedly more legitimate than that of Horkheimer, who defended the U.S. war effort as a means of inhibiting the expansion of Maoist influence in the world. This is not to say that Adorno expressly supported the Vietnamese resistance, given his criticism of the “unspeakable Chinese-style tortures” performed by the Vietcong, as communicated in correspondence to Marcuse in 1969; unlike Marcuse, Adorno never translated his repulsion at the war in Vietnam into concrete resistance or activism.18 This marked failure on Adorno’s part may well have had to do with the tumultuous relationship he and Horkheimer were experiencing at that time with contemporary radical-left movements in Germany, which for their part overwhelmingly seem to have aligned themselves with the Vietnamese Communists. Then, in August 1969, Adorno died unexpectedly.

As is well-known, Marcuse for his part considered many of the national-liberation efforts of his day to be principal factors in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. A number of his most famous books and addresses positively cite the revolutionary developments in Cuba and China as encouraging signs of progress—in this sense, it would be interesting to see how Marcuse might have reacted to the increased Stalinist/Maoist bureaucratization of those societies. Another question is to what extent Marcuse was aware of highly negating developments such as massive famine under Mao, or how well-known such realities were at the time—for this I have no answer. Self-evidently, Marcuse is very famous for his passionate activism against the Vietnam War during his tenure as professor at UCSD—an effort for which he suffered considerably, given the numerous death-threats directed against his person, which in fact led his graduate students to rotate shifts as his protection detail.19 On the question of Israel, Marcuse may well be termed a Zionist, though not in the fascist-aggressor sense we see today: for him, the foundation of Israel, which he felt sought to “prevent a recurrence of the concentration camps [and] the pogroms,” forms “part of the struggle for liberty and equality for all persecuted racial and national minorities the world over.”20 Marcuse visited historical Palestine with his wife Inge in 1971 to expressly study the Arab-Israeli conflict at first hand, and rather than limit themselves only to engaging with Israel and Israelis, the pair traveled to Nablus to discuss matters with Palestinian intellectuals under occupation.21 Raymonda Hawa Tawil, a Palestinian who observed these interactions, paraphrases Marcuse as saying that, though he “had always felt sympathy toward Jews suffering persecution,” he “could find no sympathy for Jews who persecute others.”22 Indeed, in the article which he composed for the Jerusalem Post after his visit, entitled “Israel is Strong Enough to Concede,” Marcuse clearly acknowledges the great “injustice done to the native Arab population” in the founding of the Israeli State: born through the “displacement of the Palestinian people,” the power of settler-colonial Zionism “proceeded without the rights and interests of the native population” in mind.”23 In this sense, Israel’s genesis was “not essentially different form the origins of practically all states in history: establishment by conquest, occupation, discrimination.”24 Moving forward in practical terms, Marcuse in this essay calls for a peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Republic (Egypt & Syria) which would entail the latter’s recognition of Israel and a “settlement” of Palestinian refugees, whether that be in pre-1948 Palestine or in a Palestinian State existing alongside Israel.25 Though his terms for peace include full Western access to the Suez Canal, Marcuse’s recommendations are not the standard liberal-colonialist tripe of his day (or our own), for he argues that the shape and direction of a future Palestinian state must be decided through Palestinian self-determination. Marcuse sees his recommendations as “interim solutions,” and he ultimately expresses hope for an “optimal solution” whereby Arabs and Jews would live together as “equal partners” in a Middle Eastern “socialist federation.”26 Finally in these terms, one of Marcuse’s very last lectures in life was given in the Mexican bordertown of Mexicali—a destination which the septuagenarian Marcuse reached with his Mexican assistant after a “trip which few Norteños of any age would have made,” according to George Katsiaficas.27

Ecology and Nature

In recent years, a great deal of focus has been placed on Marx’s supposedly critical insights into environmentalism, his humanistic exposition of capitalist alienation and its dialectical transcendence through communism aside. The main theorist pushing this alternative reading of Marx has been John Bellamy Foster, author inter alia of Marx’s Ecology (2000), The Ecological Revolution (2009), and The Ecological Rift (2010). In my view, Foster’s argumentation is far from convincing in terms of claiming Marx as an ecologist. Notwithstanding the critical importance of the anti-capitalist analysis of environmental destruction which Foster advances, his assumptions seem greatly to exaggerate the extent to which Marx concerned himself with ecological questions. Most of Foster’s elucidations of Marx’s supposed contributions to environmentalism are composed of a few passing comments the communist theorist makes regarding the adverse effects capitalist agricultural processes have on soils—yet no attempt is made to supply more varied and consistent utterances on Marx’s part which concern themselves with environmental matters, because such an effort would prove largely fruitless.28 True, the young Marx does favorably cite Thomas Münzer’s declaration that, under the rule of private property, “all creatures have been turned into property,” while they must “become free”—he even argues that the capitalist “view of nature” implies “real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature.”29 But this statement is rather peripheral to the argumentation in the essay in which it is found, “On The Jewish Question.” While Marx evidently defines communism in his 1844 Manuscripts as “the genuine resolution of the conflict between [humanity] and nature” as well as among humans, one should likely make a distinction between the young Marx and his mature self in these terms, for references to environmental issues account for only a tiny fraction if we consider Marx’s ouevre as a whole.30 In my view, communist humanism vastly outweighs concern for ecology in the primacy of Marx’s social philosophy. Instead of an ecologist, on my account, Marx was largely a Promethean who held a relatively positivist—that is, uncritical—view of industrialism; I believe Adorno was right to declare that Marx wanted to “turn the whole world into a giant workhouse.”31 It is not for nothing that Marx condemned the “brutalizing worship of nature” he claimed as being evident in the traditional village life of pre-Raj India; he was clearly offended that in Hindu society, “man, the sovereign of nature” would “f[a]ll down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”32 It is important not to confuse Marx’s modernist progressivism with the utopian romanticism of Charles Fourier or Friedrich Schiller.

Adorno’s philosophy is manifestly permeated with concern for the destructive effects capitalism and civilization have had on non-human nature. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer claim the effort to dominate external nature to have been central to the very emergence of human reason: subjected to the exercise of reason, nature is degraded to “mere material, mere stuff to be dominated.”33 The result is that the animal comes to “know only irrational terror and the urge to make an escape from which he is cut off”; subjected to human dominion, “[t]he whole earth bears witness to the glory of man [sic]”:

“Unreasoning creatures have encountered reason throughout the ages—in war and peace, in arena and slaughterhouse, from the lingering death-throes of the mammoth overpowered by a primitive tribe in the first planned assault down to the unrelenting exploitation of the animal kingdom in our own days.”34

Adorno and Horkheimer clearly express their disgust with vivisection, consumption of animal flesh, zoos, and loss of biodiversity; using the example of captive circus lions who perish in a fire, they denounce the instrumentalization of animal life, noting prevailing bourgeois standards to consider such deaths as mere “capital losses to their owners.”35 Adorno will carry on such critical animal-liberationist perspectives throughout his lifespan, coming to endorse vegetarianism in his 1963 summer lectures.36 Indeed, in his celebrated 1962 lecture “Progress,” Adorno presents a revolutionary definition of historical progress, whereby this is to be attained only once humanity experiences an “awakening” which allows it to “becom[e] aware of its own indigenousness to nature” and so “brin[g] to a halt the domination it exacts over nature.”37 Lastly, in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (1970), Adorno continues with these utopian socialist musings, noting that the experience of natural beauty “recollects a world without domination”; moreover, he notes that, “under transformed relations of production,” technology could be employed to “assist nature” by reversing its destruction and even “on this sad earth [to] help it to attain what perhaps it wants .”38

As Michael Löwy notes, Marcuse undoubtedly shares the “romantic revolutionary” perspectives of his comrade Walter Benjamin, and Adorno to a degree—for he expresses a “nostalgia for precapitalist Kultur” as a cipher which rejects industrial-capitalist technology and the destruction of nature.39 This concern can be clearly seen in Marcuse’s earliest written work, his dissertation on the German Artist Novel (1922). Though Marcuse seems to have suppressed environmental concern in some of his work in the 1930s—his treatment of the nature-domineering philosophy of René Descartes in “The Concept of Essence” (1936) is far from critical—it is very clearly evident in Eros and Civilization (1955), wherein Marcuse integrates Kant’s aesthetic theory with the mythological figure of Orpheus to suggest that, in a future emancipated society, nature and the non-human should be taken not as objects of exploitation and manipulation but rather as intrinsically valuable: they are simply to be treated as “’just what they are,’ ‘being-there,’ existing.”40 Marcuse is famous for his advancement of such a romantic image of liberation as advancing sensuousness and tranquility; it is indelibly linked to his concern for humanity’s reconciliation with nature. Like Adorno, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man (1964) argues for overthrowing human cruelty to animals, naming their “ill-treatment” as part of the capitalist “Hell.”41 In Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Marcuse dedicates an entire chapter to the question of “Nature and Revolution”: here, he advances the puzzling idea that “to campaign for universal vegetarianism” would seem misguided amidst the depth of suffering “inflicted by man [sic] on man.”42 Yet he argues reasonably that “no free society is imaginable which does not […] make the concerted effort to reduce consistently the suffering which [humanity] imposes on the animal world.”43 Generally, Marcuse in “Nature and Revolution” comes to identify the non-human world as an “ally” in the struggle against the triple domination exercised by capitalism: that over self, other humans, and nature.44 Endorsing the concept of the “liberation of nature,” Marcuse joins Adorno in arguing for the re-orientation of science and technology toward the end of assisting it, and, though he clearly prefers the Marxian concept of a “human appropriation of nature” to capitalism’s destruction of it, he nonetheless criticizes Marx for reflecting a “hubris of domination” in considering nature as an object to be controlled.45 He here restates his Kantian alternative of a nonexploitative relationship with nature, as originally formulated in Eros and Civilization.

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1Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), available online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm.

2Karl Marx, “Preface to the First German Edition,” Capital Vol. 1 (1867), online at http://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p1.htm#1b.

4Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory (London: Verso, 1992), 236.

5Ibid, 238.

6Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 12 (New York: International Publishers, 1974-2004), 132, 217.

7Ibid, 218, 181.

8Ibid, 126.

9Ibid, 221.

10Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 196-236.

11Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).

12Marx and Engels, “Preface to the 1882 Russian Edition,” online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/preface.htm#preface-1882

13Maximilien Rubel, “Marx, theoretician of anarchism” (1973), online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/rubel/1973/marx-anarchism.htm.

14Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 251.

15Qtd. in Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 452.

16Ibid, 413.

17Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” New Left Review 1, no. 233 (January–February 1999): 127.; Adorno, Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (1965; repr., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 101.

18Adorno and Marcuse, op. cit, 127.

19Herbert Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, 93.

20Ibid, 54.

21Raymonda Hawa Tawil, My Home, My Prison (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 231-2.

22Ibid, 232.

23Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, 54.

24Ibid, 54.

25Ibid, 56.

26Ibid, 56.

27Herbert Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, p. 197.

28John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Global Ecological Rift,” MRZine, 28 November 2007, online at http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2007/foster281107.html

29“On the Jewish Question” (1844), available online: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/

30Qtd. in Lawrence Wilde, “The creatures, too, must become free: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction” (2000), available at http://marxmyths.org/lawrence-wilde/article.htm

31Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 57.

32Marx and Engels, op. cit, vol. 12, 132.

33Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 97.

34Adorno and Horkheimer, op. cit, 245-6.

35Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 208-9.

36Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002)

37Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90-91.

38Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), 66, 68.

39Michael Löwy,“Under the Star of Romanticism: Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse,” in Revolutionary Romanticism, ed. Max Blechman (SF: City Lights, 1999), 209.

40Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 165.

41Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 237.

42Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 68.

43Ibid, 68.

44Ibid, 59.

45Ibid, 61, 69.

Marcuse: German Idealism vs. Fascism

August 26, 2013

WB art

“German idealism protested the wholesale surrender of the individual to ruling social and political forces. Its exaltation of mind and its insistence on the significance of thought implied, National Socialism correctly saw, an essential opposition to any victimization of the individual. Philosophic idealism was part and parcel of idealist culture. And this culture recognized a realm of truth that was not subject to the authority of the order that is and of the powers that be. Art, philosophy, and religion envisioned a world that challenged the claims of the given reality. Idealist culture is incompatible with Fascist discipline and control.”1

1Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999 [1940]), 416.