These are no longer momentous days for the left, as I strongly believe that an alternative would transcend much of leftist narrative as we know it.
Excerpted from R.C. Smith:
“These are no longer momentous days for the left, as I strongly believe that an alternative would transcend much of leftist narrative as we know it. Furthermore, whether it is orthodox Marxism or democratic socialism, I have a difficult time seeing fundamental social change emanating from out of almost every one of the traditional political movements of the contemporary left and here’s why:
First, while I am a fierce opponent of the right-wing political agenda, I am also highly critical of the more total contemporary political spectrum, which, if we were to follow the trail of historical narrative, is an ideologically conceived arena that has less to do with politics in a genuine sense and more to do with power, hierarchy, exploitation and coercion. In this narrative, where the struggle between democracy and its alternatives saw intense debate between liberalism and fascism and National Socialism in the 19th and 20th Centuries, as well as direct competition between (liberal) capitalism against socialist and communist movements – the context in which these battles were waged was never about the horizon of ‘revolution’ that people tended to purport them to be.
Indeed, from the moment of its conception in the 18th Century, where as the King of France struggled to protect divine autocracy, the Constituent Assembly of 1789-91 split, and the radicals at the time moved to sit together on the president’s left whilst the reactionaries coalesced on his right, “the ideological and spatial positions were already becoming interwoven, and the broad franchise and progressive taxation that became the politics of “the left” was already fundamentally of a limited horizon.
In his truly radical critique of the modern political situation, Theodor Adorno, who was normatively concerned both with the possibility for emancipation as well as domination, displayed an unwavering awareness of this limited horizon of political narrative. While “Adorno’s works faced and sought to provoke recognition of the possibility and reality of social regression as well as regression in thinking”, his stance regarding the student protests in 1960’s Germany exemplify what I take to be a commitment not only to critical theory in the most fundamental sense, but also the idea of a truly emancipatory politics. Although widely misread as a complete and utter denunciation of student protests of the time, Adorno’s fundamental point remains entirely relevant today when dissecting the modern political situation as a whole. The ‘grain of insanity’ that is so deeply embedded in the unreconciled antagonisms of modern thought (modernity) does restrict, on a fundamental level, any attempt to establish an emancipatory movement in practice, leaving us either to recognise this dilemma or else risk repeating a history of coercive and dominating social systems.
Of course, this stance raised concerns among many on the left about Adorno’s Marxism, which I think Chris Cutrone does a fairly good job at illustrating in a recent paper which engages “the possibilities for reconstruction of and development upon the coherence of Adorno’s dialectic, as expression of the extended tasks and project of Marxism bequeathed by history to the present.” For me, my reading of Adorno is one that never see Marx too far behind. But Adorno’s Marxism I claim is, perhaps controversially to some, a more honest and integrative reading that allowed Adorno develop, as Cutrone rightly points out, “a critique of 20th century society that sustained awareness of the problematic of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky’s Marxism.”
In view of this, the outcome today between my political analysis and that of Cutrone’s is admittedly very different. I do not see any hope for the modern ‘left’ and regularly argue that ‘the left’ must be transcended not for the sake of itself, but for the sake of keeping alive the idea of an emancipatory politics and, perhaps more humbly, the basic concepts of ‘social progress’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’.
In turn, I agree with the view that, subject to one’s definition of democracy, capitalism and democracy are naturally in tension with each other. Keeping with Adorno, I think we can easily observe in history that “the capitalist economy formed the basic structure of Western societies whereas democracy was nothing but a surface phenonemon”, and that the integration of social democracy as the utopian veil over capitalism can usually be sustained until in moments of crisis, wherein even the most shallow illusions of democracy are abandoned to safeguard the interests of capital, exposing the truth of contemporary democratic capitalist society.
In terms of the modern political situation, I have not seen any evidence to suggest that the primary political movements on ‘the left’ are, in the total sum of their parts, in any way ‘radical’ enough to break from a history of ‘coercive, exploitative and authoritarian’ society. More fundamentally, I think Horkheimer and Adorno’s thesis in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) continues to uphold the foundations of a critique of the modern left as being anything but fundamentally radical. In their discussion on the relation between positivist science, domination and capitalism for example, the authors penetrate the core of the exploitative and authoritarian catastrophes of the left just as much as they reveal the underlying impetus of the right (fundamentally speaking).
The separation of science (and academic research) from values and culture is intrinsic to the fundamental direction of coercive and authoritarian society as a whole, and I do not see the modern ‘left’ free from this critique of epistemology. As scientism, which is symbolic of the ‘analytic structure’ central to Adorno’s critique of late-capitalism and, furthermore, the genesis of instrumental reason, only deals with observable facts and at the same time becomes incremental to social development, society and culture have increasingly adopted a coercive logic that inherently supports the system of capital.
When I review much of the mainstream left, I not only see critique but also general theory end up valorising instrumental reason and its coercive logic, assuming the same ideological structures of thought evidenced in the political right. Considering that the basic mark of ideology is the hypostatisation of the most fundamental epistemological, anthropological and cosmological structures of society, the very cult of the left’s categories today must be challenged so as to ensure that they do not reinforce the systemic structures of antagonism.
While so many leftist intellectuals wear the ‘radical’ badge, the question remains for me whether much of leftist critique today is really that critical? I mean this according to the lack of not only any coherent theory of an alternative epistemology, anthropology and cosmology, but also a coherent systemic alternative and understanding of the process of ‘social change’.
There is a problem, as David Sherman puts it, “which is reflected in certain variants of postmodernism” about “whether there is any concept of philosophy left that has not been completely assimilated by the “totally administered society,” such that philosophy has been abolished by virtue of the very fact that it has ultimately not realised itself.” In turn, the need for a radical new account of philosophy is of paramount importance. As Sherman observes: “[o]f course, theory lives on – but the issue is whether it lives on as critical theory.” Our challenge today is to realise and establish new standpoints of critique, and ultimately ground calls for new norms of critique in a foundational critical theory of society.
As a colleague of mine recently noted in following on from the idea of an uncritical critical theory: “the material reality of the subsumption of the academy and the pacification of critical space – that being the brutal suppression of the anti-fees student movement and subsequent fee increase coupled with increasing pressure on faculty to be “academic producers” and deal with even bigger classes and even smaller wages.” Furthermore, we witness today the process of an uncritical critical theory taking further hold as “much of the left” within our academic institutions have “yet to realise that the marketisation of education means making universities think like markets, not just act like them.”
Out of this, and in direct response to certain strands of contemporary leftist theory, including the increasingly popular philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, the basic goals of 21st Century critical theory should not only be a fundamental, holistic critique of late-capitalism and multidisciplinary account of contemporary capitalist society; it should also directly support the self-empowerment and mutual recognition of people. It requires a fundamentally alternative theory of the subject, one which promotes efficacy and mediation over a theory of internal division (See: The Ticklish Subject: A critique of the Lacanian subject and Zizek’s notion of political subjectivity, with emphasis on an alternative). Moreover, in pushing toward a new alternative philosophy of social change we should return to Marx, who saw ‘history as nothing but real human subjects’ and uphold this form of Marxist thinking, which Adorno wonderfully summarises as follows:
While social forces have a tendency to go over the head of individuals, and while the systemic context of ‘(bad) society’ tends to produce and reproduce in history the same coercive, exploitative, authoritarian and dominating social systems, history itself: “does nothing, does not possess vast wealth, does not fight battles. It is man, rather, the real living man who does all that, who does possess and fight; it is not history that uses man as means to pursue its ends, as if it were a person apart. History is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his ends.”
Furthermore, it is so utterly vital that critical theory today, coupled with an alternative philosophy of social change, “ultimately always points out that whilst systems may act in many supra-human ways and exist in ways very different to our own, they are ultimately human machines. Just as humans made them, humans can transform, change or deconstruct them”.
It is the affirmation of the efficacy of people, who can change their sociohistorical situations that we must build an alternative philosophy of social change around. On the basis of an integrative and holistic approach, taking the best from what already exists as a means in the transitory process of sustainable social (historical) change, revolution should be understood in a ground-up or grassroots sense (Wilding and Gunn) that is in constant dialectical relation with the systems it wishes to put in place. Simultaneously bottom-up and top-down, rooted in a foundational theory of recognition (Hegel) as a many-sided human transformation (Gunn/Wilding) as well as an alternative theory of epistemology, cosmology and anthropology that works down toward a concrete phenomenological ethics – this approach at least glimmers of the theoretical horizon of the best we can take from everything that we know.
Less theoretically, the visions of Marx are also not too far in terms of a truly radical alternative political economy that, I argue, equally transcends the modern left’s fascination with a new communism or the opposite of a completely stateless anarcho-primitivism.
Beginning with practical ‘everyday’ examples of alternatives, such as different alternative agriculture systems, peer-to-peer organisations, worker co-ops, alternative educational facilities, open source movements, horizontal communities – all of these extant examples are practical illustrations of the alternative systems and structures in affirmation of the notion of praxis. Are they an ‘end’ in themselves? No, they are not. But are they direct channels that can help empower and re-inspire the idea that change is within our grasp? Yes, certainly.
Indeed, while much can and should be criticised of these examples representative of different alternatives in different spheres of life – considering that the process of fundamental critique should never cease – they are nevertheless ‘signposts’ that can guide the always unfolding, fluid process of transitory change and influence not a ‘new left’ but an alternative form of politics altogether.”