Author Archives: radicalprogress
[Note: This speculative essay was originally posted on my first "Leftist Quaker" blog in Nov. 2009. I'd approach the topic differently today, but recent discussions I've had regarding the relevance of Ken Wilber made the hypotheses I proposed here resurface.]
Ken Wilber has repeatedly said that most of the world is at the level of Nazis in their development, most notably in his recent book, Integral Spirituality. This statement has troubling prejudices within it, as it seems to not ask why this might be so. Even further, is it even really true?
I will propose here that the under-used concept of “pathology” proposed in Wilber’s Integral Psychology has the potential to re-shape and advance a critical understanding of social evolution. I am calling this project of rethinking, “Critical Integrative Theory.” It is integrative, rather than integral, as that term is becoming a trademark of the Wilberian movement, and I wish to cast a wider net. It is called ‘critical’ after the Frankfurt School’s tradition of “critical theory,” of whom Jurgen Habermas is one of the leading thinkers.
Critical Theory is a “social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it.” I know that Wilber does wish to change and critique society, but in these blogs I will pursue a line of social analysis that Wilber seems to neglect, though I do not charge him with intentional neglect.
Frankfurt School critical theory began as an attempt to address the political crises of pre-war Europe. Frankfurt school theorists were troubled by the implications of burgeoning fascism for Marxist (and Liberal) theories of social change and revolution. Many Marxists expected that the working masses in Europe would align themselves with Russia against German and Italian Fascism and overthrow those regimes. However, in both nations the working masses substantially supported Fascism. It is clear that working-class fascism was utterly against the objective interests of the working masses, and yet, millions of workers seem to have swallowed it whole. How do Marxists and progressives account for such a self-defeating situation?
Marxism theorizes that the collectivization of industrial labor leads to the unification of working-class interests and culture, guided by the Communist movement into a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. What happened in Nazi Germany was the unification of the society by appeals to religion, patriotism, sexual repression, and scorn for intellectuals. To this day, working masses around the world are often easily drawn into alliances with the rich and powerful at the expense of their own emancipatory interests. Critical Theory sought to explain this and to do so, it sought resources that lay outside those typically considered politically acceptable to Marxists, namely, Freud, Kant, Weber, among others.
In the decades since the Frankfurt School first coalesced in the 1930s, critical theorists have continued to seek out and extend a critical understanding of political and social development. In the 1960s, Feminism came into the picture to challenge the gender biases of both Marx and Freud. Other challenges to critical thought have come from environmentalist, anarchist, anti-racist, and anti-heterosexist movements and thinkers. Addressing all of these critiques and their relevance to an integrative theory of social evolution is obviously a massive undertaking, but some beginning is vitally important.
One beginning point is class-consciousness. This is a fundamental component of Marxism, though it is not confined to Marxism. Class-consciousness is simply a recognition of the division of power in society that is perpetuated by our contemporary economic system. In all of the things I have read by Wilber, he nowhere acknowledges that the evolution of consciousness might be impacted by economic factors such as poverty, lack of education, or hierarchical workplace conditions. If Wilber has in fact considered this possibility, its lack in his major works, such as Sex, Ecology, and Spiritualityor A Brief Theory of Everything suggests that at best he considers it only weakly relevant or at worst that he considers it has no relevance.
Another element of Critical Theory that addresses the prevalence of fascist mindsets is psychoanalysis. Freud’s theory of the unconscious proposed that we do not always act rationally because we are emotionally deformed, often in our infantile development. Frankfurt theorist Theodor Adorno collaborated with American psychologists to produce the seminal work The Authoritarian Personality which proposed a model for measuring authoritarian tendencies in individuals, as well as a theory of how such authoritarian tendencies become part of the personality. The chief culprit in TAP is harsh parental discipline and abuse.
Here is where Wilber’s concept of pathology in Integral Psychology becomes relevant. Ideally, the development of consciousness involves a wider and wider social world, beginning with infantile egoism and advancing through stages of transcending and including the lower stages in a higher awareness that takes in the interests of others in growing circles of affinity. When something obstructs the ideal stage progression, the personality clings to a lower stage of awareness in an attempt to save the self from a perceived threat. The result is a pathological – neurotic or psychotic – disconnection from healthy awareness and agency.
The combination of class-consciousness and psychoanalysis led critical theorists to the ingenious, though perhaps by now obvious, conclusion that the working masses’ propensity for self-defeat and acquienscence to authoritarianism originated in developmental malformations in childhood, i.e. psychological trauma. Instead of seeing potential “Nazis” everywhere, critical theory offers a sympathetic account of human woundedness that underlies the fearsome threat of mass fascism.
The rise of fascism in Germany was explained by Critical theory as the result of harsh parental discipline that was widespread in the pre-War era. Mothers who had to work due to poverty, could not attend their infants with the sort of indulgent parenting that middle-class mothers could. Even if a working mother was inclined to indulgence, the conditions of poverty and stress would frustrate such aspirations. The conclusion is that poverty psychologically traumatizes infants, obstructing the ideal developmental sequence so prized by Ken Wilber and other integral thinkers. Much, much more could be said here, for example, taking in feminist accounts of how predominantly female mothering leads to sexist attitudes in boys and girls. For the time being, hopefully, what I have written persuades some in the integral/integrative development movement to consider constructive changes in their approach.
The project of a “Critical Integrative Theory” would pursue many of the worthy aims of Wilber’s Integral theory, but subject them to a wide range of radical rethinking that draws on the continuing work of critical theorists. Wilber’s concern about billions of potential Nazis is worrying, but understanding the psychoanalytic and class determinants on human agency reveals that Nazism is not a “natural” stage of development, pace Wilber’s contentions, but rather a pathological developmental aberration. The challenge to integral activists is to use the evitability of pathology as an opening to rethink the project of changing the world. To this point, Wilber’s mode has been to groom a middle-class cadre of enlightened mystics. The elitism of that approach seems self-evident, but also understandable from a critical theory perspective. The psychological development of middle-class infants has its own set of neurotic and pathological pitfalls.
At the risk of being Freudian, I suspect my radical ideas stem from early childhood experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional family that relied on religious shaming, arbitrary punishment, and abuse both physical and emotional to keep us kids in line. It's a mystery to me that my younger brother has chosen to quite enthusiastically embrace the Pentecostal subculture that I find so often toxic.
Perhaps I’m just a contrary old man, but I feel that I can embrace both the most reductionistic physical science, yet also remain devoted to the living heart of religious aspirations. Long after the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason are gone, I believe humanity will live in an Age of Love, Love’s Communism, which will be built upon the fulfillment not only of science and technology, but the maturation and judicious distillation of the world’s cultural legacies, including religion.
In response to Dario Cankovic’s Socialism and Religion, Redux:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions.”
— Karl Marx, Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right
I have a love/hate relationship with religion and layers upon layers of both antipathy and affection for this complex reality. The same thing could be said for the revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary struggle is my primary allegiance; my personal happiness means very little while millions languish under the yokes of the death-systems of capitalism, sexism, racism, authoritarianism, and ecocide (to name only five of the central enemies of all beings on earth.) It seems most urgent to me today that we build alliances with all who are committed to the revolutionary struggle and that emphasizing our common ground is critical. I’m very aware that most people on the far left will disagree with my approach to religion, but it seems to me that the left really has no choice but to rethink how it will work with all potential revolutionaries, the majority of whom are religious — because the majority of humanity is religious.
Derick writes: “The conservative retort that “if we are all equal at the lowest common denominator, then our future is blend indeed” is fundamentally true. The dangerous of this focus on equality for equality’s sake even in equality of substance is subtle but acute in its problem: problems of substantive equality are problems of distribution, but if these problems of distribution are fixed by a structural economic process that is dependent on classes of people doing particular kinds of production, so then we are still left with a fundamental contradiction.”
I reject “bland” or wooden equality, but still we don’t have a better word to characterize the difference between our current social and economic orders and the Communist future we are fighting towards. The distribution of wealth in the world today is grotesquely unequal. Simply reducing that maldistribution would do wonders. How we get there is not easy or obvious, but that we get closer to such substantive equality seems the inescapable consequence of forging a “classless society.”
Human needs do not vary infinitely; we all need a scientifically measurable nutritional intake, a decent place to live, reliable transportation, quality medical care, and a shorter workweek. Nobody needs caviar, a mansion, a Rolls Royce, multiple cosmetic surgeries, or to be able to live off their inheritance. At the opposite end, nobody should be forced to live off of Dickensian gruel, in a rotting shack, chained to one spot, exposed to unsanitary conditions, or forced into constant overtime labor. Between the extremes of opulence and destitution, there is a zone of basically reasonable ordinary needs.
Maybe someday, after the Singularity, we might be able to give everyone free body modification surgeries on a whim, but that day is so far from today it has minimal political implications. The scary blandness of equality is also just that, a boogie-man that doesn’t exist and probably never will. Someday, we might be unfrozen into a future world where everything is bland and sameness, but without poverty and oppression. I’ll take the boredom, please!!
My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for, I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.
Badiou, Alain. “On Evil: An Interview with Alain Badiou.” in: Cabinet. Issue 5, Winter 2001/2002.
Philosophy is not the professional product of philosophers, nor an esoteric discipline of the ivory tower. It is a general human potential that is necessary for our fulfillment as persons. The importance of such a universalistic conception of philosophy was driven home to me as I listened to Bruno Bosteels level criticisms at Alain Badiou’s conception of the importance of philosophy to the rebirth of the idea of Communism in our world. (These comments are taken from a panel on Badiou at last year’s Left Forum.)
Quoting Bosteels: “the place of philosophy in Badiou’s own work causes greater problems for the implementation of the Communist hypothesis …. the task of the formulation of the Communist idea, he attributes that to philosophy …. it is the philosopher’s task to help this type of mediation by working out the very nature of the Communist Idea. And in the absence of this work of the philosopher, Badiou seems to claim even that the masses might once again be disoriented.”
Bosteels quoting Badiou: “In fact, what we are ascribed as a philosophical task – we could say even a duty – is to help a new modality of existence of the hypothesis to come into being, absent which, the people appear once again disoriented and confused. Lacking the idea, the popular masses’ confusion is inescapable.”
Bosteels finds this assertion problematic and tied up with what he takes to be a drift by Badiou into “speculative leftism” a philosophical abstraction that abandons the messy engagement with history considered crucial in left-wing politics ever since Marx declared the supremacy of praxis over theoria. And Bosteels suspects that when Badiou assigns a grand duty to philosophy for the renewing of the idea of Communism he is harkening back to a Platonic vision of the hegemony of the philosopher-kings. I believe that it is very likely that Bosteels has mistaken Badiou’s intent. I read Badiou as not calling for philosophers to undertake the revisioning of Communism, but for the Communists in movement to cease their engagement in forms of Communist politics that have become saturated and instead, turn to philosophy. In other words, turn to a democratic philosophical engagement that takes as its aim rebirthing the idea of Communism.
My interpretation of Badiou can be confirmed by reading Badiou’s own contribution to the Idea of Communism conference in 2009. This essay entitled simply, The Idea of Communism, nowhere contains the word “philosopher.” In fact, it only uses “philosophy” when it appears in citations of his books that contain the word philosophy in the title. If Badiou were proposing that philosophers understood as a distinct class of intellectual experts should dominate the restitution of the idea of Communism, why does this essay never use the term?
That Badiou is rather asserting the duty of philosophizing about Communism for all in the Communist movement is borne out in this passage, “What is at issue is the possibility for an individual, defined as a mere human animal, and clearly distinct from any Subject, to decide to become part of a political truth procedure. To become, in a nutshell, a militant of this truth.” Badiou’s proposal is that Communists become militant partisans of the truth procedure that recreates the idea of Communism for a new sequence of human emancipatory struggles using philosophical means.
Perhaps Bosteels might find even this democratic and lateral interpretation of Badiou’s program troubling. After all, didn’t Marx himself say that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it?” Of course, the simple response to this worry is to cite Adorno, who said that the moment for philosophy’s overcoming had passed, referring to the deformation of Communism in the Stalinist era. We must take up philosophy anew when the structures of praxis we rely upon have become futile repetitions of failure.
We cannot substitute a mere collection of identities for the saturated generic identity of the working class. I think we have to find the political determination that integrates the identities, the principles of which are beyond identity. The great difficulty is to do that without something like the working class. Without something that was a connection between particularity and universality, because that’s what the working class was. The particularity of the working class was its location in a singular place; the working class was generic. The solution of the problem for Marxism was the human group which is not really an identity, which is beyond identity.
We have to do the same thing, but probably without that sort of solution. We cannot say that today this group is the generic group and that the emancipation of this group is also the emancipation of us all. – Alain Badiou, Interview with Diana George
Identities are nothing but ideological coherence maps of resemblances. – C. Derick Varn, “Some Inchoate Thoughts on The Formation of Identity:“
The struggle for freedom and justice in our world is still necessary, despite centuries of modern democracy. Political domination and economic exploitation still hold sway over the vast majority of humanity, with their ecological degradation pushing the entire planet towards catastrophe. In such a situation, the question to be asked is still how can a revolutionary movement be constructed to avert the impending catastrophe? And, moreover, be able to transform the impasse of the present into a fulfillment of the authentic needs and desires of all beings?
Marxism, which Badiou references above, proposed that the industrial proletariat of early industrial capitalism would coalesce over time under revolutionary leadership to finally emancipate humanity. This hopeful vision came to a disastrous impasse in the emergence of Stalinism and the Cold War. Its most visible success, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, is all but buried beneath the rubble of the Berlin Wall.
However, perhaps credit must yet be given to Marx for thinking quite concretely about just how emancipation would progress and which social agents in particular would lead this forward motion of history. His anointing of the “industrial worker” was hardly an obvious choice in his era, but this idea has electrified millions over the past century and a half. There is a compelling logic to this choice, in that the workers still have their hands on the real wealth of the planet in a more direct manner than their capitalist employers. It is still quite conceivable that if only the workers of the world would become conscious of their strategic location within the economic engines of capitalism, and for even just a short time unite wholeheartedly with one another against the rule of capitalism, the shock to the system still seems a glorious possibility.
And yet, today we are easily skeptical of such a revolutionary moment occurring. Every revolution has degenerated back into a new system of domination and exploitation, as the weapons and sanctions of the ruling classes routinely recuperate all resistance. The faith that Marx had in revolutionary leadership now seems quite misplaced and his confidence in working-class militancy a naive wish.
Is there a new emancipatory subject to discovered/constructed, as Badiou proposes? Does his hope of finding the “political determination that integrates the identities” merit anything comparable to the faith of proletarian revolution? The explorations that I’ve been carrying out on my political philosophy blog, “Radical Progress” have addressed this question in an attempt to get past the impasse of the death of Marxism. That said, the main absence I see in the contemporary situation is the lack of unity and intersubjective solidarity within the working-class, or their possible successors to the mantle of revolutionary agency.
Badiou speaks of that which “integrates the identities” and this certainly connects to my conception of how identities work, they are not exhaustive concepts, but rather aspects of a variety of social determinations. Being a worker does not negate whether one is also a woman or a person of African descent, to name two of the most common alternative subject identities in current radical theories. We are all identified with multiple characteristics of the social orders within which we live and move and lose our being. The Marxian hope was never that the workers as workers would revolt against capital, but that they would come to know that they were fraternal humans who could reject the alienated existence in which they lived and, fight for something different.
And yet, today, despite an array of identity politics, most of us don’t seem to have any clue how to come together to fight for emancipation. When we do create an assembly, it dissolves into disorder as we each assert our individuality, perhaps for the first time, to the detriment of finding a way forward to a united goal. This is the tragedy of the Occupy Wall Street general assembly, that even as OWS felt as if it was the dawning of a magnetic and energizing movement, it predictably fell back into the clutches of egoic disconnection that frustrates yet again the possibility of uniting the radicals against the 1%.
It will likely offend many radicals to assert the fact, but the most successful attempt at the sort of intersubjective unification envisioned by Marx in history is religion. The Roman Catholic church alone claims millions of adherents, dwarfing virtually all other identity groups, including Marxism. In fact, to the degree that the historic function of religion was that it sanctioned the social order of its host society, it was perhaps a massive error for the Marxists to believe that they could unite humanity without religion’s practices. Apart from Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad, only Marx himself has ever commanded that sort of mass appeal. The slim chance that Marxism may yet return to its privileged position as the central ideology of the revolutionary left however seems unlikely, the world has truly changed in so many ways that we have to press beyond the conception of a proletarian revolution towards a new integration of identities.
In the face of global warming, ocean acidification, and mass species extinctions, perhaps the most integrative identity we can claim today is that of “earthling.” The late Murray Bookchin proposed that Marxism be replaced by an anarchist and communalist philosophy of “Social Ecology.” The logic behind this seems compelling until we consider the possibility that this identity of ecological beings is barely more tied to a radical vision than is “humanity” in general. A radical agency that emerges from within the struggle for emancipation cannot be identical with an identity that encompasses both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Perhaps we do not need a revolutionary subject as Marx and, apparently, Badiou believe. Perhaps, the revolutionary possibility isn’t predicated on a single antagonism such as economics or politics and the identities that they construct. While I do believe in creating a unified intersubjective organization that will take aim at the death-systems that threaten our very existence, the experience of Occupy Wall Street coming just a year before the 2012 presidential election has elevated my awareness that mass radical mobilizations do not behave in a linear manner. There is no single subject position that is privileged as the revolutionary agent. The complex character of society diffuses and coalesces human actions into unpredictable configurations.