Category Archives: Humanism

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: A Second Dialogue with Charley Earp, part 2

Continued from here. This turns from an interview to a pressing and respectful debate towards the end about the nature of secularism and on absolute ontological claims.

Skepoet: Are these emergent church types actually popular as most of the dominations in Protestant Christianity to show growth are fairly conservative theologically and politically?

Charley Earp: I don’t think it’s their popularity that makes them important. It’s their role as “in-house” critics of Evangelicalism. They are lightning rods for issues often considered closed topics. For example, ex-Pentecostal Emergent theologian Tony Jones was invited to give a plenary address to the Society for Pentecostal Studies annual conference in 2010. SPS is an association of confessional Pentecostals who hold academic positions. It tends to be conservative, but it does have a left-wing element, which is represented via the “Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace and Justice” organization. Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, an assistant professor at Azusa Pacific University Graduate School of Theology and member of PCPJ, was organizing the annual meeting and invited Tony Jones. When word of that got back to denominational leadership in the Assemblies of God – the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world – a fight broke out as these leaders tried to get Tony banned from the conference. Tony openly advocates for same-sex marriage and theological liberalization. He’s quite a fan of Jurgen Moltmann who was inspired by Ernst Bloch to create the “Theology of Hope.”

I’m not saying that emergent Christian leaders are going to entirely turn Evangelicalism to the left, but they are dividing significant sectors of the younger generation against elements of the New Christian Right.

S.: What do you think of Christianity’s movement politically on the world stage?

C.E. Christianity is a multifarious mass. Christians inhabit all social classes and cultural niches. It is the most successful human organization in history, outside the nuclear family. It has united people across cultural divides, as well as built brand new ones out of its own doctrines.

There will be Christians on all sides of any future revolution. There are forces inside and outside Christianity that will remold it and overcome its conservative tendencies. Liberation Theology seems to me to be the only viable interpretation of the faith that can persist after the collapse of capitalism, whether that collapse comes sooner or later.

I also hold that Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism, and all other metaphysical subcultures will be forced to deal with each other and rethink their absolutist claims in light of intensifying cross-cultural interactions. This is already happening in many arenas and will only accelerate.

S.: I am more skeptical about this as intercultural exchange is not unique to capitalist modernity. Also what elements of Christianity are a successful social forms? It seems hard to see what social relationships are consistent in all strands of Christianity. However, there are pretty consistent trends in Protestantism in Asia and Africa where Christianity tends to act as a liberalizing force in its early encounters with native culture, but in also all such societies is now socially and increasingly economically conservative: although the latter seems very context dependent. For example, in South Korea and Japan a Protestant Christian socialism was the dominant strain of thought, but the churches have increasingly mirrored American Protestantism and have become politically entangled with the right. Protestantism in Latin America still seems to be predominantly a slightly left-economic force, but it’s harder to place socially. So while I recognize Christian tendencies on all sides of the question: there does seem to be definite trends that can be sorted out.

C.E.: Intercultural interaction didn’t originate in capitalist modernity, but it will reach its climax and denouement in a similar fashion as capitalist modernity will run its course. Ken Wilber emphasizes that never before in history have the greatest religious and cultural traditions across human history become so widely accessible around the world. It isn’t complete, but it will only accelerate. In Chicago I have my choice of more than a dozen different Buddhist centers from Tibetan to Vietnamese to Japanese to Korean to Westernized practice. That has occurred entirely in my lifetime, it wasn’t true when I was born. In my Quaker denomination, I’ve participated in various interfaith meetings and this dynamic is even being theorized in Evangelical and Pentecostal seminaries as we speak, not always with conventional orthodox results.

My children attended Chicago public schools and were exposed to dozens of different ethnicities and religions. My daughter is actually very attracted to Korean Protestantism, for some reason. My son is a Quaker, too, but he’s still figuring out what that means, since Quakers don’t use a catechism or enforce creeds.

S.: Islam and Christianity has seen massive retrenchment in Christianity as the there is a real decline in the mainline denominations to both left and right variants of theology. Why do think this is and what do you think the relationship is to secularization?

C.E.: Secularization seems to me to be one of the responses to pluralism, to the way modern communications and immigration patterns have forced world religions into new levels of interaction. Modern secularism arose in Europe as a response to the “wars of religion” in the aftermath of the Reformation. Today secularism in the global context as a product of primarily Western Europe and American expansion is viewed by significant parts of the world outside those spheres as both anti-religious and Christian imperialist incursions. How it is perceived depends on whether a given situation elicits a retrenchment of religious identity to resist imperialism – such as in Muslim nations – or for opportunistic economic development – Asian Capitalist “Tigers”.

American Christian fundamentalism is an important historical development in the interaction with secularizing trends. This fundamentalism was originally a reaction to the rise of unorthodox theologies that originated in Europe, as well as to the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” Some fundamentalists did try to harmonize evolution and creationism, but that viewpoint was often rejected in favor of more rigid views. A key element of fundamentalism was an apocalyptic pessimism. This interpretation of the Bible predicted a great Anti-Christ One World Government arising after the Secret Rapture of Christians. This issued in a nearly complete passivity and social disengagement. Evangelism and World Missions to non-Christian cultures took on an urgency and politics became unimportant. The engagement with other religions took the form of strategizing the most effective evangelistic techniques to penetrate non-Christian societies with Americanized versions of the gospel. This gospel was not the original message of Jesus about a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, but a purely apolitical personal salvation focused on the afterlife and coming apocalypse. This apoliticism was quite useful in inculcating docility in the face of capitalist and imperialist exploitations of these societies.

After World War I, the fundamentalist agenda began to emphasize other aspects, such as Zionism and Anti-Communism. After the defeat of Fascism, fundamentalism again assumed a fairly apolitiical quiescent role. This was ended when the Civil Rights movement arose using a fairly orthodox Christianity against racial segregation. The “social gospel” that had been targeted as apostasy by fundamentalists came back with a new compelling moral critique. The “New Christian Right” arose in significant measure from the old-line segregationist preachers like Jerry Falwell. The new targets were feminism, homosexuality, drug war, abortion, and the welfare system.

The decline in secularization in the latter 20th century was a result of the way a segment of the business class partnered with the New Christian Right to attain political power. Today, we are seeing a new wave of departures from Christianity and repressive religions in the U.S. though it is far from a tidal wave. The “New Atheism” was a reaction to 9/11 as an assertion that that tragedy flowed directly from religion. This argument is compelling if not analyzed very carefully, so lots of energy has flowed into that movement.

Add to this the inability of the Christian Right to win the presidential nomination, losing it to Romney, who they nearly all reject as a Christian. Some of the more pragmatic voices on the Right will try to persuade Christians to still vote for Romney, but it’s amazing to me that the choice for evangelical Christians is between a liberal Christian like Obama and a “cultist” like Romney. My family are mostly conservative Pentecostals and we were taught very young how evil Mormons were. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

I’d say secularism and pluralism are back on the agenda and in the ascendancy. If Romney wins, there will be ascendancy. Theologically strict Christians will have to work through their cognitive dissonance with Romney. They either embrace him and pragmatically elevate their politics over their doctrines, or they reject him and he’s weaker than nearly any Republican candidate since Gerald Ford. Reagan himself had weaknesses such as his divorce to contend with. Mormon heresy will seem much worse than divorce to many Christian Rightists.

S.: Do you think Christianity could completely schism over these tendencies?

C.E. I’d say the schism between regressive and progressive religion is permanent and fatal and the progressives will win, unless the Apocalypse of human self-extinction occurs. Unpragmatic walled-garden Fundamentalism (Christian or Islamic) cannot survive for long as a political movement. Even Jerry Falwell was viewed by the apolitical camp as a compromiser for working with different groups of Christians and even neo-conservative Jews! Even the Plymouth Brethren (the original source of apocalyptic fundamentalism) have regrouped and reconciled many of their dozens of schisms. Now, Romney pushes that pragmatic necessity to new heights. Before long, you might even see a politically potent New Atheist Right, followers of Ayn Rand who favor traditional marriage and banning abortion. In a weird way Ron Paul is already in that vein, though he’s still a Christian.

Christianity has been around for so long and is disseminated in the Derridean sense of producing multiple incommensurable discourses, of which one cannot choose the “correct interpretation.” This is why I, who doubts if Jesus was an actual historical person, still consider the Communist threads in the Biblical texts as powerfully useful in creating a new post-Marxist communism, which Badiou and Zizek have confirmed for me. As I’ve said before, Christian Communism isn’t a new idea for many of us, I’ve just hesitated to articulate it while Marxism still seemed to have more life within it. Latin American theologies like Jose Miranda’s 1982 book “Communism in the Bible” were here before me. Here the Zizekian story from “Looking Awry” about the man who leaves his wife and children and then turns up a decade later with a new wife and children seems to exactly characterize the possibility of Communism being reborn as a post-supernaturalist pluralist religious discourse.

Zizek’s point here was that perceiving your life as if you were moving forward to something entirely new is always deceptive, because if you look backward retrospectively, you see that you are really just going where you’ve already been. I left Christianity over 15 years ago, but I keep going back to it in new ways. I don’t think there’s nothing new in this repetition, after all, perhaps your new spouse isn’t as verbally abusive as the old one, and so on. Quakerism is much healthier for me than Pentecostalism. In fact, an argument can be made that Pentecostalism was a variant on Quakerism. Old wife same as the new wife.

As for the left and religion, I see my continuing passion to be advocating radical ideas among religious people. Atheists generally find me annoying, since I keep insisting that they are missing out on a potentially enormous mass audience. If both Christian and Islamic forms of Communist vision can be articulated, as well as other post-Marxist religious and atheist Communisms, we have a message to the world that can resonate in the present. Rather than fighting for early modern secularism of the liberal or Leninist types, a new post-postmodern political pluralism seems to be urgently needed that creates avenues of mutual understanding between Atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Neo-Pagans, and others. I have even less knowledge of Hindu traditions than Muslim, though this past weekend I re-watched the film “Gandhi” and know that there’s fertile soil there as well.

I also think we can mine the traditions of Anarcho-communism here as well. In fact, some of the hard but necessary work seems to me to revolve around how to split the differences between statist and anti-statist communisms. Anarcho-communism hasn’t really had a political program for a long time (not since Catalonia, I’d say) and if they care to create one, it will have to face hard into the fact that State power isn’t going to disappear, so a new “via media” will have to be found between doctrinaire anti-Statism and engaging state power. Here I sit in an odd relation to Badiou and Critchley who both advocate “politics at a distance from the State.” This makes sense if one is talking to Marxists, not so much when talking to Anarchists. Meeting in the middle ground seems unexplored territory, yet Noam Chomsky has been there for decades advocating saving the welfare systems while maintaining his generally anarchist critique of most State actions.

All of these post-Marxist developments impinge on the possibility of multiple religious revolutionary movements that are progressive in an authentic sense, not regressive like 1978 Iran. Even Hugo Chavez has something to offer this moment, as confused as he is about Iran.

S.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

C.E. I hope it’s alright with you if I take the opportunity to address a topic that came up between you and I outside the context of this interview on a Facebook thread. In particular, whether my approach takes religious beliefs seriously enough? You and I have disagreed over in what sense absolutism and religious beliefs are connected. I won’t assume that I really understand your take on it, since our discussion has been so informal.

I was a believing Christian almost from the time I could form the sentence, “Jesus is my savior.” However, as I’ve studied theories of cognitive formation such as Piaget and James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” research, I can now look back and see that my religious beliefs evolved without my conscious control of them. My cognitive and emotional grasp of ideas of God, heaven, infinity, absolute morality, and so on took place within my growth from a schoolboy to adolescent to young adult to older adult and, as Fowler documents, our “faith” “evolves,” even if a person never really goes beyond what he calls a “conventional” religious stance.

Beyond Fowler’s individual psychology, there are the social systemic orders to consider. I believe that each of us living today have been born into societies that are complexly structured by systems of domination, oppression, repression, and exploitation. Most religious believers of any known society anywhere are on one side or another – usually the disempowered side – of multiple binaries of dominated or dominating, exploitated or exploiting, and so on. A white working-class male can simultaneously be a leader in his church, a patriarchal husband, a racist, and yet be a minimum wage worker in capitalism, which leads to a subjective amalgam of both dominator/exploiter and dominated/exploited attitude formation. The facticity of being a worker under capital has been believed somewhat vulgarly by some Marxists as automatically endowing them with a revolutionary potential. However, these forms of Marxism see the process of consciousness formation in far too mechanical terms.

What has come to engage a significant amount of my thought is trying to understand the hierarchical mind that seems to take pleasure in being a subordinate. I chafe under male domination so badly that I never held a job for more than a couple years from the age of 17 to 39, when I began working for a travel company that was managed almost exclusively by women. I’ve been with them for over 9 years. My immediate supervisors have been women for that entire time and I’m generally a model employee. Apparently, I only take pleasure in being exploited by women! Apparently, many workers take pleasure in being subordinated to capitalism and that messes with simple Marxist notions of revolutionary agency.

My general observation about the complexity of consciousness and its reference to religious beliefs is that using my eightfold framework of gender, sex, class, race, religion/irreligion, politics, ecology, and aggression/violence I understand each person is embedded in these systemic dynamics which make holding a single consistent set of cognitive religious ideas nearly impossible. When I was an active participant in Christian churches as an adult for over two decades, I discussed theology at every opportunity and in nearly every single conversation I’d find some unorthodoxy in every person, many of whom were members in good standing and even leaders in confessional denominations that had fairly specific tenets. Many had a hard time accepting the Trinity, or the incarnation, or hell, or whatever. These private conversations revealed that almost no one bothered to work through their cognitive dissonances about their beliefs with much seriousness.

Even theologians and the discipline of theology are themselves built upon the need to try and resolve cognitive dissonance and it is largely unsuccessful, though one might ask is any academic pursuit ever successful in the sense of resolving all cognitive dissonances about a topic? Imagine the enormity of the task of creating the “One True Orthodox Faith” that is entirely self-consistent and coherent! It has been the agenda of certain religious elites since at least the first Nicean Council of 325 C.E. and of course, even further back. Have they succeeded? Of course not, look at the thousands of churches that the heretics, apostates, gnostics, and ostensibly orthodox have formed.

So, religious belief is a shifting protean mass, much like the various Marxisms. This is why I insist radicals and revolutionaries do not have the luxury of treating religious beliefs in isolation from the complexities of social dynamics. We can’t try to both convert people to revolution and to atheism in the manner of Lenin, Trotsky, or worse, Stalin. Our organizations should be consciously pluralist.

Just as the ruling classes manipulate religion and atheism for their ends, so should the revolutionaries. I don’t mean the term “manipulate” in a baldly cynical manner, either. There are revolutionary theologies out there, notably Latin American liberation theologies but many more, that can be inserted into the religious cultures of any society as a productive intervention against ruling class religion. Atheism has limited success because it, too, is severely shaped by the elitisms within the matrix of domination. The necessary response to religious and irreligious dominator ideologies from above is to encourage a flourishing pluralism of religious and irreligious revolutionary visions from below.

Will there ever be a society that has the luxury to create a wholly consistent metaphysical system that everyone can believe? Not in my or your lifetime. Can we acheive revolutionary unity that can win the fight against capitalism, racism, sexism, tyranny, religious supremacism, and ecocide? Consider how capitalism and representative democracy came to rule the planet. Is it consistent, coherent, and lacking in cognitive dissonance? No, yet it rules effectively. A revolutionary pluralism can also come to rule in the name of a emancipated humanity and flourishing ecology.

S.: My disagreement with you is not just about seriousness because we believe in the same basic set of facts:

1) The secular and religious have been co-defining each other by various levels of cultural dominance over time, so even those concepts are inter-dependent in ways that are to break down, but if that it is the conceptual case, then the matter becomes solely about truth claims.

2) Religion is a historically development both it is beliefs and its social forms. The very idea of religion has an incoherence at it’s core that makes sense only when you look at the Pre-Christian and non-Christian categories. The way Stoics and Platonists talked about their beliefs were similar terms to the way Confucians and Buddhists talked about theirs, and yet we label one a religion and the other a philosophy. But anyone with any historically aware categorical sense
will tell you that neither of the categories really holds in the way we believe them now. Furthermore, the ideas of within a religion are similarly historically confused and that is actually a good thing: some may call this historical contingency, moral progress, or the dominance of the zeitgeist. I suppose we can take our pick on which one we mean. But this means that values that would be considered secular, as in values outside of the purview internal to religious ideology, drive the manifestation and justification of religious ideas.

3) The suppression of religion backfires if it is actively pursued. Both in the case of extremely conservative variants of Russian Orthodoxy and of “radical” (reactionary) Islamism develop out of the state suppression of religion in the various secular Pan-Arabist movements as well as in colonial periods. Often leftists lazily conflate the two reasons for suppressing religion because the outcome was the same, but that brings me to where we differ.

4) Even the most die-hard atheists has points of ethical and ontological commitments that are not empirically or rationally justified, or even justifiable. Therefore, everyone has a political “theology” in the sense that Carl Schmitt used to the term.

But our disagreement is profound and based on three key differences:

1) Historically, religious ideologies that make universal claims do so not on pluralist grounds–Abrahamic religions especially, but it is misleading to see it as unique to them because such developments can be seen in Buddhist nationalism in Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Thailand. All countries where Buddhism became dominant by interpolating or syncretizing prior beliefs and then actively suppressing them when they achieved state dominance and the support of a court or Imperial power. The versions of these religions that “remained” radical avoided or even anathematized state power, or have developed in context with other prior strong traditions would they could not entirely incorporate and had separate identities. The examples you give of the liberating versions of Christianity, for
example, have never been socially predominant in their home countries at a political level, so we do not know what they would do with state power. We have a good idea though given that even proto-Orthodox, proto-Catholic Christianity immediately became tied to schisms and violent purges the moment it had any favor from the state. The first Nicean council is a perfect example of that.

2) You’re completely correct about the parallel to Marxism on one level: that as “Marxist” thinkers interpreted the texts they developed readings that were universal, but in application and faces with the realities of the state form, more excluding forms began to dominate and could only be maintained by active purging of prior forms. In fact, as one can see in say, the Maoist cultural revolutions: forms of a hypothetical function that were “deviant” were seen as more
dangerous than completely separate religions. Oddly, something that Islam seems to have foreseen as a problem in its holy texts and over its historical development tried to enshine a protection against in the idea of Ummah and dhimmi as opposed to the infidels. Yet even in that case, the religion to which Islam most resembles is Judaism, not Christianity, and the prime tension it has after dealing with the imperialism directed against the peoples under its ideological forms.

3) The reason for this is a concept that I think applies to human cognition nearly universally: dialectical scission. A totality always divides into pluralities, or particulars, in other to be comprehensible, but the moment one links the particularities in order to classify and understand them, a second-order totality re-emerges, which then has to be demarcated. If you want to claim universal-ism without pluralism implicit within it: then you must try to render the
particular universal by stopping the demarcation and eliminating the other. This always fails in some sense even in successful genocides because the elimination or removal changes parts of the totality, this starting a comprehensible demarcation, and so the process continue. This is why the events I described in my second point seem to happen whenever an ideology, in the sense of idea, starts to dominate.

This leads me to an ultimate break with your line of thinking:

Any attempt to accommodate an claim about the ultimate into pluralism in which that absolute is given primacy will necessitate a political exclusion of some kind. Religion is not comprehensible without either a rupture of orthopraxy (“sin,” “miasma,”) or a rupture of orthodoxy (“heresy,” “wrongful speech,” etc). The pluralism necessarily undoes itself in the same way universal-ism does. While religious believers can be included in a plural universal, the moment you give privilege to that particularity, it will the process of scission will work itself out in history as groups seek to end exposed “cognitive dissonance.” The move to reduce cognitive dissonance and to end process of dialectical scission will happen in all most societies and when it is incorporated and privileged into a political praxis, it can only maintain it by using the states monopoly on the legitimization of violence. This is why I am a secularist in the sense that I do not wish to privilege any particularity to a universal status: I value the pluralism within the totality and want to learn to live with dialectical scission and the uncertainty it can create. In that sense, I agree with you on some of this but don’t think you take religion’s claim to WANT the absolute “seriously” enough. Just because people can’t come up with a coherent explanation: doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try. In history, that drive is one of the few constants.

Lastly, there is a way in which I think you are fundamentally misunderstanding capitalism and overstating on representative democracy:

1. Capitalism as a productive form exists nearly universally now in human cultures because it’s efficiency (and imperial impetus to it in the early states), but ideologies of capitalism are plural. All ideologues of capitalism, however, try to make their ideological justification for it universal. (Just like the religions do). It’s success is not predicated on that: it’s predicated on the fact that it is initially more efficient than most prior forms of organization. The list of reifications (sexism, racism, ecocide, etc) are abstractions of human relations–they are not real, you cannot fight them in that sense. Some of epiphenomenal to capitalist culture: racism and sexism are not dependent on capitalism, but existed prior and were easily incorporated into it as a means of
assigning class. Reductionistic Marxists who claim that racism is just a class development completely miss the boat on this, but so to are the non-Marxist leftists who see a litany of oppression(s) that are somehow necessarily conflated into one whole. We can see scission at work here, can’t we? Until we can offer a productive form that can answer capitalism, we aren’t going to transcend all of it, or perhaps, any of it. Conversely, until we can offer a political praxis and narrative (myth) that can lead us to a “value” system that could produce said productive form, we are essentially doing eschatology. We don’t defeat capitalism just by trying to develop a pluralist ideology to combat it, even if I think that is necessary.

2. Just as a matter of empirical fact: representative democracy is the fastest growing state form, but it does not rule the world. At least 1/6 to 1/3 of the world’s populations do not live in representative democracies and the democracies of both the US and EU have most of their state functions in undemocratic or only
semi-democratic institutions. Representative democracy is incoherent at its core: in fact, it has a contradiction in it’s very conception and has since far before capitalist modernity. That does not, however, end the drive to make it coherent. That drive to make it coherent has been a liberating feature in the past, but as economic and geo-political conditions change, then this becomes harder to maintain and something that was liberating is now oppressive.

I think that draws out my disagreement with you, but I hope you see that while the disagreement is profound so are the points of agreement. I will let you have the last word as it is my interview of you, and I don’t want to be uncharitable by responding with a highly philosophical and long form of my polemical engagement with you. Anyway, you do give me hope that religious thinkers can come to right conclusions and should be seriously listened to, and not shut out or oppressed out of existence, but I do think ultimately “irreligion and religion” from below will predicated on secular pluralism in any political or social form “the left” (whatever that actually means now) advocates.

C.E.: On your first point of “our disagreement”, I think I see one disagreement and one apparent misunderstanding in this topic. I do *not* advocate any religion or atheism holding state power. As a communist of universal love (I should coin a term like “agapestic communism” maybe? Naah, too Christian.) with anarchist tendencies, if there is some transitional state apparatus constructed after the revolution, I see it as very limited, with most power being exercised in direct democratic councils that are specifically constructed to be pluralistic in matters of religion. I envision ecumenical and interfaith consultations being conducted that work out specifically religious conflicts, in contrast to directly economic and political ones. Of course, most religious conflicts will overlap with these other sorts, but disentangling the overlaps is still a substantive religious task. Interactions between religious and irreligious groups will be conducted in keeping with democratic, libertarian, and egalitarian forms.

Before the revolution, I advocate socialist, anarchist, and other left organizations partnering with religious leftists to highlight the diversity of ways that revolutionary goals and values can be justified and propagated by a plethora of atheist and religious “political theologies.” Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and atheist “theologies” of religious pluralism have already been developed in academic forms, these need to be taken on explicitly by revolutionaries and advocated in the public square.

So, the revolution will be pluralistic and no religion or atheism will lead it. In a majority Christian society like the U.S. this means we need to work to change the politics of the churches, mosques, and synagogues more than their theologies, which will subtly or overtly change their theologies, but the horse of political goals needs to lead the cart of religious reformation. This means convincing those in the religious and irreligious camps to come to political agreements that are justifiable from diverse theological and atheological premises.

On the second point of our disagreement, I am not sure where we actually disagree there. I would probably emphasize even more the horrendous effects of State-sponsored atheism on civil liberties and social freedoms. The massacres, imprisonments, and repression of priests, monks, and lay religious adherents by some Communist powers are simply staggering and appalling. Atheism is no guarantee of fair jurisprudence or policing.

The mutual hostility between Christians, Muslims, and Jews cannot be solved by a purely secular approach. These groups need to engage in a decades-long reconciliation process. This has been initiated by various bodies on all sides and the work of disentangling genuinely religious issues from non-religious ones is in part a theological work that cannot be carried out by atheists, though they should be brought into the dialogues as well. There is actually a movement for “interfaith humanism” being formed by younger folks who are getting involved in ecumenical and interfaith organizations to work out how to contribute to better understanding across the secular/religious divides. The blog nonprophetstatus.com is dedicated to this work.

You’re dialectical points in third section are little bit abstract. I am less than fully comprehending your totality/scission construct here. I don’t doubt that there’s valuable ideas in there, but it’d take some work on the background assumptions you employ to grasp some of this. If I can really vulgarize it, you seem to be saying that the quest for absolutism cannot be tamed within a pluralist framework, that a more robust secularism needs to be enforced so that absolutists can’t find the means to re-assert their dominance. My objection to that is, who the hell decides who enforces secularism? It’s democratic turtles all the way up and down the revolutionary social structure, to infinity.

Is absolutism a constant drive? Well, your darling Hegel was certainly an absolutist and Marx learned quite well from him. Not to be harsh on either of them, but I am inclined to believe that absolutism is actually a neurosis, sometimes a psychosis. It certainly was in my case. Is the very concept of an infinite creator an absolutism that has to be restrained by a secular functional atheism? There are grounds within the classic monotheisms for pluralism such as the notion of universal sinfulness, the critique of hypocritical religion, mercy & forgiveness, the very fact that this infinite creator doesn’t itself wipe out unbelievers wholesale, mystical incomprehensibility of the nature of G-d, the Golden rule, etc.

On the first point of my “misunderstanding,” I think we’re talking around similar issues, but you come at the problem of e.g. religious, male, white supremacy from the assumptions of Marxism, yet see Marxism’s limits so you move away slowly from Marxist ones towards a more complex formulation. I come from a religious supremacist viewpoint initially, moving away somewhat rapidly, but often not rapid enough, towards a pluralistic revolutionary viewpoint. Neither of us are reductionists, but we do think some things like capitalism have to remain close to the top of our revolutionary priorities, so we approach incorporating anti-capitalism with political theology from different directions. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle somewhere, but maybe our initial starting-points are on different planes, so we always just miss each other.

I conceptualize the multiple systems of domination not in terms of capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. at the most fundamental level, but as power inequalities between agents moving through collectively constructed relational networks situated within the ecosphere of planet earth. Capitalism, racism, religious/irreligious supremacism, ecocide, and sexism are constructed by (mostly) white ruling class males (with some female and non-white collaborators) to deploy multiple power dynamics, with some dominators spending more energy on maintaining gender inequities, and others more focused on economic ones, etc. In the end, they are all constructs of the ruling classes. The subordinate collectives (who are often already the construct of the matrix of domination) construct their counter-systems in opposition to some of the ruling classes’ powers, but these have historically been much weaker than the power of the ruling classes. The revolutionary break will occur when a progressive convergence of key oppositional constructs focuses enough social power to actually permanently undermine the stability of the ruling classes’ hegemonies.

On the second part of that, representative democracy is the public form that legitimizes the governments and, by tacit implication, the ruling classes of the US and Europe, which from there rule the world. I didn’t mean to suggest that every government on the planet is a representative democracy, nor that this form is the actual dominant power. Representative democracy and capitalism as paired terms functions as a sort of syndecoche for the current forms of the matrix of domination.

I’ve been dismissive of secularism in part because both its Communist and Liberal Democratic forms have only aggravated religious tensions and hostilities worldwide, which are embedded within the economic, racial, and political systems of domination. The working-classes, women, people of color, and ignorant masses of the world are predominately religious. Their absolutisms aren’t the absolutism of the powerful, but of the excluded and dominated. They absolutely believe that G-d or Buddha or whatever Final Judge may exist will exonerate them as innocent victims of unjust suffering. Just as science needs immutable natural laws to reach useful knowledge, humans needs a kind of moral certainty to demand justice in this world. Religion is far more capable of this than is atheism. In a world where the poor are finally emancipated then, maybe, religion will wither away like the Communist State.

S.: My last word is this: when the absolutism of below has power, what will tame it? There seems be a essentialization of people in there some where that assumes that having power won’t cah be the characters of the oppressed. My own Jewish roots make me skeptical of that given the history of Zionism and orthodoxy when the diaspora is ended. In a strange way, you talk more Hegelian than I do when it comes to religious progress: I don’t think there is an end to history nor do I think that religious moral certainty is actually all that certain in some key way atheistic frameworks aren’t. I don’t think you believe that either, but the language creeps back in. That’s the leap I don’t see since as we have both agreed that religious thinking change from things outside itself and internal to believers in a non-religious way, the moral certainty of individuals will come from somewhere. It may have been born of the church or innate to our biology, I suspect it’s somewhere in between. I think absolutism in second order logic is unavoidable as even the claim of epistemic relativism is an absolute claim in the second order. Those formal tensions to the way we structure thought have politically implications, but I definitely see the issue with enforced irreligion. That will turn most of those on that opium into raging addicts in withdrawal. No better way to make reactionaries than to make martyrs, and no better hypocrisy than that either.

C.E.: I don’t worry about some of these things, because I do see most political actions as practice that justifies its behavior retrospectively. I don’t think there is a way to give everyone a set of correct political opinions, nor a complete philosophical framework. You and I and many of our interlocutors do try and create philosophical frameworks to reach correct political opinions, but invariably, we are quite imperfect at this task. The Christians, left or right, are often victims of the Reformation’s insistence on correct “faith” which gets reduced to holding a correct set of propositional beliefs. Catholic ideas of orthopraxy mattering more than orthodoxy is quite in keeping with a late modern post-Marxist political situation in which we don’t have the luxury of believing in revolutionary inevitability.

So, we intervene where we can, imperfectly. For me, Christians are the people with whom I am most likely to discuss politics, whether it’s my conservative Republican mother, brother, and sister, or my Green Party wife (who I think voted from Obama in 2008), or the various young theologians I have the pleasure to know, or various Christian Quakers. My perception that there simply are not enough atheists to carry out a revolution in the U.S. leads me to think that I have to continue to work within that reality.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO. part 2

Continued from part 1. A note: it took KMO a few days to answer the last two questions because he found them much more perplexing upon reflection than he thought at first. 
Skepoet:   You and Doug Henwood have been calling out NPR lately.  Why do you think it has so much cache among liberal and lefty types?

KMO:  I love NPR. I’m a lifelong listener. I think it appeals to lefty Baby Boomers because that’s the target demographic. It’s clearly aimed at people with too much education, critical thinking facility and attention span to take more ‘mainstream’ news and current events programming seriously, and so it flatters its audience with the tacit message, “You’re so smart for not settling for low-brow sound bite journalism and fake debates between shrill talking heads.”

NPR, particularly it’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, annoys the living shit out of me because they respect all of the same taboos that the corporate media hold dear and actually serve to reinforce and legitimize those taboos by posing as a free and unbeholden actor. I think they function as what people more steeped in political language than I am like to call a ‘left gate-keeper.’

That said, let me reiterate; I love NPR. I listen to it all the time,  although less so now that I live in New York City and have more alternatives to choose from.

S:  You have been working with Occupy Cafe and you have recently moved to New York: what are you thoughts on the developments of Occupy?

KMO:  You may have heard that Occupy Wall Street has moved from Zuccotti Park to Union Square. I’ve been by Union Square a couple of times to check out the vibe, and except for the inordinate police presence and a table holding up an OWS banner with a donation jar on it, I saw nothing to indicate that there was anything at all out of the ordinary going on there. I know there have been a few Occupy events at which people were arrested, but I think the mild winter weather has not been a blessing to Occupy. I think people need some recuperation, and I think that 70 degree days in February put psychological pressure on the Occupiers to get back in the game before their batteries were sufficiently re-charged.

As exciting as OWS was last year, I don’t really want to see what it will become now that it has solidified into a recognizable brand and a more-or-less fixed organization. I would rather see everybody change clothes, change dance partners, and let the spirit of protest manifest itself in a new form in 2012.

S:  What would you like to the see the spirit of occupy become?

KMO:  Last year, Occupy changed the parameters of the mainstream conversation. At first the corporate media ignored OWS, then they thrashed about, grasping at any possible means of discrediting or discounting it, and then the 1% / 99% lingo entered the mainstream conversation. Suddenly, the vast disparities of wealth and privilege in our society materialized in view and required acknowledgement and comment in the mainstream narrative. That is but one of a herd of elephants in the proverbial room. This year, I want more elephants to
de-cloak.

The Drug War has become an invisible Juggernaut. It’s excesses and the resulting prison nation that have resulted from absurd mandatory minimum sentencing laws are completely indefensible from any rational perspective. In the 80s and early 90s, Drug War propaganda was everywhere. Now, prohibition-themed public service announcements are
rare. The whole monstrous program barrels forward under its own steam, but discussion of its utility or whose ends it serves is completely absent from the mainstream narrative. I think this is starting to change, and the recent Summit of the Americas at which Latin American leaders insisted that we examine alternatives to the Drug War now has
president Obama explicitly defending prohibition and the prison industrial complex. By the time November rolls around, I want it to be glaringly obvious to anyone tuned into the mainstream narrative that Barrack Obama and the Democratic Party are the party of Empire, the party of prisons, the party of the surveillance state, and the party
of the financialized economy. Whether it is OWS or some other mechanism that effects these changes in perception doesn’t matter much to me. I think that Ron Paul’s candidacy has done a lot more good on this front than has OWS.

S: The drug war is one of the few policies outside of the wars in the Mideast in which the majority of the population, outside of law enforcement, don’t support anymore.  It costs the states incredible amounts of money, and it destabilize Latin American countries. Why do you think it continues?

KMO:  Money.

S:  Money for whom?   That’s the real issue for me.  It actually costs most parties involved more than they make in the long run, so the question becomes “who benefits.”

KMO:  I think the key phrase there is, “in the long run.” The Drug War creates huge flows of money, the channeling of which provides short term benefit to entities like governments and corporations. This comes at an enormous short-term cost to millions of individual humans and an ultimately catastrophic cost to society, but the pressure to favor short
term gain over long term well-being is certainly not the exclusive province of the Drug War.

S:  What are the best ways to frame the issue in the general public ?

KMO:  That’s a really challenging question for a number of reasons. At one level, it seems that my own perspective is so deviant that what seems obvious for me is completely alien to “the common man,” whoever he is. So what are my intuitions worth when it comes to a successful re-framing of the Drug War? That viewpoint is laden with a blinding payload of self-flattery. I suspect that when the Greatest Generation dies off and the Baby Boomers are panicked over the fact that their retirement security has evaporated, we can frame the question as, “We can’t afford to fund your retirement AND the Drug War, so what’s it gonna be?” That, I think, will be a no-brainer for the Boomers.

Finally, the whole Drug War stands or falls with the prohibition of marijuana. The propaganda is all about cocaine and heroin, but without the prohibition on marijuana, there are not enough “drug criminals” out in the world to justify the gazillion dollar Drug War budget. Depending on how you massage the poll results, we’re pretty close to having half of the existing population, complete with members of the Greatest Generation who participated in lynchings, already favoring the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use. I heard Ethan
Nadelmann give a talk at the Cato Institute in 1999. He said something that stuck with me for more than a decade. He said, “Support for the Drug War is a thousand miles high, a thousand miles long, and one inch thick.”

S:  Do you think pointing out how insane the prison-congressional complex has gotten which actually privatized profits from prisons at extreme cost to the tax payer could be a way forward? Recently I saw that even at the most high estimates we have beat Stalin’s gulag in raw numbers of people in prison and almost all of it is drug related. One almost sees this as a political crime, like “speculation” was in the Soviet Union, rather than a purely administrative category.

KMO:  The Drug War started in a fairly honest way. It was clear that the prohibition of certain drugs and the enforcement of those prohibitions were intended to single out blacks, Mexicans, and politically and culturally disobedient youth. The architects of the Drug War were fairly open about this motivation, and the majority population favored the suppression of these groups. Now, the official policy of the federal government is one of color-blindness or the embrace of ethnic diversity, and our current cultural narrative condemns racism. While the cultural narrative has changed, the existing apparatus of the Drug War, which systematically imprisons blacks and Latinos, remains in place. Even worse, in the decades since the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has entered the mainstream. It’s prohibition, originally meant to criminalize ethnic minorities and rebellious youth, now criminalizes huge swathes of mainstream society. Because the racism at the heart of the Drug War cannot be admitted, the fact that the same Drug War now criminalizes the lifestyles of tens of millions of otherwise obedient whites cannot be acknowledged as an unintended consequence and corrected.

Those who profit from the Drug War  (a set that includes just about everyone, if Catherine Austin Fitts is to be believed – perhaps link to her essay Narco Dollars for Dummies)  cannot acknowledge the size and composition of the prison population without self-condemnation. No rational discussion of the topic can be permitted at this point, as
the avoidable and egregious harm produced by the Drug War is so glaring. It’s grounding in systemic racism and repression of political dissent is so obvious that it cannot withstand even the most cursory examination.

One reason why many whites still favor prohibition and mass incarceration is that most drug criminals are arrested in cities but housed in rural prisons. Prison jobs prop up many otherwise failing local rural economies. I saw a news story (which I posted to the Friends of the C-Realm) the other day (it was really a piece of corporate propaganda branded with the CBS News imprimatur) touting the benefits of a robotic prison guard. Corporate profits generated by mass incarceration can be increased by increasing the prison
population and decreasing labor costs. If labor costs can be lowered in the short term by replacing human prison guards with robotic systems, then the logic of the corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value in the short term will dictate that this sort of automation be adopted even if it is obvious that doing so will undermine one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Drug War. This doesn’t give me much reason for hope however. Modern-day logging operations employ very few people because technology has allowed one heavy equipment operator to do the work of an army of men wielding saws and axes. Even so, people who live in the economically devastated husks of rural towns that used to thrive on the basis of logging industry jobs still revile environmentalists as enemies of economic vitality. People in these communities still favor logging industry jobs over forests even though the logging industry no longer provides jobs to a sizable percentage of the local population.

S:  The issue of stacking districts with prison populations is an interesting problem. Even though in many of the states that do this felons cannot legally vote ever, the prison population is counted for appointing state representation. So it can be a form of “empty district building” and this increases rural, generally Republicans, representation against urban centers.  This leads me to think that there structural problems of electoral reform, not just for the drug but for many elements of our society, will actually not be particularly responsive to public pressure.

KMO:  Agreed.

S:  What gives you hope right now?

KMO: I hate to give a nit-picky answer to a straightforward question, but as someone who voluntarily engages in philosophical discussions, I figure it’s par for your course.

Channeling Paul Kingsnorth, now. “Hope for what?”

Hope for the future of life on Earth? I know some people who think that human industrial activity will turn the Earth into a Venus-like world, unfit even to support microbial life. This fear clusters in my own consciousness with the fear that the CERN particle accelerator will destroy the universe or that the Bible is literary true and that Christian true believers will soon be raptured into heaven leaving the rest of us in the clutches of the Anti-Christ.  I’m not saying that the danger of a run-away greenhouse process is as remote as the other  two I mentioned, but I have as much trouble working myself into a state of genuine concern over it as I do taking seriously a Left Behind scenario.

Hope for the future of the human species? Ninety nine percent of the species that have lived on Earth are now extinct. Perhaps humans will transcend our biology and project our consciousness out into the larger universe to take our place among the gods, but it’s also quite likely that we will go the way of most of the species that have arisen on this planet, and I’m fine with that. Even if industrial civilization has a short future, I do think that humans will be on the scene for hundreds of thousands of years yet. I’m not worried about
the survival of the human species.

Hope for the continuation of the status quo of global corporate capitalism? For the sake of the non-human life on Earth, I hope it does NOT continue.

Hope for a version of the technological singularity that preserves and advances those aspects of human intelligence that I value? There are people working on so-called Friendly AI, but given the fact that so much robotics research is driven by the military and that the leading forms of artificial pseudo-intelligence operate in the service of corporations and their overriding mandate to maximize short-term financial gain by externalizing costs at the expense of future prosperity, which is to say denying the consequences of their actions, I think that the Vile Offspring of Charles Stross’s Accelerondo is the more likely outcome.

Hope that industrial civilization can execute a deliberate soft-landing and transition to a low-power existence without leaving the survivors in a state of collective PTSD? It’s certainly within our power if we decide that that is what we want to do. The real barrier to this is our conditioned expectations and the psychology of previous investment.

Paul Gilding gave an optimistic TED talk recently in which he basically affirmed the Doomer vision that I’ve been articulating in answer to your question, and then he ended by pointing out that 4 days after the USA entered World War II our ancestors halted all domestic automobile production and converted that manufacturing capacity to the
service of the war. We CAN turn on a dime, but we won’t until a serious crisis smacks us in the face. Gilding’s faith is that the crises are coming and that the turning on a dime will follow. He might be right, and I guess that’s where my own hope finds a bit of traction. I hope he’s right.

My fear is that the media apparatus for worldview management has grown so sophisticated and effective that the majority of people will regularly be stepping over corpses on their way to work and that they will continue to believe that everything is on track for a brighter tomorrow and that better times are just around the corner so long as we all keep the faith and keep plugging away at our assigned tasks.

Hope that we can arrest the slide into a high-tech totalitarian society? Occupy Wall Street, the mass demonstrations around the globe,the work of Anonymous and WikiLeaks all give me reasons to hope.

The hope that I hold closest to my heart is that my two sons will get the chance to live full-featured human lives that include education, romantic love, family life, and satisfying work. What gives me hope here is John Michael Greer’s argument that civilizations in a free-fall state of collapse still move so slowly in comparison to a human lifetime that, for the people living through the collapse, everything seems normal. Unfortunately, his arguments are all
historical, and I think that some aspects of our current situation are unprecedented.

S:  Anything you’d like to say in closing?

KMO:  Last week I gave a talk at Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center, and after I had described the seemingly-inevitable and traumatic transition from a growth-based civilization to a steady state or contracting civilization, one audience member asked me what the magic lotto ticket out of our situation was. I said that I didn’t see one that seemed likely. He said he knew what it was, and I invited him to stand up, take the mic, and share with the audience. He did so. His magic lotto ticket: aliens.

He claimed that non-human intelligence from outside of space and time stand ready to resolve our dilemma any day now and that we can make contact with them via psychedelics. I myself have made a sustained and good faith effort to contact and partner with non-human intelligences via entheogens (psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and San Pedro cactus). I’ve had provocative encounters, but nothing that has convinced me completely that I wasn’t encountering myself within the confines of my own skull and nothing that engenders faith in an immanent helping hand from beyond. I remain open to the possibility, but I’m not pinning my hopes on it. It could well be that aliens or spirits have converged on the Earth to grieve for us and comfort us in
our passing. Or to gloat and feed on our suffering.

I do think that the eager Doomers of the world, the ones who see humans as a plague upon Mother Earth and who want Her to rid Herself of us, have adopted a willful blind spot concerning the progression of information technology, robotics, genetics and nano-materials. What’s more, I feel no sympathy or resonance with their condemnation of humanity. I reject and repudiate misanthropy. I value human imagination and intelligence, and I want to see it continue into the future.

I think that the Techno-utopians of the world have adopted a willed ignorance of hard resource limits in the short term. I agree that some elements of their grand vision, elements that Doomers reject as baseless fantasy, may well be achievable in the long term, but that doesn’t mean that they will come to fruition in time to avert what looks like a looming Malthusian Correction. Techno-utopians like to say that Malthus was wrong, and certainly Malthus failed to predict the Haber-Basch process, mechanized agriculture, and genetic engineering. Even so, by failing to incorporate these factors into his thinking, Malthus may have underestimated the magnitude of his predicted population contraction. It may be true that Malthus was wrong, but that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for celebration.

I’ve related this basic narrative to several live audiences, and it’s always hard for me to end those talks, because I don’t have any rousing conclusion in which I offer reasonable optimism. Some people think that suffering builds character and that we’ll be better humans for having endured the coming hardship. I don’t think so. I think that damaged, victimized people are as likely to harden themselves to the suffering of others, spread the damage, and perpetuate the cycle of victimization as they are to achieve some kind of awakening.

Conclusions are hard, I think, because they are fake. Ends can’t justify means, because there are no ends. The drama continues even though every player will eventually leave the stage.

Marginalia On Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO, part 1

KMO is the host of Z-Realm and C-Realm , and a thinker on collapse whose thoughts I have seen evolve through the course of his podcast. While not a hard leftist in the since that many of my interviewees, his perspective is among one of the smarter that some on the collapse end of the left. Avoiding a lot of the common tropes to deep green politics.

Skepoet: How would you describe your political and social journey over the past few years?

KMO: I used to hold pretty orthodox and straight-forward libertarian views. Starting in the 1990s, I voted for the Libertarian Party candidate in every presidential election. My support of the LP ended in 2008, when they put up Bob Barr, a career Drug War blowhard, as their presidential candidate. I’ve always gravitated to artists and creative types as friends, and they tend towards what in modern parlance is known as ‘liberalism,’ and I’ve learned through repeated hard experience with strained or terminated friendships that there is nothing to be gained by engaging self-identified progressives in political debate, so my self-identification as a libertarian comes more as a confession than as a loud and proud declaration.

Also, since I’ve been paying attention, it seems like more and more people who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’ strike me as basically ‘Rouge Elephants,’ i.e. Republicans who don’t want to pay taxes and who gravitate to libertarian ideology because they think it justifies their privileged position in the status quo. These folks seem to have no problem with the Drug War and with imperial ambition. Also, many Ayn Rand supporters gravitate to libertarianism, and they are some of the most obnoxious ideologues I’ve ever encountered. I would hate for someone who formed their opinion of libertarians based on encounters with these folks (I’m working really hard to avoid using the word ‘Randroids’ – I guess I just lost that battle) to slot me into the same mental category with Rand’s most strident and self-satisfied  devotees.

Socially, I’ve gone from being someone who very much wanted to live on a rural farmstead for quality of life reasons, to being a panicked Doomer who wanted to create a lifeboat situation away from major population centers, to being a Brooklynite who has taken a sort of Bodhisattva vow with respect to the potential for civilization-wide convulsions and catastrophes. I’ve made peace with the idea that happens to my society happens to me.

 S:   In the C-Realm podcast, there is a very deliberate attempt to generate consciousness, but from what perspective do you think the most useful  consciousness comes?

The perspective that I encourage and articulate, simply because it’s what I’m best able to represent, is a meta-perspective that contrasts various worldviews. I talk a lot about narratives, world-views, ideologies, belief systems, and, per Robert Anton Wilson, ‘reality tunnels.’

The two worldviews that I contrast most consistently on the C-Realm Podcast are the ‘Doomer’ and ‘Singularitarian’ perspectives. The Doomers see technological civilization as being completely and rigidly  dependent on fossil fuels and economic growth. They think that we have passed the point of global population overshoot, and that a Malthusian Correction is unavoidable at this point. The Doomers remain completely unimpressed with the rapid development of information technology. The Singularitarians on the other hand see peak oil, population overshoot, and in some cases even climate disruption, as non-issues. In their view, artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, and other game-changing technologies will render these challenges trivial in the coming decades. Many of them think that humans will improve upon the standard issue human template and augment humanity with technology. This belief is called ‘Transhumanism.’ I think that both the Doomer and the Techno-utopian worldview identifies important trends and implications, but each of them seems to be laden with heavy doses of wishful thinking and enormous blind spots. I focus on these two belief systems, because I have been an ardent supporter of each of them and now describe myself as a recovering libertarian and Transhumanist.

There is certainly a lot of unacknowledged political baggage piggy-backing on both of these worldviews. As Adam Curtis pointed out in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Silicon Valley is rife with high-powered Ayn Rand devotees, and libertarian memes usually find a receptive environment in the brains of Singularitarians. Doomers tend to condemn libertarian ideology because they think that humans pursuing their own selfish ambitions have ruined the planet and brought humanity to the precipice of extinction.

I realize that I’ve drifted away from your question, so let me bring it back around and say that I think that embodied consciousness is critically important. I think that people reading text on screens and fighting ideological battles on-line or in print produce some very undesirable outcomes and counter-productive hostility. I spend a lot of time in front of the screen myself, and I’m grateful to have encountered Tai Chi and intermittent fasting, as these practices help keep me in my body when my ideological mind would drag me to absurd extremes. I know that you have interviewed more modern magic practitioners than I have and certainly know more about the history of the movement, but I’m attracted to the bodily focus of Chaos Magic and to the emphasis that the Mystery Schools place on self-knowledge.

S;  Do you find it interesting that both mystics and political radicals  (particularly in the Marxist tradition) speak in terms of  consciousness? What do you make that shared lingo?

KMO:  Before C-Realm was an interview-based podcast it was a web comic, and before it was a web comic it was a comic strip in a university newspaper. The title of the newspaper comic was ‘C.’ I came up with that title in my first semester in grad school studying philosophy in a Hegel seminar. The translation of The Phenomenology of Spirit that I used for that seminar used the English word ‘consciousness’ for Hegel’s ‘geist.’ I wrote the word ‘consciousness’ in my notes so many times that I came to abbreviate it as ‘C.’ I was thinking about creating a comic strip for the university newspaper, and when I wrote that letter C in my notes for the umpteenth time I thought, “Hey, that would be a good title for my comic strip.” So the C in C-Realm refers both to both the mystical and political senses of the word ‘consciousness’ which come together in Hegel’s tortuous dialectic of which Marx was so critical.

‘Consciousness’ is an ambiguous term with many meanings. I would find it intensely interesting if I thought that political radicals and mystics were consistently using the word in the same sense, but I do not think that this is the case. I think that ‘political consciousness’ tends to refer to consciousness as the holding of desirable beliefs and priorities while mystics make reference to an awareness, sense of identity, or point of view that transcends the physicality of the individual animal organism. (There are, of course, materialist practitioners of magic whom one could hold up as counter-examples, but then I would quibble with their inclusion in the category of ‘mystics.’) Now, you could say that the two meanings converge in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and that Hegel’s ‘geist’ on its dialectical journey encompasses both meanings, but I doubt that very many contemporary revolutionaries or mystics are that well-versed in or concerned with the details of their own memetic lineages and that their usages of the word ‘consciousness’ have diverged and compartmentalized since Hegel’s day.

S.:  KMO., you predicted exactly my point on Geist and consciousness, but you are right most people don’t see the dialectical relationship.  Do you think that we should re-merge the two meanings of consciousness in a way that would make Marxists uncomfortable?  Ironically, I think the tendency of Marxists or Hegelian Leftists like Zizek to reintroduce lots of psychoanalytic theory into Marxism is actually an indication of the need here?

I sometimes worry that the left–and here I don’t mean liberals or Democrats, but socialists–don’t deal enough in ecological limit theory and how do deal with it.  Murray Bookchin, an anarchist I did respect, thought that neither the singularity types (techno-utopians) nor the primitivists or doomers had much a realistic way to handle the future: the thought socialized and ecologically oriented technology would be important to sustainability?   I actually worry about this, and I am more skeptical of the way this is all framed.  Do you think we will need is somewhere in-between the singulatarians and the doomers?

KMO:  I don’t think it is within my power or yours to re-merge these two meanings of consciousness for anyone but ourselves and the tiny fraction of the population who pay attention to us. There are several more uses for the word ‘consciousness’ other than the two described above. I don’t think that translators of Hegel have any particular claim to the correct definition of the English word ‘consciousness.’ While I think it’s useful to ask people to clarify what it is they mean when they use the term, I don’t see much point in telling them that they have to mean something by it that they didn’t intend. Also, I have no more interest in making Marxists uncomfortable than I do in perturbing the peace of mind of Theosophists or Millerites.

If I could wave a magic wand and instantly infuse the English-speaking population with a correct understanding of words and phrases, I would use that power to rescue ‘decimate’ and ‘begs the question’ from terminal misuse.

As far as ideology goes, I don’t see any indication that political fundamentalists on the left are any more interested in testing their worldviews against empirical data or enhancing them with interdisciplinary thinking than are fundamentalists on the right. As for injecting psychoanalytic theory into Marxism, I’d rather hear political theorists attempt to integrate elements of contemporary neuroscience or even sociobiology into their discourse than try to wring some utility from hundred year old Freudian lingo.

I gravitate to ecological metaphors when it comes to the question of what people should believe, what values they should hold, and how they frame questions. I don’t think everyone should hold the same beliefs and values. Over-specialization and lack of variety set up the conditions for catastrophic failure and extinction. I think it’s good that we have self-aggrandizing, monomaniacal techno-triumphalists as well as sack-cloth-and-ashes, misanthropic Doomers. I’m also encouraged that there are enough people interested in a synthesis of these viewpoints to comprise an audience for the C-Realm Podcast.

S:  On psychoanalytic theory, I think you’re right KMO, the Marixst left avoidance of neuroscience is telling. Psychoanalysis in both Freud and Lacan thought that neuroscience was necessarily, and I don’t think Zizek, for example, truly reject it.  However, dealing with the internal self is something that Marxism doesn’t give you a way to deal with–it is only the social self and it’s alienation that is important.  Given how deeply internalized this is, not dealing with the psyche, is a key problem.  This has led to supplementation.  Is that clearer?

KMO:  Yes. Right up to that last statement.  I don’t think that a political ideology should strive to be an exhaustive guide to living which includes every possible self-knowledge and self-help modality.  Any meme complex that includes an attempted prophylactic against new discoveries and innovation sets off my cult BS detector.

I do think that a failure to deal honestly with the innate features of  human psychology and physiology is a common feature of political belief systems and certainly is not unique to Marxism.

To be continued. 

Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A Dialogue with Jamie McAfee, part 3

This is the third  part of an interview series. I strongly suggest you read the first part and second part prior to this.

Skepoet:  I find the rhetoric of the rhetoricians quite interesting.   I feel like we are diverging on the topic, but I keep meaning to point out that there is a danger to high level specialized academic discourses and that is one can forget that other academic discourses may completely reject the terms of engagement.    For example, the way literary historicists u e Foucault without interrogating his notion of power which Foucault rejected any attempt to pin down as reductive. This has always seemed to me to be a cop-out.    Here’s another example: your tropes of meaningful, colonizing, imply normative boundaries that you can’t make without a coherent social epistemology which is something you are bracketing out.

This is why I reject the idea of “science as rigorous common sense” in that those notions are over-filled signifiers semiotically which have almost no cognitive meaning to demarcate them even in “everyday” language. What does it mean to say science is “rigorous common sense” and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is none science,” and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.

Again, I feel like we have similar problems with the Skeptic’s community, but for reasons of method, we can’t make the same critiques nor can we even recognize the validity of the critiques.   This allow puts out the necessary for structural demarcations and not just the borrowing of political-philosophical language to talk about ideas.  I suspect this is why there is some hostility between rhetorical scholars and leftists in practice:  one uses the other’s categories but uses them to almost opposite ends.

I want to push you on another assertion: What is the substantive difference that invalidates Lacan? How is Science Studies in Rhetoric avoiding it, particularly when using frameworks from liberal post-Marxist who extensively use Lacan like LaClau?

Jamie McAfee:  You’re losing me a bit here.

“What does it mean to say science is ‘rigorous common sense’ and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is not science.’ and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.”

I’m perplexed. What is “rigor” if is doesn’t include normative constraints? As I discussed way back, rules and norms make science science. I’m not trying to be glib, but I don’t see where this is coming from. I’m deferring, as a rhetorician, to scientists about what the norms are. I’m not saying there are none. Sokal was, as a scientist, saying that there rules that defined what he did. (Well, that’s my charitable interpretation. If he meant something lazier, then up against the wall with him.)

I’d concede that I’m unable, as a the kind of rhetorician that I am, to comment on what the norms are. I don’t have any interest, as a rhetorician, in doing so. I can understand why they are and what they afford though. I can talk about the discrepancy between why the norms are, and they are justified, and I can talk about how arguments that flow from those discrepancies are problematic. Arguments are safely rhetoric, so I think I’m okay if I can get to that point.

“I want to push you on another assertion: What is the substantive difference that invalidates Lacan? How is Science Studies in Rhetoric avoiding it, particularly when using frameworks from liberal post-Marxist who extensively use Lacan like LaClau?”

Well, I don’t think anybody has “invalidated Lacan.” I just meant that some of the trendy science studies that was trotted out during the science wars is stuff that rhetoricians don’t read very much. I’ve never seen anybody reference heavily Lacanian science studies article in rhetoric. I’ve never seen Irigaray cited in a rhetoric article of any kind, for example. Laclau is something that I’m interested in. It’s not actually very popular, although not unheard of, in rhetoric. That was just sort of an aside about the science wars stuff. Some of the very technical Lacan business, about math for example, that’s been pored over isn’t really stuff that defines science studies as I know it. So I’m not sure there’s an issue there, unless you think Lacan should be discussed in science studies for some reason that I’m not catching

You’re making an excellent point here by the way about the appropriation of bits of theory out of context. Within rhetoric (and withing literary criticism before I switched over for my PhD program), it was something I tried to deal with to the extend that I could with the resources I had at the time. The magpie approach to theory that people in English departments do can be really problematic. There’s a limit to how deeply we need to get into the weeds as we are rhetoricians and not philosophers, but we need to go deeper than we often do.

“I suspect this is why there is some hostility between rhetorical scholars and leftists in practice:  one uses the other’s categories but uses them to almost opposite ends . . .It would be mutual in a sense because critical theory does build on rhetoric but doesn’t address it as such and rhetoric seems to using the concepts and boundaries of critical theory while bracketing out the epistemology and political economy that under-girds them. I suppose this is the hostility that only related fields could have to one and other. “

I’d like you explain this more, as I’m interested. There’s plenty of complaint about aspects of leftist theory in some corners of rhetoric. One of the few rhetoricians I know who calls himself a Marxist, not just as a scholar, but as a person, is sometimes pretty brutal about the failures of Marxists theorists. I’m somebody in rhetoric who is particularly interested in some leftist theory, and I fell the friction as well, and not just as a scholar.

I don’t quite follow what your take is, but I’d like to hear more about your take on this divide, as I find it a little puzzling.

S.:  I think you’re losing me too:  I am saying that critiquing something without defining it as a set of social practices but even as a set of social practices that are recongizable as such you have to have a normative definition.   Since science itself lacks a hegemonic
singular epistemological justification at the moment “accepting science’s norms” seems hopelessly confused.   The language about colonization and colonization of other discourses implies meta-demarcations between them and that requires a coherent
epistemology, which are not spelling out for methodological reasons. The rhetoric of rhetoric seems incompatible here with the bracketing.This tension is always there.   I  don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.

This is the crucial frustration is that langauge employed, as you acknowledge, actually assumes a framework but its a framework that cannot be addressed within rhetoric.  That’s fine in a way: that’s true of say physics too (which assumes methodological naturalism and a universal metaphysics that is coherent with mathematics in a consistent way.)  Philosophy itself has such limitations and many checks, but the order of checks seem different.   But it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.

Now put myself in rhetorical mode for a second, I can totally see how frustrating this is for the rhetorician who thinking, “Man, I am just pointing problematic assumptions that is betrayed by the language of the community” and in a way the critical theorist would do that without thinking as consistently on language as rhetoricians do.  Yet I would say that this frustrates the relationship between critical theory and rhetoric/literary theory.  It seems like there are bracketing out of the very epistemological and political economic categories that created the concepts’  specificity. For example, “Hegemony” without some notion of class conflict seems odd to me.   It seems like there has been a move to use that rubric, but to disconnect it from real social conflicts between groups of people over various forms of valuation.  So when we talk about “hegemony” in science, Iwant to go for whom as I don’t see scientists are a class or even a coherent enough community, but mainly as  a set of practices with a specific aim and specific limitations.  The definition I am working with though see to agree with yours until the last instances of “specific limitations” while merely descriptive approach can’t really set.

Here’s what I do like about your posture though: It actually avoids the “linguistic turn” in philosophy in a way by pointing out that this really is the domain of rhetoric and cannot deal with truth.  Badiou would call this an acknowledgement of anti-philosophy, and he wouldn’t consider it an insult.   I actually think this is important admission. It just seems that there are some many assumptions in the language that we trip up.   It is infuriating though to see Marxist theory being divorced from political economy in a way that makes it amendable to ignoring productive and structural elements of  class, and it seems   like methodologically rhetoricians can’t address that and maybe that this can lead to the sort of left-liberal tendency one sees in popular
uses of rhetoric. You can see how this would completely frustrate Marxists and anarchists who think that material conditions would have to be changed for serious  identity change to happen.  It would seem to be losing “our” (if anyone can have a claim to discourse) weapon in a way that doesn’t fight the battle “we” “designed” it for, no?

Anyway, we need to refocus on our common concern: Why do you think the New Atheist movement and the Skeptic’s movement has been increasingly co-terminus over time?

J.M.:  Ah. I gotcha. This is an interesting digression, but it’s not what we set out to talk about, so I’ll be quick.

“Since science itself lacks a hegemonic singular epistemological justification at the moment ‘accepting science’s norms’ seems hopelessly confused. . . but it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.”

Yes. We tend to study controversies in science or think about agency in terms of change. I’m not sure why you’d think that I think that “science” or even a discipline is monolithic. I think this gets at where we might be talking past each other. I didn’t mean to suggest that “science” had “a” set of norms necessarily. I think you have to talk about science as locally and specifically as you can.  I’d respond by saying that if science doesn’t have a single epistemological justification, I’m not sure how it’s a problem to think about it in social terms, particularly in terms of thinking about how people argue. Our starting point is “science is messy, let’s not accept the coherent, neat ways people talk about it and look at what people do instead.”

“It don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.” Yeah. I’m glossing stuff. The alternative way to look at this is to say that rhetoric purposefully blackboxes certain philosophical baggage.

I’m borrowing a technological metaphor here. A machine is a blackbox, and when it works, you don’t open the box. I scan my page in the copying machine and copies come out. It the machine isn’t working right, I open it and see where the paper is stuck. There are many, many moments in rhetoric when people open the box, but in order to “do rhetoric,” you are going to have to close it. The same it true of any intellectual activity. I want to bracket things that you don’t.

The specific complaint you make here is not a new to me though, and I’ve indirectly referenced the problem during the conversation. Rhetorical Hermenuitics, which is an anthology about Dillip Goankar’s essay about rhetoric of science is all about this issue. There are many efforts in there to deal directly with what you’re saying. I won’t claim it’s been solved, but it’s not new territory. The “ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language” is what Goandar is worried about.  (Again, you are very much on the ball if you are making that complaint.)

You’re point about hegemony is astute, and I like it. Hegemony is, to be clear, my imposition. Talking about modern culture as a hegemony is not a widespread thing in rhetoric. It’s something that I’m working out, and I agree with you about the class thing. There is a response to that in Laclau and Mouffe, but I’m not really getting that into the discussion yet. I’m revealing thinking in progress there. I agree with your critique. I think using hegemony as I am trying to us it is not wrongheaded, but I’m happy to admit I haven’t worked it out. Your comment is a good one, and helpful.

The worry about what happens when we use Marxist theory is a good one, and I’ve complained quite a bit about it (in graduate school, not here).  There is a crisis communication article I know that describes Nike as a subaltern, so I feel your pain. I’m trying to be a lot more contentious than some rhetoricians about using leftist theory, but you are right that our differences in what to explore and what to blackbox, and the anti-philosophical nature of rhetoric is going to make some tension. (I think that antiphilosohpical stance IS the goal, by the way. I saw a presentation from the little Latour cadre at a conference that explicated Latour’s version of anti-philosopihcal. He is against “critique,” and is very emphatic about looking at “surfaces.”)

But enough of that. I think I see our differences better. I appreciate your perspective quite a bit, and this was useful for me. I hope it was, at least, entertaining for you.

Back to our charge. . . . there was an older and smaller group of public skeptics out there, and I think the Atheist thing offered a more ideologically driven position that has created the bigger and more political Skeptic movement.

There has been, for example, a Skeptic society and a Randi orginazation for a long time, and folks like that used to concern themselves with “critical thinking about popular culture” and debunking hokum. Randi going after faith healers, for example. The first Shermer book I read was all about cults, groupthink, and superstition, not about the more political stuff he’s been into in recent years. (Interestingly enough, he talks about having been an Evangelical Christian and then an Objectivist. Micheal Shermer is an interesting guy.)

New Atheism, I think, allowed skepticism to become a movement. It wasn’t just explaining away fringy parlor trick stuff or sensational pop culture hokum or aliens, but a serious complaint about the power that religion has in society. I can’t imagine a Skeptic movement as big as what we’ve got without new atheism. Like, there would there be a widespread movement to complain about fortune tellers? The two aren’t exactly inseparable, but from where I’m sitting, they are damn near close.

I think the materialist point of view and the concern about the influence of religion predate New Atheism, but that stuff wasn’t articulated into something resembling politics before New Atheism got rolling.

Here’s an interesting exercize. Go to The “List of Episodes” page on wikipedia for Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit.” The show starts off, in 2003, firmly in the tradition of James Randi, with episodes about psychics and Near Death Experience. By 2006, you’ve got very serious episodes about the Death Penalty and the religious influence on the Boy Scouts. (That is not an orderly progression, as they did some political topics early on, and they kept doing silly hokum stuff until the end of the show.) If we put them in the context of New Atheism in popular culture, in 2006, the Blasphemy Challenge was going strong. The tipping point had been reached by then, I think. There were probably other reasons for for the changes in that show (like running through all of the usual targets for debunking. . . I don’t think they ever did a holocaust denier show though, or P and T getting more self important or self indulgent as the show went along), but I do think there was in increasingly political point of view that Bullshit that became felt along with the rise of New Atheism. Like, these guys who were in the tradition of magic performers to debunk things (which came from Houdini, although he wasn’t a magician) ended up being political commentators. Penn has made appearances on Fox news, and he’s become a popular online personality who talks about politics, ethics and religion. I think that without new athiesm, he’d have remained a magician.

S.:  It found it interesting that some many in the New Atheist movement were actually attracted and assumed to be true some really questionable (by anyone’s standards) science like Evolutionary Psychology and memetics. This is not entirely true for the skeptic’s movement in which memetic and evo-psyche are actually high points for debate and have many within the movement considering them either proto-science or even psuedo-science, but with the New Atheist movement it seemed like evolutionary psychology and memetics were used to push evolutionary biology into the social sciences and the humanities.  I have seen this in narratology where increasingly you see evolutionary psychology used to read literature.  I found this problematic because it seemed to stem from the same disrespect for any demarcation line of discplines in a way that was really scientistic. I also noticed increasingly after Shermer a movement to talk about markets as if they were memes or even evolutionary which is something
one had seen in Von Hayek and in, frankly, in social Darwinism. Now I do know biologists who pushed back on this:  evolution is not efficient and if that comparison is being done then some primary economic assumptions even by neo-liberals can’t be shared with evolution. Do you see this drift? It is interesting to me because I have seen real push back within the Skeptic’s movement itself on evolutionary psyche and I hear fewer and fewer people pushing memes around as a serious science, but now I see it more in the humanities.  What do you make of these tendencies?

J.M.: Yeah. That pushback is maybe a way to kinda untangle the New Atheism thing from the broader Skeptic thing. I seems to me that some of New Atheism’s roots in the sciences (what I mean is simply that some of those guys are professional scientists who became being public intellectuals) have lead to efforts to appropriate, really, science rhetoric as a way to talk about philosophy, religion, or politics. The bizarre hubris of some of those guys, and the really cavalier way they make huge claims, seems to come from confidently using the wrong tools for the jobs they are trying to do. (Here’s my physics hammer that I’m going to unscrew this theology screw . . . ., and then Sam’s gonna come out with his neurology broom to replace the morality light bulbs.)

I’d have to do a lot more study and deeper reading to really make the case, but some of the more problematic scientism that I see in Skepticism seems to be coming from there. I haven’t gotten down in the weeds with that stuff in a while.

As for people in the humanities messing around with claims about  evolution. . . . ug. I haven’t read that stuff, but I’ve heard of it. It seems like the latest version of  something like early psychoanalytic criticism or archetype-oriented criticism or structuralism that some other schools that maybe tried to do to uncover some underlying “truth” in literature. I’m not familiar with the stuff you’re talking about (except for having had previous conversations with you about it), so I’m not sure what it looks like, but that move doesn’t seem that novel. Silly, but not unprcidented. (These are outside of my areas of expertise.  My interests back when I was a literature guy were really different. I haven’t read Nothrop Frye in years, and was never an expert.)

It seems like this speaks to some authority (we’ll not call it “hegemony,” but it’s some legitimacy granting sparkle dust that we seen to believe in) that science has. Like, if we can enroll ourselves in the physical, even if it’s some indirect semiotic structural way, we’re getting at an underlying reality. I know this problem a little better, oddly enough, in some social sciences and in medicine than in the humanities. There was a fallout recently in Anthropology between the social people and the “sciency” people (I don’t know what to call them).  The DSM is now supposed to be “evolutionary,” and whenever they work on a new edition, there is an outcry from therapists and researchers who see their work as being social. Or the sometimes whacky ontology of medicine. (I think by the way, that this psychical/social division is a really screwed up way to categorize things, but that’s where the fault lines of argument are. I’d say that those fault lines are problems for talking about how people do things.)

Not a “rhetorical” question: while there is pushback from skeptic people against some of the abuse of scientific rhetoric that some of the New Atheists have committed, are there people arguing for the validity of knowledge that makes no effort to do the sparkle dust thing? That, for me, would be the move that would align skepticism more in line with the arguments I’d want to make about legitimacy of practice. As was the reason for our discussion, I’ve dropped out of the skeptic thing except for reading about the occasional flashpoint, so I don’t know exactly what the conversations are right now.

S.:  I find the humanities aping the sciences problematic, and it always seems to be done with a prior paradigm is just lingering too long. In this case, I think this comes from a push back to dominant historicism. Still what bothers me is that this doesn’t seem to be the same kind of theoretical enterprise, the claim is that we are making literary studies scientific by using the sciences, not scientific by adopting their methodology. That seems to indicate that the humanities have already fell into some of this cache. Now I come with a harder sense of the demarcation line, but I see this move as invalidating in two fronts: One it weakens to humanities separate project and two it weakens clear demarcations.  To use your rhetoric, it’s self-colonization.

Do you see this as a problem?

J.M:  Probably so.

One of “our” (rhetoric’s) answers for identity/demarcation stuff is an insistence on some idea of a classical heritage, which tends to mean that we define problems according to our vocabulary. So, like, when I read Collins and Evans, for example, I want to use it to figure it out how to discuss ethos or agency. Of course, this gets us back to the Goankar problem, since that vocabulary comes with ideology. (It’s very “thin” theory, though, that can be built upon in different ways.) Actually, some of the liberal-rhetorical vs. cultural theory tension might come from that. I think the dialogue between those two ways of thinking about relationships between discourse and material culture is harder than, I think, many rhetoricians let on. (Of course, lost of folks aren’t interested in that.) And, I think, that common exigency is the reason those ways of thinking are important, and why I think they should be in dialogue. (Although, again, it’s a bear though. We’ve, I think, found differences though this conversation that I’m not sure rhetoric has thought about very much. At least not in the professional communication areas where I am.)

Arguing for the strength of the humanities (or social science that doesn’t do the magic phsycialist sparkles) as a way to know things (as opposed to it being a pedagogical or aesthetic tradition or something) without appropriating problematically or doing some other odd thing is, frankly, really tough. Not just for “cultural” or institutional reasons, but because it can be tough to argue for the legitimacy of recursive social ways of knowing that don’t end up as some kind of “linguistic turn” defense. I think the kind of literary studies you’re describing (which, again, I don’t know much about) is a major misstep in trying to think about this problem.

S.:  Anything that you would like to say in closing?

J.M.: One tricky thing about this discussion that we didn’t explicitly talk about is the difficulty in defining a “Skeptic movement.” Is is the active online communities who participate, the public intellectuals, the activists, or something else? My having “dropped out” a few years back makes me less in touch with the conversations going on at the moment, but I think I’d be a little fuzzy on that even if I were reading the blogs every day and going to events. I’m glad you pointed out that its not a monolithic perspective. One issue that we didn’t get into is that we might talk about it as a kind of identity politics, or at least, there’s some identity politics involved. That I don’t identify with.

I think many of the issues that have come up in this discussion, both in terms of talking about lenses through which we can discuss science, and in terms of the ways that science discouse is used, might be understood in terms of the constraints/affordance theme that I recognize in my rhetoric. Of course, by focusing on that theme I’m giving up other possibilities. And with the shadow of the meta creeping up again, I’ll call it a day.

Thanks for the invitation, and I really appreciate your toughness. For me, the most valuable part of this has been seeing your more political take on the Goankar problem. You’ve cogently elaborated problems in trying to think across the rhetoric/Marxian theory gap.

A Talk on the Wind From the East

A Book Chat with Richard Wolin on Wind from the East, on the French Moaists and their original hostility to May 1968, and the merger between the anarchists and Maoists after the first botched 1968. The tensions within Maoism and Post-Maoism seem to be encapsulated in this, to use an ironic work, “problematic.” So the Maoist point of reference is moved away from 1974 afterwards for “cultural revolution,” sort of merges in cultural politics one sees in the Foucault-inspired left in both France and America. One sees a rightward shift after 1968 in France for many of the Maoists who shifted towards the nouvelle philosophie, and while one sees Alain Badiou as a development of the period, there is a highly problematic tendency of the Post-Maoists in France to resemble the Post-Trotstkyists in the US.

I wish Wolin would have gone into more detail about the influence of the Alhusserian strain other than Foucault particularly given the popularity of Ranciere these days, but we can’t always get what we want.

Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A Dialogue with Jamie McAfee, part 2

This is the second part of an interview series. I strongly suggest you read the first part prior to this.

Skepoet:  So moving you away from epistemology or avoiding it:  Do you think the skeptical movement is just naive about both the philosophy and the sociology of science, or is there something more generally problematic going on?  I am particularly interested in the assumption of sort of center-left or libertarian liberalism as a default assumption, and also roblematics around gender relations within the  movement.

Jamie McAfee:  Ha. More or less, yeah.

I’ve been persuaded that epistemology is a bit of a tarpit that isn’t productive to get into. One thing about all of the sociological approaches I’m referring to is that they tend to be really emphatic about rolling their eyes at epistemological debating in favor of evaluating science, to paraphrase the bible, based on the fruit it produces. Collins and Evans and Latour are in very different camps withing sociology, but they both make the emphatic move of tossing epistemology aside. (I mean that they explicitly say “we think epistemology isn’t helpful.) Scientists are good at doing stuff, so lets talk about it as people doing stuff. They can make arguments based on the stuff they did (like making matter behave in particular ways), which is where rhetoric, in the diminished, conservative sense of “arguing,” comes in. You could, I guess, use argumentation theory, which is a lot more like philosophy than the “rhetoric” that I do, to talk modestly about epistemological issues if you wanted. I’d go along with that. Epistemology is always creeping up, and I think we have to be careful when claiming not to imply claims about epistemology, since we might be doing so. I guess the length of my last answer is what “boundary policing” might look like in my subfield. I’d like to keep myself away from epistemology, or to manage it so I can do other things. I don’t really want to make claims about it.

It’s naivete, but hubris as well. Not to get too meta, but the problem in the Skeptic movement is, I think, a lack of respect for the disciplining that takes place in the humanities. When I see Dawkins, Harris, or an internet troll straying into philosophical debate, the word “precocious” comes to mind. I don’t expect public intellectuals, or anybody not writing in a scholarly journal, to perform scholarly literature reviews in their writing, but I do expect them to approach conversations with either some familiarity with what people who have expertise in a topic have said or with modesty. I’m not saying you have to be a professional philosopher to talk about philosophy. I’m saying you probably shouldn’t write books about it or start a movement about it. Skeptic folks dive right into debates without doing the work required to become expert. They certainly have some expertise in what they are talking about, since they are generally speaking to broad questions that relate to anyone. Since Collins and Evans are on the table, we can call the experience they have “ubiquitous” experience. But ubiquitous experience doesn’t make you a philosopher.

Modernism is a hegemony, which is, I think, why a naive celebration of reason and science allows people to charge ahead confidently and wrongly. As I discussed a bit in my last answer, science is a very institutional thing that is obviously well articulated to power. I’m not claiming that because people have respect for (or participate in) institutions, their ideas will be predetermined. I am, however, claiming that that kind of critical, in the “capital C” sense that cultural studies people mean it, work is deliberate and requires some real engagement with power and culture (when I say “culture” here I don’t mean something that is apart from materialism). That is work that Skeptics seem unwilling to do.

When you charge into debates demanding that everything behave like “science,” and you are unwilling to do the work to understand how other people think about the world, you are going to end up in some of our default small “c” conservative categories. I’d say that center left or libertarian liberalism are those. I’d say that being suspicious of people who want to interrogate gender is one of those. These are “commonsensical” ways of seeing the world. To make matters somewhat worse, Skeptics embrace and ethos of commonsense (in opposition to superstition, etc.) and they embrace the idea that reason is unproblematic. Political radicals and feminists are in violation of that common sense, and for people who define themselves as primarily “rational,” that stuff is just not to be taken seriously. (Coincidentally, or not, perhaps, a lot of conservative rhetoric is based around some form of common sense. “Conservative prudence” for example. Were American conservatism not so overly inane, I’d guess there’d be more Skeptics over there. Oh, and the religion thing, of course.)

So, for example, when feminists are concerned about privilege or objectification, that’s a step too far for common sense.”Equality” (of.  . .something?) is fine, but asking people to question the power that comes with gender is out of bounds. So you end up with Richard Dawkins finding it preposterous that someone might be (mildly, originally) offended by an inappropriate proposition, or to use a more extreme example, you end up with the Amazing Atheist ridiculing rape victims. (Yeah, yeah, conversations about those issues can be problematic on the feminist end too, but I think it’s safe to say there’s a “there” there.) The way Shermer reifies capitalism is, in my mind, the same thing.

One more thought:

Since I’m talking about rhetoric, I’ll throw out the analogy sometiemes called “Burke’s parlor,” after Kenneth Burke. Burke wrote:

“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

That’s how scholarship, or any kind of serious intellectual work, happens. The trouble, for me, with the Skeptic movement is an unwilliness to “listen for a while” and “catch the tenor of the argument” when they talk about things that other people are talking about. Their movement is, because it doesn’t have the patience to become serious, remakably shallow and remarkably beholden to a liberal status quo.

 S.:  I am going to go back to the epistemology question:  In this way the sociologist of science you are citing and Sam Harris sound alike, honestly.   “The meta-ethics is too boring, let’s skip it move” Sam Harris has done on morality since he started talking about objective morality, which is funny given that Harris is the only one of the new atheists outside of Dan Dennett to have any formal training in philosophy is similar to a lot of the dismissal I am seeing you do in epistemology.    I must call you out on it because it seems like are
trying to say “We’re bracketing that it” and “it’s impossible” at the same time.  The later is a philosophically substantive claim; the former is not.   However, I am going to charitable read you as saying the former for now.

I, however, really do like your other points here:  One)  since the demarcation lines of science are under-developed at best and philosophically impossible at worse, it does seem problematic to  ignore it. Two)  There is a hubristic problem of completely ignoring non-scientific expertise, which given the problematic standing of the demarcation line is science right now can’t work.  Three) This leads to all sorts of ideological and psychological heuristics being presumed as a sort of baseline of truth.  Ironically, the last bit would be an anti-scientific move itself.

You made an assertion about modernity I find interesting:  would you like to go into how you see the Skeptic’s movement as a philosophically modernist project?  Also I think there has been, to defend the “Skeptic’s movement” for a moment, some push back on this political assumptions.  For example,  there were many within the movement who started agreeing with me on Sam Harris with his last book,  and there were many who took Rebecca Watson’s side in the Watson/Dawkin dispute.  What do you see going on there?  Do you think there could be a skeptic’s movement that learned from the sociology of science and dealing with the philosophy of science seriously? Massimo Pigliucci, for example, has definitely taken on the problem of “scientism” within the skeptic’s community.

J.M.:  First of all ” Ironically, the last bit would be an anti-scientific move itself” is something I agree with a lot. I think I’ve been pretty consistent in trying, even in cases where I disagree with science, to respect that people “do science” for good reason, and I hope it’s implicit that I think science is uniquely capable of certain kinds of decision making and exploration. I hope it goes without saying that I think that science should inform philosophy, politics, etc.also  What I’m against using scientific rhetoric (for the lack of a better phrase) irresponsibly, and I’m against the hubris of scientism, which is, as you say, really at odds with science itself.

I’ll start with some clarification about the epistemology thing, since that is related to the modernism thing. While I insist on being disinterested in epistemology, getting away from it is an important “move” in a lot of the literature from which I’m drawing my ideas about science, so it’s important. That move is, as I think we’ve made clear, important for justifying a sociological/rhetorical approach for discussing what science is. I do mean to bracket it, and I do not to say it’s impossible. I also mean to bracket it deliberately, not so skip it as Harris skips stuff. (Although I generally don’t dwell on it as we’ve done here.)

I would, however, say that trying to work out “epistemology” seems to lead to endless debate and discussions of problems that don’t seem to be useful to think about. Rorty’s prolonged explication of that stuff in “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” or Latour’s various efforts to contrast a more modest epistemology (if you want to call it that) with Cartesian problems or Collins’s and Evans’s deference to “expertise,” or various efforts by rhetoricians to reclaim parts of some kind of Aristotelian or Roman worldview  are all various ways of trying to get some traction that epistemology doesn’t offer. Some of the “thin” theory that is rhetoric is similar.

The comparison to Sam Harris’s meta ethics (or lack thereof) I can see, but I think there’s a huge difference between trying to carefully (and recursively, by the way) bracket something because it’s not useful and plowing through without acknowledging your assumptions. To borrow a metaphor from actor network theory (since we’re talking about that), you have to blackbox things. You can’t have everything in play all the time. But you should be able to justify the choices you make, and to, when problems arise, go back into those blackboxes and do work there. There’s a parallel between what I’m doing and what Harris does, but the people who’ve persuaded me to make that move are a whole lot more conscientious than he is. I hope I’ve satisfactorily explained why I’m don’t think epistemology “is impossible” but, rather “it’s a useful a point of departure and not a thing to be solved.”  It’s down in the weeds, but it does matter since I’m complaining about scientism.

And that point of departure is pretty closely related to this “modernism” business. “Modernism,” of course, is a messy, term that can mean a lot of different things. In the context of talking about science, I mean “Modernism” in, more or less, in Latour’s way, which is filled with odd paradoxes, some of which explain how scientistism ends up being at odds with itself. Latour’s shtick is that Modernism is the division of the cultural from the physical from the discursive, and those divisions are what enables science. He bashes this division for creating unnecessary philosophical problems, and he makes fun of Cartesian dualism a lot.  He has a lot of bad things to say about “discourse” as a category, for example, although he has come back around to celebrating “rhetoric” in recent years, which he understands as something other than postmodern “discourse.” He also points out that science, when you trace what it does, is good at bending those Modernist categories and then discursively and through practice purifying them.

Modernism is a hegemony, not a “real” thing. Nobody behaves as if they actually believe in the divisions of Modernity, but they talk as though they do. A departure I make from him (although he says this, it’s not his point) is that people who can ground their arguments in some kind of physicalist language can gather a lot of ethos for themselves, because the modern. (Before the latter stages of the Modern that we call post-modernism, but Latour insists is late modernism. . . .my interest in synthesizing Latour with rhetoric is a pretty serious departure from the “pomostrawman,” and the fact that Latour has been often lumped into the “pomo” side of the “science wars” speaks to the light/heat ratio of the science wars.)

I would argue that the Modernist, in the Latour sense, way of talking is the problem. Modernism has empowered science, but as a way of talking about knowledge, it’s a mess. The Skeptics I’m complaining about talk that way.

You are right that there is pushback. The Skeptic thing isn’t monolithic, and their core goals of arguing with fundamentalism and superstition are fine by me. I’d like to see a skeptic movement that was more feminist, that contained expertise in thinking about philosophical problems, and  that was more interested in rhetoric (not the discipline, necessarily, but persuasion). I’m aware that there are participants in the movement who are tying to do that.

The question “do I think there could be a skeptic movement that took philosophy of science seriously” however, is trickier. I’d say “yes, there COULD be, but I think it’s unlikely.” Why do I think that? I think that because it’s hard to imagine a well articulated skeptic “movement” that wasn’t rooted in that problematic commonsense stuff discussed earlier. I obviously (I hope it’s obvious) think that a pro-science, pro-skepticism position does not mean one accepts scientism, etc. However, it’s hard for me to imagine a “movement” based on that kind of a position. What’s it in opposition to? What are it’s boundaries?

Now were kinda talking about politics. Here’s an analogous issue.  . . “Christian” movements have been all over the political spectrum over the years, but more recently, “Christian” culture is really right wing Evangelicalism. That narrower, activist group has claimed the word, even though there are more Christians who are not conservative Evangelicals than who are. (I’m thinking about this because there was a flap about it yesterday.) While I’d be happy to see more pushback against that appropriation of the word “Christian,” until there is some other movement that’s articulated out of some exigency and has some clear idea “what it’s not,” I think we’re gonna keep having to remind people that not all Christians are Republicans. Christianity, as a political movement, is defined by oppositions and tensions. Skepticism is the same way. It’s hard for me to imagine a nuanced, non-scientistic Skeptic movement coming out of the U.S. right now. There are plenty of us who are, nominally, skeptics who do not embrace skepticism as a part of our identity of who have any need for a movement. The attitudes that have pushed people to embrace skepticism as a “cause” seem increasingly foreign to me.

Like, even if everybody in the Skeptic decided to embrace Massimo Pigliucci and Rebecca Watson, I’m not sure what it would be that they would do with themselves. It’s hard for me to imagine.Why people who are dissidents from scientism and anti-feminism stick around in the skeptic movement? I dunno. Sometimes people define their ideas through smart dissident positions. That’s valid. Some of those folks are probably really interested in science and like participating in the community of other people who are as well. There might be people who, like me, were attracted to the idea when it was (or seemed, anyway) more narrowly focused on pushing back against the religious right but who have invested more than I did. I’m an apprentice academic. I have plenty of outlets for talking about philosophy. Not everybody has that, and the Skeptic movement is, for all of it’s problems, one of the places in American mass culture where people have those conversations. (Libertarianism, oddly enough, is another.) They’ve created a sort of weird counterculture that looks sorta like academia in some ways. It’s oddly like the religious right, actually, in that way.

One thing that hasn’t been brought up is the overlap between the Skeptic thing and pop culture subculture like sci-fi or gamer communities. In my completely undisciplined observations, there is a lot of overlap, and some of the hostility toward the humanities and problems with gender can be an issue in those communities. I don’t mean to suggest that those are monolithically sexist communities, but there are quite a few blogs by female “geeks” and quite a bit of scholarship that suggests there are problems there. That’s about all I have to say about that, really, but it’s worth bringing up.

S.:  There is so much philosophical assumptions that I find that I am turning this into a interrogation of rhetorical claim and I do not mean do but it seems to stem from sociological categories that have philosophic roots and baggage that cannot be entirely bracketed out.   Hegemony in the Gramscian sense seems only vaguely related to sense you are using because an ideology is much more than just an illusory belief or world view, it is a fetish or representation of social relationships that has material effects.

This leads me to another philosophical question:  are you aware of the Marxist critique of Latour?
J.M.:  Anyway, an anti-scientism skeptic movement would be rooted in a skeptic’s movement that attached itself to different parts of the “Enlightenment” tradition that Latour basically denies has a practice.  I will say I have always found Latour hyper-problematic here: there are sharp demarcations in social organization after 17th century, so one has to have a fairly strange notion of practice to embrace “pre-modernity” as a kind counter to the way people actually operate. I think it is just clear, in a way that one sees in a thinker like
Althusser or Foucault, that historical “epochs”  have structural practices that are real but not evenly distributed among society.   So I wouldn’t reject Latour’s way of thinking outright, but I wouldn’t accept it’s conclusion either.

My point in being critical of you here is not political, but that I think there is still a problem of naturalization of practices that the empirical approach, of which bracketing out questions of philosophy necessitate, do lead to certain conceptual limitations.

That said, I think I we should talk about two key events that can be seen as points of tension in the skeptic movement:  the “Sokal Hoax” as the beginning of the hostility towards to the humanities and the Watson/Dawkin’s break as beginning of re-politicization in movement.  What do you think about the Sokal hoax?

J.M.:  I don’t know that critique, but I’m either misunderstanding it, or it’s a misreading. He’s emphatic that he is not “pre-modern” or “a-Modern.” (He coins “non-Modern.”) What he denies is that the justification that the enlightenment has of itself is accurate. He doesn’t deny that Modernism is a practice. He gets there with somewhat playful writing, so he’s prone to saying things like “Modernism never happened,”  just as he’s also prone to make fun of philosophers (Foucault, for example) even as he’s obviously drawing influence from them. He goes on at some length about not rejecting Modernism, and he makes fun of the idea that being pre-Modern is possible.

I might be missing you, but he’s pretty emphatically not making those mistakes. Now, then, you might argue that he’s implicitly making those mistakes regardless of what he claims. If there’s a good explication of that position around, it’d be interesting to read, but Latour claims rather emphatically that he’s not doing those things.

He wants us to talk differently about science and technology by insisting on them as networks, and he thinks that that move is a way out of the Cartesian trap. That’s another way to paraphrase him. The parts that rhetoric people are interested in are things like unpacking the processes of transcription or re-inscription that create data or the way that writing helps to articulate networks together. Also, his blurring of human and non human is something that some folks look at as a way to try to recover materialism in rhetoric.

The problem with historical demarcations is a problem though, as it always is when people talk that way. I’d go along with “structural practices that are real but not evenly distributed among society.”

I’m leaning on Latour here as a way to talk about modernist discourse because it’s the way that I know because that’s most informed by concern for how scientist work. It’s compatible with more narrowly rhetorical ways to do that, but I don’t want to give you impression that Latour is THE guy for us, or for even for a booster like me. He’s pretty good though. This is one part of an ongoing conversation that involves different syntheses of Latour that I’m sharing. Plenty of rhetoric folks dislike Latour. My advisor is sorta one of them, actually. I think over-focusing on him might distort my position, which is a lot more in flux than it seems, even in this response, by making it seem like I’ve put all the eggs in the Latour basket. We are having a conversation that people have withing rhetoric.

(While I’m thinking about it Pandora’s Hope has some chapters from which you might extrapolate some implicit argument about Latour’s epistemology. He works overtime to be a realist, if one who’s modest about knowledge but who glosses over many of the problems that philosophers might worry about. The Sam Harris analogy might fit at some moments there.)

“I think there is still a problem of naturalization of practices that the empirical approach, of which bracketing out questions of philosophy necessitate, do lead to certain conceptual limitations.”

I agree. Affordances and constraints are intertwined. I think Latour is useful, but when I slip into Latour mode I sacrificed the ability to make other kinds of arguments. Although I have taken issue with the specifics of what you say Latour sacrifices, I suspect you’re kinda in the ballpark. I wouldn’t know quite how to articulate Latour’s problems without re-reading it with that in mind, but yeah. When I defend him, I don’t mean to say that you aren’t getting at something important. I just don’t think you’ve put it together in a way I agree with.

“Naturalization” is actually my biggest concern with Latour. Donna Harraway is, in my view, Latour on radical and feminist steroids (and they have been in contact with each other). She’s really dense and difficult to haul around though. When I’m doing academic writing, I always try to stick here in there. I’d like to move toward here as I keep doing this stuff.

I’d be quick to note that Latour is not a philosopher by training, and I’d be happy to concede that he’s probably not put the Enlightenment to bed. Let’s leave the poor guy alone. He’s had a long day.

You assert that “Hegemony in the Gramscian sense seems only vaguely related to sense you are using because an ideology is much more than just an illusory belief or world view, it is a fetish or representation of social relationships that has material effects.”  Good call pointing out my sloppiness there. I was thinking (as always. . hey, I’m planning a dissertation, so I’m not gonna keep talking about some of the same stuff for at least another year) about Laclau and Mouffe, but I was talking sloppy. Hegemony being the fractured terrain of acceptable debate about reality. It’s not monolithic, but shifting around discourses where people argue about things. Social relationships come from interaction with these discourses. “Articulation theory” is sometimes the phrase people use for their version of hegemony because you stick together incommensurable stuff and you define yourself in relation to society when you do so. The chat about “movements” included in my last contribution to this conversation is informed by L and M as well. I dunno if you can reconcile this with the way I expressed myself earlier, that this is what I was thinking about.

As for “What do I think about the Sokal hoax?” I think it makes a lot of people look very bad.

My understanding of the Sokal hoax is that it has been, in part, misrepresented. I might be incorrect, but my understanding is that the Sokal piece was not blind reviewed in the usual way, but published, in part, out of excitement that an actual scientist was trying to participate. Given the nature of the performative writing that was going around at the time, I have no idea the degree to which Sokal actually “fooled” people and the degree to which people regarded his piece as whimsey. I am certain that he put in a lot of jokes that Social Text readers didn’t understand.  So I don’t quite “buy” the conventional account of the story. It’s cheap and kinda dumb.

Having said that, you couldn’t pay me to read an issue of Social Text from that period. I tend to be something of a defender of the Social Text side as they were doing experimental, avant guard stuff. It was also trendy and not particularly robust of good. I think Sokal killed some of the faddish postmodernism of the time, so it wasn’t all bad.

The follow up stuff Sokal wrote (and Dawkins talked up) was silly. I actually kinda sympathize with some of the points he was trying to make, both politically and about philosophy, but sheesh. The lessons that people took from the whole fiasco are wrong though. The legacy of the Sokal Hoax is to embolden people who want to embrace scientism.

This, by the way, popped up on facebook while I was typing this out, and it serves as a convenient artifact. Ug. I am holding fire on about Dawkins and Watson.

S.:  This may be a misreading of Latour, but it is a common misreading by both his enemies and his friends.   Although it is fair to point that out to me, I still find the problem of bracketing to be interesting because the nomenclature one must use does not respect the bracketing methodologically required.    But this gets to how much messy philosophy there is underneath all these issues.

I wanted to go into one of the first assumptions of Sokal and Bricmont text: It literally asserted that all philosophy of science was silly including Popper and Kuhn, not just the sociological and po-mo critiques of the science wars.  I found this fascinating because it was defending the idea that science is just rigorous common sense. What do you think that assertion?

 J.M.:  t is a very common and very understandable misreading, but unless I’m missing something, it’s a misreading. Latour is a somewhat literary writer, and he likes to come up with paradoxical ways to say things. Of course, I’m reading translation, so the issue of the authorship of his “style” is messy. (Again, I’m leaving open the possibility that folks are sometimes disagreeing with Latour about the implications of his work. The objections to him that people have in my field are different objections, so I’m not that familiar with the complaints you are relating. Certainly, they don’t match up very well with how I read Latour, even if you seem to be in the ballpark.)

It is a very interesting problem. We keep trying to get out of epistemology and keep getting sucked back in. I think that trying to get out is a good move, but I’ll acknowledge that those of us who think that was are going to keep having to perform variations of that move that over and over. Pretty much every philosopher I’ve mentioned has made versions of that move multiple times. I do, actually, appreciate being made to wrestle with it a bit. Its something that’s easy, in my field, to gloss over. That phenomenon, repeating the move of “departing” from some problem (incommensurability was a popular one for a while), is common in rhetoric, so I’m comfortable with it. I dunno how it looks to other people. Seems like something anybody with a toe in philosophy will spend time doing.

I think I agree with the assertion that science can be understood as rigorous common sense. The techne/episteme thing from Rorty I was talking about somewhere earlier is a way to say that. I think most of the people I’m drawing influence from would agree. One of the really fascinating things about the science wars (once I get past being annoyed, and once I manage to forget how they helped to empower scientism) is that there was a lot of people talking past each other. Once you take the Lacan brigade off the table (some of the complaints about them were substantive differences, and the science people had a point there), I think everybody who was arguing with each other agrees that science is rigorous common sense.

I’ve never encountered, by the way, anything with a whiff of Lacan in rhetorical science studies. We have spent a lot of time theorizing the word “practical,” so that stuff is a little far out for us to even read. I’ve seen Lacan elsewhere in rhetoric, of course, but never in science stuff. One of our saving graces, when it comes to that stuff, if that we came to science studies, in part, through technical communication. We had an inside/outside relationship to science and technology that Social Text did not. Digression over.

BUT. . . there’s the trick. . . both “rigor” and “common sense” deserve very serious interrogation.

When Latour spends months following scientists around and watches them transfer data from one place to another, isn’t that an interrogation of what counts as “rigor”? Can’t “rigor” be interrogated? When Feyeraband or Kuhn did there early work discussing communsurability, isn’t that also a discussion of rigor? I once sat through a presentation/workshop by a college dean trying to describe what “rigor” looked like in teaching. (It was a shitty presentation, as most presentations of that nature are, but it was a good topic.) I’ll go along with rigor. It seems to be a useful place to start if you want to defend science studies.

And I’ve already pointed out, and you’ve pushed me to more carefully explain, that “common sense” is an extremely loaded phrase. My dissertation research, which is why Laclau and Mouffe keep coming up, is all about “common sense” in therapeutic rhetoric that is used in politics (James Dobson). “It’s common sense” says to me that “it” needs to be unpacked and that we need to trace what “it” is, does, and where it comes from. Calling something “common sense” is putting a post it note saying “study me.” (Let’s be careful though, and say that “study me” does not mean “debunk me.” “Redescribe me” might be better)

I think, to offer some benefit of the doubt to Sokal and Bricmont, that that assertion might have been a response to some of the bolder claims of avant guardians who were trying to stake territory. Even the more modest science studies people in rhetoric were doing a lot of sloppy colonizing. That’s what early work can look like sometimes. So there’s an opening for some benefit of the doubt for them.

One counter argument I’d make against the claim that philosophy of science is silly is to point out that before Kuhn and Feyeraband, we understood science through a highly edited, retrospective point of view. “Oxygen was discovered in such and such, and that was some more science, and then somebody did and experiment using cowpox, and then. . . .”  The process of the community that is science was erased. Kuhn’s breakthrough was to imperfectly introduce that process to the discussion.

One last thought. . . . I have a former professor who does rhetoric stuff with science who is very skeptical of postmodernism, science studies, Marxian theory, etc. His argument with that stuff was that it was just too mundane, and the thought the “action” was in taking more traditionally about persuasion and public policy. I disagree with him about the value of that kind of interrogation, but his point is well taken. Meaningful science studies does more than say “THAT IS LANGUAGE” or “THAT IS HEGEMONIC.” Those are really obvious things to say, and even Sokal agrees. I think, though, that using those claims as a starting point can be useful. William Keith argues that “redescription” is a key step in scholarly work. I think that it’s a STEP, but to make that step and start spouting radical claims is silly. That premise does not mean that humanities studies of science isn’t potentially valuable.

TO be continued.  Jamie and I hash it out on epistemology for a while.  We continue to debate bracketing, and then we remember we were talking about the “Skeptic’s Movement.”
 

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with Andrew Kliman

Andrew Kliman is a professor of economics at Pace University, and the author of Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2007) and The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (2011). In his political work, he works with Marxist-Humanist Initiative.  I contacted Dr. Kliman over a dispute on my blog in which I accused him of having automatist views and adhering to a version of an immiseration thesis, after which I apologized to him for misrepresenting (misunderstanding) his views. Platypus Affiliated Society’s Seoul chapter is planning on hosting an event with Dr. Kliman in June, where I will pursue these questions further. 

 Skepoet: Many of your recent articles and books have shown that when you adjust for total compensation, and not just wages and salaries, that the declining rate of profit view from Marx’s Das Kapital still applies despite the change of form in the economy in the neo-liberal period. Were you surprised by these results when you began your research?

Andrew Kliman: Well, there are actually two issues here, since it’s standard practice to subtract all compensation, not just wages and salaries, when computing profit and rates of profit. What surprised me––shocked me, actually––about the compensation vs. wages and salaries issue––was that the conventional line on the left about what’s happened to wages and salaries is utterly misleading. We’re told that wages and salaries in the U.S. have stagnated for decades and that the wage-and-salary share of national income has fallen markedly. Both things are technically correct, but they don’t mean what I––and most other people, I suspect––assumed they mean. Total compensation per hour of work, including the health and retirement benefits received from employers as well as wages and salaries, hasn’t stagnated. And when these benefits as well as benefits provided by the government (such as unemployment insurance, veterans’, and welfare benefits) are taken into account, working people’s share of national income has been constant for four decades and has risen significantly since 1960.

I discovered this last fact when a colleague sent me a graph published in Monthly Review that showed a big nosedive in the wage-and-salary share of income. I went to the government table the numbers came from. I was shocked to find that this table also gave figures for employer- and government-provided benefits, and that the authors of the graph had simply ignored them. It’s obvious that the table doesn’t use the term “wages and salaries” to mean compensation of employees or workers’ income, but that’s certainly the impression one gets from the Monthly Review graph and the text that discusses it.

I should also say that I’ve been surprised at the attempts to argue that employer- and government-provided benefits aren’t really part of working people’s income. In any case, it’s simply a fact that the decline in the “wage and salary” share of national income doesn’t mean that other people––recipients of profit, dividends, interest, and so forth––have been getting a bigger share. They haven’t been.

As I said, none of this has any bearing on why my conclusions about the trend in the rate of profit differ from what others on the left told us, namely that the rate of profit in the US. recovered almost completely after 1980 or 1982. But I was also surprised when I discovered why they came to this conclusion. I knew beforehand that what physicalist-Marxist economists (such as Dumenil and Levy, Husson, Laibman, Moseley, and Mohun) call “the rate of profit” isn’t a rate of profit in any normal sense; it’s not profit as a percentage of the money invested in production. But even their “rate of profit” didn’t recover almost completely. It recovered modestly and was basically trendless from the mid-1980s onward. I was surprised to discover that the “almost complete recovery” conclusion was based on cherry picking the data. They compared the trough, or low point, to a later peak. When you deal with something that fluctuates a lot, like the rate of profit, this isn’t a valid way of assessing its trend. You need to compare through to trough, midpoint to midpoint, peak to peak, or something like that.

In any case, when I computed the actual rate of profit––profit as a percentage of the money invested in production––I found that it never experienced a sustained recovery. If “profit” is defined broadly to include the portion paid out in interest, sales taxes, etc., U.S. corporations’ rate of profit continues to trend downward during the last few decades. I wasn’t surprised by this, because I didn’t know what to expect.

By itself, the non-recovery or continued downward trend in the rate of profit isn’t evidence that Marx’s law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit (LTFRP) applies, because there are other possible explanations as to why this occurred. But I performed a decomposition analysis that indicates that Marx’s law fits the facts. That didn’t surprise me, but I was surprised at how well it fits the facts. In other words, what surprised me is that other things that influence the rate of profit had so little effect. Very little of the fall in the rate of profit between 1947 and 2007 was due to a fall in the profit share of output or income. Almost none of it was due to changes in the rate at which money prices rose in relationship to commodities’ values as measured in terms of labor-time. Now, after you abstract from those two factors, control for them, the rate of profit becomes a relationship between growth of employment and the accumulation of capital. If the rate of profit still falls, as it did, it has to be the case, mathematically, that employment grew more slowly than capital was accumulated. Almost all of the fall in the rate of profit during the 60-year period is attributable to this. And it’s precisely how the LTFRP explains the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.

S: What do you think drives some of the hostility to your economic work? Particularly the cases of URPE and the Left Forum’s rejection of your proposal on a topic that they had a panel on in 2007?

A.K.:  If the Left Forum hadn’t moved to Pace University, where I teach, I’d undoubtedly still be excluded from it.

There are two main things that drive the hostility. Both have to do with the fact that my and my colleagues’ work has disproved the old allegations that Marx’s value theory––and his LTFRP, which flows out of the value theory––has been proven logically inconsistent. A lot of people want Marx’s work to be inconsistent and they feel very threatened by the disproofs.

First, many people on the left, including the Marxist left, not only reject the LTFRP; they despise it passionately. That’s because Marx’s law has revolutionary implications. It’s not fatalistic––Marx doesn’t predict that capitalism will collapse or decay inexorably because of falling profitability––but the LTFRP does suggest that economic crises are inevitable under capitalism, because they are not caused by things that can be eliminated while still keeping the system. In contrast, theories that trace crises to under-consumption, low productivity, the anarchy of the market, state intervention, and so on––all of these suggest that if you fix the specific problem that is making capitalism perform poorly, its crisis tendencies will be substantially lessened or eliminated. This is in fact the key divide on the left today.

Second, a large number of people have built their academic careers on the myth that the LTFRP or Marx’s value theory are logically inconsistent. Some have “proven” this or that inconsistency. Some have marketed their theoretical revisions of Marx’s theory as what’s needed in order to correct his inconsistencies. Some have done both. Now, they could have been honest. They could have said, “Here’s my alternative to Marx’s theory, which I happen to prefer.” But if there were an open and honest competition between Marx’s theory and any of these revisions––if they had to compete as alternatives to his theory, not as needed corrections of it––is there any doubt about which one would emerge victorious? And it’s been very appealing to many of these people to present themselves as Marx’s successors rather than as critics with competing views, methods, and theories. The myth of inconsistency lets them have their cake and eat it too: they can build their careers on their alternatives to Marx while also presenting themselves as his successors. They simply say that they’ve eliminated Marx’s inconsistencies without undermining his basic account of capitalism.

But let me stress that hostility is not the real issue here. After all, my colleagues and I are arguably as hostile to their work as they are to ours. But we don’t go around suppressing their work, or promulgating falsehoods about what they say that harm their professional reputations, or falsehoods about what they’ve done that threaten their ability to earn a living in academia. These are the other side’s methods, not ours. Ours are the opposite. We do everything possible to encourage engagement and debate. The record shows this very clearly.

So in order to understand their behavior, we can’t talk only about hostility. We have to talk about totalitarianism and authoritarianism, and we have to talk about evil.

S: Do you think that many people operating under the rubric of “Marxism” are crypto-Keynesian and neo-Ricardian then? Given that neither of those intellectual traditions are as contested in the popular culture, why do you think one would still operate under the name of Marxism?

A.K.:  Much of mainstream Marxian economics has certainly had a strong Keynesian flavor since 1942, when Paul Marlor Sweezy wrote The Theory of Capitalist Development. And since the late 1970s, most of it has been either explicitly Sraffian­­––you use the term “neo-Ricardian” for the same thing, but they regard it as a slur, so I won’t––or it has differed from Sraffianism in minimal ways, while embracing Sraffian concerns and Sraffian methodology, such as static equilibrium modeling and physicalism. (Physicalists attempt to account for changes in values, prices, and profits solely in terms of changes in physical input-output relations, in other words, technology and the distribution of physical product between classes.) All this is widely accepted; I don’t think anyone disputes the strong Sraffian and Keynesian (and Kaleckian) influences on mainstream Marxian economics. And although Sraffian and Keynesian models are wrongly attributed to Marx and translated into Marx’s terminology, no one really hides the Sraffian and Keynesian provenance of these models (so I wouldn’t say “crypto”).

Your second question is fascinating. Keynesianism and Sraffianism are certainly more academically respectable than Marxism, and they’re not a threat to official society. So, if you’re a careerist, and your intellectual work isn’t part of the struggle for a new human society, why make problems for yourself by calling your work Marxian and making it look like a continuation of Marx’s work? There are several reasons. I’ll mention three; there may be others as well.

One is that some people are emotionally attached to “the Marxist tradition.” I don’t think that term means anything, really, but it’s widely used. It seems to be about one’s identity.

A second reason has to do with the fact that the key functions that mainstream Marxian economics has fulfilled for the capitalist system, objectively, are to suppress Marx’s own critique of political economy, to thwart a return to and development of it, and in general to see to it that the opposition is a loyal opposition. And so, in the same way that companies don’t hire Wharton School MBAs to try to keep the workers in line and toiling for the benefit of the company–– they select their foremen from among the rank-and-file workers on the shop floor––it’s useful for the system to have what you call people who “operate under the name of Marxism,” rather than orthodox economists, do the work of keeping Marxian economics in line and ensuring that its output is academically respectable.

A third reason, not unrelated, is that being a Marxist economist has been a smart career choice in some circumstances. I didn’t understand this for the longest time. After all, if orthodox economics monopolizes almost all of the really good jobs and money, why not be where the action is? The answer is that whenever you have a monopolized industry like this, there’s little chance that you’ll succeed if you compete in the mainstream of the market. If you produce soap, there’s almost no chance that you can win away some of Proctor and Gamble’s share of the market if you produce similar soap. So you produce for the market niche that wants handmade soap with exotic ingredients and scents, and you distinguish yourself by producing the only soap that contains manioca, yucca, and kiwi. In the same way, few people have really successful careers as orthodox economists, so it’s often a smart move to find a niche like Marxian economics and distinguish yourself by producing a novel Marx-Kalecki-Sraffa-Minsky monetary macro model or something.

S: On your note about totalitarianism and evil, why do you think these sorts of tactics are used by academics arguably close to each other in a theoretical framework?  What is the pathology there?

A.K: Well, they use these tactics because they work. But why do they work? Because no one stops them from using these tactics. In the economics profession and in left politics, there are no institutions that enforce ethical behavior and punish those who act unethically. Indeed, neither economics nor the left even has a Code of Ethics. There are good reasons to be critical of bourgeois right, and of bourgeois justice as it’s actually practiced. But the law of the jungle that prevails in economics and the left is much worse.

As for the idea that we’re theoretically close to each other, I don’t really think that’s true. A couple of years ago, Robin Hahnel, a well-known radical physicalist economist, wrote:

The idea that capitalism contains internal contradictions which act as seeds for its own destruction is simply wrong and needs to be discarded once and for all. …Thanks to work begun by Nobuo Okishio, modern political economists now know better. [Contrary to what Marx hypothesized,] labor-saving, capital-using technical change does nothing, in-and-of itself, to depress the rate of profit in capitalism and thereby generate a crisis of capitalism.[1]

 How theoretically close are Hahnel and I?

In any case, closeness often fails to deter evil behavior. Men beat their wives, and plantation owners in the South enslaved the women who nursed and raised their children. And as I noted earlier, the key objective social function that those who “operate under the name of Marxism” play is much like the social function of foremen or police. Foremen and police are often close to the people they boss or police. They frequently grew up in the same neighborhood, they went to the same schools, they’re from the same class, and their race and ethnicity is the same. I haven’t heard that black cops refrain from racial profiling.

S: What would a leftist code of ethics look like exactly?

A.K.: I haven’t given much thought to the details, since there seems to be so little interest in adopting a code of ethics, much less adhering to one. But this isn’t rocket science, as they used to say. The rules we need to follow to treat each other decently have been evolved through thousands of years and are pretty well understood. The key idea is the one in the Christian Bible: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”––and don’t do to others as you would have them not do to you.”

Drawing on my personal experience with unethical behavior on the left, I think that the following components would have to be part of any decent code of ethics: don’t steal the organization’s money; don’t lie about what other people say; don’t substantively alter what people write (their articles, descriptions of their meetings and seminars, etc.) without prior consultation and permission; don’t suppress the dissemination and discussion of others’ ideas; establish procedures to ensure that proponents of different perspectives engage with one another––not just each saying their own thing, but responding to others’ points; establish formal procedures to adjudicate disputes, with disinterested third-parties having the final say; and don’t cooperate with those who violate these norms.

Formal procedures for a whole variety of things are tremendously important, because they help guard against double standards being employed. I work with Marxist-Humanist Initiative, a new organization whose members had been seriously burned in other organizations that called themselves Marxist-Humanist. In light of those experiences, they realized that future of Marxist-Humanism, including their own future work in helping to develop and promote the philosophy, required that the organization abide by a whole slew of formal procedures that help safeguard against unethical behavior. Its By-Laws, which are available at  www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/philosophyorganization/by-laws-of-marxist-humanist-initiative, are 5600 words long and include 80 paragraphs. I think they’re exemplary, though of course not all of them are applicable to other kinds of organizations.

What I conclude from this is that ethical behavior isn’t just a good thing. It has great practical value for the left. People who’ve been victims of unethical behavior tend to drop out and become disillusioned. But the power-hungry and those with ulterior motives tend to stay, and do to others exactly what’s been done to them. So you get this very negative dynamic, kind of like Gresham’s Law––“bad money drives out good.” It weakens the left, and it certainly doesn’t help anyone believe that an alternative to existing society could actually work.

The key, of course, is that a code of ethics be enforced, not just adopted. This could be done without violence and without state power. All kinds of associations do so. You just exclude from the association the groups and people who violate the code, and let the public know who meets the ethical standards and who doesn’t. This would work if, but only if, the public cares.

S: So “revolutionizing radical economics” to make it look like neo-classical economics would be a way to defuse Marxist analysis while making yourself marketable. Interesting and plausible. So are there thinkers you see as being positive instead of negative examples in leftist economics right now?

A.K.: I don’t follow much of most kinds of economics that might be called leftist, so I really can’t comment on them. I’m not even sure that “leftist economics” is an identifiable entity.

Although I’m critical of Robin Hahnel, I think that his and Michael Albert’s Parecon, participatory economics, is a real step forward in thinking about what is needed in order to have a free society with a non-capitalist economy that can reproduce such relations, instead of collapsing or retrogressing into capitalism or something worse. I don’t think that Parecon actually achieves this, but it’s a step in the right direction. There’s been far too little recognition on the left that this is a crucial issue; almost everyone is fixated on political change, evidently because they think that once you have power, you decide what you want and then just implement it. But that’s not how economies work. Actions have feedback effects and unintended consequences, a problem which decide-and-implement thinking completely ignores.

The work of all of my colleagues who have helped develop the temporal single-system interpretation of Marx’s value theory (TSSI)––Guglielmo Carchedi, Alan Freeman, Nick Potts, and several others––has been very important. So has the work of Brendan Cooney. He’s not a professional economist, but a videoblogger who makes educational videos about Marx’s critique of political economy and has helped bring the TSSI to the attention of the broader public. This interpretation eliminates the apparent inconsistencies in Marx’s value theory. The reason why this is so important is that internally inconsistent arguments are always invalid; they must be corrected or rejected. So the elimination of the apparent inconsistencies allows those of us who want to return to Marx to do so in good conscience. We don’t have to follow the “corrections”––or the “syntheses” of Marx and Keynes, Marx and neoclassical economics, etc.––that have been proposed by this or that Marxist economist.

I think the development of the TSSI has also shown the importance of interpretation, especially the importance of getting right what someone said before critiquing it. It serves as a counterexample to the way in which academics generally, including academics on the left, do economics, which is dominated by fads and self-promotion and the unquestioned assumption that newer is better.

S.: What do you see as the weakness in Parecon?

A.K.: I think there are two main weaknesses. The first concerns remuneration in proportion to the amount of work you do. Albert and Hahnel think this is crucial, and I agree. So did Marx. In his “Critique of the Gotha Program,” he argued that remuneration according to the amount of work done would naturally flow out of the direct sociality of labor, and the elimination of value production and exchange, in the initial phase of what he called “communist society.” So if you can’t sustain remuneration in proportion to work, it’s a sign that labor is still indirectly social and that value relations persist. Also, if you have unequal remuneration for equal amounts of work, there’s a real danger that you’ll start to have accumulation of capital, wage-labor, and all the rest. In other words, there’s a real danger that the society will slide back into capitalism.

Now the problem is that, in Albert and Hahnel’s Parecon, remuneration isn’t really proportional to the amount of work done. In order to deal with incentive problems—people receiving equal remuneration but goofing off, doing their own thing, etc.—they establish output quotas for work teams. So remuneration is actually proportional to the amount of output that’s produced rather than the amount of work that’s done. So labor isn’t really directly social; if a work team produces only half of its quota during an 8-hour day, 4 hours of the labor it performed doesn’t count as labor. I think this could be the start of a slippery slope.

They also specify that the work has to be “socially useful,” and Albert at least construes this very broadly, such that a professor who gives all of her students A’s could be said not to have done “socially useful” work. What about a restaurant staff that prepares meals that the restaurant patrons happen not to like, or people who make movies that moviegoers happen not to like? It’s one thing to move the professor or the restaurant staff or the filmmakers into a different line of work. It’s another thing to make their labor only indirectly social (and thereby deprive them of the remuneration they need in order to live?) by retroactively deciding that the labor they already performed doesn’t count as social labor.

I think incentive problems are real and serious. They need to be solved. But I don’t think these are good ways to solve them. Whether there is a better way is an unsolved question.

The other main problem with Parecon is that Albert and Hahnel imagine that it could operate in a single country. This makes it attractive to people who want to try to create a new world within the existing world, and their related idea that participatory structures and institutions that already exist are steps down that road makes it attractive to people who are anxious to do something “positive” here and now or who want to follow David Graeber’s advice: “act as you were already free.” But I think the history of the USSR shows that you can’t have socialism in one country. What you get is state-capitalism, a state-run system that is still embedded in the global capitalist economy, and which is still locked into a competitive battle with capitals elsewhere in the world. And in order to compete efficiently––whether you’re competing for markets or competing for global supremacy––you have to produce capitalistically; that is, you have to minimize costs and maximize output. That’s the source of exploitation, unemployment, and all the rest.

For instance, in an effort to deal with the tremendous problem of global inequality while still adhering to the notion of Parecon in one country, Albert has suggested that a Parecon in a place like the U.S. could decide to pay more than it needs to for its imports from poor countries. But if this was done on a scale that had a real effect on global inequality, it would significantly increase the Parecon’s costs, making its products uncompetitive on the world market. It is likely that the loss of markets (as well as the higher costs) would ultimately make it so poor that it would be among the countries that need handouts.

But even if we set that suggestion aside, Parecon in one country wouldn’t function the way Albert and Hahnel would like it to, because it would have to be competitive, which means that it would have to minimize costs and maximize output. So it would have to speed up production, have unsafe working conditions, produce what will be profitable on the world market instead of producing for need, and declare that work isn’t “socially useful” as work if it doesn’t produce a sufficient amount of profitable output.

Marx hailed workers’ cooperatives as harbingers of the new society, but he was also acutely aware of this problem. So in volume 3 of Capital, he cautioned that, as long as they exist within capitalism, the cooperatives “naturally reproduce in all cases … all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them … the opposition between capital and labour is abolished here … only in the form that the workers in association become their own capitalist.” In other words, the workers end up exploiting themselves. Parecon in one country would be a system of participatory exploitation, Parexploit.

S.: Do see you the Marxist focus on primarily a critique of capitalism as an issue limiting its ability to articulate a positive alternative to market economies?

A.K.: Definitely. But this applies to post-Marx Marxism rather than to Marx himself.

Although it is commonly said that Marx was a theorist of capitalism, not of socialism, there is a lot in his work that pertains to the new society, sometimes indirectly, sometimes directly. It’s true that he left no “blueprints” for what to do––no “recipes … for the cook-shops of the future,” as he put it. Yet he battled Proudhonism and similar tendencies in the movement throughout his life, demonstrating that what they proposed, in order to get rid of capitalism and/or the defects of capitalism, would not be viable and would lead to a return to capitalism. And he worked out to some extent what would actually need to be changed in order to transcend capitalism. That work needs to continue—Marx does not provide “the answer” —but I think his work provides a foundation.

The first of his works that criticizes Proudhonism and similar supposed alternatives to capitalism is of course The Poverty of Philosophy. Then the Grundrisse begins with a 60-page critique of Alfred Darimon, a Proudhonist. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, there’s a short but very important critique of John Gray’s proposal for a state bank to coordinate a “labor money” system. Then, in Capital, the whole third section of the first chapter, which people generally can’t make heads or tails of, is a dialectical demonstration that the Proudhonist proposal to abolish money while leaving commodity production in existence is like a proposal to “abolish the Pope while leaving Catholicism in existence.” The first necessarily and inevitably arises on the basis of the second. And much of the theory of the determination of value by labor-time in Capital is a development and refinement of ideas first put forward against Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy.

Finally, there’s Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program.” The core of it is his contention that “[R]ight can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” On the basis, he criticizes the Program’s call for “fair distribution” within capitalism as empty sloganeering, and he details of the new relations of production that would be needed in order to have a distribution of income that’s substantially different from what now exists. He discusses the production relations that would allow remuneration to be based on the amount of work people do, relations that characterize the initial phase of communist society, and then he discusses the production relations that would exist in a higher phase of that society. He concludes that “only then”––only on the basis of the production relations that characterize the higher phase––“can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

I think the most important aspect of Marx’s work on the future society is the methodology: don’t try to mentally construct the world you want or negate a particular aspect of the present society that you dislike––money, markets, or whatever. Instead, think through how proposed alternatives would actually work, how the various aspects would interrelate, and what the unintended consequences of these proposed alternatives would be. Identify what exactly must be changed, and all of what must be changed, in order to actually transcend capitalism. Far too much leftist thinking ignores all this; it seems to be based on an implicit belief that you can just implement any decision you make and that it will work according to plan, without any unintended consequences. That’s hopelessly naïve.

S.: Most Marxist scholarship has moved itself into the domain of the humanities/cultural critique and away from the economic critique. Do you think this has led to a situation where certain left-wing economists can assert that there are contradictions within the economic realm of Marxist critique without a fairly significant scholarly backlash or even discussion within the larger “Marxist” intellectual milieu?

A.K.: I don’t think there is anything particular about a turn to humanities and cultural critique in this regard. But this turn is an instance of a broader fragmentation of Marxism that has taken place. This fragmentation is certainly among the factors that allow assertions that Marx’s Capital is internally inconsistent to go unchallenged.

If one is eclectic, the internal consistency of Marx’s thought, and maybe even the internal consistency of one’s thought, isn’t so important. In addition, many people’s interest in Marxism isn’t interest in Marx’s own Marxism, and many others’ interest in Marx’s Marxism is actually interest in certain specific facets of his thought that don’t include his critique of political economy. They might be interested in political economy––for instance, concepts of “Fordism” and “post-Fordism” developed by the Regulation school are important parts of a lot of the Marxism in cultural studies and the humanities––but not Marx’s specific critique of political economy. None of these people’s oxen are the ones being gored, so the allegations of internal inconsistency aren’t going to matter much to them.

Of course, such people, as well as non- and even anti-Marxists, might regard false allegations of inconsistency as a serious ethical problem that demands a response from them. But unfortunately there are very few people like that.

There are also other phenomena that hinder what you call “fairly significant scholarly backlash.” One is that a fair number of non-economists have a stake in Marx being internally inconsistent. For instance, David Harvey’s work is built on the alleged inconsistencies and the need to revise Marxism in light of them. Another is the academization of Marxism. Much of academia in our day operates on the basis of a drive to say something novel in order to promote one’s career, and I have a sense that many academics think it’s cute, just “boys will be boys,” when Marxist and other left-wing economists justify their novel approaches and ideas by claiming that Marx was inconsistent and needs to be corrected. They recognize kindred spirits.

S.:  Do you think that lack of economic and mathematical knowledge has played a large part in “Marxists” claiming that the last decade somehow disproves the declining rate of profit thesis and (in the acceptance and popularization of this rejection by left-wing publications like Monthly Review?

A.K.: Not really. The Monthly Review school has a long track record of opposing Marx’s law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit, or at least rejecting it in practice. The principal founder of that school, Paul Marlor Sweezy, was no lightweight in economics, including mathematical economics.

I am quite troubled by claims that the rise in the rate of profit during the middle of the last decade somehow disproves the idea that the fall in the rate of profit was an important cause of the Great Recession. It’s a straw man argument, because I don’t think anyone has said that the fall in the rate of profit was a proximate cause of the recession. I for instance stress that it was an underlying and indirect, but nonetheless key, cause. And I frankly don’t think that lack of economic or mathematical knowledge is at all responsible for this straw man argument. You don’t need to know any economics or math to understand the distinction between an immediate cause and an indirect cause.

However, I do think that lack of economic and mathematical knowledge plays some part in the debate. Because of its lack of knowledge, most of the public has a hard time understanding a lot of the debate. So it doesn’t call authors out for bad arguments, bad evidence, or bad criticism. That helps them get away with it; and authors sometimes exploit this problem by being unnecessarily technical when they make their arguments and criticisms. This is why I’ve been emphasizing that there is no serious controversy concerning how to measure the rate of profit. It’s not a measurement issue. It’s a conceptual and ethical issue: one side calls something a “rate of profit” that just isn’t what people almost always mean when they refer to the rate of profit, namely profit as a percentage of the money that was invested.

S.: I know that I have had to learn large amounts of nonmarxist economics to really discuss Marx and sometimes I feel like these later developments distort my reading. What do you see is necessary prior knowledge before seriously embarking to understand Das Kapital?

A.K.: I don’t think you need to have any specialized knowledge beforehand. You don’t need to have read all of classical political economy, or even the whole of Ricardo’s Principles, ahead of time. You don’t need to have read the whole of Hegel’s Science of Logic ahead of time. I do think Lenin was quite right: “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic.” But “impossible completely to understand” is very different from “completely impossible to understand.” If you’re just reading Capital for the first time, you’re not going to understand it completely even if you do read the whole of the Logic and Ricardo’s Principles and whatever.

Reading all this stuff as a prerequisite to reading Capital is a great way never to get to it. And it wouldn’t help much, because you need it mostly as reference material, not as general background material. For instance, if you read the first chapter, the way in which Marx uses the opposition “concrete/abstract” might be unfamilar to you, so you need to read a bit of philosophy. And if Marx’s statement that the commodity in the equivalent form is “endowed with the form of value by nature itself” seems mysterious, you need to go back to his basic definition of “exchange-value.” If you still don’t get it, you need to read a bit of classical political economy.

So you don’t need prior knowledge, but you do need to fill in the gaps along the away, as you encounter all manner of difficulties. Trying to intuit or “getting a general sense of” a passage doesn’t get you very far with a book like Capital. You need to pick up bits of a lot of different disciplines­­––mostly economics, philosophy, and political thought, but also bits of mathematics, history, literature, physical science, etc.

One thing that long experience with learning and teaching Capital has convinced me of is that you should absolutely never use primers on it or popularizations of it in order to try to understand its arguments and lines of argument. The main problem is that popularizations make it harder, not easier, for you to understand them; this is a major reason why they are still so misunderstood and little understood. Precisely because Marx’s ideas are difficult and popularizations are easier, the latter become an easy substitute for the original text. If we read the original text at all, we do so through the eyes of the popularizer. That’s a great way to remain unable to follow Marx’s own arguments no matter how much time you spend “reading” the book and no matter how much of it you’ve “read.” An additional problem is that none of the secondary literature on Marx provides an “innocent” or neutral interpretation, and a huge percentage of it is in bad faith. Its commonplace to write “Marx says,” followed by what you think––which you know he never said.

 S.: Anything that you would like to say in closing?

A.K.: I look forward to meeting you in person soon. And I greatly appreciate that you’ve given me the opportunity to share my thoughts on these issues with the public. This isn’t just a pro forma “thank you.” I answer a lot of questions, in e-mails, after public talks, in interviews, etc. They’re almost invariably questions that the questioner wants answered. But you’ve given me the very rare opportunity to also answer some questions that I want to answer. I don’t mind answering questions that others want answered, but it’s nice when my wants matter as well, and nice when there’s a genuine dialogue. I greatly appreciate the fact that you’ve made this interview into one.

S.: Thank you. I have learned quite a bit from this dialogue, and I look forward to meeting you too.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking Series can be found here, here, herehereherehereherehere, here hereherehereherehere  here, here, and here. 


[1] Hahnel, Robin, “The Economic Crisis and the Left,” Znet, Mar. 16, 2010, emphases in original. Available at tinyurl.com/638c84l.

Abstraction, Academia, and Analogy: The politics of abstraction and the abstraction of politics

On theory, theories exist. In practice, they do not. — Bruno Latour

I have just come back from the market after walking my fiancee to her teaching job: my students are doing independent work for the mid-term, so I have only had to be available by consultation, which I have been by phone, e-mail, and skype. There is something to being an academic and a teacher, even one is not phoning things in, that makes for time to reflect, plan, critique, and study. In other words, to propose knowledge for students as oppose to merely replicating prior knowledge. Or, at least, that is the hope. There are moments in my more cynical periods where this seems far from clear to me: particularly given the staggering number of papers and projects that either don’t go anywhere or don’t do anything.

Anyway, being in Academia, particularly in the social science and humanities region thereof, I often linger in philosophical abstractions, and there is a good reason for this, as I am trying to deal with conceptual frameworks for handling and speaking about highly, highly complex issues, but I find myself more and more finding a certain level of philosophical abstraction completely not only alienating, but itself obfuscating issues. I have been critical of the way math is used in economics in a way that often hides important qualitative information, such as behavioral cues, which the Austrian economists were right to critique (there are to this is a set of apriori rationalistic arguments, however, is worse than the disease). I also critical of methodologies being given as an answer without specifics or context.

In a sense, this seems to serve two functions: to avoid symbolic violence and to distance oneself for failures of theory in action. I feel that when I read hyper-abstract theories of meta-history and teleology, which one sees in most Marxist writings and, frankly, most Anarchist writings. Why? In Marx and even in Lenin, one sees all sorts of specifics being dealt with in addition to a Hegelian dialectic. After Adorno (in one tradition) and Althusser (in an opposed one), the critique you get is either not theoretical at all in “actually existing socialist” societies or it is highly abstract dialectics or structuralists analysis in which the analysis seems to be subject of politics. There the lack of abstraction and the hyper-abstraction seem like moves of avoidance.

I am speaking know of Marxism and anarchism because that is what I write about here. I also despite appeals to simplicity and absolute concreteness as somehow proof of deep thought: such clarity can be profoundly muddling and obfucatory, but when abstraction is not backed with something concrete other than form immediately, I am beginning to think that this is an abstraction of politics. It is a form of obfuscation and avoidance.

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