Category Archives: Polemics
Originally posted at The Charnel-House.
J.A. Myerson has an article up over at Jacobin making “The Case for Open Borders.” As an historical overview, it’s not terrible, even if the way it retains the language of “consecration” for the modern period is a bit tendentious. Borders and rights are not “consecrated” as divine rights but “legitimated” as civil rights. There’s some acknowledgement of this fact, at least initially, but the author goes on to undermine this distinction in advocating “universal human rights, consecrated in struggle, enforced by solidarity.”
On a related note — why does “solidarity” always seem to enter in as this kind of quasi-mystical force by which we can simply express our sympathy with various remote causes and thereby consider our political obligations fulfilled? This, far more than any kind of legal procedure defining and establishing borders, strikes me as almost religious. It’s akin to the sentiment expressed by those of various religious persuasions who’ll reassure you that they’re praying for you, etc. Read the rest of this entry
I am angry today. No one angered me in particular, and honestly I don’t think it is healthy, but there is a certain bout of self-unreflectiveness that bothers me. Social media, being all about the capital we can make of image, and the way we can reinforce our egos, make it worse. I was going to make a blog post about how so many people ignore union leaderships’ role in failed negotiations and bad politics, and how no one is talking about how to get around the Taft Hartly Act or the way AFL-CIO in particular has been good at keeping all the focus on individual loci of wages, which does very little. Then I got distracted by internet memes and this weird use of Distinction I see so many upper middle class types have, and masquerade it under the idea of speaking the truth to the power.
Yet a lot of this speaking truth to power seems to be aimed downward: to mocking a decaying culture that is under-educated in the case of the US; and, yet, this seems to further drive a wedge between people and anything political in the broad sense. I suppose it should. This is use of cultural capital manifesting in memes about “the Opposite of what America does”, or making fun of rednecks.
This got me thinking on this:
“As for the working classes, perhaps their sole function in the system of aesthetic positions is to serve as a foil, a negative reference point, in relation to which all aesthetics define themselves, by successive negotiations.” (57) Bourdieu, Distinction.
Why is that often people, who in displaying a sense of liberality, attack both the 1% but mock those who are lower down on the social class? This is a kind of class and ego confirmation that mistakes itself as politics.
The righteous anger of the wronged and the call of distinction can often look the same, but look at the root and the aim. Is the person trying to change material conditions and cultural hegemony of their society or merely mock it while also belonging to it.
If it’s the later, what purpose does it serve: Is this condemnation really inverted exceptionalism? It is about making someone feel superior for the right beliefs? Then this quote probably also applies:
The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need for words and ask no more than complicitous silence. – Bourdieu
So, I am angry today: mainly because a certain kind of ideology gets to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to supposedly defending the working class. We all know the villains and reactionaries that we can easily speak about (hyper-reactionaries in the GOP), but that of which we can’t speak, that is where the ideological blinders truly lay. In this we find “distinction.”
*Spoilers beneath the cut*
Why is so much lefty pop culture criticism both repetitive and generally bad criticism: take the criticism of Batman, it is not like the Dark Knight was more “subversive” than the Dark Night Rises, Batman in that movie keeps an allegory about problematic executive power only to justify its use while pretending to condemn it. It is also not like Batman was ever a particularly “lefty” source material. This is not anything but obvious. There are interesting things to be said about the Nolan Batman, particularly that it is sort of a mess artistically, and that it has conflicting messages: this review, while somewhat in the same tone as a lot of the silly articles I have seen from lefty publications, discusses it a little better. It admits the function of much of the culture industry is anyway: to reflect back at us what we already think we know.
Expecting a piece of popular culture to be beyond the cultural limitations of the current is silly: Batman has always been about the contradictions of the wealthy “crime fighter” is explicitly fascistic, like the lefty origins of Superman who morphs from an alien hero for the poor in the earliest comics to its nearly fascistic manifestation during the Second World War until the 1970s. The politics morph with the culture because that’s what adolescents fantasies reflect for purely “objective” commercial reasons. This point has been made by comic book writers themselves from Neil Gaiman to Alan Moore as early as the late 70s. At this point, pointing out that comic books have a hero-worshiping, almost fascistic, element is, well, a “duh” statement.
Rosa Lichtenstein is a “Wittgensteinian Trotskyist” who runs the website Antidialectics.
Skepoet: Your larger project seems to be aimed explaining how Hegelian readings of Marx, starting with Engels, have had major philosophical and political problems for working class politics. When did you start to see problems in Dialectical Materialism?
Rosa Lichtenstein: I began to read Hegel back in the 1970s, but when I started a degree course in Philosophy — which was delivered largely by leading Fregeans and Wittgensteinians, who introduced me to Analytic Philosophy — I soon rejected not just Hegel but all forms of traditional Philosophy as a “house of cards”, to paraphrase Wittgenstein.
In the early 1980s I began to take an interest in Marxism, particularly after reading Gerry Cohen’s book, since I saw that one could accept Historical Materialism (a theory that had interested me years earlier, but which I rejected because of Hegel’s influence) without any reference to Hegel, or his ideas. I then drifted into revolutionary politics for a few years, joining a party which, at that time, seemed to me to be the least affected by Engels’s philosophical theories. However, soon after joining that party it did an about turn and began to push Engels’s ideas. This both dismayed and alarmed me. Despite this, I found I could still agree with their political line (and still do), so I just ignored this regrettable development.
Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, in the fight against the UK Poll tax, the party began to change. As a result, I was able to witness at first-hand the baleful effect that Dialectical ‘Logic’ can have on revolutionary politics — in this case, on local party activists. Several of the latter (in the run up to the defeat of that tax, and the under direction of the party leadership) began to behave in a most uncharacteristic and aggressive manner, especially toward less committed comrades.
These activists now declared that ‘dialectical’ thinking meant there were no ‘fixed or rigid principles’ in revolutionary politics. Everything it seemed had now to be bent toward the ‘concrete’ practical exigencies of the class struggle. Abstract ideas were ruled-out of court — except, of course, for that abstract idea. Only the concrete mattered, even if no one could say what that was without using yet more abstractions.
In practice, this novel turn to the ‘concrete’ meant that several long-standing members of the party were harangued until they either abandoned revolutionary activity altogether, or they adapted to the “new mood” (as the wider political milieu in the UK was then called by this party). In the latter eventuality, it meant that they had to conform to a suicidally increased rate of activity geared around the fight against the Poll Tax, whether or not they or their families suffered as a consequence. At meetings, one by one, comrades were subjected to a series of grossly unfair public hectoring sessions (in a small way reminiscent of the sort of things that went on in the Chinese Cultural Revolution — minus the physical violence). These were conducted with no little vehemence by several party ‘attack dogs’ until the ‘victims’ either buckled under the strain, or gave up and left the party.
‘Dialectical’ arguments of remarkable inconsistency were used to ‘justify’ every convoluted change of emphasis, and counter every objection (declaring them one and all “abstract”), no matter how reasonable they might otherwise seem. Comrades who were normally quite level-headed became almost monomaniacal in their zeal to search out and re-educate those who were not quite 100% with the program. For some reason these comrades left me alone, probably because I was highly active at the time, and perhaps because I knew a little philosophy and could defend myself.
In the end, as is evident from the record, the Poll Tax was defeated by strategies other than those advocated by this particular party, and the “new mood” melted away nearly as fast as most of the older comrades did — and, as fate would have it, about as quickly as many of the new members the party had managed to recruit in the meantime. I do not think that the local party has recovered from this period of “applied dialectics” (from what I can tell, it’s about a half to a third of its former size, and thus nowhere near as effective). Indeed, the national party is a fraction of its former size, too.
I have discovered since that this sort of thing is endemic in all forms of Dialectical Marxism, and has been for many generations.This series of events set off a train of thought. As is apparent to anyone with unblinkered eyes, so I thought, Dialectical Marxism is one the most unsuccessful major political movements in human history. Given its bold aims, its totalising theory and the fact that it is supposed to represent the aspirations of the vast bulk of humanity, the opposite should in fact be the case. But it isn’t. The record of Trotskyism is, if anything, even worse; in fact, it’s disgraceful. And I say that as a Trotskyist!
Although at the time I had no way of proving it, these events suggested that an allegiance to Dialectical Materialism might have something to do with this wider, but suitably ironic “unity of opposites”: the long-term failure of a movement that should in fact be hugely successful.
The thought then occurred to me that perhaps this paradoxical situation — wherein a political movement that avowedly represents the interests of the overwhelming majority of human beings is ignored by all but a few — was linked in some way to the contradictory theory at its heart: Dialectical Materialism.
Perhaps this was part of the reason why all revolutionary groups remain small, fragmentary, and lack significant influence, I thought. Could this theory also be related to the unprincipled (if not manipulatively instrumental) way that Disciples of the Dialectic tend to treat, use or abuse one another?
Other questions soon followed: Could dialectics be connected with the tendency almost all revolutionary groups have of wanting to substitute themselves for the working-class –, or, at least, excusing the substitution of other forces for that class, be they Red Army tanks, Maoist guerrillas, Central Committees, radicalised students, or ‘sympathetic/progressive’ nationalist leaders — on the grounds that it is certainly contradictory to believe that forces other than the working class can bring about a workers’ state?
But, hey, that’s dialectical logic for you. It should be contradictory!
Indeed, I wondered, was this theory also used to justify and/or rationalise all manner of opportunistic and cynical twists and turns (some of which took place overnight) — like those we witnessed in the 1920s and 1930s in the manoeuvrings of the CPSU and the CCP –, and which helped destroy several revolutions, dismantle and dissipate workers’ struggles, indirectly helping to cause the deaths of millions of proletarians in the lead up to WW2 and the fight against Hitler, and, indeed, since?
It seemed to me that researching these and related questions might also help explain why revolutionary socialism has been so depressingly unsuccessful for so long. And my researches since have confirmed these suspicions, and much more.
It’s worth adding, though, that I do not blame this theory for all our woes. There are objective reasons why the ruling class still controls the planet. But this theory must take some of the blame. It seems ludicrous to me to believe that, if truth is tested in practice and practice has failed us for so long, our core theory, materialist dialectics, has nothing whatsoever to do with this.
S: What do you make of other non-Hegelian Marxists such as that of G.A. Cohen and the “analytical” Marxists or the Althusserian “structural” Marxists?
R.L.: Well the Analytic Marxists certainly weren’t analytic enough, in my view, and, except for one or two of them, weren’t even recognisably Marxist! However, as I pointed out above, Gerry Cohen’s book is for me a landmark work (if we ignore his Technological Determinism and his Functionalism), not least because of the clarity of his argument — an approach other academics would do well to emulate.
Unfortunately, I have no time for Althusser (or for those who look to him for inspiration). It seems to me that he/they are still mired in a traditional approach to philosophy.
S: Why do you think that dialectical materialists refuse to abandon dialectical materialism?
R.L.: There are at least three main reasons, all of which are inter-related, I think. The first is rather complex: The vast majority of those who have led the Marxist movement or who formed its core ideas weren’t workers; they came from a class that educated their children in the Classics, the Bible, and Philosophy. This tradition taught that behind appearances there lies a ‘hidden world’, accessible to thought alone, which is more real than the material universe we see around us.
This way of viewing things was concocted by ideologues of the ruling-class. They invented it because if you belong to, benefit from or help run a society which is based on gross inequality, oppression and exploitation, you can keep order in several ways.
The first and most obvious way is through violence. This will work for a time, but it’s not only fraught with danger, it’s costly and it stifles innovation (among other things).
Another way is to win over the majority (or, at least, a significant section of ‘opinion formers’, bureaucrats, judges, bishops, ‘intellectuals’, philosophers, teachers, administrators, editors, etc.) to the view that the present order either: (1) Works for their benefit, (2) Defends ‘civilised values’, (3) Is ordained of the ‘gods’, or (4) Is ‘natural’ and so can’t be fought, reformed or negotiated with.
Hence, a world-view that rationalises one or more of the above is necessary for the ruling-class to carry on ruling in the same old way. While the content of ruling-class thought may have altered with each change in the mode of production, its form has remained largely the same for thousands of years: Ultimate Truth (about this ‘hidden world’) can be ascertained by thought alone, and therefore can be imposed on reality dogmatically and aprioristically.
Because of their petty-bourgeois and/or non-working class origin — and as a result of their socialisation and the superior education they have generally received in bourgeois society — the vast majority of the individuals who have led the movement or who have been central to forming its ideas have had “ruling ideas”, or ruling-class forms-of-thought, forced down their throats almost from day one.
So, the non-worker founders of our movement — who had been educated from an early age to believe there was just such a ‘hidden world’ lying behind ‘appearances’, and which governs everything — when they became revolutionaries, looked for a priori ‘logical’ principles relating to that abstract world that told them that change was inevitable, and was thus part of the cosmic order. Enter dialectics, courtesy of the dogmatic ideas of that ruling-class mystic, Hegel. The dialectical classicists were thus happy to impose their theory on the world (upside down or the “right way up”) since that is how they were taught ‘genuine’ philosophers should behave.
[You can see comrades (and others) regularly doing this sort of thing over at the Facebook site you help set up (and across the internet on various discussion boards and blogs), and right throughout academia. Such individuals scarcely devote any thought to how or why they can so effortlessly derive fundamental theses, true for all of space and time, about 'Being', 'consciousness', 'subjectivity', 'essence', etc., from a handful of words, in the comfort of their own heads. Unfortunately, as Marx noted, the ideas of the ruling class always rule.]
This ‘allowed’ the founders of Dialectical Materialism to think of themselves as special, as prophets of the new order, which workers, alas, could not quite understand because of their defective education, their dependence on ordinary language and their reliance on ‘banalities of common sense’.
In which case, dialecticians are not going to relinquish the pre-eminent position adherence to this theory bestows on them — as High Priests of the Revolution.
The second reason is a bit more down-to-earth: Because Dialectical Marxism has been so catastrophically unsuccessful, and for so long, revolutionaries have had to convince themselves that (a) this isn’t really so, and that the opposite is in fact the case, or that (b) this is only a temporary state of affairs. In view of the additional fact that they also hold that truth is tested in practice, they are forced to adopt either or both of (a) and (b), otherwise they’d have to conclude that history has refuted their theory.
Now, because dialectics teaches that appearances are “contradicted” by underlying “essences”, it is able to fulfil a unique role in this regard, motivating and/or rationalising (a) or (b): things might appear to be going wrong, but those invisible underlying ‘essences’, that dialecticians alone can access, tell them the opposite. Alas, this prevents them from addressing the serious theoretical problems that afflict Dialectical Marxism. [That is, if they even acknowledge there are any problems!]
In this way, dialectics provides comrades with much needed consolation in the face of long-term failure, convincing them that everything is in fact fine with their core theory, or that things will change for the better — one day. This then ‘allows’ them to ignore the long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism, rationalising it as a mere “appearance” and hence either false, or illusory. So, confronted with 150 years of set-backs, defeats and disasters, and in the face of their belief that truth is tested in practice, revolutionaries almost invariably respond with a “Well that doesn’t prove dialectics is wrong!”
So, just like the religious, who can survey all the ‘evil’ there is in the world and still see it as an expression of the ‘Love of God’ — and who will make all things well in the future –, dialecticians can look at the last 150 years and still see the ‘Logic of History’ moving their way, and that all will be well in the end, too. This means that the theory that prevents them from facing reality is the very same theory that prevents them from examining it, inviting yet another generation of failure by masking these facts.
Apparently, the only two things in the entire Dialectical Universe that aren’t interconnected are the long term failure of Dialectical Marxism and its core theory!
So, just like the religious, dialecticians are not going to let go of their source of consolation, and cling to it like terminally insecure limpets.
The third reason is connected with the other two: Just like the Bible, which provides its acolytes with ample excuse to accuse others of not ‘understanding the Word of God’, Dialectical Materialism, with its sacred texts, provides its adherents with an obscure theory that ‘allows’ them to claim that other theorists do not ‘understand’ dialectics — or that they ignore and misuse it — and that only they can truly comprehend it. This then ‘allows’ them to anathematise and castigate other comrades as anti-Marxist. In short, it puts in the hands of inveterate sectarians (of which Dialectical Marxism has had more than its fair share) an almost infinitely pliable, ideological weapon capable of proving almost anything at all and its opposite (often this is done by the very same theorist!) — simply because it glories in contradiction.
Abandoning this theory would deprive our ‘leaders’ of the use a very powerful ideological tool which helps them to control the movement by, oddly enough, keeping it small, and thus easier to control. Hence, despite the fact that we have witnessed over 150 years of comrades devoted to ‘building the party’, very few can boast membership rolls that rise much above the risible. The only thing we seem to be good at is falling out with one another, and splitting. Hence the apposite nature of that Monty Python sketch (about the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, etc.). Dialectical Marxism is now a standing joke among workers and the wider populace.
S: Do you think this theory had a direct affect on Marxist politics in the Soviet and Sino-Communist systems, and not just as a sui generis rationalization mechanism for acting against Marxist principles?
R.L.: Well, it certainly helped the leaders of the communist movement sell contradictory tactics and strategies to the cadres, and thus to the whole movement. No theory (other than perhaps Zen Buddhism) can so readily be used to derive any conclusion you find politically expedient and its opposite (often this is done by the very same individual, sometimes on the same page, or even the same paragraph — or, in Stalin and Mao’s case, in the very same speech! — I give numerous examples at my site). So, it’s an ideal weapon in the hands of opportunists of every stripe.
As I noted earlier, it also helped the leaders of the communist movement rationalise their own substitution for the working class. After all, what can be more contradictory than a Workers’ State where the working class has no power, and is oppressed and exploited for its pains? But, that’s dialectics for you…
S.: Do you think that lingering Hegelianism affects the early chapters of Capital or do you think that is where the clean break begins?
R.L.: Marx certainly held onto the jargon, with which he tells us (in the Postface to the second edition of Das Kapital) he merely ‘coquetted’.
However, in the very same Postface, he supplied his readers with the only summary of “the dialectic method” he published in his entire life. Sure, it was written by a reviewer, but he endorsed it as his method and “the dialectic method”. In this summary there is not one atom of Hegel to be found. No ‘contradictions’, no ‘unity of opposites’, no ‘quantity passing over into quality’, no ‘negation of the negation’, no ‘totality’, no ‘universal change’, etc., etc.; and yet he still calls this “the dialectic method”. So, “the rational core” of “the dialectic” contains no trace of Hegel. To put Hegel on his feet is therefore to crush his head. Marx’s dialectic thus more closely resembles the dialectic method of Aristotle, Kant and ‘The Scottish Historical School’ (of Ferguson, Millar, Robertson, Smith, Hume and Stuart).
I prefer not to call it a break, since that would imply I agree with Althusser over his ‘epistemological break’. Marx isn’t interested in epistemology, and it’s not hard to see why. But, maybe more about that another time.
S.: I know you have written on this in some detail on your site, but could you talk about the your view of the unexpected radicalism in Wittgenstein. Particularly on how you see Wittgenstein’s project as similar to Marx’s.
R.L.: I don’t think Wittgenstein’s project is at all the same as Marx’s; there are a few superficial similarities, but that is about as far as it goes. Having said that, there is evidence that some of Marx’s ideas filtered through to Wittgenstein via Piero Sraffa. In the early 1930s, after long discussions with Sraffa, Wittgenstein began to adopt an “anthropological view” of language, which connected it with how we have developed as a species and how it is used as means of communication, rather than as a means of representation (which is how he pictured it in the Tractatus).
Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t use Wittgenstein’s ideas to help improve Marxist theory.
However, in another sense, his work is among the most radical ever to have appeared in the entire history of philosophy. That’s because, if he is right, his method brings to an end 2500 years of philosophical speculation, branding it as self-important hot air (my words, not his!). The only legitimate role for philosophy, as he saw things, is to help unravel the confusions we fall into when we misuse language, or when we confuse the means by which we represent the world for the world itself. Or, as I put it, when we fetishise language, so that what had once been the product of the relation between human beings (language) is inverted so that it becomes the relation between things, or those things themselves. Dialectical Marxists call this ‘reification’, but fail to see this neatly depicts what they have done with the concepts they unwisely inherited from Hegel.
By-and-large, traditional philosophy has always been seen as way of obtaining fundamental truths about ‘reality’, ‘being’, ‘god’, ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’, etc., — all derived from thought or language alone. This is indeed how it is still viewed today, especially in what is called ‘Continental Philosophy’. Even Analytic Philosophy has regressed and has now largely returned to occupying this traditional role. So, the main function of philosophy these days, it seems, is to produce a theory of mind, or of perception, or of language, or of ‘consciousness’, or of time, or of alienation, or of ‘agency’, or of ‘subjectivity’, and so on. Again, if Wittgenstein is right (and I for one think he is), this is completely misguided — which is partly why his work is so unpopular with academic philosophers (and dialecticians!). If his method actually caught on, they’d all be out of jobs.
S.: Why do you identity yourself as a Trotskyist given how much influence Hegel had on Trotsky’s writing? Do you think the historical record discredits non-Leninist Marxism, Maoism, and various forms of Stalinism in a way that it doesn’t discredit Trotskyism?
R.L.: I’m not too sure Trotsky was all that familiar with Hegel’s work, but, for the sake of argument let us suppose he was. Why do I call myself both a Leninist and a Trotskyist if I reject a theory that was central to the life and work of both Lenin and Trotsky? In answer, it might be helpful to consider an analogy: we can surely be highly critical of Newton’s mystical ideas even while accepting the scientific nature of his other work. The same applies here.
In answer to your second question, I think that Trotsky helped preserve the proletarian element in Marx’s revolutionary socialism — what Hal Draper called “Socialism from below”. The alternative, “Socialism from above”, is socialist in name only. The imposition of state socialism on the working class simply means that workers have to struggle against that imposition to create a classless society, one in which they are no longer exploited or oppressed — which is what we have seen, and are still seeing, in all those states set up by the Stalinists and the Maoists.
Now, I have much more time for some forms of non-Leninist Marxism, since they tend to emphasise the centrality of the working class in freeing itself from class oppression. I just disagree over the means by which this might be achieved.
S.: What do you make of the argument that the reason why James Burnham became a reactionary conservative was his rejection of the dialectic? It is obvious you would reject it, but what do you think the actual issues were with Burnham?
R.L.: Well, if you are a Trotskyist, the vast majority of dialecticians are anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Stalinists and the Maoists. On the other hand, if you are a Stalinist, the vast majority of dialecticians are anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Maoists and the Trotskyists. Alternatively, if you are a Maoist, the vast majority of dialecticians are anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Stalinists and the Trotskyists. [I know they do not see things this way, but I do.] So, adherence to dialectical materialism is no guarantee that you will always stay on the straight and narrow. In fact, the vast majority fall by the wayside even while remaining faithful to this theory.
Of course, the counter-argument is that these other groups ‘mis-apply’ the dialectic, or they do not ‘understand’ it — but they all say that of one another. Moreover, there is no objective way of deciding if and when the dialectic has been, or can be applied ‘correctly’. In fact, if truth is tested in practice, the weight of evidence (from the history of all wings of Dialectical Marxism) delivers a very uncomplimentary verdict.
As far as James Burnham’s later trajectory is concerned, I think the way he was treated by Trotsky and his allies in the US-SWP (coupled with the shock to his system delivered by the Hitler-Stalin pact and the invasion of Finland, compounded by the way these were received and interpreted by Trotsky and the US-SWP) disturbed him so profoundly he abandoned his socialism. Although I condemn this turn in his political career, I can sympathise with him to some extent. That is because I too have been treated with little other than contempt, derision and misrepresentation by the vast majority of fellow Marxists (and this is especially so with respect to fellow Trotskyists) with whom I have debated this theory. In Burnham’s case, he reneged on his socialist principles; in my case, it has had the opposite effect, and has made me more determined to press my case.
S: Why do you think so much of “Marxist discourse” has been relegated to Humanities departments and the sectarians whose relationship to the broader working class seems thin at best? Is this solely the result of dialectics?
R.L.: I think left intellectuals have largely come to distrust the working class (by their actions, not necessarily their words), and have retreated into a sort of enclave. Framing socialist theory in Hegelian and post-Hegelian terms hasn’t helped. You can see the results for yourself in the tangled mess that comes out of France, or out of Zizek, for example. How many workers are going to read that? Compare this with the attempts made by left intellectuals sixty or seventy years ago, when they made genuine efforts to speak to workers in terms they could grasp. Chomsky made this point rather well a few years ago:
The problem is that the more that left intellectuals do this, the more they become divorced from working people, and the less faith they have in them. It’s a vicious circle. I not only agree with Marx on this, I have tried to follow his advice:
“The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are onlymanifestations of actual life.” [The German ideology.]
Of course, it’s up to others to decide if I have indeed fully followed on that advice. And the sectarians you refer to have decamped into their own closed circles for reasons I spelt out in an earlier reply. Dialectics has simply made a bad situation worse, I think. There are also other reasons why this has happened, which are connected with the class origin and current class position of those who lead the sectarians, as you call them. [I have detailed these in Essay Nine Part Two at my site.]
S: Why do you think Continental philosophy, and not just that of the Marxist tradition, has been so resistant to developments in classical and modal logic?
R.L.: Not just these forms of logic, but temporal, epistemic, and deontic logic, to name but a few.
It’s hard to say, but I think it stems from Hegel’s insecure grasp even of the logic of his day, and his negative judgement of it. Since then, left intellectuals, by-and-large (but there are notable exceptions, such as the work of Graham Priest) have been suspicious of logic. There is also an element of the fear of mathematics (which modern logic looks suspiciously like), I think. But, we perhaps need the help of social psychologists on that one.
S: What do you think a Historical Materialism without dialectical materialism would look like, exactly?
R.L.: It would look very much like Gerry Cohen’s formulation (minus the Technological Determinism and the Functionalism, as I noted earlier), perhaps admixed with the work of Alex Callinicos in this area (for example, in his Making History) — if, that is, we ignore what he has to say about ‘agency’.
S: Anything you would like to say in closing?
R.L.: No, I think I have said quite enough!
This is the fifth interview in a series with Keith418. The first one is here, the second one is here, the third is here, and the fourth is here. Keith418 is one of the most controversial figures in modern Thelema. His interviews on the defunct Thelema: Coast to Coast were often rigorous and demanding, yet highly contentious. Keith418 has also documented thinkers on both the radical right and the far left often comparing those thinkers to the problematic thought in the Occult community. He has recently spoken at C-realm podcast as well.
Skepoet: Recently, you and I were discussing about how even in groups that are interested in “inequality” or even “the working class” or “labor” there is an avoidance of class dynamics. I think we both think this comes from training class as if it were just another “identity” like gender or race. Would you like to elaborate on that?
Keith418: A friend noted that, when class is discussed at all these days, it’s talked about as another kind of “identity.” As in, “respect people from the working class.” It’s not about how those people are formed or used or how those subjects are created and why they are here. Instead, it’s a demand that they be honored and respected and appreciated – not that “class” as an issue be erased or that the forces that create different classes be eliminated. People are supposed to be proud to be “working class” – just like they are proud to be “gay” or proud to be “black.” The underlying mechanism of class and class domination is never discussed. This naturalizes class. It looks like a trenchant criticism of the status quo, but it’s not. How is this not a problem and why aren’t people addressing it? If we all learn to respect the “working class” does that mean we use them with cleaner consciences? Is this what the left wants?
S.: Clearly this seems to be a move towards things that are more obvious, but also more obviously arbitrary. They can be subsumed in liberal modernity pretty easily, while class if viewed as a something that is unacceptable is not something that accommodation can handle. In that sense, actually winning would require something that is destabilizing. Although oddly, this brings me to our recent debate on Jonathan Haidt, do you think that focus on class as identity instead of class as foundation is part of a liberal moral virtue of inclusiveness?
K.: I think class as identity is just easier for them to cope with than class as a product of human relations. This is the same, when you think about it, with gender and race. There is a virtuous sense of equality and value that seems to assume that “respecting” people alleviates the need to stop exploiting them. Liberals and the left like to look at problems, but examining the causes for those problems is harder for these folks to do. That “racism is wrong” they will readily acknowledge and helpfully explain to us. But what causes it?
If everyone is guilty and implicated, who will guide to our glorious new society and who – untainted – will govern it?
Who will be the left’s managers? If we assume a revolution, who will manage the resources after it is over? How will these people be trained and developed – and what would prevent them from simply be assumed into the ruling structure the left is seeking to overthrow?
The anti-revisionist left used to urge people to “go into the factories” right? Why didn’t that work out? Is anyone asking? Did factory work become too numbing for everyone? Or did the other workers simply not respond to their ideologies? I find the fact that so few seem to be curious about the history of these groups and their struggles and decline to be itself curious. You’d think people would be researching this stuff so as to learn from these groups and their mistakes. Who does and why don’t they?
We’ve talked about the people who are “Progressive Except for Palestine.” What about the folks who are “Progressive Except for Income Inequality”? This not insubstantial group views the current society as a meritocracy and wants to make sure everyone gets a fair shake within it. They care about every liberal issue – like gay marriage, environmentalism, and women’s rights – that doesn’t call into question the ownership of the means of production and how their own particular privilege is maintained within it.
What I don’t grasp is why the “real left” never goes after these people. Instead, everyone wants to target what remains of the white working class and its issues – never the privilege of the NPR-listening, Prius-driving, white liberal elites. What I see on Facebook and elsewhere are people who keep shooting down the class slope. They may see themselves as “leftists” but their cultural targets are always poorer and less educated than they are. As long as the working class and the poor do not obey the left’s ideological dictates about, say, science and gender issues, they will remain the enemy.
S.: This is an interesting contradiction then isn’t it? The right is supposedly exclusive, but has a populist base largely on a willingness to be broad on cultural issues, but leftist and liberals both tend to be supposedly populist but whose ideological and aesthetic judgments are elitist. Do you think this contradiction is something Haidt’s research help you understand?
K.: No, I’ve looked at it for a long time – as I think anyone who has worked seriously in left-liberal circles has. Ken Minogue pointed out, some time ago, the way the left has a very elitist nature. They are the ones who are enlightened – the elect seeking to liberate the ignorant. This kind if condescension appears to me to be another way Judeo-Christian translates into the left’s approach. “The blessed” – who are distinguished by being always ready to profess the right and virtuous opinions are in conflict with the “poor and benighted” who don’t get. It’s worse lately. now the left seeks to speak ‘truth to the stupid” rather than speaking truth to “power.” they ARE the power and their values and the the ones that dominate. In any event, it’s always about attacking the people poorer and less privileged than they are. The people who weren’t privileged enough to go to good schools and who don’t understand why you have to listen to NPR, drive a Prius and take canvas bags to the grocery store. Those people, of course, are the problem – not the people running the non-profits and elite foundations.
S.: What if the left or liberals just openly embraced elite culture and values? It seems like conservative values in the US are just as elitists in their function economically, but it just a different set of elites. What bothers me is the patent hypocritical nature of both claims, again, with a slight deviant perhaps being paleo-conservatives who do see themselves as a remnant elite, but as you have said, “they were bad suits.”
K.: What does it matter to us if none of these groups has any real authority or even an understanding of what that is – where it originates, what it constitutes? I’m not seeing any evidence that any of them has the slightest clue. Science cannot tell us what our values should be, and the values that used to motivate people before the age of science aren’t working well no matter how they get restated or disguised and stuck into new, and usually threadbare and cheap, costumes. A real elite needs real authority, They don’t have it. None of them do. It’s all increasingly revealed as feeble and inauthentic posturing. Real authority is like real art – it has to engage with and proceed from and return to the absolute. What Facebook and the Internet show us is that no one can be consistent any longer – and without that sense of consistency there is no authenticity and no real authority.
S.: If I understand you correctly, at the moment, no one seems to be operating from a point of consistency ideologically, or in connection with power. So embracing elitism honestly would be impossible in that situation. Do you see this increasing?
K.: I think we have to look carefully at the ‘truth to power” line. Lately, the leftists I know want to speak “truth to stupid.” We see this with their anger at the small government types, the people who deny climate change, or the religious. This is a very different dynamic and one that has come to usurp the former idea. Are we oppressed by power or by ignorance? The frustrations and the contempt the managers have for the managed is not “revolutionary” – is it?
I also notice that many leftists seem reluctant to lampoon, satirize, and generally disparage the accouterments and excesses of the privileged. Look at the paintings of George Grosz and the cartoons in The Masses. Who is going after the privileged elites today with the same kind of venom and sharpened ire? Look at the wealthy families with their spoiled children and their paraded pretensions – this isn’t ripe for criticism? Yet who on the left does this? We don’t see it – any more than we see leftist satires of elite and, obviously hypocritical, “liberal” Zionists. The desire to target the lifestyles and presumptions of the privileged elites just isn’t there.Why not? Is it because these people are allies against the “conservative” masses? Do people on the left aspire themselves to lofts in Brooklyn with nannies who know to recycle?
Maybe the old WASP elites were different. Now that new elites, from other ethnic groups have emerged, no one feels the same motivation to take them out and to subject them to righteous ridicule.
S.: This seems tangentially related to another issue you and I have talked about: The refusal to look seriously at failures of left-wing thought in the past is deeply there. For example, you pointed me to a Kasama post reviewing at book on the Sojourner Truth Organization which flippantly skipped over both the fact that STO had got little support from the racial communities it was aiming to aid and also ignored the later ideas and controversies of Noel Ignatiev. What do you make of that?
K.: I’m not sure. I read and wondered what planet these people are living on. It’s like the truth, the reality is so painful they explore these histories as barely explored mythologies and leave as much as they can out of it. Where are the left’s much vaulted critical thinking skills?
What about all the people in the STO that put years of their lives into that project only to watch it crash and burn? Did it strike you as strange that there seemed to be so little looked at there?
S.: It does strike me as strange. In fact, it strikes me as strange that few people discuss the 1970s and 1980s New Communist movement, they always focus on the anti-Revisionists in the 1960s and just want to pretend that the 1970s didn’t happen, and then the 1980s emerge as some kind of conspiratorial relapse. Both the far left and the liberal left does this: the liberal left pretends that Stagflation didn’t happen in the 1970s and neo-liberalism emerged solely as a political project, and the far left doesn’t want to look at the 1968 in France was put down without a single shot fired, how Nixon won in the end of the 60s, etc. The right is in denial about a lot of things too, but I am not a rightist, so it isn’t my responsibility to criticize it.
Do you think this runs into basically ideological tribalism where one gives one’s own group a heuristic of charity and the opposing group at a heuristic of demonization?
K.: I tend to see these partisan battles as the result of the way Judeo-Christianity has permeated secular political thinking – what you refer to as “political theology.” One group is either the “elect” or the “chosen people” who are always innocent and the other group is ignorant and beneath contempt. The good and noble group is the “light unto the nations” and the rest are seen as without redeeming or admirable features. Likewise any undeniable faults in your own group are understandable and “tragic” while the problems the other groups face are a result of their bad ideas and beliefs.
In looking at some of the left discourse, it seems to me to be less about a political movement for real change and more of a way to have a kind of secret and superior analysis of events always at hand – like many occultists seem to see occultism. You get to feel superior by knowing, for example, when an institution is “patriarchal” while never criticizing your own continuing participation in said institution.
Are those on the left really as smart as they think they are? If they are that smart, where is their challenging thinking? Why aren’t there hundreds of Glenn Greenwalds rather than just one? What kills me are all the leftists I know who claim to admire Greenwald and go right ahead cheerfully carrying water of Obama and ignoring everything he says. The “far leftists” do want to make their middle of the road liberal friends mad by attacking Obama with any real venom. I do not get it.
S. I wrote something on Tim Wise attacking Greenwald for being a racist for saying that Ron Paul was better on war questions than Obama, but really, Ron Paul is. Furthermore it struck me that Wise was trading in the symbolic capital of a “black” President for the actual lived lives of brown people far away. Now admittedly both Wise and Greenwald are white, but it seemed like a laughably bad argument.
This brings me to another topic: even fairly well-off conservatives, as you have pointed out in some of your writings, say the correct liberal things on race in public and when they don’t the backlash is extreme. But as you point out, this can lead to a “leftism” and a “rightism” without much substance. For example, one can renounce one’s own privilege, say all the right things, hire the right people, and have a few symbolic members of the right minorities in your in-group but nothing fundamentally has changed for most people economically.
K.: There’s a couple of things here. One, Look at Ron Paul on drug use. Assuming he is a racist – and I don’t think he is at all, but let’s allow the assumption – he still wants to end the drug laws and release every black person in prison who’s there for drug charges. Obama, as we have seen, has been determined to not only coninue the drug war, but his AG has even started to go after medical marijuana in places where the voters have approved it. In old Marxist-speak, can’t we then say that Obama is more “objectively racist” than Ron Paul? No one is pointing to this because the left has backed away from opposing the drug war. If anyone disputes this, then why aren’t they more enraged at Obama and his supporters for continuing it? Even the Marxists I know do not get on Facebook and rage at their liberal friends for supporting Obama. Do you see this? I do not see it.
We can say that the right has been co-opted by its own commitments to a Judeo-Christian ethic that has been secularized into “progressive” positions in various ways, but I would look to Hegel as to why they can’t resist this process. There is no “right” in America that is harshly critical of Judeo-Christianity the way there is in Europe – no meaningful tradition or one that has produced an insightful and substantive literature. Therefore, when the American right is appealed to in Christian terms, it tends to cave sooner or later.
We can go back to the work of Kenneth Minogue, who I have been reading recently, who carefully analysed the way being a liberal means having the right opinions and saying the right things – it doesn’t mean DOING all that much. People recite the opinions they know they are supposed to have and go right on living their lives the same way. Nothing changes except for what they say. That’s how everyone knows you’re a good person. Minogue – in his day – carefully criticized ideologies, but I wonder how the people who read him in the ’60s see how neoconservatism fulfilled every single one of his criteria for what an “ideology” consists of. Few on the right realize this.
long time ago. Murray Rothbard was one of the early people who went through the purge process at National Review. The neocons may hate the paleocons, but they hate anti-war libertarians even more.I have no idea why the leftists I know have no interest in studying and attacking the neocons. Is it because they are afraid of being called antisemites? That fear seems to prevent them from criticizing Israel most of the time. Do liberals even know the socially “left” necons like David Brooks really aren’t fellow liberals? Sometimes I wonder if they grasp that fact. Remember, you can be a neocon and support gay rights and abortion. They welcome people with those positions. You can actually be okay with socialized health care too.
You can stay a neocons and be quite liberal on every domestic issue. It’s the Foreign Policy stuff that makes for trouble. There you have to toe the line. How is that really any different from many liberals we know?
Real libertarians are principled and consistent in ways that a lot of folks just aren’t right now. The anti-war libertarians are just as hard on Obama as they were on Bush as they were on Clinton as they were on Bush. Again, this messes up the left narrative – a narrative that plays down its own tendency to play partisan games and cut people defying its own principles slack when convenient. The liberals I know do this weird thing which thing where they embrace Obama while attacking his actual policies. It’s schizophrenic. Or they pretend the bad things he does need to be blamed on others. It’s part of the strange, unremarked upon, and nearly universal inconsistency we see on Facebook all the time. I see people on Facebook decrying an Obama policy one day and then posting these “Awwww!” pictures of him and Michelle dancing together the next. They take umbrage when you point out that they are being inconsistent – but does anyone link automatically link personal authenticity to personal consistency any longer?
At a certain point, in its early stages, the Internet and emerging social media was interesting because of what it said. Now, what it won’t say, what it won’t discuss or talk about, is even more interesting.
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.
The first part of this interview is here.
Skepoet: What do you make of Jonathan Haidt’s research that indicates “liberals” have three spheres of value while conservatives have five? I see this related to the your second point about the function of religion. Although I should be disclose my opinion, and say that I think Haidt trans-historicizes both liberalism and conservatism in a way that is highly problematic.
Simon Pratt: It would be very strange to suggest that Liberals literally lacked those two spheres of value, but as an ideal typical model, I think it captures something important about the relationship between socio-economic circumstances and values. This is because Liberal and Conservative, globally, tends to correlate closely to urban and rural, and particularly so in the US. Is it surprising that people who live in nuclear families in cosmopolitan centres where diverse ethnic, economic, and linguistic groups interact daily will be less concerned with the sort of values indicative and protective of in-group chauvinism? I don’t think so. Rather than understand Haidt as trans-historicising liberalism and conservatism, I see him as revealing, perhaps by proxy, what happens when you throw people together in relatively unprecedented ways, and expose human beings to a huge array of identity categories. Unsurprisingly, Social Identity Theorists studying conflict have found that places where people meet and cooperate with members of other groups than their own usually feature less bigotry.
How does my interpretation of Haidt compare to yours?
S.: It’s more charitable, but it is not out of sync with my suspicion that you’re right about the social and economic structure affects things more than ideological ones in the way most liberals use the term. (As Academics, we both know that Marxist and Weberians use ideology entirely differently and in a way that confuses most outsiders). One thing I noticed Haidt had to do though was place both the far left and libertarians into a liberal camp. This may be useful for the comparison between rural and urban social values, but it’s highly misleading to ideological battles. That’s glossed by the categories.
Back to religion: What do you make of the recent study that shows that middle class, educated people tend to stay religious in higher numbers than the uneducated? It’s a recent trend, but one that bucks most of the Enlightenment predictions about American religiosity being tied to education and poverty-level.
S.P.: Grouping libertarians and far-leftists together makes some sense if you consider the historical origins of their ideologies, in terms of how they group morally significant entities and the human conditions that are the goals of their projects. But you’re right to point to this grouping as evidence that Haidt’s categories are themselves fractured, and salient only to certain kinds of explanation. Another way to view the distinction he creates, from an anthropological perspective, is between pre-modern and modern social structures. For people in rural areas, in-group and out-group resembles much more closely the sort of tribal configurations common throughout most of human history, whereas modern social structures, be they libertarian or Marxian, depart radically from this. Perhaps according to Enlightenment and Romanticist lines, respectively? But now we’re entering territory far outside my knowledge.
I was not aware of such a study, but it doesn’t seem hugely surprising on its own. I would need to see more information about what kind of religion inheres more robustly within the middle classes, though. If it’s a particularly flexible or liberal religion, it would make perfect sense to me that it should remain. Nevertheless, a more general negative correlation appears to obtain between wealth/education and religiosity, even if that relationship does not appear in every observable instance.
S.: Back to terrorism: in a very broad sense, what do you think would be a good perspective for a skeptic to take in regards to Terrorism as a cultural strategy of marginal peoples?
S.P.: I’m not quite sure what your terms mean. What is a cultural strategy and what do you mean by marginal peoples?
S.: Well, a cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state. Clearer?Well, cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state. Clearer?
S.P.: If I understand correctly, do you mean to say that terrorism is the strategy of agents who do not have legal legitimacy to their actions? Because there’s certainly no reason why such agents cannot be analysed according to the same models and terms as official state agents can, in assessing how violence is used to achieve political goals. Cultures are not capable of holding agency, I think, and so it is wrong to assign to them the sort of intentionality and capacity for deliberation that enables strategic behaviour. But groups of people, whatever their institutional status, are capable of collective decision-making and behaviour, and terrorism, whether carried out by a state or a non-state agent, can be viewed as rational, calculated, and entirely political.
S.: The agency would not so much be the issue but the structural placement within a social system, but part of the confusion seems to be that line of agency makes one see any collective agency as political, but this type of politics has a logic that is justified through acceptable norms, which is a cultural norm as much as a political one, I suppose I want to push you on the idea that politics here is separate from culture in that strict way. But I suppose we must admit that we are dealing with reifications of collective action and norm setting as opposed to something slightly more concrete like a state.
Let me ask another question then, is the bombing of Dresden in World War 2 an act of terrorism?
S.P.: I define terrorism as the deliberate generation of fear, usually through violence or the threat of it, within a political community in order to change its behaviour. This is deliberately a very broad definition, including not only the bombing of Dresden but the entire deterrent component of a community’s criminal justice system. But I would never use this definition without immediately following it with a typology, and ‘terrorism’ as its used in most popular or non-critical-theory academic conversations tends to refer to what I’d call ‘insurgent terrorism’, which is terrorism carried out by a non-state agent, either individual or organised group, to subvert or influence a government and its citizenry via extralegal means.
I don’t necessarily see states as any more concrete than the norms and institutions – merely patterns of behaviour – which constitute them. States are what we make of them. The difference to me between collectives like states and collectives like cultures is the presence of decision-making mechanisms designed to facilitate collective action according to some set of intentions. If you have such mechanisms, you can speak of their collectives as you would speak of agents, within certain situations. But as cultures do not have such mechanisms, I struggle to see a situation in which they can be coherently treated as having agency.
Of course, these reifications are useful explanatory and cognitive tools, and nothing more. They entail no ontological commitments to the reality of some entity and the referential status of my language to it.
S.: Now we seem to be on the same page again: What are good, rational policies for dealing with insurgent terrorism if we assume the ends is to seize terrorist activity without causing more grievances that would inspire new sets of insurgents?
S.P.: Well, there are a variety of ways to engage in effective counterterrorism. One is to have a totalitarian police state, but since you’re asking this of me, I’m going to assume a more specific question: how can societies maintain a set of Enlightenment liberal values and still secure itself from terrorism? Of course, this is a very hard question to answer, and the particulars of any answer will depend on the particulars of the terrorist threat, but we can still look for policies that achieve in a general sense the following features of government and the state in an already liberal context:
-well-funded and trained counterterrorism police forces and domestic intelligence service, with effective civilian oversight and active engagement with community leaders of subpopulations particularly likely to produce a terrorist threat.
-development and enforcement of hate speech laws, such that people and groups preaching or mobilising for a violent agenda can be legally stopped from doing so, also subject to a diverse committee of civilian oversight and review.
-training for emergency services in coping effectively with the aftermath of a terrorist attack, both in rescue and in maintaining civil order, including public relations specialists able to reassure the public while honestly communicating any extent risks.
-ongoing public discussions on terrorism including experts capable of keeping things honest and focusing discussion both on the grievances that would-be terrorists may have and in the legitimate mechanisms available for addressing those grievances
These still do not guarantee that insurgent terrorism will not take place, nor that government personnel won’t find ways to abuse the special powers granted to them in the name of security from terrorism, but I think they comprise the best arrangement of legitimate coercive powers in a liberal context.
Freedom and security are, of course, not always a dichotomy. There are ways for the presence of greater coercion – state terrorism of the legitimate variety – to enable greater freedom than a lesser level of coercion. The ‘optimal’ level of coercion will depend on the particular threats within a context, as well as the cultural resources available to make that coercion normatively acceptable and palatable for enough of the public, but as an abstract notion of governance it lies at the very heart of liberal thought.
S.: However, that is what separates liberal as an ideological development, and liberal as a modern orientation, no? The notion of legitimate coercion varies massively amongst those who developed out of Enlightenment liberalism as everyone from American Libertarians to Stalinist to Bakuninite anarchism are developments of that tradition.
I would tend to agree with you about coercion levels being optimal and handled by community governance. This means that terrorism then should not have the moral weight attached to it, but should be seen as a strategy in and of itself (not an abstract value of “evil” or a mere tactic?)
S.P.: I’m not quite sure what you mean, here. Do you mean the development of a liberal mode of subjectivity as compared to the moral [and entailed political] value commitments of Enlightenment Liberalism?
S.: That is certainly my view: terrorism is not essentially evil, and the moral character of a terrorist act depends on the case. But I am also more committed to (Rule) Utilitarianism than most people, and so even if I were confronted with a definition for terrorism that confined terrorist acts to attacks on civlians – as many definitions do – I could still not call it an essential bad. But in the real world, of course, most of what we call terrorism does seem to me to be pretty bad. There is just too much evidence to show that bombing or shooting people in markets, mosques, clubs, or planes will not be as efficient as other, less violent means in achieving any set of goals I consider worthy. A good analogy would be the so-called ‘ticking time-bomb scenario’ that apologists for torture love to trot out. As a Utillitarian I am entirely willing to endorse torture if it is less harmful than the alternative, but since torture is virtually always a worse way to get information than just about any available alternative, the thought experiment is a red herring.
S.: I mean that Enlightenment liberalism produces very different sets of morality and governance, and the agent of legitimate coercive force and if there is ever such an agent vary greatly. Modern liberalism is definitely rooted in the legitimate agency of a democratic Republics and generally takes a moral calculus from either modern form of virtue ethics or variants of Utilitarianism. Libertarians take a deontological view of such notions, and Marxists tend to deny that have a moral framework as a part of a political theory at all.
This brings me to a another point I have against Sam Harris: do you think meta-ethical justification is important?
S.P.: From what I’ve been able to tell, almost all members of the Skeptics movements tend towards a sort of naive Utilitarianism, and see any moral system that doesn’t seek to maximise human wellbeing as absurd. This does not mean that they don’t simultaneously belief that life is an instrinsic good, despite the arguable incompatibility of the two propositions, depending on the version of Utilitarianism to which one subscribes. I’ve also noticed that Skeptics tend not to be republicans. They are in favour of political processes that serve as individual interest aggregators and adjudicators, and tend not to endorse collectivist conceptions of the public or the polity. At least here; the ones in the UK are a bit more willing to see the state prescribe morality.
I have mixed feelings about the value of meta-ethical discussions. On the one hand, I think that having them with is important because such discussions tend to produce more nihilists, expressivists, or other forms of non-cognitivists, and I think this is a good thing because moral realism is absurd and dangerous. On the other hand, that naive Utilitarianism I mentioned earlier is very likely to be what cosmopolitan folk end up developing (cf. Haidt) so we might as well leave the existential angst to the academics and apply ourselves to the practical matter of maximising human wellbeing. Just so long as we don’t wander around looking smug and heaping contempt upon those who don’t share our moral norms. As an observer and theorist on so-called political violence, I get very anxious when I see my comrades suggesting that those who disagree with our principles simply don’t know the facts.
S.: Both Masmimo Piggliuci and myself are virtue ethicists (although his would be center left and mine would be far left), but that does have a nearly consequentialist metajustication, and I actually find collective conception of community as a norm setter for fairly persuasive, but you’re right that I would be in the minority.
Simon Frankel Pratt recently received a Masters of Arts in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and is currently embarking on a PhD at the University of Toronto this September. He gained my BA at Simon-Fraser University, in international studies and Middle East history, and has lived, studied, and conducted research in Israel for extended periods. He is a co-founders of ‘SFU Skeptics’, a club devoted to sceptical thinking and humanist activism. His excellent blog can be found here.
Skepoet: I came across your work by recommendation from a friend who said you were a necessary correction to a lot of the vulgar anti-Islamism and misreadings of terrorism in the Skeptic’s community,
particularly that done by Sam Harris. What do you think the key problems are there with a lot of the assertions one sees about terrorism from say Pat Condell or Sam Harris?
Simon Pratt: So the Skeptics are a fairly well informed bunch when it comes to international goings-on. They – we – read the news and enjoy discussing events of significant political or human importance taking place in the Middle East or in Europe, and so-on. And so, of course, Skeptics read about stuff which reasonably carries the label ‘terrorism’. It is the interest of the Skeptics to address and combat bad critical thinking and its harmful consequences, particularly as an apparent consequences of religious doctrine. Terrorism, as we encounter it, thus seems to be the perfect exemplar of flawed, religious beliefs leading to terribly harmful consequences. And it has escaped no-one’s notice that most of that stuff we call terrorism, insofar as it is reported in our mainstream media, is done by Muslims, and often justified in explicitly Islamic language. This is the context within which we should understand the perspectives of intellectual leaders of the Skeptics community such as Sam Harris.
The Sam Harris School (SHS), in which I think we can include Pat Condell along with quite a few other Skeptics, seems to hold the following views on terrorism:
1. Terrorism is caused by extremist, irrational beliefs, usually of a religious character.
2. Islamic scripture and doctrine is essentially conducive to terrorism, to a greater degree than other religion’s texts and doctrines; a moderate Muslim is simply not a very pious Muslim, and is not practicing their own faith in a committed way.
3. Islam as its widely practiced today is particularly conducive to terrorism, with adherents comprising ‘death cults’ and espousing violent cultural chauvinism.
4. Terrorists, by virtue of their extremism and commitment to irrational religious doctrines, cannot be reasoned or bargain with, and should be dealt with via hawikish counterterrorism policies.
All of these views are undermined, to varying but generally substantial degrees, by the history and social science scholarship on terrorism, extremism, religious fundamentalism, and the intersections between ideology and violence. They are undermined in ways that should be understandable to anyone, and their flaws should be apparent to more than just experts in the field.
I will explain how this is the case.
1. There is a robust debate amongst experts as to the causes of terrorism, but that debate has, almost comprehensively, taken it as a given that relevant factors include political freedom, economic development, social structure, government effectiveness, and human security. For at least three decades, scholars on terrorism have considered both ‘underlying’ and ‘proximate’ causes, and specified a relationship between background forces that make terrorism more likely, and ‘triggers’ which push a person or a community into using terrorism. Now, of course these factors influence one-another in complex ways, and the religious or ideological beliefs held by members of a society both influence and are influenced by all these other things. Notably, though perhaps largely as a result of methodological concerns and as a legacy of behaviourism, religion is treated by many experts as epiphenomenal or as an intermediate factor which is caused by other things and serves only to enable immediate moral justification for action. It isn’t often assigned a causal role at all. While I won’t argue endorse this position, I will say that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that our beliefs concerning legitimate targets and forms of violence, and on tolerance of difference within our community, are strongly shaped by precisely those material and structural forces I previously named. This brings me to number two.
2. Islam isn’t a thing. While there is undeniably bellicose language within Islamic texts, the meaning of those texts is determined solely through human interpretation. Why do so, so many Skeptics seem not to realise this? Some argue that certain kinds of statements terms are harder to interpret in a way that supports liberal values, and are more likely to lead to chauvinism or violence, but there are so many examples of even the most bloodthirsty or misogynist of biblical passages being ‘contextualised away’ by Christians here in North America and the UK which should be immediately available to recall. Many skeptics tend to look upon this process of contextualisation with contempt, noting that these passages are plainly awful and that
theological gymnastics are a pathetic attempt to deny the obvious evil of the dogma in question. Other Skeptics argue for some kind of exceptionalism, suggesting that Christianity has a liberal tradition
which Islam lacks, perhaps because Islam is hundreds of years younger and just hasn’t had its reformation yet. Well, the first argument is not only narrow-minded but ironic: Skeptics who see biblical literalism as more sound or apt are engaging in amateur theology of their own, and in the process are endorsing the notion that there are certain interpretations of religious texts which are more authoritative or accurate. I think this happens because we come from a tradition in which texts contain fairly clear arguments, penned by philosophers who make full use of modern language to ensure that their ideas are as unequivocal as possible precisely because they are committed to the kind of analytic reason which serves as the foundation to the Skeptics’ ideology. As for the second argument…
3. There are many examples of Muslim groups whose message appears very liberal and tolerant, as well as very pious.There are groups such as Imaan or al-Faitha, which campaign for greater acceptance for LGBT
persons within Muslim communities on the basis of extensive theological argument. There are political parties such as Hizb al-Wasat, whose platform endorses liberal democracy of a type quite similar to what we enjoy here, in religious langauge and with reference to religious norms and principles. I published an article last year on Islamic norms and liberal democracy, as it happens. Anyway, the point is that while there is undoubtedly a powerful, global conservative movement in Islam, and while most Muslim communities in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East – and their young diasporas in Europe – would not be what I’d call liberal, this does not mean that those Muslims who are liberal are necessarily any worse at being Muslim. Nor does it mean that Islam just hasn’t yet had its reformation. Remember what I wrote earlier about religious beliefs being strongly shaped by material and structural forces? One doesn’t need to spend long comparing the conditions of primarily Muslim countries to Canada, the US, or the UK to see why something other than a failure to reach the requisite theological epoch could be behind Islam’s apparent conservatism. At the same time, one is likely to find greater similarities between Islam and Christianity as its practiced in, say, many African countries, compared to similarities between Christianity there and Christianity here. Again, this is not an argument for crass material determinism – and the powerful conservative religious movements amongst US Christians and British Muslims alike would be two prima facie confounding examples – but for the recognition that belief systems aren’t objects that endure unaffected by the world in which they dwell, exerting causal influences but receiving none from elsewhere.
4. I’ll make this short, since I appear to have rambled and ranted quite a lot. Terrorism is not some kind of extension of religiously driven rage, nor is it the inevitable and cathartic shucking of shackles by the colonised. It is a strategic response, an attempt to connect means to ends in an appropriate and efficient way. WIthout a doubt, individuals committing acts of terrorism believe that the harm they cause is justified, and thus from our perspective they are likely to be quite ‘extreme’ in their beliefs. WIthout a doubt, the moral principles by which those who use terrorism justify their actions are quite often expressed in religious langauge, and makes reference to the grievences – whether legitimate or not – of the colonised and the
oppressed. But if terrorists didn’t think that terrorism would serve their goals, they wouldn’t be terrorists because they wouldn’t use terrorism. We might very reasonably think that the cost of bargaining with groups that hold highly illiberal social goals is too high, but there is no essential reason why we should come to that conclusion. We might decide, after careful consideration of its associated benefits and costs, that hawkish counterterrorism is the best way to go, but that decision should be both contextually contingent and tentative. It may be a tired maxim, but very often, violence begets more violence.
S: So am I to understand that you also think the Robert Pape’s reading is a bit too simplistic? Why do you think the Sam Harris model has such appeal?
S.P.: Could you elabourate a bit more on this? Pape’s reading of what?
As for why Islam is singled out, I would say this is to some extent a product of a poor understanding of Islamic theology and dogma, but mostly the result of only encountering images of illiberal, often violent versions of Islam via the media. People who only see Christianity as its articulated by racist, homophobic, misogynist Deep-South ‘Tea-Party’ types will also come to a different conclusion about Christianity than people who encounter United Church members or Unitarians, or people who toddle down to their low-key local Anglican church for the hymns like my granny does. Of course, just as Horrible Deep South Christianity is real, so too is Violent Islamism. So too is Illiberal Islamism. There is a massive, global, and from my perspective highly awful movement of Muslims whose understanding of their religion leads them to seek things that are anathema to me. If I need to think carefully about how best to differentiate between bad and good Islams, and bad and good Muslims, think how difficult it must be for someone who hasn’t spent the bulk of their academic education studying these things?
So in short, the Sam Harris School is popular because Skeptics don’t really understand religion very well, and in particular they don’t understand Islam very well.
S.: I mean Pape’s reading of terrorism as almost being solely rooted in foreign occupations. Am I mischaracterizing him?
S.F.: Pape argued that suicide bombing was rooted in occupation, but certainly doesn’t seem to have argued that terrorism as a whole is limited to such situations.
S.: Ah yes, but you often see Pape used by left liberals to be generalized about terrorism in general, which would be a vulgarization of Pape, perhaps?
S.F.: I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an example of Pape’s work misinterpreted by lay observers. If you provided me with an example, I could say more, but I infer from this that you’ve seen so-called ‘left liberals’ using Pape to argue that military occupations cause terrorism in general? I’m not hugely familiar with Pape’s work, since his methods don’t really interest me, but that would certainly seem like a very crude and loose reading.
One explanation for these kinds of readings lies, I think, in the discourse on terrorism outside of academia, where rhetorical camps divide into causal arguments. The RIght says ‘they hate us for our freedoms’ while the Left says ‘they hate us for our interference’. Latching on to social science that appears to justify one position over another is understandable, but of course, utterly flawed and simplistic. ‘They’ hate us for both our freedoms and our interference, and other things besides. Of course, the search for and deployment of simple narratives is ubiquitous in public discourse, but terrorism is one of the worst subjects for it.
May I ask where you’re going with this? Your question to me on the appeal of the Sam Harris School within the Skeptic community prompted me to think of some intriguing aspects of the epistemological commitments that lie at the heart of much Skeptic critique or discourse.
S.: I noticed you posited another problematic binary to to Sam Harris’s reading in the end of your answer, and I wanted to see you clarify how you think the term gets misused.
Now to return to the Sam Harris school of thought: do you see this at all related to his claim that we can ignore the is/ought distinction?
S.P.: I don’t think this is related immediately or even necessarily consciously to his attempts to Science away the is/ought distinction by arguing that deep down, we’re all basically Benthamites. But I do think that the popularity of the Sam Harris School derives from the sense that any moral or social system which does not seem predicted upon the kind of subject and set of values typical of Enlightenment liberalism is simply ignorance that can be corrected by education or drone strike, depending. This is consistent with the view that there really can’t be any true debate over what ‘ought’ to be the case and that such debates merely arise from imperfect factual knowledge.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of Enlightenment liberalism. I just think it needs to be understood as historically contingent, and constituted by a set of rules, institutions, and identities that are quite hard to sustain, and which run counter to many of our biases and dispositions as shown in psychological and sociological research.
S.: In your drawing out of the SHM you seemed to imply that perhaps another issue is that Enlightenment view of religion may be a little too simple. Do you think that rationalist reading of religion as mainly a function of beliefs is sound?
S.P.: I absolutely think that a reading of religion as the function of beliefs is insufficient. Enormously so. I
think religion should be understood as a process by which certain ‘sacred’ principles are maintained as central to social life. The propositional content of such principles is, of course, relevant, but I see that content as being largely contingent upon a great many other socio-economic conditions and structures. Really, I think religion is the way that people manage to keep sacred principles despite the speed with which any particular interpretation of those principles becomes obsolete, and the way communities glued together by those principles manage to stay together according to them. Any given piece of doctrine should be understood as an attempt to negotiate a whole host of pressing circumstances while remaining within the roles and norms appropriate to the sacred principles that provide its authority.
To Be Continued.