COMMON RUIN

“Ars longa, vita brevis”

The Value of Everything: Understanding Council Communism

 

VOE 102

One man’s conception of the movement for, and realization of, proletarian emancipation.

In part 2 of our ongoing dialogue, Charles Owen provides me with the opportunity to elaborate to listeners of The Value of Everything on how I envisage council communism coming into existence and functioning via his application of the ever illuminating Socratic method. The preponderance of this lengthy interview (over 3 hours!) therefore centers on revolutionary theory and political economy, but Charles and I also spend a considerable amount of time discussing the recent Dallas shootings, religion, the national question, criminal justice, the philosophy of education, transhumanism, the sociology of the family, and even the Zeitgeist movement. In other words, there’s something for everyone in this episode.

(Pardon the occasional delays on my side of the recording, as my internet connection was rather sporadic during part of the interview.)

Click here to download episode #102.

Interview on The Value of Everything

The Value of Everything 101

Where are we headed?

Charles Owen and I have recently come into contact with one another and agreed to record a series of dialogues and debates for his thought-provoking podcast The Value of Everything. Charles’s theoretical background is in classical and Austrian economics, and he espouses a libertarian political philosophy which is rather unique in orientation. I encourage everyone to visit his website, subscribe to the show’s YouTube channel, and listen to the catalog of episodes.

In our first exchange, Charles and I conjecture on the future of world affairs. Among other things, we discuss the global economic crisis, the ascent of political populism, and the prospects for social change.

Click here to download the interview. (Please excuse my gaffes and pauses, it’s my  first time being recorded for a podcast.)

Mr. Žižek Goes to Left Forum

Zizek_Left_Forum

No Platforming strikes Left Forum 2016.

Not long ago, Slavoj Žižek was the darling of the art house left. His excessive pessimism and mastery in conveying simple, if counterintuitive, observations in the similarly opaque parlance of the Lacanian and Hegelian traditions elevated his status to the very apex of the bohemian radical milieu (in an atmosphere where form often exceeds substance, as it undoubtedly does within that circle, such is hardly surprising). Žižek’s charmingly misanthropic and eccentric personality, in addition to his vulgar sense of humor—all observable in his public lectures—also broadened his appeal to less academic audiences, atypical for someone from his intellectual background and significantly contributing to his fringe celebrity.

But the Slovenian philosopher’s reputation has suffered a precipitous decline, transitioning from relatively famous to infamous in a matter of months. Predictably, the source of discontent centers on the least objectionable aspect of his work, to wit, his cogent—albeit limited—critiques of political correctness and unrestrained immigration.

To summarize the controversy, over the last year, Žižek has criticized the effectiveness of speech censorship in fostering multiculturalism and questioned the wisdom of the lenient immigration policies a number of EU countries have adopted in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, both of which are tantamount to heresy on the New Left. With intimate knowledge of the utter hysteria this coterie has the capacity to exhibit, Žižek sought to forestall hostile reactions by repeatedly qualifying his statements and reassuring his audiences that he unequivocally shares their cosmopolitan values, thus emphasizing that his is merely a tactical dispute. But the old man critically underestimated the extent of their dogmatism. Anecdotes of non-white activists who concur with his assessment of political correctness, and cautioning that the New Left’s wholesale endorsement of lax immigration policies is, in point of fact, bolstering far-right parties across Europe, weren’t nearly adequate enough to prevent Žižek’s detractors from labeling him a “racist” and a “fascist.” (Suffice it to say, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the more assumptions one professes to share in common with these characters, the more viciously they assail, should one diverge from their specific conclusions.)

This rabid and concerted offensive against Žižek reached a new height at the closing plenary of the Left Forum on the 22nd of May, where he delivered a lecture entitled “Rage, Rebellion, Organizing New Power: A Hegelian Triad.” Amy Goodman provided a particularly nauseating self-righteous introduction, which consisted of the usual left-liberal ritual celebration of all things ethnic and fringe, presumably so organizers could establish distance between the Left Forum and Žižek’s controversial positions. Before the talk began, however, a handout was circulated among attendees, laced with unpopular quotes by Žižek and distorted synopses of his stances, in order to poison the well, as it were. What followed was a series of attempted interruptions engaged in by a segment of the audience, obviously undertaken in an effort to deplatform the man. Fortunately Žižek managed to successfully complete the lecture despite the shrieks and jeers wailed by these hypersensitive fanatics, but given the New Left’s reactionary opposition to freedom of speech and association, I suspect it won’t be long before this maniacal mob succeeds in either eliminating his ability to deliver public lectures altogether or in intimidating him to the point he can only salvage his career via self-censorship.

To be clear, I’ve long been of the opinion that Žižek deserves to be challenged on a number of fronts. Inter alia, his unjustifiable rejection of value theory and historical materialism, unsubstantiated dismissal of libertarian communist economic models, and elitist Lacanian perspective on “ideology,” all seriously call into question Žižek’s Marxist and, indeed, communist bona fides, as far as I’m concerned. The proper terrain to conduct this campaign, however, is in the written word, formal debate, and/or organized speeches. Succumbing to the strategy the right pioneered, i.e., speech censorship, will do precisely nothing to actually demolish those views. As blasphemous as it will sound to many, I will even go so far as to contend that the no platform policy was never a sensible tactic. Incorrect and dangerous ideas are not extinguished by fiat, they are vanquished only by superior ideas; hence, in the eyes of the public, those who attempt to censor speech appear to require force out of sheer intellectual ineptitude.

In an environment as irrational and toxic as the radical so-called ‘left’ has become in Western Europe and North America, perhaps Žižek can take solace in the fact that virtually every heterosexual Caucasian male is, at some point, suspected of harboring racist, sexist, and fascistic sympathies. I will surely be, once my own papers on immigration, intersectionality, and the national question are complete. So be it.

Errors of a Swedish Culture Warrior

Karl-Olov Arnstberg defends cultural Marxism from my critique.

Karl-Olov Arnstberg defends “cultural Marxism” from my critique.

I had hoped the paper I released in January would be the last time I needed to discuss the right-wing myth of “cultural Marxism,” but the Swedish ethnologist and fellow blogger Karl-Olov Arnstberg recently wrote a brief response to my post on the subject which, despite its vapid content, I feel obliged to comment on. Before doing so, however, I should preface this entry by noting that I’m far from fluent in Swedish and therefore needed to utilize a website translator to read Arnstberg’s post. And as a consequence of the crude interpretations such devices provide, there may be facets of Arnstberg’s argument which I’ve misunderstood. I apologize in advance if that occurred.

The primary method Arnstberg employs in defense of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory is a familiar one: he casts Marxism as an ideological precursor of postmodernism, thereby enabling him to link the approval relativism has been receiving in certain humanities departments in recent decades to Marxism in general, and the Frankfurt school in particular. Needless to say, this is a groundless accusation and an egregious conflation of three very distinct socio-philosophical traditions. The suggestion that classical Marxism can, in anyway, be interpreted as relativistic betrays a profound unfamiliarity with the theories that informed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s social and political thought. As even a cursory reading of their body of work instantly reveals, both men were staunch epistemological and ontological materialists, not relativists. Arnstberg should also be made aware of the fact that, in addition to being heirs of the Enlightenment and partisans of modernity, Marx and Engels were naturalistic thinkers, influenced by decidedly non-relativistic figures such as Charles Darwin and Henry Lewis Morgan. Indeed, Marxism is regularly criticized by the postmodern elite for producing the very meta-narratives they believe to be epistemologically impossible to sustain.

With respect to the Frankfurt school, the pessimism of modernity and antipositivism characteristic of its members might seem to position the Institute for Social Research considerably closer to the contemporary postmodern milieu, but this too would be an erroneous inference. To quote Martin Jay,

It would be mistaken, of course, to reduce the legacy of Critical Theory tout court to a prolegomenon to postmodernism, however we may define that vexed term. Habermas’s spirited defense of the uncompleted project of modernity, Lowenthal’s last warnings against ‘irrational and neomythological’ concepts like ‘post-histoire,’ and Adorno’s insistence on the distinction between high and low art and partisanship for modernists such as Beckett, Kafka and Schoenberg against the leveling impact of the Culture Industry, all make it plain that in many important ways, the Frankfurt School resists wholesale inclusion among the forebears of postmodernism. In fact, as Fredric Jameson has pointed out, it may well be the eclectic pastiches of Stravinsky (which Adorno despised) rather than the progressive innovations of Schoenberg (which he generally admired) that can be said to have anticipated a key feature of postmodernist culture. The central role of ‘ideology critique’ in Critical Theory is, moreover, relegated to the margins of most postmodernist theory, which lacks—or rather, deliberately scorns the possibility of—any point d’appui for such a critique, preferring instead a cynical reason, if indeed a reason at all, that attacks all transcendent positions as discredited foundationalism and mocks utopianism as inherently fallacious.[1]

Jay proceeds to write that a few of the theoreticians belonging to the school’s first generation may well have contributed to the aforementioned postmodern rejection of meta-narratives by way of their dismissal of Marx’s materialist conception of history, for instance, and that’s a concession I’m fully prepared to make. However, those theoreticians’ decision to discard such a crucial component of scientific socialism clearly represents a departure from Marxism on the Frankfurt school’s part, not an application thereof—thereby rendering the very term “cultural Marxism” of dubious currency. If Arnstberg is truly interested in the genealogy of postmodernism, I recommend he instead look to the French poststructuralists Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard, or to the radical subjectivism of John Berkeley, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the sophists before them.

Of course, none of this is pertinent to the central claim proponents of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory make, i.e., that the Frankfurt school has succeeded in Gramsci’s alleged strategy of infiltrating the hegemonic institutions of bourgeois society in order to subvert the sensibilities of young adults, therewith undermining the mores of Western civilization itself, in order to prepare the way for communist revolution. Towards that end, nowhere in his post does Arnstberg provide a scintilla of evidence corroborating the claim the Frankfurt school had anywhere near that level of influence on contemporary opinion makers, nor does he persuasively demonstrate why the bourgeoisie would permit an ideology inimical to its reproduction as a class to proliferate on the scale paleoconservative hucksters contend so-called “cultural Marxism” has. The only personality associated with the Frankfurt school to have ever reached a modicum of popularity was Herbert Marcuse, and even then it was chiefly relegated to segments of the New Left.[2] To be sure, students continue to be presented with material from Frankfurt school theoreticians, but as Paul Piccone notes:

Far from precipitating the projected qualitative change in cultural life, a substantial de-provincialization of social consciousness and a more democratic and participatory political reality, Western Marxism, Critical Theory and radical philosophy in general have smoothly blended into the otherwise bland, jargon-ridden and hopelessly conventional framework they originally challenged.[3]

In other words, theories derived from Frankfurt school intellectuals are largely consigned to impotent academic departments and taught primarily during courses on the history of ideas. To understand the source of the changes in culture underway, one must look elsewhere.

Arnstberg claims that rather than “discussing pressing issues,” Jason Wilson (another critic of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory) and I merely malign our opponents with unflattering labels. Now, I’ve openly admitted that my blog post “On the Myth of Cultural Marxism” is somewhat more polemical than a subject of this magnitude warrants, and I sought to remedy that with a paper nearing 7,500 words entitled “The Origins and Ideological Function of Cultural Marxism,” but I stand by the claims I made in my blog post. The fact of the matter is the vast preponderance of individuals who subscribe to the conspiracy theory under discussion are neo-fascists and paleoconservatives of various persuasions. Is that a sufficient reason to reject the conspiracy theory? Obviously not, and I never suggested otherwise, so I’m perplexed as to why Arnstberg would accuse me of such a transparent logical fallacy; perhaps the crux of my argument was simply lost in translation. What I wrote was that a belief in cultural Marxism has the potential to produce consequences markedly more calamitous than an espousal of equally farcical conspiracy theories, as the Utøya massacre attests.

Arnstberg is also incorrect to say I regard the notion of the Frankfurt school being the progenitors of political correctness as being inherently “racist.” It can be, e.g., when Kevin MacDonald explains it as a group survival strategy employed consciously or subconsciously by individuals of Semitic descent, but it doesn’t have to be. A further error committed by Arnstberg is his assertion that I don’t recognize the existence of political correctness per se. As I wrote in my paper, ‘political correctness’ can best be understood as a mechanism designed to regulate behavior in a manner which fosters racial tolerance while simultaneously solidifying belief that capitalism’s class divisions are structured along genuinely meritocratic lines—meritocracy being the bourgeoisie’s principal self-legitimating ideological construct in the 21st century. I’m also accused of not wanting to discuss the disruptive consequences of multiculturalism or “Jewish policies to prevent a second Holocaust,” both of which are explicitly addressed in my paper. Arnstberg is of the opinion that left critics are either too ideologically blinded or lack the fortitude to debate these matters publicly, and while that may be true of some, it certainly doesn’t describe me.

At one point, Arnstberg asks how the society I desire might look in practice. He mistakenly assumes what I envisage as the end of history is a “postmodern” society, characterized by him as an order consisting of “free immigration, multiculturalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, LGBTQ affirmation, feminism, environmental awareness, defense of human equality, and defense of animal rights.” How he came to the conclusion these concepts are exclusively postmodern in orientation, let alone that Marxism precipitated them, is, frankly, beyond me. I would, of course, prefer to live in a society which is cognizant of ecological imperatives, where racial and sexual discrimination have been minimized, and in which no nationality oppresses another—one has to wonder why Arnstberg seems to find these objectives disagreeable. Having said that, like traditional Marxists, I believe cultural transformations generally accompany modifications in society’s substructure, and that, within a communist commonwealth, they should be arrived at freely and democratically, not via government fiat. And contrary to what Arnstberg might think, I’m not under the naïve delusion humanity can ever construct a panacea, so my expectations of post-capitalist social relations are really quite modest. To get an adequate idea of what I actually do desire, I ask that Arnstberg study the history of the regions of Spain directed by the CNT-FAI between 1936-1939, the factory committees operating in Russia prior to the Bolshevik consolidation of power, the radically democratic polity achieved in the Paris Commune, or even the smaller scale examples of workers’ control exemplified in producer cooperatives. In short, I seek an economy devoid of exploitation and alienation, in which individuals self-manage the operations of their firms, production is democratically planned, and political policy is administered by a series of councils. A number of names have been assigned to what I’ve just described (council communism, economic syndicalism, libertarian socialism, etc.), but the content is what concerns me.

Next, Arnstberg outlines the ways in which he finds epistemological relativism to have been a pernicious force in the Western world and prattles on about the Syrian refugee crisis currently afflicting his motherland. Given his apparent reluctance to evaluate these issues from a materialist perspective and conspicuous sympathy for the theory of cultural Marxism, Arnstberg likely imagines Marxists and Jewish chauvinists to be the impetus behind these developments. It’s unfortunate that someone of his intelligence could seriously entertain such a preposterously idealist narrative, but it’s a common enough phenomenon.

In a final strange turn, near the end of his post Arnstberg equates moral universalism to postmodernity. If I had to wager, I’d say he missed the lessons in Philosophy 101 which covered the centrality of impartiality in the main moral doctrines when he was a university student, and how the epistemological relativism he laments more readily serves as a conduit to moral nihilism than it does to moral universalism.

Notes:
[1] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. xvii.
[2] Thomas Wheatland, a scholar of the Frankfurt school, doubts the extent to which Marcuse legitimately influenced even the New Left. See The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
[3] Paul Piccone, “20 Years of Telos,” Telos, No. 75 (Summer 1988), p. 13.

The Intensity of False Consciousness

Climbing to utopia

Climbing to utopia

The other day, while I was opening at work, a talkative customer approached, inquiring as to my ethnicity (apparently he had overheard me speaking to a previous customer and detected an usual “accent”). I informed the gentleman that I’m of northern Spanish descent, which delighted him as he claimed to possess some amount of Iberian ancestry as well. After a brief exchange regarding Spain’s cultural diversity, we drifted into a conversation about the company I work for. The customer was curious if they offered stock options to employees or any other benefits beyond basic health care packages or 401(k) plans. They don’t, of course, and in my response the man could sense that I harbored pessimism regarding the economy in general, and dissatisfaction with my corporate employer in particular. He assured me “ethical” companies exist, citing a few popular examples, and encouraged me to seek employment with them, if I was genuinely discontent where I was. Such proposals are of no interest to me, but I didn’t want to come off as unappreciative of his empathy by dismissing his suggestions out of hand, as it were.

The conversation then took something of a biographical turn. Judging from his tattoos and choice in apparel, in addition to the slang terminology he occasionally employed in the course of our conversation, I conjectured the customer with whom I was speaking was of a lumpenproletarian background. My suspicion was soon confirmed when he admitted to being a former convict. He claimed his criminal past has been an obstacle for him when seeking employment, and, assuming (perhaps erroneously) his crime was non-violent, I expressed sympathy for his predicament. But the prideful man would accept no pity. From his perspective, this impediment had motivated him to improve himself, which will ultimately serve to make him a more attractive prospect to employers seeking applicants in the future. The depth of this individual’s false consciousness was becoming more apparent with each sentence.

Anecdote after anecdote of successful entrepreneurs who began from positions not dissimilar to his own, and nevertheless went on to attain massive fortunes in the market, were adduced. The customer was of the opinion that one’s educational attainment, familial connections, and/or brute luck were simply immaterial to success under capitalism; a positive mental attitude and solid work ethic are all that’s necessary. I asked what the man’s current employment status was, in an effort to see if I could push back against some of these fantasies. He responded that he’s currently involved in construction labor, but aspired to becoming a haute bourgeois (not his words). After gathering this information, I attempted to see if I could prompt the man to evaluate matters from a strictly class perspective, but it was to no avail. Every piece of counter-evidence I cited was met with another bromide. His immediate material interests would simply not take priority over his dreams of wealth and status. I could have approached the issue from an ethical standpoint, to see if it would yield superior results, but I had neither the time nor inclination to do so.

I’m certain the lumpenproletarian environment he was reared in, as well as his peculiar personality, account for much of the man’s inability to evaluate these subjects rationally, but it would be a mistake to ignore the significance of bourgeois ideology here. The brilliance of the latter lies in its astonishing ability to effectively persuade the toiling masses that they can extricate themselves from the indignity of wage labor through tireless effort alone. There are enough rags to riches tales circulating in our society to render the myth of capitalism’s meritocractic class hierarchy plausible to many, causing working people to utterly ignore the exploitation and alienation they endure on a daily basis, in the naive hope they too can one day climb to a position of relative authority and wealth.

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