27 October 2011

Blog Self-Critique concluded

This started out as a comment, a sort of anti-critique, on Walker’s post, but as I looked at Walker’s post, I realized that the points that I disagreed with were not actually specific to this post, but were more general claims made over the course of this blog.

The conception of society that the blog tends to claim exists in neoliberalism
The historical specificity of anti-Semitic populist movements

 Connected to the claim that working class politics are identity politics throughout history, is his claim that neoliberalism blocks any possible thought about collectivities. Within this logic, neoliberalism is understood, one-sidedly, as a purely individual ideology of markets and self interest, thus critique comes in the form of the collectivity. It seems to me that there are two separable issues here which are being muddled: a) the role of society within neoliberalism as strictly a theory of political economy and governance and b) the role of society within neoliberalism as the prevailing ideology of a epoch of capitalist accumulation—used in a manner akin to the way Fordism is used. A) I think that claims like Margaret Thatcher’s that “there is no such thing as society” have been taken too much at its word and out of its context. When Thatcher, and others, made this claim, what they were arguing for is the disarticulation of the state from social support. The Thatcherite claim that Britain is a society of shopkeepers is in many ways a harkening to a version of Adam Smith’s self-interested butcher, baker, and brewer. The presumption is that by each of these people acting in their own self-interest, behind their backs, the consequence is a general increase in social wealth and an increasingly interconnected and harmonious society. The invisible hand is a social effect of self-interest. Thatcher objected to the way that the state and the society had been fused in the Fordist epoch and, ironically, she sought to liberate society from the bounds of the state (and the state from the fiscal responsibilities to the society) as opposed to deny its existence. It is not for nothing that the revolutionary groups believed to have toppled eastern European and Soviet – not to mention other autocratic states – were seen as being civil society organizations. Neoliberalism actually reclaimed the category of society from the state and placed back in its classical liberal opposition to the state. B) Within the more general understanding of neoliberalism, society (as Bill Sewell has noted) became essentially synonymous with culture and nation. Concepts of society—and often its impending collapse—populate the critical discourse about neoliberalism, whether this takes the form of christianist critiques of the character of the US state, anarchist cooperative housing, or insurgent sub-nationalisms. I discuss this at length above, but if this blog is going to use neoliberalism the same way as Fordism, then the theory of neoliberalism needs to be capable of accounting for the form of these (partially) critical discourses. The claim that society does not exist in neoliberalism also begs the question of whether it exists in liberalism. The only answer can be an emphatic yes! As Adorno commented in his article “Society,” Society is a category of the Third Estate, in other words, society is a category of the revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie. (Bill Sewell has made much the same point.) Their central claim was that sovereignty lay not with the royalty or the clergy but with society in general. The classical liberal conception of society sees it as the consequence of myriad mediations and as quite difficult to grasp in any one particular moment and requiring a different level of abstraction in analysis. This type of argument runs throughout the Wealth of Nations, for example. Adorno cites two pre-Fordist thinkers Weber and Durkheim in the above mentioned article as exemplifying an antinomy of society within capitalism. Weber remained within the classical liberal tradition described above, while Durkheim subscribed to a vision that saw society as a “social fact” as the ultimate determinant of all social relations. There is no contradiction within Durkheim’s corporate vision of society. I think, though I cannot be sure, it is this version of society that is absent from neoliberalism has in mind. This type of cohesion was uniquely adequate to the Fordist epoch. However, just because one now finds the Smithian/Weberian version of society and not the Durkheimian does not mean that society does not exist or that there are no collectivities. After all, society and nation are both originally liberal categories.

Related to the claim that society and collectivity do not exist in neoliberalism, is Walker’s claim that the anti-Semitic populism characteristic of the National Socialists is historically specific to Fordism. This is a claim that 19th century anti-Semites would find quite confusing and that runs quite counter to the claims made by Moishe Postone, the author that Walker cites. The categories that Postone uses to derive the particular form of romantic, populist anti-capitalism that is anti-Semitism are not categories that are specific to one period of capitalism. The claim made by Postone is that anti-Semitism can be explained with reference to Marx’s categories of the commodity, capital, production, and circulation all of which are part of all capitalist societies. Furthermore, the if Postone believed that anti-Semitic populism was particular to the Fordist era, then he would not be invoking it to help explain the left’s approach to Palestinian politics, the actions of left-wing terrorists, critiques of neo-conservatism, or critiques of the world bank and IMF during the post-Fordist era. If Walker believes that Postone is wrong and anti-Semitic populism is particular to the Fordist epoch, he needs to actually make that argument.

Finally, this point is somewhat distinct, but I think it is important. Walker argues that we should soft pedal critiques of those that understand themselves as being on the left because our goal is pedagogical and that these politics can change and become more adequate, however by being overly critical or theoretical we can alienate these groups. As evidence, Walker appeals to the authority of Marx’s politics. It is worth, then examining Marx’s a) analyses of the political left and b) the relative abstractness of his prose. A) Among the more “ruthless critiques of everything” Marx wrote were in fact of the left of his day. Whether that it is Proudhon, Bakunin, or the SPD, Marx pulled no punches and understood these people as engaged in politics and not in a life style, therefore able to withstand his criticism and change their minds or leave the stage. He felt no obligation to simplify his arguments against those that he thought were wrong. Doing so betrays a certain Stalinist popular-frontism, as if we were all on the same team, when “we” really are not—when “we” do not even exist. B) Marx believed that his Capital—arguably among the most philosophically complex and dense texts written—had the intended audience of workers in the workers’ movement. As Adorno said of bad forms of political thought, “Solidarity can call on us to subordinate not only individual interests but even our better insight.”


  1. In response to the first argument, I think it's fairly clear from my (admittedly very preliminary) attempt to address these issues that I was not saying that "neoliberalism blocks any possible thought about collectivities". The first section of that post was devoted to the "aggregate", which is, I think, basically the same thing you're pointing to in your examples and precisely what Thatcher had in mind - that society is nothing but (or more than) the sum total of individuals.

    I admit that I am not yet "capable of accounting for the form of (partially) critical discourses" under neoliberalism, which express notions of collectivity exceeding the individual. This is something we need to think much more about. I am, however, skeptical that "christianist critiques of the character of the US state, anarchist cooperative housing, or insurgent sub-nationalisms" contain a "concept of society". I would be interested in hearing an elaboration of this. Elsewhere you raised "global civil society, Europe, The West, The Developed World, and The Global City", which I think are also worth thinking about. Perhaps most striking about this group is how difficult it's been to develop any sort of popular identification - these formations may be compelling to certain elites, but seem to have little meaning for most people.

    I'm not sure that the liberal period can give us much direction for understanding neoliberalism, at least on these sorts of questions. Fordist forms of social integration, above all popular culture, were adapted and elaborated under neoliberalism and seem to make for a decisive difference in the nature of popular subjectivity. The structural changes in everyday experience that Chris focuses on (here and here) have also had an important effect. These don't really seem adequate to explain the differences we see (especially when it comes to nationalism), but isn't it obvious that both society and nation have a far less prominent place under neoliberalism than they did under liberalism?

  2. On the issue of anti-Semitism, you may have confused two separate claims I made. I did not say that anti-Semitic populism is specific to Fordism. I said that 1) the particular kind of right-wing populism that thrived in the 1930s is not possible today, and 2) the nature of the forces involved in Occupy Wall Street makes anti-Semitism an unlikely outgrowth of this movement. Even if anti-Semitism is consistently tied to fundamental features of capitalism, it does not follow that misrecognitions of these features (which the occupation movement is certainly guilty of) necessarily manifest as anti-Semitism. Blaming "bankers" for the crisis is very different from blaming "the Jews", even though both fundamentally fail to grasp the nature of the crisis. The latter is obviously repugnant and counterproductive, the former could, under the right circumstances, support limited kinds of progress in addressing the crisis.

    Right-wing media has recently tried to smear Occupy Wall Street as anti-Semitic, but as far as I can tell this is based on a total of two idiots carrying signs, one in New York and one in LA. Plenty of Jews, on the other hand, have been heavily involved. If you have any real reason to think that the occupation movement could nourish anti-Semitism, by all means provide it. My own impression is that, perhaps rather unexpectedly three years into a crisis easily misunderstood as caused by finance, anti-Semitism has been gratifyingly rare on all sides of the political spectrum.

  3. As for Marx, although I don't really know enough about his political practice to make confident judgments, it seems to me he offers us a very ambiguous model. I raised him as an example because he was willing to work inside movements that did not always have, to his mind, the right analysis. But I think his decision to present his ideas in such a way that they were completely inaccessible to workers, and easily misinterpreted even by those with a background in Hegelian philosophy, might be one of the most disastrous political mistakes in history.

    We need to spend much more time figuring out how these ideas can be presented in such a way that people who will never read Hegel or Capital or ever take an interest in the history of the left can understand them. If we don't want to do that, then it's just a debating society that will never move beyond a tiny subset of the highly educated, which is itself a tiny subset of the population. If we are going to do it, then sometimes certain simplifications of omissions will be required in the interests of moving (dialectically!) toward a greater understanding. This shouldn't be a purity contest, it should be an attempt to increase understanding on all sides.

    I also think you deeply underestimate the importance of building goodwill in any sort of political practice. Political efficacy requires not just good arguments but building and sustaining relationships. The minute you start coming off like an asshole, you've completely lost your audience, no matter how refined your analysis. That doesn't mean suppressing disagreement or assuming an uncritical orientation - as I've reiterated several times now, and as my writing demonstrates, I have no problem with engaging the existing left in a critical way. But there are different ways to engage people - some ways increase people's desire to keep talking or to collaborate on a shared project, other ways make people want to get away from you and the ideas you represent as fast as possible.

  4. that should read "simplifications or omissions".

  5. "Connected to the claim that working class politics are identity politics throughout history." Of course working class politics is in part identity politics. If it were not, it would be un-recuperable. There was always an element within the workers' movement and among the mass of workers which sought the recognition of the dignity of labor, not its abolition; which sought the rights of labor, not the liberation from labor. This does not mean that this identitarian aspect was the only content of the workers' movement, but there was always a tension between these moments. Comprehending this tension and the ways in which it played out takes us much further in comprehending the failure of revolution it the 20th century than talk of "the betrayal of the working class", "failure of leadership", or "inadequate class consciousness", on which the Left usually relies.

    On neo-liberalism:
    There had been a long-term secular trend of the interpenetration of the state and civil society, through the extension of civil rights, regulation, wealth redistribution, public services, etc. "Neo-liberalism" was not first in seeking to reverse this trend. Fascism was attempted to reverse this trend and to restore the primacy of civil society with the state as the guarantor of civil society's primacy. We see this regression on a global scale today.

    This is not the dissolution of society or the weakening of the state, but an attack on forms of sociality which have a universalizing tendency, which was true of the workers' movement, and all struggles which drove the growing together of citizenship with humanity which was the growing interpenetration of state and civil society, the extension of citizenship to all people. Today's tendencies critical of the current state of affairs are typically communitarian, fixated on the creation of an ethically pure community grounded outside politics proper.

    On Marx, Tact, and Principle:
    Marx did not pull his punches with respect to anarchism, but he pulled them frequently in relation to the International Working Men's Association and the SPD. He never published the Critique of the Gotha Program. He generally did not make his critiques of Lasalle public until after Lasalle's death. He definitely restrained his public criticisms of not only some of the Lasalleans trade union leaders, and he did not publicly attack Liebknecht and Bebel whom, if his personal letters to Engels are any indication, he clearly held in a certain contempt.

    I am not suggesting we follow Marx or not, only that he was not a model of complete openness. He and Engels both certainly made many compromises, some that in retrospect did more harm than good.

    I don't think the mistake was how presented his ideas, however. They were as difficult as they needed to be, and no more so. Marx popularized within the limits of what did not destroy the rigor of his work. I wish he had popularized less (less hid his dialectic), frankly. Then again, I do not think that the relationship between theory and practice is direct and I don't see our task as pedagogical, per se. Theoretical work illuminates people's experience and give it rigorous expression not merely to the degree it is accessible, but to the degree that people's experience rises to the level of the work (Marx's Capital is a case in point.)

    Finally, there is a difference between compromising in practice around a practical goal and compromising on truth. Disagreement should be stated as openly and clearly as possible, but not all disagreements are relevant to a practical situation. And some people you just won't like and they won't like you. If you're not worried about educating the masses or putting forth la linea correcta or "living like a communist/anarchist", but really take ideas seriously (you allow them to change your experience of life, not just auto-justify your existence) and listen to people, its not that hard most days.