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Part of the removal of doubt in my life is also clarifying why those doubts emerge in theories in which I am seen as a subscriber. In the last year, I have been some amazed at the word games used to avoid the hard work of actually clarifying their research project, which I see as mostly consisting of terminology that has degenerated as history has not played out the way that was predicted and the even harder work of working to build the movements and organizational party that dealt with political realities that weren’t spelled out a hundred years ago seems harder and harder to do:
Let me point out a few things:
- The number of word games that Marxists I know use to hide that most fundamental prediction of theory (the politicization of proletariat as the revolutionary subject of history) has not yet happened is pretty good ammo for most of their enemies. The left-communist critique is often infantile, but they are not wrong that “actually existing socialism” came about mostly through class collaborations in areas where the proletariat was not the majority of the population or the communist movement.
- Every single Trotskyist stage theory of revolution has an idealist typology behind it, and every single explanation the different groups had for the “revolutionary spirit” returning to the Soviet Union, regardless of their theories about how the Soviet Union did not live up to being a truely revolutionary proletariat state–be it Cliff’s state capitalism, Grant’s version of the “deformed worker’s state,” or the theories of Bonapartism–were, frankly, disproven by the way 1991 went down since none of them predicted the kind of disillusion the Soviet Union actually had. The fact that these groups still exist is an indication of a morbidity of thought.
- Theories of labor aristocracy as an explanation for this generally ignore that peek of Maoist victories were also in places where the proletariat was not the dominant class in those places either, and while labor aristocracies clearly exist, the idea that somehow the national bourgeoisie has conspired to over-pay a nation’s worth of workers is a conspiracy theory that has less of a chance of being consciously considered than even some of the more grand conspiracy theories of the past. So they aren’t answers to the “why hasn’t proletariat actually done why it was classically predicted to do” either.
Furthermore, we have to deal with the class nature of the people making these claims:
- While there is actual “working class” membership in Marxist organizations, most of them are not in the main full of people out of their 20s and in the “working class” full time. The largest groups consist mainly of students or in organizations like the DSA which do not have costs to entry and frankly do not require large commitments of time. This is explicitly not true for most Marxists “parties.”
- The organizations I have known that are not highly historically like the IWW which have large working-class membership are not Marxist. The most successful organizations either provide lots of mutual aid services and are slow but steady growth (but still require LARGE commitments of time), or have low cost and low commitment like the D.S.A., but are basically little more than local orgs with a national lobbying branch. Most of the other orgs with high proletariat membership don’t last, the membership does not have the skills or the time to maintain such an organization.
- The other successful organizations that are large consist mostly of students, often have funds from University student organizations, or run or collaborate with academic presses. The produce scholarly or semi-scholarly work. They also help to provide a niche section of semi-academic political writers exposure in party organs or editorial panels for socialist magazines. The student mass of the organization has lots more leisure time than the average worker to invest in the organization.
- That so many of who talk this about the proletariat are graduate students even when they are attacking academics has NEVER been lost on me.
This does not say the hypothesis of the politicization of the proletariat is wrong. Indeed, when Marx and Engels were writing, the proletariat, even though it was a smaller proportion of the population than now, was more politicized. It led to Engels and Kautsky both predicting significant socialist wins in the democratic polities because the size and politicization of the working class were growing and they felt certain the socialists would have the vote. Answering what happened in an honest manner that deals with the Soviet Union, with some of the Maoist legitimate points about labor aristocracy, with the real conflicts of interest within the working class itself, becomes necessary.
I also don’t have good answers for these questions nor do think even if we did, we would have all answers to all political questions. The questions of national tensions are not solved solely by economic questions nor is the tension between a universal political project and particularist identities which class solitary ameliorates but does not completely end.
We cannot construct new nebulous categories to get out this, such notions that are hidden in neologism like ‘precariat,’ ‘salaried bourgeoisie,’ and ‘the multitude’ or even classics like ‘the popular front’ and the “mass line’ do not get really get around the failure. Nor do ideas that somehow “class consciousness” or “false consciousness” explains conflicts in short interests between working-class groups pass muster.
We have to be honest with ourselves most of all.
Back in the hey-days of October, Haley Swenson wrote a piece called “Please Stop Calling Everything That Frustrates You Emotional Labor.” I missed it because I have found Slate’s contrarianism gradually turn into knee-jerk left-liberalism as Jamelle Bouie became its political editor. Bouie represents a millennial Democratic politics that often use far more radical social justice language than it’s actual policy advocacy. It was as if Slate wanted to run in the other direction from the time before his death when Christopher Hitchens was a primary voice of the political end of the magazine. Regardless, Swenson describes the internet “political discourse” diluting a term to near meaningless. She explains the history of the “emotional labor” here:
In her 1983 book The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild first coined the phrase emotional labor to describe the work of flight attendants and bill collectors to consciously regulate their own feelings and attempt to shape the emotions of others to get their jobs done. Women and low-income workers were being asked to very subtly (and very deftly) fix up people’s feelings without being recognized or compensated for that very tricky part of their labor.
It is interesting how much of the critical theory that was Marxist-adjacent was adopted by bloggers in the late aughts. In particular, the language around these theorists from the 80s and 90s made it into blog and social media talk: Crenshaw’s “intersectionality,” McIntosh’s specific use of privilege, and Hochschild’s “emotional labor.” I suspect this is because a generation of people in sociology and critical studies courses in undergraduate core requirements were superficially exposed to these neologisms and/or compound concepts and the ideas expressed in them by over-worked graduate assistants and young adjuncts who teach most undergraduates. So the treatment was superficial. Combine that with the deadlines around think pieces and the brevity required for engagement on most social media, the hollowing out of political theory happens particularly quickly when these concepts are weaponized.
So what has happened to “emotional labor”? Before I go into Swenson’s analysis, let’s look at the limits of the term. Emotional labor was not the same as “doing things that are emotionally draining without being paid.” It was not a theory that encouraged one to commodify one’s personal distress. It was specifically limited to emotional distress in the service sector and female employment that was largely uncompensated and which does have a personal and interpersonal health cost. Swenson then goes on to point out how at the end of the aughts, the term became far broader:
So what exactly is emotional labor? Emotional labor is simply the management of feelings (your own or someone else’s) to accomplish some goal—to leave a customer satisfied or to get someone to do something they might not otherwise want to, or to keep your household functioning. Note that there are many other kinds of labor that can produce these outcomes too (simply providing information to someone, for instance), but emotional labor concerns the work of emotion management—say, delivering bad news about a flight cancellation in a comforting way, so that disgruntled passengers hardly notice the news is bad.
One notes, again, the expanded definition includes transactions that are not specifically commodified transactions but do have end-specific goals. So we move from the purely economic sphere in areas which are, to use a Marxist way of phrasing, part of “the production or reproduction of social relations.” To speak like a normal person, when one has to manipulate displays of emotion to make something work between people–personal or economic.
Swensen notes that this expansion of emotional labor can be a form of gatekeeping, which ultimately actually reinforces some pretty traditional gender roles under the guise of progressive or feminist politics:
The anxiety women feel about it shouldn’t be confused as proof that their way of doing things is right and the men in their lives are incompetent or wrong. Sociologists have a word for the tendency of women to set the terms for how parenting or housework should take place and then policing that line in such a way that men are effectively shut out of doing it. It’s called maternal gatekeeping. It’s a problem that’s bad for fathers, kids, and the mothers who end up stressed and overworked because of it. If we chalk up every dispute over how and when something should be done to emotional labor, we might bulldoze our way past the possibility that our own expectations can be our worst enemy.
This may be particularly pernicious. Other forms of pernicious uses of the concept that she does not note are demands to further commodify activism or relationship “labor.” For example, the pain of activists who are constantly asked to “educate” others on topics of their own experience is labeled “emotional labor” that is entitled to compensation. There has been a recent backlash against this “we have no responsibility to educate you” sentiment often justified in “emotional labor,” but the backlash is on tactical grounds. After all, there are plenty of people who are opposed or ignorant of someone’s experience perfectly willing to offer a counter-narrative for free. Yet, beyond that, I think we should be honest that commodification of our own experiences probably increases our own alienation in regards to that experience. Instead of normalizing our traumas through exposure and helping others see our points of view, we set it off as a trauma that too much to bear without specific compensation.
I personally find these kinds of expansions of terms fascinating as it proves that our specific jargon, like even someone like George Carlin pointed out about euphemisms, that the expansion of the term weakens its use and can often lead to the opposite point. Like the euphemism that becomes a coded slur itself, the expanded logic of a sociological term like “emotional labor” can actually lead to some practices that have nothing to do, or maybe in some ways are subtly opposed, to the original coiner of the neologism or phrases’ point. Sometimes, in the realm of politics and language, victory in terms of ubiquity is defeat in terms of clarity. Or, you can lose for winning.
Onfray’s A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist calls for an embodied philosophy and ethics, and a profoundly anti-Platonic turn in philosophy. Onfray’s call for such a philosophy is a call to reinvest in hedonism in a developed way against not only Platonic idealism and Christian morality, but also against lingering Christian atheism which refuses to truly break into a new episteme and thus turns profoundly negative and nihilistic. The counter-traditions that Onfray valorizes is the pragmatic, the utilitarian, the Nietzschean, and the epicurean. Onfray is versed in all these traditions, but I must admit that I am not fully convinced that all of them are compatible.
For an American reader, there will be a few frustrations: Onfray’s context is French and his references assume a casual familiarity with French philosophical traditions and French cultural and legal developments. Furthermore, modern liberalism (or, as Americans often call it, neoliberalism) is treated almost solely as an American imperial philosophy, downplaying the European role its theorization and development. Onfray does not linger on any of this long enough for it truly to be a distraction, but it must be taken into account when reading him.
This brings me to Onfray’s inclusion into the “new atheist” milieu. Perhaps it is of its time, Onfray does not read like a New Atheist despite his love of the late and radical Enlightenment. He sees reason as contextual and doesn’t use it in the un-defined and ahistorical way many New Atheists do. He also believes in a heroic and Promethean science but sees all of these developments historically. While he does have some contempt for wilder aspects of Deleuze, he has a profound respect for the French Nietzschean tradition that would strike all of the “four horsemen,” even the philosophically astute Dennet, as too continental and borderline irrationalist.
Furthermore, his calling most of the atheistic and secular cultures lingering Christian habits and morality would actually seem aimed at “cultural Christians” like Richard Dawkins. Sam Harris’s increasing conservatism seems lacking in Onfray despite his celebration of the Enlightenment. If this were Anglo-American “New Atheism,” it would be a much less dreary movement.
This is not mean his book is without problems: the attempts to reconcile a left Nietzscheanism with a kind of pragmaticism and utilitarianism seem to be impossible. Yes, Onfray sees things in Bentham that both Foucault and Marx ignored, but the selfless selfishness of J.S. Mill creates an tension with Onfray’s coalition of mutual egoism. The writings on sexuality are increasing, but this is where the lyricism seems to lose clarity the most.
While not a perfect book, it is so refreshing an approach to philosophy while being properly ambitious enough to be called a manifesto that its flaws do not diminish its excellence.
Ideological fluttering as like knots in the stomach; sometimes they cause us to move forward and other times we purge ourselves into convulsing wrecks. Today, amidst more arguing about Hegel–and since I have Phenomenology of Spirit and the shorter Logic under the guidance of a conservative Calvinist Professor who saw the history of philosophy as purely pathological, intense debates over Hegel punctuate my philosophical life–I finished Michel Onfray’s A Hedonist Manifesto. I read it quickly, devouring the 120-some-odd pages while at a salon academy waiting for my wife to dye her hair. At risk of over-sharing, my wife’s hair has turned partially white from her treatments: not gray, white. No melanin left. Her own cells attacked it when it attacked her cancer.
I will review Onfray’s manifesto more completely later. His calls for embodied philosophy speak to me, obviously. This is not mean his book is without problems: the attempts to reconcile a left Nietzscheanism with a kind of pragmaticism and utilitarianism seem to be impossible. Yes, Onfray sees things in Bentham that both Foucault and Marx ignored, but the selfless selfishness of J.S. Mill creates a tension with Onfray’s coalition of mutual egoism.
Yet, I cannot speak to how refreshing his approach is despite Onfray’s penchant for lyricism when he moves away from the narrative approach. It brings me back to my love of Hellenistic philosophy, aside from the suspiciously de-theologized Stoicism, stripped of its metaphysics, that is the vogue right now, particularly the classical Cynic, Epicurean, and Skeptic.
I admit that I distrust the way these philosophies are used now, as purely ethical palliatives cut off from their physics, metaphysics, and whatnot. Like the way, many people reduce Buddhism to a few meditation techniques and some hip “deepities” or some guru worshiping. Or the way people turn their politics in the make-shift religion. In lieu of an episteme and an ethos, the will of a group’s portrayals are often substituted superficially.
When I was a teenager, I saw my own step-father, a man I love as much as any I may share DNA with, struggle with his “law-and-order” stances and his own son going to prison. For all his tough talk, he was not an economically conservative man as he believes in things like government health insurance, but he was a shot-em all and let God sort of out type when it came to perceived criminality. What drove this? I suspect fear for his family. Yet when his own family came into the contact with the law, he had a tendency to be most lenient and forgiving. In a way, he was the most Christian, although he was never particularly religious. For a while, as a child, he took us all to Episocal church. In graduate school, conflicted about communal identity and discovering the depths of a hidden relationship to Judaism that had been buried, I even tried to go back to that parish. The rituals were comforting but no belief came with them. I currently am undergoing Jewish religious education to try to understand parts of my own family history, but not beliefs come there either.
So the temptation for politics as religion makes sense to me. I mean, most definitions of religion are pathetically inconsistent and often assume Christian and Islamic focus on belief as the standard for what the term means. I have said that if Confucianism is a religion then Epicureanism counts too. Indeed, I have been convinced that the idea of religion as a separate sphere of life–an ersatz anthropology, ontology, and ritual community rolled into one–is an accident of the secular sphere being delineated. This makes me at an odd fit with “secularism” or “historical materialism.” While I absolutely accept that there are material limits to an idea being able to be manifested, and the opposition between systemic logics actually tend to push “ways of life” into being. Indeed, this historicism of conflicting ideas and ways of organizing society is the one element of Hegel I am willing to defend. Yet I am not willing to say we can easily predict the way these conflicts work out. Therefore, it makes sense to me that even the nominally religious and Christian often have a superficial alliance to biblical values but a profound alliance to the politics that pay them lip service. God, for most people, looks like themselves. Yet, this hollowing out of the religious impulse shows how much religious institutions have been secularized themselves. I mean, evangelicals support Trump disproportionately to even other figures whose religiosity are more sincere? Why? A secularization of their own ethos and politics as the real tribal identifier explains this.
In my field of the “extreme left,” despite my hesitation to linked to most of the ideas circulating under that directional orientation, this is doubly true. The amount of “materialists” who talk about Orthodox and Heterodox as if this focus on belief makes sense to a material philosophy astounds me. The confusion of dualism of our perception with an ontological dualism has led people to talk about “materialist dualism” as if this could make any sense metaphysically. What can be dual about the unitary metaphysics implied in materialism?
I find myself digressing constantly. This is why I am a poet trained in philosophy, English literature, and anthropology to varying degrees. The concision of poetry allows me to focus, and its elliptical nature forgives subtle digressions. Everyone loves Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Leopardi these days, but few tolerate people who write like them. I understand though at a time when I speak to even college educated people who think an assertion is an argument. That just stating a belief is self-evident for it. This is a laziness in thinking that would cause one to favor the rigorously systemic. I tend to favor nearly absolute analytic precision on social media because it plays against the nature of medium, whose brevity encourages arguments by authority and wit.
“The body plays a major role in the life of a philosopher. Everything that can be said on the subject can be found in the preface to The Gay Science. Nietzsche knew from where he spoke–he knew nothing but migraines, opthalmy, nausea, vomiting, and a collection of other maladies. He proclaimed that all philosophy is reducible to the embrace of the body, to autobiography of a Being that suffers. Thought emerges out of a subjective flesh that says ‘I’ and ‘the world contains me.’ Thought does not come down from above like the Holy Spirit that causes the elect to speak in tongues. Rather, it rises through the body, welling up from the flesh and entrails. What philosophizes within a body is nothing other than strength and weakness, ability and disability.” – Michel Onfray, A Hedonist Manifesto, translated by Joseph McCellan
Today I came to a realization that I have had many times, but its flavor changed on my tongue from sweet to slightly bitter: Doubt has characterized most of my life. I no longer see this as a positive trait. It is not that being critical has not served me well, but critical towards what exactly? What has motivated my reasoning? A friend pointed out to me in response, “I never see skepticism that isn’t subtly directed by sentiment…” echoing Hume. Reasoning is motivated, and mine is no exception. A Christian friend said, “Doubt is an invitation to an answer. It’s not an answer.”
In many secular theologies, I have invested a lot of my time. The irony of starting with myself, with my body, my thought leads me to something that is unsettling: I can doubt anything, even the consistency of my own being and mind, but I cannot doubt the experience of my body as an experience. Logic may be a check against incoherence coming from the piecemeal development of experience. It, however, as many psychologists repeatedly tell us is not an answer against our own biases–indeed, if we are honest, we can hide our biases in our axioms and the logic still flows. So starting with myself I must admit that how much secular world rhymes when with I encountered in church, but how traveling the world taught me that this isn’t nearly as universal as someone like Michael Shermer would assert.
Starting with that fundamental point, my own body and experience, I have left with one conclusion. I cannot ignore my own context and my own motivated reasoning. I returned to Hegel and Marx when I felt like I saw capitalism failing the people I loved, and my first marriage cracked under the economic strain and the stress of my self-misconceptions. Now, after seven and a half years abroad and listening–not watching–to my current wife fight late-stage melanoma through immune therapy from skype calls in Cairo, it makes sense that my patience with systemization that seems to confirm what I would like to be true would start to run out.
This is not to say I have totally given up on these “grand narratives” of history. Even starting with my self and my own body, I see that history is hard to predict and yet rhymes with itself immensely. As I said in another context, the minutiae of history are largely stochastic, it is only more predictable in aggregate. Yet it is the individual minutiae that build the aggregate like every lived minute makes up a life. This disconnect is in the tension between self and other, and how that relationship defines both.
Ironically, removing a lot of doubt in my life also means removing a lot of false certainties. I cannot make an assertion truth just by uttering it. People perhaps have noticed this in my podcasts, in my increased hedging of grand theories, and the inclusion of “maybes” or a thousand little caveats.
I am veering towards the abstract again. This seems natural. To formalize is to make the comparison more plausible. It is why quantitative analysis seems more sturdy than qualitative, and mathematics a better way to build an aggregate model than phenomenology. Yet, if I am honest, I no longer think you can build things just with critique, and no longer see some form of Ur-rationality as enough to base any observation on.
The last three years, I have nearly died myself of complications of typhoid, moved back to my home country, lost nearly 100 pounds, and lived in fear of losing my spouse from something that was no one’s fault and to which there was no real answer. To reduce my doubts, I have to admit that there is a difference between what I will and what I know. To make what I will into being required work–both my own and others who will to want the same.
I suppose this is why I never had the hostility to Nietzsche as many others. Yes, Nietzsche is unsystematic and resists hard consistency, but why should we expect a suffering philologist to be so? Many of the systems we build are descriptive, limitedly, and we wish to make them prescriptive as if thinking would make categories ontological real just because they appear coherent.
Walking in the cold winter afternoon today with my wife to the car, seeing her smile but walk slowly from the effects of the last two years, I am struck by how much I don’t know. At how much the rearview picture seems consistent and obvious, but the constant doubting is, in a way, a way to avoid looking at the limitations of my knowledge.
Reading Emily Chang’s adaption from her book, Brotopia, in Vanity Fair, I have to admit that the lurid details don’t surprise me at all. Yes, it is a boy’s club, and yes, it seems to engage in boy’s club excesses and “decadence.” I wouldn’t dispute any of that. Is it in any way surprising that a new attempt make money from innovation and disruption in an area of the economy that is heavily dependent on monopoly mirrors the decadence of similar booms in the financialization period of the late 70s through the Mid-80s? It was a transitional state of economics who “disruption” is oddly dependent on barriers to access being selectively broken down. It shares similar traits in a variety of ways–it creates bubbles of investment fueling innovation that applies largely to the outside world and has little checks that such cultures in the earlier periods of capital development that created more clearly physical commodities.
A younger me would explain this purely in terms of labor theory of value. An even younger me, in my more geo-libertarian days, would explain this in terms of monopoly access creating a quick influx of wealth in limited area. Indeed, the housing patterns around the Bay Area in California even mirror those of New York. In a way, now, I think both are right because this kind of market boom is not impossible, but things like IP protect the risky behavior. After all, not only are a lot these Silicon Valley ventures not really profitable with IP, many aren’t profitable without government money directly. Often this will be explained as reinvestment into products, which in some cases it is, but in physical commodities not protected by IP, the re-investment has to be slower as the competition driving prices down off-sets the gains. By definition, this tamps down on risk behavior and on QUICK excess income. It also makes investment more risky even with slower growth, which is why in the dreaded “neoliberal” period, these markets depend on state level invention to really work. Even the heroic periods of capitalism, such as the “Robber Barons” period, depended on access to exclusive rights to both moderate overuse and to secure pricing.
OF course, a male-driven culture with a lot of young people with money would be decadent, we know that because it rhymes with the wall street boom. There are reasons why it rhymes with Wall Street though in ways beyond the madcap hedonism and excess Chang describes.