Joy of (typologizing) sects: another bullshit taxonomy of the “left”

So in reference to the various debates I have seen, and with an article from Endnotes, somewhat aptly titled, Bring Out Your Dead I have been coming up with a completely biased and ahistorical typology of “left-wing” sects.  Like LARPers and humanities academics, the typologies in these sects stems from traits we can see in many whose relationship to the ideas they carry are rooted largely in something past.  Now, I could (and sometimes do) try to good materialist analysis as to why the left-wing feels like a subculture akin to LARPing or neo-paganism, but with a hat-tip to Nietzsche, understanding them in terms of prior Christian sects can be pretty entertaining.

The Atavistic Sects--like many remnant protestants before them, the atavistic sects hold the line on a prior form of organization and refuse to change no matter how irrelevant this makes their programme.   There hope is in light of various concessions to reality, that holding a torch for the past can resurrect the past left.  Endnotes pegged this on the head for the left communist organizations which are ideologically closest to Endnotes themselves.  Like the protestant remnants and Old Believers, however, the resurrection of the past programme is a pipe dream.  My sympathies are with the atavistic line, in organizations like the International Communist Tendency, but whose regroupment of the class paradigm seem just as unlikely as any apocalyptic redemption.

The Atavistic Redeemer Sects – sort of like the proto-Christian remnants of old awaiting the Paraclete or Shiites with the Hidden Imam, this atavistic sect holds on to a lost personality–generally in the case of the Marxian left, Trotsky or Lenin, but sometimes even  Anton Pannekoek or Karl Kautsky.  We shall focus on the most common variety of this particular formation: The left Trotskyist sect.   In this we see the commitment to a programme beyond even it’s time, like a commitment to a law formed in a religious context which has been swept away and whose commitments are now anachronistic.  Exiled from the mainline of the “true church” since the Comintern, and feeling betrayed by the deviations and concessions by other dissent followers of there particular name of the father, and hope that he will be unveiled in the personage of the prime guru of the current incarnation of the sect, thus ending the occultation of Trotsky and also mending the pickaxe wound in praxis.   The self-righteous of the atavistic redeemer sect generally leads most other leftists to view them as if they were members of CONINTELPRO or other infidels.

The “traditionalist Catholic” Sect— in Marxist speak we call them anti-revisionists.  Like the Catholic church before them, they claim to have the true line and many different tendencies, but are built from the remains of prior movements which have had their time and have either fallen into disgrace or dissolved entirely.  These anti-revisionists want a pure church, but are willing to ignore that they are just as cobbled together in ideological sausage as many of the tendencies and sects they oppose as deviant.  Treating either the arrest of the Gang of Four or Khrushchev’s secret speech the way Mel Gibson treats Vatican 2.  They also like to make apologetic arguments for the prior inquisitions, but refuse to see the irrelevance of all that to the current epoch.

The ” reforming Catholic” Sect–a syncretistic descent of the traditionalist Catholic sect, but realizing reforms need to be made as the old dinosaur starts to fade, they pursue a slate of “reforms” and adoptions from other tendencies and sects which actually hasten the incoherence and the decay of the position.  They do this, however, not out of malicious intent or even heterodoxy, but in making concessions to reality. They still keep the name of the old father and aren’t as hostile to the priesthood as the other sects, they admit that Pope isn’t perfect and Stalin and/or Mao made serious mistakes.  They may even see some of the other sects–with the exception of those dirty ultra-left atavists–are be reconcilable with the true church.  They call for either a Vatican 2 of socialism, or claim that this or that synthesis or conference indicate a new way. (Lately, these claims have had a tendency to be centered around Nepal).

The High Church Protestant Sect–a sect which has split with the old left at some point (generally over some event in 1930 or during the height of the Comintern), but still defend it against the infidel and the outright heretics. They tend to keep a lot of the old dogmas and creeds–such as lip service to Democratic Centralism or talk of popular or united fronts–and defend the old but degenerated sects as spectres of the degenerated workers states.  Stalinophilic Trotskyist sects are given to this particular formation.

The Low Church Protestant Sect–a sect that has split from a high church sect due to a disagreement in tactics or a concession to liberalism.  The low church protestant sects are often just as syncretistic as the “reforming catholic” sect and given to using similar language to atavistic sect.  These sects are common as they often appear to have mass appeal, but very thin analysis. In lack of analysis, they often rely rigidly on personalities within the “church.”  Many types of international Trotskyism have gone this way.

The Gnostic Apocalyptic Sect–resembling the atavistic sect in analysis of the failure of the other sects and their deviation from the truth, but promise a yet unknown and thus veiled synthesis that announces the new programme or gives us the new name of the father.   They critique but there is a vagueness or opacity that leads many to doubt the relationship to the prior religion at all.   These are relatively rare in this day and age although prior incarnations have often led to either separate religions (see Sorel’s revision of Marxism).

The Apocalyptic Quietist Sect- This breed is rare in activist sectlets but common in academic groups and printing houses.  Like quietist faections within Shi’ia Islam or Mennonites, engagement has burned these groups to silence or impossiblism.  They await for the conditions to change and the occultation or apocalypse to happen. They often give into despair.   The Frankfurt School during the period of twilight of Horkheimer and Adorno is a prime case for this form.

The Antinomian Sect – Generally not interested in other sect forms and yet is so doggedly so that they go around breaking things and attracting heat from infidels.   Antinomian sects are common but tend to have a brief shelve life.

The Satanic Gnostic Sect – Generally a member of any of the apocalyptic or even atavistic sect that has taken an accelerationist position and gone over to the dark side, now promoting capitalism.  Some French Maoist groups have done this, but generally this has been the domain of a particular type of Trotskyist.  See the early Neo-conservatives or Sp!Ked for numerous examples of the infernal literature of this formation.

A few reflections on the problem of the expat English teacher in South Korea


I have been reading some things in Ethnic studies on linguistics that use the term Imperialism to apply to cultural shifts that occur in globalization. Generally it seems that the term refers to the limiting of outside groups from global hegemonic core of capital in the Angl0-American world and thus keep those cultural sphere dominant in capital.   This, however, is not so much about primitive accumulation as Marxist use of the term imperialism implies.  Indeed, it’s one of the many times when Ethnic Studies seems to have co-adopted a term from socialist discourse, but to not actually define it in the same way.  In Marxist discourse, this would be understood differently, but we would recognize the problem as one of cultural hegemony and the divided and uneven nature of development.  This I think limits what many of the ethnic studies thinkers could learn from us, and our quibbles with their semantics can keep us from honestly engaging with them and thus learning some real key points.

I am going to give an example of this with what I think is an excellent, if in places slightly problematic, post from a follow expatriate teacher here in Korea who happens to live in the same city I do. I do not know him although I have close friends who do, but I do want to show why the limits of the misunderstanding of the two different definitions of imperialism could keep us from understanding the valid points of the other side:

I believe that the perspective of English teachers in Korea as under-qualified is a fair and valid statement—not about us as individuals (I have met many a foreign English teacher here who is overqualified), but about the way that English education by foreigners is implemented systematically in KoreaFurthermore I do not believe blame solely lies in hagwons or hiring practices, but rather lies in a structure of privilege of which English is just one branch and of which we, as U.S. citizens and English speakers, all certainly benefit from.

First we must admit to ourselves that overall our credentials and training pales in comparison to any Korean-certified teacher (this could even be said when comparing credentialed teachers in America to credentialed teachers in Korea, but that is another discussion). We must admit that our opinions and judgments of the Korea education system are equally unfounded and generally based on a set of limited personal experiences. We must admit that we have no chips on the table, that ultimately it is not our future children who will live, learn, and grow in the Korean education system.

I must deconstruct this to show what I think is vital in the above paragraph:  the first paragraph is fundamentally true, but does not answer what the structure and privileges of which English is just one branch actually emerge from.  Is it merely Anglo-American dominance? Is it a structural relationship of capital that allows chaebols to use English as a way to limit it’s applicant pool and control it’s labor supply’s elasticity? Is it that English is used as a default language in international capital in ways significantly beyond the Anglo-American dominance and prior explicit imperialism (in the Marxist sense of the term) that led to the Angl0 dominance under the development stages of capitalism?  Is it merely racist attitudes among Anglo-Americans? Well, the later is not implied by the we given that the speaker is Anglo only by language, but is an Gyopo. He is being very fair in his inclusivity and calling out what is true in most of his audience.    I have studied the Korean education system in detail, and seen it’s limitations and successes. It’s a mixed bag, but a very successful mixed bag in its own terms delivers test scores at an extremely high cost to all involved (in time for the students, in money for parents and for the Korean tax payer). It also produces some of the best test scores in the OECD, but in a way that does use route learning methods and until the past five years, very old forms of direct physical discipline.  However, the liberalization of the Korean educational apparatus has also been on the Korean teacher’s own initiative and under the pull of Korean parents.  The foreign commentary is entirely irrelevant to this process, so any critique I may have on the Korean system I have gotten from elements within the Korean education system itself. Like most things in capital, it is developmentally divided and uneven.

” We must admit that we have no chips on the table, that ultimately it is not our future children who will live, learn, and grow in the Korean education system.”

Yet in this discourse about neo-imperialism, this seems both obvious and yet  I don’t think it is actually entirely true. Anything that happens in one capitalist country will part of the method of enforcement on other capitalist countries as the US is studying the Korean education system, and I think it is telling that the focus is on the Korean education system as it more effective at population control than the Finnish one, which is the other major contender for the OECD which has a markedly less invasive system with none of the private supplementation of the Korean system. I completely agree that this the author is right about the motives of most of the expat teachers in Korea, although a few of them do have children in the Korean education system, but it is not true that outsiders have “no chips on the table.”  It is the eighth largest economy in the world, and one that has been developing for a long time.  Capital development is no respecter of ethnicities or nation states, and yet this sort of discourse assumes that these are somehow natural categories.

That said, it’s easy to go too far in critiquing someone from using standard categories that would also be assumed by most of the expat teachers who are in the audience. In battles for cultural hegemony, this kind of talk is necessary just so people understand what you are saying.   The people whose live here in ROK should be the ones who determine their own educational system as all cultural “nations” should, even if one should be far more cynical about the national states that “represent” these ethnic communities.   In fact, the Korean education system itself could be seen as a compromise between a native Confucian tradition and a system imposed by the Angl0-American world and the capital it represented: it comes largely out of the context of the cold war. The use of private universities and high debt-load Korean families take on for them can hardly be said to be something that emerged from Korea itself:  the people of Korea value education and will pay for it, but the levels of debt are not something I see many of them wanting.  The number of Chrisitan for-profit universities in Korea should indicate the origins of a lot of this system.

Most of the people who the author is aiming at know nothing of this: it just doesn’t exist in their world.  I could be a privileged shit and just piss on his point because of a technical disagreement, but it would miss the point: he is much more right than wrong, but not trying to get there through historical materialist analysis.  That’s fine: I can pick up on the problems I may find in the framing, but push his point:  many of the reasons why Korea is the way it is has not been the results of native will, but in fact have been imposed upon it for reasons of both economic development and the cold war.


When I first came to Korea, I was shocked by the sheer amount of importance was put on English.   It took me about six months to figure out what the author here was getting at:

In today’s world English functions as a filter. Some of us have access to English fluency as birthright, while others are left struggling in the margins. One need not even look beyond the borders of our country to see how English is a marker for inclusion and exclusion, the haves and have-nots. English means economic opportunity, access to some of the top Universities in the world, political power, not getting stared at while walking down the street, the difference between being labeled as friend or enemy of the state. Simply put, English is access.

English functions in similar ways in Korea as well. Many of my students study English for even more hours than their Korean.  It is rigorously tested on school entrance exams regardless of its relevancy to the field of study. A lack or mastery of English can make a break a student’s academic goals, and it appears this trend will only continue as the Korean University entrance exam expands to include a listening portion.

There are very real economic benefits to speaking English, but we as foreign English teachers experience these benefits in very specific and unique ways. Like it or not, qualified or not, we get jobs, tutoring opportunities, a plane ticket to and from Korea, and shorter work hours with more vacation time than any Korean teacher I’ve heard of. We have the hearts of the Korean people and institutions of power opened to us through homestays and free or discounted language programs. And we have the ability to leave it all when it is no longer meeting our needs and return to a life back home. Our lifestyle is a far cry from the way other immigrants have come to Korea and how Koreans have come to America. Here, more often than not, our pay scales don’t reflect our qualifications or talent, but our privilege. And that money is coming out of Korean pockets to pay for Korean futures.

This is completely correct: last semester I was teaching culinary students English so they could pass an exam to make Korean food.  I didn’t understand: the students were not studying to work internationally.  It was a hoop they had to jump through.  In a Korean context, this is pretty important: the old cultural accumulations of prior capital have been localized.  It is used as a way to control the labor supply and by the government to limit access.  The neo-liberalization of the Korean economy allows much of the prior imperial discourse to be localized and applied as a hammer by Koreans on Koreans.  Most of the American, Canadian, and South African teachers who come to Korea do not realize this. They realize they are getting paid well, although comparable to a teacher in their own countries, but enough to have significant savings. They are also often exploited, but this is must be seen in a relative context.  There are places in which Korean work policies are outright imperialistic themselves in regards to South Asian and Korean Chinese labor, but expat teachers are almost textbook labor aristocracy even compared to much of the entry level within Korea’s native work force.   This is why I am always suspicious of local nationalism as being justified as anti-imperialism:  local nationalism itself can actually take on most of the traits of imperialism in class warfare, just with a local face.  Chaebol society is less brutal than the International corporations in some ways, but only marginally so.

This is not without contradictions though:  just like imperialist attitudes can be used by locals to support certain power structures. Sometimes ‘anti-imperialism” or “anti-racism” from outside the local context can make things worse by enforcing the negative stereotypes and silencing locals. This can actually SLOW the “liberalization’ process significantly by turning people towards more reactionary forms of nationalism in the face of the paternalizing narrative from a lot of outside activists.   Everyone wants to be a human rights lawyer, but this can often provoke reaction.  So the author’s warnings should be taken seriously: locals pay for local programs. They don’t know the privileged outsiders telling them what to do, and even when the outsiders are mostly right (and in this specific case, the outsiders aren’t even often right) it is highly counter-productive to insult locals working in their own way towards similar goals.


Perhaps most importantly, this “why” is the elephant in the room when it comes to discussing Korea’s educational policy shift from foreign English teachers to Korean English teachers. The Korean government’s goals are not to create ethnic purity on the peninsula or to ignore the economic and political impacts of globalization on the Korean people. It is a move to create a relevant teaching force, one that understands the pressures and intricacies of learning English in a Korean context. It is a move to provide a permanent, trained staff that can serve the needs of a population subject to an unjust global language system. It is a move towards self-determination by the Korean people. We as foreign English teachers should support these shifts, learn from them, and take these lessons back home with us. We should listen to understand the context we have been thrown into, not jump to defend our sense of self-worth whenever the system we are working in is criticized. The Korean people deserve this much.

While I do fine some of this a little naive, I have to say, the sentiment that the author is expressing is in the right direction. The educational policy here is shifting for practical reasons: research has shown over and over again that Korean model of importing large amounts of under-qualified native speaking teachers doesn’t work.  There are other less idealistic reasons: the number of students are declining and the educational system isn’t as flush with money. Getting foreign teachers of equal qualification to local Korean ones could be helpful, but it is prohibitively expensive at the best of time because of competing with the most developed economies in the OECD for labor.  The power of Anglo-American capital is waning as frankly the holders of capital are increasingly moving their locus of production to China, India, and other BRICS countries.  It’s not a “racist” conspiracy or even xenophobia moving the policy shifts (although it may be manifested as the later in rhetoric sometimes). It is a simple response to the “material conditions”–the political and economic realities of East Asia right now.  Do I trust the Korean government to fix it?  No.  No more than I trust the American government to fix it’s educational decline or the French government to fix its own.  I do think the Korean people deserve better though, and they will fight for it.  Any outsider who wants to help with that is going to have to meet locals on their  terms with their needs and their history in mind.  It’s only the proper comradely thing to do. It’s what you would demand from “outsiders” helping you.

Management At the Gates: Several Years Reflections on James Burnham

Section 1: The Calculus of a Class

So I was re-reading the James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution by George Orwell, I do not need to remind my readers that all the right-wing American love for Orwell and his work on the blacklists. Orwell was sort of socialist, although it is hard to say if he was a fading between a soft nationalism in Social Democracy or was some sort of Trotskyist. It is clear, however, he took James Burnham seriously. Now, we also have the fact that Burnham was an ex-Trotskyist who worked for the National Review after predicting a victory for fascism in the 1940s. Indeed, Burnham fascilated Shachtman’s break with Trotsky, which splittered the Trotskyite left into a thousand pieces for decades and arguably paved the way for Neo-conservatism. That is something that paleo-conservatives and Marxists tend to agree on. So he is problematic to say the least, yet Orwell points something out about the first part of Burnham’s first book:

Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralized society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham under the name of ‘managers’. These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new ‘managerial’ societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.

In his next published book, The Machiavellians, Burnham elaborates and also modifies his original statement. The greater part of the book is an exposition of the theories of Machiavelli and of his modern disciples, Mosca, Michels, and Pareto: with doubtful justification, Burnham adds to these the syndicalist writer, Georges Sorel. What Burnham is mainly concerned to show is that a democratic society has never existed and so far as we can see, never will exist. Society is of its nature oligarchical, and the power of the oligarchy always rests upon force and fraud. Burnham does not deny that ‘good’ motives may operate in private life, but he maintains that politics consists of the struggle for power, and nothing else. All historical changes finally boil down to the replacement of one ruling class by another. All talk about democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity, all revolutionary movements, all visions of Utopia, or ‘the classless society’, or ‘the Kingdom of Heaven on earth’, are humbug (not necessarily conscious humbug) covering the ambitions of some new class which is elbowing its way into power. The English Puritans, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, were in each case simply power seekers using the hopes of the masses in order to win a privileged position for themselves. Power can sometimes be won or maintained without violence, but never without fraud, because it is necessary to make use of the masses, and the masses would not co-operate if they knew that they were simply serving the purposes of a minority. In each great revolutionary struggle the masses are led on by vague dreams of human brotherhood, and then, when the new ruling class is well established in power, they are thrust back into servitude. This is practically the whole of political history, as Burnham sees it.

There is a problem presented to simple class taxonomies that have been glossed over by many Marxists and, honestly, is part of why Marxism has had such a hard time since the 1980s: the capitalist owners of production in the West are diffused, they are not so much a class as bond-holders spread-out through both the wealthier sections of the working class, old capitalists, and investors. The CEO is often rich in commodity and capital that the de jure capitalist, yet the CEO is technically managarial wage labor. In the post-industrial West, this is something like labor aristocracy rid large. Now the interesting that is that Marxian political economy still functions pretty much in a textbook manner as people like Andrew Kliman have shown, but the class taxonomies entirely work in the way they did when capital was first written. So there is something to Burnham’s thesis about the managerial class. Yet Burnham seems to take glee in the rise and dominance of the managerial class–in fact, if one looks at the history of neo-conservatism, they opted to BECOME the managerial class of the GOP establishment from a “liberal faction” in the GOP in the Nixon years until the near end of the Bush fiasco. Orwell points out an important problem in Burnham:

The notion that the machine has altered human relationships, and that in consequence Machiavelli is out of date, is a very obvious one. If Burnham fails to deal with it, it can, I think, only be because his own power instinct leads him to brush aside any suggestion that the Machiavellian world of force, fraud, and tyranny may somehow come to an end. It is important to bear in mind what I said above: that Burnham’s theory is only a variant – an American variant, and interesting because of its comprehensiveness – of the power worship now so prevalent among intellectuals. A more normal variant, at any rate in England, is Communism. If one examines the people who, having some idea of what the Russian régime is like, are strongly russophile, one finds that, on the whole, they belong to the ‘managerial’ class of which Burnham writes. That is, they are not managers in the narrow sense, but scientists, technicians, teachers, journalists, broadcasters, bureaucrats, professional politicians: in general, middling people who feel themselves cramped by a system that is still partly aristocratic, and are hungry for more power and more prestige. These people look towards the U.S.S.R. and see in it, or think they see, a system which eliminates the upper class, keeps the working class in its place, and hands unlimited power to people very similar to themselves. It was only after the Soviet régime became unmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in large numbers, began to show an interest in it. Burnham, although the English russophile intelligentsia would repudiate him, is really voicing their secret wish: the wish to destroy the old, equalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip. Burnham at least has the honesty to say that Socialism isn’t coming; the others merely say that Socialism is coming, and then give the word ‘Socialism’ a new meaning which makes nonsense of the old one. But his theory, for all its appearance of objectivity, is the rationalization of a wish. There is no strong reason for thinking that it tells us anything about the future, except perhaps the immediate future. It merely tells us what kind of world the ‘managerial’ class themselves, or at least the more conscious and ambitious members of the class, would like to live in.

Fortunately the ‘managers’ are not so invincible as Burnham believes. It is curious how persistently, in The Managerial Revolution, he ignores the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country. At every point the evidence is squeezed in order to show the strength, vitality, and durability of Hitler’s crazy régime. Germany is expanding rapidly, and ‘rapid territorial expansion has always been a sign, not of decadence . . . but of renewal’. Germany makes war successfully, and ‘the ability to make war well is never a sign of decadence but of its opposite’. Germany also ‘inspires in millions of persons a fanatical loyalty. This, too, never accompanies decadence’. Even the cruelty and dishonesty of the Nazi régime are cited in its favour, since ‘the young, new, rising social order is, as against the old, more likely to resort on a large scale to lies, terror, persecution’. Yet, within only five years this young, new, rising social order had smashed itself to pieces and become, in Burnham’s usage of the word, decadent. And this had happened quite largely because of the ‘managerial’ (i.e. undemocratic) structure which Burnham admires. The immediate cause of the German defeat was the unheard-of folly of attacking the U.S.S.R. while Britain was still undefeated and America was manifestly getting ready to fight. Mistakes of this magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be made, in countries where public opinion has no power. So long as the common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.

So where does that leave us? Democracy? Paul Mattick had some interesting criticism of Burnham too:

“Liberty” is possible only, he says, if no single force among the various “social forces” enumerated by Mosca becomes strong enough to swallow up the rest. To be sure, he admits that present-day development tends to destroy the basis for social opposition. Nevertheless, he is not “yet convinced that freedom … is impossible.” Private-capitalist property rights in the instruments of production, even under trust and monopoly conditions, he says, “were a sufficient fragmentation of economic power to provide a basis for liberty.” Complete state control of all economic power destroys this basis. But one does not need to defend the first in order to prevent the second, for there are other means than capitalist property rights to prevent centralization. The state itself, Burnhan suggests vaguely, could be decentralized or organizations along syndicalist and corporative lines could be instituted.

To make the defense of Machiavellian “democracy” more to the taste of the non-elite, Burnham discovers finally that “through a curious and indirect route by way of freedom, we return to self-government, which we were unable to discover by any direct path.” The existence of an opposition in society, he says, indicates a cleavage in the ruling class. In a society with public opposition, the conflict within the ruling class cannot be solved within the ruling class itself. Since rule depends upon the ability to control the existing social forces, the opposition seeks to draw forces to its side. It must promise certain benefits to various groups and, when in power, it must keep some of these promises. And thus the “masses, blocked by the iron law of oligarchy from directly and deliberately ruling themselves, are able to limit and control, indirectly, the power of their rulers.” This tricky business is, of course, only another formulation of Hegel’s “cunning of reason” and of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” And under certain circumstances these ideas contain some truth, for the absence of regulation is itself a kind of regulation, and the various limitations that beset the actions of the ruling class give to its behavior a certain direction. Yet it is plain nonsense to say that the masses control their rulers because they are controlled by them.

To make promises and to keep promises are two different things. At times the former “Marxist” in Burnham recognizes that “the general pattern of social development is determined by technological change and by other factors quite beyond the likelihood of human control.” At other times, however, he forgets that there are objective limits to the actions of men and the actions of elites. At any rate, he does not trouble himself to find out in what situations the life-conditions of the non-elite may be improved by way of the struggle between the out-elite and the in-elite, and under what conditions the struggle of elites is unable to affect the life of the masses in other ways than negative ones. But without such concrete investigation, the idea of the “indirect rule” of the masses can serve only ideological purposes. It sweetens the “bitter truth” that masters there must be, and it soothes the conscience of the elite which, after all, appears now as the servant of the people.

Burnham fundamentally resists this by trying to view class in terms of politics and not production, but the taxonomic problems Burnham saw didn’t go away.

November 11, 2011


One of the haunting things that Burnham really hits you on is that the capitalist class is largely irrelevant to the functioning of the system. In fact, capital ownership is so diffuse that outside of the .01%, mostly in the financial sector, and the CEO’s who serve them, we have no idea who is clearly the target: it is has true this is a problem as it makes the focal point of class rage generally aimed at abstractions such as corporations. While corporations have legal person-hood, you can’t put a corporations head on a pike. Furthermore there are some other instances one must look at honestly: the hyper-specialization of labor was not just a function of ideology, although this is true, but this relationship between the material states of technology and the division of labor lead one quickly to realize that the “socialist man” will not overcome the specialization of knowledge required in advanced technology any more than capitalist man does without rejecting or re-purposing  most modern technology. This, however, assumes that such technologies would retain their current form or that specialization implies hierarchical relations in the totality.

Burnham was profoundly accurate on that problem: technology and spatial dynamics are not new to Marxian thought. Indeed, Marx writes almost rapturously on this in Das Kapital , but it seems like the way the material transactions play out seems to limit the possibility that one can apply easily the understanding of Marx from the 19th century. Yet, the crisis of capital do seem to still function: the business cycle remains unresolved and most ways out of that cycle seem to involve massive destruction of capital and human lives. Austrian economists, the most pernicious school of modern economics, point out that war is merely the destruction of capital, but the raw logic of competition makes this clear. All naive descriptions of capitalism seem to point out that competition is both zero sum but also blank without preferences for supply lines, means of crushing competition early, and strategic manipulation through public relations and outright collusion.

Yet why where Burnham’s political analysis so wrong in the geo-politics of world war 2? Well, Burnham may have been right about the change of the change of class, but many of his foundational assumptions were flat wrong. For example:

Only the hopelessly naive can imagine that France fell so swiftly because of the mere mechanical strength of the Nazi war machine – that might have been sufficient in a longer run but not to destroy a great nation with a colossal military establishment in a few weeks. France collapsed so swiftly because its people had no heart for the war – as every observer had remarked, even through the censorship, from the beginning of the war. And they had no heart for the war because the bourgeois ideologies by which they were appealed to no longer had power to move their hearts. ( p. 34 of the Managerial Revolution)

Yet it is the bourgeois ideology that produced the technological state in which the Burnham’s managerial “revolution” took place. In other words, Burnham is reifying the ideology. Ideologies reinforce the material conditions through reproducing the means of production–to borrow a concept from Althusser–but as some other Marxian thinkers have been reminding us against Althusser and Gramsci lately: ideologies also emerge and mutate in line with material conditions. It was not that bourgeois ideologies were indefensible or that the French could not maintain them, but that the conditions of mobilizations were not within French thought given their prior victory in World War 1. This flaw, of course, let Burnham to predict that the Fascist state with its supposedly anti-bourgeois and anti-proletariat bias–or more specifically, its lumpenproleteriat bias–would emerge victorious. He was flatly wrong, but I don’t know if it was because the liberating idea of “democracy” as Orwell claimed.

Yet the same book contains this insight:

In the new form of society, sovereignty is localized in administrative bureaus. They proclaim the rules, make the laws, issue the decrees. The shift from parliament to the bureaus occurs on a world scale. Viewed on a world scale, the battle is already over. The localization of sovereignty in parliament is ended save for a lingering remnant in England (where it may not last the next few months), in the United States, and certain of the lesser nations.

There is no mystery in this shift. It can be correlated easily enough with the change in the character of the state’s activities. Parliament was the sovereign body of the limited state of capitalism. The bureaus are the sovereign bodies of the unlimited state of managerial society. (p. 141)

One can see this explicitly in the rise of the importance of cabinet positions in the US as the mainstay of the power of the executive branch. Furthermore quasi-state institutions like the Federal Reserve and the European National Banks are also easily in this category. The sovereign body of the legislature in both parliaments and congress are largely their to rubber stamp the decisions of the technocrats within those rolls. This is even more blatantly obvious in the EU’s fear of public democracy and referendums as it knows that no single nation state will want to take the austerity measures to maintain an essentially pegged currency. Argentina is the primary example here.

Yet Burnham is problematic here:

“Experience has shown that the existence of a large number of sovereign nations, especially in Europe (and with somewhat less acuteness in Latin America), is incompatible with contemporary economic and social needs. The system simply does not work. In spite of the fact that the post-Versailles European arrangements were set up and guaranteed by the most powerful coalition in history, which had achieved victory in the greatest war of history, they could not last. The complex division of labour, the flow of trade and raw materials made possible and demanded by modern technology, were strangled in the network of diverse tariffs, laws, currencies, passports, boundary restrictions, bureaucracies, and independent armies. It has been clear for some while that these were going to be smashed; the only problem was who was going to do it and how and when. Now it is being done under the prime initial impulse of Germany.” (p165)

This is another reason why Burnham thought that fascism would be dominant, but he failed to imagine that the managerial revolution wasn’t actually a revolution, but an adaption that was already in bourgeois ideologies. For the working class was always just a wage earner, which since the 1920s has been essentially everyone with the exception of small, inefficent petite bourgeois whose material capital is often less than that of a managerial wage-earner even in the middle section of a large corporation. One of the brilliance of the limited-liability corporation that Burnham did not take into his account of the situation was that it was a way of making class itself diffuse and convoluting the working class of the first world with the capital interests through 401Ks, IRAs, etc. Micro-investment spread capital outside of the mere capitalists as even when I worked at Lowes in the early 2000s, I was a partial owner of the capital of the company by having minute shares of company stock given to me as an employee.

So this does not transcend Marx’s capital, but evolves from it. These contradictions are not removed, but shift focus making it harder and harder to pin the anger. Yet the logic of the 99% has put a picture on the situation. The iron law of olgiarchy in modernity, which is implied in capital, fascist, and late feudal orders. The primary means of power are still the means of production, and the primary mystification was ideological. So if this undoes Marx’s critique in totality is highly doubtful as Marx’s predictions for capital hold fast to reality way more than Burnham’s predictions for the managerial class, but there are internal contradictions within the notions of the current system left unexplored by simple class dichotomies.

Yet one wonders if there isn’t something Utopian about the whole enterprise.

I will have to dig deeper on the challenges this poses.

November 24, 2011

III. The Primitive and the Managerial: Burnham and Zerzan’s Two Critiques of Marxism

El Mono Liso  write a very insightful post on Zerzan:

I don’t mean to be overly droll about it, but I will get to the provocative and perhaps exaggerated crux of this essay: my view is that Marxists, in spite of claims to being materialists, don’t really take matter seriously. And Zerzan and his kind do, at least from where I am standing. To very important and elementary questions as to who will mow my lawn and who will work at the Dairy Queen on a Sunday afternoon, Marxists and other socialists seem to just say, “We’ll figure it out later,” “That is for the masses to decide,” or, “That’s not what is important. Here, read more Lacan.” Perhaps I am just getting cantankerous as I enter my mid-30′s, but increasingly, to every single leftist meme, essay, quotation, or talk, I am beginning to have the same reaction: “I don’t think you’ve thought this through”. To the question of who will take out the garbage, my right-wing Tea Party neighbor has the perfect answer: the losers, because they deserve what they get. And taking out the garbage will motivate them to start their own businesses, work their way up, and thus create other losers they defeat on the free market who will have to take out the garbage. And all we come up with is robots, which assumes the current imperial order in a more benevolent form.

In that sense, Zerzan’s throwing the baby, the bathwater, the bathtub, and the bathroom out the window and going back to the days before speech doesn’t seem so absurd. I have to say that, while at Berkeley, I hated anarchists like any good “Trot”. I loathed lifestyle anarchists, and I despised those people who hung a platform from the Campanile with a sign saying, “End animal vivisection!” They were putting trees and animals before people while the great ghetto of Oakland and the rest of California seemed to be calling out to be saved. My feelings in that regard have not changed to a large extent, but I am beginning to more and more connect the dots between all of these struggles. I may not now, or ever, be ready to sign on to an “anti-civilization” critique. But I am under no illusions that any of this can be saved. Nor do I have any particular will to save a social order that robs Peter to pay Paul. As in any addiction, our own desires could be the cause of our own destruction. The very idea of trying to get “the masses” in a phalanx so that they can do what we tell them to do seems to betray that will to destroy.

While some of you are aware that I interviewed KMO from C-Realm podcast and have mentioned before that I too have noticed that the Marxian focus on the material conditions has gotten pretty damned abstract.  Marx himself purged over the statistics in dusty tomes in the British library system to get his ideas, but our parsing of statistics (with a very few exceptions) moves further and further from the material world itself.   No more Hegel on his head, Hegel may have tricked us and turned materialism itself upside down–Zizek and a few other lefty agitprop academicians have all but just said this outright.  Zerzan picks up on our flaws: that our analysis doesn’t seem to have material limits or deal in the the engineering problems that the left has had outside of just being the “slow liberalism faster, economic liberalism slightly slower” party.  El Mono Liso is right: Zerzan does want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and to which I would add, he may be missing the inherent reitification in  technology that is pre-human and in the functioning of an ant hill or a beehive: not just the agricultural man.  This, however, does not remove the ringing of his critique.   What if every cook can’t govern the complex machine that is the post-Enlightenment social efface?  IF Lenin had to maintain production to the NEP and Bakharin had to come up with ways to motivate the management, there seems to be a real problem here.   Zerzan says, “progress against modernity can only be done in absolute negativity, complete renunciation” and he does so on a version of the theoretical grounds laid out in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, and then he says basically: “You won’t have enough energy for your vision even if you figured out a way around management.” (I am being slightly hyperbolic in my paraphrasing, but the original argument is laid out here) You can’t have your modern world without you managers, so to hell with your modern world.

James Burnham’s political trajectory is similar in critique origins but entirely different in outcomes.  His critique of Marxist class analysis is that it was fundamentally unable to see the shift in production away from ownership directly to a form of managerial elites who worked in tandem to capital that was made diffuse.  Furthermore, he explains the situations of the Soviet Union as a development from this fact:  the management sector resembles that of the capitalist sector under Fordism.  This, if anything, has gotten worse in time since Burnham’s death and his political conservatism increasing.  Burnham thought Marxism was unable to deal with anything other than binary thinking through dialectics and thus could not conceive of the change in the modes of leadership.  Burnham would also mirror Adorno’s critique in another way: he said that Marxists could not account for why working class thinking was confused even though Marxian theory itself actually did account for the production of social consciousness by the larger place in production.   Now I may say the fundamental insight about the nature of producing society in the working class is not actually questioned in Burnham, Burnham’s challenge is simple: “Marxists, you don’t understand your enemy and thus cannot see what is walking among you now.”   Whatever  one can critique of Burnham, whose politics towards the managerial elite he described seemed to be “If you can’t beat them, join them,” the fact that Marxist class antagonism is often incredibly vague.  We do not talk about who precisely is our enemy other than capitalist class as a whole, but do not try to explain exactly who is in that class and how they are in it. Again the move away from the materiality of class seems very apparent:  a class is composed of people, we can know exactly who they are, but with diffuse capital ownership that may be much harder to do, and perhaps even more so, the average Marxist academic may actually be implicated in looking at lot like the management.

These two critiques are not death-nails in the coffin of history, but they must be addressed: the material and moral compasses of Marxian analysis must be addressed, or  it is true that we are just idealists in denial ourselves.

March 2013

IV.  We aren’t off this hook

In Burnham’s “Managerial Revolution”  the following is stated:

 “Changes in the technique of industry have, on the one hand, reduced more and more workers to an unskilled, or close to unskilled, category; but, on the other, have tied the process of production more and more critically to certain highly specialized skills, of engineering, production planning, and the like, requiring elaborate training not possessed by, or available to, many workers. With the methods of production used in Marx’s own day, there was a higher percentage of skilled workers to unskilled. The gap in training between an average worker and the average engineer or production manager was not so large – indeed, in most plants and enterprises there was no need to recognize a separate category of engineers and scientists and production managers, since their work was either not needed or could be performed by any skilled worker.

Today, however, without the highly trained technical workers the production machine would quickly run down; as soon as serious trouble arose, or change or replacement was needed, or plans for a new production run were to be made, there would be no way of handling the difficulties. This alters gravely the relative position of the workers in the productive process. In Marx’s time one could think without too much strain of the workers’ taking over the factories and mines and railroads and shipyards, and running them for themselves; at least, on the side of the actual running of the productive machine, there was no reason to suppose that the workers could not handle it. Such a possibility is today excluded on purely technical grounds if on no others. The workers, the proletarians, could not, by themselves, run the productive machine of contemporary society.”

The assumption that ability difference in complex systems is all  training is just an assumption and one that we have little evidence for and a lot of evidence against: you are arguing that moving from a simple system to a complex one is just a matter of education because you think because you can move from the complex system to the simple one.  It is often argued that the fact every governor can learn to cook is an example that proves the inverse, but this leap is actually formally bad logic (the inverse is not necessarily true of any postulate). Historically, Lenin tried to do this in a time when technical expertise actually required less intellectual ability than now. Lenin (and even Stalin) did actually do wonders for making working class with ability move into positions of power and in the betterment of education, but it did not completely level things in terms of ability and a managerial class did develop in almost all the communist countries (and almost all Marxist factions admit this but argue over exactly when it happened. When the Trotsky/Burnham debate was going on, this was denied). The point here is not that most differences in humans are natural, but that we don’t know what is or isn’t truly and haven’t figured out a way to transcend that. The goal of Marx was to make that irrelevant (as I keep harping about in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha program), the way we talk about these difference now in terms of equality here is basically claim that differences just don’t exist. That makes us open to be corporate management and Stalinist management, even Mao, who was most accutely aware of this problem in his rhetoric (after all that was the aim of the cultural revolution was a removal of a managerial class, aside from empowering his faction) obviously couldn’t stop in it China or the rise of Deng would not have happened.  Yet Mao was scared by the implications of this: The Shanghai commute frightened him, Lin Biao frightened him, and the inability to have Taylorist management frightened him.  I realize that key point about capitalist is its specific way of exploiting labor through surplus value, but I don’t disagree: the fundamental insight of Marx still applies but it is an insight to which we don’t have an answer since we don’t know the nature of who and how the exploitation is currently being done.  Vagueness like the 1% do not do it justice: the primary profiteers from systemic exploitation and oppression do not have to be those who actually manage it.

The practical problem, which frankly Marx avoided of spelling out how this is possible in a positive programmatic sense, requires more than vague notions about the power of education. It requires some fundamental value to enact it, and that value must arise from material conditions itself otherwise we are just hoping that an idea will do it for us. If we do think an idea will do it for us, we have returned to a Hegelian notions of Dialectic in a pure form with all the religion embedded in that. 

At best, we must admit that Burnham was onto something about the changing nature of capitalist class diffusion without changing the centrality of the production of value. These stages of the capitalism itself should scare us because they actually do say something about the changing nature of the revolutionary subject itself: the working class. This requires, at minimum, a much more specific notion of what these material conditions consist than I see in most Marxist discourse. In fact, with rare exception, most of what we see Marxist critique do is just textual exegesis. That is the province of the professor and the priest: thinking must involve much more than that without falling into the pitfall we see liberal empiricism falling into which cannot question current conditions or Hegelian dialectic, which takes the ideal itself at the given. We haven’t transcended that: we have neither transcended capitalist theory and practice in either a theoretical model or a possibility of praxis. Since I do think we have fallen down on specific class analysis and I also think we tend to think of ourselves and not our liberal counter-parts as “the left,” we have fundamentally blinded ourselves to the thinking we would need to do to make action meaningful. 

Otherwise, the baby and bathwater argument of Zerzan seems to be relevant, but I agree with you, if that’s the case, we’re pretty much all dead. There is a reason why I place Zerzan and Burnham together as almost flip coins on the same problem.

Let’s not stop here. I disagree with Burnham in a crucial way:

“In its own more confused, less advanced way, New Dealism too has spread abroad the stress on the state as against the individual, planning as against private enterprise, jobs (even if relief jobs) against opportunities, security against initiative, “human rights” against “property rights.” There can be no doubt that the psychological effect of New Dealism has been what the capitalists say it has been: to undermine public confidence in capitalist ideas and rights and institutions. Its most distinctive features help to prepare the minds of the masses for the acceptance of the managerial social structure.”

Burnham is defining capitalism in terms of Adam Smith, not in terms of Marx here.  Capitalism is a matter of free exchange here, not a matter of exploitation of surplus labor value.   While Burnham does lay down a good argument to how proto-capitalist members worked within feudal regimes before undermining them, he seems premature in claiming that a capitalist form is undermined.  Yet this error, while it is an error, does not change the fact that we must deal with the fact the rules of capitalism have fundamentally morphed since the advent of both Keynesianism and it’s (neo)liberal return to an older capital form.  Burnham’s  description of both the change of ownership and the way Keynesianism, fordism, and Stalinism empowered a particular group that has much harder for us to deal with conceptually stands. This seems like merely a strategic error on the Marxist part, but it is not.   Even if Burnham’s description of the managerial elite as a new form of governance is fundamentally untrue: it was a tendency the entire history of capitalism that one sees in the development of labor aristocracy itself. That victory over Burnham should not give us much comfort.  The strategic difficulty is is the conceptual difficulty: Why can’t we motivate workers to fight their exploiters when they are not clear who the exploiters are and since they, themselves, often have minor levels of stock in their own companies, they have been made to feel loyalty to the brand as if they were capitalists because of the diffusion of ownership. When your boss exploited you or when the Tzar exploited you, it was much easier to hang him or appeal to him to embrace a different class role. To be true, this is strategic problem, but management has been much better at managing the labor supply itself, and thus making the risks to act much higher: you would think having a more mechanized workforce would make a smaller working class in employment more powerful since fewer people would have to coordinate to shut down an automatized plant, but those people are to a large degree class aligned within the working class to management itself, and furthermore motivated to loyalty because of the ease of replacement given their skills are so specialized that they cannot easily do anything else.

A strategic error is misplaying the chess piece, a theoretical error is not knowing what a chess piece does:  Who constitutes a class and how it functions is the same as not knowing that the chess pieces do. It doesn’t change the game of chess, at least, not all at once, but it does change what is going on. Who is the bourgeoisie?  That we know by its definition after Marx: the owners of capital. Who are the owner’s of capital? Do they operate the levers of the economy anymore? Do shareholders actually control what is going on and the elasticity of the labor supply? And if workers are all also shareholders, who do you hang to seize control of production?

The problem of the exploitation of surplus value remains unsolved, and thus we are still dealing with capitalism and also the production of value. But the locus of battle is completely obscure until production itself is changed, but how to change it when you don’t who to you are resting the reigns of capital from.  It is not like Burnham was the only person who predicted the problem: there was a tendency in left communism and in Maoism to see this as a problem. Burnham’s cynical answer: embrace the managerial elites so at least you can pick a better one.  That led to things unforeseen even to Burnham: the rise of Neo-conservatives within the Nixon administration and within hawkish circles in the Democratic party. Zerzan’s answer is the other answer, but like I said above, it is one that ends in nothing we recognize as human.

What does this mean in the long run as Marxism seems to be regain a currency that it had lost since the 1980s is yet be understood, but I don’t think these challenges can be just shaken off. They must be answered–concretely and in the realm of material analysis.

V. It’s labor aristocracy stupid.

While I have linked James Burnham’s critiques of Trotsky as a flip-side to Zerzan’s critique, I now want to look the so-called Third Worldism more critically. The key Marxian concept that was abandoned is the idea of labor aristocracy for the managerial elites that Burnham describes could have been easily fit into the classical critique of labor aristocracy.   Orwell was one of the most serious “socialists” to critique Burnham and considered him twice. Orwell’s answer strikes us as horribly naive:

Fortunately the ‘managers’ are not so invincible as Burnham believes. It is curious how persistently, in The Managerial Revolution, he ignores the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country. At every point the evidence is squeezed in order to show the strength, vitality, and durability of Hitler’s crazy régime. Germany is expanding rapidly, and ‘rapid territorial expansion has always been a sign, not of decadence . . . but of renewal’. Germany makes war successfully, and ‘the ability to make war well is never a sign of decadence but of its opposite’. Germany also ‘inspires in millions of persons a fanatical loyalty. This, too, never accompanies decadence’. Even the cruelty and dishonesty of the Nazi régime are cited in its favour, since ‘the young, new, rising social order is, as against the old, more likely to resort on a large scale to lies, terror, persecution’. Yet, within only five years this young, new, rising social order had smashed itself to pieces and become, in Burnham’s usage of the word, decadent. And this had happened quite largely because of the ‘managerial’ (i.e. undemocratic) structure which Burnham admires. The immediate cause of the German defeat was the unheard-of folly of attacking the U.S.S.R. while Britain was still undefeated and America was manifestly getting ready to fight. Mistakes of this magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be made, in countries where public opinion has no power. So long as the common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.

Burnham was wrong about the fascist managerial state, but Orwell was also tragically wrong about the democratic state as a real opposition to it. In fact, that was part of Burnham’s point, the same conditions in all countries have produced a set of managers that functioned as a similar class.  One can see that in the amazing consistency between Republican and Democratic administrations in regards to the management of the executive as well as the rise of the Red Engineers and the introduction to neo-liberal forms of state capitalism/neo-mercantilism in post-Deng China. Orwell’s critique, however, was more problematic than just a naive belief in democracy and the decent English, in his “Second Thoughts on Burnham” he went on:

Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires, the disappearance of cultures and religions, are expected to happen with earthquake suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as though they were already at an end. Burnham’s writings are full of apocalyptic visions. Nations, governments, classes and social systems are constantly described as expanding, contracting, decaying, dissolving, toppling, crashing, crumbling, crystallising, and, in general, behaving in an unstable and melodramatic way. The slowness of historical change, the fact that any epoch always contains a great deal of the last epoch, is never sufficiently allowed for. Such a manner of thinking is bound to lead to mistaken prophecies, because, even when it gauges the direction of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo. Within the space of five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible. With this in mind one can criticise his theory in a broader way.

The mistakes I have pointed out do not disprove Burnham’s theory, but they do cast light on his probable reasons for holding it. In this connection one cannot leave out of account the fact that Burnham is an American. Every political theory has a certain regional tinge about it, and every nation, every culture, has its own characteristic prejudices and patches of ignorance. There are certain problems that must almost inevitably be seen in a different perspective according to the geographical situation from which one is looking at them. Now, the attitude that Burnham adopts, of classifying Communism and Fascism as much the same thing, and at the same time accepting both of them — or, at any rate, not assuming that either must be violently struggled against — is essentially an American attitude, and would be almost impossible for an Englishman or any other western European.

Orwell then credits the English character for seeing through this: problematically, mimicking the more problematic rhetoric of the Germans.  Yet Orwell seems fundamentally wrong now despite whatever is true about the moral prerogative against power.   For there is something darker lurking here in Orwell’s avoidance of the ‘primitive accumulation,’ to use Marxist terms, in England’s working class success. He could not see that he was part of what Burnham was describing.

It is in this gap that is interesting: Zak Cope’s book, Divided Classes/Divided World, and an interview with him on the topic. This brought me to this paragraph:

My initial motivations for writing the book were threefold. Firstly, I wanted to examine why workers in the rich countries seemed to have given up on socialism. As Donald Sassoon’s magisterial One Hundred Years of Socialism shows, the working class of the imperialist countries has for a century and more struggled to regulate and socialise capitalism, not replace it. If it is true that capitalism is an inherently exploitative and oppressive socioeconomic system how is it that workers in the rich countries have been so content to put up with it? Moreover, how is it that workers in the developed capitalist countries are so far from having, as Marx wrote, “nothing to lose but their chains”? My second motivation, then, was to counter those ideologies on the left which seek to explain these phenomena (that is, metropolitan working class conservatism and embourgeoisement). So, for much of the left, it is its militancy, its productivity or a combination of both, that explains metropolitan labour’s relative affluence. Paradoxically, however, the Western left has felt the need to explain working class conservatism by something other than this. Thus it has tried to excuse metropolitan labour’s conservative, complacent and fully reactionary politics with reference to its having been brainwashed or divaricated from its revolutionary tasks by all-powerful ideological state apparatuses (attempts to excuse it with reference to job insecurity and “precarity” notwithstanding). In short, for much of what passes for the left, it is “false class consciousness” that has led the Western working class to prefer social democracy, social partnership, and blatant national chauvinism (all these predicated on a political alliance with the capitalist class and its representatives) to socialism. Finally, and most fundamentally, the book was motivated by a desire to reinvigorate an internationalist perspective which had been sorely neglected by a Marxism deeply marked by a pernicious Eurocentrism. In that sense, the book was motivated by wholehearted opposition to colonialism and imperialism, which provide the real underpinnings of embourgeoisement, reformism, and racism alike.

One notices immediately the parallels between what Cope is describing the movement of Orwell’s own consciousness. Burnham’s concerns about the managerial elite and the Maoist view of the labor aristocracy map together like a micro-national and macro-national view of a similar development.  The technical focus on the mechanization and informational ends of production and the accumulation of raw resources moved to the third world.  Now, this is actually ebbing now and consequently one sees peaks of growth in Latin America and South Asia, but conversely one sees China and even to a lesser degree India engaging in mercantilist-like policies in Africa, and have moved from primitive accumulation among themselves to primitive accumulation elsewhere.   The pacification of the existing Maoist remnant remains a goal of the leadership of the CCP.  The developing countries start acting like prior imperialist ones once a certain level of internal technological sophistication is reached: China is still not quite there, but the rise of the red engineers and not the rise of the red lawyers within the CCP do not look well for them not following the same stages of accumulation. Indeed, the fact that the bourgeois revolution in China is co-terminus with the communist one makes this must more likely.   Is China’s rhetoric moving more nationalist like other developed nations?  Hard to say, but the netizens of China seem to have a distinctly nationalist tone.

Mao did foresee this as a problem: even the most cynical reading of the cultural revolution and it’s red terrors make that obvious, but Mao rehabilitated Deng himself (and then expel him again only to have him rehabilitated again), and we are where we are now.  There is still some of the hostility in the PRC, but the class nature of China is still pretty clear and obvious.  So the Third-Worldists are most likely right about imperialism–there is labor aristocracy at the core, but “cultural revolution” was not enough to change the MATERIAL need for a managerial class, and the exploitation of surplus value has not been absolved by the state.  This explains why Nepal and rural India have clearer revolutions than say even a degenerating Greece: yet neither Nepal’s revolution has cover come the extraction of surplus value, or even parliamentarianism.  In this we can see a vague outline of how embourgeoisement within labor transforms the nature of the working class.   Yet I do not see anyone address the material conditions that create the problem.   Cope’s questions are critical because it explains why Orwell was so blind and so wrong to the way the future would develop.  Yet there is keeping third-world nations from establishing there own capitalist forms, or state capital forms, which depend so crucially on management.

What are the material conditions for liberal regression and for left degeneration?  The material conditions that produce a new organization within the working class itself which has structurally diffused the bourgeois elements of ownership. The working class, however, is still there in the wings no matter how strong it’s labor aristocracy is or how deluded it all becomes.  Mao was right to see the problem, but placing voluntary politics above production in importance did not give him the tools to get out and left him in the fog of war as he brought the tanks in, and then the technocrats.

March 2013

Sometimes even bourgeois media is useful, but it’s particular to the kind of media you are looking at.

Originally written in 2011

You’re expecting a critique of capitalist science a la Paul Lorenzen or Jean Baudrillard, but you’re not going to get it. I think that is silly.  There are limits to science and Enlightenment thinkers tend to trample them, but it’s not the kind of attacks you see from a lot of Post-Marxists and Hard problem sociology of science people. No one need to go back to that good old fashion understanding of the process and function of the demarcation line.

You see recently, I have been noticing that questions that have been left up to economists have really been being studied in other sciences.  The first was psychologists studying human behavior in economic situations which led to Behavioral Economics which has been a  fruitful field in which the traditionally neo-classical assumptions about Market rationality were blown straight up.  Take, for example, the assumed tragedy of commons, it turns out that it doesn’t exist. Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist not an economist, won a Nobel Prize in economics for figuring this out.

So when I saw the New Scientist running article entitled: Revealed – the capitalist network that runs the world. This was an hard mathematical systems analysis from the University of Zurich, and it came up with same conclusions in with Marx’s critique of capital:

The work, to be published in PloS One, revealed a core of 1318 companies with interlocking ownerships (see image). Each of the 1318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What’s more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms – the “real” economy – representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.

When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies – all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity – that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network,” says Glattfelder. Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group

Note this team is not team of Marxists hiding out in a science department, we can tell by statements like this:

[B]y identifying the architecture of global economic power, the analysis could help make it more stable. By finding the vulnerable aspects of the system, economists can suggest measures to prevent future collapses spreading through the entire economy. Glattfelder says we may need global anti-trust rules, which now exist only at national level, to limit over-connection among TNCs. Bar-Yam says the analysis suggests one possible solution: firms should be taxed for excess interconnectivity to discourage this risk.

One thing won’t chime with some of the protesters’ claims: the super-entity is unlikely to be the intentional result of a conspiracy to rule the world. “Such structures are common in nature,” says Sugihara

While Marx could not have known much about systems analysis and emergent system theory, this is consistent entirely with his assumptions pulled from Ricardo and Smith as well as consistent with Schumpeter’s analysis on the topic. It is not consistent with what you hear about in popular economics editorials from Tom Friedman.

Emergent systems have a structure and a logic, or, disorder has structure and chaos has a reasoning. Capital itself tends to greater wealth in few hands while the wealth of corporations actually does not go up in relative terms to GDP. (See Goren Thornborn’s Marxism to Post-Marxism? for a detail analysis of that). In other words, but monopoly tendencies and declining rate of profits is supported by empirical data.

Now this does not require you to embrace a teleology based on Marxist class theory dialectic. I am not even sure I accept that. But what it does mean is that be careful of common parlance economic wisdom and go turn to scientists for a minute for some real data.

One more thing, you have heard a lot of news about the positive trends since International spending is up in September, a systematic analysis of this by Lance Roberts, also no leftist, at Seeking Alpha, gives reason for skepticism about how good those numbers really are, :

Sales are coming from savings as incomes have been declining on a year over year basis and employment has remained stagnant. Therefore, how long do you think it will be before retail sales have to face up to reality? Also, when you look at the raw retail sales data it actually showed a 5% decline for the month and it took a quite hefty “seasonality” adjustment to get the “pop”. In fact, according to the data it was the largest seasonal adjustment in 5 years.

and that:

We have been predicting a sub-par economic growth rate with a high probability of recession in early 2012. Even with the trumpeted bump in retail sales this past month, the threat of a recession in 2012 is still highly probable given the mounting evidence from just about every other area of the economy. Given the fact that we are now fully entrenched in a balance sheet deleveraging cycle, spurts of growth will continue to be anemic as excess consumptive power is diverted into debt reduction rather than consumption. The new level of “frugality” will continue to plague economic growth until the cycle is complete.

Unfortunately, for those that are hoping for 8% annualized returns from portfolios to establish their retirement, suffice it to say that since you haven’t seen that in the last decade and things have become materially worse during that time, it is highly unlikely that you will see it in the next decade. Income over growth and capital preservation over risk strategies will be key for surviving the next 10 years of a deleveraging economic cycle.

This is why it pays to read Business and Investor news as opposed to NYTimes. Chomsky would say, “The ruling class doesn’t lie to itself.” I don’t know, but I do know I learn a lot more from The Economist, the FT, and things like Seeking Alpha than from HuffPo or the NYT.

Review: The Philosophy of Marx – Etienne Balibar (Verso, 1997)

Originally written in 2010

Re-entering the world of studying socialist, anarchist, and other leftist thought one often ends up reading French texts released by Verso press quite a bit.   This is a slim volume and ostensibly designed to be an introduction to the philosophy of Marx.   Verso has given a slick red-tape Marx profile cover, and it stood out on a book shelf as I pursued the standard texts from Alain BadiouSlavoj Zizek, Robert Service, V. I. Lenin, and Leszek Kołakowski.    I have also recently read Das Kapital while listening to David Harvey’s lectures on the topic.

So this brings me to Etienne Balibar, student of the infamous anti-humanist and structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser.  Like Althusser’s students Charles Bettelheim, Alian Badiou, and Jacques Rancière, Balibar stayed in the Marxist tradition unlike his compatriot Michel Foucault.  Balibar largely became involved with Marxism from Althusser’s lectures on Das Kapital.  Balibar is not just a critical theorist, he was directly involved French immigrants rights and the Maoist activism of many of Althusser’s students.

So far so good, right?  You may say, “Slim volume written by a prominent thinker who is also actually an activist.  So your implying its obtuse? It’s French.”

Slow down, gentle reader.  This book while marked as an introduction to the Philosophy of Marx has two functions: one, it is an attempt at an introduction of Marx’s philosophy.  It is vital, however, to notice that philosophy is specific here. It is not an introduction to Marx’s sociology or his economics.  While it does touch on this points as each element is intertwined with the others, it is specifically about philosophy in the narrow sense.  Secondly, Balibar is not just introducing the material, he is making a sustained argument about Marxist philosophy itself.

The book is quite excellent in discussing the background of the Marx especially in compared to a lot of what you would get in a dismissive general theory textbook.  The section on ideology-not surprisingly given Balibar’s relationship to Althusser, is very lucid and powerful in explaining how Marx attempted to account for the limits and basis of human thought without the aid of advanced sociology, which arguably Marx is one of the several founders,  or modern neurology.   Furthermore, the block inserts on Gramsci, Althusser, Lenin, Benjamin,etc are all excellent in their concision and aid to the controversies of Marxist philosophy..

Yet one must not ignore that this is all written under the guise of Balibar’s thesis: “there is no Marxist philosophy and there will never be; . . . Marx is more important for philosophy than ever before.”  In this Balibar has placed Marx as vital to the academic philosophy and its relationship to praxis, but completely outside practical application by socialists.  Furthermore, he makes this almost argument entirely on conflict between dialectics of history and critical theory being at an aporia.  This is particularly true in the last section, which, despite the clear and generally readable translation of Chris Turner, comes off as muddled.

What is even not interesting is that Balibar makes this claim without any reference to Marxist historical practice.  He is only concerned with the abstractions that emerge from Marx’s own development. So Balibar does seek to place Marx in his own historical context but denies the importance of practiced Marxism: “The events which marked the end of the great cycle during which Marxism functioned as an organizational doctrince (1890-1990), have added nothing new to the discussion itself, but have swept away the interests which opposed its being opened up.”

His thesis is also predicated on the claim that while Marx’s attempt to make philosophy cause action and also place it in a sociological context makes him a truly original thinker, Balibar says that Marx is a dogmatist that falls short of fully exploring his claims. This kind of argument has been made in far less obtuse ways by Isaiah Berlin or even Noam Chomsky.   I suspect because this is sort of a liner-notes form of Baliber’s developed critique in Masses, Classes and Idea that there is no reason to assume that class structures will because consistent because “the emergence of a revolutionary form of subjectivity (or identity)… is never a specific property of nature, and therefore brings with it no guarantees, but obliges us to search for the conditions in a conjuncture that can precipitate class struggles into mass movements…” (Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy Before and After Marx, Routledge. Trans. James Swenson.)

Still let us return to a structured critique of the book instead of jumping to the Balibar’s other works that inform it. The second chapter focuses on the praxis/poiesis  dialectic (or, in non-philosopher speak, “theory/action” divide). Balibar reads this as an aporia:

“it is not difficult to derive the following hypothesis from Marx’s aphorisms: just as traditional materialism in reality conceals an idealist foundation (representation, contemplation), so modern idealism in reality conceals a materialist orientation in the function it attributes to the acting subject, at least if one accepts that there is a latent conflict between the idea of representation (interpretation, contemplation) and of activity (labour, practice, transformation, change). And what he proposes is quite simply to explode the contradiction to dissociate representation and subjectivity and allow the category of practical activity to emerge in its own right”

Yet, even if I agree with Marx, can we say that there is actually a real dialectic there?  What if the problem that Marx was trying to reconcile resolves itself in practice.  Belief is acted upon and created through action.  There is a lot of modern psychological studies to confirm this.  This means that philosophy that is not enacted is not operating in good faith.   This seems to be consistent with Marx’s intention and his economics but removes the problem Balibar is placing on him by accepting an essentially Hegelian dialectical problem.

In discussing ideology Balibar seems to indicate that it is conflict with  fetishism in Marx’s work.  That this is a hard division between Marx’s early and later thought. However, he admits that fetishism is concerned with economic mystification and ideology is concerned with state/cultural mystification. He see these as opposed, perhaps because Balibar accept’s Althusser’s conception that ideology is totalizing.
On this, I am not sure if I agree, but it seems to be that the difference between ideology and fetishism is descriptive focus.   Fetishism calls attention to an element of commodity value that is ideological and mystifying but is in no way in conflict with the larger  analysis of capital and class emergence.

Furthermore, Balibar talks about Marx’s having an “evolutionary” or “Darwinian” view. He is accusing Marx of having somehow sublimated a theory of progress.  I think this is a misunderstanding of what an evolutionary view is. It is a common mistake made from Herbert Spenser onward that evolution implies teleological process towards some absolute goal. Indeed, Hegel also has this latent teleology.  Marx, however, seems to indicate unsure of this:  capitalism contradictions make impossible to be self-sustaining, but in very little of Marxist writings does he seem to say that the outcome of this dialectical impasse has a specific ending. It seems many of the historical problems of the Paris Commune may have complicated Marx’s view, something that Balibar himself suggests.

This critique aside, I find Balibar’s book to be challenging and engaging when it is clear.  Balibar’s discussion of Marx’s revolution of the idea of “subject” is worth the 140 pages.   It’s introductory elements are sound, but this text is NOT an introduction to Marxist philosophy as you can tell by the my critique.  Indeed, you would have to familiar with the primary texts and a good bit of post-structuralist and post-Marxist jargon to get past parts of the last chapter.

For a better introduction to Marxist thought, read Marx.  Then watch the David Harvey lectures I posted, and if you still need some supplements–don’t feel bad about it, Marx combines economics, philosophy and nascent sociology in a way that few people can handle from every aspect.

For those more textually inclined: David Harvey’s Companion to Capital, The Cambridge Companion to Marx, and Terry Eagleton’s Marx Was Right are all more introductory in a (slightly in the case of Eagleton) less polemic and obtuse way.  

If you want a ready an interesting and provocation, but brief philosophical treatise on Marx, do read Balibar.Also I can suggest reading his work on Kapital with Althusser and some of his reflections on Dictatorship of the Proletariat.    For similar critiques, Derrida’s The Spectre of Marx and the reaction against it, Ghostly Demarcations, are quite good.

Interview with Ryan Haecker on Right Hegelianism and Christian Theology

Ryan Haecker is a scholar on the Christian theology of German Idealism,  analytic theology, and Catholic History. He and I set down to discuss how Hegel’s Christian context is oft not understood by many Hegelian thinkers.


C. Derick Varn: Why do you think Hegel’s relevance as a specifically Christian thinker has been downplayed over time?

Ryan Haecker: There is a long-standing reticence to acknowledge Hegel as a Christian theologian. Controversy surrounding the Christian and orthodox content of the philosophy of Hegel has swelled since before Hegel passed from the world in 1831: Hegel had already in his lifetime been accused of denying a personal God, logizing the Holy Trinity, theologizing history, eleaticizing Spinozism, Pantheism, materialism, idealism, reactionary conservatism, radical republicanism, Prussian nationalism, liberal cosmopolitanism and Bonapartist imperialism. Some of these allegations may be more warranted than others, but even a cursory glance through the diversity of allegations and appropriations which have been made of the philosophy of Hegel during and after his life testifies to the bewilderment, excitement, and animosity stirred up by Hegel’s philosophy. There are, to my mind, three primary reasons for this medley of bamboozlement and controversy: First, like no philosopher since Airstotle in the age of Alexander the Great, Hegel claimed, in the age of Napoleon, the imperial crown of sovereign philosophy by negating the conclusions of all hitherto existing philosophical systems, as well as asserting the superiority of his own doctrine – which simultaneously incorporated and appropriated the philosophies which he asserted himself to have superseded in thought. Second, Hegel announced the messianic and world-historical importance of his very own philosophy, which he held to have completed – as far as was possible in his own historical moment – the truth of religion and reason, that was only signified for imagination in the Christian Gospel. Ordinarily such claims would result in either confinement to a lunatic asylum or – as with Friederich Nietzsche – a struggle with immovable reality to the contrary that might well precipitate a mental collapse, but Hegel’s extraordinary claims were plausibly, as with those of Jesus Christ’s, fulfilled by extraordinary results. Third, there is the unmistakable circuitousness, complexity, and gothic intricacy of Hegel’s writings, which belabor scholars for years just as they baffle and frustrate casual readers. The consequence is a general unwillingness of most – even scholarly readers – to devote the considerable labor of thought required to grasp the central ideas of Hegelian philosophy. The grandness of Hegel’s self-estimation combined with the difficulty of his texts contributes to the suspicion and hostility towards the philosophy of Hegel among most thinkers, but especially among Christians for whom Hegel represents both the potential for the dialectical advancement, negation, and nullification of the central tenets of the Christian religion.

C.D.V.: What do you think is the key theological truth of Hegel?

R.H.: There is nothing in Hegel’s philosophy of Absolute Idealism which is not implicitly related to the Absolute, to theology, and to God. God is present from the first moment of sense-certainty, as the “richest and poorest truth,” to the complete realization, in thought, of the Absolute Idea. In the introduction to the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences Hegel wrote: “The objects of philosophy, it is true, are upon the whole the same as those of religion. In both the object is Truth, in that supreme sense in which God and God only is the Truth. Both in like manner go on to treat of the finite worlds of Nature and the human Mind, with their relation to each other and to their truth in God.” All thought from the barest manifold of intuition to the most majestic apprehension of the entire cosmos is ideal participation in the divine life of God. For Hegel as with Paul of Tarsus, God is Hen Kai Pan – All in All -in whom we all “live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In this regard, Hegel follows the ancient idealist tradition of Parmenides, Plato, Philo, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus; as well as the medieval mystics from Augustine and John Scotus of Eriugena to Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart and Joseph Boehme; and finally the modern idealists of Spinoza, Kant and Schelling.

Since the 13th century nominalists had overturned the great medieval synthesis of the Angelic Doctor Thomas Aquinas, theology had suffered from an ever-widening chasm between saecula (the sacred) and seculorum (the profane), Deus (God) and mundi (the World), Caelo (Heaven) andTerra (Earth). This is Lessing’s Chasm which characterizes the dualisms of modern philosophy. In the theology of Thomas Aquinas this chasm results from the transcendence of God’s simple unity over the composite created world; in the theology of John Duns Scotus this chasm was the consequence of the division between God’s necessary and accidental attributes, or between those things which are rationally necessary by divine reason and those things which are merely possible according to divine will; in the philosophy of Descartes this is the dualism of the perfect infinite incorporal God and the mechanistic corporal universe; in the philosophy of Leibniz this is the dualism of the Monad of Monads and the necessary cooperation of the infinite multiplicity of subordinate monads; in the philosophy of Spinoza, this is the dualism of thought and extension; and finally in the philosophy of Kant, this is the dualism of reason and intuition, concepts and percepts, and of the noumenal and the phenomenal realms. In every case, infinite Eleatic-Platonic simple transcendent One is opposed to finite multiple composite Milesian-Democritean atoms of material Nature. The ambition of the identity philosophy of Schelling and Hegel was conceived to be a purgative corrective to modernity’s infinite repetition of the antitheses of the infinite non-Ego with the finite self-positing of the Ego. Schelling writes:

“The genuinely speculative question remains: how may the absolutely One, the absolutely simple and eternal Will from which all things flow, expand into multiplicity and be reborn as a unity, i.e. into the moral world… The question would be an indispensable and unavoidable problem if this philosophy [of Fichte] actually made what is for it the Absolute into a principle as well – but it rather carefully guards against this and lets the whole of finitude be given to it, very conveniently along with the… common dogmatism that the Absolute is a result and something that needs a justification… What is the characteristic of this philosophy [of Fichte] is just that it has given new form to the age-old dichotomy between the infinite and the finite; but such forms may be legion – none lasts, and each carries impermanence within itself. It cannot found anything permanent. An enthusiasm that fancies itself to be great if it sets its own Ego up in its thoughts against the wild storms of elements, the thousand thousand suns and the ruins of the whole world, makes this philosophy popular; and also makes it dumb and hollow otherwise – a fruit of the age whose spirit has for a time exalted this empty form, until the age sinks back as its own ebb sets in, and the fruit along with it. What abides is only what supersedes all dichotomy; for only that is in truth One and unchangeably the same… Only what proceeds from the absolute unity of the infinite and finite is immediately and essentially capable of symbolic presentation; capable of true philosophy; of becoming religion, or an objective and eternal source of new intuition; a universal model of everything in which human action endeavors to portray the harmony of the universe.” – F. W. J. Schelling, On the Relationship of the Philosophy of Nature to the Philosophy in General, Kritisches Journal der Philosophie, I, no. 3, 1802

The philosophy of Spirit of G.W.F. Hegel can be conceived of as a dialectical reconciliation of the finite world of our ordinary experience with the infinite ideal life of the Absolute, which is God’s infinite being. The success of this reconciliation is meant to fulfill the promise, in thought, of the Christian religion and restore the august throne of speculative philosophy, or metaphysics, as the sovereign science: “The germ of Christianity was the feeling of separation of the world from God; its aim was the reconciliation with God -not through a raising of finitude to the infinite, but through the infinite’s becoming finite, or through God’s becoming man… All the symbols of Christianity exhibit the characteristic that they represent the identity of God with the world in images” (ibid.). The genuinely gnostic ambition of German Idealism is salvation, neither through faith or works alone, but through both together in the theoretical and fideistic praxis of philosophy, which is both devotion to God and love of holy wisdom – Hagia Sophia. Hegel considered himself a religious reformer. Yet unlike Luther, Hegel did not endeavor to widen but to reconcile the opposition of faith and reason; church and state; and man with God. He brought the sword of negativity down upon only those philosophies which maintained themselves in self-certain fixidity, refused to “tarry with the negative,” and thereby “blasphemed against the Holy Ghost.” Like Kant, Hegel’s purpose was irenic: to pacify the endemic strife of thought that tossed into ceaseless tumult the Republic of Letters – “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” (Mt. 5:9)

The key contributions of Hegelian philosophy to Christian theology corresponds  in a threefold way, to the persons of the Holy Trinity: First, the philosophy of Mind, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, is Christocentric as it aims at nothing less than the approach of the subject consciousness with the eternal reason of God: this culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the final moment of religious consciousness; the dark night of the soul; the speculative Good Friday in which God is dead, that concludes the logical sequence of historical religions; dissolves all nature, objectivity, and natural religion into the subjective stages of consciousness; and reconstructs each and all according to the Spirit of Pentecost, the apostolic Church, and the Gospel of speculative philosophy. Second, the philosophy of logic, in the Science of Logic, is theocentric as it deduces the three persons of the Holy Trinity from logical generation of the heavenly Father into the three moments of Being, Essence and Concept; which come to be manifested in the encyclopedic divisions of Logic, Nature and Spirit; and which are altogether united in the ceaseless eternal self-loving – immanent and economic – logical procession of the Holy Trinity. Third, the philosophy of history, in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy and the Philosophy of History, is pnuematocentric as it illustrates the efflorescence and vital activity of the Holy Spirit as logic directs the sequence of events in history through the temporal realization of the eternal providence of God. The triadic division of Hegelian philosophy; into Father (Logic), Son (Mind) and Holy Spirit (History); is altogether integrally united in the Science of Logic, in which Hegel intends to demonstrate nothing less than the Trinitarian logic and essence of the Triune God. The result must, if correct, be at once the culmination and resolution of centuries of antitheses in theology, science and philosophy, and of no little interest to all speculative thinkers of some spiritual depth.

C.D.V.: Do you think reading Hegel without this Christian background has led to a profound misunderstanding of his work?   If so, what are the key misunderstandings?

R.H.: There is both an interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel in which his “Christian background” is denied, as well as an interpretation  in which his “Christian background” is acknowledged and yet considered inessential to his philosophy. In every case, the genuine question must be, not whether Hegel is acknowledged to have believed in Christianity or to have lived in a largely Christian nation, but rather whether his philosophy is essentially Christian. Hegel did not understood philosophy to be Christian because he himself was a Christian, any more than he held philosophy to be German because he was himself a German (although he once remarked that he would teach philosophy to speak German). Rather Hegel held religion to be essentially reasonable, and reason to be essentially religion, just as Christianity is essentially philosophical, and philosophy is essentially Christian. The opposite categories are altogether united in the speculative identity of the Absolute Idea. Hegel writes in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion:

“The human spirit, in its innermost nature is not something so divided up that two contradictory elements might subsist together in it. If discord has arisen between intellectual insight and religion, and is not overcome in knowledge, it leads to despair. This despair is reconciliation carried out in a one-sided manner. The one side is cast away, and the other left alone held fast; but man cannot win true peace in this way. The one alternative is, for divided spirit to reject the demands of the intellect and try to return to simple religious feeling. To this, however, the spirit can only attain by doing violence to itself, for the independence of consciousness demands satisfaction and to renounce independent thought is not within the power of a healthy mind. Religious feeling becomes yearning hypocrisy, and retains the moment of non-satisfaction. The other alternative is a one-sided attitude of indifference toward religion, which is either left unquestioned, or ultimately attacked and opposed. That is the course followed by shallow spirits.”

Thus, it is a misunderstanding to suppose that Christianity is somehow capriciously attached to the philosophy of Hegel, as an afterthought brought in through the window. Schelling and Hegel wrote:

 “We do not even recognize as philosophy any view which is not already religion in its principle, [and] we reject any cognition of the Absolute which emerges merely as a result – we reject any view which thinks of God in himself in some empirical connection; precisely because the spirit of ethical life, and of philosophy, is for us one and the same; we reject any doctrine according to which the object of the intellect must, like nature, be just a means to the ethical life, and must on that account be deprived, in itself stripped of the inner substance of that life.” (Kritisches Journal der Philosophie, 1804)

In his celebrated three critiques of reason, Immanuel Kant believed himself to disclose the essence, potential and limits of reason itself. Following the Late-Medieval nominalist opposition between faith and reason, Kant held faith (glauben) to consist in beliefs that were wholly unsupported by reason (wissen). Hence, the limits of reason fenced in rational understanding just as much as they fenced out irrational belief, so that true religion, like true philosophy, must remain within the secure battlements of self-critical reason – the limits of reason alone. Kant defined the limits of reason to be the antinomies, or paralogisms of reason, which he held to necessarily arise from the uncritical speculation of ‘metaphysics’ beyond the sure lighthouses of analytic deduction and the safe harbors of sensory intuition: inferences of synthetic apriori concepts that, qua synthetic, contain the content of sensory intuition and yet purport to describe objects which are properly supersensible (e.g. the soul, the cosmos and God) cannot be reliably trusted: for every dogmatic supersensible inference, any equally valid yet contradictory inference may be affirmed; and the possibility of affirming valid contradictions results in antinomies, or a contradictions in the valid exercise of the laws of logic; such that reasoning which trespasses beyond self-critical boundaries ineluctably obliterates itself in self-contradictory paralogisms.  In this way, Kant anticipated the Verification Principle of A.J. Ayer and the Analytic Positivists in holding that consistent, i.e. non-contradictory, synthetic a priori truths of reason must be either analytically self-evident or empirically observable. This Kantian prohibition rendered knowledge of supersensible a priori concepts (e.g. the soul, the cosmos and God) totally inadmissible as theoretical knowledge, even while they were necessary for practical reason of ethics, politics and religion.

The consequence of the Kantian prohibition on supersensible a priori concepts was a series of dualisms, between reason and intuition, concepts and percepts, theory and practice, a priori and a posteriori truths, and the noumenal and phenomenal realms. Kant struggled to reconcile these dualisms in the Critique of Judgment, in which the faculty of aesthetic judgment was intended to mediate between reason and intuition, yet only succeeded in producing many more speculative paradoxes. The task of Kant’s immediate successors; e.g. Reinhold, Jacobi, Niebuhr, and Fichte; was to systematize the prolific yet disconnected medley of concepts expounded in Kant’s critical philosophy. This required a single axiom, or ur-form, to carry the weight as a cornerstone for the whole edifice of Kantian philosophy. Imagination, faith, practical reason, consciousness and the transcendental Ego were all proclaimed as sovereign axioms in a furious succession which culminated in the 1796 Wissenschaftslehre of J.G. Fichte. F.W.J. Schelling’s decisive contribution was to oppose the self-positing Ego of Fichte with the Absolute non-Ego of Spinoza’s Nature – Deus sive Natura – and unite both together in the speculative identity of the Absolute Ego, the idea of God. Thus did post-Kantian idealism return to St. Anselm of Canterbury’s “highest idea… than which nothing greater can be conceived.” (the Proslogion, 1078)

After Schelling’s departure from Jena in 1804, G.W.F. Hegel carried his erstwhile mentor’s Identitie-Philosophie even further in his drafted speculative systems. This formative activity culminated in the 1807 publication of the Phenomenology of Spirit, which departed from Schelling in two important respects: the Absolute Idea was placed at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning, of the speculative system; and the deduction of the concepts was dialectical and paraconsistent rather than analytic and consistent. The Kantian antinomies of reason compelled post-Kantian philosophers to choose between reason that was limited to empiricism and analyticity, or somehow embrace the self-contradictoriness of the  antinomies. Hegel departed from Fichte and Schelling; for whom the resolution of the antinomies was either simply self-posited or an ineffable aesthetic intuition; and boldly affirmed that all speculative reasoning must be self-contradictory, paraconsistent and dialectical. The operative principle of dialectic is contrary propositions (i.e. contra-diction). In the philosophy of Hegel, however, ‘contradiction’ does not simply refer to the affirmation and denial of the same proposition; for there can be no ‘fixed propositions’ at all; but rather to the contrary opposition of the conflicting properties of concepts which results in their mutual negation; and this negativity imparts dynamic self-movement to concepts. Just as Plato conceived the cosmos as a world-soul in the likeness of an animal organism in the Timaeus, so does Hegel conceive of concepts as ideal organisms in the full negativity of dynamic self-motion. The Absolute Idea is consequently, like Plato’s world-soul and Schelling’s Weltgeist, the self-contradictory concept of concepts – Forma Formarum – which absolutely envelops and supercedes all possible concepts, all thought and being, as that Reason (nous) which rules the world.

Reading Hegel without consideration of his ‘Christian context’ results in a profound misunderstanding because such readings neglect, dismiss, or diminish the essential role of Christianity in Hegel’s mature philosophical system. This essential role can be illustrated by describing how the Christian religion uniquely anticipated the particular philosophical contributions of Hegel in post-Kantian idealism and the history of philosophy in general.  In the mature writings (1807-1831) of Hegel, Christianity is explicitly dealt with in three places: the final part of C.C. Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the third part ( of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, and the third part of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: of these, the lectures on the philosophy of religion constitute a more detailed exposition of the Encyclopedia; the Phenomenology of Spirit presents Christianity in from the standpoint of the self-development of human consciousness in history as the culmination of a dialectical sequence of absolute picture-thinking, or religion; and the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences presents religion as the concept which mediates between the concepts of art and the philosophy, and Christianity as the absolute religion which subsumes natural and finite religions within itself. The place of the concept of the Christian religion in the Phenomenology and Encyclopedia systems of Hegelian philosophy signifies its relations to other concepts, both as they are subordinated, superordinated, and sublated. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, the Hegelian christology of the hypostatic union lies at the very pinnacle of the system as the completion of the dialectic of religion; which guarantees, through revelation from the Absolute to itself in mankind, the completion of the preceding dialectical movements, and the ultimate possibility of knowledge of the Absolute. In the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, the Christian religion is the ‘absolute religion’ through which aesthetic imagination becomes philosophy of the truth. The differing places of Christianity in the Phenomenology and Encyclopedia systems can be explained according to the differing systematic roles of the two works: while the Phenomenology of Spirit presents the successive dialectical movements of naive consciousness in relation to the Absolute, the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences outlines the relation of the Absolute to itself in the successive dialectical movements of its own self-development. Thus, Christianity makes knowledge of the Absolute (C.DD. Absolute Knowledge) possible for-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, while Christianity mediates between art and philosophy, intuitions and concepts, in the absolute self-becoming of concepts in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences.

Hegel distinguishes Christianity from all dialectically prior revealed religions (e.g. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam etc.) according to the uniqueness of the incarnation and the ‘death of God’ on the cross. The incarnation of Christ is not merely an act of divine intervention but a world-historical event that, when believed to be true, radically transforms our collective self-understanding; for we then acknowledge our self-same absolute freedom, sacrality, and divinity through the image of the God-man. The deeper meaning of Ecce Homo, “behold the man”, is precisely this; that man sees his own absoluteness in the person of Christ, in which the Absolute Idea of God is uniquely and substantially united with the essence of mankind. Through this revelation, the nature of man comes to be acknowledged as potentially absolute, and hence potentially sharing in the freedom, sacrality and divinity of God. For this reason, the gospels of Christ, through which the Absolute is imagistically revealed, is also an anthropology of man. Hegel held this Christian theological-anthropology to have world-historical importance for the development of reason itself, which is the spirit of the world – der Weltgeist. Faith in the hypostatic union of the dual natures of God and man in the person of Christ is the crucial presupposition that enables the reason to develop with complete confidence in knowing the objective world of the non-Ego and the Absolute. So long as subjective consciousness was opposed to an alien objective non-Ego, there could be no condition for the identity and synthesis of knowledge of things for-us and the things-in-themselves, and scientific knowledge of the cosmos could, with the ancient Skeptics, be assumed to be ultimately unknowable.

This problem is represented by Plato in the sixth and greatest difficulty (133a–134e)  of the dialogue the Parmenides: Parmenides argues against Socrates that, according to the Platonic epistemology, forms may only be related to other forms just as sensible things may only be related to other sensible things; humans cannot know forms just as the gods cannot know human affairs; so that there can never be knowledge of forms or relations of the gods to men. The problem of the greatest difficulty is the problem of mediating the dualist cosmology – the divided line – of Plato’s Middle-Period dialogues (e.g. Phaedo, Republic, Symposium) and resolving opposite ontic categories of form and matter into a consistent unity. This problem of dualism is represented in religious consciousness in the Messianism of the Jews after the Babylonian Exile (582-538 BC). Bereft of the anointed monarchy of the House of David and the Ark of the First Temple, the Jews groaned in agony and expectation for their salvation from invasion, contamination and occupation by foreign peoples (e.g. the Greeks and Romans). The unnamable God – the tetragrammaton ‘YHWH’ – beyond the world was expected to directly intervene as a champion Messiah to shepherd Lord’s people Israel to true freedom and everlasting majesty. The 71st Psalm petitions:

“Give to the king thy judgment, O God, and to the king’s son they justice… He shall judge the poor of the people, and he shall save the children of the poor, and he shall humble the oppressor, and he shall continue with the Sun and before the Moon, throughout all generations… In his day shall justice spring up, and abundance of peace, till the Moon be taken away. And he shall rule from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the Earth… And all kings of the Earth shall adore him; all nations shall serve him.”

Thus, both Jews and Gentiles – Jerusalem and Athens – awaited the absolute mediation of God with man at the conclusion of the political development of the antique world, in which the universal Roman Empire united all nations, and:

 “All the conditions for its production [were] present… These forms [of personality, legal right, of Stoicism and Skepticism] compose, the periphery of the forms, which attend round the birthplace of Spirit as it becomes self-consciousness. Their center is the yearning agony of the unhappy despairing self-consciousness, a pain which permeates all of them and is the common birth-pain of its production — the simplicity of the pure notion, which contains those forms as its moments… The incarnation of the Divine Being, its having essentially and directly the shape of self-consciousness, is the simple content of Absolute Religion. Here the Divine Being is known as Spirit; this religion is the Divine Being’s consciousness concerning itself that it is Spirit… Spirit is known as self-consciousness, and to this self-consciousness it is directly revealed, for it is this self-consciousness itself. The divine nature is the same as the human, and it is this unity which is intuitively apprehended.” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the Phenomenology of Spirit, C.CC. Religion C. Revealed Religion, par. 754-759

The Incarnation of Christ reveals the identity of consciousness and the Absolute through the hypostatic union of divine and human nature in the person of Jesus Christ: “I and my Father are one.” (Jn. 10:30) This revealed identity speculatively reconciles and mediates, for religious consciousness, between the dualities of reason; e.g. Ego and non-Ego, subject and object, sensible and supersensible, Man and God. Through the incarnation, Christianity affirms an indissoluble identity between the reason of man and the reason of God so that we may potentially come to know all things just as God knows himself. Jesus told his disciples: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also: and from henceforth you know him, and have seen him.” (Jn. 14:7); “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither anything hid, that shall not be known and come to light.” (Lk. 8:17); and “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn. 8:32). Hegel writes, in the Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “In the Christian Religion God has revealed God – that is, God has given us to understand what God is; so that God is no longer a concealed or secret existence.  And this possibility of knowing God, thus afforded us, renders such knowledge a duty…”  The speculative centrality of Christianity in the essential development of reason and the history of world-spirit is this speculative identity of God and Man in Christ; of all thought and being in the “Absolute Middle” that unites absolutely opposed categories of the subjective Ego and the objective non-Ego; and makes a philosophical science of absolute knowledge possible.

It is sometimes objected that Christianity cannot be the ‘absolute religion’ for this reason because the incarnation of God is not an element that is unique to Christianity: incarnations are also present, for example, in the ten Dashavatara, or avatars of Vishnu, such as Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. While other religious traditions affirm that God has been incarnated, only Christianity describes the passion, death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ. Hegel describes the ‘death of God’ in both Faith and Knowledge and the Phenomenology of Spirit from the standpoint of religious consciousness. Religious consciousness views God the Father and Christ the Son as indivisibly united in Jesus of Nazareth. The death of Jesus is thus viewed as the ‘death of God’ for both are united in the self-same appearance known through the logical sequence of these appearances. Hegel writes at the conclusion of section C.CC.III. Revealed Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit:

 “This [religious] self-consciousness does not therefore really die, as the particular person [of Jesus] is pictorially imagined to have really died; its particularity expires in its universality, i.e. in its knowledge, which is essential Being reconciling itself with itself. That immediately preceding element of figurative thinking is thus here affirmed as transcended, has, in other words, returned into the self, into its notion. What was in the former merely an (objective) existent has come to assume the form of Subject… When the death of the mediator is grasped by the self, this means the sublation of his factuality, of his particular independent existence: this particular self-existence has become universal self-consciousness…. The death of this pictorial idea implies at the same time the death of the abstraction of Divine Being, which is not yet affirmed as a self. ‘That death is the bitterness of feeling of the “unhappy consciousness”, when it feels that God Himself is dead. This harsh utterance is the expression of inmost self knowledge which has simply self for its content; it is the return of consciousness into the depth of darkness where Ego is nothing but bare identity with Ego, a darkness distinguishing and knowing nothing more outside it. This feeling thus means, in point of fact, the loss of the Substance and of its objective existence over against consciousness… This knowledge is thus spiritualization, whereby Substance becomes Subject, by which its abstraction and lifelessness have expired, and Substance therefore has become real, simple, and universal self-consciousness.” (PhG §785)

With the death of the God-man for religious consciousness, the concept of the universal essence of the “objective existence over against consciousness” (PhG §162) is lost and shattered even as “bare identity” of the Fichtean self-positing Ego continues in lonesome cognition. Hegel suggests that the ‘death of God’ phenomenologically reveals, for religious consciousness, the immediate self-certainty, self-subsistence and infinite freedom of the Ego in a way that had formerly been obscured by “the objective existence”, “abstraction and lifelessness” of the non-Ego “over against consciousness.” The positive result of the ‘death of God’ is the absolute dynamism and spiritualization of all thought. Thus the concept of the absolute Spinozist substance is baptized as the divine subject. Hegel first describes this in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:

“The living substance is that being which is truly subject, or, what is the same thing, is truly realized and actual (wirklich) solely in the process of positing itself, or in mediating with its own self its transitions from one state or position to the opposite. As subject it is pure and simple negativity… True reality is merely this process of reinstating self-identity, of reflecting into its own self in and from its other, and is not an original and primal unity as such, not an immediate unity as such. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle which presupposes its end as its purpose, and has its end for its beginning; it becomes concrete and actual only by being carried out, and by the end it involves.” (PhG §18)

For religious consciousness, revealed Christian theology is revealed anthropology. The new conception of the God-man Jesus Christ constitutes a new Christian conception of man: human nature is affirmed to participate in divine reason and divine grace. The final end and highest good of human life is, no longer as with Aristotle magnanimity within a merely human political community (Zoon Politikon), but rather participation in the divine life of the Absolute being through the superabundant grace and beatitude of the Kingdom of Heaven. This echoes St. Paul of Tarsus’s description, in the Epistle to the Romans, of our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: just as Hegel affirms that Ego becomes certain of itself through the ‘death of God’, so St. Paul affirms that we die, are buried, and are resurrected with Jesus Christ, to establish a hitherto unknown relationship between man and God:

 “we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 6:4-11)

The ‘death of God’ in Hegel, like the death of Christ in St. Paul, signifies the self-negation of the Absolute.  For the Christian religious consciousness, the self-negating loss of “objective existence” is just as much the death of our objective bodily existence as “we are crucified with [Christ]” so that we might “liveth unto God.” Christianity is thus distinguished from other incarnational religions by, not merely the absolute reconciliation of opposite categories through the incarnation, but also by the absolute self-negation of objective being through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hegel’s ‘speculative Good Friday’ is the self-negation of all concepts in the Absolute idea:

 “Infinity is the pure nullification of the antithesis or of finitude; but it is at the same time also the spring of eternal movement, the spring of that finitude which is infinite, because it eternally nullifies itself. Out of this nothing and pure night of infinity, as out of the secret abyss that is its birthplace, the truth lifts itself upward… the pure concept or infinity as the abyss of nothingness in which all being is engulfed, must signify the infinite grief [of the finite] purely as a moment of the supreme Idea, and no more than a moment… Thereby it must re-establish for philosophy the Idea of absolute freedom and along with it the absolute Passion, the speculative Good Friday in place of the historic Good Friday. Good Friday must be speculatively re-established in the whole truth and harshness of its God-forsakenness… the highest totality can and must achieve its resurrection solely from this harsh consciousness of loss, encompassing everything, and ascending in all its earnestness and out of its deepest ground to the most serene freedom of its shape.” (Faith and Knowledge, 1802)

The “absolute freedom” of the “pure concept” results from the absolute self-negation signified of the ‘death of God’ in religious consciousness. The drama of the Christian religion and the history of reason are united in the “absolute passion” of the ‘speculative Good Friday’, through which the totality of concepts are altogether negated in “infinite grief” and posited anew – resurrected from Hell and “ascending in all earnestness and out of its deepest ground” – of the Absolute Idea.

Hegel’s trinitarian theology  confers the crown of absoluteness upon the Christian religion. Hegel describes at the conclusion of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (§575 – 577), how the dialectical moments may be read in three different sequences, with three different subjects, and from three different beginnings: (i) Logic – Nature – Spirit; (ii) Nature – Spirit – Logic; and (iii) Spirit – Logic – Nature.  The divine persons of the Holy Trinity within the triune God are mutually and recursively related, just as the conceptual moments of God are mutually and recursively related:  Logic corresponds to God the Father, Nature to God the Son, and Spirit to the Holy Spirit. The major divisions and subdivisions of Hegel’s work must correspond to the persons of the Holy Trinity because Hegel’s dialectical logic is essentially trinitarian, and Hegel’s conception of the Holy Trinity is essentially logical: the simplest seminal first moment (i.e. thesis) is the Father, the second self-alienated opposed moment (i.e. antithesis) is the Son, and the third reconciling dynamic moment (i.e. synthesis) is the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is an absolute self-contradiction: ‘God is one’ and ‘God is three’. Hegel absolutizes contradiction in his Logic by affirming that the Holy Trinity is the absolute contradiction of three divine persons in one God and the eternal universal and living essence of all logic, consistency and contrareity: the contrariness of the Trinity is also Hegel’s dialectical principle of identity in difference, through which he holds contrary opposite concepts to be resolved into the self-identical unity of a master concept [i.e. (A = A)&(A A)].  Subsumption (Aufhebung) is this process of resolution, which is simultaneous  supercession, negation and preservation of differing and opposed concepts within a fuller and richer conceptual unity. The triadic relations of the concepts that pervade and dynamize the philosophy of Hegel instantiate these trinitarian logical relations. The conceptual moments of God may relate to one another, as that which is sublated and that which sublates, in as many ways as there are relations between the divine persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus, Hegel’s Christian trinitarian conception of logic and contrareity informed his philosophical contributions to post-Kantian idealism. Hegel’s elliptical axiom “Alles was vernünftig ist ist wirklich, und alles was wirklich ist ist vernünftig” (“All that is rational is real, and all that is real is rational”), can just as well be logicized as the axiom ‘All logic is theological, and all theology is logical.’ The revelation, intelligibility, and divination of universal reason in Christ the Logos was long ago acknowledged by Christian Neo-Platonists such as Clement and Origin of Alexandrian. The Thirteenth Century Dominican mystic Meister Ekhart describes this in the sermon on the Self Communication of God:

“The Father is a revelation of the Godhead, the Son is an image and countenance of the Father, and the Holy Ghost is an effulgence of that countenance, and a mutual love between Them, and these properties They have always possessed in Themselves.”

Dynamic movement is the result of the negative activity of potentiality in actuality, or of some recurring absence within the fullness of substance. Thus negation begets dynamic movement within a self-moving substance. For Hegel and Schelling, the substances of concepts are dynamic when self-negated by contrary opposite concepts: “The Concept is what is alive, is what mediates itself with itself.  One of its determinations is also Being… This is the Concept as such, the Concept of God, the Absolute Concept; this is just what God is. As Spirit or as Love, God is this Self-particularizing.” (G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion p. 436) Christianity is the most dynamic concept of religion because, for religious consciousness, the ‘death of God’ is the total negation the concept of the objectified Absolute. St. Paul writes: “Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men… humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8) The absolute self-negation of Christianity in the ‘death of God’ is also the most extreme self-alienation and opposition of concepts in the sacred history of God’s children Israel. The dark night of the soul of Good Friday, in which Christ calls out “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'” (Mt. 27:46), historically recalls the grief of the 22nd Psalm over the ostensible abandonment of God’s covenant with Israel during the sack of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Captivity; but also speculatively anticipates the apocalyptic opposition of all concepts, in the moment of our most heart-rending despair, when the essential coherency and self-identity of absolutely everything seems lost: when “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (William Butler Yeats, the Second Coming).

The dynamism of Christianity propels Christian religious consciousness into an expectation of future reconciliation – the Second Coming of Christ – in which the covenantal promise of sacred history is expected to be fully realized. The absolute antithesis of the crucifixion demands an absolute resolution and finale. Any opposed pair of contrary concepts logically demands some third concept to mediate and reconcile each into a coherent self-identity. As (C.CC.) Religion completes (C.) Reason for-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, so does the teleological end of religion superordain and determine the end of the (C.BB.) Spirit of history. The hopes of the City of Man are informed by the City of God, and the absolute expectations of Christian sacred history inform the expectations of secular philosophies of history, or theories of historicism. The future horizon of sacred history is the theological origin, in revealed religion, of all subsequent progressivist historicism. The ancient pagan Greeks and Roman acknowledged no absolute progress in history. The epics of Homer and the theogony of Hesiod depict a lengthy historical regress from the resplendent reign of the immortal gods to the pygmy age of mortal men. Likewise did the Jews count themselves to be lesser men than their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Christian’s affirmed history to be progressive because Christians trust in the promised atonement of their savior, Jesus Christ, by whose death and resurrection God is believed to have conquered sin and death, and restored the pilgrim Church in the progress of faith towards the highest good of eternal beatitude: this hope for the restoration of the world in the eternal goodness of God is signified in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come/ thy will be done/ on Earth as it is in Heaven.” In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History Hegel described the logical and theological origin of this eschatological orientation that is common to all progressivist historicism:

“The truth, then, that a Providence of God presides over the events of the World – consorts with the proposition in question; for Divine Providence is Wisdom, endowed with an infinite Power which realizes its aim in the absolute rational-design of the World… the world is not abandoned to chance and external contingent causes, but that a Providence controls it… The insight to which Philosophy is to lead us is that the real world is at it ought to be; that the truly Good – the Universal Divine Reason – is not a mere abstraction, but a vital principle capable of realizing itself. This Good, this Reason, in its most concrete form, is God… The World Spirit corresponds to the Divine Spirit, which is the Absolute Spirit.”

History is providential simply because God is universal reason, all that is real is rational (“alles was wirklich ist ist vernünftig”), and reality is obedient to God. Hegel’s progressivist historicism is the direct consequence of his trinitarian dialectical logic, in which thesis begets its opposite and opposites are reconciled into a richer unity, and the Absolute is placed at the end as the product rather than the axiom of philosophy. The Lectures on the Philosophy of History should be read as an illustration of historicism determined by the eternal forms of reason described in the Science of Logic. As Karl Rahner would later elaborate, this picture of the self-development of Spirit in history is essentially the dynamic efflorescence of God’s grace, a “universal pnuematology”, and a “salvation history” (Geist in Welt,1939, and Hörer des Wortes, 1944). In the drama of sacred history, the proto-evangelium of the Old Testament is the first act, the Gospels of the New Testament are the second act, and the Acts of the Apostles begin the third and final act, which is prophesied to be completed by the Apocalypse of St. John. The order of the Mass re-presents this trinitarian drama of sacred history as well in the three parts; the Service of Prayer, Service of Instruction, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice; in which the priest assumes the sacramental role as the person of Christ to reenact the sacrifice of the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection. The celebration of the Mass can thus be understood as a ritual re-presentation of the Hegelian themes of progressivist historicism, reason in history, and our eternal and eschatological salvation through our liturgical and sacramental participation in the self-giving Logos of Jesus Christ.

Interpretations of Hegel vary widely, not merely because of the gothic-intricacy of Hegel’s prose, but more especially because readers of Hegel’s texts ineluctably interpret his speculative glosses as re-affirming their own preconceptions. One of literary master-strokes of Hegel was, like Plato, to favorably present opposed theses while neighter affirming nor denying any definite conclusions. By this artifice, Hegel retained for himself a veil of vagaries that elicited from his students a perpetual self-reciprocating dialectic of opposed questions and answers. Consequently, an interpretation of Hegel which purports to show that God is can with no less plausibility be opposed by an interpretation that God is not; just as the interpretation that the philosophy of Hegel is Christian can be opposed by the interpretation that Hegel is not a Christian, but perhaps a crypto-Feuerbachian. The opposed interpretations of the philosophy of Hegel; which were first publicly manifested in the conflict between the so-called old ‘Right Hegelians’ and the young ‘Left Hegelians’; has continued to this day in Christian transcendentist and Marxian immanentist interpretations. It is plausible that my own Christian and ‘Right Hegelian’ interpretation of Hegel has been pervasively conditioned by the preconceived categories of Christian religious consciousness, just as the interpretations of those who may disagree have been conditioned by some rejection of religious consciousness. The formal relation of the concepts in Hegel’s system may frame, but not resolve, the dispute over the importance of the content of religion. The key misunderstanding is then to simply entirely reject the importance of religion in philosophy. As philosophy, like religion, purports to describe the truth, a true reading of true philosophy may only be judged according to the self-legislated norms of reason itself. In this way, confessional conflicts of religious faith are reintroduced into philosophical hermeneutics. The genuine question of whether the philosophy of Hegel is essentially Christian must therefore remain disputed so long there remain doubts about Christianity.


C.D.V.: What do you make of philosophers like Zizek trying to deal with Christianity of Hegel without just dismissing it as incidental while also trying to reconcile it with the materialism of Marx?

 R.H.: The most Hegelian approach to the procession of ideas in history is the synthesis of all differentia and opposites within the Absolute Idea. There is, for this reason, nothing contrary to the spirit of Hegel in working to speculatively reconcile ostensibly opposed concepts such as Christianity with Marxism, or religion with historical materialism: this speculative enterprise can, perhaps, be understood more generally as the synthesis of transcendent supersensible forms revealed in religious consciousness with the natural operations of the material world observe through sensation; as a return to the Platonic project of reconciling the purely actual Being of Parmenides with the ever-changing conflux of Heraclitus; or as the return to the Kantian project of reconciling the immutable windowless monads of Leibniz with the extended and self-developing substance of Spinoza. In every case, speculative philosophy endeavors to unify the dualistic opposition of pure thought and intuition in an absolute concept that envelops and subsumes the true concepts of all reality. The project of reconciling Christian transcendence with socialist justice has in the past been undertaken from the standpoint of Christian theology; for example in the Franciscan Fraticelli, the Christian Socialism of Dorothy Day, and the Liberation Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez; and from the standpoint of Marxist theory; as in the writings of Ernst Bloch who wrote in The Principle of Hope “Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem” and “the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism is part of the age-old fight for God.”

For either Christian theology or Marxist theory to be fully explanatory of the world, it would seem that each must offer some account of the pervasive appeal of the other: Christian theology must account for the Socialist contests against the social iniquities of modern capitalist economies, just as Marxist theory must account for the spiritual conditions of Christian religious consciousness: Marxists must explain the persisting desire for self-transcending faith and devotion, for which “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”, just as Christians must explain how they are to bring justice to the present material conditions of society, for which they are commanded to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Hegel is the key to open each concept for the other. Hegel is not only a seminal thinker for Marxist theory, but also a great modern Christian theologian. In Hegelian terms, both Christian theology and Marxist theory must endeavor to speculatively sublate, negate, and preserve the other, so as to unlock, open, and take possession of all of the riches of Pharaoh from the land of Egypt.

Although I have some suspicions about Prof. Žižek’s interpretations of Hegel, it would be irresponsible for me to comment on an author’s whose publications I am largely ignorant of. Some interpreters of Hegel are tempted by their preconceptions to deny Hegel’s exuberant Christian confessions as little more than pious nods to the Restoration-era faith of the Kingdom of Prussia. For example, Prof. Robert Solomon interprets Hegel as “essentially an atheist” (In the Spirit of Hegel, 1983, p.582). Such esoteric interpretations, which maintain that Hegel was a writer who deliberately deceived his readers regarding his Christian faith, are (while not indubitably false) demanding of a much more conniving interpretation of Hegel than his fiercely independent and outspoken tone would seem to suggest. In his book review, Prof. Michael Rosen called Prof. Solomon’s interpretation “extremely disappointing” and “bizarre” (The Philosophical Review, pp.115-117, 1986). Thus, leaving aside these interpretations, there appear to be three major ways in which Marxist theoreticians may seek to “deal with the Christianity of Hegel” by de-Christianizing the philosophy of Hegel to be more amenable to an ostensibly irreligious Marxist theory: by re-conceiving of (i) the formal relations of the system, (ii) the metaphysics, and (iii) the sociology of Hegel.

(i) Christian interpreters of Hegel have earnestly and decisively emphasized the systematic place and function of the concept of Christian revealed religion in the system of Hegel (e.g. James Sterling, Emil Fakenheim, William Wallace etc.). Christianity is not only acclaimed as the ‘absolute religion’ which subsumes all prior religions in religious consciousness, but furthermore as the concept that superordinately determines the essence of the subordinate concepts: in the Phenomenology of Spirit, for instance, the concept of (C.CC.III) Christian revealed religion is the apex of the concept of (C.CC) Religion which subordinates and subsumes, in (C) Reason, the concepts of (C.AA) Free Concrete Mind and (C.BB) Spirit; which in turn subsumes (A) Consciousness and (B) Self-Consciousness. Thus, the crowning concept of Christian subsumes all other concepts within itself. Although Christianity is enthroned at the zenith of the system of the Phenomenology of Spirit, it is not itself (C.DD) Absolute Knowing but merely the handmaid of the philosophical-theology of Absolute Idealism. The Phenomenology of Spirit is merely a prolegomena, for historically alienated consciousness, of the system of philosophy which Hegel begins in the Science of Logic and outlines in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences.

As the Phenomenology of Spirit stands in the relation of the Absolute to consciousness as a mediating prelude to Hegel’s mature philosophical science, it may be mystically envisaged to assume the filial role of Christ the Son in relation to the seminal role of God the Father in the Science of Logic, and the dynamic efflorescence of the Holy Spirit in the Berlin Lectures on the History of Philosophy and the Philosophy of History. Consequently, the sovereign concept of (C.CC.III) Christian Revealed Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit must be understood, like Jesus Christ, to be the mediating concept between human consciousness and the Absolute Idea of God, just as (3.3.2) Religion appears again in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences as the mediating concept between (3.3.1) Art and (3.3.3) Philosophy (e.g. S-M-P or Father-Son-Holy Spirit). Religion mediates between art and philosophy in the Absolute Idea because Hegel, with Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, held all formal concepts to require the content of intuition: the universal philosophical concept is constructed from the content of aesthetic intuition related to the absolute truth of religion and yet formally purified of the content any particular intuition. The majestic tradition of Christian art, from the earliest hymns to the cantatas of Mozart, is for Hegel the spiritual flowering of the concerted imaginations of the children of God to manifest the Absolute Idea through the variegated forms aesthetic intuition. In the oldest systematic fragment on German Idealism describes the centrality of art to philosophy:

“the idea which unites all, the idea of beauty, the word taken in the higher platonic sense. I am convinced that the highest act of reason, which, in that it comprises all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are united like sisters only in beauty – the philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. The people without aesthetic sense are our philosophers of the letter. The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be clever in anything, one cannot even reason cleverly in history – without aesthetic sense.”

Interpreters who wish to de-Christianize Hegelian philosophy may allege that the subordinate and mediating role of religion in the system of Hegel means that the Christian religion is suppressed by the superior concept of (C.DD) Absolute Knowing and (3.3.3) Philosophy: just as the universal concept purifies philosophy of the particular content of intuition, so does it seem to exorcise philosophical reason of religion. However, this interpretation confuses the Hegelian principle of subsumption (Aufhebung), which preserves the subordinate concepts, with bad skepticism, which suppresses and rejects the subordinate concepts. Hegel describes the difference between subsumption and skepticism in the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit:

  “For this view is skepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result… The skepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is — in order to cast it into the same abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself.” (PhG §79)

Lest we fall into the most abysmal skepticism which cannot advance a step further, thinking must incorporate the determinate negations of all concepts to “progress through the complete succession of forms”: rather than being cast into the void, the Christian religion is denied merely as absolute knowledge just as it is preserved as a concept that is essential to this knowledge, viz. the negation of negation or the determinate negation (determinatio est negatio): the concept of Christianity is negated as containing the fullness of purely conceptual truth even while it is affirmed, viz. this negation, to be altogether necessary for the emergence of philosophical truth. In the (3.3) Absolute Idea of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, (3.3.2) Religion objectifies the varied aesthetic imaginings into a sacred drama of the self-revelation of the Absolute to consciousness.

The Christian religion is essential as the most synthetic and dynamic form of religion which, through divine revelation, uniquely allows consciousness to imagine and know philosophical science. If religious consciousness were, on the contrary, consigned to the abysmal void of unthought, then there could be no warranted claim to scientific knowledge. This problem of the doxastic foundations of science in religious belief continues to resurface in anti-realist and anti-foundationalist critiques of natural science and scientific naturalism, such as Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (1975), Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (1993), and Thomas Nagel’s recent book Mind and Cosmos (2012). The necessity of the mediating concept of Religion in the philosophy of Hegel thus inverts the common understanding of the relation of faith and reason: faith is not the ghostly shadow of reason the necessary precondition of reason itself. So Hegel may affirm, with St. Anselm, that we must have faith seeking understanding (Credo ut Intellegam), and with the proverbs that  the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” (Pr. 9:10)

(ii) Hegel’s fundamental metaphysical commitments can perhaps be radically reconceived as materialist and anthropocentric rather than absolute idealist and theocentric. This approach was first pursued by the disenfranchised students of Hegelian philosophy who wished to weaponize the Hegelian dialectic against the alliance of altar and throne in the Kingdom of Prussia and the Holy Alliance (c.1815-1848).These radical critics of the established order of the world were called by David Strauss the ‘Young Hegelians’, in contrast to the doctrinaire former students of Hegel, or the ‘Old Hegelians’. They counted among themselves such future luminaries as Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, Max Stirner, Bruno Bauer, Friederich Engels and Karl Marx. Feuerbach interpreted Hegel’s Absolute Idea to be no more Platonic and real than an idea in the human mind. The idea of God and the Absolute should, on this account, become the absolute knowledge and power of mankind. Marx and Engels followed Feuerbach in juxtaposing critical, realist, and empirical dialectical materialism to Hegel’s purportedly spiritualist, speculative and phantasmagoric absolute idealism. In each case, the Young Hegelians sought to unravel the unity of the systemic tapestry of the philosophy of Hegel, and then to re-conceive its formal relations and basic constituents in a way more suitable to the achievement of their social and political ambitions. Yet, as their aims differed as wildly as their re-conceptions, the Young Hegelians could produce no consistent school or system of philosophy. Each and all stand in relation to the speculative empire of Hegel as, what Marx once memorably described as, the successor generals (diadochi) of the spirit tearing and rending the corpse of their world-conquering great-king Alexander.

Feuerbach denied the subjectivity of the Absolute to be anything other than the subjectivity of man, and consequently re-centered the Absolute Idea into the mind of man rather than the mind of God. Feuerbach’s anthropocentrism rejected the Schellingian identity between the knowledge of the finite human Ego and the absolute divine Ego, the Berkeleyan subsistence of the universe in the perception of God, and the whole Platonic inheritance of preternatural transcendent forms. The consequence was not only the rejection of the priority of the pure forms of logic to the extended matter of nature but the implicit denial of the very possibility of a science of true philosophy: absolute knowledge requires an absolute knower as the subject which knows the object of truth, just as the truth of the particulars is the universal in which they are altogether united. The rejection of God, Platonic universals, and Logic from the metaphysics of Hegel, viz. the anthropocentric reduction, consequently makes true, universal and scientific knowledge impossible. The Absolute is the truth. To deny that there is truth is just as much to deny that this denial of truth is itself true, which is to affirm, viz. the Law of Excluded Middle, that this denial is false. Thus any denial of the truth self-contradictory. This is the problem of any anthropocentric reduction of absolute truth that relativizes truth to the human mind. Therefore, according to classical logic, Feuerbach cannot affirm an anthropocentrism or naturalism that excludes the Absolute, universals, and logic, without also contradicting himself.

Marx and Engels re-conceived of Hegel’s Absolute as the immanent dynamic self-development of nature which they called dialectical materialism, in opposition to the transcendent spiritualist idealism which they attributed to Hegel. This materalists-idealist juxtaposition reiterates Aristotle’s abstract opposition of form and matter in concrete substance, Spinoza’s two attributes of thought and extension in divine nature (Deus sive Natura), Kant’s division of concepts and intuition in the apperceptive unity of thought, and Schelling’s realism and idealism in the self-identity of the Absolute; for in each case the materialist-idealist juxtaposition seeks to subordinate form to matter, the thought to extension, the concept to the intuition, and the ideal to the real, so as to affirm, against the purportedly mystical spiritualism of Hegel, that dialectical materialism stands upright on the firm metaphysical ground matter. The motivation is to ground an ontologically and epistemological foundation in sensible material reality. Kantian criticism quickly exposes the untenability of this one-sided opposition of foundational matter to epiphenomenal form. What is the essence of matter? How is the essence of matter deduced without dogmatic presuppositions? Where is matter to be sensibly intuited? How is matter without form dialectical? Can the ground of materialism be turtles all the way down? These embarrassing questions soon reveal that dialectical materialism simply subordinates one side of each conceptual dichotomy to the other, to suppress and banish the turtle from the shell, and affirm nature as the armored panoply of certain knowledge. Not only does the promised foundation of material nature prove to be no foundation at all, but materialism poisons philosophy with its essential finitude, closure, and finality. The essence of matter is simply the self-limited and self-subsisting atomic particles of Democritus. No whole can arise from the agglomeration of many merely self-related parts. Neither can any set of formal relations join together totally self-enclosed particles. The consequence of materialism is, then, either a tower of material bricks which reaches to the heavens but crumbles like the Tower of Babel under the weight of its own antinomies, or a spiritualized matter that is indistinguishable from Fichte’s intellective being within Schelling’s identity-philosophy. Fichte’s ideal being for-consciousness that is identical to the reality of the Absolute in-itself is simply the phenomenological movement of what Hegel calls Spirit: where materialism affirms a pre-critical mechanistic relation of static material particles, the Hegelian spirit of properly critical dialectical materialism affirms a dynamic self-particularizing totality of all thought and being in Logic, Nature and Spirit. With the rejection of the mechanistic materialism, viz. the disjunctive inference, Hegelian Spirit is must be affirmed as the very substance becoming subject of the Absolute.

(iii) The (i) systematic and the (ii) metaphysical re-conceptions of the philosophy of Hegel are together united in the (iii) interpretation of Hegelianism as sociology. In this way, the negative re-conceptions of Hegel constitute a sort of negative dialectical triad, in which the dialectical reconciliation of opposites produces a more false and discordant rather than a more true and harmonious concept, in a way reminiscent of the negative dialectic of modern philosophy of subjectivity in Glauben und Wissen (Faith and Knowledge, 1802). The sociological re-conception affirms that the philosophy of Hegel can only be interpreted as the historical development of the self-understanding of society, and denies that any ‘metaphysical’, idealist, or platonizing interpretation is possible. Prof. Terry Pinkard summarizes this interpretative approach in the Successor to Metaphysics: Absolute Idea and Absolute Spirit (Monist, July 1991, Vol. 74, Issue 3). Prof. Pinkard conflates Kant’s term ‘metaphysics’ with the term ‘dogmatism’ and simplistically presumes that all metaphysical reasoning is dogmatic and rejected by post-Kantian idealists. Thus, Pinkard’s non-metaphysical interpretation simply purports  to be critical philosophy without dogmatic assumptions about the reality or structure of being. The conflation of metaphysics with dogmatism leads Pinkard to reject all of the reality of all supra-physical and supersensible entities of theology and logic as the relics of a pre-critical metaphysics of substance. This is the occamist razor which shaves Logic from Pinkard’s sociology of Spirit.

With Feuerbach, Pinkard interprets the philosophy of Hegel from the anthropocentric perspective of a historical human community, and rejects the pure Platonic forms of preternatural and pre-human logic which are posited by God’s seminal reason (rationes seminales, or logoi spermatikoi) rather than man. With Marx and Engels, Pinkard must assume a naturalistic cosmology reminiscent of dialectical materialism. This becomes even clearer when the presuppositions of sociology are investigated: sociology is the logic of human society, which is inter-subjectively constituted by social human actors, who are each themselves either the formal apperceptive unity of transcendental self-consciousness or the empirical composite of material nature; sociology thus methodologically assumes Kantian empiricism; rejects the self-subsistence of the transcendental self-conscious and affirms only empirical and material composition; therefore, sociology reduces to materialism which reduces to absurdity. In this way, the (iii) sociological interpretation inherits the errors of the (i) systematic and the (ii) metaphysical re-conceptions of the philosophy of Hegel: the sociological interpretation dogmatically assumes that (i) society may subsist by itself or through the activity of social actors without any further mediation of society, and (ii) assumes the self-subsistence of society and persons to be supported by the real ground of material nature. However, the (i) unmediated self-subsistent society is merely assumed as a concept of (3) Spirit that floats alone as a postulate of thought wholly indifferent to any mediating conceptual relation to the (1) Logic and (2) Nature, which are the very necessary conditions of its conceptual possibility. Philosophy is for Hegel an absolute and all-encompassing science which cannot tolerate dogmatic postulates of wholly unmediated concepts, any more than the human body can tolerate gangrene infection. The (ii) materialist self-subsistence of society thus equally succumbs to materialist poison of finitude, closure, and finality, which threatens to collapse upon itself as soon as it is erected. The whole edifice is either unsupported and simply postulated, or closed in upon itself like a windowless castle of so many finite material bricks.

In suppressing the pure forms of theology and logic, these interpretations (i, ii & iii) construct a locked and irreformable system. All of the concepts of nature and society are enclosed in finite vessels from which none can interact and none can escape. The castle that was intended to reach to the heavens becomes a god-forsaken dungeon in which, with the messianic yearning of the Jews in exile, mankind ceaselessly awaits an unforeseeable eschatological emancipation. No freedom of the spirit is possible for such an interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel according to the letter of the fixed proposition, in which propositions are understood simply by-themselves as the predicate of a subject and are (i) not mediated within and through the self-particularizing Absolute; (ii) exclude or suppress the pure forms of Logic; and assume an (i) unmediated and (ii) materially subsisting (iii) merely postulated society. Every de-Christianizing interpretation, that intends to unravel the system of Hegel, either returns safely to the harbor of the speculative Absolute Idea or crashes upon the rocks of its own dogmatic presuppositions. The stumbling-block for all of these impious interpretations is what Slavoj Žižek has called the monstrosity of Christ: it is putatively absurd to believe that God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; was crucified; died; and was resurrected. Thus Tertulian confessed “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe because it is absurd”). Christianity seems to be the most absurd religion of all because it absolutely negates itself through the self-negation of the Absolute. However this absolute self-negation is, in the philosophy of Hegel, the very unsurpassed dynamism and spiritual vitality of Christianity. There could be no greater self-negation, and no greater dynamism, than the visible self-annihilation of the God-man in the ‘death of God’ for “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn. 15:13)

Interview with Andrew Kliman

Originally published here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 How theoretically close are Hahnel and I?

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

C.D.V.: What would a leftist code of ethics look like exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.D.V.:What do you see as the weakness in Parecon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.D.V.: Anything that you would like to say in closing?

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

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

Three Questions for Tim Morton on Object Oriented Ontology, Ecology, and Hegelianism

Originally published here. 

Tim Morton is the author of Hyperobjects (U Minnesota P, 2013), Realist Magic (OHP, 2013), The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010), Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007), seven other books and over eighty essays on philosophy, ecology, literature, food and music. He is Rita Shea Guffey Chair of English at Rice University.  He blogs at Ecology without Nature.

C. Derick Varn: What do you think are the immediate practical implications for treating what we currently call “nature” as inter-related biological objects?  Recently, I have seen you post that Graham Harman’s return to Heidegger was important because of the way philosophers like Derrida have used Heidegger.  Why do you think this is important? A few times on your blog, you have been writing the troubles with Hegelianism in Continental. Why do you think Hegelian thinking has been so problematic?

Tim Morton:  First I’ll say some things about Hegel, as Hegelianism is on my mind these days. You know how people become like their dogs? Or vice versa? Something similar happens in philosophy. This is in fact a Hegelian insight: ideas code for people to have them. Phenomenologically speaking you could say that you are attracted like a bee to honey to a certain kind of logical content of an idea. Ideas are somewhat autonomous from the person who thinks them, a little bit like the meme idea. So you are as it were a host for an idea. Different ideas select different hosts.

In my twenty-five years in the academy I’ve made some observations, totally amateur ones, about the kinds of host that ideas select for. One interesting feature seems to be that very often there is a blind spot in the person who becomes the idea-host, a blind spot that has precisely to do with the strange symbiosis between idea and idea-haver. The style of the host reveals something unconscious about the idea parasite.

So for instance, Derrideans (I am one) ca be religious control freaks (an interesting example would be the atheist side of the “radical atheism” debate).

Foucauldians can be power trippers who frequently use pathologization to control groups (discipline and punish!).

Hegelians have a tin ear for how they sound.

This last one is the key to my sense of the issues with Hegel, and this is the irony. It was Hegel who after all gave us this magnificent idea, and I think it’s a true idea, about ideas and their hosts. The very people who most fervently endorse Hegel are quite tone deaf when it comes to issues of “subject position” (in Althusserian) or “style” (in phenomenologese). They are deaf to their guy’s big discovery. I find this irony not accidental. Let me explain what I mean.

This feature—of how ideas select their hosts—is not extrinsic to philosophy, to the content of what is said. Indeed, as Hegel himself argues, quite brilliantly, it’s part and parcel of it. There is a symbiotic relationship between idea and host.

How do Hegelians sound?

If you are not a Hegelian, this is how they sound, sometimes. It is as if someone has hidden a little ball under one of three cups, and is asking you to guess which one. They already know where the ball is.

That’s the opening move. But then it goes on. There is a certain way of turning over the cups. A certain procedure must be followed, even though you are supposed not to know where the ball is. The ball hider (the Hegelian) himself (and I’m going to say “himself” as I associate this style with a certain masculinity), the ball hider also goes through the motions, like a parent with an infant: “Is it under here? Noooo….Is it under here? Noooo…aha! Here it is!”

It is as if the rules of the game are to hide the rules of the game, yet to reveal that they have been hidden. It is also as if there is a pre-programmed suspense as we build from (say) sense-certainty to the final glorious self-unfolding of the Absolute.

When I pointed this out, in particular about the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, I was immediately policed by a Hegelian online, in the following rather revealing terms. “He [underline he] who has made this remark has fallen at the first hurdle.” Tin ear, you see? Because he (the policeman, emphasis on man) has admitted that it is a game with a pre-programmed outcome. And that winning the game means becoming a Hegelian.

A journey with a known destination: like a Romantic piano sonata, in two ways. First you always return to home base (the tonic) no matter how much modulation happens: the adventure is to get really far out and then to return, like Shiva recognizing himself after an aeon of being everything else in the universe (to put it in provocatively orientalist terms that Hegel is allergic to). Secondly, because of equal temperament, your journey always occurs in a world of brown.

Equal temperament is the way to tune piano strings (and hence, in piano-centric modernity, all other instruments), slightly fudging the harmonic ratios between them to enable maximum journey possibilities. If you don’t do that, you end up with “wolf tones” (interesting use of a nonhuman, even threatening, “wild” animal) that sound like interference patterns between notes. Of course these wolf tones are quite lovely in their own right, but equal temperament bans them in advance in order to initiate the hide and seek journey.

The story of Western “classical” music since the advent of the Anthropocene, from Beethoven to Schoenberg to La Monte Young, has been the story of the gradual liberation of the piano from having to tell human emotional narratives in a pre-programmed sepia world. A rather object-oriented story if you like.

When you drop the human storyline, what you end up with quite quickly, in the move from Cage to Young, are drones and pure sine wave tones, whole number tuning called Just Intonation, and an emphasis on timbre (the physicality of a sound) rather than melody. What you end up with, in Hegelian, is the disturbing “narcissism” of A=A, the night in which all cows are black (both Hegelian terms as you know). What you end up with, in other words, is a moment at which the search for the Absolute has not even begun.

A=A is the nadir of “not getting it,” of “falling at the first hurdle”—or of not even trying to jump over the hurdle. Of simply sitting down and “occupying” the racetrack as it were, staging a sit in against this stupid pre-programmed race. It is labeled as “narcissism,” for instance in Žižek’s attacks on Buddhism, and I find narcissism to be the label of choice of the young Hegelians who are out in some force online at present. Hegel dismisses A=A as a parasite that finds a host in a primitive form of consciousness that he calls Buddhism.

The (wounded) narcissist tends to accuse the other of narcissism precisely insofar as he is disturbed by a loop whose echo he finds within himself. Thus while Foucauldians can be power trippers, Hegelians can be narcissistically deaf to how they sound in the ears of the other. And a symptom of this is their overuse of the term narcissistic to describe opposing views. This overuse is a symptom of the necessity of the dialectic to disavow A=A, to discover that A=A, like a little ball under a certain cup, is always already caught in the dialectic that will propel the story forwards to the self-realization of the Absolute. A=A is thus both inside and outside of Hegelian thought, a parasite that does not sit well in its Hegelian host.

What in A=A is Hegel afraid of, if we think like Freud for a moment that all philosophies are forms of paranoia, attempts to explain the world to defend against—what? A gap, a void, precisely the Kantian gap between phenomenon and thing. The basic Hegelian move against this gap is to assert that since I can think this gap, there is no gap.

OOO disturbs the Hegelian for two reasons, then. First OOO returns to the Kantian gap, as if Hegel had never mattered. The idealist solution to the Kantian gap is claimed to be false. Secondly, and this is more damaging to the Hegelian “narcissism,” the gap is located precisely in a thing, as the existence of a thing as such, without “my” (human) subject–world gap to make the thing real—or indeed anything else, since objects are ontologically prior to relations. Thus A (a thing) just is A: A=A. This “location-in-the-thing” bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hegelian discovery of its dialectic in the thing, but with a crucial difference, which is precisely that the rules of the game are not decided in advance as idealist rules that make knowing the gap more real than A=A itself.

This is the quintessence of the OOO move. To return to A=A, to occupy that position, as it were, is to have exposed Hegelianism for what it is: a pre-programmed ruse that knows in advance that A=A must be disavowed/sublated, and the exact procedures of that disavowal/sublation. It goes without saying that this is caught up in a certain resistance to anarchism, which is why I use the term occupy.

The phenomenon–thing gap is not absolutely nothing at all—it is more like what is called nothingness, a meontic nothing as Tillich says. This is the real fear of the Hegelian, which is a fear of a weird presence in and as nothingness. The phrase A=A contains something. “Equals A” is something that happens to “A,” as it were. There is a slight distortion or movement of trace within that very formula, a happening of something. (Derrida has written on this with reference to Hegel explicitly.) A=A has something of the flavor of “This sentence is false” (the Liar). A contradiction that is already present, that turns the sentence into a strange loop or spectral, plasmic entity. Again, this differs from the Hegelian contradiction in the thing, insofar as I do not know in advance that A=A is simply an opaque blindness in me to this contradiction, but rather that A=A is already contradiction, or rather a double-truth (dialetheia), both true and false simultaneously. This is what the Hegelian narrative forecloses.

A night in which all cows are black still has cows, if we take the image as hiding in plain sight something on its own face—it’s not absolutely nothing at all. There are these cows everywhere, these ungraspable cows. It’s a universe of entities—I can think them, but I cannot directly perceive them, yet they are (physically) real: the Kantian universe where there are raindrops that are raindroppy, I can think them, they are not popsicles, but I can’t access the things in themselves. Which is also the OOO universe, in an expanded sense—to get from Kant to OOO all I do is repudiate the copyright control the (human) subject has on the phenomenon–thing gap and allow it to exist everywhere. So that there is a cow–night gap, a cow horn–cow gap, a cow stomach–cow tail gap, and so on. Even an A–A gap, or a cow–cow gap.

To exist is to be ever so slightly different from yourself, which is the secret of “narcissism”—autoaffection in the end is equal to heteroaffection. The most phobic image of A=A in Hegel is a Hindu image that he takes to be an image of Buddha “in the thinking posture” (as he puts it): baby Krishna inserting a toe into his mouth and sucking it, wondering why it tastes so sweet (Krishna Narayan). Hegel calls this “withdrawal into self,” a phrase with a contemporary and uncanny resonance with OOO: to exist for OOO is indeed to be withdrawn-into-oneself (Entzug). And Buddhism is the religion of this “being-within-self” (Insichsein).

Thus anything that looks like self-pleasuring is suspect for Žižek. So it is better to have an empty ritual than one suffused with (the wrong kind of) meaning, because that would betray something “narcissistic” about that meaning. New Agers are to be roundly condemned. This assault on autoaffection has so spooked actual Buddhists that it is common to defend oneself against it: “I am a Buddhist but I’m not one of those New Age Western Buddhists.” Thus a robust defense of Buddhist against Hegelianism must start with a shameless occupying of the dreaded narcissistic position.

There are numerous positions within post-Hegelian Western philosophy that can be used in this deployment. For instance, consider Zarathustra’s “Love your neighbor as yourselves, but first be such as love yourselves,” which sounds like it comes straight out of a Buddhist manual on what is called maitri, or even “worse,” from a self-help book. Then there is Derrida:

 Narcissism! There is not narcissism and non-narcissism; there are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended. What is called non-narcissism is in general but the economy of a much more welcoming, hospitable narcissism, one that is much more open to the experience of the other as other. I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutedly destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance.   (“There Is No One Narcissism”)

A fear of nothingness that is precisely the fear of an uncanny presence, a presence that is the starting position of Hegelianism itself, A=A. A presence that is me but I disavow it, “destroy [it] in advance” (Derrida). There is something homophobic about Hegel’s deployment of the image of Krishna sucking his toe. He goes on to deplore the fact that lamas (Tibetan incarnate teachers) are brought up in a feminine passive way. It is as if what is being warded off is that phobic sequence popular in nineteenth century sexology and diet: narcissism >> masturbation >> excess energy >> more masturbation >> homosexuality. This is why Cornflakes was invented. Young boys who eat too much meat are prone to an excess of psychic energy which results in this pathologized narcissistic loop.

I object to Hegelians because they think I am a narcissistic cocksucker, and because they claim this is bad, and because they claim that they are not. The ecological project—namely the transition to a genuinely post-modern age—depends very much on our admission that we are all narcissistic cocksuckers.

This helps me to answer the other questions. Let’s consider Harman’s turn to Heidegger in spite of, or around, or underneath (or whatever) Derrida. That has to do on the one hand with the idea that nothingness is not just a feature of sentences. And it also has to do with an intimacy with objects, an intimacy that Heidegger calls the “ready-to-hand.” Here I will simply quote the wing mirror of your car, which is an object-oriented ontologist: “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.” It is this closeness that makes them impossible to grasp, an intimacy, not a distance, a distance that must only be a feature of some kind of aestheticizing technology of framing. For Heidegger, this distancing is already at work in Plato’s Idea, but for OOO, it is also in pre-Socratic materialisms that seek to reduce the inherent inconsistency of things by positing some kind of thing (such as measurement for Protagoras or the flux for Heraclitus) as more real than other things.

Since here we reach a terminus of Western philosophy, it isn’t surprising that Harman has reached out to nonwestern ones such as are found in Islam and Buddhism. Foucault: “it is the end of the era of Western philosophy. Thus if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe.” This is in marked contrast with Laruelle, who without reflection repeats the basic Hegelian gesture of recounting the history of philosophy as the story of (white) Western philosophy.

I see the OOO intimacy with nothingness—the ungraspability of the thing—as part of a transition through and under nihilism, which Heidegger started, and which deconstruction continues, and which I believe OOO begins to complete. The post-modern ecological age is an age that will have transitioned through nihilism. My objection to eliminative forms of realism is not that they are nihilistic, but that they are not nihilistic enough. They are not nihilistic enough because they disavow the intimacy of things, an intimacy that is not based on constant presence (metaphysics of presence) but that is precisely ungraspable as such.

Now I can answer the first question. I take ecology to be the thinking and practice of this intimacy, the intimacy your car tells you about on a regular basis. Nature is an “object in mirror,” as it were, that is taken to be over yonder, underneath me, in my cells or in my atoms, “over there” in the wilderness. To riff on the wing mirror statement, Nature appears to be “as far as away as it appears” to the human.

Nature is in this sense the opposite of ecology, and it is not accidental that the modern concept Nature is born at the inception of the Anthropocene, as a kind of “schizophrenic defense” against the actual direct intervention in Earth’s crust by humans. A fantasy that prevents us from seeing how we are always caught in things, even as (and ironically especially when) we feel as if we have achieved escape velocity from them, like Oedipus fleeing his supposed Corinthian father.

Rice University

C. Derick Varn interviews Joe Pulver Sr.

Originally published here. 

Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.  is an author,  editor, and poet, who general works within the horror fiction, noir fiction / hardboiled, and dark fantasy genres. He lives in Germany.

C. Derick Varn: You recently edited A Season in Carcosa and have written many, many prose poems and short stories based on the The King In Yellow, what specifically about Chamber’s four tales gets to you so profoundly?

Joe Pulver: Before I encountered Chambers as a teen, Bloch and Poe set me up for madness, madness, and madness, and what’s behind the mask. Montessor and the narrator in “A Tell-tale Heart” (‘smiling faces sometimes pretend’), and Jack the Ripper must have appeared normal to those around them. Norman Bates, Ed Gein, these monsters are among us and they look and act just like we do, or nearly so. That’s scary as hell to me. So Chambers comes along and taps the 16-year-old kid on the shoulder with his masks and madness and it bites deep. Add, the madness comes from the KIY play itself. The power of words to transform your reality, can anything be more appealing than that? Not to me.

Next add the mystery of Carcosa. Is it a true alternate reality? And there’s the mystery in the play. We get bits and pieces, clues, but what’s really going on? Now we have elements that are not resolved and they cling to us and we are compelled think about them. That’s what hooked me so deep, or the largest chunk.

C.D.V.: You have also stated in many places that you see the The King in Yellow as entirely outside of the Cthulhu Mythos. What specifically do you see separating Carcosa out?

J.P.: HPL tipped his hat to Chambers by including mentions of the King in Yellow and the pallid mask, etc., in a text or two, but he never concretely wove them into the Mythos he was slowly creating. Robert M. Price makes a good case for HPL and his use in “The Whisperer in Darkness”, but taking Chambers work in that direction holds no appeal for me. When Derlerth came along and incorporated Chambers creations wholesale into the Mythos he had in mind, I completely turned away.

The Mythos is too-well defined and I want my Carcosa and KIY to remain mysterious. And Derleth wants the work of Chambers to be just another item for inclusion, a mere twig in the nest, or a moon circling the Mythos, not a thing/sun unto itself. As part of that whole, the KIY loses a great deal of its allure, and is lessened for this reader. Bottom line, Chambers creations are about FELT and wondered about, not explanation.

C.D.V.: What do you make of Chamber’s own intertextual relationship with Ambrose Bierce?

J.P.: If intertextuality is ‘in the eye of the beholder’, and to me, it is, Bierce, in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and “Haïta the Sheppard”, is the keystone of Chambers creation. The dead city of Carcosa, immortal but dead, becomes a dim and melancholy alternate reality and would not have been born in the work of RWC without Bierce’s fingerposts. And Bierce’s ghost narrator becomes a character (in Chambers’ hands contaminated and transformed by the Yellow Sign, or by reading or viewing the cancerous play) trapped in deliriums of nihil and ennui, haunting beauty, and eerie torments, and thus is doomed to enter the ‘dim’ realm of Carcosa and become, dim and thin, a ghost as well.

In Bierce’s “Haïta the Sheppard” we have Hastur as a name and the idea of life as a pasture doomed to “change to silence and decay”. Again, our narrator is doomed and sentenced to silence and decay as well.

Atop this base, RWC blends in Poe, the influence of the French Decadents, and to a degree, the disquieting transfigurations of the Symbolists, to build his haunted and eerie reality.

C.D.V.: In my mind, I find you to be a very poetic, almost lyric writer. What poetry particularly moves you and do you think writers of weird tales would do well to read more poetry?

J.P.: Depending on mood, all kinds, but generally free verse, post-modern, and hybrid work. Alice Fulton, Larissa Szporluk, and Susan Stewart are among my long list of favorites. My gods are E. E. Cummings and Lamantia. I also have a rather large interest in 20th Century French poetry. On my poetry shelves there are two poetic bibles – E. E. Cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962 (edited by George Firmage) and World Poetry (edited by Washburn, Major, and Fadiman; Norton 1998).

All writers should be reading poetry, it’s a significant, if not fundamental, instrument in a writer’s toolbox, and yes, for all the obvious reasons, weird fiction writers would do well to read as much poetry as they can get their paws on. Look at the work of Theodora Goss, Ann K. Schwader, and Catherynne Valente (to name but a few!), and you’ll see what poetry can bring to the page in the hands of a gifted writer.

C.D.V.: What do you think of Fulton’s fractal politics? Do you think that idea of mutation is applicable to genre fiction?

J.P.: I have read an article or two on the subject, but haven’t read Fulton’s book, so I can’t comment in depth. When it comes to examinations of the whys and turns of aesthetics and academic investigation, I’m a bumpkin – in part, by choice.

I’m one who loves the magic trick, but doesn’t want to know how it’s done. I don’t watch the “how they made the film” bonus features on DVDs, as I’m afraid too “much behind the scenes” will spoil the work itself for me. Parts of that come from being a poor student, and parts from Jack Kirby. Some would say Kirby’s work is not humanly correct, and that may be accurate in one sense, but its FELT is perfect and as a vehicle for storytelling (in its own universe) it doesn’t need to be explained or dissected. For me, everything the reader needs in on the page. I want to “know” as much as I need to understand the work, but I don’t want to take it apart and see the guts.

Genre fiction has been mutating for a long time, perhaps since day one, and as the lines blur and the barriers crumble, I hope we can leave behind the tags and put-downs and let all fiction be what it is, fiction.

C.D.V.: What do you make of the recent attempt by writer’s like Michael Chabon to make genre fiction more accessible?

J.P.: “Entertainment . . . means junk.” Those who slap us w/ that can go jam a hot poker up their backsides. Last I heard, folks like Willie the Bard and Beckett (and let’s add that LOLITA tome, or Steppenwolf—or  Moby-dick) have had some lasting entertainment value. Lots of entertainment in Twain, Hugo, London, and Shelly’s Frankenstein. Simple fact is, good fiction/work is good fiction/work, and bad is bad. And some form of POP up-in-it does not demean it either.

We don’t need Chabon to save us. Look at Kiernan, or any one of a number of writers—many who have been around for years—decades, tagging them as this or that is wrong, if not criminal. CRK’s The Red Tree is a great piece of “Literature” and it’s through the power and magic of works like hers that the barriers will collapse. 100 years from now these critical put downs—that’s a red-headed stepchild, will not be worth a rat’s backend. Just look at Cisco!
Tags are handy for bookstores, libraries, and critics, not to judge the merit of a work!! !

C.D.V.: Do you think the weird tale has any necessary philosophical implications?

J.P.: Necessary? No more or less than any other stripe of fiction.

C.D.V.: What do you think are common traps for those who work with pre-established cannons like the Lovecraftian mythos?

J.P.: Top of the pops, to me, are —

Primarily, not thinking outside the box and spitting out more of the same. If you want to, or need to, use the contents of the box, repackage it, do something adventuresome with it—that’s why you have a voice. Having a new idea that fits the menu is great, and I’m all for it, but perhaps it might be better served on different dinnerware, say something “you” crafted?

Trying to write “just” like the source writer is another. Could be a gas if you nail it, once.

A canon can be a crutch; tons of fun, but a crutch that can limit or hobble your range of mobility nonetheless. You walk in the shoes of someone else for too long you might forget who “you” are. Readers, or at least this one, want ideas, craft, and VOICE—yours. I already know HPL’s, what’s yours?

Look at the masters, say, Kiernan, and Barron, and Cisco, to name but a few in the current sea of mighty talent, see how (and what) they create from canonical source material when they use it. There are a lot of miles left on HPL, and Frankenstein, and maybe even vampires, but that’s up to your vision and talent to do it right.

C.D.V.: What do you see as the philosophical concerns that are most important in your own writing?

J.P.: Never stopped to think about it. Off the top of my head —
1) What is death, the ‘black vast’? Why do we look and what do we learn/discover/see if we do and live to tell the tale?

2) Truth. Who owns it? Is it good for us? Is there any in a mouthful of lies?

3) Is there a possibility of transformation and/or salvation in this dance? All you need is love—really? Will it give you wings or be a net when you’re on the heights of despair?

4) Are we up against chance and our own necessity, or fate? Are we pawns, captains, or merely grains of sand, swept and raked by forces beyond our understanding.

C.D.V.: I have read that you try to approach each story almost as a poem as in it is self-contained and its voice must modulate greatly from one individual work to another. Do you find that maintaining such a varied voice requires any special attention? Do you have to fight slipping into a consistent voice?

J.P.: For the most part, yes, every text is its own self-contained work and each one tells me what its voice is. Perhaps the best example of this might be, I have 3 tales that feature Pulver and Dylan as characters out wandering the world, yet the voice in each text is different. In the triptych we see the pair in different eras, settings (the American desert, Carcosa, etc.). To my mind these are chapters, completely separate events, yet part of one life cycle.

When you get up tomorrow you’ll shower and put on new clothes—perhaps they’re a new style, you’re you, but you might look different, maybe act differently due to any number of reasons, so my characters get a new voice for each new event, journey. Your mom dies, your heart’s lexicon changes, expands, you grow up in a one-horse dorp and move to NYC to attend college, you get adjusted/remade/added to. Same core you, but remade/remodeled. Same in my work, they change, their voice changes.

The voices come easy. Most often, the first sentence (or the last, I often begin w/ the last sentence or paragraph), or the character’s name tells me everything I need to know. After that, it’s just me up on the bridge with my horn, typing as fast as I can with two fingers, hoping I get it all down before I lose it.

C.D.V.: You have been publishing actively for well over a decade now, but you have only finished two novels. Are you particularly attracted to the short form? What does short form work demand of you?

J.P.: I’ve drifted where the cards carried me. There would have been more novels had things played out in a different manner. I worked on two novels (one featuring Ziggy Stardust as the main character and one featuring Spawn) while trying to obtain permission, but they were scraped when I knocked on locked doors. Tossed out two more (80, 90 pages in) as I lost interest in the ideas.

In the beginning I had little interest in the short form. Reading DUNELOTRMoby-Dick, and Gormengast, at 13/14 or so, made me long for fat books, rich worlds with lots of characters, and at a younger age, MARVEL Comics helped to instill this with their long/continuing storylines and interwoven universe. I viewed things like Conan, John Carter, Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, Vance’s Dying Earth, Holmes, as episodic chapters of a whole. I was also hooked on Doc Savage, SF, and crime novels back then, so novels (and series that I read as if they were novels) became my go to pleasures.

There were certainly short works I loved—some as vital as any thing I’ve ever read (Chambers’ “The Yellow Sign”, Bloch’s “A Toy for Juliette”, Poe’s “ACoA”), but I was a dog hunting new novels and shorts were just quick pit stops.

When my first novel came out and received a less than friendly review or two I stopped writing for two+ years. A few friends kept pushing, gently, until I returned. A couple of the reviews said the novel was at least 50 pages to long and I should learn to “shut up”. So when I came back to writing, I wrote short, thinking, hoping the darts might be softer.

As I continued to write short, my writing opened up (due in part to my friendship with Cisco and his influence) and a few things from my early reading became important to me. Poetry, not just what it says, but how it says it visually, and Jack Kirby (and to a slightly lesser degree, Last Exit To Brooklyn and Cohen’s Beautiful Losers). All use the page as a canvas for their style of storytelling and I began to look at the page in the same manner. As I can’t use color and I’m not an artist, the page’s “white space”, fonts, and punctuation, must speak for the tools I lack. With some luck, even a simple text like the following, gains an underlying tension due to its use of the page as a canvas.




The howling sun, far from this place with no hope for tomorrow, running with things that fear what the cold moon brings.

Captain Jack sits on his front porch. Shotgun on his lap.

Coffee gone cold.


Waiting for The Thing That Sails On Tears.

The Black Goat.

Sat there every night this summer. Staring at the blackness. Listening to the sound of the empty road.

A yard without children’s toys.

Without flowers.

The withered dreams gone, over some rainbow.

Captain Jack didn’t follow.

His wife followed the lullaby into a dream. Something soft and quiet he hoped. Tried to tell himself.


Tried to penetrate it, like it was a year or a river.

Over and


Three years of nights. Centuries of days. No sleep. No solitude. Rain and winter and dust were his bread.

Tried to get under the skin of that stone.

The look in his eye said he wasn’t convincing.

What the character wants to say, and how the text I’m writing wants to speak/unwind/stroll on the page are the only demands I listen to these days.

I should also say, after having 3 collections of short works released, and one in the oven for 2013, I’ve grown very fond the short form as a way to express things/ideas/tales I don’t believe would translate into a novel-length work.

C.D.V.: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

J.P.: Thanks for asking me to do this, Derick. It was fun.

Interview with Anthony Paul Smith on Francois Laruelle

Originally published here. 

Anthony Paul Smith is a scholar and blogger for An und für sich. He came to my attention by a web seminar I “attended” on the philosophy of Francois Laruelle and non-philosophy which I attended.   I have since read his translations of Principles of Non-Philosophy (with  Nicola Rubczak)  and Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy both out with Continuum. While still trying to wrap by head around the implications of Laruelle, I also wondered why Laruelle has taken so long to catch on compared to many of his contemporaries like Badiou, Derrida, and Deleuze. 

C.Derick Varn:  Why do you think Laruelle has been slow to be introduced to the anglophone world?

Anthony Paul Smith:  Regarding your first question, I taught at DePaul University as an adjunct for a year bouncing between the departments of Religious Studies, Environmental Studies, and Philosophy. During that year Alan D. Schrift came and presented a paper to the philosophy department. You may know that he’s editing a pretty comprehensive history of Continental philosophy and I jokingly asked him about why he hadn’t included Laruelle in his history. After explaining that he didn’t really know anyone who worked on him, it didn’t come to mind and whatever, he did tell me that he thought Laruelle was one of those figures who just fell through the cracks. If things had gone a little differently, he said, or someone had picked up a text to translate in the 70s or 80s, who knows if he would have been picked up. I didn’t get the impression he particularly liked Laruelle or anything, but he did bring out for me the contingency of these sorts of things. I mean, there are lots of brilliant thinkers in the world and some of them are exceedingly smart. But in the same way we pass homeless people and think that there is some perfectly good reason why that’s him and not me, I think as readers of philosophy we just assume that there is a really good reason we all keep talking about Derrida or Deleuze or Badiou or even Meillassoux now (just to stick with some sort of contemporary names). So that is clearly part of it, just an accident of history. At the same time his work and the language he uses to express it are difficult and I think this has put off a number of potential translators. I always wondered why Ray Brassier, for example, never translated one of his works, even one of the shorter ones, considering his own skills in that area. But he has tended to go with relatively more straight forward writers like Badiou and Meillassoux. But that’s the real issue — the lack of anything of his to read unless you’re willing to track down the French and work through it in a language unfamiliar to most Anglophone readers.

C.D.V.:  Do you think Laruelle’s linkage to Ray Brassier’s work and also to Badiou has limited his reading in the US and Europe?

A.P.S.:  As for Laruelle being linked to Brassier’s work, I don’t know if it has limited his reading. Brassier really was the first person to advocate for him in his Radical Philosophy article. At the same time, I think that Brassier’s own development (which is ongoing as far as I understand) did really color how many younger readers ended up reading him. There was a certain assumption, since many of them weren’t reading the primary sources I don’t think, that Laruelle shared Brassier’s antipathy for the human, for religion, for meaning, even for a vision of science that isn’t itself colored by a certain grimness and darkness. I think with Laruelle’s own texts starting to finally be available in English this is starting to fade away, which means many of those first-generation of readers have moved on from Laruelle finding his work concerned with issues they are not. But, I think we are seeing new readers, many coming from the arts, and I’m looking forward to conversations that do build off of Laruelle’s actual work rather than Brassier’s. I should say, I think Brassier was always quite clear that he had found something  useful in Laruelle, that he wasn’t just explicating him. And I think we see some of the harshest criticism of Laruelle, if respectful, in the chapter of Nihil Unbound where Brassier deals with him.

C.D.V.:    What brought you to nonphilosophy as a methodological way of dealing with intellectual problems?

A.P.S.:  I came to Laruelle pretty much by accident, as we usually do with these sorts of things. I had moved to the UK to study with Philip Goodchild at the University of Nottingham and during my MA year was focused on questions of immanence and transcendence in both philosophy and religion. While there I was part of a class with the traditionalist theologian John Milbank. Well, it wasn’t really a class, John isn’t known for really teaching material, but instead what he would do was pick a few books that were coming out that the wanted to read and we’d read them and discuss them. One of those books was John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophyand though Milbank basically encouraged his students to rip apart the book based on its advocacy of philosophies of immanence, I somehow managed to actually read the book! The way Mullarkey described Laruelle’s project suggested that Laruelle may have resources that would be helpful for me as I thought through these questions of immanence and transcendence.

Still, I didn’t finally read him until about a year later in June 2008, during the first year of my PhD studies, when after a particularly bad time at Nottingham (I had run afoul of the traditionalists there) I felt I had to escape for my own sanity for a bit. I had a friend who had an apartment in Paris so I bought a return bus ticket and went there for a week or so. I went to the Gilbert Jeune near Place St. Michel and bought Le Christ futur and Principes de la non-philosophie/ I read Le Christ futur on the bus ride back to England and it opened up a different way of doing philosophy of religion. I talk about this at more length in a chapter in the edited volume After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, but in short I saw a way for philosophy to happen using religious materials in a way that I thought was protected from theological capture, like you find in most contemporary French phenomenologists popular in Anglophone literature (Marion, Henry, Ricoeur, but others as well).

My PhD, though, was always going to be on the question of nature from a perspective that brought together the philosophical, theological, and ecological. Laruelle’s work was a model for me of how that could look. A kind of radical disrespect for the normal disciplinary boundaries, but wrapped in a very rigorous framework that helped me not to simply write “my philosophy” as if I was some kind of crank. Instead of looking at the question of nature, say, in ecology and wondering how these ideas are philosophically determined or how philosophy could shore up an ethics for ecology, I instead could begin with the idea that ecology thinks and it thinks in a way that is, yes, influenced by philosophy, but also outside of philosophy. I then worked to bring together what is traditionally thought about nature and what is found in contemporary scientific ecology into a single kind of philo-fiction of nature. An idea of nature that is philosophically rigorous, but also amenable (but not servile) to contemporary ecological projects. This isn’t a new kind of project, but I think that Laruelle’s non-philosophy gives us a far more robust and rigorous thinking through of the methodology underlying a project like that.

C.D.V.:   What do you see as primary limitations to the development of Non-philosophy in the English speaking world?

A.P.S.:  I think the primary limitation to the development of non-philosophy has been the lack of primary source material for English-language readers. I think that’s going to change now that so many of his works are being translated. But I’ve never thought that Laruelle was “the next big thing”. In part because his work is very abstract and difficult, but also because the sorts of institutions that support that kind of work are shrinking. It is difficult for me to see working non-philosophically landing someone an academic post, of Laruelle’s works fitting within the ways philosophy survives in the academia as the guardians of ethics subject to the whims of the business school or medical school.

C.D.V.:    You recently taught an online seminar on Laruelle how do you think that has gone?

A.P.S.:   As for the seminar, I think it started off going well, but I was surprised by how different the performative element of teaching this way is from classroom teaching. There is no “energy” to build off of, you can’t be interrupted with a clarifying question, etc. I also underestimated how busy I would be and how far along the technology is. The internet still doesn’t handle large videos very well and so when the seminar began I was traveling around the UK lecturing and finishing up the co-translation of Principles with Nicola Rubczak. And the speed was always too slow to get the videos up. I do think this is an area para-academics should consider developing though. It brought together people who were interested in Laruelle’s work in a way that a traditional academic environment never would be able to.

C.D.V.:    Is there a particular book that you think will have a particularly dramatic reception in the Anglophone world?

A.P.S.:   In terms of Laruelle’s own texts, his Principles is an incredibly rich but difficult text. I think it will reward reading for people looking for a way to think how to do thought in a way that brings together philosophy and science (or any other material outside of philosophy proper). But owing to the difficulty of that book, which may require a bit of a guide, I think two other texts are going to be really important for people’s engagement with Laruelle’s work in the Anglophone world: Anti-Badiou and Photo-Fiction, A Non-Standard Aesthetics. The first, translated by Robin Mackay, is a kind of fun polemic. Laruelle often performs his non-philosophical mutations of standard philosophy by taking on another philosopher’s style (I think, for instance, Principles is written very much in the style of Husserl and that makes sense given its mutation of phenomenology). In Anti-Badiou Laruelle takes on Badiou’s own polemical voice and uses it against him, which makes both for a fun read, but also a good way to understand Laruelle’s project in relation to one that is more familiar to readers of French philosophy today. Then  Photo-Fiction, translated by Drew S. Burk and published in a bilingual edition by Univocal Publishing in Minneapolis, is a short but powerful recasting of his ideas related to art in the light of his most recent work on quantum theory and an ethics of insurrection (a rather anti-Badiouian notion!). I’m currently in Minneapolis where Laruelle is speaking to an arts organizations and at the University of Minnesota and I have been really happy to see how interested the artists have been and how they also seem to understand the shape of the project. But, both of these texts have a certain energy to them that I think people will pick up on and want to run with.

C.D.V.:    What are do you think the internet will bring as far as prospects for more radical philosophy?

A.P.S.:    In some ways I am a dinosaur when it comes to the internet. For me, it has always just been a way to fold space so that I could communicate with people I am very far from and do it must faster than sending letters. I think there are people who are more clued into the technology, its limitations as well as what it allows us to do, who may have a better idea of what new avenues of thought will be opened for us. My hope is that it continues to allow for a truly global network of communication between people from various backgrounds who are working on similar projects. Blogs, it seems, have mostly run their course in the philosophy world, and I mostly use my occasional writings at AUFS for book reviews and to let people know about events. What the new form of sharing theory will be is not yet clear to me, but there has been a certain lack of dynamic discussion online since everyone has closed down their comments or have begun to police them in ways that seem counter-productive and more about creating an in-crowd for this strand of thought or that. Whatever happens next needs to resist that.

C.D.V.:    Anything you’d like to say in closing?

A.P.S.:    In closing, I just want to say thank you. I hope people start to see what Laruelle’s work has to offer our projects. Not as a new master, but as someone whose framework can be redeployed in various ways to productive ends.