Useful Idiots aren’t just Stupid
There are all varies of useful of idiots in life: left, liberal, right, center, libertarian, fascist, Maoist, Trotskyist, anarchist, syndicalist, neo-conservative, Republican, Democratic, etc. I can watch a Republican denounce DPRK or a “internet” Maoist defend it with tu quo que fallacies and a list of questionable counter-statistics. The reality of the DPRK is hard to speak-on, but it is a various reality given the way North Korea was used as a cold war prop, the various cultural trends exploited within it, and economic development in East Asia. Turning on Facebook on any day can lead me to watch people who attacked Bush in my 20s, deservedly, now dissembling or even defending Obama’s drone strikes. Or the many times I have seen a libertarian be fundamentally delusional about the relationship and establishment of property holding on to a Lockean myth of which there is literally no evidence. One of the fascinating things about the way ideas have developed in post-industrial and neo-liberal capitalism is that there are these ideas of political systems… they can be manifested and defended and made apologias for without existing societies to support them coherently or methods of material change to bring them about. Even mainstream political ideologies are so riddled with contradictions from the various interests they must maintain that they are not, in reality, particularly achievable. One can assume the various pundits don’t believe what they say, but I don’t think that is what is going on. This is all in the world of words, in the realm of ideology. If ideologies changed the world or just reflect them becomes harder and harder to parse.
The Weird and the Rational
“Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity.” ― Ray Brassier
“Nothing Matters” – the motto of Ambrose Bierce
“I am a nihilist because I still believe in truth…” – Ray Brassier
“This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. Whatever may be really “out there” cannot project itself as an affective experience. It is all a vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige. Nothing is either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, or anything else except that it is made so by laboratories inside us producing the emotions on which we live. And to live on our emotions is to live arbitrarily, inaccurately—imparting meaning to what has none of its own. Yet what other way is there to live? Without the ever-clanking machinery of emotion, everything would come to a standstill. There would be nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no one to know. The alternatives are clear: to live falsely as pawns of affect, or to live factually as depressives, or as individuals who know what is known to the depressive. How advantageous that we are not coerced into choosing one or the other, neither choice being excellent. One look at human existence is proof enough that our species will not be released from the stranglehold of emotionalism that anchors it to hallucinations. That may be no way to live, but to opt for depression would be to opt out of existence as we consciously know it.” ― Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
For a while I have been battling what some would call Left melancholia and others would call a mugging by reality, but perhaps I would prefer to see it as a tragic unveiling. Tragic in the sense that as a philosophical and ideological project that I would have called Marxism, I have felt a drift in my understanding of the term for a long while now. Too many reifications masking as spectres to haunt god knows what. But then again, what does God know.
I have been increasingly unable to move past simple moral answers lately as so much discussion seems to be on emotive reaction level. To get past this and try to see things clearly, some of trains of though have been increasingly nihilistic and eliminative to look at the structures and reasons that create the situation we are in but that gives little consolation in regards to morality. It’s not that there can ever be a reason devolve of emotive logic, as all reasoning is reasoning for something. The more problematic thing is to get one actually wants, one must look at the world as it is, not as one would like it. This involves increasingly cutting away from the emotional self-privileging, and even to a great extent, deliberating embracing objectivity not as a goal of pure reason, but as a way to to embrace want. Yet in doing so, in eliminating such ideological structures, one finds that one is eliminating the very scaffolding that supports the efface of value.
I have opposed modernity and the children of the Enlightenment–to use a rather grandiose phrase–to understand and embrace it’s disenchantment. Embracing the Enlightenment now would put one at odds with those humanists who see themselves as its children, and the increasingly contradictory forms of liberalism which they have produced. The philosopher Ray Brassier points out that to follow the implications of the Enlightenment to their conclusions, one would have to be more anti-humanist than even the flippancy of the post-modernists could muster against modernist humanism. In other words, if you eliminate religious thinking entirely you also eliminate most valuations that favor any notions of things like rights or human dignity. This larger inconsistency seems to be problematic for us now, and leaves many without the strength to offer of even an consistent, if arbitrary, criterion for judgment.
This lack of a willingness to commit to a consistent impulse even if it a purely emotional one is a way not to self-overcome, and if I am interested in a change in the current not being able to overcome the self does not leave much hope anything like a “revolutionary subject” to arise. My loyalties may still be anti-capitalist and my critique of wisdom may still be very deep, but one cannot deny that the demands placed on oneself to overcome the production of the attitude of class is far beyond if we cannot even overcome the inconsistencies in the ideologies which we claim to believe but under which we do not operate.
I don’t know that my current obsession with the both logic and conversely the absolute a-logical “calculus” of the weird tale and the anti-narrative poem is a sign that my prior worldview breaking itself down. That I have followed this creative destruction to an end in which I see a lot of anxiety. This is both a point of meta-philosophy and personal identity crisis for me. But identities are the Ur-form of ideology in the end, and when the ideology no longer helps, identity soon follows.
So that is in which the “weird,” the uncanny, that which reminds one of the cold illogic of logical world view–which emerges itself as a tragic or belittling experience enables one to see what the end road of it all really is. IF you want to change the world, you must not just be the change you want to see. You must be more than that, but in doing that, you must realize what you are valued without such a commitment.
These a-logical narratives remind us that our means of making sense of the world, however necessary they are, cannot make any demands on reality itself and that in larger scales most of what we are is dross and idle chatter. The creature comforts of modern production and the way value operates in the market place the way G-d once did in a temple gives us the emotive drive we need as it gives us the abstraction that makes itself concrete. The concrete absolute is far more frightening than other our numinous ideas of G-d or our mechanistic fetishes of currency forms.
Jaundiced Red and Accursed Labor“There seems to be an inborn drive in all human beings not to live in a steady emotional state, which would suggest that such a state is not tolerable to most people. Why else would someone succumb to the attractions of romantic love more than once? Didn’t they learn their lesson the first time or the tenth time or the twentieth time? And it’s the same old lesson: everything in this life—I repeat, everything—is more trouble than it’s worth. And simply being alive is the basic trouble. This is something that is more recognized in Eastern societies than in the West. There’s a minor tradition in Greek philosophy that instructs us to seek a state of equanimity rather than one of ecstasy, but it never really caught on for obvious reasons. Buddhism advises its practitioners not to seek highs or lows but to follow a middle path to personal salvation from the painful cravings of the average sensual life, which is why it was pretty much reviled by the masses and mutated into forms more suited to human drives and desires. It seems evident that very few people can simply sit still. Children spin in circles until they collapse with dizziness.”
― Thomas Ligotti
I will simply state, without waiting further, that the extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles — the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking — and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire… It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire. – Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share“For optimists, human life never needs justification, no matter how much hurt piles up, because they can always tell themselves that things will get better. For pessimists, there is no amount of happiness—should such a thing as happiness even obtain for human beings except as a misconception—that can compensate us for life’s hurt. As a worst-case example, a pessimist might refer to the hurt caused by some natural or human-made cataclysm. To adduce a hedonic counterpart to the horrors that attach to such cataclysms would require a degree of ingenuity from an optimist, but it could be done. And the reason it could be done, the reason for the eternal stalemate between optimists and pessimists, is that no possible formula can be established to measure proportions and types of hurt and happiness in the world. If such a formula could be established, then either pessimists or optimists would have to give in to their adversaries.” ― Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
So we begin with the cynic’s call above, but then we shall look at Marxism. I have said, many times, that while others would consider me on the “left,” I take a Wittgensteinian notion of that term: the family resemblances of the left are there, but they are sometimes so shallow as the various games that create them amount to a heuristic that creates ontological reality to an idea that really emerges from a way of classifying types of idealism after the French revolution. In only makes sense in a context of “Liberal modernity” itself as does its great adversary “conservatism”–itself a creation of the emergence of other modes of thinking. In so much that I wish to reject this mode of culture and production as a something that was once liberating but is no longer so: Calling myself a leftist attaches me to a family of resemblances that would not make in since in the different game I wish to advocate.
Furthermore, as the Ligotti quotes hint at there is a pessimism in my view that even a willed optimism does not always overcome. There is only so much that optimism of the will is justified in a certain stage . Nietzsche once asked if there can be a pessimism of the strong? Resolutely, I would say yes. IF you embrace a tragic standing atop the direction of history and saying “No, stop, this will not end well” one may be a conservative in William Buckley’s sense of the term, but if do that with an eye to “You can’t go back either. You must indeed CHANGE because all is not well and all will not be well” you must be consider yourself somewhat alien: neither pulled by Fukuyama’s siren song reading of Hegel nor to any utopia which itself would “end history” can do. Most conservatives aren’t screaming no to the course of history, they want to make sure it progresses on the same course.
In so much that I think Marxist critique of class-developed from capital production, and the Marxist critique of the way capital production generates the crises on which capital needs to avoid both the decline of the falling rate of profit and the increase of efficiency and the formalization of time creates anxiety on the individual, I accept Marxist critique.
Marxism, as articulated by Marx it’s full critique form, however, does not offer an alternative political economy with anything more than the vaguest glimpses, and most socialist and communist countries have adopted by simply collectivizing capital production: in both the Soviet Union and China, this was done by massive managerial complexes, and despite of all of Mao’s rhetoric to the country, his country too even during the cultural revolution followed Taylorist production models. In the Soviet Union, we saw Taylorist production (which is only effective for the earlier stages of industrial production) and then attempts at cybernetic production, both of which were considered ultra-capitalist (in different ways) of the past. China and to a lesser extend Vietnam and Combodia have currently neo-liberalized sectors of their economy and in other sectors operate with merchantilist style developed schemes. Marxist experiments that did not go down this path tended to end horribly which both massive agricultural failure and an inability to get past medieval subsistence levels of consumption.
So what we have in Marxism that is viable now is a critique, which I still find valid of both classical liberal political economy and of liberal German idealism, but not real answers as to what to do about in. In this void, all sorts of ideas have re-emerged and the return of the largely utopian and primarily “ideal”-based forms of Marxism have returned: if it is the radical identerianism of many anarchists, the situated privileging of victims, and the extensive pleas to read the state as a form of individual mortality writ large. Perhaps this is a conservative impulse in myself, but I find these project to be a waste of time neither able to truly change culture or acknowledge the contradicting outcomes of the many of those advocated policies.
Yet the issues at hand are not merely matters of making production “more moral” or capitalists “less greedy” or “abolishing the state.” All these may be good or ill on their own terms, but without looking at how we generate our lives and coming up with a truly different and effective positive program for it, then this does not make that much sense and maybe, truly, just a way to avoid the horror that creeps into the mind when one is still. Even if the end goal of Marxism is a ending of our current ideas of that “accursed” labor and its market, and that this is situated in history, one must be open to the idea that all is not well and no amount of asserting that history will vindicate you will make it so. Nor is that merely a matter of personal morality, in so much as a person’s vision is situated within a larger field, no matter how unhappy making it is, pretending that personal is the political and that personal changes manifest political assumes primarily that one is in total control of one’s self. How perverse this thought is can be seen in light of actually thinking about differentiation? There is no me without acknowledging a non-me. This dialectic may not be ontologically true, and I suspect actually it isn’t, but our situated relationship to language and its necessary demarcations means that our understanding of the “real” is binary.
The optimist nor the pessimist can adjudicate this value alone, and that, as much as ideal or material problem, seems to me why so much of the far left politics seem to be in stale mate, and so much of liberal politics, despite the pretense to be “progressive,” is merely reacting to reactionarism and trying to thus maintain a prior position. Since neither can adopt a tragic position that allows for the fight and the realization that it, for now, may not be winnable: most of this politics seems to be about posturing and fitting to a pre-established set of social conditions for which our political views form a type of distinction.
In short: the refusal to admit that all one has in Marxism is a critique of a capitalism and the refusal to thus put a positive spin on this and actually offer a new form of political economy leaves us with a politics that seems more about the salving of a persistent ennui than actually changing the world. This leaves the world as it is or merely puts bandaids on the it’s unfairness. Marxism is a beginning point in and only in its usefulness for understanding what capitalist modes of production fail and why class positioning have limited our ability to do anything about this fact: the rest is up to us, and without an embrace of the tragic element of this predicament, we are unlikely to do anything much about it.
Dark Hegelianism and Weird Materialism
“People know what they want because they know what other people want.”
― Theodor W. Adorno
“It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies.”
― Theodor W. Adorno
The danger of Hotel Grand Abyss, as Lukacs once remarked about, comes from not only fear of a grey future in which the end of history is the graying world of the capital corporation, but also in the fear that the alternative as articulated may be just as graying. Adorno’s definition of progress is minimal: the end of cruelty and the administration of minimum needs. Yet there are hints that he was not satisfied with the alternative articulations of how that could be achieved from 1950s capitalism, or Soviet collectivism. Yet, Adorno seems to have noticed the problem with the minimal definition of progress. But before we get to that, let’s look at the author Thomas Ligotti for a complication:
“There seems to be an inborn drive in all human beings not to live in a steady emotional state, which would suggest that such a state is not tolerable to most people. Why else would someone succumb to the attractions of romantic love more than once? Didn’t they learn their lesson the first time or the tenth time or the twentieth time? And it’s the same old lesson: everything in this life—I repeat, everything—is more trouble than it’s worth. And simply being alive is the basic trouble. This is something that is more recognized in Eastern societies than in the West. There’s a minor tradition in Greek philosophy that instructs us to seek a state of equanimity rather than one of ecstasy, but it never really caught on for obvious reasons. Buddhism advises its practitioners not to seek highs or lows but to follow a middle path to personal salvation from the painful cravings of the average sensual life, which is why it was pretty much reviled by the masses and mutated into forms more suited to human drives and desires. It seems evident that very few people can simply sit still. Children spin in circles until they collapse with dizziness.” – Thomas Ligotti
The tension is a fear that happiness itself and the beginning of history in the new sense beyond the current seems problematic for Adorno:
“Indeed, happiness is nothing other than being encompassed, an after-image of the original shelter within the mother. But for this reason no one who is happy can know that he is so. To see happiness, he would have to pass out of it: to be as if already born. He who says he is happy lies, and in invoking happiness, sins against it. He alone keeps faith who says: I was happy. ” – Adorno
Perhaps Adorno rightly saw the allure against the giant hospital that the Hegelian world view seemed to end in, and perhaps was afraid of Hegel’s positivity for that reason. In this we can see his fear of the messianic vagueness of the future society and his defense of art:
“The only philosophy that can be practiced responsibly in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, that reveal its fissures and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will one day appear in the Messianic light.” – Adorno
“Of the world as it exists, it is not possible to be enough afraid.” -Adorno
And this sentiment seem oddly close to that of a man who could be seen as in the lineage of the antithesis to Adorno, Leo Strauss:
“The prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and consumption only, to production and consumption of spiritual as well as material merchandise, was positively horrifying to quite a few very intelligent and very decent, if very young, Germans. They did not object to that prospect because they were worrying about their own economic and social position; for certainly in that respect they had no longer anything to lose. Nor did they object to it for religious reasons; for, as one of their spokesmen (E. Junger) said, they knew that they were the sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of godless men. What they hated, was the very prospect of a world in which everyone would be happy and satisfied, in which everyone would have his little pleasure by day and his little pleasure by night, a world in which no great heart could beat and no great soul could breathe, a world without real, unmetaphoric, sacrifice, i.e. a world without blood, sweat, and tears. What to the communists appeared to be the fulfillment of the dream of mankind appeared to those young Germans as the greatest debasement of humanity, as the coming of the end of humanity, as the arrival of the latest man.”
Thus martial overture developing out the same sense that despairs Adorno. The rejection of the decimation of the world into a giant hospital, as Geothe said in response to the same strains that Hegel was celebrating:
“Speaking for myself, I too believe that humanity will win in the long run; I am only afraid that at the same time the world will have turned into one huge hospital where everyone is everybody else’s humane nurse.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Any vision of a future history in which this is something beyond this particular secularization of Christian ethos must be beyond the giant gray hospital (which Marx seems aware of in the Critique of the Gotha program and his criticism of the limited vision and contradiction of the forms of socialism that existed then): otherwise we are left in a dark vision of Hegel. I’ll end with something from Marx that is often missed:
If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?
So, why do we retrogress again and again? Lack of vision? Failure? Or perhaps Hegel was right about the movement towards the centralization of liberal Christian society into the secular, capitalist state… if it must run its course like fever to be transcended, so something new can be born what will happen? To not have doubts about all of this is probably to be probably self-dishonest.
Nietzsche wrote, in his more youthful work The Birth of Tragedy, the following question: , “Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, malformation, of tired and debilitated instincts [. . .]? Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual preference for the hard, gruesome, malevolent and problematic aspects of existence which comes from a feeling of well-being, from overflowing health, from an abundance of existence? Is there perhaps such a thing as suffering from overabundance itself? Is there a tempting bravery in the sharpest eye which demands the terrifying as its foe, as a worthy foe against which it can test its strength and from which it intends to learn the meaning of fear?”
Is there a pessimism of the strong?
The short answer: Yes.
The long answer is harder, and should be put in context. My personal context is simple: I have been arguing with a few people who see themselves as pragmatists and issue-focused lately who seem to have a hard time trying to square the circle that their representation in either congress or parliament doesn’t seem to represent them. In fact, not only does it not represent them, but it doesn’t represent the public on issues in which they is large scale support if the question is asked with loaded partisan language. While I may be tempted to paint this as solely a liberal problem, it’s not. The public opinion is incoherent, but that is not so much a way to condemn the public but to say that material conditions–by that I mean the fact how the economy is run and what is happening the various economic and ecological systems– are almost too complex to comprehend now, and in light of declining public and private capital and abstract value, this may be particularly difficult to deal with.
In short, I will be honest: I do’t think the problems had in Europe or North America are fixable by technocratic intervening, nor do I think that collapse will be quick or it will reset us a hunter-gather default setting. None of these things seem likely to me, and I have spent two years talking about why. Yet, the Gramsci quote that used to brings hope sits dormant, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned … I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”
The challenge of modernity seems to loom as those of try to interact become increasing disillusioned and the window for change gets smaller and smaller: it is not that there is no answer, but it harder and harder to see an answer that would fundamentally change material conditions enough to change the trends of the past half-century. So there is a pessimism of the strong: it is a tragic optimism. The idea that there may be a way out of the situation and one must think and act one’s way through it should be maintained, but the likelihood that historical moment where things could have been altered may be passed must be held in the back of one’s mind.
I suppose, a pessimism of the strong is, as Nietzsche thought, a realizing of the tragedy in life and what is likely to happen in the near future, but not abandoning that there could be an answer to many of our current problems