The Strange Habit of Self-Reflection, Or, on Reading Myself.

I have recently wanted to separate my work from Disloyal Opposition which is now run by a very good writer who has little ideological compatibility to me. Unforunately, a year ago, when I made him chief administrator of that blog, it attributed my writings to him.   Given the differences of our opinions and our writing styles, it was best if I archived my writing here.   I apologize for those who follow and got nearly 50 posts yesterday.

There is always something strange about reading your prior work.  You see how poorly you proof-read five or three years ago.  Yet, rendering my past opinions an object to my current subjectivity, alienates those opinions from their original context and the moments in which I thought them.  I often feel stupid, or, at best, naive.  Given I have maintained and destroyed several blogs in my life–most of them not open to the public.  Furthermore, I have developed some what radically over time, so watching that development in print is particularly strange.

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Interview with Jehu

Jehu is a former co-blogger at Symptomatic Redness and blogs at Re: The People and at the Gonzo Times. While Jehu and I don’t always agree and I have been known to criticize his tone,  I do find talking to him fascinating, and his close reading of Marx is penetrating, so my disagreements with him are often extremely instructive.   He and I both worry about overly statist visions of Marxism as well as reification of the idea of consciousness, although we profoundly disagree on the degree of  the role of Lenin in that development and the problems of the concessions of the World War 1 and the Russian Civil War in the problems that followed.  

Skepoet: I have been following your occupy the Marxist academy, why do you think Marxist have split up in the English speaking world into fairly tiny sectarian groups made up students and then academics?

Jehu: I think the roots of this can be traced well back to what I hypothesize as “The Catastrophe”. Perhaps this catastrophe was inevitable, perhaps not, but it occurred.

Briefly stated, my still primitive hypothesis states that in Marx’s argument the struggle between the two great classes is a political struggle that took place mainly within the confines of 19th Century nation states. The various sections of the working class developed mostly side by side with each other within the larger context of the world market. While capital was always a mode of production bound up with the world market, and the labor market, based on this world market, always a global one, the political organization of the working class made use of the political structures available to it — which were necessarily limited to nation states.

While, from what I can determine, working class parties in the European sections gained some important victories, these victories were limited, local, victories, and were always vulnerable to the further development of the capitalist mode of production bound up with the world market, including, most important, the increasing rivalry between national capitals.

We are familiar with competition between national capitals, and even competition between capitals within individual countries. What we fail to grasp is that the very same law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall that generates increasing competition between capitals also generates competition within the working class. The law states capital will tend to an overaccumulation of capital which will itself produce a struggle among capitals over which capitals will be forced to cease functioning as capitals and which will continue to function as capitals. However, it also produces conflict within the working class, produced by the tendency toward an overpopulation of workers, over whose labor power will be employed and whose labor power will be condemned to the industrial reserve.

So the conflict within society at the turn of the 20th Century was nowhere near as simple as it is often presented in our conceptions. It was actually very complex and it was within this very complex situation that the working class movement suffered a series of profound shocks to its internal solidarity resulting from the triple catastrophes of the Great War, the Great Depression and World War II. I think we underestimate the impact these events had on the moral development of the working class movement. There were victories in Russia, China, etc. But even these victories were ultimately of the sort of limited, isolated, local events Marx predicted would dissolve under pressures of the world market.

The internal enemy to the solidarity of the working class has always been sectarianism. I believe these catastrophes spread confusion, demoralization and mystification within the working class over its own

S.: What do you think has sparked the sectarianism since the fall of the Soviet Union?

JEHU: I think there are several reasons for this. Marxists have a profound suspicion of the working class and any movement of that class that they cannot direct or subordinate to their alleged theoretical leadership. In part, this can be explained by historical events, but there is beyond this a pattern that cannot be dismissed by reference to these historical causes. It results from a completely idealist notion of social development that is persistent — a view Marx identified as the tendency of consciousness to imagine itself independent of material relations.

Within the various strands of Marxism, and, in particular, the Leninist strand, from which I came, the idea has predominated that the revolutionary potential of the working class movement depends on the political correctness of the vanguard forces leading the working class. This vanguard, it is said, is necessary because the working class is incapable of creating its own revolutionary theory. And why is this? According to Kautsky, who later went on to betray the working class movement in the Great War, science was the domain of the intellectual. This nonsense was imported into Russian Marxism by none other than Lenin himself, who later became an influential figure within the revolutionary opposition to revisionists like Kautsky. It has since infected both European Social-Democracy and Leninism.

In this view, the working class is not a revolutionary class in its own right, owing to its actual position in the mode of production — like its opposite, the capitalist class — but a class which has the potential to be revolutionary only if it is brought under the leadership of a theoretically correct vanguard. This view was significant within the working class movement even in Marx’s day and he struggled against it — not only against those who opposed him in the working class movement, but also others who claimed to be among his followers. This view continues to have popularity not simply because both trends within Marxism spread it within their ranks, but also because it is based on a rather simplistic understanding of the relation between critical ideas and practical critical activity.
The sectarians have no conception of the working class as a revolutionary force in society in its own right (not by reason of the introduction of revolutionary ideas, but by reason of its direct practical everyday activity). This goes double when looking at capital itself as a revolutionary mode of production. Theory, to the extent it is even a factor here, is only significant as a more or less accurate reflection of the revolutionary motion of the working class itself — in almost all cases theory isn’t a significant factor in the social process at all. Theory can only disclose the laws of motion of capitalist society, it cannot change them. It is no more possible for Marxist theory to change or affect the laws of motion of capitalist society than it is for the neoclassical theory of the fascist state or central bank authorities to change those laws. This implies that if the working class were not of itself a revolutionary force no amount of theory could transform their movement into a revolutionary movement.

The adoration of theory above even the practical activity of society seems hardened into the ossified thinking of most Marxists at this point. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the current collapse of European Social-Democracy is a profound blow to this world-view. But, paradoxically, these collapses have only the effect of spurring stupid Marxists to double-down both on their pessimistic view of the working class movement and their adoration of critical theory. They seek to explain these failures not with reference to unfolding of the capitalist laws of motion but with reference to failures of one or another ideology.
In fact, Russian Marxists from the very beginning never imagined a revolution could succeed in one or a few countries within the world market — and no one looking at the Russian revolution in 1917 had any hope for its prospects in isolation from the world market. The communist movement of society was always understood to be a movement bound up with the world market and not in opposition to it. To now argue the failures of these revolutions, or the equally disastrous failure of European social-democracy, results from bad theory is the worst kind of stupidity. Of course they failed — no one in their right mind believed they would survive as long as they did!

Today we have a number of silly sectarian Marxists who think the problem facing the working class is one of theory and that the objective of the moment is theoretical self-clarification. They look at movements like the Tea Party and the Occupy movement superficially — and, indeed, on the surface there are only flaws in these movements. Having stupidly examined these movements in the fashion of bourgeois pundits — that is, only as they immediately present themselves to us as mere political movements — they arrive at the opinion these movements do not measure up to Marxist standards as revolutionary movements. Just as Marx argued regarding the bourgeois economist, Marxist nowadays do no more than “interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations.”

Since, in almost every case, the movement of the working class is shrouded in mystification resulting from its practical divisions, the Marxist, who never moves beyond these silly divisions, but instead takes them to be absolute, can say nothing about this movement beyond the most simple-minded punditry typical of Sunday morning talking heads. If, as a practical matter, the Occupy movement is preoccupied with the “one percent versus the ninety-nine percent”, we only learn from the Marxist that this view must lead to reformism, since it ignores the capitalist “system”. If, as a practical matter, the Tea Party is preoccupied with fascist state expenditures and deficits, we only learn from the Marxist that this view serve only the Koch Brothers. In no case can a Marxist explain why the very same process appears to one section of the working class as the domination of a tiny minority, yet to another section as the domination of the state.

It is no less true for the working class, than it is for the capitalist class, that it is entrapped in bourgeois production relations. The point of theory is not to constantly berate the working class for these limitations but to understand how the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production is expressed precisely in these limitations and despite them. The difference between the two classes is this: whereas the capitalist class overcomes the obstacles arising from the capitalist mode of production in a fashion that reestablishes them on a still greater scale, the working class alone has the potential to abolish them entirely. Even where these two classes begin a the same point — e.g., their hostility to the fascist state — the position of the capitalist class must lead it to resolve its own hostility in a way that places politics in its path once again. On the other hand, the working class alone, owing to its position in the capitalist mode of production, has the capacity to abolish the state. Superficially the antagonism of the working class to the fascist state appears entirely of the same sort as the antagonism of the capitalist class to this state. A deeper examination of the situation, however, reveals two entirely different revolutionary potentials. Marxist haven’t a clue to this.
Sectarianism among Marxists will not be addressed until every Marxist organization is dissolved and these elements integrate themselves into the working class once and for all.

S: What role does class consciousness play?

J: Ain’t that an awkward question for Marxists? Marxists have made so many predictions about the inevitability of the social revolution only to be dismayed by lack of evidence for sufficient consciousness among the working class for precisely this sort of revolution. Ha!

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this lack of class consciousness among the working class is that the class is not a political class — but this conclusion is so over the heads of our sectarians they can’t even grasp what it means to be an essentially non-political class. But let’s think about this: was it necessary for the capitalist to acquire a theory of the capitalist mode of production and its inner laws prior to his assertion of his political interests? Did it require decades or even centuries of patient political education by a theoretically advanced vanguard party among the burghers before they were ready to seize political power and re-fashion society in the image of capital? The answer to these questions show the difficulty in establishing class consciousness as the precondition for social revolution.

The working class is not a political class in any sense of that term — it is a quintessentially economic social organism. No amount of patient political work and socialist education among the working class will transform it from an economic organism into a political organism. Theoretically, this is already obvious since Marx wrote that it was a class with no particular interest to assert. Every political class is tied to a particular interest — this is the definition of politics itself: an attempt by some class or another to raise its particular interest to the status of the general interest. Without a particular interest to assert against the community, what purpose is served by politics for the working class? The purpose is obvious: every other class in society asserts its particular interest against labor — which is to say, in bourgeois society all politics is more or less the imposition of particular interests over and against the working class.

Now, let’s think about this logically. How is this possible in a state that more less is composed almost entirely of the working class? In all the advanced nations the working class amounts to 90% or more of the population. This means the rule of capital fundamentally coexists with the suffrage of the working class majority in almost all nations — a circumstance that would be impossible for even one day if this majority had the capacity to acquire a political consciousness in the fashion of the burghers or previous ruling classes. Moreover, in the German Ideology, Marx sets an astonishingly high (actually, politically, it is impossible) standard for the rule of the working class: this rule has to be accomplished all at once and together in an association that must itself be a universal one within the world market, where the  freedom of each member of this association and their free development is the necessary condition for the association of its members.

The social revolution is essentially anti-political — i.e., economic — in nature, and it is expressed in the forcible conversion of the state into a mere economic mechanism for management of the social process of production. As Marx put it, the communist movement of society — i.e., the movement of the working class, of the social producer — is essentially economic, the material production of the working class’s own association.

Class, that is, “political”, consciousness does not figure in this material production process at all.

Precisely because the working class is inherently an anti-political class Marx comes to the conclusion that the working class come into conflict with the state and will be compelled to overthrow it. I think it is important to understand that what is represented in the political activity of the working class is not its class interest, but its class divisions. This is completely unlike the capitalist class, where its existence as a class is politically expressed in what it has in common. To put this another way, in its political activity the working class expresses the material insufficiency of its present mode of association. If you look behind the law of value, which imposes its will over the entire capitalist mode of production, this law turns out to be nothing more than the material economic activity of the social laborers appearing as if it were a natural law imposed on the activity of the capitalist class.

S: What do you think is the case of the Marxist focus on the state in the last century and a half?

J: I can think of four areas where the focus on the state after the death of Marx and Engels have hurt Marxism and contributed to its marginalization or impotence.

First, Marxists’ focus on the state is a focus on the illusory community rather than the actual community that exists. Even if we assume the proletariat is capable of achieving something akin to a political or class consciousness along the lines of the bourgeois class, the effort directed toward achieving such class consciousness is misguided precisely because it misdirects the class’s attention from what it has already achieved in materially creating an actual community of social producers.

Second, if my interpretation of Marx’s theory is correct, the focus on the state and political action precisely focuses on the very arena in which the proletariat suffers a disadvantage against the other classes in society. If, in fact, the working class is incapable of articulating its own interests in political terms, it must be the plaything of the politically articulate classes in any struggle for state power. This implies we are fighting on the enemy’s terrain every time we raise political demands that do not include abolition of the state and politics itself or advance this effort.

Third, while focus on the state leads us to fight our battles on the enemy’s terrain, it also means we neglect our own terrain, which is the Law of Value. If I am right about this law, it is the unconscious expression of the working class’s own material activity expressed in the form of a law determining the events within the entire capitalist mode of production bound up with the world market. Even unconsciously, the working class has already achieved determinate influence of its circumstances. The focus on political action redirects our attention to what Marx called the estranged outward appearances of this determinate influence as they appear in the limited realm of political-economy, i.e., as they appear to individuals who are no more than agents of bourgeois production, and who, subsumed entirely in bourgeois production relations, can no more than vaguely comprehend its logic.

Fourth, focus on the state carries the inherent danger that we accomplish no more than to reproduce the division of labor, rather than abolish it. Along with this, the focus on the state only serves to reproduce the mystified forms of bourgeois relations of production by preserving the split between the state and civil society. Our job is to theoretically clarify this relation, not add to its mystification, yet Marxists seem intent on promoting precisely such mystification when they hold to such nonsense as fascist state fiscal and monetary policy — essentially spreading the illusion among the working class that this parasitic body, the state, can produce “economic growth” through financial pyramid schemes.

By focusing on the state and bourgeois political action, Marxists have done great injury to the cause of the working class. Despite this injury, however, the victory of the social producer remains inevitable. In the end, all that these insignificant Marxist sects have accomplished is to render themselves ever more marginal to this unfolding process.

Marxists have to understand capitalist crises do not provoke working class action, it is precisely the reverse: working class practical critical activity, social labor, produces capitalist crises. It is this social labor that generates the crisis, and represents the unconscious attempt by the proletariat to throw off the outmoded relations of production of the capitalist mode. Once we grasp this, it is possible to see that the performance of the working class has been anything but “disappointing” — in fact, it has been quite thrilling in this regard. Our job is to merely bring this understanding to the working class regarding the effect of its own material actions.

S.: You seem to have been channeling something about the liberal revolutions that I have  been thinking about, which is that liberal revolutions are revolutionary first steps as they do empower massive section of the population, but they so far have not transcended a statist-capitalist form?  Why do you think that is?   Or do you think this is too narrow of a framework?

J.: Yes. I believe some Marxists are beginning to come to the conclusion that politics is too confining a context to capture the logic of the communist movement of society. Anne Jaclard delivered a speech in 2010 titled, “You Can’t Change the Mode of Production with a Political Agenda”, in which she explained communist society could not be achieved by political means. She wasn’t quite clear in her own mind on why this was true, but she nevertheless made the argument. Andrew Kliman added to this by showing the transformation of society from capitalism to communism was not simply, or even primarily, a problem of a political transition regime, but the transformation of the economic structure of society. There is an event horizon where the organizing principle of society is altogether altered qualitatively, an alteration that cannot be captured by reference to politics. You can also sense it in the fumbling of Alain Badiou in discussion of his “Communist Hypothesis”, in which he appears to be grappling with the question of what comes next. And it appears also in Chris Cutrone’s critique of Badiou’s hypothesis, where he reiterates Marx and Engels’ view that communism is not the aim of mankind, and his argument that classes are the “‘phantasmagorical’ projections” of bourgeois society. The problem presented by the communist movement of society is that this transformation is not simply one of more democracy, or a better, more inclusive, democracy, but a transformation of the fundamental premise of human society.

Part of the problem can be conceptualized by comparing the situation of the individual producer to that of the social producer. Of course, this is an historical oversimplification, but I will risk that in order to highlight our problem. The individual producer doesn’t experience crises, overaccumulation of capital, nor unemployment, because her labor is directly regulated by her needs. These needs exist as empirically comprehensible requirements that make themselves felt immediately to her through her senses. Because of this, there is a direct connection between her needs and her activity. For the social laborer it is otherwise: her needs are only met indirectly through her own activity, and directly only by the activity of the community of social producers as a whole. This arrangement is incredibly more productive, of course, which is why it comes to dominate production, but it comes at the cost of a widening division between the needs of the individual and her immediate activity. The more social production advances in breadth and complexity, the more tenuous the connection between the activities of the community of social producers and their needs as individuals becomes. By the time we get to bourgeois society, the connection between the activity of the laborer and her needs as an individual has been entirely lost. In fact, we now find her activity develops only in antagonism with her needs as an individual. Rather than satisfying her individual needs through her activity, this activity develops at the expense of her needs.

There is no mechanism to bridge what has now become a growing chasm between the activity of the individual and her material needs. No amount of planning, no market mechanism, no matter how perfected beforehand in the minds of social reformers, no amount of political intervention in the form of regulation, social safety nets, or public expenditures, and no growth in this activity, can bring the activity of the social producers into line with their needs as individuals. It is no longer a matter of how this activity is organized, but the activity itself, labor, that has become entirely antagonistic to the needs of the individual. The antagonism between the needs of the individual as an individual and her activity, labor, is the problem that can only be resolved by the communist movement of society.

So, it is no longer a question of “How is labor to be organized?”; “How is labor to be accounted for?”; “By what mechanism is labor to be regulated?”; or “How can labor be made more satisfying to the producer, less damaging to the environment, more equal, or less stultifying?” These questions are political questions. The problem is simple and straightforward: “How is labor itself to be abolished!” And this is the question on which the entirety of the social relations of bourgeois society, and bourgeois society itself must come to an impasse, because, for bourgeois society, labor is the premise of all social relations, while for the laborer, it has become increasingly intolerable and self-destructive.
Separated as they are from the daily life of the working class, the Marxist academy can only express this impasse in a limited, purely theoretical or philosophical, fashion. Kliman’s bumbling examination of the Critique of the Gotha Program shows there is a profound unclarity within Marxism on the problem raised by Marx of the relation between the economic structure of society and “right”. It is an unclarity over the objective of the communist movement of society: the abolition of labor, not its mere reorganization. If we presuppose a “class conscious” working class — to use that completely misleading phrase — this only means the social producers have acquired a common recognition that labor itself must be abolished and have taken this
abolition as the immediate objective of their activity.

If the communist movement of society results from an empirical event, it means this same community of producers has already prepared for this abolition in advance through its unconscious material activity, i.e., that labor now exists in the form that makes its immediate abolition both possible and necessary. In the latter case, as Moishe Postone explained almost two decades ago to these simpletons, for the abolition of labor to be both possible and necessary it must first appear in the form of wholly superfluous labor time, of an unnecessary expenditure of social labor that exceeds the requirements of society directly and indirectly. It is just this growing unnecessary expenditure of labor time that has been marked by writers like Chris Harman, Kevin Carson, Michael Kidron, and also, according to Harman, by Moseley, Shaikh and Tonak, and Simon Mohun. None of them, however, seem to have made the connection between their empirical evidence and Postone’s argument.

In the democratic republic all political interests in society are only interests asserted against the labor of the working class. On the other hand, the abolition of labor itself can only appear as the aim of the working class. However, since this class has no particular interest to assert on its own behalf, is not a political organism, and cannot act politically as a class, as a practical matter the demand for the abolition of labor must appear simultaneously as a demand for the abolition of the state — for the replacement of this democracy by a universal association of the producers.

I think the whole of the communist movement of society consists essentially of the conversion of labor time into free time for the laborers. And the only measure of progress in this movement is conversion of the mass of superfluous labor time that has thus far accrued within society into time away from labor for the mass of the laborers. The battle over hours of labor is, just as Marx stated, the modest Magna Charta of the working class and the working class’s own association begins only where the working day ends. The working class can be said to conscious of itself as a class only when it has acquired a consciousness of the importance of work time reduction and made this its immediate objective.

S.: So this would make communism and post-workerism almost the same thing?

J.: I will have to think about this more, but I can see your connection between my argument and post-workerism. I have been reading up on Autonomism, Workerism and Post-Workerism interpretations of Marx’s theory. I had never heard of “post-workerism” until you raised this, but after looking at some articles on the theory, I could see the similarities, and @tvissia reminded me he made a similar comment about Tronti’s work several months ago.

So am I an autonomist without knowing it? I think I need to figure this out. I read Alberto Toscano’s “Chronicles of Insurrection: Tronti, Negri and the Subject of Antagonism”. According to Toscano, post-workerism can be best understood within concepts of “political subjectivity”, “antagonism” and “insurrection”. Toscano writes autonomism “postulates the increasing immanence of struggles, as based on the Marxian thesis of real subsumption, together with the intensification of the political autonomy or separation of the working class.”

If this is correct then I cannot be an autonomist, because, I think, the working class as a class cannot have political autonomy from capital. I think what is unique about the class is that among all classes in society it is incapable of having an independent political expression. This understanding, as I explained, rests on Marx’s theory in the German Ideology, where Marx states the working class has no particular interest to assert. I think it is impossible to understand communism as a movement of society without understanding this: the working class is anti-political. I think the working class is incapable of expressing a class (political) consciousness and its political action is always a bourgeois political action. I think this is already contained in the assumption of what political or class consciousness means: No class can become conscious without seeking to conquer state power. However, every Marxist writer I know assumes the working class is led precisely to do the opposite: break the state power.

Rather than seeking to establish its particular interest as the general interest of society, which is the essence of political consciousness, the working class seeks only to dissolve all particular interests imposed on it as a class, i.e., to abolish the state. The position of autonomism is not just, as Toscano argues, paradoxical, it is an oxymoron. This, of course, does not in the least prohibit it from being an accurate reflection of the process if the process itself is a contradiction. In such a case, the contradiction doesn’t lie in the theory of autonomism, but in the material processes of social production itself. It may be simply that this anti-political content must, of necessity, have a political expression or appearance. The feature of capitalism most Marxists point to in their argument is its inherently totalitarian, or totalizing, character. For the anti-political nature of the working class to appear at all within this totalization, it must appear as a political position. However, if we take this appearance for the content we are no more capable of grasping its revolutionary essence than political-economy.

In his paper, Toscano quotes a worker, Nanni Balestrini, who cannot understand why anyone would want to celebrate May Day. Why would anyone want to celebrate work or a workers day? What I find interesting about this quote is that, obviously, May Day does not “celebrate work”, but celebrates a victory in the working class’s struggle for a reduction of hours of labor. What began as a celebration of a victory marking a step toward the abolition of labor became, over time, redefined as the celebration of the thing to be abolished, labor. But what is equally interesting about the quote is that the worker quoted, while apparently ignorant of this history, recognizes the idiocy of celebrating wage slavery. Even without realizing it, the worker reestablishes the original significance of the day. The question for me is why “May Day” appears in the worker’s statement both directly as a negative and indirectly as a positive expression. What is significant here is not simply that “May Day” begins as a celebration of a step toward the abolition of labor but later appears as a celebration of labor itself that is rejected by the worker, but that this may provide a clue to the social process of production as a whole. This social process begins with the activity of the worker, appears as the activity of capital, and leads inevitably to its rejection by the worker. The worker is, in effect, rejecting her own activity, but this rejection is leveled against this activity insofar as it appears as an attribute of capital.

The question raised by the autonomist critique is whether the activity of the worker must appear as an attribute of capital. If it can appear as the activity of the worker in her own right, in opposition to capital, Marx’s theory is fundamentally flawed, I think. Marx’s theory states the activity of the workers in its own right can only appear as a universal activity of associated individuals. If this activity does not acquire a universal character from the beginning, the worker merely acts as her own capitalist. The capitalist mode of production appears as the necessary form of the worker’s activity, because the worker’s activity does not appear directly in its universally associated form. This activity is capital no matter what legal definition is given to it: state property or private, individual property or cooperative. And it is capital no matter its personification: nomenklatura, state bureaucracy, industrial enterprise management or worker-owned cooperative.

Anne Jaclard makes this argument in the paper I mentioned earlier. She says production remained essentially capitalistic even if workers rather than corporate managers served as managers.  However, she does not offer an explanation for why this is true, except to offer that the law of value continues to operate: “There cannot be socialism in one country, much less in a single cooperative or network of cooperatives.” This is the original understanding of Marx’s theory, but what Jaclard doesn’t explain is why capitalism, the world market and the law of value continue to exist despite cooperative forms, even if these forms predominate the whole of production. It is because social labor can only exist as a totality, as a universal mode of production consistent with its instrument, the total capital. This implies the totalitarian character of the capitalist mode of production itself is just this activity of the social laborer creating her necessary material preconditions.

To put this in a less abstract form, social labor can only exist as a totality, but it can only become a totality through the activity of a form that is not itself total but must tend toward totality, that is itself totalizing. To use Marx’s terminology, ‘the historical mission of capital’ is to create the material preconditions for this totality. As a material reality, therefore, social labor exists nowhere except as a tendency of the capitalist mode of production toward absolute development of the productive forces. In theory we can propose the communist movement of society as a thing independent of capital, but as an empirical activity it is capital. The fact this communist movement exists empirically as capital, but theoretically as something independent of capital argues against the autonomist project.

S.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

J.: Ha! I think I have committed to enough heresies for the moment. Thank you very much for taking the time to force me respond to some very important questions.

An interview with Simon Frankel Pratt

Simon Frankel Pratt recently received a Masters of Arts in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and is currently embarking on a PhD at the University of Toronto this September.  He gained my BA at Simon-Fraser University, in international studies and Middle East history, and has lived, studied, and conducted research in Israel for extended periods. He is a  co-founders of ‘SFU Skeptics’, a club devoted to sceptical thinking and humanist activism. His excellent blog can be found here. 

Skepoet:    I came across your work by recommendation from a friend who said you were a necessary correction to a lot of the vulgar anti-Islamism and misreadings of terrorism in the Skeptic’s community,
particularly that done by Sam Harris.  What do you think the key problems are there with a lot of the assertions one sees about terrorism from say Pat Condell or Sam Harris?

Simon Pratt:  So the Skeptics are a fairly well informed bunch when it comes to international goings-on. They – we – read the news and enjoy discussing events of significant political or human importance taking place in the Middle East or in Europe, and so-on. And so, of course, Skeptics read about stuff which reasonably carries the label ‘terrorism’. It is the interest of the Skeptics to address and combat bad critical thinking and its harmful consequences, particularly as an apparent consequences of religious doctrine. Terrorism, as we encounter it, thus seems to be the perfect exemplar of flawed, religious beliefs leading to terribly harmful consequences. And it has escaped no-one’s notice that most of that stuff we call terrorism, insofar as it is reported in our mainstream media, is done by Muslims, and often justified in explicitly Islamic language. This is the context within which we should understand the perspectives of intellectual leaders of the Skeptics community such as Sam Harris.

The Sam Harris School (SHS), in which I think we can include Pat Condell along with quite a few other Skeptics, seems to hold the following views on terrorism:

1. Terrorism is caused by extremist, irrational beliefs, usually of a religious character.
2. Islamic scripture and doctrine is essentially conducive to terrorism, to a greater degree than other religion’s texts and doctrines; a moderate Muslim is simply not a very pious Muslim, and is not practicing their own faith in a committed way.
3. Islam as its widely practiced today is particularly conducive to terrorism, with adherents comprising ‘death cults’ and espousing violent cultural chauvinism.
4. Terrorists, by virtue of their extremism and commitment to irrational religious doctrines, cannot be reasoned or bargain with, and should be dealt with via hawikish counterterrorism policies.

All of these views are undermined, to varying but generally substantial degrees, by the history and social science scholarship on terrorism, extremism, religious fundamentalism, and the intersections between ideology and violence. They are undermined in ways that should be understandable to anyone, and their flaws should be apparent to more than just experts in the field.

I will explain how this is the case.

1. There is a robust debate amongst experts as to the causes of terrorism, but that debate has, almost comprehensively, taken it as a given that relevant factors include political freedom, economic development, social structure, government effectiveness, and human security. For at least three decades, scholars on terrorism have considered both ‘underlying’ and ‘proximate’ causes, and specified a relationship between background forces that make terrorism more likely, and ‘triggers’ which push a person or a community into using terrorism. Now, of course these factors influence one-another in complex ways, and the religious or ideological beliefs held by members of a society both influence and are influenced by all these other things. Notably, though perhaps largely as a result of methodological concerns and as a legacy of behaviourism, religion is treated by many experts as epiphenomenal or as an intermediate factor which is caused by other things and serves only to enable immediate moral justification for action. It isn’t often assigned a causal role at all. While I won’t argue endorse this position, I will say that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that our beliefs concerning legitimate targets and forms of violence, and on tolerance of difference within our community, are strongly shaped by precisely those material and structural forces I previously named. This brings me to number two.

2. Islam isn’t a thing. While there is undeniably bellicose language within Islamic texts, the meaning of those texts is determined solely through human interpretation. Why do so, so many Skeptics seem not to realise this? Some argue that certain kinds of statements terms are harder to interpret in a way that supports liberal values, and are more likely to lead to chauvinism or violence, but there are so many examples of even the most bloodthirsty or misogynist of biblical passages being ‘contextualised away’ by Christians here in North America and the UK which should be immediately available to recall. Many skeptics tend to look upon this process of contextualisation with contempt, noting that these passages are plainly awful and that theological gymnastics are a pathetic attempt to deny the obvious evil of the dogma in question. Other Skeptics argue for some kind of exceptionalism, suggesting that Christianity has a liberal tradition
which Islam lacks, perhaps because Islam is hundreds of years younger and just hasn’t had its reformation yet. Well, the first argument is not only narrow-minded but ironic: Skeptics who see biblical literalism as more sound or apt are engaging in amateur theology of their own, and in the process are endorsing the notion that there are certain interpretations of religious texts which are more authoritative or accurate. I think this happens because we come from a tradition in which texts contain fairly clear arguments, penned by philosophers who make full use of modern language to ensure that their ideas are as unequivocal as possible precisely because they are committed to the kind of analytic reason which serves as the foundation to the Skeptics’ ideology. As for the second argument…

3. There are many examples of Muslim groups whose message appears very liberal and tolerant, as well as very pious.There are groups such as Imaan or al-Faitha, which campaign for greater acceptance for LGBT
persons within Muslim communities on the basis of extensive theological argument. There are political parties such as Hizb al-Wasat, whose platform endorses liberal democracy of a type quite similar to what we enjoy here, in religious langauge and with reference to religious norms and principles. I published an article last year on Islamic norms and liberal democracy, as it happens.  Anyway, the point is that while there is undoubtedly a powerful, global conservative movement in Islam, and while most Muslim communities in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East – and their young diasporas in Europe – would not be what I’d call liberal, this does not mean that those Muslims who are liberal are necessarily any worse at being Muslim. Nor does it mean that Islam just hasn’t yet had its reformation. Remember what I wrote earlier about religious beliefs being strongly shaped by material and structural forces? One doesn’t need to spend long comparing the conditions of primarily Muslim countries to Canada, the US, or the UK to see why something other than a failure to reach the requisite theological epoch could be behind Islam’s apparent conservatism. At the same time, one is likely to find greater similarities between Islam and Christianity as its practiced in, say, many African countries, compared to similarities between Christianity there and Christianity here. Again, this is not an argument for crass material determinism – and the powerful conservative religious movements amongst US Christians and British Muslims alike would be two prima facie confounding examples – but for the recognition that belief systems aren’t objects that endure unaffected by the world in which they dwell, exerting causal influences but receiving none from elsewhere.

4. I’ll make this short, since I appear to have rambled and ranted quite a lot. Terrorism is not some kind of extension of religiously driven rage, nor is it the inevitable and cathartic shucking of shackles by the colonised. It is a strategic response, an attempt to connect means to ends in an appropriate and efficient way. WIthout a doubt, individuals committing acts of terrorism believe that the harm they cause is justified, and thus from our perspective they are likely to be quite ‘extreme’ in their beliefs. WIthout a doubt, the moral principles by which those who use terrorism justify their actions are quite often expressed in religious langauge, and makes reference to the grievences – whether legitimate or not – of the colonised and the
oppressed. But if terrorists didn’t think that terrorism would serve their goals, they wouldn’t be terrorists because they wouldn’t use terrorism. We might very reasonably think that the cost of bargaining with groups that hold highly illiberal social goals is too high, but there is no essential reason why we should come to that conclusion. We might decide, after careful consideration of its associated benefits and costs, that hawkish counterterrorism is the best way to go, but that decision should be both contextually contingent and tentative. It may be a tired maxim, but very often, violence begets more violence.

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Marginalia On Radical Thinking: The First Interview with KMO

KMO is the host of Z-Realm and C-Realm , and a thinker on collapse whose thoughts I have seen evolve through the course of his podcast. While not a hard leftist in the since that many of my interviewees, his perspective is among one of the smarter that some on the collapse end of the left. Avoiding a lot of the common tropes to deep green politics.

Skepoet: How would you describe your political and social journey over the past few years?

KMO: I used to hold pretty orthodox and straight-forward libertarian views. Starting in the 1990s, I voted for the Libertarian Party candidate in every presidential election. My support of the LP ended in 2008, when they put up Bob Barr, a career Drug War blowhard, as their presidential candidate. I’ve always gravitated to artists and creative types as friends, and they tend towards what in modern parlance is known as ‘liberalism,’ and I’ve learned through repeated hard experience with strained or terminated friendships that there is nothing to be gained by engaging self-identified progressives in political debate, so my self-identification as a libertarian comes more as a confession than as a loud and proud declaration.

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Marginalia on Skeptical and Radical Thinking: Interview with Sophie Hirschfeld

Sophie Hirschfeld is a writer for various websites, manager of shethought, activist, performer and professional dominatrix. She run the Eastern Washington Sex Workers Outreach Project and often focus on educating the public about the adult industry.  Sophie is the second in my interview series on the North American “skeptic’s movement” but we primarily focus on the politics of sex work and not on epistemology or science activism, so this is placed in both marginalia series.

Skepoet: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions of the sex industry both in terms of workers and in terms of consumers?  In an interview you did on Culture Wars Radio, you said that one of your responses some feminist critiques of sex work as exploitation and objectification, you point out that most work is exploitative. Why do you think there is so much focus on the exploitation in sex work as opposed to be most wage-labor in general?

Sophie Hirschfeld:  I’m not going to pretend I can sum up the misconceptions about sex workers in one response, because there are many. Also, most of what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have data. It bothers me that there is nothing for me to offer beyond mostly experience and a little educated observation. The reality is, many of these issues aren’t examined through testing or studies because few academic institutions are willing to deal with something so controversial.

I’ll highlight what I think is most important, but be aware that this is a very inadequate response and a more accurate response would require a very lengthy book.

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Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A dialogue with Rob Tarzwell

Rob Tarzwell is a doctor of nuclear medicine and a psychiatrist, a skeptic, and a health advocate.

Skepoet: How long have you been involved with the “skeptic’s community” in Canada?

Rob Tarzell: My involvement with skepticism in Canada in any identifiable sense began informally via Skeptics in the Pub in about April 2009. I then attended a Skepticamp, again just as an observer, and then the annual JREF conference, TAM, in Las Vegas that summer.

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Marginalia on Radical Thinking: An Interview with Graham Harman

Graham Harman is a professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo, one of the prime-movers of Object-Oriented philosophy and Speculative Realism as development in post-Continental philosophy, as well as an excellent writer on Latour and  Heidegger as well as H.P. Lovecraft.  He blogs at Object-Oriented Philosophy.  Between his recent travels and his following the Egyptian election, he took the time to answer these questions for me which range from his philosophy to what he sees as a real failure of imagination of the left. 

Skepoet: I am interested in your idea that I heard best expressed in the keynote speech you gave at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (on February 2, 2012) that the idea of “connection” was “once but no longer liberating.” What interested me in this is its emergence in a time of both network theory and a resurgence of interest in Hegel. While your keynote speech pretty clearly articulates your view on the way networking has become ossified, I want to ask why this knowledge of relations and connection was once liberating.

Graham Harman: There were numerous problems with the traditional conception of individual substance, and no doubt the turn to relations had a great liberating force for that reason.

According to the reductionist view, only the ultimate tiny components of the world have reality, and there is something purely accidental about any combinations of them. Consider Leibniz, for whom (despite his notion of monads as reflecting each other like mirrors) there is an absolute difference between “substance” and “aggregate.” For Leibniz a person is a substance, but a circle of people holding hands is not. A diamond is a substance, but two diamonds glued together is not. A tree is a substance, but the Dutch East India Company is not. The mistake here is to think that if something is built of pieces, then it does not deserve to be called an autonomous real thing. The reason this is wrong is because things are not entirely dependent on their pieces. You can replace or remove a few ships of the Dutch East India Company without changing the nature of the company. Obviously, there are certain boundaries of change that cannot be crossed, and it may be difficult to know where to draw the line. If the Dutch East India Company still existed today but used only air transport, and had abandoned business to become a human rights watchdog, would it still really be the same company? But there is equally little reason to hold the opposite view, so that when one hair falls from the head of a single sailor, the company is no longer the same.

A related view considers only natural things as real, so that anything constructed by human artifice is deprived of anything more than accidental status. Or perhaps durability is used as an implicit criterion of the real, so that events such as the 1969 moon landing or snapping one’s fingers are excluded from the ranks of real entities. Sociology and geography become less real than particle physics insofar as everything is supposed to be “grounded” in that more ultimate discipline.

On all these points, the relational view has a strong hand to play against traditional substance. The coalescence of tiny things into a larger one, or the specific local effects an object might have at a fleeting moment, also deserve to be bona fide topics of philosophy— not just empty surface effects waiting in a prison cell for scientistic elimination. There is also the fact that many philosophies of substance tended to assign permanent essences to things, and this had dubious political consequences. If you speak of “the Arab mind” or “the feminine essence” as if these were eternal and knowable constants unchanged across the centuries, rather than as historically produced phenomena, then there are obvious problems. Relationality was supposed to free us from this bad sense of essence. Philosophy shifted from a fascination with the deep, the real, and the substantial to a preoccupation with performances, events, and surfaces that hide no “true” reality underneath. The rights of history were reclaimed, and objects were made to enter into the fray of the world. All of this was liberating indeed.

But it is seldom remembered that every revolution has a limited shelf life. There comes a point when each revolution transforms into the next stale orthodoxy, an empty litany of banal slogans fighting yesterday’s wars. And I’m afraid we have now reached that point with relationality. Now that relations and events have become king in continental philosophy, these battles have largely been won. Rather than endlessly using these theories to beat up the decreasing number of reactionary holdouts, we ought to take a closer look at the problems with relationality itself.

First, there is a simple metaphysical problem: if everything were defined by its relations, then nothing could ever change. Aristotle already showed this in the Metaphysics when speaking against his rivals the Megarians. If I am defined as the person who is sitting on this green stool in Room 208 of the Hotel Braavo in Tallinn, Estonia, and wearing this particular blue shirt at 5:30 PM on June 1, 2012, if there were nothing left in reserve in me beyond my deployment in this specific situation, and if the same were equally true of everything else (as a fully relational ontology requires) then everything would be frozen in its current state. The reality of everything in the universe would be adequately and exhaustively deployed in its situation in this very instant. You can’t get out of the bind by simply positing some sort of magical élan or conatus that would provide a principle of change, because this would merely amount to saying “the world changes by means of a changing faculty”— no better than the famous vis dormitiva of Molière’s comedy Le Malade imaginaire, in which a sleeping pill is said to cause sleep by means of a faculty for causing sleep. For change to be possible, there must be a reservoir of reality not exhausted in the current relational state of a thing. There is also the further point that everything is not related to everything else. Some things and people interact and some do not, even when in the closest physical proximity. This proves that holism is not true. But if everything is not related to everything else, then there is already a buffering principle that isolates things from each other. Any philosophy needs to account for such buffering.

Next, it is especially surprising when the political Left embraces relational ontology (I am astonished that Peter Hallward defends such an ontology), because nothing is more politically reactionary than the idea that we are all exhaustively the products of our context. If I am nothing more than the logical outcome of neo-liberal, late capitalist America, then in the name of what am I supposed to rebel against it? I should instead be profoundly grateful to this system that produced me, since under a different system I would simply vanish and be replaced by a different entity defined by its different relational context. Political transformation is not supposed to be a form of suicide, but a form of liberation. And there can only be calls for liberation if there is something to be liberated— something that does not deserve to be stifled and oppressed by its currently mediocre or horrible conditions.

The problem with the old theory of objects outside of relations is not that they were outside relations, but that one also thought they could know what these things were, and then use that knowledge as political or epistemological leverage. For example, despite the possible objections of Edward Said, there probably is a real thing approximating what we call “the Arab world,” a real cultural structure that channels the individuals who inhabit it in specific directions without their conscious choice. Or “the American mindset.” Or “the age of Romanticism.” Not all such claims will be accurate, of course. If someone speaks of “Des Moines grunge rock” as if it were a genuine musical style, then this is probably just a ludicrous marketing gimmick. In principle, it might be nothing more than a similar gimmick to speak of things like “Southeast Asian culture” or “the female approach to love.” Maybe so.

Nonetheless, if things are not purely relational, then it  also follows that things have essences. I am not the same person as you are. My individual qualities do not erupt into the world for the first time only once they have an effect on something else. I thrived in Egypt, while other expatriates gained nothing from being there; presumably there are things about me that Egypt successfully addressed, while those same traits were absent from the others. Matisse became an artist by accident at around age 21, and van Gogh even later in life. Yet it would not be nonsensical to claim that both of them had artistic gifts preceding those biographical dates, at least for a little while in advance. There is also a reason why it was Matisse and van Gogh rather than any other two people selected from their generation at random. This points to an essence, a reality in the two artists that is not exhaustively deployed in their total artistic catalogs or in their public “performativity,” no matter how unpopular essence has become in philosophy.

There are really just two problems with essence, and it is frankly not that difficult to remove them from your metaphysics while keeping the term “essence.”

1. The idea that the essence can be known. In other words, there is no political problem when we simply speak of “the Arab world.” The political problem comes from thinking that a certain elite group of Orientalist scholars from Oxford and Cambridge can identify the features of that Arab world, and use those features to proclaim that it is essentially Arab to be undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, disorganized, and so forth. This would be an attempt to identify the essence of the Arabs with certain tangibly determinable traits, most of them negative. But in a philosophy like mine, the essence of the Arabs is no more knowable than the essence of van Gogh, a cat, a table, or a neutron. Orientalism results not from calling the Arabs dark and mysterious, but quite the opposite— it comes from explicitly identifying them as undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, and disorganized. The minute you realize that everything is withdrawn from immediate access and can only be known obliquely, an automatic dose of caution and humility is injected into your knowledge.

2. The related idea that the essence is eternal is also a problem. Consider the Scandinavian people, who once produced an endless supply of ferocious Vikings, but are now often viewed as the “peaceniks” of Europe, champions of human rights and social and gender equality. Obviously, one must analyze the history here. If you were simply to say “the Scandinavians are such a civilized people,” this would be no more and no less true than saying “the Scandinavians are brutal marauders with no respect for the sanctity of monasteries.” We must recognize that Scandinavia will follow a different future path from Japan, Kenya, or Lebanon, because these places all have different cultures and histories and different aspirations. But this essence of a culture, like the essence of a person, eagle, army, or coffee mug, is not so easily pieced together from a list of explicitly proclaimed properties that one knowingly ascribes to them.

Stated more technically: metaphysical essentialism is politically harmless, but epistemological essentialism is not.

There is a certain hollowness to the relational standpoint that is not difficult to hear once you tap on it solidly. It has become both metaphysically and politically harmful, and the pendulum is about to swing in the other direction.

People speak of “fashions” in philosophy only in the negative sense, in order to dismiss shallow opponents who always latch onto whatever is trendy. But there is a deeper sense of fashion in philosophy that demands our attention. The world is a mysterious place, and it is not made of propositions. It follows from this that a proposition that is fresh and liberating in 1965 can become the most banal academicism by 2005, if not sooner.

For this reason, it is really quite important to be a trend watcher in philosophy, because trends give us a good sense of where the current boundary lies between fresh statements and platitudes. There is nothing superficial about, say, cheering Deleuze and Badiou in one decade and denouncing them in the next. Philosophy is historical because any statement can turn into a platitude once the surrounding conditions have changed, and philosophy is more about outflanking platitudes than about making eternally true propositions. I don’t believe we are capable of the latter— not because there is no reality, but because reality is not made of statements, and hence every statement is doomed to become an empty platitude someday.

And incidentally, this has nothing to do with being a contrarian. Contrarians simply reverse whatever the mainstream is saying, and therefore are merely parasites on the mainstream. Yet real innovators cannot just reverse the mainstream, but have to dig a new stream where no one was expecting it. It takes a great deal of vision to do this, because it is all too easy to fall into the pre-existent trench wars of the time and place into which we are born.

S:  Similarly, I became aware of your work because of my rejection of the idea of nature as an undifferentiated (thus not understandable) totality that could only be comprehensible by positing a schism that removes humans from the totality falsely. This while coming from a Hegelian background, and not so much a Heideggerian one like yours, but this is effectively the similar problem of the false implications one can draw from misunderstanding the relations between objects/subjects as a relations between independent realities and not something completely formulated by the structure. Why do you think this Gaia hypothesis/Romantic view of nature is so easily matched with the Newtonian/machine view in a way that viewing what we call nature as a relationship between subject/objects or an ecology of those relation may not be so amendable?

G.H.:  I regard Bruno Latour’s views on this topic as definitive. We Have Never Been Modern (1991) is the best account of modernity I’ve seen, and I am often stunned at how little headway it has made among philosophers, as opposed to Latour’s more devoted clientele: anthropologists, geographers, sociologists.

For Latour, the modern world is based on a false dualism between nature and culture, and an equally false effort to purify the two from one another’s residues—all of this accompanied by a hypocritical multiplication of nature-culture hybrids at the very moment of denouncing them. The mission of We Have Never Been Modern is to expose the trickery of these dualisms, and Latour succeeded in that mission flawlessly, though he was only 43 years old at the time, quite young for a philosopher. I cannot stop admiring that book.

Just as the mechanist view is based on an overvaluation of the “nature” pole of reality, the romantic view overvalues the pole of “culture,” or rather of “spirit.” Both strategies are totalizing maneuvers. For the first, nature is a gigantic clockwork system of dead matter that engages in stupefied collisions. For the second, nature is a holistic system of vital interconnectivities. The true situation, by contrast, is that there are simply objects (whether they be plastic, organic, or sandy). These objects are not holistically intertwined; indeed, they have great difficulty making connections, and only some combinations work. Everything does not affect everything else.

However, I’m not sure that any of this speaks against the Gaia Hypothesis. As far as I’m aware, Gaia is not making the massive romantic-metaphysical claim that the entire cosmos is one weeping, pulsating, vital organism. It seems to be the more limited hypothesis that the earth can be viewed as a living organism. This is something that must be decided on the evidence rather than on the basis of some programmatic aversion to romanticism or vitalism. I heard James Lovelock lecture in Dublin in April 2009, and found him perfectly tough-minded— indeed, even a bit grim.

S: Am I to understand you as being somewhat agnostic on the Gaia hypothesis?

G.H.: Only in the sense that I’m not a technical expert on climate change arguments and so can’t say whether Gaia is the right model for understanding global warming or not. But that wasn’t my point. My point was that you can accept Gaia without accepting a metaphysics of spiritual holism in which everything is a big happy organism of mutual interconnectivity. You could be convinced by Lovelock’s argument that the earth functions as a single organism, while still being “parsimonious” and rejecting any claims that there is some sort of world-soul governing the universe as a whole. Stated differently: Gaia is a scientific hypothesis, not a metaphysical one.

But that doesn’t mean it has nothing to teach us about metaphysics. What Gaia teaches us is that some objects might be deeply unified even though at first glance they look like a mere aggregate of multiple entities. If our planet functions as a single organism, then perhaps even larger or more complicated ones do as well. Perhaps entire galaxies or even fields of peas are a single communicating organisms. It doesn’t follow that we must immediately shoot the moon and assume there’s something called “the universe as a whole” that also functions as a single organism.

S: One point I have always wanted to get clarification on is at what point a system becomes an object in your view?  This seems vital to the project of trying to avoid both hyper-reductivism and the privileging of subjects.

G.H.: A sensual object is anything that we regard as a sensual object. We ourselves are the judge of this, because there is no reality principle at work in the sensual sphere apart from what we regard it as being. As soon as I acknowledge Popeye walking around on screen, a unified character enduring through various motions and changes of posture, then Popeye exists as a sensual object. There is nothing “inflationary” about this, because I am simply saying that Popeye must be taken into account, not that there is a real man named Popeye. I suppose certain cases of self-deception are possible even here, but that’s more a problem of faulty introspection than of bad epistemology.

However, as concerns real objects, your question is legitimate. Here we do need to make sure that the gates don’t open and let Popeye, unicorns, and square circles enter our farms and valleys. And we do this by saying that a system is a real object when it has intrinsic qualities that cannot be undermined or overmined.

If all the qualities of the morning star and the evening star turn out to be nothing more than qualities of Venus, then we have successfully undermined these two, and neither is a real object. They are relational phantasms generated by our own interactions with Venus.

If all the qualities of witches turn out to be nothing more than qualities of various disconnected phenomena that people have directly experienced (dead babies in the village, drops of blood near the well, a scarlet fever epidemic) then the supposed object “witch” has been successfully overmined, and the witch is not a real object. Note that Hume and his heirs treat all objects as if they were nothing but witches, breaking them up into symptoms, or into “bundles of qualities.” Despite his jovial demeanor, Hume is a cruel judge, condemning all real objects to be burned at the stake.

But the best we can do is build certain fallible methods to determine what can and cannot be undermined or overmined. That’s because, by definition, there is no direct access to real objects. Real objects are incommensurable with our knowledge, untranslatable into any relational access of any sort, cognitive or otherwise. Objects can only be known indirectly. And this is not just the fate of humans— it’s the fate of everything. Fire burns cotton stupidly, paying no heed to its color, smell, or beautiful purity and softness. Fire interacts with the cotton only insofar as it is flammable. And the same holds for all relations.

S: Why do you think Latour has had so much difficulty being taken seriously by philosophers and has had so much more appeal to anthropologists and sociologists?

G.H.: An excellent question! Perhaps the best way to answer it is to look at what has succeeded in philosophy in recent decades, and then think about how Latour might be a square peg in the eyes of the reigning trends.

We can simplify recent continental philosophy into four basic tendencies:

1. There is phenomenology in the widest sense: including Husserl and Heidegger, then Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Gadamer, and one must put Derrida on this list as well. Then there is a handful of more recently favored examples such as Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion.

2. There is also a separate, Hegelian strand in continental thought. The Frankfurt School can be placed here, and in a different way there is the marked Hegelianism of Žižek, Badiou, and Meillassoux (though Meillassoux is now claiming that I am the one who is stuck in the elevator with Hegel, while Meillassoux himself has moved elsewhere, towards dead matter without a thinking subject). In yet another sense, Judith Butler also belongs to the Hegelian trend, and Butler has to be taken seriously even if her writing isn’t one’s cup of tea. (Butler’s impact has been even more widespread than Latour’s, and she’s also one of the smartest people and best listeners you’ll ever meet.) And I think we can put Lacan here too, or at least Lacan as retroactively read from Slovenia.

3. There is Michel Foucault, who of course wasn’t born in a vacuum, but who does stand somewhat apart from the other trends we’re discussing. Here the subject is not a unified and eternal ego-pole, because it is the historical product of discursive and disciplinary practices that must be studied in detail.

4. Finally, there is the group centered in Deleuze and also containing Gilbert Simondon. The conventional wisdom is that Deleuze can be read as a fusion of Bergson with Spinoza, and this is a case where conventional wisdom hits the bull’s eye. (Dan Smith, one of the best Deleuzians, tells me that Deleuze is actually Spinoza plus Leibniz. But I see nothing at all Leibnizian in Deleuze’s contempt for autonomous individual substances, and also don’t see how one can ignore the deep Bergsonism of Deleuze. In fact, the reason I don’t think that Deleuze is one of the very greatest philosophers is because I don’t think he fully overcomes the gifts that Bergson already gave us.) This group also tends to appropriate Whitehead to itself as a “process” philosopher, even though Whitehead has little in common with Deleuze, as will one day be seen more widely.

This looks like a marvelous diversity of options. But where could Latour possible fit in this schema? For the phenomenologists, the Hegelians, and the Foucauldians, the human subject stands always at the center, despite the constant assertions of many that they have overcome the Cartestian cogito. The human subject might not be so central for Deleuze and the others in Group 4 (though some interpreters still disagree). Yet even in Deleuze’s case there is still no room for the determinacy of individual objects. Some Deleuzians protest loudly at this, but Deleuze is all about becoming, lines of flight, trajectories, pre-individualities, virtual depths and vertical causation rather than horizontal causation along the surface of individual things.

So in the first place, Latour’s philosophy is a theory of individual actors of every sort, engaging in duels with one another, or in trials of force. They are not just phenomena in consciousness, but bona fide autonomous actors. These actors include atoms, skyscrapers, armies, national anthems, canoes, and cartoon characters. The only really object-oriented continental thinker in the four groups above is Husserl, and for Husserl there are intentional objects in consciousness, not actors independent of consciousness.

Whitehead is another object-oriented thinker, and Latour and Whitehead do have a great deal in common. But Whitehead has already been hijacked by Deleuzians, and thus he has not helped make an opening for Latour, since people are too ready to turn Whitehead into the proto-Deleuzian that he is not. And now there are efforts to turn Latour himself into a Deleuzian, which is not what Latour is either. We are well into the “Deleuze is compatible with everyone and foresaw everything” phase, the lack of a challenging outside, which always announces the closing decadence of any philosopher’s vogue; Derrideanism got this way by the early 1990’s. And now the Deleuze industry is finally on the point of overheating and excess inventory, and soon there will be layoffs and plant closures.

On one level it’s a shame, because Deleuze was such a liberation in the mid-1990’s from the all the excesses of Derrideans. But this is how the life cycle of popular philosophers works: all are doomed to overthrow by some future young generation. The really great thinkers are simply the ones who can bounce back from the collapse of their fashion. People keep coming back to the great thinkers because there is no alternative—there is something in those thinkers that you can’t forget, that you can’t get from anywhere else, even when they are no longer the latest style. Over the next twenty to thirty years, we’ll learn for the first time what Deleuze is really made of. Can he bounce back and remain an obligatory thinker even after Deleuzianism has become as dated as disco and lava lamps? Even now, we’re in the midst of seeing whether Derrida can clear this hurdle. And if speculative realism is successful, then someday it will happen to us as well. Our words will all look like annoying, imprisoning clichés at some point in the future, and (assuming we succeed to that degree in the first place), we will be a new orthodoxy that one must overthrow to build anything new. Fifty to sixty years from now, our grandchildren can see if we’re able to bounce back from that coming traumatic blow. And then Tristan Garcia and his peers will be fed through the same furnace a generation later. This is, inevitably, the price to pay for a successful philosophy.

But to return more specifically to your question… In the second place, the human being is of no central importance for Latour. We are just one actor among others. It may be true, as I’ve heard Manuel DeLanda claim, that Latour still requires a human observer for any network of actors to exist. In a sense, yes, this sometimes seems true of Latour. But I see this as an artifact of his focus on the philosophy of science, and science by definition always involves humans. There are other passages where Latour clearly states that objects interpret each other just as we interpret them.

To summarize: Latour like Whitehead has a flat ontology in which all entities are equally entities, and in which human knowledge and perception are not privileged forms of relation. But for most of the recent successful continental philosophies, either the human was overtly privileged, or if this was not obviously the case (as in Deleuze), then there was still a focus on “becoming” or on pre-individual forces and fluxes rather than on fully-formed individual things.

Object-oriented philosophy does the opposite, and thus it has found a living ancestral hero in Latour. Garcia never cites Latour and doesn’t seem to read him, but the increasing visibility of Garcia will probably also help the fortunes of Latour in philosophy, simply by helping shift attention away from the privileged human towards the multiplicity of both human and non-human actors.

So, why has Latour succeeded in anthropology and sociology nonetheless? For obviously enough, those disciplines have always been even more human-centered than philosophy. Perhaps it was through their very excess, the extremity of their anthropocentric illness, that they were desperately in need of an antidote. Perhaps this is why Latour became a necessary cure for them, and why so many of them remained Latour addicts even after the disease was cured.

S: What do you make of the recent turn from Heidegger to Hegel in many circles? Do see you this as merely due to mystification by other academics? Fear of political contagion? Or real, substantive difference? Or bits of all these?

G.H.: I do think political reasons are partly responsible, though not in the sense that “Heidegger was a Nazi, and we must have nothing to do with Nazis anymore.” A few scandalous books still say this sort of thing, such as Emmanuel Faye— but who in philosophy takes Faye seriously? Heidegger has received a fair hearing from philosophers despite his Nazism, and I must say that Heidegger deserved this fair hearing, despite his execrable politics. He was simply the greatest philosopher of the past century, and we can’t afford to get rid of him, even if it would feel good in some ways to give him the boot. If he were any less a thinker, he would already be an outcast, but he forced himself into the party through sheer genius. And he won’t be leaving the party, so get used to him.

But the political factors at play in the shift to Hegel are less negative ones against Heidegger than positive claims in favor of Hegel. Hegel stands for the elimination of the unknowable thing-in-itself, for the rationality of the real. In Hegel’s own case, this famously leads to a form of conservatism: the way things already are has a certain internal logic to it. Thus it is that (non-Marxist) Hegelians have not generally been revolutionaries. They tend to feel well-adjusted to their surroundings, and are often very happy people. And no wonder, since they do not feel haunted by the tragic, ungraspable residues that eat at the souls of Heideggerians.

But if you eliminate the thing-in-itself, then at least you eliminate the sense of a non-human element of fate or destiny that efforts at political change would otherwise be stumbling over. Politics becomes the sphere of what is knowable, and with Hegel the sphere of the knowable and first philosophy are one and the same. Thus, the turn to Hegel has obvious political motives to accompany the non-political motives of those who are convinced by the critique of the an sich in German Idealism.

Yet as I’ve said, there is nothing inherently “Left” in Hegel, and even something pretty conservative. To make Hegel worthy of the Left again, it is necessary to restore some contingency and decision-making power to the mix. And this is precisely what we find in three of the most powerful Hegelian thinkers of today: Žižek, Badiou, Meillassoux. In Žižek there is the mad human subject that punctures the fabric of the world and makes its own decisions. In Badiou there is the sudden event that breaks with the state of the situation and commands our fidelity (and all of Badiou’s “events” are recognizably “Left” events that pose little intellectual challenge to anyone who is already radical enough to admire Mao). And in Meillassoux there is the destruction of the principle of sufficient reason, the metaphysics of contingency, and the view that just as matter, life, and thought emerged suddenly for no reason at all, so too a world of justice might one day appear in which God and a Christ-like mediator resurrect all the unjustly slaughtered people of the twentieth century and earlier times.

In all of these philosophies, the subject remains at the center, and frankly it is always a privileged human subject despite Badiou’s various attempts to deny this. In such philosophies, politics may be a realm of sudden upsurges and surprises without any reason outside the subject itself. Yet they remain philosophies dominated by the subject, and too little aware of the political role played by non-human things. So, go ahead and call Bruno Latour “Roman Catholic and neoliberal” all you like. In the long run he may still have more to teach us about politics than these others, who are simply putting a new “contingency” spin on an already well-digested Marxism that has had more than enough problems of its own.

Q7: I was reading a dialogue you had with the blogger K-Punk on the failure of leftist imagination. While as a person in the harder Marxist tradition, I may be an offender, I actually found that I agreed with you on how severely limited the imagination of the left: not just the Marxian left either. Has Occupy changed your mind or expanded your thoughts on the matter? Or perhaps your direct experience of the so-called “Arab Spring?”

K-Punk (Mark Fisher) is a friend, and I greatly enjoyed his book Capitalist Realism. It is undeniably true that the political imagination has become paralyzed (though I doubt this is more true of politics than of other fields). I saw parts of the Arab Spring up close, and the events of that period taught me something, as genuine events should. There were plenty of protest movements throughout my time in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak, against torture, against the Emergency Law. And one could always agree with these criticisms while still thinking that “for now, Egypt is probably better off than it might be under other circumstances.” But in January 2011, I like others was shocked into realizing suddenly what a wrong-headed attitude that was. Mubarak became for me, retroactively, something terrible that always had to be thrown out all along. The Revolutionaries showed me this through provoking a brutal response that showed the truth of the situation in Egypt, which I now see that I had accepted too lazily as a given. Indeed, I had been guilty of a failure of imagination, which is what philosophers should always be ready to avoid. The killings by snipers, the use of plainclothes thugs on camels and horses, and the cynical machinations of Mubarak in response to calls for his ouster, may simply have brought the pre-existent life of the Egyptian dungeons onto the street, as one of the human rights groups remarked at the time. But it took the events on the street to shake me from slumber, and I have not yet recovered from that experience.

Nor did it stop with the departure of Mubarak. In March, one month after Mubarak’s departure, we had the grotesque “virginity tests” on female protestors at the Egyptian Museum— effectively rapes of which no one was convicted. In the autumn of 2011 we had the massacre of peaceful Copts and their Muslim supporters in the Maspero neighborhood of downtown Cairo, and even worse, the bloodcurdling call on television for Egyptian citizens to come out and protect their army from the marauding Copts. In February 2012, we had the Port Said massacre of the pro-Revolution Ahly Ultras after a football match, an incident for which remnants of Mubarak’s apparatus were no doubt responsible. And now we have the upcoming June runoff election, with the terribly painful choice that seems to pit religious fascism against military fascism. Nonetheless, one must have hope. And having no voting rights in Egypt, I am at least spared what looks like a miserable decision between the two candidates.

Egypt was a great moment for the Left, and I even think it was a great moment for Badiou. Rarely have I seen such a great example of a Badiouian “event.” There was a bit of a backstory to the Egyptian Revolution, of course (the murder by police of blogger Khaled Said in Alexandria in June 2010, the Revolution in Tunisia just before Egypt’s). Nonetheless, it met many of Badiou’s criteria for a sudden event not previously inscribed in the situation, and it did command fidelity for any clear-thinking person who could sense what was at stake. We Americans were also clearly implicated in the counter-Revolutionary currents in Egypt, including our unlikely President Barack Obama (someone I like a great deal and whom I have supported, whatever complaints might be made about him).

Having said all of that, it is always important to avoid what I have called “the taxonomic fallacy.” The taxonomic fallacy is the belief that one particular entity or kind of entity can perfectly incarnate some ontological structure. The concept is not that different from Heidegger’s or Derrida’s critiques of “onto-theology.”

For example, the scientistic wing of speculative realism (Brassier and his associates at the journal Collapse) sometimes say that since speculative realism favors realism, then it must favor science against the humanities and listen to physics and brain science rather than sociology and literature. This is an obvious philosophical blunder. For the humanities also deal with what it is real, even if we are speaking here of large-scale realities such as nations and literary styles rather than particles and fields or neural activation patterns. At the same time, the natural sciences are also perfectly capable of failing to confront the real, as when they reduce bona fide mid-scale entities to an ancestral narrative of micro-sized physical subcomponents. The lesson of realism is not that certain human disciplines are realist and should be praised, while others are anti-realist and should be denounced. Instead, the lesson is that we should beware the tendencies of anti-realist currents in all human research, the natural sciences included. Otherwise, we commit the taxonomic fallacy in the typical manner of Brassier and his followers.

And this was one of the things I said to K-Punk in the exchange on his blog, or at least one of the things I was trying to say (I haven’t read that debate since it was posted). If we say that “capitalism” (or fuzzier still, “late capitalism”) has paralyzed the political imagination, it still does not follow that all capitalism oppress the imagination while all Left academic activity liberates it. As I asked K-Punk rhetorically, is Fredric Jameson really more imaginative than Steve Jobs?

We may live in a world dominated by “late capitalist” enterprises such as Apple, Amazon, Starbucks, and Facebook. And these companies can usually be found to have some blood on their hands, simply because you can’t grow that large without taking advantage and cutting corners (who wasn’t disturbed by the New York Times exposés on Apple’s metal-polishing practices in China?). Nonetheless, when that much money is poured into something, it’s not just a sign of exploitation and the sickening concentration of wealth, but also the sign of vitality. “Follow the money” is not just a maxim that allows us to point fingers at the morally corrupt. It is also a desperately needed reality principle that shows us where the energy can be found, not all of it bad.

And like it or not, Apple and Amazon are stirring up more interest, even among intellectuals, than most academic critiques of capitalism. Is that just because we are all a bunch of brainwashed idiots locked in on our own trivial conveniences? Hardly. It’s because these companies are also doing something exciting that addresses where consciousness really is today, and which it didn’t know that it wanted. Did I know in advance that my brain would catch fire as soon as I had a smartphone and a tablet computer? Not at all. I initially thought both of these things were consumerist pseudo-needs, just like the academic Left still does. But I was wrong, and so were they. To have the right electronic device in your hands can sharpen your brain as much as the discovery of an important new author. We should of course be aware of how the relatively cheap availability of such products leads to explosions, lung disease, and suicides among Chinese factory workers, and it’s a terrible failure of imagination if we close our ears to such reports. But it is also a grievous failure of imagination to be always on the side of the critics and the grumblers. Life has to be optimistic, or it becomes merely reactive. And I really fear that the Left is becoming the permanent homeland of the critics and the grumblers. The Left has its moments (Egypt for sure). But we should not commit the taxonomic fallacy of holding that to grumble is always a more profound political act than to put all the books of the world on an easily accessible website.

What I also miss on the Left, for instance, is a sufficient appreciation of 1989 (the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 is old news by now, but ’89 is an earthquake that many of us still remember). It is frankly a failure of imagination to try to explain away 1989 by griping about how Central Europe was simply recuperated into a banal consumer capitalism and nothing changed, or that at least political discourse mattered behind the Iron Curtain before ’89, and so forth.

Don’t underrate the obvious: would you want to live under Honecker or Ceauceşcu or Jaruszelski? If you can’t answer that question quickly, then you’ve had a failure of imagination, and I would recommend that you make some more friends from the former East Bloc. They will set you straight, and you will be ashamed to say the sorts of things to them that you might say among grumbling Western academics. But it’s a lot easier to forget and ignore what the years before 1989 meant in the East, because it’s a lot more fashionable to complain about late capitalism.

There is something to be said for making a virtue of necessity. The Leftisms we know were born amidst nineteenth century philosophical idealism, and it is hardly any wonder that they appeal to that idealism ever more explicitly as time goes by. But my sense is that the contemporary capitalism they detest harbors a fresher and more imaginative principle of reversal than the ones for which they call, which tend to be little more than Maoism or Stalinism—or worse yet, condescending grumbles without a program (at least the Maoists and Stalinists put their cards on the table and risk being harshly judged).

S: Do you think your concept of vicarious causation has political implications?

G.H.: I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll think of some, or maybe others will think of them for me.

What I most resist is the idea that philosophy should be the handmaid of anything else. I suppose we all agree now that philosophy is not the handmaid of theology. But now there are those who want to make it the handmaid of the Left, or of ethics, or even of brain science. Consider Thomas Metzinger’s appalling and shallow vision that brain science will solve all the traditional philosophical problems, but that we’ll still need philosophers to sit on ethics panels.

Philosophy is the handmaid of nothing, not even the handmaid of climate change. Does that mean philosophy is apolitical? No, it means that philosophy should play a longer game when it comes to politics. Locke, Rousseau, and Marx all had their real political effects long after their deaths. We’ve become too addicted to the specifically recent French model of the philosophe engagé, which is just one model among others. It is not necessarily one that can be exported outside French social conditions— the French politics of radical manifestoes and “clear and distinct ideas” does not work well in America, just as dry, ultra-technical German philosophy succeeds only when the social prestige of university professors is guaranteed in advance, which is not true in the United States.

Even from attending university time management workshops you can learn the valuable distinction between “important” matters and “urgent” ones. The urgent matters are those that must be taken care of right now, without delay. Climate change is one of those, and many of the other causes of the Left are urgent, since they deal with addressable exploitation going on at this very minute. But it does not follow that the mission of philosophy is to deal with urgent matters. Philosophy is not governance, but it is also not activism or militancy (I openly reject Badiou’s concept of philosopher as militant).

It is far from clear that philosophers can even be of use to activists, who are generally driven by facts on the ground that no philosopher is in a position to know, unless that philosopher happens to be an activist as well as a second occupation. Philosophy should not be “apolitical,” because politics is one of the important spheres of human life. But it does not follow that philosophy must always address the urgent political issues of the moment in which it is written. Urgent issues have a way of changing from decade to decade, while any philosophy worthy of the name ought to be readable fifty if not one hundred years or more after it is written. Feel free to appreciate the philosopher-activist. But do not demand that the philosopher be an activist.

Franz Brentano, one of the most underrated philosophers of all time, makes the claim that the great periods of philosophy have been periods when philosophy was committed to a purely theoretical standpoint, rather than used for ulterior motives such as political ones. Like all sweeping claims of this kind, there are surely counter-examples (though the remarkable contrast between the philosophies of reactionary Germany and revolutionary France at the time of the Revolution is widely known). But let’s take Brentano seriously for a moment. Is there not something to be said for the philosopher not getting too closely entangled with the passing events of the day? There may be times when this is irresponsible or even reprehensible. But if you find that you must act, whether by joining the resistance or denouncing a tyrant, is it really qua philosopher that you act, or only qua human citizen? And when you do resist or speak out, is it really the case that in doing so you must be informed by your metaphysics? Pure theoretical contemplation has a bad name these days, but it has its place under the sun, even an important place. We should no more expect metaphysics to save democracy, immigrants, and free speech than we should expect a mountain to dodge a cannonball shot at its face. The scale of movement is much slower. You can’t expect tap-dancing from a whale. What you can expect is that eventually, the movements of the whale will throw powerful waves against the tyrants living on shore.