Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Thursday, December 26, 2013

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, ALFIE?


As often happens when I am particularly distressed by the seeming fruitlessness of ideological critique from the left [how bad have things become when I find that I must hope that Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016?], I pulled my copy  of Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man off the shelf.  I was looking for a passage I recalled in the Introduction.  Here it is.  Those of you who have copies of the book will find it on page xiii.

"In the absence of demonstrable agents and agencies of social change, the critique is thus thrown back to a high level of abstraction.  There is no ground on which theory and practice, thought and action, meet.  Even the most empirical analysis of historical alternatives appears to be unrealistic speculation, and commitment to them a matter of personal (or group) preference.

"And yet:  does this absence refute the theory?  In the face of apparently contradictory facts, the critical analysis continues to insist that the need for qualitative change is as pressing as ever before.  Needed by whom?  The answer continues to be the same:  by the society as a whole, for every one of its members.  The union of growing productivity and growing destruction; the brinkmanship of annihilation; the surrender of thought, hope, and fear to the decisions of the powers that be; the preservation of misery in the face of unprecedented wealth constitute the most impartial indictment -- even if they are not the raison d'être of this society but only its by-product:  its sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational.

"The fact that the vast majority of the population accepts, and is made to accept, this society does not render it less irrational and less reprehensible.  The distinction between true and false consciousness, real and immediate interest is still meaningful."

This passage is Marcuse's apology, as it were, for the abstractness of the book.  It is also, I think,  a profound observation on the real relationship between ideological theory and revolutionary practice.  Despite being a German intellectual with impeccable credentials as a theorist in the tradition of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, Marcuse recognized that his theorizing, if it were to be effective, must rest on, and draw its strength from, working class movements and organizations.  In their absence, as he so poignantly puts it, his analysis must seem unrealistic speculation, and his commitment to historical alternatives "a matter of personal preference."

Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man in 1964, just before the anti-war student movement erupted here and abroad into what, at the time, seemed a world-historical conflagration.  I recall thinking, "Well, Herbert missed the revolution by about six months."  Now, with half a century of hindsight, I can see that his diagnosis was right on the mark.  I have had great hopes for the Occupy Wall Street eruption, and certainly its instincts were correct about the source of our troubles.  But lacking any sort of organizational and institutional structure, that healthy outpouring of energy left little of permanence on which to build.

I remain convinced that Reagan's successful attack on labor unions was crucially important in the evisceration of serious radical protest.  Important, too, of course was the decades-long outsourcing of good working class jobs, which, as LFC noted in a recent comment, helps to explain the precipitous decline in working class wages over the past thirty years.

I share Marcuse's belief that the work of intellectuals on the left has some value, even though it is not, and cannot be, the engine for social change.  When I had tea with Bertrand Russell in 1954, he said that if he had it to do over, he would have gone into physics rather than philosophy.  I cannot honestly say that if I had it to do over, I would have become a union organizer rather than an academic.  But I devoutly hope that someone out there is making that choice.

4 comments:

Chris said...

As someone who participated in Occupy I have to raise a disagreement with your statement: " I have had great hopes for the Occupy Wall Street eruption, and certainly its instincts were correct about the source of our troubles. "

As far as I could tell Occupy never did have correct instincts. They were convined that the problems of capitalism and the state were things like greed, particular growth of finance companies, stagnant wages, etc. They never once realized that it was the very internal logic of capitalism that both is and was the problem. 99% and 1% was a claim about wealth distribution, not a claim about the relationship around the means of production.

T Gent said...

Still, redistribution is a battle that can get a lot of people on board. It is true that the 1% have indescribably more than ever before, and pointing out the sheer absurdity of the numbers involved can change the public's perception if not of capitalism, at least of the way it has developed in the past thirty years or so.
And some good ol' redistribution would be a great, great thing.

And by the way, I sometimes think that we shouldn't dismiss greed too quickly when accounting for some momentous phenomena. I think one of the most revealing perspectives on the reasons behind the Iraqi war - and the reason it has gone on so long - is the one Naomi Klein gives in 'The Shock Doctrine'. And it stops short of geo-politics and control of oil. It's about friends of the president and his aides having the chance to be the contractors that carry out some military action and all the supporting activities it requires, for an indefinite amount of time, without controls. It's simply about greed.

I think with some phenomena (phenomena not like capitalism in general, but rather like the growing inequality it engenders), you can reach a point where the most penetrating insight is precisely not going too deep - there is no point.

Chris said...

I just don't see how the problems of capitalism are distribution based, and not based on the social organization around the means of production, and moreover emanating from production. Inequality is not the underlining cause of this crisis, nor most if any crises, which is what engendered Occupy in the first place. It's the falling rate of profit. And income redistribution cannot address the falling rate of profit. Nor can it address exploitation, an authoritarian hierarchy, and alienation. Not to mention capital flight, and planetary destruction.

Remember Wolff's claim was that Occupy had the right instincts regarding "the source of our troubles". The source of our troubles is not that Lloyd Blankfein, or Jamie Diamond are multi-millionaires. It's capitalism itself.

Now don't get me wrong, if I could go out right now and make a vote that took massive chunks of their wealth and put it into a program to empower the homeless, or give better schooling to urban youth, I would. But I wouldn't for a second think I had addressed the "source of our troubles", or that the profit rate was rescued or alienation had ended, or exploitation was over, or the planet was saved.


Remember Wolff's claim was that Occupy had the right instincts regarding "the source of our troubles". The source of our troubles is not that Lloyd Blankfein, or Jamie Diamond are multi millionaires. It's capitalism itself.

Now don't get me wrong, if I could go out right now and make a vote that took massive chunks of their wealth and put it into a program to empower the homeless, I would. But I wouldn't for a second think I had addressed the "source of our troubles", or that the profit rate was rescued, or alienation had ended, or exploitation was over, or the planet was saved.

T Gent said...

I do not think that the problems of capitalism are based on distribution; rather, insanely unbalanced distribution is one more huge problem on top of everything else.

The economic crisis and the issue of redistribution should be kept separate, and you are right if you mean that Occupy has conflated them.