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Saturday, December 7, 2013


Yesterday afternoon, I spend three hours at Duke University discussing my paper, A Unified Reading of Marx, with twenty-five faculty and graduate students from four or five different departments.  It was an extremely enjoyable experience for me [they were, after all, talking about my work -- how could it be otherwise?]  The only drawback, from my point of view, was that by prior agreement everyone left after three hours.  I mean, I had not even told a tenth of the stories I wanted to tell, and with a glass of wine, provided by Professor Michael Gillespie, the organizer of the event, I was ready to go another three hours.

There were a great many good questions and comments, including several from my old students, Allan Buchanan and Alexander Rosenberg, now unaccountably senior members of the Philosophy Department [how did that happen so fast?], but the most interesting comment, to my mind, came from Darren Beattie, a graduate student.  [I think I found it the most interesting because Beattie suggested something that had never occurred to me before, and that does not happen to me very often after almost sixty years at this game.]

Some of you may have read my essay, "The Future of Socialism" [archived at], in which I observe that Marx failed to foresee the continuing ethnic, racial, religious, and nationalist sentiments that divide the working class and impede solidarity.  Beattie reminded us all that in the several generations after World War II, while working class solidarity in the United States has frayed and dissipated, a series of liberation movements have taken the place of economic mobilization on the left -- the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Liberation Movement, the LGBT Liberation Movement, among others.  Perhaps, he suggested, these movements will dissolve the forces separating segments of the working class from one another and thus prepare the way for a rebirth of a mass movement of the dispossessed [I hope I am capturing his idea correctly.]

Now, those who know me are aware that I am an incurable optimist, a Tigger rather than an Eeyore.  If there is even a drop in the glass, I am prepared to declare it half full.  I have been dismayed for decades by the substitution of cultural liberation movements for serious economic attacks on capitalism, viewing them as merely perfections of the capitalist labor market rather than challenges to capitalism.  If Darrin Beattie is right, perhaps I have reason to hope.  As I say, it only takes a drop in the glass for me to see it as half full, if not on the brink of overflowing.

All in all, a splendid event.  I hope I don't have to wait eighty more years for another!


Unknown said...

I am interested in your thesis that "society is essentially, unavoidably ideologically encoded" and the necessary illusions/mystifications process. 1) I think the mystifying comes out of human interaction in the context of large numbers (large numbers of humans must interact through mystifications). Our emotional constitutions vary according to the numbers of persons we interact with and how frequently we interact with them. 2) To add some humour, you ought to call what you are describing "the veil of Mystification" and make it analogous to Rawls' veil of ignorance. But our original position is ideologically rooted and we conceive justice through conceptual lens that we do not control. We late-comers are slaves to our predecessors' most successful language-games. We put on the veil of mystification in order to think that we are acting justly in a capitalist society when we obey property laws. 3) Liberation of individuals from a mystified understanding of society must be the work of our whole species together, in arguing with and correcting each other continuously, and updating the historical record we must preserve for posterity to mean anything. 4) If our language is not free, and we are forced into certain points of view and not to see other possibilities, then poetry and drama are more appropriate means of liberation than science and experiment in this context. The species-wide appeal of Aristophanes or Shakespeare is what we get when literary genius connects with the world beyond which we have been ideologically enclosed. We witness a higher reality through a Henry Thoreau meditation at Walden, as he tries to escape the ideology of slavery that contaminated his everyday life. 5) Maybe your optimism is ideologically based as well. Maybe humanity does not need to live in reality because it can exist disconnected from it via shared mystifications. Our flight from reality is one of the defining features of religion, that undying rumour. 6) Take a look at The Media and Modernity by John Thompson, and the many works of Armand Mattelart on the history of communication. Communication evolves through the uncoupling of time and place, so that face to face talk is replaced by indirect forms of communication across time and space. The mediatization of society has made it more susceptible of mystification or for sharing such mystification widely, which seems a condition for its importance. The internet allows the uncoupling of person and thought, so that your blog can be your ticket to electronic immortality forever after. The uncoupling of knowledge and everyday consciousness is a prominent theme of Heidegger's Being and Time as well. Disconnection from reality is also important when the dentist is working on my teeth. So if mystification works for us, why can't you as a philosopher be pragmatic and accept that as what fallible and gullible human beings do with and to each other? To be human is not to be true to others, but in a state of bottomless mystification.

Unknown said...

Stephen said...

I appreciate the originality of Darrin Beattie's point, but I wonder if the recent history of South Africa (so much in the news right now, of course) falsifies this point. If anything, overcoming a racist system and achieving a significant advance against homophobia have seemed to further entrench economic inequality and a violent form of capitalism.

On the other hand, where I sit in Massachusetts, after longstanding progressive movements working a variety of social issues (from abolitionism to gay marriage) there seems to be an opening for economic issues now with the election of Elizabeth Warren, a gubernatorial candidate who backs single-payer healthcare, and a probable state minimum-wage increase in the near future. There's still a fight for every inch forward, of course.