Concluding (un)pedantic post-script

So in the follow-up to the little feud concerning my response to his review of Lincoln, Aaron Bady grew quite upset. Now, I’ve been quite up front about the fact that I’m not myself a specialist on nineteenth-century US history. What little I do know has been mostly cobbled together from introductory texts on the subject in high school and college, Lenin’s detailed study comparing the Southern slave system to serfdom in Russia, and then from numerous conversations with friends who actually are studying the subject for their doctoral research. Despite these numerous disclaimers, Bady insisted that I was “hiding behind someone else” and didn’t know what I was talking about.

More specifically, he wrote:

Aaron Bady: [C]alling Abraham Lincoln an abolitionist is wrong; he was against slavery, but he wasn’t an abolitionist. Someone who knew what they were talking about would know the difference.

This tactic is rather old hat, trying to intimidate potential critics by invoking supposedly hard-and-fast technicalities about the correct usage of terms. The takeaway from this lesson is supposed to be “Wow, this guy is obviously a specialist. I’m not; I don’t even know the most basic nomenclature! I’d better lay off, lest I put my foot in my mouth again.”

Just to hammer this point home, Bady took it further by repeating the procedure a second time:

Aaron Bady: Do you literally not know what Abolitionist means? It doesn’t mean “opposed to slavery.” “Moderate abolitionist” isn’t a thing. Like the vast majority of northern whites, Lincoln spent his life adhering to the free labor principles of Henry Clay, a near majority position that was NOT the same thing as abolitionist. To use the word in its actual meaning, abolitionist means abolishing slavery now, which was a minority position.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who noticed him trying to give me the rhetorical runaround. There was another discussant in the thread who was wise to this schtick, who messaged me writing:

Unnamed Discussant: Wow, this Aaron Bady guy is a knob. Never had a new social historian pull the “I’m an authority on this, peasant” on me before.

I suppose there’s a first time for everything. Continue reading

Abraham Lincoln as photographed by Alexander Gardner

Against what radicals?

A critical response to Aaron Bady’s
Lincoln review in Jacobin

Abraham Lincoln will take no step backward. His word has gone out over the country and the world, giving joy and gladness to the friends of freedom and progress wherever those words are read, and he will stand by them, and carry them out to the letter.

— Frederick Douglass, “Emancipation Proclaimed” (October 1862)

President Lincoln,

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

— Karl Marx, “Letter to Abraham Lincoln” (1865)

Marx did not, of course, consider Abraham Lincoln a communist; this did not, however, prevent Marx from entertaining the deepest sympathy for the struggle that Lincoln headed. The First International sent the Civil War president a message of greeting, and Lincoln in his answer greatly appreciated this moral support.

— Leon Trotskii, “Mexico and Imperialism” (1938)

Aaron Bady, a student at UC Berkeley, recently contributed a review of the Spielberg-Kushner blockbuster Lincoln to Jacobin‘s online blog. One of the sad consequences of hanging around people who work extensively on the history of the antebellum US, as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and the Marxist historiography thereof (the various accounts given it by Marx, Lenin, and the young Genovese, to name a few), is that I can’t help but roll my eyes at the pseudo-radicalism evinced by reviews like this.

They either distort facts about the history or rely on lazy New Left tropes about how it’s all just a plot to aggrandize whitey and reassert the gratitude of the oppressed to their former oppressors, who awoke one morning and beneficently decided to liberate them. It ultimately boils down to this dreary, cloying, and by now insufferable Alltagsgeschichte point about the need to write history “from below” as opposed to history “from above” — a false dichotomy if ever there was one. Even then, the article requires extremely tendentious readings of more serious historians like Eric Foner or Robin Blackburn to sustain it.

Communist Party USA meeting in Chicago, 1939: Even the Stalinists had better historical consciousness

Communist Party USA meeting in Chicago, 1939: Even the Stalinists had better historical consciousness

Despite the not insignificant role of newly-freed blacks serving in the Union military, as well as by slaves taking it upon themselves to cast off the yoke of their masters, general emancipation certainly would not have come about were it not for the bloody, protracted, armed struggle of Northern armies against the forces of the South. The collapse of the plantation system of slavery in the South was hardly inevitable; it cannot be chalked up to the struggle of the enthralled on the basis of any sort of “inherent” freedom or dignity that they had hitherto been denied. Bady does not deny wholesale the historical importance of such acts as the Emancipation Proclamation, but he does seem to suggest that their importance was purely rhetorical or symbolic (i.e., not political). When a Frenchman of Engels’ acquaintance sought to dismiss Lincoln’s address on these grounds, Marx’s reply was brief but devastating:

The fury with which the Southerners are greeting Lincoln’s acts is proof of the importance of these measures. Lincoln’s acts all have the appearance of inflexible, clause-ridden conditions communicated by a lawyer to his opposite number. This does not, however, impair their historical import and does, in actual fact, amuse me when, on the other hand, I consider the drapery in which your Frenchman enwraps the merest trifle.

New Leftism dies hard.

Critics like Bady would like to see a more “representative” sample set, which in the end amounts to nothing more than superficial pandering to ideas about political correctness that may be even more shallow, all accomplished through nauseatingly ostentatious displays of “diversity.” It’s the most disgusting, condescending tokenism dressed up as somehow vaguely radical. In reality, of course, it’s just the old, preening liberal commonplace about the way minorities are underrepresented in Hollywood.

If nothing else, this review provides still more proof that a movie (or work of art, or piece of music, or whatever) can be bad/boring and yet the reviews criticizing it can outdo it in their utter banality.

Alexander Hesler (Springfield, Illinois): Abraham Lincoln; Albumen print, 6.5 x 8.5 inches (1860)

But there’s a deeper political subtext at work in Brady’s review. It comes through in lines like these:

[G]etting the radicals in line is important in the political arena because it allows moderates like Lincoln or Obama to operate through consensus.

As Chris Cutrone has pointed out, Obama’s not a compromiser. Obama doesn’t even have principles to compromise. Nor is he a “moderate,” whatever that might mean today. To contrast:

1. Obama’s a right-wing politician who has to this point failed to implement his right-wing political agenda.
2. Lincoln was a moderate Abolitionist who succeeded in abolishing slavery. 

Yes, Reconstruction failed, and blacks in America were by no means in the clear. But Lincoln built his career in the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision, and was a firm abolitionist throughout. He was often a reluctant actor, and his hand was forced by History itself, but Marx and the First International in general (both socialists and anarchists) were absolutely right to celebrate him.

In terms of “getting the radicals in line,” who does Obama have to “get in line” who’s a radical? Nancy Pelosi? You think he gives a damn about the DSA or the other lite-lefty groups that groveled in support of him around the election? Lincoln had Thaddeus Stevens running the House of Representatives to deal with. Stevens’ radicalism and outright bellicosity would have scared even the most leftish Obamaites of today into reaction. The same goes with Frederick Douglass, who while not a member of government was a public intellectual figure whose standing far exceeds that of any US leftist of recent memory. And that’s to say nothing of Robert Gould Shaw, who led the black regiment portrayed in the film Glory in the charge on Battery Wagner (in which he perished), who was a fanatical supporter of Lincoln. There’s nothing even remotely equivalent for Obama.

Ultimately, viewing Obama as a “compromiser” who has to “get radicals in line” strikes me as the opinion of someone who actually thinks that Obama and the Dems are salvageable. The person who wrote this is simply vying for a place within the Democratic Party — i.e., as one of the so-called “radicals.” If Spielberg and Kushner (neither of whom I exactly like, for the record) wanted to make a misguided comparison of Obama to Lincoln, then the author of this review tacitly accepted this comparison — and tried to elevate himself to the rank of a “radical” opposition member within the President’s party. In other words: someone whose position carries real political weight, whose opinions Obama might actually have to take into consideration before starting his next war.


The “arkhitektons” and “planets” of Suprematism

Kazimir Malevich, Nikolai Suetin,
and Il’ia Chashnik, 
with an
article by Aleksei Gan

Extracts from SA, 1927
(no. 3, pgs. 104-106)

During recent years comrade Malevich has worked exclusively in the field of volumetric Suprematist compositions, on problems of the volumetric and spatial forms of material masses. This is somewhat related to the tasks facing creators of modern architecture.

Malevich works intuitively…His experience is not organized by consciousness…So while volumetric Suprematism does not yield objects of that concrete social utility without which modern architecture is not architecture at all, they have vast importance as abstract research of new form, as such.

Kazimir Malevich does not accept either [Rationalism or Constructivism]. He pursues his own “purely suprematist” path, on the principle of its “primacy” or “superiority” [pervenstvo]. What then is Suprematist architecture? It is “the primacy of volumetric masses and their spatial solution in consideration of weight, speed, and direction of movement.”

True, this metaphysical formulation does not yield much, to put it mildly, to an intellect thinking materialistically. But Malevich does not only speak, he does, and what Malevich does, we repeat, has great psychological importance. In his new Suprematist volumes and volumetric combinations there is not the smallest particle of atavism.

This is where Suprematist studies can be very important. They could be very beneficially introduced into the Basic Course of the VKhUTEMAS, in parallel to those exercises currently conducted under the influence of the psychologist [Hugo] Münsterberg’s Harvard Laboratory.

The novelty, purity, and originality of abstract Suprematism fosters a new psychology of perception. This is where Malevich’s great contribution will lie.

Video from Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis [11.14.2012]

A panel event held at the New School in New York City on November 14th, 2012.

Loren Goldner ┇ David Harvey ┇ Andrew Kliman ┇ Paul Mattick

What does it meant to interpret the world without being able to change it?



// Chief Editor of Insurgent Notes; ┇ Author: — Ubu Saved From Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974-1977 (2000), — “The Sky Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn: Class Struggle in the U.S. From the 2008 Crash to the Eve of Occupy” (2011)


// Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the CUNY Grad Center; ┇ Author: — The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), — A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), — “Why the US Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail” (2008) — The Enigma of Capitalism (2010)


// Professor of Economics at Pace University; ┇ Contributing author to the Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s (MHI’s) With Sober Senses since 2009; ┇ Author: — Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2007), — The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the “Great Recession” (2012)


// Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Adelphi University; ┇ Contributor to The Brooklyn Rail ┇ Author: — Social Knowledge: An Essay on the Nature and Limits of Social Science (1986), — Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (2011)

LC +а Moscou 1928 FLC

Le Corbusier in the USSR (1928-1931)

Moscow is a factory for making plans, the Promised Land of technicians (without a Klondike).  The country is being equipped!

— Le Corbusier, “The Atmosphere of Moscow” (1930)

This post includes pictures of Le Corbusier traveling in the USSR, attending conferences, building sites, and on one of Eisenstein’s movie sets (for The Old and the New).


Platypus Review issue 50 release party

Poster I designed for the launch party.

Join the Facebook event page.
Download a larger flier for the event.

NYU Kimmel Center, Room 805
60 Washington Square South
Manhattan, New York 10011

Thursday // 11.15.2012 // 7:00-9:00 PM

The Platypus Review recently celebrated the publication of its fiftieth issue.  Come join members of the Platypus Review at a launch party to celebrate this momentous occasion, also the start of our international Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis panel series. We will be enjoying sumptious Vietnamese sandwiches in the NYU Kimmel Center at 7 PM, followed by drinks in Vol de Nuit at 148 West 4th St after 9 PM.

We will also be video conferencing with a range of speakers from London, Greece, Germany, Austria, Chicago, and discussing some of our very own Platypus Review staff from New York! Continue reading

US Scientists study the moon

Max Ajl vs. Alex Gourevitch in Jacobin on society, nature, and the Left: An intervention

Alex Gourevitch
, whose presence I greatly appreciated on our environmentalism panel at the Left forum this last year, has been causing quite a stir with his articles “Two Hurricanes” and “Nature and Progress.”  Like Gourevitch, I “come from the minority on the Left that is skeptical of environmentalism.” Some of my polemics on the subject of “the ideology of ‘green’,” especially my long essay on “Man and Nature” (published in the speculative realist journal Thinking Nature), elicited a great deal of outrage from the “small-is-beautiful” Left as well. For example, this neat bit of screed from the environmental philosopher and ecofeminist Ronnie Hawkins:

I find myself virtually speechless in the wake of having read Ross Wolfe’s “Man and Nature,” however, especially in light of its concluding quotation, seemingly with approval, of Trotsky holding forth on “the Socialist man” who “will rule all nature by machine,” changing the course of rivers and cutting down mountains — I am left wondering whether this essay was intentionally crafted to be a cartoonish caricature of a position that has been undergoing an active process of rejection over many years now, and rightly so. At a time in which we are recognizing that we live in a world of limits — not only limits on how much GHG we can stuff into our atmosphere but limits on how much longer we can continue all the complex industrial processes that depend on fossil fuel consumption, including the translocation of staple foods from one continent to another, upon which some millions if not billions today depend — here is an author trotting out the same old, tired anti-Malthusian tirade, without giving the faintest hint of what sort of goal we might be “progressing” toward under his “vision of unlimited human freedom,” apparently unconstrained by any sort of planetary finitude. Wolfe provides not argument but ridicule against the positions of deep ecologists and animal rightists of various stripes, and he betrays an embarrassing lack of familiarity with philosophical ecofeminism. He does environmental philosophy a service, however, by addressing green anarchism head-on, something that the more mainstream journals have shied away from for all too long.

While I’m not quite ready to reject all that goes under the heading of “civilization,” I think a VERY deep critique of the presently dominant, near-global, industrial worldview (cutting at least as far down to the bone as John Zerzan’s problematization of language and the beginning of our primate symbol-use), to be followed by a REVERSAL of the trajectories of many of the activities that are currently being carried out by collective human action — for example, the building of a whole new round of nuclear reactors, and nuclear weapons, and mega-projects of many types as currently contemplated (all ultimately justified on the basis of continuing the growth of our human population indefinitely, though the proximal reasons are often very different) — is absolutely essential if our species is to make it through the twenty-first century. Without some kind of acknowledgment of the wrongness of continuing on in our current direction, and a turning away from it, we will indeed suffer the dystopian future heralded by the “zombie” genre — it will simply be natural selection acting on a species unwilling, to the bitter end, to relinquish its self-deception (one part of a finite system cannot continue to grow indefinitely — that’s very simple logic indeed). I’m afraid neither Marx nor Wolfe’s sort of contemporary Marxist ever got around to understanding “productivity” in terms of what REALLY keeps us all alive — NPP, the net primary productivity of green plants, not the sham “productivity” of human beings making plastic crap in sweatshops nor the complete fantasy of “production” in imagining we are creating something real by the calculation of compound interest.

Instead of continuing to converse in the worn-out terminology from another era, or to stay largely within disciplinary boundaries even with narrow, if more updated, concepts, I think we’re inhabiting a space now where all disciplines need to take an active role in addressing our common human situation, as Ted Toadvine may be advocating. But in that space we now all have access to certain significant findings of contemporary biological science, should we take the trouble to investigate, not the least of which are the astounding commonality (underlying a very broad spectrum of more superficial differences) of Earthly lifeforms, the complexity of organization of every living being, and the myriad interrelationships among them, some of which are importantly linked to considerations of finitude. There is a reality of “what it means to be alive,” in thermodynamic, organizational, and experiential dimensions, that needs to be recognized by everyone who would propose to philosophize about such matters, and a new vitalism — one that does not shy away from acknowledgment of the fact that the living IS different from the nonliving–may be very much in order. There are also interesting possibilities to explore with respect to the relationship between our collective level of awareness and our human social ontology: when we begin to ask questions like “what IS money?” or debt or any of the other socially agreed-upon symbols that we presently invest with power over ourselves but need not, for example, some things may change rapidly. Bumping up our self-reflexive awareness a level or two may well spell the end of globalized exploitative capitalism, which seems to be virtually synonymous with our highly centralized and now faltering industrialism (and let’s not forget patriarchal militarism). That’s why we need local agricultural communities of various sorts to spring up everywhere, by the way — so that there will be an alternative way of feeding people when the great “machine” grinds down — a pattern of social organization based on mistaken metaphysical assumptions that our species must finally leave far behind.

Émile Bayard, from Autour de la lune (All around the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), circa 1870

Despite Hawkins’ insinuation that I “intentionally crafted [my essay] to be a cartoonish caricature of a position that has been undergoing an active process of rejection over many years now,” I was in fact and remain quite serious about the positions I laid out in that paper. The tendentiousness of her brief list of objections, including a complete misreading about what is meant by “production” in a specifically Marxist sense and her scientifically-misunderstood invocation of the second law of thermodynamics, should be obvious to anyone who knows the first thing about either Marxism as a social science or physics as a natural science. And yet many of the same arguments Hawkins makes in these lines are trotted out yet again by authors like Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber of Humanity or Max Ajl in his rejoinders to Gourevitch on Jacobin‘s online section, “Climate Change and the Politics of Responsibility” or “Really-Existing Environmentalism.” Ajl closes the second of these papers with the following lines:

Heavy industrialization has no answer to these questions of how to regulate the human interaction with the surrounding environment. But one thing is for sure, at its core, Gourevitch’s argument reduces to a call for total human control over nature and a destructive demand for the demobilization of all radical environmentalist social forces.

Both requests are criminally stupid. They have no place on the Left.

Criminally stupid, eh? No place on the Left, eh? I defer to the statements of both Friedrich Engels and Leon Trotskii included in the close to my essay on “Man and Nature.” The reader can decide for himself whether or not Engels or Trotskii were here behaving “criminally stupid” or if their opinions “have no place on the Left”:

In the final analysis, far from being a single, unitary ideology, the ideology of Green is rather just a hodgepodge of past ideological remnants — neo-Romanticism, vitalism, primitivism, Luddism, Eastern mysticism, and quasi-fascist Germanic naturalism. Though there is a small kernel of truth to its project insofar as it deals with sustainability (i.e., the ability to carry on the exploitation of natural resources without the threat of environmental catastrophe), more often than not there is an underlying notion amongst eco-activists that humanity should have some sort of “respect” for nature as an inviolable thing-in-itself. The Green movement therefore views nearly every industrial-technical instrumentalization of nature, plant and animal alike, as invasive and chauvinist. Insofar as it preaches “eating local” and “going organic,” and then promotes the long-outdated ideal of self-sufficiency, it’s tacitly advocating a return a semi-feudal mode of production, which would necessarily involve massive famine and urban depopulation.

Humanity does, indeed, stand alienated from nature. And yes, there is good scientific evidence that supports the theory of global warming, though the scientists are characteristically more cautious in their predictions. Those on the Right who insistently deny the fact of climate change are just as delusional as the hysterical dispensationalists on the Left who declare the world is doomed. But the present-day Green movement provides no real answers for reconciling man with nature, when posed as a social problem, outside of, perhaps, its notion of sustainable growth. So what might a Marxist approach to the societal problem of man’s relation to nature look like?

To begin with, it must acknowledge that the answer can only lie in radical social transformation. Since humanity’s alienation from nature began with the foundation of the first societies — i.e., the beginning of history as such — and since the precise form in which this alienation has manifested itself has varied throughout history, we are left two options. Either we renounce society in its entirety, with all its freedoms and higher sensibilities, and retreat into the dark recesses of prehistory (as the anarcho-primitivists suggest), or we must progress into a new, as-yet-unseen social formation. With the former option, nature would no longer present itself as a problem to humanity because there wouldn’t be a consciousness of anything different, and we would act on our every savage instinct. Following the latter course of action, human society must gain a more self-conscious mastery over nature, such that it would become merely an extension of our will. What we are faced with is thus clear: either we must accept the renaturalization of humanity, or, inversely, the humanization (or socialization) of nature. Only by pursuing one or the other of these options can the contradiction be overcome — only then might humanity be disalienated from the natural world.

For the Marxist, the choice is simple. Though regressions do occasionally take place throughout history, one cannot turn back the hands of time wholesale. Thus is the dream of the anarcho-primitivists only a nightmarish fantasy, never to be realized. One can only progress by moving forward. The only answer the Marxist can accept is worldwide revolution — the fundamental transformation of existing social relations. This revolution must honor neither regional convention nor national boundary, it must extend to encompass the globe. And only by eliminating society’s foundation on that insatiable category called Capital, only then can society exist for itself, only then can men truly make his own history, rather than be made by history. In the words of Marx, “[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Engels expanded on this in later work, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action.The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. [my emphases]

How to achieve such a seizure of the means of production is a political question, one that has been dealt with historically by figures like Lenin and Trostkii. And although it would be utopian to speculate exactly what such a realized society would look like, a few possibilities seem plausible. First, such an emancipated society, freed from the rule of Capital and the forces of history, can now consciously direct its actions at a global level. No longer would there be the haphazard, chaotic hyperexploitation of nature that one sees under capitalism, which so often gives rise to crises and acute shortages. Secondly, humanity, liberated from its servitude to merely use technology as a tool to generate relative surplus-value, can now self-consciously harness the vast technological forces bestowed upon it by capitalist society. No longer beholden to these machines, gadgets, and other devices, but their master, human society can use these technological instruments to radically reshape nature for the benefit of both society and nature.Indeed, this would involve both the transformation of man and nature. Or, as Trotskii put it in the conclusion of his book, Literature and Revolution, in a quote that might as well serve as an appendix to our whole discussion:

The Socialist man will rule all nature by the machine, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth.[…]

[And thus, t]he wall will fall not only between art and industry, but simultaneously between art and nature also. This is not meant in the sense of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that art will come nearer to a state of nature, but that nature will become more “artificial.” The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste.

The Marxist vision of an emancipated society is one of abundance and plenitude, not of scarcity and shortage. It is a vision of unlimited human freedom, not within the constraints of an ascetic lifestyle. And these are precisely the terms that the Green movement have set up as unchallengeable, terms of shortage and “ecoscarcity.” And “[t]he danger here is of accepting, often without knowing it, concepts that preclude radical critique,” writes the Marxist theorist and radical geographer David Harvey. “Consider, for example, the way in which ‘ecoscarcity’ (and its cognate term of ‘overpopulation’) plays out in contemporary debate.” With such terms as “ecoscarcity” and the supposed dearth of natural resources, contemporary eco-activism shortchanges the possibilities of human freedom. Harvey continues, writing that the assumption of “ecoscarcity” by contemporary environmentalists implies “that we have not the will, wit or capacity to change our social goals, cultural modes, our technological mixes, or our form of economy and that we are powerless to modify ‘nature’ according to human requirements.” The history of capitalism supports none of these claims. There may be limitations in terms of what we might accomplish in transforming nature at the present moment, but that is no reason set arbitrary limits on what might be accomplished in the future. “Hitherto philosophers have only described the world; the point, however, is to change it,” reads Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. We might close by saying that not only can the social world be changed, but our physical world as well.

Henri de Montaut, from De la terre à la lune (From the earth to the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), 18??

Henri de Montaut, from De la terre à la lune (From the earth to the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), 18??

In this vein, reading Marx on Feuerbach, I recall a passage from The German Ideology that Gourevitch himself cited toward the end of the discussion of environmentalism and Occupy at the Left Forum. With Ajl’s objections to Gourevitch I cannot help but be reminded of Marx’s brilliant critical insight into Feuerbach’s neo-Romantic ruminations on the supposed peace and tranquility one experiences in community with “nature.” Feuerbach, disgusted with the filth and soot of the industrial cities, fled to the countryside, where he contemplated the “natural simplicity” and appreciation human beings feel when surrounded by a natural setting. The specific object of his most sublime contemplations was a cherry blossom (prunus serrulata, I believe), which he commended for its beauty, untouched by the hand of mankind.

Marx pointed out, of course, that this particular species of cherry had actually been imported centuries ago from Japan, through trans-oceanic commerce. And so it was not that Feuerbach was appreciating some pristine bit of nature, apart from human influence; rather, it was only by virtue of human influence acting in history that he was able to sit there and appreciate it at all:

In reality and for the practical materialist, i.e. the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things. When occasionally we find such views with Feuerbach, they are never more than isolated surmises and have much too little influence on his general outlook to be considered here as anything else than embryos capable of development. Feuerbach’s conception of the sensuous world is confined on the one hand to mere contemplation of it, and on the other to mere feeling…He does not see how the sensuous world around him is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest “sensuous certainty” are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse. The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become “sensuous certainty” for Feuerbach.

Incidentally, when we conceive things thus, as they really are and happened, every profound philosophical problem is resolved…quite simply into an empirical fact. For instance, the important question of the relation of man to nature (Bruno [Bauer] goes so far as to speak of “the antitheses in nature and history,” as though these were two separate “things” and man did not always have before him an historical nature and a natural history), crumbles of itself when we understand that the celebrated “unity of man with nature” has always existed in industry and has existed in varying forms in every epoch according to the lesser or greater development of industry, just like the “struggle” of man with nature, right up to the development of his productive powers on a corresponding basis. Industry and commerce, production and the exchange of the necessities of life, themselves determine distribution, the structure of the different social classes and are, in turn, determined by it as to the mode in which they are carried on; and so it happens that in Manchester, for instance, Feuerbach sees only factories and machines, where a hundred years ago only spinning-wheels and weaving-rooms were to be seen, or in the Campagna of Rome he finds only pasture lands and swamps, where in the time of Augustus he would have found nothing but the vineyards and villas of Roman capitalists.

Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are disclosed only to the eye of the physicist and chemist; but where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this pure natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men. So much is this activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation, this production, the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists, that, were it interrupted only for a year, Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world, but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing. Of course, in all this the priority of external nature remains unassailed, and all this has no application to the original men produced by generatio aequivoca [spontaneous generation]; but this differentiation has meaning only insofar as man is considered to be distinct from nature. For that matter, nature, the nature that preceded human history, is not by any means the nature in which Feuerbach lives, it is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin [!!]) and which, therefore, does not exist for Feuerbach.

There is truth, in part, to the nature/culture dichotomy, but it is precisely an historical truth, and nothing more. Positing a strict divide between humanity in nature is impossible. In light of such examples from Marx, Engels, and Trotskii, I cannot but conclude that it is in fact Max Ajl who is criminally stupid, and who has no place on the Left.


On the Crisis

Some questions


Do we live in a crisis today? If so, what sort of crisis — political? economic? social?

If several simultaneously, how do these crises interrelate?

In other words, what effect does the present global economic downturn have on prospects for politicization? If it results in political radicalization, does it tend toward the Right or toward the Left?

Oppositely, does the absence of a viable leftist alternative today change the character of the social or economic crisis?

What sort of social consequences has the economic crisis generated, in terms of classes? Why the discourse (ideology) of “the disappearing middle class”? At a political level, has this social upheaval led to anything in the way of a renewed “class consciousness”? Is class still even important?

How does the present crisis operate (unfold) in terms of time and space?

How does the present crisis relate to past crises of capital? How is it the same? How is it different?

What is the duration of the present crisis? Is recovery on the horizon? Is there an end in sight? Or are we witnessing, as Marxian economists like Bertell Ollman and Immanuel Wallerstein have contended, the “terminal crisis” of capitalism? If not the end of capitalism as such, does the present crisis at least signal an end to neoliberalism? If so, what is the character of the transition? Does neoliberalism (post-Fordism) revert to a neo-Fordist configuration, or something else? Can the outcome of the this crisis be understood to entail “progress” or “regress”?

How does the crisis in North America since the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 relate to the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone since 2010? Are these crises at all related to the wave of political revolutions of the Arab Spring?

What is the extent of the present crisis? How has it been distributed spatially? Unevenly? What does globalization look like during a time of prolonged crisis? Is the era of US hegemony at a close? If so, to where does the locus of geopolitical power now shift? (China? Russia? India?)

Do different interpretations of the crisis really recommend different political strategies?

What are the political stakes of the perennial Marxist debates about crisis or the trajectory of capitalist development? What are the ramifications of disputes over the immiseration thesis, the falling rate of profit, the validity of the labor theory of value, and overproduction vs. underconsumption as the underlying catalyst of capitalist crisis?

Do different methods and analyses of social/economic crisis imply different modes of political organization and mobilization? If so, what sorts of differences?

If not, what is the significance of this fact? What would it mean to say that two interpreters of the crisis might disagree substantially over its root causes and ultimate effects but offer identical political solutions? What would it take to make these disagreements meaningful at a political level again?

What does it mean to interpret the world without being able to change it?

Why do the most sophisticated leftist understandings of the world appear unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, can the world be thought intelligible without our capacity to self-consciously transform it through practice?

Can society — the capitalist social formation — be understood as an entirely objective phenomenon, without ever producing a subject capable of intervening in its processes? Does capitalism still make sense as a pure “structure” or system devoid of human agency?

Can Marxism survive as an economics or social theory without politics? Does it continue to exist as simply one “lens” or “perspective” amongst others? Should the intractability of the current social, political, and economic crisis not result in a crisis within Marxian economics or social theory as a discipline?

Interview conducted by C. Derick Varn with Jamieson Webster on Badiou, psychoanalysis, and the impossibility of closure

This interview was originally posted by C. Derick Varn at his blog, The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity.  Visit his site to read a number of other interesting posts and interviews.

Jamieson Webster, PhD, is a psychoanalyst in New York City. She teaches at Eugene Lang College and New York University. Her work focuses on clinical and theoretical psychoanalysis with an interdisciplinary focus on feminine sexuality, philosophy, and aesthetics. Her recent book Life and Death of Psychoanalysis has been on my radar for a while, and I was particularly intrigued by her critique of Adorno and her use/critique/admiration for Badiou.  We discussed Badiou and the state of psychoanalysis in the current. 

C. Derick Varn: In reading your Life and Death of Psychoanalysis, I noticed you spend a lot of time on the way in which Badiou enabled you to think about Lacan in a broader sense and broaden a since of inquiry in psychoanalysis.  Do you think Badiou has any implications for psychoanalytic practice that are unique to him?

Jamieson Webster: I do think that Badiou has implications for psychoanalytic practice that are unique to him. I’m happy that you see that I wanted to convey what Badiou opens up through his work with Lacan and that he enables something in particular for the practicing analyst. I’m hard on Badiou in the last part of the book. One must always be hard on one’s masters. But I certainly feel guilty about it from time to time and wonder if people can see how I only take apart the one’s I love. Badiou showed me a side of Lacan that was important in ways that I hope we can talk about. And he has an unprecedented, inimitable, at times even uncanny ability to clarify whole trajectories of thought. It is unbelievable what he is able to do in such broad strokes. It is not only Lacan —  but of course Lacan for me as a psychoanalyst is the most important — but Deleuze, Sartre, Beckett, Hegel, Marx, Plato, that he contextualizes in terms of the rigor of their philosophical, literary or political projects. Where they stand in relation to the question of truth. It is hard to pull back and get an overview — and I know this is something that I’ve faulted him for from one angle, too much distance— but he gives you this glimpse of the entire philosophical project at the same time that he treats these various constellations with respect and due diligence. He gets in trouble for this systematizing, and not only by me. The Deleuzians were out for blood I hear. But I’ve never been able to see Deleuze’s project so clearly before reading The Clamour of Being. What a great title?

But I’ve evaded your question. As far as clinical practice goes, there was something about Badiou’s notion of the event, the distinction between being and event, and the quality of the event as an event of absolute affirmation in its contingent, subjectivizing, historicity, that hit me like a flash of lightning. That this is what we, as psychoanalysts, listen for day after day. This is what we wait for, silence after silence. And it wasn’t merely as a characterization of what the unconscious event is that this made such an impact, it was also in terms of what I was missing in most of the other philosophies that I was reading at the time, perhaps notably in terms of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis, in critical theory. I can see lineaments of the event in the thought of Adorno or Benjamin now, but not before having read Badiou, because their work is wrapped in too much negativity and indebtedness to dialectical thinking. The event is a radical break from both, the result of being able to maintain the tension of negativity and dialectical movement, but something that crashes through what I characterize as a kind of melancholic pathos in post-World-War-II philosophy. The event cuts through aporia, dialectical impasse, and infinite regress. It is ephemeral, it doesn’t last, but it has this cutting edge. As a practicing analyst, this is certainly something we face everyday and the work of the analyst is supposed to have the same impact- a cut, punctuation, words stopping you in your tracks, facing up to a truth that surprises and even startles. Important as well, the event is not a moment of synthesis but rather the emergence of something new. While there are syncretic or synthetic aspects to the event, I think Badiou’s stress on newness and the unforeseeable is important for the practicing clinician. Badiou does not emphasize understanding or knowledge, he does not emphasize synthetic-adaptive solutions to conflict or opposing positions (what analysts sometimes call the third). He emphasizes what I think of as closer to the emergence of a signifier from the unconscious, which is closer to a point of non-meaning or the reduction of meaning. The ground is cleared enough for something new to break in and shift ways of understanding, habitual conflicts, and seeming oppositions. And he not only theorizes the event as I’ve just characterized it, he practices it to my mind in his countless books which indeed shake you up and clear the ground.

Also important for a psychoanalyst — Badiou understands something powerful about love, something that I think I wanted psychoanalysis to have something to say about, but often couldn’t find, and I was floundering around, looking for a way out of the impasse of desire and love that Freud characterized so well. Badiou understands what it means to speak from the place of what he calls the event of love, the affirmation of the impossibility of two, making love this force of desire in the face of the ephemeral nature of love, an act of radical faith. Certainly, as an analyst, I also immediately hear the implications of transference. Serge Leclaire — Lacan’s disciple — said the analyst is someone in the difficult place of welcoming, even inviting, words of love from their patients but who must find a way not to deny them but also not to gratify them, allowing them to be spoken, which painfully, even tragically, only makes the difficulty of saying or having said, even worse — its only ever words.

You can see this clearly in Badiou’s reading of Beckett. He always quotes two sets of passages. One from the beginning and end of, Ill Said, Ill Seen, and another from the end of Beckett’s short story,Enough. The first, he says, is one of the most beautiful texts in French and captures the beauty of a kind of feminine abjection and the easing of that misfortune in the momentary acceptance of the void,

From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star’s revenge. At the other window. Rigid upright on her old chair. It emerges from out the last rays and sinking ever brighter is engulfed in its turn. On. She sits on erect and rigid in the deepening gloom. Such helplessness to move she cannot help. Heading on foot for a particular point often she freezes on the way. Unable till long after to move on not knowing whither or for what purpose. Down on her knees especially she finds it hard not to remain so forever. Hand resting on hand on some convenient support. Such as the foot of her bed. And on them her head. There then she sits as though turned to stone face to the night. Save for the white of her hair and faintly bluish white of face and hands all is black. For an eye having no need of light to see. All this in the present as had she the misfortune to be still of this world.

And then,

Decision no sooner reached or rather long after than what is the wrong word? For the last time at last for to end yet again what the wrong word? Than revoked. No but slowly dispelled a little very little like the wisps of day when the curtain closes. Of itself by slow millimetres or drawn by a phantom hand. Farewell to farewell. Then in that perfect dark foreknell darling sound pip for end begun. First last moment. Grant only enough remain to devour all . Moment by glutton moment. Sky, earth, the whole kit and boodle. Not another crumb of carrion left. Lick chops and basta. No. One moment more. One last. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.

And from, Enough,

This notion of calm comes from him. Without him I would not have had it. Now I’ll wipe out everything but the flowers. No more rain. No more mounds. Nothing but the two of us dragging through the flowers. Enough my old breasts feel his old hand.

Badiou constanly turns back to these quotations, and if you know his voice, he reads them to you like a lullaby. Such helplessness to move she cannot help. On… One last. Grace to breathe that void… I’ll wipe out everything but the flowers… Enough. Love is not sentimental piety, it is not symbiotic sublime union, it is not utilitarian contractual relations, it is something closer to what Beckett is able to evoke… continuing on despite impossibility, an affirmation of absolute helplessness, dejection sometimes, and yet, miraculously, momentary affirmation, the arousal of a void that brings grace, truth, encounter, and love that drags and grows old, and only when everything has been wiped out, is it finally enough. Maybe I take things too far, but I think you can see in this the profound passage of the analysand in analysis. Continue reading