Gay workers' autonomy 1

Capitalism and gay identity


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John D’Emilio’s classic essay, with a brief
contextual introduction by Rosemary Hennessy.
Reblogged from Communists in Situ.
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The birth and short-lived life of gay Marxism:
“Capitalism and gay identity” in context

Rosemary Hennessy
Profit and Pleasure
(July 26, 2000)
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The Stonewall uprising in New York City in June 1969 was the most immediate catalyst for the formation of the gay liberation movement. Before the end of the summer of 1969, the Gay Liberation Front had formed in the United States, and within the following year gay liberation groups sprang into existence across the country (D’Emilio 1983, 232-233). Gay liberation was itself an outcome of the adjustments of late capitalism that spawned the general international insurgency circa 1968. Most immediately, it was inspired by the black power movement and the rise of feminism — both of which included fractions that aimed to articulate the historical relationship between culture and class, local and global forces. As in much of the New Left, there was general agreement within gay liberation thinking that capitalism was oppressive. Many gay liberation manifestos at least rhetorically drew connections between capitalism and repressive sexuality, racism and imperialism. But the gay liberation movement was by no means thoroughly influenced by Marxism or a united socialist front, and its internal debates sorted out in what seem in hindsight to be predictable ways. There were those who, despite references to capitalism, basically focused on and advocated for cultural change, and there were those more avowedly Marxist groups that stressed that political and cultural concerns needed to be linked to more global economic structures in some way.1

One set of texts that succinctly demonstrates these different leanings is Carl Whitman’s “Gay Manifesto” and the reply to it written by the gay socialist group Red Butterfly (Blasius and Phelan 380-390). Although Red Butterfly supports Whitman for generally linking the individual effects of gay oppression to “the social and economic facts which are at once the cause and effects of this situation,” they note the tension in his manifesto between personal freedom and the need for collective action, and they critique Whitman’s promotion of “coming out” as an inadequate strategy for social change in itself because it can so easily separate personal liberation from changing the social conditions that foster gay oppression. Comprised of a loose network of collectives, journals, newsletters, study groups, conferences, and actions whose most intensive activity lasted only until the mid-seventies, the Gay Left represented a short-lived but vital willingness to make use of Marxism as a critical framework to link sexual oppression to global capitalism. In fact, however, there were more gestures in this direction than there were developed theoretical explanations from which to forge a fundamentally anticapitalist activist politics. Nonetheless, the fact that a broad sector of the discourse of gay liberation was at least in spirit directed toward connecting sexual oppression to the history of capitalism made this one of the most exciting flash points in the historical development of a critical and materialist understanding of sexuality. Continue reading

Sigmund Freud standing next to a bust of Marx copy 2

Early Marxist criticisms of Freudian psychoanalysis: Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács

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Much has been written over the years about the similarity between and compatibility of Marxian sociology and Freudian psychology. Here is not the place to evaluate those claims. Suffice it to say, for now, that both social critique and psychoanalysis have seen better days. Both doctrines have lost whatever pretense they once had to scientific status and today are relegated mostly to the humanities. One is more likely to hear Marx and Freud mentioned in the halls of the academy than shouted in the streets or whispered in clinical settings.

Tomorrow or the next day I plan to post PDFs of the complete works of Wilhelm Reich in English, German, and possibly Spanish. I will perhaps devote a few lines to the question of Marxism and Freudism, to the way each approaches and interprets irrationality. Whether as social ideology or psychopathology, this is their shared concern and primary motivation. Each aims to render that which is unconscious conscious, to master the forces of nature (external or internal) in a more rationally ordered life. “Just as Marxism was sociologically the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the exploitation of a majority by a minority,” asserted Reich, “so psychoanalysis is the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the social repression of sex.”

Freudian analysis tends to fall back on biological explanations of irrational behavior, whereas Marxist theory places more emphasis on the historical dimension. Yet both of them ultimately fall under the heading of materialism, even if somewhat “idealistic” strains. Psychoanalysis gives too much priority to sexual factors, important though these doubtless are. Vulgar Marxism is quite often guilty of reducing everything to economic factors. Desires and drives are a major part of psychoanalysis, while needs and motivations are a major part of Marxism.

A word about these texts. Korsch’s article first appeared in the councilist periodical Living Marxism in February 1938. Its main point of reference, besides Freud’s work, is Wilhelm Reich, whose writings were virtually unknown in America at the time. Reuben Osborn’s 1937 book on Marx and Freud: A Dialectical Study is also dealt with, but Reich is the one Korsch for the most part has in mind. He is generally appreciative of both Freud, whose postulates about the unconscious Korsch calls a “genuine discovery,” as well as Reich’s efforts to understand the rise of fascism on its basis. Oddly, Korsch — who by then had long since abandoned Leninism and increasingly considered Marxism a lost cause — had recourse to Lenin’s arguments against the Economists in defending Marxist methodology.

Lukács’ review of Group Psychology by Sigmund Freud appeared even earlier, in the German communist paper Die rote Fahne [The Red Flag] in 1922. For whatever reason, Lukács never struck me as someone interested in Freud. Victor Serge had described him as “a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud” in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, so maybe I just forgot. Either way, Lukács makes very clear that he considers Freud “a researcher of integrity,” and even after criticizing psychoanalytic interpretations of military psychology insists: “We did not quote this example in order to expose an otherwise meritorious researcher to deserved ridicule.” Interesting stuff.
Continue reading

Wilhelm Reich, standing third from left, with a group of communist sympathizers in Vienna (1927) a

The Marxism of Wilhelm Reich

Or, the social function
of sexual repression

Bertell Ollman
Social and Sexual
Revolution (1979)
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“Just as Marxism was sociologically the expression of man’s becoming conscious of the laws of economics and the exploitation of a majority by a minority, so psychoanalysis is the expression of man becoming conscious of the social repression of sex.”1 How does sexual repression occur? What forms does it take? What are its effects on the individual? And, above all, what is its social function? Freud deserves credit for first raising these questions, but it is Wilhelm Reich who went furthest in supplying answers. In so doing, he not only developed Freud’s own insights but immeasurably enriched both the theory and practice of Marxism.

Reich’s writings fall into three main categories: 1) that of an analyst and co-worker of Freud’s, 2) that of a Marxist, and 3) that of a natural scientist. In this essay I am only concerned with Reich the Marxist, though excursions into these other fields will occasionally be necessary since the division between them is often uncertain both in time and conception. Reich’s Marxist period runs roughly from 1927, when he joined the Austrian Social Democratic Party, to 1936, when he finally despaired of affecting the strategy of working-class movements. From 1930 to 1933 he was a member of the German Communist Party.

Marx had said, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”2 This formula has been hotly attacked and defended, but seldom explored. Marxists have generally been content to elaborate on aspects of social existence and to assume a sooner or later, somehow or other, connection of such developments with the mental life of the people involved. Reich is one of the few who took this formula as an invitation to research. How does everyday life become transformed into ideology, into types and degrees of consciousness? What works for such transformation and what against? Where do these negative influences come from, and how do they exert their effect?

Reich believed that psychoanalysis has a role to play in answering these questions. Marxists, however, have always had a particularly strong aversion to Freud’s science. On the practical level, psychoanalysis is carried on by rich doctors on richer patients. Conceptually, it starts out from the individual’s problems and tends to play down social conditions and constraints. It seems to say that early traumatic experiences, especially of a sexual nature, are responsible for unhappiness, and that individual solutions to such problems are possible. It also appears to view the individual’s conscious state as being in some sense dependent on his or her unconscious mental life, making all rational explanation — including Marxism — so much rationalization. In short, in both its analysis and attempts at cure, psychoanalysis takes capitalist society for granted. As if this weren’t enough to condemn it in the eyes of Marxists, psychoanalysis adds what seems to be a gratuitous insult in suggesting that Marxists in their great desire for radical change are neurotic. Continue reading

anti-imperialist exhibition copy

We are not “anti”

Bernard Lyon
Revue Internationale
(May 25, 2005)
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Amadeo Bordiga once famously quipped that the worst product of fascism, politically speaking, was anti-fascism. The same could also probably be said of imperialism, only substituting anti-imperialism for anti-fascism. Nothing is worse than anti-fascists who call for communists to bloc with the Democrats in a popular front against the fascist scourge of Trump. Except, maybe, going to some anti-war march to see anti-imperialists waving around placards with Bashar al-Assad’s face on them. So it goes, more or less, down the line: anti-nationalism, anti-Zionism, anti-Stalinism, anti-globalization, etc. While such prefixes may serve as a convenient shorthand indicating opposition to a given feature of the social totality, as part of the overall effort to overcome that totality, to fixate upon one or another facet of capitalist society as the ultimate evil and prioritize it above all others is at once short-sighted and one-sided.

Certainly, there are many for whom anti-fa and anti-imp are the bread and butter of Marxist politics. It is unsurprising, then, that they would take issue with criticisms of their preferred modes of popular protest and organization. Raymond Lotta of the RCP-US, for instance, polemicized against Slavoj Žižek in 2012 for his “anti-anti-imperialism,” simply for questioning the simplistic logic which says “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Angela Mitropoulos, an Australian academic, recently scolded David Broder for his “anti-anti-fascism,” simply for questioning “The Anti-fascism of Fools.” (This is another common trope, incidentally, decrying “the X of fools,” following August Bebel. Broder’s article is far better than Richard Seymour’s article from a couple years ago on “The Anti-Zionism of Fools.” See Camila Bassi’s 2010 critique of “The Anti-Imperialism of Fools” for a much better example of this genre of article). Very few have positively embraced the “anti-anti-imperialist” label, though Loren Goldner and Arya Zahedi are among them, two of the best.

What follows is a translation of « Nous ne sommes pas Anti », a 2005 text by Bernard Lyon of the French group Theorie Communiste. Lyon has a couple articles that have been rendered into English, including “Intervention and the Communizing Current” as well as “The Suspended Step of Communization: Communization vs. Socialization.” I have my reservations when it comes to communization theory, roughly similar to those expressed in more traditional terms by Donald Parkinson of the Communist League of Tampa and in more value-critical terms by Kosmoprolet. Nevertheless, I think Lyon’s article gets at some essential points. Moreover, I do not think that it contradicts my last couple posts, in which I made the case for a politics of negation and non-identity over a politics of affirmation and difference. To be pro-communism is to be for the abolition of existing conditions, an essentially negative operation. Being anti-fascist often means affirming bourgeois democracy in developed countries, while being anti-imperialist often means affirming bourgeois dictatorship in undeveloped countries.

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Translated by Jake Bellone, with some
substantial revisions by Ross Wolfe.

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We are not “anti.” That is to say, we are not against extreme forms of exploitation, oppression, war, or other horrors. Being “anti” means to choose a particularly unbearable point and attempt to constitute an alliance against this aspect of the capitalist Real.

Not being “anti” does not mean to be a maximalist and proclaim, without rhyme or reason, that one is for total revolution and that, short of that, there is only reformism. Rather, it means that when one opposes capital in a given situation, one doesn’t counterpose to it a “good” capital. A demand, a refusal poses nothing other than what it is: to struggle against raising the age of retirement is not to promote the better administration of direct or socialized wages. To struggle against restructuration is not to be anti-liberal; it is to oppose these measures here and now, and it is no coincidence that struggles can surpass themselves in this way. We’re neither anti-this nor anti-that. Nor are we “radical.” We pose the necessity of communization in the course of immediate struggles because the non-immediate perspective of communization can serve as the self-critical analytic frame of struggles, as such, for the historical production of the overcoming of capital.

If anti-liberalism, or at least anti-ultraliberalism — which currently [2005] constitutes a national union, a nearly total frontism — furnishes a blinding example of how the “anti” approach permits position within a front, then it is organized along the lines of “Attac” [Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens] or something more informal. The archetype of this attitude is anti-fascism: first the ideology of popular fronts in Spain and France, then the flag uniting the Russo-Anglo-Saxon military coalition against the Germano-Japanese axis. Anti-fascism had a very long life, since it was the official ideology of Western democratic states as well as Eastern socialist states up to the fall of the [Berlin] Wall in 1989.

Besides anti-fascism there was anti-colonialism, an ideology combining socialism and nationalism within the tripartite world of the Cold War. This structuring ideology of the aptly-named national liberation fronts placed the struggles of colonized proletarians alongside those of local bourgeois elements under the political and military direction of the autochthonous bureaucratic layers produced by colonial administrations. Anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism were also the frame for the alliance of bureaucratic-democratic revolutionaries with the socialist camp. Such ideologies have then always functioned as state ideology (existent or constituent) in the context of confrontations and wars, global and local, between the different poles of capitalist accumulation. In the metropoles anti-imperialism was, with anti-fascism, an essential element for communist parties after the Second World War, presented as the defense of the socialist fatherland and the “peace camp.” It articulated the conflict-ridden day-to-day management of exploitation with capital in a global perspective where socialism remained on the offensive. Anti-imperialism has been, and to a certain extent remains, a framework of mobilization intrinsically linked to and for war. Continue reading

Proud to be You - Positive Identity

Politics of affirmation or politics of negation?

Joseph Kay
Libcom.org

Nov. 2008
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Below you can read Joseph Kay’s excellent 2008 post on affirmation, negation, and identity. Many of the themes I touched on in my last post are covered here as well, but couched in less philosophical language. I have taken the liberty of editing it lightly, Americanizing the spelling and fixing some minor grammar mistakes. While I might take issue with a couple of its claims, for the most part I agree entirely.

Enjoy.
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Political debate often tends to quickly polarize into simple binaries. This is perhaps even more so online. Mainstream politics has its liberals versus conservatives and left versus right. Radical politics has its Marxists versus anarchists and reform versus revolution. Almost invariably these dichotomies are false ones, obscuring the subtleties of the debate and leading to endless circular slanging matches with the protagonists becoming ever more entrenched.

However, there is one pairing I’ve often found useful: that which distinguishes between leftist politics and communist politics. This is not to use “leftist” as a slur, although many (generally North American) post-leftists and primitivists are wont to do just this. (As indeed are Trots, with “ultra-left”). Rather, it is deployed here as a political term in order to distinguish between the politics which characterize “the left of capital” — sectarian groups, union bureaucrats, NGOs — and the communist movement.

To this end, I tend to use the following definitions: Communist demands are those which stress the concrete material needs of the class (wage demands, universal healthcare, the length of the working day, through to the rejection of wage labor altogether). Leftist demands are those which stress how capital should be managed to accommodate the struggles to impose those needs (tax this! nationalize that!).

While this definition is fine to distinguish communist politics from those of your average Trots in many situations — as they push union candidates to manage the struggle “better” on the workers’ behalf, demand nationalization of the banks, or call for higher taxes on the rich, etc. — it doesn’t adequately address a host of other political positions that cluster around leftism. These include support for national liberation movements and identity politics, particularly with regard to gender, race, and sexuality (though in light of the SWP’s recent love affair with Islam, now ethno-cultural identity too).

For example, consider the argument of the prominent platformist Wayne Price. “Central to anarchism is a belief in self-organization and self-determination of the people,” writes Price. “But there are topics on which many anarchists reject the pro-freedom position, particularly involving free speech and national self-determination.”

Here, he clearly envisages particular groups as subjugated, as needing to affirm themselves by practicing “self-determination.” Implicitly, Price means workers, women, and/or ethnic minorities. Explicitly, but perhaps more controversially, he means “oppressed nations.” As Price goes on to state, “revolutionary anarchists must be the champions of every democratic freedom, every struggle against oppression, whatever its immediate relation to the class struggle as such” [my emphasis]. The oppressed need to assert themselves. (The fact there are ample precedents for this position within the anarchist tradition is not at issue here.)

I would like to juxtapose this leftist approach to one of my favorite political quotes, from Gilles Dauvé. For me, this is emblematic of a communist politics:

If one identifies proletarian with factory worker, or with the poor, then one cannot see what is subversive in the proletarian condition… The proletariat is the dissolution of present society, because this society deprives it of nearly all its positive aspects. Thus the proletariat is also its own destruction… Most proles are low paid, and a lot work in production, yet their emergence as the proletariat derives not from being low paid producers, but from being “cut off,” alienated, with no control either over their lives or the meaning of what they have to do to earn a living.

I will for the time being ignore that Dauvé is talking only of the proletariat and not other possible subject-positions. (I do hope to return to the important differences — not hierarchies — between class politics and politics of race, gender, as well as sexuality in a future blog). The important thing here is that Dauvé is outlining a politics of the dispossessed, a negative politics which must destroy both its adversary along with itself in the course of its liberation. That is to say, a politics of negation.

This is in contrast to the position above, of which Wayne Price is just a convenient example: a positive politics of self-determination for the oppressed, a politics of affirmation. Continue reading

fly_printemps03 copy

Non-identity and negation

“Identitarianism” and the
affirmation of difference

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we are generation identity, blood and soil

Renovators and renegades

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In a classic 1952 essay on “The Historical Invariance of Marxism,” Amadeo Bordiga identified three contemporary forms of opposition to Marxist theory. First of all there were the bourgeois apologists, who denied the validity of Marx’s critique of political economy. Next there were the Stalinists, who verified Marx’s insights in word but falsified them in deed. Last but not least came the renovators, who tried to modernize Marx’s concepts — i.e., the “self-declared advocates of revolutionary doctrine and method who nonetheless attribute its current abandonment by most of the working class to defects and initial gaps in the theory which must be rectified and brought up to date. Deniers — falsifiers — modernizers. We fight against all three, but we consider the third group [of adversaries] to be the worst of the lot.”

Bordiga’s hardheaded “invariance” was of course largely strategic, meant to sustain a set of principles against unwarranted revisions, additions, subtractions, etc. Marxism addresses itself primarily to history, to changing conditions which must be dealt with on their own terms. Principles, while not totally sacrosanct, should not be compromised at a whim, in order to accommodate regression or to rationalize defeat (Stalin’s motto of “socialism in one country,” for example, was only adopted after it became clear that proletarian revolution had failed in the West). Recently, however, it has again been suggested that Marxism must be supplemented, augmented, or otherwise updated so as to be more inclusive or appeal more to a broader range of people. LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism at least poses this as an open-ended question: “How do we assess the many different theories that attempt to describe the structure of race, gender, and class?” Questions like this seem to suppose definite answers, though, which invariably prove weaker than the original line of inquiry.

Yesterday, in a discussion about how to conceptualize race under capitalism, one ostensible left communist remarked that “there are any number of left communists who are ready to explain to you where ‘intersectionalism’ fails, but how many of them can account for why it exists?” Another discussant then asserted that “a left communist fusion with identitarian points of view is necessary. We need to do more than dismiss a whole perspective just because of differences in language and analysis.” Terms such as “identitarian” and “identitarianism” are of fairly recent vintage, stemming from several sources, hence polysemic. Black socialist critics like Adolph Reed use these terms to denote “essentialized ascriptive identities, commonly referred to as identity politics.” Here the identities in question are multiple, referring to discrete groups whose distinct characteristics, fluid social relations, are fast-frozen and held aloft as if solids. Or else they are snatched from the air, from the misty realm of ideology — as the reified distillate of cultural stereotypes. For the critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, “identitarian” signified just the opposite, the idea of a harmonious social totality in which every antagonism had been surreptitiously removed.

Anyway, I objected that a fairly widespread identitarian movement already exists across Europe and the United States. It is one with which socialists must not fuse, however, under any circumstances. Since 2002, the extreme right-wing nationalist Bloc Identitaire has been active in France. Now it has managed to set up a branch in England and establish a foothold in America. Generation Identity, as it calls itself, is the logical culmination of the “identity politics” foolishly embraced by many parts of the Left these last few years. “Our only inheritance is our blood, soil, and heritage,” reads their headline, with clearly fascist overtones. “We are heirs of our destiny.” Just a couple months ago, the National Policy Institute (NPI) held an entire conference devoted to identity politics in Washington, DC. Claus Brinker, who covered the event for the website Counter-Currents, reported that it aimed to ascertain “the future of white racial identity politics.” In the comments thread of a post several years ago by Red Maistre, “On Identitarianism: In Defense of a Strawman,” Maoist veteran Carl Davidson argued that the real enemy was tacit “white male identity politics.”

Tacit or not, it is clear that formations like Generation Identity and Bloc Identitaire represent something new. When I brought them up, the aforementioned discussant did not seem to appreciate it. “You must have been confused by my terminology,” was the reply. “I did not mean that particular brand…” My response was to ask what the approved brands of identitarianism might be, expressing my concern that drawing distinctions of this sort is reminiscent of the attempt to distinguish “good” from “bad” nationalism. Special pleading routinely accompanies support for the “nationalism of the oppressed,” and relies on a similar logic. One wonders if a similar rationale might not be used to justify cheering on various national liberation projects, like every other Maoist and Trotskyist sect. Even anarchists can get in on some of this action now, with the PKK’s Bookchinite municipalism. Why not just ditch the whole left communist schtick if what you really want is to wave a Palestinian, Kurdish, or Naxalite flag? Continue reading

gegen kapital und nation

Identity crisis: Against capital and nation

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Below you can read a couple English-language translations of texts by the German Gruppen gegen Kapital und Nation. They are relevant to a number of issues which I plan to cover in a forthcoming post.

Gegen Kapital und Nation is chiefly informed by Marx’s original writings, but draws inspiration from the anti-nationalism of Rosa Luxemburg and the council communism of Anton Pannekoek as well. It is useful to revisit these texts, both released in 2010, since many self-declared ultraleftists seem to be wavering on issues of national liberation and the politics of identity. Activistic Maoism and academic poststructuralism have sadly not lost any of their allure.

Enjoy.

the longing for identityProud to be… so what?

Gegen Kapital
und Nation
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Identity, the forced community of individuals

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When the term identity is applied to a person, a reasonable interpretation would be to understand it as signifying their self-awareness as a thinking entity in a material body, both of which — in this dyadic union — are forced to endure a great deal in this society already, well before acquiring the capacity of even thinking in such terms. But all humans are also branded with another type of identity: They are combined into groups according to their “sex,” gender, nationality, “race,” sexual desire and a plethora of other categories. This is more than just a harmless indication of a person’s physical characteristics, the pigmentation of their skin or whom they happen to be in love with. To a considerable degree, this sorting influences one’s material circumstances, psychological state, and even the duration of one’s existence.

“One is not born a woman, but becomes one”

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With this truth, feminist critics have unmasked the differences asserted by various (social) groups as socially constructed, well over sixty years ago. Without fail, all people are subsumed under any given number of collective identities. They are ascribed qualities and behavioral patterns which are attributed to their alleged “essence.” Predications of ethnicity, gender, “race,” sexual orientation, (dis)ability, or class manifest themselves as essentialist judgements. The people in question are subjected to binding statements which aim at fundamentally defining their lives, their thoughts as well as their actions. In that process they are being differentiated from one part of humanity while a strong bond is constructed with another, with whom they are supposed to share a common fate. Many of these statements are simply false (“all black men have large penises”), while some are undue generalizations (“all British people drink warm beer” and “all Canadians wear tuques”), and even where a particular attribution actually does characterize a large number of people (homo homini lupus), it is socially produced.

All this is not the same as saying that “all footballers are idiots,” which would be no more than a polemic conclusion, equating a social practice with someone’s propensity for reasoning, in order to attack a sports craze. One can stop playing football at any time, while one cannot stop being black. An attribution based purely on social practice is a distinctly different thing than one based on someone’s supposed nature.1 As soon as an essentialist judgement has been coined and socially established, the people affected by it have no choice but to react to it: judgements must be refuted, positively or negatively adopted — or criticized. In some cases, the affected groups may even break up into sub-collectives in the course of the debate over different strategies of response. These judgements are all the more severe wherever they are part of strategies of discrimination or even form the legitimization for the exclusion or oppression of a particular group. That is wherever such judgements are taken as proof for any given group’s inferiority and serve as the basis for their subjugation. Continue reading

Amy Allen, The End of Progress - Decolonizing the normative foundations of critical theory

On progress: Critical theory and the “decolonial” imperative

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I repost below Bruce Robbins’ excellent review of Amy Allen’s very poor book, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016), originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books website. My reasons for titling this post “Critical Theory and the ‘Decolonial’ Imperative” is that Allen clearly thinks decolonization is something that ought to happen (i.e., a moral guideline or maxim that determines practical action). She somehow fails to self-reflexively see the normative foundations of her own critique of critical theory, at least until the very last chapter, as Robbins points out in his review. He is a bit disingenuous, I think, when he remarks at the outset that The End of Progress is a “difficult but rewarding book” — a begrudgingly charitable judgment not borne out by what follows, which thoroughly dismantles Allen’s argument. Nevertheless, her argument deserved to be panned, so I don’t see this as a problem.

Apart from this specific instance of “decolonial” thought, I should perhaps explain my more general objections to the discourse. One of my reasons for being so skeptical is purely aesthetic, a result of my distaste for clunky academic language. “Conversations with Enrique Dussel on Anti-Cartesian Decoloniality & Pluriversal Transmodernity,” a 2015 collection of articles edited by Mohammad Tamdgidi, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Ramón Grosfoguel, provides ample evidence of the jargon employed by theorists of decolonization. The title alone should be enough to discredit it. Beyond this aesthetic disgust, however, a more intellectual objection I’ve always had to decolonial theory is its anachronism and its consequent reliance on metaphor. Great colonial empires are today mostly a thing of the past, the colonizers having been driven out by anti-colonial movements for national liberation or self-determination. In fact, the only real colonies that remain today are arguably Palestine (occupied by Israel) and Tibet (occupied by China). Even then, they’re odd sorts of colonies. Palestine is not directly administered, and Tibet is ruled by a government which claims to be communist.

Whenever decolonial activists go beyond the metaphoric injunction to decolonize — “kill the pilgrim in yr head!” — and insist on its literal meaning, they veer into absurdity. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” proposes to forcibly expel everyone who is not of Amerindian or African descent from the Americas, i.e. Occupied Turtle Island. By that logic, all East Asians, Middle Easterners, and Indians would have to repatriate, to say nothing of individuals who are of mixed descent. Sadly, claims of “indigeneity” can be used to justify the most ridiculous ends. Ryan Bellerose, an indigenous rights activist from Alberta, Canada, advocates on behalf of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland, upholding their native rights. It’s hard to counter this line of reasoning once you accept indigenist premises. Unless one wants to concoct some statute of limitations for Blut und Boden ethnic claims to historic lands, it’s impossible to resolve the issue within the framework of indigenous politics. Fortunately Marxism does not aim to permanently restore territories to any particular group. Individuals should be able to live peaceably wherever they damn well please, irrespective of any “organic connection” to the land.
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Paul-KleeProving the impossibility of progress

Bruce Robbins
LA Review of Books
May 13, 2016
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REVIEW: Amy Allen, The End of Progress:
Decolonizing
the Normative Foundations
of Critical Theory
(January 12, 2016)
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Walter Benjamin famously imagined the angel of history, wings spread, propelled backward into the future by an irresistible, all-annihilating wind. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote, the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage on wreckage.” The angel can obviously know nothing of the future, to which his back is turned. All he can know is “the pile of debris before him.” This, Benjamin says, is how we should think of progress.

Within months of composing this scenario, Benjamin was dead, a victim of the Nazis. The manner of his death helped make his beautiful, disillusioned tableau of progress-as-catastrophe one of the best remembered takeaways from the Frankfurt School. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, the Frankfurt School was a brilliant group of German-Jewish Marxo-Freudian analysts of culture who (except for Benjamin) escaped the Holocaust and lived long enough to denounce American consumerism, jazz, and the student movement. Their present-day inheritors, collectively known as critical theory, include thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth in Germany and, in the United States, Seyla Benhabib, Thomas McCarthy, Nancy Fraser, Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, and other luminaries. They and what they made of the concept of progress are the subject of Amy Allen’s difficult but rewarding book, The End of Progress. Allen argues that key members of this generation (the Germans, but for some reason not the Americans) have been too uncritical of progress — much more uncritical than Benjamin or Theodor Adorno or, for that matter, Michel Foucault, whom she drags across the Rhine and conscripts as an ally. Allen exposes, hidden below the philosophical work of Habermas, Honneth, and Rainer Forst, a belief in progress that in her view is fatally Eurocentric, hence unworthy of their high emancipatory project.

Beyond making the charge of Eurocentrism, Allen does not really argue the anti-progress case. She doesn’t compare childhood mortality statistics or the quality of neighborliness, the situation of women or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere now and 100 years ago; the sorts of pros and cons that might come up in a dorm room late at night don’t interest her much. And her indifference to empirical examples is not incidental. The major accusation she levels against the best-known of the critical theorists, Habermas and Honneth, is that although they seem rigorously philosophical, they pay too much attention to facts like these. For Allen’s style of philosophy, any attention is too much attention. Continue reading

Дворец культуры автозавода им. Сталина-Лихачева. Здание столовой. Архитекторы братья Веснины А.А., В.А., Л.А. Фото 1937 года

Moscow constructivism

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Images taken from the Russian language website Medusa, along with a translation of the short blurb that accompanied it. Reportedly several hundred Musvovites gathered to protest the razing of the Tagansk Telephone Exchange, mentioned below. But developers went ahead with it anyway.

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Demolition of the Tagansk Telephone Exchange — a constructivist building lacking the official status of architectural landmark — began at the end of April in Moscow. In place of the Telephone Exchange, they plan to build a hotel. Aleksandr Gorokhov, photo editor of Medusa, found in the archives of the Shchusev Architecture Museum some old photographs of other constructivist buildings, in order to show readers how they looked having just been built.

В конце апреля в Москве начался снос Таганской АТС — конструктивистского здания, не имевшего формального статуса памятника архитектуры. На месте АТС планируют построить отель. Фоторедактор «Медузы» Александра Горохова нашла в архиве музея архитектуры имени Щусева старые фотографии других конструктивистских зданий, чтобы показать читателям, как они выглядели, когда только были построены.

Вегнер А.П., Мотылев М.И., Молоков Н.М., Звездин И.А., Шервинский Е.В., Федоров А.Н., Буров И.Г., Блохин Б.Н., Савельев Л.И., Виссинг М.Г. Дворец культуры автозавода им. Сталина-Лихачева. Здание столовой. Архитекторы братья Веснины А.А., В.А., Л.А. Фото 1937 года Дворец культуры автозавода имени Сталина-Лихачева (ЗИЛа). Крыша с обсерваторией. Архитекторы братья Веснины А.А., В.А., Л.А. Фото 1937 года Дворец культуры автозавода имени Сталина-Лихачева. Клубная часть. Интерьер, лестница. Архитекторы братья Веснины Фото 1937 года Дворец культуры автозавода имени Сталина-Лихачева. Переход из театрального зала в клубную часть. Архитекторы братья Веснины Фото 1937 год. Дом «Известий». Архитектор Бархин Г.Б. Фото 1937 года Continue reading

Not yet human, behind the scenes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey copy 2

Not yet human: Universality, common inhumanity, and Marx

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The earth will rise on new foundations.
We have been nothing; we will be everything.
’Tis the final conflict, let each stand in their place.
The International will be the human race.

— L’Internationale, 1871

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Universality today seems a lost cause, the mild resurgence of Marxism in recent years notwithstanding. A number of prominent theorists have championed this category in their critiques of multicultural neoliberalism, perhaps most notably Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, but have made little headway. Vivek Chibber’s noble (if somewhat flawed) 2013 polemic against Postcolonial Studies was made to suffer the indignity of a public scolding by whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who writes under the handle Of CLR James: “If postcolonial theorists want to hold onto the particularity of the particular, and engage the universal through it, Chibber uses these ‘two universalisms’ [the universalism of capital and the universalism of labor] in order to denude the particular, to remove the particularity of the particular in order to reduce it to the universal.” He claims that Chibber’s book is thus not even Marxist, since the real Marxists à la mode have already all accepted the legitimate points raised by postcolonial and decolonial theory and moved on:

The Marxism fashionable both inside and outside the academy today is one which has learned to meet people where they are, that has learned that a caring approach to particularity and a concern to foster difference is not opposed to the universal but is, rather, one way of producing new universals, of realizing freer modes of being in common. Indeed, the Marxism fashionable today is that one which has taken postcolonial theory as a serious incitement, as a spur to think critically about its own deficits but also as a challenge to uncover its hidden possibilities.

Obviously, there’s no accounting for fashion. And I won’t even touch the platitude about “meeting people where they are.” Loren Goldner is perhaps a little old-fashioned. In any case, he has little patience for this fashionable nonsense. Deploring postcolonial theory as “a relativizing discourse of cultural ‘difference’ incapable of making critical judgments,” Goldner argues that Marxist universality must be recovered, reasserted, and boldly upheld. “Today, the idea that there is any meaningful universality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if the opponents of such a view rarely state their case in so many words (or are even aware that this is the issue),” he writes. “For them, such an idea, like the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria from which one can judge the humanity or inhumanity of different ‘cultures,’ are ‘white male’ or ‘Eurocentric’ constructs designed to deny to women, people of color, or gays the ‘difference’ of their ‘identity’.”

Goldner’s fulminations against the influential Heideggerian idea of ontological difference and its French variations are well known. He suspects that the partisans of “the current climate of postmodern culturalism” are mostly disturbed by the fact the Marxian critique does not have recourse to its usual explanatory mechanisms: “What bothers them is that the concept of universality for Marx and Engels was ultimately grounded neither in cultural constructs nor even in the metaphysics of ‘power,’ which is the currency in which today’s fashion trades.”

Questions of fashion aside, it might still be asked whether the method described above by Taylor is the way Marxists actually approach matters of universal import. In what does the universality of Marx consist? Goldner tells us: “The universalism of Marx rests on a notion of humanity as a species distinguished by its capacity to periodically revolutionize its means of extracting wealth from nature, and therefore as free from the relatively fixed laws of population nature imposes on other species.” According to Marx, then, the special characteristic that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, or rather potentially sets it apart, is that humans exist historically. Unlike other species, knowledge and customs are transmitted from one generation to the next through record-keeping, allowing individual humans to participate in the past as more than just temporary embodiments of genetic code. “History itself is a real part of natural history and of nature’s becoming man,” Marx concluded in Paris 1844. Élisée Reclus, a prominent nineteenth century anarchist and professional geographer, put it pithily: “Man is nature become conscious.”

One crucial detail is omitted in Goldner’s otherwise accurate formulation of Marx’s view, however: namely, that this uniquely human capacity manifests only at a specific moment in history, though perhaps it was always latent in its nature. By a confluence of factors, many of them fortuitous and by chance, a systemic logic took hold which would sweep away older forms of local community in the name of a global society founded on exchange. With the historic emergence of capital, new vistas of possibility are opened up (even if today they seem to have closed). Powers and capacities that did not hitherto exist become available for the first time. Continue reading