Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a certain mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

Continue reading

The golden age of bourgeois portraiture, before the rise of photography

What follows is an assortment of extremely high-resolution portraits of famous figures gleaned from various sources around the web, along with a short text by the French photographer and media critic Gisèle Freund. Almost 175 portraits are included, featuring well-known philosophers, political economists, and revolutionaries such as Thomas Münzer, Stepan Razin, René Descartes, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Ricardo, G.W.F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Toussaint Louverture, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, Baruch Spinoza, Georges Danton, and numerous others who I’m forgetting. Included also, as mentioned, is an extract from Freund’s Photography and Society (1970), a book more than thirty years in the making.

Freund’s close friend and theoretical influence Walter Benjamin commented on an earlier draft of this chapter:

Study of the history of photography began about eight or ten years ago. We have a number of publications, mostly illustrated, on its infancy and its early masters. But only this most recent study has treated the subject in conjunction with the history of painting. Gisèle Freund’s study describes the rise of photography as conditioned by that of the bourgeoisie, successfully illustrating the causal connection by examining the history of the portrait. Starting from the expensive ivory miniature (the portrait technique most widely used under the ancien régime), the author describes the various procedures which contributed to making portrait production quicker and cheaper, and therefore more widespread, around 1780, sixty years before the invention of photography. Her description of the “physiognotrace” as an intermediate form between the portrait miniature and the photograph shows in exemplary fashion how technical factors can be made socially transparent. The author then explains how, with photography, technical development in art converged with the general technical standard of society, bringing the portrait within the means of wider bourgeois strata. She shows that the miniaturists were the first painters to fall victim to photography.

Besides Freund’s masterful study, I would also recommend Aby Warburg’s longish essay on “The Art of Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie” (1902). Less obviously Marxist than the remarks by Freund and Benjamin in this post — Warburg was a self-professed follower of Burckhardt — but quite complementary to them. Feel free to browse and enlarge any of the images below.


Precursors of the photographic portrait

Gisèle Freund
Photography &

The development of the photographic portrait corresponds to an important phase in the social development of Western Europe: the rise of the middle classes when for the first time, fairly large segments of the population attained political and economic power. To meet their resulting demand for goods, nearly everything had to be produced in greater quantities. The portrait was no exception: By having one’s portrait done an individual of the ascending classes could visually affirm his new social status both to himself and to the world at large. To meet the increased demand for portraits, the art became more and more mechanized. The photographic portrait was the final stage in this trend toward mechanization.

Around 1750 the nascent middle classes began pushing into areas that were formerly the sole domain of the aristocracy. For centuries the privilege of aristocratic circles, the portrait began to yield to democratization. Even before the French Revolution the bourgeoisie had already manifested its profound need for self-glorification, a need which provoked the development of new forms and techniques of portraiture. Photography, which entered the public domain in 1839, owes much of its popularity and rapid social development to the continuing vogue of the portrait. Continue reading

Walking between precipices: An interview with Ernesto Laclau

Hegemony vs. reification,
Gramsci contra Lukács .

Platypus Review 2
February 1, 2008
Ashleigh Campi

May 2014: Ernesto Laclau, the post-Marxist Argentine political theorist of populism and democracy, died a little under a month ago. I’m reposting this interview Ashleigh Campi conducted several years ago with him because I think it gets at some of the tensions within Marxist thought and the differential legacy of concepts like “hegemony” and “reification.” To be sure, I’m not really an admirer of Laclau’s work, and consider post-Marxism (a term coined by Laclau and his French colleague Chantal Mouffe) a form of late capitalist dementia, a senility of sorts. But it is one that expresses a broader pattern of degeneration across the board during the 1980s, that is not merely the fault of various intellectuals’ “loss of nerve” or idiosyncratic “deviations.” It reflects an objective political reality that had regressed from the position it occupied even a few decades earlier.

February 2008: Confronting the confusion and fragmentation that wrought progressive politics in recent decades, Ernesto Laclau’s work attempts to theorize the path to the construction of a radical democratic politics. Drawing on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to devise his own theory by that name, Laclau describes the processes of social articulation that creates popular political identities. By redefining democratic politics as the construction of hegemony, Laclau reminds political actors of the work necessary to construct the plurality of democratic structures vital to any emancipatory political project. In December 2007, Laclau sat down to talk about the use and misuse of Marx’s theories, and what he sees as the essential questions for political theory today. Laclau teaches political theory at the University of Essex and at Northwestern University, in Chicago. .


Ashleigh Campi: In describing the process of uniting disparate social demands behind a common politics, your work argues that the proliferation of social movements and politicization of certain identities in recent decades offers the potential for a deepening of the democratic process and presents new possibilities for social emancipation. Politics is to be understood as process through which demands are articulated by particular identities; immigrants, public-housing residents, the unemployed, etc. Do you see this emphasis on the plurality of political demands as a challenge to the creation of a coherent progressive politics?

Ernesto Laclau: I think we are dealing with two edges of a sword, because on the one hand it is obvious that the horizontal proliferation of social demands in recent decades is enlarging the area from which an emancipatory project can be launched. On the other hand to put together all of these social demands in a coherent project is more complicated than when people thought that there was just one social agent of emancipation which was the working class. For instance, I remember thirty years ago in San Francisco; everybody said that we had all the conditions for a very large emancipatory movement, popular pole etc., because we had the demands of the chicanos, the demands of the blacks, the demands of the gays, but at the end of the day, some of these demands clashed with the demands of the other groups, so nothing happened. There have been attempts like the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson to put together a plurality of these demands but the task is not easy; the Rainbow Coalition didn’t have a particularly good end. So I think that the dilemma of contemporary politics is how to create a unity out of diversity. That is the political challenge that we are facing today.

Ashleigh Campi: You’ve described the process of radicalizing political demands as the process through which disperse localized claims become discursively linked such that political subjects come to identify themselves in common as the bearers of rights that are not being met by an institutional order. This unity then becomes asserted as the demand for the radical overhaul of the institutional order, or some process of radical reform or revolution. Does this common antagonism provide a sufficient mechanism of unification among ‘the people’ of democratic politics to allow them to carry out the task of self-governance?

Ernesto Laclau: Well, I have tried to argue that all demands taking place in a public sphere are always internally divided. For instance you can have a demand for higher wages, but if it is articulated in some kind of repressive regime in which the demand is not immediately responded to, on the one hand the demand will have its particular content (higher wages), but on the other hand people will see the demand as a challenge to the existing system as a whole. Because of this second, more universal side of the demand, the demand could generate other social demands whose content is very different from the first; for instance, student demands for increasing autonomy in schools will start to form an equivalential relation so that the two demands, higher wages and increased autonomy — which are very different from the point of view of their particularity, come to be seen as equivalent in their opposition to a regime which is challenged by both. Thirdly let’s suppose that you have a third demand: the demand for freedom of the press from some liberal sector. Again this demand is a particularity that establishes the opposition to an existing state and creates some equivalential relations and in this way it constructs what I would call an equivalential chain. Now, at some point you would see not only the individual demand, but the chain of demands as a whole. At that point, because the means of representation of this chain is one individual demand — this demand is charged with the function of representing the whole. This is an example that I have used in my work: the demands of Solidarnosc in Poland. In the beginning there were the demands of a group of workers in the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk, but because these demands took place in a situation in which many other demands were not recognized by a repressive regime, these demands assumed the function of representing the whole. This is what I call an empty signifier. Why empty? Because, if the signifier is going to represent the totality of the chain, it has to abandon its only relationship with the particular demand from which it originated, and it has to represent a vast array of demands which are in an equivalential relationship; so it is less clearly a particularity and more and more a universal, and at the same time it is a hegemonic signifier because it has the function of representing — through its particular body — the universality transcending it. As I see it, this is the process of generation of a popular will as a whole. But as we were saying before there are counter tendencies that go against this popular representation of the collective will. For instance there is the tendency to reduce each demand to its own particularity so that this equivalential effect — the construction of the popular will — is finally defeated. And in the societies in which we live, these two tendencies — the tendency toward universalization through the production of empty signifiers and the tendency towards the particularism of the special demands — create a tension that is the very terrain in which the political is constructed. Continue reading

Antiurban political economists in Scotland after Smith

James Anderson on
town and country

Image: Painter William Wylde’s
Manchester, from Kersal Moor (1852)

A couple days ago I somehow found myself reading Adam Anderson, Dugald Stewart, Arthur Young, and James Anderson, all lesser economists of the Scottish Enlightenment. This was part of my background reading on the antithesis between town and country.

Last week I posted some classical bourgeois views on the issue. While James Steuart and the French Physiocrats idealized the countryside somewhat, assigning it priority over the emerging commercial and industrial centers of modern Europe, Smith stressed a kind of harmonious reciprocity or equilibrium between the two. Smith stood virtually alone in advocating for the city. His successors in fact opposed his position.

I’m reposting a section of James Anderson’s 1794 article “Of Manufacturing and Agriculture” here to give a sense of the deep conservatism of antibourgeois, anti-liberal aristocrats after Smith. Not until Ricardo and Sismondi were the main lines of Smith’s argument extended in any measurable way. Even then, Ricardo was never as keen on the novelty of capitalist conurbations, and Sismondi succumbed at times to romanticism in favoring “territorial wealth” (agriculture, the countryside) over “commercial wealth” (industry, the town).

The radicalism of Smith’s economic theory comes through especially sharply when contrasted with tracts like this.

William Hogarth's Harlot's Progress, Plate II (1732), in which Molly seduces a depraved Jewish urbanite

William Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress, Plate II (1732),
in which Molly seduces a depraved Jewish urbanite

Of manufacturing and agriculture

James Anderson

Manufactures are subjected to great variations in the demand at market. Sometimes the orders for those of one sort are so great, that the highest exertions are required for supplying that demand. During this period every thing assumes the most inviting appearance. The master manufacturers have it in their power to enhance the price or diminish the quality. Their profits are great. Every one is anxious to obtain as great a share as possible in this gainful business; he tries to obtain as many hands as possible; journeymen, of course, become scarce, and obtain higher wages; this induces more persons to enter into that business. All is life and bustle; and smiling prosperity brightens every countenance. The lower classes of the people are enabled to pick and cull the nicest viands; for rearing which the farmer gets great prices, so as to enable him to abandon more common articles of produce. Continue reading

Urbanization avant la lettre

Bourgeois economists
on town and country

Image: Sir David Wilkie, The Parliament Close
and Public Characters 50 Years Since (1796)

François Quesnay, Tableau Économique (1758)

“[It is important] that the children of farmers are settled in the countryside, so that there are always husbandmen there; for if they are harassed into abandoning the countryside and withdrawing to the towns, they take their fathers’ wealth which used to be employed in cultivation.”

James Steuart, An Inquiry into the Principle of Political Economy (1766)

Chapter 9

“When the earth is not in common to those who live upon her spontaneous fruits, but is appropriated by a few, there either slavery or industry must be introduced among those who consume the surplus of the proprietors; because these will expect either service or work in return for their superfluity. In this case, the residence of the inhabitants will depend upon the circumstances we are going to consider; and the object of agriculture in countries where the surface of the earth is not broken up, being solely directed towards the gathering in of fruits, will determine the residence of those only who are necessary for that purpose: consequently it will follow, that in climates where the earth produces spontaneously, and in vast abundance, there may be found large cities; because the number of those who are necessary for gathering in the fruits is small in proportion to the quantity of them; whereas in other countries, where the earth’s productions are scanty, and where the climate refuses those of the copious and luxuriant kind, there will hardly be found any considerable town, because the number of those who are necessary for collecting the subsistence, bears a great proportion to the fruits themselves. I do not say, that in the first case there must be large towns, or that in the other there can be none; but I say that, in the first case, those who may be gathered into towns, bear a great proportion to the whole society; and that, in the second, they bear a small one.”

“I now proceed to the other class of inhabitants; the free hands who live upon the surplus of the farmers.

These I must subdivide into two conditions. The first, those to whom this surplus directly belongs, or who, with a revenue in money already acquired, can purchase it. The second, those who purchase it with their daily labor [proto-proletarians] or personal service.

Those of the first condition may live where they please; those of the second, must live where they can. The residence of the consumers determines, in many cases, that of the suppliers. In proportion, therefore, as those who live where they please choose to live together, in this proportion must the others follow them. And in proportion as the state thinks fit to place the administration of government in one place, in the same proportion must the administrators, and every one depending upon them, be gathered together. These I take to be principles which influence the swelling of the bulk of capitals, and smaller cities. Continue reading

Entretien avec Domenico Losurdo sur le liberalisme

A propos d’une contre-
histoire du libéralisme

Image: Italian theorist and Marxist
philosopher Domenico Losurdo


Le 17 mars 2012 Ross Wolfe et Pam Nogales de la Platypus Affiliated Society ont interrogé Domenico Losurdo sur son récent ouvrage Contre Histoire du libéralisme.

Ross Wolfe: Comment caractérisez-vous la contradiction  entre émancipation et désémancipation dans l’idéologie libérale? Et d’où vient précisément cette logique?

Domenico Losurdo: Je pense que la dialectique entre émancipation et désémancipation est un élément clé pour comprendre l’histoire du libéralisme. La lutte des classes dont parle Marx est précisément l’objet d’une confrontation entre ces forces.  Ce que je souligne c’est que parfois émancipation et désémancipation sont étroitement connectées l’un à l’autre. Evidemment on peut voir dans l’histoire du libéralisme un aspect d’émancipation. Par exemple, Locke polémique contre le pouvoir absolu du roi. Il défend la nécessité de la liberté des citoyens contre le pouvoir absolu de la monarchie. Mais d’un autre côté Locke est le champion en ce qui concerne la défense de l’esclavage. Et dans ce cas, il agit comme un représentant de la désémancipation. Dans mon livre je développe une comparaison entre Locke d’un côté et Bodin de l’autre. Bodin est, quant à lui, un défenseur de la monarchie absolue, mais en même temps un critique de l’esclavage et du colonialisme.

Esclavage photos de 1880

Esclavage photos de 1880

RW: Le contre-exemple de Bodin est intéressant. Il en appelle à l’église et à la monarchie, le premier et le second Etat, dans sa défense de l’humanité des esclaves contre le «pouvoir arbitraire de vie et de mort» que Locke défend pour le propriétaire, le maitre, sur son esclave.

DL: Oui, chez Locke nous voyons l’inverse. Alors qu’il critique la monarchie absolue, Locke représente l’émancipation, mais lorsqu’il célèbre ou légitime l’esclavage, Locke devient alors un représentant de la désémancipation. En menant le combat contre le contrôle de la monarchie absolue, Locke affirme en réalité le pouvoir total des propriétaires sur leur propriété, et cela inclus les esclaves. Dans ce cas on peut clairement voir l’enchevêtrement entre émancipation et désémancipation. Le propriétaire devient plus libre, mais sa plus grande liberté signifie une dégradation des conditions de l’esclavage en général. Continue reading

Part III: Losurdo in Light of Žižek & Michéa

Two alternative accounts of liberalism recently advanced

Before proceeding, it is helpful to contrast Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History with treatments of liberal thought carried out by two other noteworthy leftists — the Slovenian Marxist critic Slavoj Žižek and the French anarcho-syndicalist philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa.  Žižek’s stature within the world of radical theory has risen to such heights over the last decade that he no longer requires much in the way of an introduction.  Michéa, by contrast, is a relative unknown outside of his native France.  Still, his political orientation is so heterodox that it strikes readers of nearly any origin as eccentric.  Many of Michéa’s critics (and even his supporters) have suggested that he has made a career out of publicly airing his heterodox views and counterintuitive observations.[162]  Michéa understands his own work to be following in the footsteps of George Orwell, whom he has described as a “Tory anarchist” — or conservative anti-authoritarian.  And while Žižek and Michéa may be polar opposites, ideologically speaking, a side-by-side review of their writings about liberalism has the decided advantage of the authors’ past exchanges with one another on the subject.  In his 2007 (translated 2009) book, The Realm of Lesser Evil: An Essay on Liberal Civilization, Michéa picks up on a few of Žižek’s musings regarding the false permissiveness of the postwar liberal household.[163]  Returning the favor, Žižek spends a few pages in the opening chapter of his 2010 work Living in the End Times summarizing Michéa’s thesis about the logical inseparability of political and economic liberalism.[164]

Žižek and Michéa each explore facets of historical liberalism that Losurdo leaves out of his narrative — e.g., “the dramatic wars that defined the everyday horizon of human lives throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[165]  The religious wars raging throughout Europe during this period together constituted one of liberal ideology’s chief formative experiences.  In a 2004 interview with Dianna Dilworth for The Believer, Žižek expressed his appreciation for early liberalism’s response to this challenge:

[O]riginally [liberalism] was not an arrogant attitude, but…was quite a modest, honest attitude of confronting the problem of religious tolerance after the Thirty Years’ War.  In the seventeenth century, all of Europe was in a shock, and then out of this traumatic experience, the liberal vision came.  The idea was that each of us has some existential or religious beliefs, but even if these are our fundamental commitments, we will not be killing each other for them.  To create a coexistent social structure, a space where these inherently different commitments can be practiced…I don’t see anything inherently bad in this project.[166]

Though more traditional wars between rival kingdoms and principalities did not all of a sudden end, Michéa explains that this new kind of religious conflict — the French Wars of Religion, the first phase of the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil War, etc. — now formed their “permanent background,” as a consistent frame of reference.  Liberalism, in Michéa’s and Žižek’s understanding, came out of this context.[167]  “Fear of violent death, distrust towards those around, rejection of all ideological fantasies, and the desire for a life that would at last be quiet and peaceful [shaped] the historical horizon of the new ‘way of being’ that the moderns would now incessantly demand,” explains Michéa.  “It is fundamentally one and the same thing, in their eyes, to establish a society in conformity with the progress of Reason, and to define the conditions that would finally enable humanity to emerge from war.”[168]  In this interpretation, liberalism originally represented an attempt to find an escape hatch, a way out of the cycle of religious conflict.  Michéa even contends that this atmosphere of generalized civil war lay behind Hobbes’ depiction of the state of nature as the bellum omnium contra omnes.[169]

In their sympathetic retelling of the origins of liberal tolerance out of the turmoil of the Reformation, Žižek and Michéa capture a dimension that is nowhere to be found in Losurdo’s account.  Oppositely, however, the first two miss one of the Italian thinker’s most original insights concerning bourgeois society, regarding the intricate entanglement of emancipation and dis-emancipation at work in its historical unfolding.  But Michéa is to be preferred when it comes to differentiating the truly revolutionary quality of early liberalism from its later, reactionary form.  He almost seems to have Losurdo in mind, then, when he points out a common anachronism committed by leftists today in talking about liberalism: “As against the absurd idea, particularly widespread on the Left, that liberal policies are by nature ‘conservative’ or ‘reactionary’ (classifications, moreover, that by an irony of History [Hegel] go back to Benjamin Constant), it is appropriate to see liberalism as the modern ideology par excellence.”[170]  Michéa immediately picks up on the confused temporality at work in the attempt to go back and retrospectively brand classical liberal thought as having somehow been “conservative” all along.  He accuses those who attempt such a maneuver of harboring “a particular interest in maintaining the fiction of a left anti-liberalism.”[171]  Commenting upon the debasement of liberal politics, he thus confidently asserts (paraphrasing Hegel’s famous remark)[172] that “if Adam Smith or Benjamin Constant were to return today — an event that might well raise the level of political debate considerably — they would find it very difficult to recognize the rose of their liberalism in the cross of the present.”[173]

“Civilization”: On the history of a concept


Excerpted from a draft for my long-delayed essay (almost a small book now) on the relationship of revolutionary Marxism to revolutionary liberalism.

It is difficult to even mention the concept of civilization without conjuring up images of Occidental hauteur. One is immediately reminded of the so-called “civilizing mission” undertaken by the great colonial powers of Europe. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Nevertheless, the timing of its emergence in history cannot be thought a mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. According to the French semiotician Émile Benveniste, the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau.1 Though it derives more generally from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and legality, “civilization” in its modern sense dates only from the Enlightenment. In its post-1765 French usage, Benveniste observed that here “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as the state of civilized society.”2 From there, the concept was then imported to Great Britain by Scottish Enlightenment figures like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith. This most likely came through their interactions with the French physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot.3 Freud’s suggestion in Civilization and Its Discontents — that the civilizing process of society in history resembles the maturation of the individual4 — was already largely anticipated by Ferguson in the introductory paragraph to his Essay on the History of Civil Society. There he asserted: “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.”5 For Millar, as it was for Smith, civilization was marked by the development of a complex division of labor, what he called “the distinctions of professions and of ranks.” With the further articulation of this system of distinctions, “the human mind is cultivated and expanded; and man rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.”6 Smith reaffirmed Millar’s identification of civilized society as being one in which there was a highly-developed system of ranks. At one point, Smith clarified that whenever he used the term “civilized society,” what he really meant was just a “society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established.”7

Besides Benveniste, the German-Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias and his Austrian exegete Helmut Kuzmics also picked up on this civilizational theme of Mirabeau’s. One of Elias’ most interesting arguments centers on the transmission of certain conventions from pre-bourgeois European court life — an attention to good manners, etiquette, dress codes, and behavioral norms — to bourgeois civil society rising out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although later philosophers of moral sentiment like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic “virtue” through their valorization of bourgeois self-love,8 these vestiges of courtly politesse in civic politeness9 account for the high premium that was placed on “courtesy” (courtoisie, cortesia) and “civility” (civilité, civiltà, Zivilität) in early bourgeois circles.10 Kuzmics is correct to add, however, that the carryover from courteous modes of conduct would have been more direct among members of the grande bourgeoisie.11 But this historical lineage passed down from medieval court society was only one part of what Elias and Kuzmics called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, what this process entailed was a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this regime of self-restraint.12 Some have noted a similarity between Elias’ notion of “restraint” through the civilizing process and Foucault’s later concept of “discipline” through correct training,13 but this similarity is only apparent. Self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression.14 Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias and Kuzmics each acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms and expectations associated with the workplace (rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis).15 The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor.

Here, the meaning of “civilization” examined by Elias and Kuzmics reconnects with that of Benveniste, Lucien Febvre, and the political economists like Smith, Ferguson, and the physiocrats. Of the new behaviors inculcated as a result of the generalization of the wage-relationship — along with the progressive refinement of the social division of labor and the more precise measurement of the labor-time expended — moderation, diligence, expedience, and what E.P. Thompson called “time-discipline” were foremost. From the schoolyard to the factory floor, both children and adults now “entered the new universe of disciplined time.”16 Max Weber, commenting upon the utilitarian ethos of Benjamin Franklin’s advice in Poor Richard’s Almanack, recorded that for the modern bourgeoisie, “[h]onesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues.”17 Beyond these highly-valued bourgeois personality traits (or “civic virtues”), this civilizing process in modern society moves from the ethical domain of individual behavior to the political domain of liberal policies of governance. The old practices of government-controlled monopolies, tariffs, protectionism, and trade restrictions — in short, of French and British mercantilism and German cameralism — now appeared antiquated and barbaric. With respect to these more specifically bourgeois aspects of civilization, Kuzmics asserts:

From [the physiocrats] on, the French concept of civilization is wedded to the bourgeois notion of progress; knowledge turns into one of its central categories; the concept of “being civilized” is transferred from the behavior of individuals to the state, the constitution, the educational system (and access to that system by the populace) and to a penitentiary system which is seen to be barbaric. Social inequality, anchored in feudal barriers, appears as barbaric and unreasonable. The same perspective is brought to bear on the lack of economic freedom imposed by government trade restrictions. The refinement of manners and the pacification of civil society are supposed to be the consequence of civilization in this wider sense.18

That “civilization,” a concept born of the Enlightenment, should bear the imprint of the narrative of progress should not come as a shock to anyone. Indeed, the Swiss philologist and literary critic Jean Starobinski not long ago suggested that “[t]he word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress.”19 As such, it would appear that “civilization” is perhaps a distant cousin of the later concept of “modernization,” as a process implying progress or enhanced development over time, though Kuzmics warns against such interpretations.20 Already by 1775, Diderot was using the term in exactly this sense: “[C]ivilization follows from the inclination which leads every man to improve his situation.”21 Condorcet was even more wildly optimistic than Diderot when it came to the linkage between progress and civilization. It was while awaiting the guillotine, at the height of the Terror, that Condorcet penned his famous ode to progress, A Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind (1793), in which he asked:

Will all nations necessarily approach one day the state of civilization achieved by those peoples who are most enlightened, freest, and most emancipated from prejudice, such as the French and the Anglo-Americans? Will we necessarily see the gradual disappearance of that vast distance now separating these peoples from the servitude of nations subjected to kings, the barbarism of African tribes, the ignorance of savages? Are there regions of the globe where the inhabitants have been condemned by their environment never to enjoy liberty, never to exercise their reason? Do the differences in enlightenment, resources, or wealth so far observed between the different classes within civilized peoples — the inequality that the initial advances of society augmented and may even have produced — derive from the very nature of civilization or from the current imperfections of the social art? Must these differences continually diminish, giving way to the real equality that is the ultimate goal of the social art, that of reducing the very effects of natural differences in individual capacities while allowing for the continuation only of an inequality useful to the common interest because it will foster the progress of civilization, education, and industry without entailing dependence, humiliation, or impoverishment?22

The passage from Condorcet excerpted here above introduces a third meaning to the term “civilization,” besides its association with mannerly ennoblement and technical progress. This third meaning of “civilization” attains its significance only in contradistinction to its conceptual antipode, “barbarism.” Between these two poles one might find a spectrum of intermediate stages, ranging from conditions of relative civility to conditions of relative barbarity. Another term, “savagery,” enters in at times, as well. In most discussions of civilizational benchmarks during the Enlightenment, Foucault rightly noted, the “savage” suggests a pre- or non-civilized person living in a state of nature, whereas the “barbarian” suggests a person who is actively opposed to civilization, who is thus anti-civilizational, living in a state of general crudity and boorishness.23 This understanding corresponds, more or less, to the somewhat lacking categories established by Louis Morgan and later employed by Engels in his writings on The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State: 1.) savagery (hunger-gatherer, predominantly nomadic, or pre-historic society); 2.) barbarism (agrarian, predominantly rural, or traditional society); and 3.) civilization (commercial/industrial, predominantly urban, or modern society).24 Civilization would thus seem to presuppose widespread urbanization (or “citification”): “Before rusticus and rusticitas can be defined as antonyms of urbanus and urbanitas, there must be cities and people who live in cities.” According to these antinomic pairs, the civilization of the city was counterposed to the barbarism of the countryside. This opposition was reflected, as Starobinski points out, in dictionaries from the time. “Unlike the bourgeois, peasants are not civilized,” asserted Furetière’s Dictionnaire of 1694.25

Indeed, one of the commonest misunderstandings about the concept of “civilization” concerns its specific reference to the capitalist social formation. Building on the work of the French and British political economists, Marx and Engels used the term “civilization” as basically equivalent to modern bourgeois society. “[Capitalism] forces all nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production or go under,” they wrote in the Manifesto. “[I]t forces them to introduce so-called civilization amongst themselves, i.e., to become bourgeois.”26 This is a point Spencer Leonard brought home in a recent interview with Kevin Anderson, in combating charges of “Eurocentrism” and “Orientalism” that post-colonial theorists like Edward Said have recently leveled at Marxism.27 “Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization,” Leonard elucidates. “Rather, capitalist society is ‘civilization,’ per se…The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history…[W]hen he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.”28 Nor is this merely some sort of clever rhetorical flourish. Certain selections from Engels clearly seem to substantiate Leonard’s general equation of modern bourgeois society with civilization as a whole: “[C]ivilization is that stage of development of society at which division of labor, the resulting exchange between individuals, and commodity production, which combines the two, reach their full development and revolutionize the whole of hitherto existing society.”29 Already, Marx had on several occasions written of “the civilizing aspects of capital,” insofar as it helped to eradicate the forms of slavery and serfdom that preceded it.30 In his preparatory work on the Grundrisse, he had similarly praised “the civilizing influence of external trade.”31 But perhaps the most irrefutable proof that, for Marx, capitalist society is “civilization” can be found in his endorsement of John Wade’s provocative proposition that “Capital is only another name for civilization.”32 Marx, who did not think much of Wade’s original contributions to the study of political economy (accusing him at one point of plagiarism), still admitted that “Wade is…correct…insofar as he posits capital = civilization.”33

On this level, then, it appears that the commonplace objection to the identification of civilization with the capitalist West, an identity upheld by classical liberals and Marxists alike, commits a category mistake. The simultaneous birth of civilization and modernity in Europe, and along with it their exponential growth in productivity, has nothing at all to do with the supposedly innate “superiority” of Western peoples or cultural institutions. This is why the pseudo-radicalism of postmodern hermeneutics — which interprets the logic of capital to be somehow intrinsically white, Christian, European, male, etc. — is utterly inadequate to the understanding of civilization, qua bourgeois society. In fact, this view even tends to reinforce the chauvinist discourse that treats all the accomplishments of Western civilization as the outcome of the heroic feats of the industry, ingenuity, and spirit of innovation that supposedly characterize all white, Christian, European males. Such accounts overlook the practically ubiquitous stereotype of the peasant in medieval Europe, usually depicted as monumentally lazy, shiftless, and ignorant. Neither Marx nor Engels had much patience for the quaint customs and inoffensive, folksy conventions of traditional society, no matter where these traditions stemmed from. Nowhere was the authors’ disgust with reactionary traditionalism more evident than in Engels’ evaluation of “The Civil War in Switzerland” in the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung in 1847. Engels could not for an instant countenance sympathy with the stout resistance of these “Alpine shepherds” — whose favorite pastimes included acorn-eating, cheese-making, yodeling, and chastity.34 The fact that such unrelenting criticisms were directed as the traditions of a country in the heart of Europe should put to rest the notion that either Marx or Engels unconsciously harbored racist or Orientalist sentiments. Both were fairly ecumenical (or, to put it differently, “equal opportunity”) when it came to choosing objects to critique.35 The ruthless criticism of everything existing could leave no rock unturned.

Related to such objections to the concept of “civilization,” especially its normative or universalizing claims, is a tendency to prefer speaking of so many particular “cultures.” Sadly, this preference, like several others acquired during the postmodernist “cultural turn” — which sought relativize the hegemonic pretensions of the Western civilization — harkens back to reactionary antimodernist (even fascist) sources. The invidious contrast between “culture” and “civilization” goes back to the sociologist Alfred (brother of Max) Weber’s conservative and irrationalist drift following the German defeat in World War I. Typically, the distinction is this: Kultur is understood as authentic, concrete, and firmly rooted in real, organic community traditions; Zivilisation is understood as superficial and abstract, rootlessly trailing after imaginary, inorganic social trends. Weber was looking to separate out two distinct components of human social life that he believed had become rather carelessly intermingled. He thus fulminated against Hegelianism, and by extension Marxism, which he felt had indiscriminately united both the “intellectual” and “spiritual” dimensions of social existence.36 Much of the mischief, Weber surmised, arose from an ambiguity in the meaning of the German term Geist, which at once signifies both “mind” and “spirit.”37 “This [Hegelian] notion of objective spirit [Geist] bound up…intellectual elements (mastery of existence) with…elements of spiritual expression, thus…identifying intellect and soul, and hopelessly confusing civilization and culture,” recorded Weber.38 Civilization was the cerebral sphere of science, progress, technology, and rationalization in their universal unfolding — “the epitome of mankind’s increasing enlightenment.”39 Oppositely, culture was the spiritual sphere of art, religion, convention, and intuition of a particular life-world in its givenness40 — “simply the soul’s will and expression…of an ‘essence’ lying behind all intellectual mastery of existence.”41 The civilizational subject is the individual or ego who has developed his own outlook, worldview, or perspective.42 The cultural subject is the community — the family, church, or nation — with its own “yearnings,” desires, or “destiny.”43 Weber’s contemporary, the phenomenologist Max Scheler, associated civilization with a deep “hatred of the world.” This hatred originated, the philosopher conjectured, first with Judaism (following Sombart)44 and then later with Calvinism (following the elder Weber).45 “Everything can rise again in the area of pure, spiritual culture,” wrote Scheler in 1917. “But in the area of technical values,…values of utility, a renascence would be tantamount to ‘regress,’…because continuous progress and internationality belong to the cosmos of civilization [Zivilisationskosmos].”46

More temperate minds have in the past expressed some reservations at setting up such a rigid bifurcation between the concepts of “culture” and “civilization.” All the same, however, they also recognized that any attempt to privilege the former to the detriment of the latter would be a reactionary gesture. Some of them, like Elias, have acknowledged the partial legitimacy of distinguishing these terms, according to their normal usages. In his sociogenetic account of this distinction, Elias conveyed the progressive character of civilization: “‘Civilization’ describes a process or at least the result of a process. It refers to something which is constantly in motion, constantly moving ‘forward.’”47 Moreover, he highlighted its implicit internationalism. “[T]he concept of civilization plays down the national differences between peoples; it emphasizes what is common to all human beings,” he observed. “In contrast, the German concept of Kulturplaces special stress on national differences and the particular identity of groups.”48 Elias was, without a doubt, well-acquainted with the distinction between culture and civilization, having once trained with Alfred Weber and his erstwhile associate, Karl Mannheim (who defended Weber’s choice to disentwine the two terms).49 The Austrian modernist and critic Robert Musil had a more sardonic take on this conceptual division between culture and civilization. In his review of Spengler’s Decline of the West, Musil confessed that figuring out “[h]ow to distinguish between culture and civilization is to my way of thinking an old and really fruitless quarrel.” Despite his professed indifference, he could still discern of some of the finer points with either word. “Every civilization is characterized by a certain technical mastery over nature and a very complicated system of social relations,” Musil wrote in 1921, while mocking the pedantic tone of those who insisted on the opposite meanings of the two words. “An immediate relation to the essence of things is almost always ascribed to culture, a kind of fateful security of human demeanor and an assurance that is still instinctive, in comparison to which reason, the fundamental symptom of civilization, is supposed to possess a somewhat lamentable uncertainty and indirectness.”50 But it was without question Horkheimer and Adorno who most stringently criticized the tendency to exalt the “authenticity” of Kultur against the purported “inauthenticity” of civilisation. “In the name of culture,” declared Adorno, “civilization marches into barbarism.”51 Of the various theorists to treat this opposition, Adorno, Horkheimer, and other members of the Frankfurt School were again the ones best able to make out the connection between the industrial revolution and the onset of modern civilization.52 To bemoan the loss of organic forms of “culture” in the face of modernization’s steady onslaught, however, was useless and regressive. They thus warned:

Only that consciousness which despairs of creating a human world out of freedom and consciousness will arrive at the point of sharply separating culture, as the creation of the spiritual, from the externality of civilization, of setting up culture against the latter and rendering it absolute. And often enough in so doing it opens the gate to the true enemy, barbarism. Whoever glorifies culture at the expense of civilization today is more concerned with setting up cultural preserves than with humanity…It is not proper to invoke culture against civilization. The gesture of invocation itself, the exalting of culture at the expense of mass society, the devoted consumption of cultural values as a confirmation of one’s elevated internal spiritual equipment, these are inseparable from the decadent character of the civilization. The invocation of culture is powerless.53

But if barbarism is admitted to exist in backward, traditional, or premodern communities, as well as in the atavistic appeal to cultural practices lost in the process of civilization, then where is that recognition, so central to the Marxist critique, of “the ‘barbarism’ of bourgeois society” itself? As Losurdo rightly notes, this was one of Marx’s and Engels’ most original and devastating insights.54 After all, it was not only civilization that they discerned in liberal bourgeois society. Contained within these very same forms of social organization there also lurked the possibility of a new and untold barbarism. The issue at hand here is the one Adorno and Horkheimer dealt with as “the reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism.”55 Civilization itself, they maintained, had relapsed into a sort of barbaric state.56 Bourgeois society had mutated into what Adorno (and Lenin before him) called “civilized barbarism.”57 On the eve of the World War, in an article bearing the title of “Civilized Barbarism,” Lenin expressed his total astonishment at the way that “the civilized nations [especially France and Great Britain] have driven themselves into the position of barbarians.”58 Three decades earlier, Engels noticed this tendency of bourgeois society — that is, civilization — to increasingly move to conceal the traces of its own steady barbarization. “[T]he more civilization advances,” he asserted, “the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.”59 But of all the variations on this theme in the annals of Marxist literature, none approaches the poetry of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy:

Friedrich Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.” What does a “reversion to barbarism” mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism…This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of culture and humanity. In this war imperialism has been victorious. Its sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery. 60

The naked barbarity that was seen in the trenches of Europe in World War I was simply the homecoming of what post-1848 European liberalism hoped to confine to its colonies. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” commented Marx, in an 1853 article on India, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”61 Still, this inherent barbarism of bourgeois society did not first show its face in the colonies. It had actually emerged several years prior, as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”62


1 Benveniste, Émile. “Civilization: A Contribution to the Word’s History.” Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Problems of General Linguistics. (University of Miami Press. New York, NY: 1971). Pg. 289.
2 Ibid., pg. 291.
3 Ibid., pg. 293.
4 “[T]he development of civilization is a special process, comparable to the normal maturation of the individual.” Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. (W.W. Norton & Co. New York, NY: 1962). Pgs. 44-45.
5 Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Pg. 7.
6 Millar, John. The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. (Liberty Fund. Indianapolis, IN: 2006). Pg. 26.
7 Smith, Adam. An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1976). Pg. 315.
8 “I esteem the man, whose self-love, by whatever means, is so directed as to give him a concern for others, and render him serviceable to society.” Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Edited by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. Moral Philosophy. (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN: 2006). Pgs. 268-280.
“Dr. [Francis] Hutcheson was so far from allowing self-love to be in any case a motive of virtuous actions, that even a regard to the pleasure of self-approbation, to the comfortable applause of our own consciences, according to him, diminished the merit of a benevolent action. This was a selfish motive, he thought, which, so far as it contributed to any action, demonstrated the weakness of that pure and disinterested benevolence which could alone stamp upon the conduct of man the character of virtue.” Smith, Adam. Theory of Moral Sentiments. Pg. 358. See also pgs. 17, 112-113, 158, 159, 184, 321, 322.
9 Klein, Lawrence E. “From Courtly Politesse to Civic Politeness in Early Modern England and France.” Halcyon: A Journal of the Humanities. (1992). Pgs. 171-181.
10 Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Blackwell Publishing. Oxford, England: 2000). Pgs. 87-88.
11 Kuzmics, Helmut. “The Civilizing Process.” Translated by Hans Georg Zilian. Civil Society and the State. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 1988). Pg. 172.
12 “[Civilized] restraint, like all others, is enforced less and less by direct physical force. It is cultivated in individuals from an early age as habitual self-restraint by the structure of social life, by the pressure of social institutions in general, and by certain executive organs of society (above all, the family) in particular. Correspondingly, the social commands and prohibitions become increasingly a part of the self, a strictly regulated superego.” Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 158.
13 “Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise.” Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1995). Pg. 170.
14 “[B]y this increased social proscription of many impulses, by their ‘repression’ from the surface both of social life and of consciousness, the distance between the personality structure and behavior of adults and children was necessarily increased.” Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 127.
15 “The pattern of self-restraint imposed on the people of bourgeois society through their occupational work was in many respects different from the pattern imposed on the emotional life by the functions of court society.” Ibid., pg. 156.
“Of course, the bourgeois workplace and bourgeois society were not entirely determined by their courtly legacy — the development of specifically bourgeois kinds of self-control occurs there.” Kuzmics, Helmut. “Civilization, State, and Bourgeois Society: The Theoretical Contribution of Norbert Elias.” Translated by Hans Georg Zilian. Theory, Culture, and Society. (Vol. 4, № 2: June 1987). Pg. 518-519.
16 Thompson, E.P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present. (№ 38: 1967). Pg. 84.
17 Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. (Routledge Classics. New York, NY: 2005). Pg. 17.
18 Kuzmics, “The Civilizing Process.” Pg. 152.
19 Starobinski, Jean. “The Word Civilization.” Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Blessings in Disguise; or the Morality of Evil. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 1993). Pg. 4.
20 “[One version of the concept] concerns ‘civilization’ as exhibited in the self-interpretation of Western elites, a self-conception demarcating itself from the ‘savage’ and the ‘barbarous,’ formed by agents within pragmatic contexts. This concept is obviously ethnocentric and in this aspect similar to a naïve conception of ‘modernization,’ which does justice only to the immediately visible material of the life-world.” Kuzmics, “Civilization, State, and Bourgeois Society.” Pg. 518.
21 Diderot, Histoire des Deux Indes. Pg. 178.
22 Condorcet, Nicolas de. A Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind: Tenth Epoch. Translated by Keith Michael Baker. Daedalus. (Volume 133, № 3: Summer 2004). Pgs. 66. Here Condorcet could be seen praising the liberal societies of England, France, and the United States as the pinnacles of freedom and civilization. Likewise, Diderot had written before him that “[i]n England, the love of freedom, which is so natural to the man who is conscious and thinks…sparked off in generous hearts the excessive hatred of unlimited authority.” Diderot, Histoire des Deux Indes. Pg. 189.
Such assertions would again seem to belie the strict division Losurdo tries to maintain between “liberalism” and “radicalism.” “Even when it criticized slavery, the liberal tradition did not question the identification of the West with civilization and of the colonial world with barbarism,” contends Losurdo. “Radicalism’s position was different: in the first instance, it identified and denounced barbarism in those responsible for, and complicit with, the most macroscopic violation of the rights and dignity of man.” Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 169. The Italian philosopher thus faults even those liberals who unconditionally opposed slavery — authors such as Young, Smith, and Millar — for “complacently depicting” Europe as “a tiny island of liberty and civilization in a tempestuous ocean of tyranny, slavery, and barbarism.” “In order to indulge in such self-celebration,” Losurdo continues, “Young, Smith, and Millar were…obliged to overlook a far from trivial detail: the slave trade, which involved the most brutal form of slavery — chattel slavery — and in which western Europe, starting precisely with liberal England, was engaged for centuries.” Ibid., pg. 165. Further: “[O]n the one hand, Adam Smith con­demns and criticizes slavery very harshly. But if we ask him what was in his eyes the freest country of his time, in the final judgment, Smith answers that it is England.” Losurdo, “Liberalism and Marx.” Pg. 3.
Diderot and Condorcet, by contrast, writers who Losurdo classifies as incipient “radicals,” are excused for passing such favorable judgments on England and the United States. On Diderot’s “radicalism”: Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, pgs. 134, 136-137, 138, 164, 168-169, 311, 314, 315. On Condorcet’s “radicalism”: Ibid., pgs. 16, 28, 30, 133-134, 137, 164, 167-168, 182. Losurdo does admit here and there that both were great admirers of England: “In the columns of the Encyclopédie, Diderot held up England as an example of ‘temperate monarchy,’ where ‘the sovereign is repository solely of executive power’…In Condorcet’s view, too, they had the merit of having realized, albeit to an inadequate extent, the principles of the limitation of royal power, freedom of the press, habeas corpus, and judicial independence.” Ibid., pgs. 127-128. Losurdo attempts to account for this lapse in judgment on the part of Condorcet by explaining the “evolution” or “maturation” of the French philosopher’s thought through his disillusionment with the British and United States models in the experience of the Revolution. Ibid., pgs. 143-145. Diderot and Condorcet, it is true, ought to be commended for their principled stance against the practice of slavery and the conditions of colonial exploitation — but so should free-trade abolitionists like Smith, Millar, and Tucker. It is clear from Diderot’s Histoire des Deux Indes and Condorcet’s Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind (according to Losurdo these thinkers’ most “radical” works, respectively) that both continued to speak highly of Anglo-American liberalism.
23 “The savage — noble or otherwise — is the natural man whom the jurists or theorists of right dreamed up, the natural man who existed before society existed, who existed in order to constitute society, and who was the element around which the social body could be constituted…The barbarian, in contrast, is someone who can be understood, characterized, and defined only in relation to a civilization, and by the fact that he exists outside it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he… and unless he fights it.” Foucault, Michel. “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey. (Picador. New York, NY: 2003). Pgs. 194-195.
24 “Morgan’s periodization as follows: Savagery — the period in which the appropriation of natural products, ready for use, predominated; the things produced by man are, in the main, instruments that facilitate this appropriation. Barbarism — the period in which knowledge of cattle breeding and land cultivation is acquired, in which methods of increasing the yield of nature’s products through human activity are learnt. Civilization — the period in which knowledge of the further processing of nature’s products, of industry proper, and of art are acquired.” Engels, Friedrich. The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State: In the Light of the Researches by Louis H. Morgan. Translated by Alick West. Collected Works, Volume 26: 1882-1889. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 139.
25 Starobinski, “The Word Civilization.” Pgs. 8-9.
26 Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pg. 5.
27 “Marx’s style pushes us right up against the difficulty of reconciling our natural repugnance as fellow creatures to the sufferings of Orientals while their society is being violently transformed with the historical necessity of these transformations…Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out, as Marx’s theoretical socio-economic views become submerged in this classically standard image.” Said, Edward. Orientalism. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1979). Pgs. 153-154.
28 Leonard, Spencer. “Marx at the Margins: An Interview with Kevin Anderson.” The Platypus Review. (№ 44. March, 2012). Pg. 2.
29 Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Pg. 272. My emphases.
30 “It is one of the civilizing aspects of capital that it extorts this surplus labor in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.” Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 3. Translated by David Fernbach. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1991). Pg. 958.
31 Marx, Grundrisse. Pg. 256. Also, “the relation of capital and labor…is an essential civilizing moment.” Ibid., pg. 287. “[C]apital creates the bourgeois society…Hence the great civilizing influence of capital.” Ibid., pg. 409.
32 Ibid., pg. 585. Quoted also in Capital, Volume 1. Pg. 1057.
33 Marx, Grundrisse. Pg. 634.
34 “At last it has been revealed that the cradle of freedom is nothing but the center of barbarism and the nursery of Jesuits, that the grandsons of Tell and Winkelried can only be brought to reason by cannon-balls, and that the heroism at Sempach and Murten was nothing but the desperation of brutal and bigoted mountain tribes, obstinately resisting civilization and progress. It is really very fortunate that European democracy is finally getting rid of this Ur-Swiss, puritan, and reactionary ballast.” Engels, Friedrich. “The Civil War in Switzerland.” Translated by Jack Cohen. Collected Works, Volume 6: 1845-1848. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pgs. 367-373.
35 Seymour’s passionate defense of “the example of Marx and Engels” in his recent book on The Liberal Defense of Murder is noble, but perhaps somewhat superfluous; its only flaw is to think that these authors need defending in the first place. That some would feel they do only highlights the poor state of academic research today, and it is indeed sad that Seymour would have to spend his time debunking it. It says more about the wretched state of academic research today, however, that such a defense needs to be mounted. Seymour, Richard. The Liberal Defense of Murder. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2008). Pgs. 36-39.
36 “It is not strange in the least that all these various theories of history and philosophies of culture, as different as they may be in their self-proclaimed principles (psychological, materialistic, positivistic, idealistic, etc.) are nevertheless so basically connected that on closer scrutiny one unexpectedly merges into the other; in fact, one is nothing but the obverse of the other. One instance of this is the affinity, nay, more, the far-reaching sociological identity between Hegelianism and Marxism.” Weber, Alfred. Fundamentals of Culture-Sociology: Social Process, Civilization Process, and Culture-Movement. Translated by G.H. Weltner and C.F. Hirshman. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1939). Pg. 134.
37 “The evolutionary, historico-philosophical approach to culture-movement has its origin in the confusion of the intellectual and spiritual spheres under the collective concept of ‘mind’ [Geist] and consequently in the confusion of civilizational process and culture-movement under the collective idea of ‘mental development,’ a confusion for which the 18th century paved the way and which German Idealism brought to its climax.” Ibid., pg. 132.
38 Ibid., pg. 126.
39 “[T]he civilizational cosmos is an intellectually formed cosmos of universally valid and necessary things which cohere internally and, considered in their practical aspect, are equally and universally useful (i.e., empirically true) for human ends and considered in their theoretic aspect, are equally inevitable (i.e., theoretically true) and in the illumination of world and ego, intuitively evident (i.e., true a priori)…Its disclosure proceeds by the laws of logical causality…And its disclosed and illumined objects bear the stamp of universal validity and necessity, and spread throughout the trafficked world for the very reason that they are pre-existent for all mankind.” Ibid., pg. 121.
Civilization thus describes “a unified process of enlightenment covering the whole history of humanity and leading to a definite goal: the total illumination of the pre-existent.” Ibid., pg. 123.
40 “[T]he religious and spiritual expression of culture usually arrays itself in ‘categories of intuition.’ It presents itself as ‘revelation,’ as ‘insight,’ as ‘certain (immediately intuited) conviction of things unseen’ and ‘knowledge of the invisible.’” Ibid., pg. 123.
41 Ibid., pg. 126.
42 The junior Weber, along with Heidegger, distrusted this “world-picture.” Compare: “The civilization cosmos is nothing but a ‘world-picture’ slowly constructed and illumined the basis of these categories, the aspect of nature ‘fabricated’ by them. This view of nature is eminently suited to the purpose of dominating nature and existence in general and creating the ‘external realm of domination,’ i.e., the civilizational apparatus.” Ibid., pg. 125.
With the following: “What is…a ‘world picture’?…[I]n an essential way, ‘world picture’ does not mean ‘picture of the world’ but, rather, the world grasped as picture. The world picture does not change from an earlier medieval to a modern one; rather, that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of modernity.” Heidegger, Martin. “The Age of the World Picture.” Translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes. Off the Beaten Path. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2002). Pgs. 67-68. Heidegger also talks about nature forced into prefabricated mathematical categories: “Every force is defined as…nothing but…its consequences as motion within the unity of time…Every natural event must be viewed in such a way that it fits into this ground-plan of nature.” Ibid., pg. 60.
43 Weber, Fundamentals of Culture-Sociology. Pg. 138.
44 “Modern technical civilization rests more on hatred than on love of the world…[P]resent-day economic civilization [is] a civilization in which values, purposes, and forms, have disappeared. The one people which, according to Sombart’s penetrating investigation, contributed most to economic civilization, was, beyond doubt, the Jewish people whose mentality of race lacks most, among all peoples, a love of the world.” Scheler, Max. “Exemplars of Persons and Leaders.” Translated by M.S. Frings. Person and Self-Value: Three Essays. (Kluwer Academic Publishers. Hingham, MA: 1987). Pg. 188.
45 “Christianity plays a part in the formation of the motivating forces that produced the mechanical civilization of our time. Modern technology and capitalist economy were…initiated by…the followers of Protestant denominations, especially those coming from Calvinism, who claimed that all the work being done on the world should be for the sake of transforming it for the glory of God and for the sake of fulfilling the ascetic, divine obligation.” Ibid., pg. 187.
46 Ibid., pg. 171.
In what is probably his most infamous contribution to the German Kriegsideologie, the novelist and Nazi fellow traveler Ernst Jünger seconded this distinction. He asked: “Who would deny that civilisation is more profoundly attached to progress than is Kultur; that its language is spoken in the large cities?” Jünger, Ernst. “Total Mobilization.” Translated by Richard Wolin. The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1998). Pg. 133.
47 Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 6.
48 Ibid., pg. 7.
49 “We can…see…the significance of Alfred Weber’s suggestion to distinguish between a process of ‘culture’ and a process of ‘civilization,’ and to treat the former in terms of a concrete Gestalt, the latter, however, as a rational and limitless progression allowing for the carryover of achievements made in one epoch into the following one…The ‘psychic-emotional’ phenomena, which make up what Weber calls ‘culture,’ can be adequately grasped only by methods of concrete intuition and representation stressing the Gestalt, and by a specific type of concept evolved for this purpose. ‘Civilization,’ in Weber’s sense, on the other hand, can be described by the rationalizing method of the philosophy of the Enlightenment which conceived of it as a continuous progress.” Mannheim, Karl. “Historicism.” Translated by Jean Floud and Paul Kecskemeti. Collected Works, Volume 5: Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. (Routledge, Kegan, & Paul. New York, NY: 2007). Pg. 114.
50 Musil, Robert. “Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who have Eluded the Decline of the West.” Translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft. Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1994). Pgs. 147-148.
51 Adorno, Theodor. “Aldous Huxley and Utopia.” Translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber. Prisms. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1997). Pg. 113.
52 “Modern civilization has been linked, first, to the extraordinary growth in population since the industrial revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the changes connected with this; then, to the dissolution of the traditional order of society by rationality [ratio].” The Frankfurt School. Aspects of Sociology. Translated by John Viertel. (Beacon Press. Boston, MA: 1972). Pg. 90.
53 Ibid., pg. 94.
54 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 169.
55 Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pg. ⅹⅳ.
56 It was now faced with the “horror of relapsing into barbarism.” Ibid., pg. 67.
57 Adorno, Theodor. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” Translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber. Prisms. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1997). Pg. 24.
58 Lenin, Vladimir. “Civilized Barbarism.” Translated by George Hanna. Collected Works, Volume 19: March-December 1913. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1977). Pg. 388.
59 Engels, The Origin of Private Property, Family, and the State. Pg. 276.
60 Luxemburg, Rosa. The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in German Social Democracy. Translated by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. Pg. 321.
61 Marx, Karl. “The Future Results of the British Rule in India.” Collected Works, Volume 12: 1853-1854. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1979). Pg. 221.
62 Engels, Friedrich. “European War Inevitable.” Translated by W.L. Guttsman. Collected Works, Volume 8: 1848-1849. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1977). Pg. 457.

Radical Bourgeois Philosophy, Week 4: Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Constant

Immanuel Kant

Benjamin Constant

Last week we covered Adam Smith’s excellent Wealth of Nations, focusing on the way in which Smith can be regarded as “the philosopher par excellence of the manufacturing period of capitalism,” as Marx called him.  We took note of the way that Smith registered the development of the division of labor, relations of exchange, and the nascent possibility of a society in which everyone could work less while still producing more useful goods for consumption.  This week we are reading Kant’s brief essays on “What is Enlightenment?” and his “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.”  The interpretation that is being presented is that Kant articulates the new, modern subjectivity of bourgeois society, based on the principle of universal freedom.  This parallels the way that Smith articulates the new, modern economic form of bourgeois society as being founded on the principle of universal exchange.  To this end, we are also reading Benjamin Constant’s “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns,” as Constant spells out more explicitly the difference between Kantian freedom and earlier philosophical/theological treatments of free will, as say by Augustine or Leibniz.