Response to Peter Frase on identity politics

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Jacobin
has published a short reflection by Peter Frase on identity politics, with the humorous title
“Stay Classy.” Unfortunately, the title is probably the best thing about it. The rest of it is a bit slapdash, haphazardly whipped together. Especially the bit on “racecraft,” which seems both tacked on and untrue to  Barbara and Karen Fields’ argument in their book of the same name. Generally I think Frase is the brains of the bunch over at Jacobin, and still recommend his “Four Futures” essay to anyone interested in the journal. But this piece — as well as his earlier article on the 2011 protests in Wisconsin, “An Imagined Community,” in which he claimed “all politics are identity politics” — I find far weaker.

Anyway, I read this article when it appeared on  Frase’s blog. Here’s what I wrote there, with a few slight alterations:

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The emphasis on “identity” is misleading.

Marx stressed the significance of the proletariat as the “universal class” of bourgeois society because of its decisive position within the capitalist mode of production. Not because workers are the most downtrodden or marginalized members of society, but because they are uniquely placed to overturn the present social order. Immiseration notwithstanding, lumpenproletarians (the so-called “lazy lazzaroni” of  the “classes dangereuses“), the unemployable reserve army of labor, and those still involved in peasant labor have it far worse than those who manage to find waged or salaried jobs under capitalism. So if oppression doesn’t index political potential, what does? What makes the working class so special?

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Once again, it’s not that the working class is inherently radical or progressive. History has shown again and again that workers are susceptible to the influence of reactionary ideologies, and quite often act in ways that seem to go against their best interest. Proletarian parties and political movements have repeatedly erred in assuming that the laboring masses would eventually come around to socialism, only to see their expectations dashed at the final moment. All the same, the proletariat remains the sole hope that capitalism might someday be overcome. If workers aren’t natural-born revolutionaries, though — if they don’t automatically organize around socialist principles — what could possibly justify this continued belief?

Though it risks sounding redundant, we would do well to remind ourselves that the fundamental structuring principle of the capitalist social formation is capital. Capital is a social relationship in which a given magnitude of value, itself comprised of finished products embodying dead labor, must augment itself through the process of production, by coming into contact with living labor that valorizes it further. It is thus necessarily mediated at every level by wage-labor, on which its fructification relies. For this reason, it is dependent on a class of laborers — a social group determined by its relation to the means of production. Continue reading

Entretien avec Domenico Losurdo sur le liberalisme

A propos d’une contre-
histoire du libéralisme

Untitled.
Image: Italian theorist and Marxist
philosopher Domenico Losurdo

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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

The relationship between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics

Amanda Armstrong
Platypus Review, № 2
February 2, 2008

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Castoriadis, Marx, and Freud
on time and emancipation

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On two occasions, Sigmund Freud observed that politics, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis are all impossible professions. Cornelius Castoriadis attempted to make sense of this cryptic observation in a 1994 essay entitled “Psychoanalysis and Politics,” in which he argued that, not only are these three “professions” structurally analogous, they are also entangled with each other such that the “impossible” realization of pedagogical or psychoanalytic aims is ultimately conditional upon an emancipatory political transformation.

The impossibility of psychoanalysis as well as of pedagogy lies in the fact that they both attempt to aid in the creation of autonomy for their subjects by using an autonomy that does not yet exist. This appears to be a logical impossibility…But the impossibility also appears, especially in the case of pedagogy, to lie in the attempt to produce autonomous human beings within a heteronomous society…The solution to this riddle is the “impossible” task of politics — all the more impossible since it must also lean on a not yet existing autonomy in order to bring its own type of autonomy into being. [1]

Castoriadis’s analysis of the “impossible possibility” of emancipatory politics, while deformed by his tendency to treat dynamic social formations as static states of being (i.e. “autonomy”), conveys, in a partially veiled form, certain important dimensions of Marxist politics. First, by analogizing social emancipation to pedagogy and psychoanalysis, Castoriadis squarely positions social emancipation along a temporal axis, indicating that Marxists should strive to bring about a break, in time, between an era characterized by “personal independence founded on objective dependence,”[2] and a subsequent era characterized by a more thoroughgoing form of social freedom. The essentially temporal (rather than spatial) nature of this hoped-for “break” has often been forgotten on the Left — an amnesia that has had disastrous consequences for the project of social emancipation.

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Second, Castoriadis’s paradoxical formulation concerning the (non-)existence of the conditions for social autonomy indicates, albeit in a highly attenuated manner, something significant about the ground upon which a possible socialist future might be built. As Marx argued in the Grundrisse, an emancipatory transition to a post-capitalist society would entail the abolition of the value form of social mediation and the freeing up of the social wealth and human capacities accumulated in alienated form under capitalism.[3] In other words, the social form that currently frustrates social emancipation — namely, capital — would also constitute the ground upon which a socialist society would be built. Thus, in a sense, it is right to say that there is no currently-constituted social basis for emancipation, but that the basis for emancipation can nevertheless be found in contemporary society. Were this not the case, as Marx observed in the Grundrisse, “then all attempts to explode [capitalist society] would be quixotic.”[4] As Moishe Postone argues:

The specificity of capitalism’s dialectical dynamic, as analyzed by Marx, entails a relationship of past, present, and future very different from that implied by any linear notion of historical development….In capitalism, objectified historical time is accumulated in alienated form, reinforcing the present, and, as such, it dominates the living. Yet, it also allows for people’s liberation from the present by undermining its necessary moment, thereby making possible the future — the appropriation of history such that the older relations are reversed and transcended. Instead of a social form structured by the present, by abstract labor time, there can be a social form based upon the full utilization of a history alienated no longer, both for society in general and for the individual. [5]

In a brief footnote attached to this passage, Postone observes:

One could draw a parallel between this understanding of the capitalist social formation’s history and Freud’s notion of individual history, where the past does not appear as such, but, rather, in a veiled, internalized form that dominates the present. The task of psychoanalysis is to unveil the past in such a way that its appropriation becomes possible. The necessary moment of a compulsively repetitive present can thereby be overcome, which allows the individual to move into the future. [6]

With this footnote, we return to the analogy between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics with which we began. In what follows, I want to try and open up some inroads into thinking through the significance of this analogy — is it merely a coincidence, or can we offer an explanation as to why Freud formulated a theory of individual emancipation that was so strikingly analogous to Marx’s formulation of the relationship between history and emancipation?

sigmund-freud-photographed-by-max-halberstadt-in-1921

One way to make inroads into this comparison of Marx and Freud’s conceptions of time and emancipation is through an examination of Freud’s theorization of the “compulsion to repeat” — a hypothesized compulsion that, in his metapsychological essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud finds evidence for in a number of social and psychological phenomena (from a number of developmental phases and historical eras). He goes so far as to suggest that this “compulsion” might properly be understood as an “urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces.”[7] The paragraph in which this quote is embedded is directly preceded by a discussion of the psychotherapist’s attempt to help their patient overcome a compulsively repeated present, indicating that Freud conceptualized the psychotherapeutic aim of helping a patient move into the future as somehow continuous with, or relevant to, a broader world-historical problem concerning the socially general “death instinct” — a problem that he would explore more extensively in Civilization and Its Discontents.

Freud’s rapid and undertheorized switching of levels of analysis in these paragraphs, as well as at other points throughout his writings, leads me to hypothesize that Freud partially identified his individual patients with society, and that, in developing his psychoanalytic practice, he was — in part — formulating a veiled model for how society might overcome the “compulsion to repeat” imposed by the value form of social mediation and thus realize the possibilities for human emancipation immanent in the present. Assuming that this explanation of the analogy between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics is plausible, we (as Left historians) can formulate an ambivalent historical evaluation of Freud: on the one hand, he fostered a conception of the temporal dimension of emancipation at a historical moment during which many Left social theorists were shifting into a spatial frame of reference — a shift that still haunts the Left; on the other hand, by partially identifying individuals with society (instead of — like Marx or Adorno — analyzing the manner in which, under capitalism, the individual mediates society), Freud prepared the ground for Herbert Marcuse and other New Left Freudo-Marxists, who replaced social emancipation with a reified “desire” as the desideratum of Left politics.

Notes

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1. Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination. Ed. & Trans., David Ames Curtis. (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 1997). Pg. 131.

2. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Trans. Martin Nicolaus. (Penguin and New Left Review. London, England: 1973). Pg. 158.
3. Ibid, pgs. 704–712.
4. Ibid, pg. 159.
5. Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1993). Pg. 377.
6. Ibid, pg. 377, n. 131.
7. Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The Freud Reader, Ed. Peter Gay. (Norton and Co. New York, NY: 1989). Pg. 612. Emphasis added.

For Liberty and Union: An interview with James McPherson

Originally published in
Platypus Review 53 | February 2013

Spencer A. Leonard

Spencer A. Leonard interviewed noted Civil War historian James McPherson, author of the classic Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), to discuss the new Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The interview was broadcast on January 29, 2013 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Spencer Leonard: 150 years ago, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. This constituted an important culmination in the long struggle for the abolition of slavery. What, in brief, is the background to the Proclamation in terms of the long struggle for free labor in North America stretching back to the Revolution and into colonial times? Was the destruction of slavery in America simply a matter of coming to terms with an original American sin or a lingering hypocrisy? Or had the course of history in the 19th century posed the question of chattel slavery in a way that it had not done for the generation of the American Enlightenment and Revolution?

James McPherson: Well, in the first place, slavery was not a uniquely American sin. It had existed in many societies over many centuries even prior to its first introduction into Virginia in 1619. In subsequent decades, slavery took deep root in all of the British North American colonies, as it did in the Caribbean and in South America, where in fact slavery was much more deeply entrenched than it was in most parts of North America.

But starting in the third quarter of the 18th century, a variety of forces began to call the morality and validity of slavery into question — cultural forces and intellectual forces and economic forces. The Enlightenment and, with it, the Age of Revolution — the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the revolutions in Latin America — these began to attack the philosophical and economic underpinnings of slavery. In the northern states of the new American nation, the Revolution led to a powerful anti-slavery movement which by about 1800 had eliminated slavery or had begun to eliminate slavery from all of the states north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Haitian Revolution beginning in the 1790s liberated that island, albeit violently.

So, there was a gathering movement against slavery in the Western world that had a significant effect in the United States, generating a strong anti-slavery movement first among the Quakers, then spreading. It extended not only to the North but to the South as well, reaching a kind of culmination in the 1830s with the beginning of the militant Abolitionist movement — William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Gradually, that impulse spread into a political movement, first with the Liberty Party in 1840 and then with the Free Soil Party in 1848 and the Republican Party in the middle 1850s. Together these developed what historian Eric Foner talked about many decades ago as a “free labour ideology.” That politics created a sense of two socioeconomic orders in the United States: One in the North based on free labour with social mobility, a dynamic entrepreneurial society; the other in the South based on slavery, which since the 1780s had become more deeply entrenched.

In the 18th century there was a widespread sense that slavery would disappear. The Founding Fathers, who formed the Constitution in 1787, assumed that slavery would soon die out. This is why they were willing to make certain compromises with the slave states to get them to join the new nation. Though the Constitution-makers assumed that slavery would probably die out soon, quite the opposite happened in the South, starting in the 1790s and early 1800s with the spread of the Cotton Kingdom, which meant that in the very decades that slavery was disappearing in the North and a strong anti-slavery movement was developing in the first half of the 19th century, the institution was becoming much more deeply entrenched in the South. That generated a whole series of cultural, social, and political justifications for the institution of slavery. By the middle of the 19th century the two sections had come to a kind of face-off with each other over the question of the expansion of slavery, which had been made an acute problem by the acquisition of a huge amount of new territory in the Mexican War. A bitter struggle ensued, starting in 1854, over the territories that had originally been acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; the whole question of whether slavery would be allowed to expand into those territories that were not yet states became acute in the 1850s. So, in a sense, the anti-slavery impulse that had deep roots going back into the latter part of the 18th century was coming into a collision course with a pro-slavery impulse that had become pretty powerful by the 1830s and 1840s in the slave states. This led to the showdown in 1860, with Lincoln’s election and the secession of the southern states. Continue reading

Liberalism and Marx: An interview with Domenico Losurdo

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Image: Photograph of the Paris barricade during the
1871 Commune, taken by Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg

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On March 17, 2012, Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Domenico Losurdo, the author, most recently, of Liberalism: A Counter-History
(2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. Full video of the interview can be found here.

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Ross Wolfe:
How would you characterize the antinomy of emancipation and de-emancipation in liberal ideology? From where did this logic ultimately stem?

Domenico Losurdo: I believe that this dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism. The class struggle Marx speaks about is a confrontation between these forces. What I stress is that sometimes emancipation and de-emancipation are strongly connected to one another. Of course we can see in the history of liberalism an aspect of emancipation. For instance, Locke polemicizes against the absolute power of the king. He asserts the necessity of defending the liberty of citizens against the absolute power of the monarchy. But on the other hand, Locke is a great champion of slavery. And in this case, he acts as a representative of de-emancipation. In my book, I develop a comparison between Locke on the one hand and Bodin on the other. Bodin was a defender of the absolute monarchy, but was at the same time a critic of slavery and colonialism.

RW: The counter-example of Bodin is interesting. He appealed to the Church and the monarchy, the First and Second Estates, respectively, in his defense of the fundamental humanity of the slave against the “arbitrary power of life and death” that Locke asserted the property-owner, the slave-master, could exercise over the slave.

DL: Yes, in Locke we see the contrary. While criticizing the absolute monarchy, Locke is a representative of emancipation, but while celebrating or legitimizing slavery, Locke is of course a representative of de-emancipation. In leading the struggle against the control of the absolute monarchy, Locke affirmed the total power of property-owners over their property, including slaves. In this case we can see very well the entanglement between emancipation and de-emancipation. The property-owner became freer, but this greater freedom meant a worsening of the conditions of slavery in general.

RW: You seem to vacillate on the issue of the move towards compensated, contractual employment over the uncompensated, obligatory labor that preceded it. By effectively collapsing these two categories into one another — paid and unpaid labor — isn’t there a danger of obscuring the world-historical significance of the transition to the wage-relationship as the standard mode of regulating social production? Do you consider this shift, which helped usher in the age of capitalism, a truly epochal and unprecedented event? What, if any, emancipatory possibilities did capitalism open up that were either unavailable or unthinkable before?

DL: It was Marx himself who characterized the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–1689 as a coup d’état. Yes, the landed aristocracy became free from the king, but in this way the landowners were able to expropriate the peasants and inaugurate a great historical tragedy. In this case, too, we can see this dialectic of emancipation and de-emancipation. After the Glorious Revolution, the death penalty became very widespread. Every crime against property, even minor transgressions, became punishable by death. We can see that after the liberal Glorious Revolution the rule of the ruling class became extremely terroristic.

RW: Insofar as the de-emancipation of the serfs led to the development of an urban proletariat (since the peasants thus uprooted were often forced to move to the cities, where they joined the newly emerging working class), to what extent did this open up revolutionary possibilities that didn’t exist before? Or was this simply a new form of unfreedom and immiseration?

Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History

Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History

DL: Of course, you are right if you stress that the formation of an urban proletariat creates the necessary conditions for a great transformation of society. But I have to emphasize the point that this possibility of liberation was not the program of the liberals. The struggle of this new working class needed more time before starting to have some results. In my view, the workingmen of the capitalist metropolis were not only destitute and very poor, they were even without the formal liberties of liberalism. Bernard De Mandeville is very open about the fact that to maintain order and stability among the workers, the laws must be very strict, and that the death penalty must be applied even in the absence of any evidence. Here too we can speak of terroristic legislation.

I also describe the conditions in the workhouses as approximating later internment camps and concentration camps. In the workhouses there was no liberty at all. Not only was there no wealth, or material liberty; there was no formal liberty either. Continue reading

“A Vision for an Emancipated Future”

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

As if anticipating our own historical moment, Guy Debord once offered the following advice to anyone seeking to change the world: “Be realistic,” he insisted.  “Demand the impossible!”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the only politics befitting the dignity of human freedom today seems to us an impossibility.  We stand at the end of a long line of revolutionary defeats — some tragic, others farcical.  The world lies strewn with the detritus of dead epochs.  The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

And yet the past feels unbearably remote and out of reach, uncomprehended; it confronts us as an alien entity.  Yesterday’s grand visions of emancipation appear to us as so many distant, delicate daydreams — untenable, unthinkable.  Still in the background one can hear the faint echoes of La Marseillaise and L’Internationale, the notes all run together.

But these notes have largely been drowned out by the white noise of postmodernity.  The memory of such past struggles has faded, humanity’s deepest wish-fulfillments forgotten.  Instead we remain spellbound and transfixed by the current state of affairs.  We have lost the ability to imagine a society built on principles fundamentally different from our own.

Without an adequate understanding of the past, we have chained ourselves to the dumb reality of the present, abandoning all hope for a better future.  What little political imagination still survives is kept alive only by scavenging the desiccated remains of what once was possible.  We have thus set sail into the open seas of ahistory, and landed promptly in oblivion.  Only now are we beginning to glimpse the first rose-fingered rays of the dawn of a new era.

Despite all the emphasis placed upon “letting voices be heard” or “hearing voices” (one almost begins to feel schizophrenic) we have as yet been unable to voice a single demand.  Every attempt to articulate a unified vision of the world to come has been lost amidst the general cacophony and confusion.

Feelings of futility notwithstanding, we are nonetheless compelled to go back to the old drawing-board — to “give it another go.”  To launch a manifesto one has to want: A, B, & C; and fulminate against: 1, 2, & 3.  One must sign, shout, swear, and organize prose into a form that is absolutely and irrefutably obvious, in order to prove its ne plus ultra.

Section I: Liberty

But rather than just air a laundry-list of social grievances, a kitchen-sink of disconnected single issues divorced from any broader vision of global emancipation, we prefer to rally under the banner of one overarching principle that encompasses them all.  This is at once the most abstract, metaphysical, but for that very reason the most radical of all demands:

Humanity can accept nothing less than the promise of limitless, inalienable liberty — or what is the same, freedom.

This universal ideal has in recent years been rendered increasingly banal and diluted, robbed of the radicalism it once held.  Yet it is incumbent upon us to rescue this once noble notion from the clutches of its supposed spokesmen, to defend its honor against those who presently claim to act in its name.  For the false “freedom” that has so far been offered up to us under our present system is akin to the cheap sense of freedom one gets from selecting among various brands of the same basic product at the supermarket.  It is the illusory freedom of the slave who merely gets to freely choose his master.

The question of freedom must be posed afresh — in its most profound sense — so that it might be retrieved.  For in the answer to this question alone resides the secret of the Revolution.  The cry of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” still rings through the ages, but it has fallen on deaf ears.  Humanity must be awakened from its comatose state, its long ahistorical torpor, so that freedom can at last be realized.

By “freedom” or “liberty” is understood at least the following:

1. Freedom from oppression.
2. Freedom from want.
3. Freedom from fear.
4. Freedom from war (Kant’s “perpetual peace,” fœdus pacificum).
5. Freedom from disease.
6. Freedom from ignorance.
7. Freedom from apathy (the anomie described by Durkheim).
8. Freedom from boredom (the colorless tedium of daily life, Baudelairean ennui).
9. Freedom from imposed necessity.
10. Freedom without borders (liberté sans frontières).

The only limits that can be reasonably placed on freedom are in fact not limits at all: they only limit the false and shallow sense of freedom that has been sold to us under our present society.  Quite obviously, one person’s freedom cannot be had at the expense of another person’s freedom.  One cannot impinge upon the rights of others, and thus the civic freedom granted to every member of society does not grant anyone the license to kill, rape, exploit, or otherwise delimit the freedom of a fellow human being.  As Kant put it, “The definition of freedom would thus be as follows: freedom is the ability to act in ways in which one does no wrong to anyone else in so acting.”

Moreover, the freedom to live as one wants in the present cannot be at exercised at the expense of the freedom to live as one wants in the future.  This, we maintain, is the rational essence of the fashionable notion of “sustainability.”  Of course, this should not imply its converse, its abstract negation: living for tomorrow at the expense of living today.  Living freely should not be conceived as requiring some sort of new asceticism, the austerity measures of eco-scarcity.  Rather, this should challenge us to find ways of cultivating inexhaustible abundance.  Perhaps it is not just some happy accident of etymology that the old Aristotelian notion of εύδαιμονία (eudaimonia), traditionally translated as “the good life,” should at the same time signify an unparalleled “flourishing.”

Finally, the universal nature of this liberty would simultaneously entail the total equality of all society’s individual members, irrespective of their particular race, gender, age, or religious/sexual orientation.  The freedoms guaranteed under an emancipated society would extend to all the peoples of the world.  This would make possible, for the first time, the true “liberty of all” (omnium libertati).

In order to ensure the freedom and equality that such a society would grant to each of its individual members, the wealth of the world must be made equally available to all.  However, this should not be mistaken for some vulgar distributist notion, whereby society would simply “carve up the pie” and apportion the pieces out equally (according to fixed quotas).  Different people have different needs.  The needs of a blind man are not the same as someone who can see.  True freedom would thus require that each person’s individual needs be met.  Only then would they be free to creatively develop and express their individuality as they wish.

To illustrate this idea, we may take as an example the commodity pepper — a spice once so rare and valuable that entire wars were fought over its possession.  Today, however, if one goes and sits down in a restaurant, she will typically notice that there is a well-stocked peppershaker at every table.  The question of whether each person has the exact same quantity of pepper as her neighbor never even arises.  It exists in such abundance that one simply takes as much as she needs.  In a truly emancipated society, this concept would be generalized to include all the needs of society.

Section II: History

All this said, let us briefly take stock of our present situation and how we came to this point.  Once this has been achieved, we might be better able to discern the practical exigencies that face us in our time, and from there ascertain the possibilities for an emancipated future moving forward.  A glance into the past drives us on toward the future, inflames our courage to go on living, and kindles the hope that justice will someday come, that happiness is waiting just on the other side of the mountain we are approaching.

From Nature we have built up our own “second nature” — society — which still presently compels us and presses us into its service.  To this day we treat its every blind caprice and passing fancy if it were the outcome of some natural law, eternal and unchanging.  Its periodic crises appear to us as accidental, a result of human error.  In reality, however, the entire rotten system is founded upon a perpetual crisis occurring at the core of production.  International capital is as the insatiable god Baal, into whose bloody maw millions upon millions of steaming human sacrifices are thrown.

Though this “second nature” that surrounds us is a product of our own making, it has acquired a phantom objectivity all its own.  It appears to us in an estranged form, as something that operates independently of our will.  Unconscious — and seemingly devoid of agency — we remain entrapped within a prison we ourselves have built.  At the same time, society has further alienated itself from the original Nature from whence it sprang.  We have endured the disenchantment of the world; Nature presents itself to us only in a mediated and obscure fashion.  As helpless spectators we are forced to look on as modern society, driven by its fathomless hunger to extract surplus-value, devours the whole Earth.

This overwhelming feeling of helplessness owes to a severe frustration with the faculty of action in the modern world.  That is, it indicates an underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency.  In a historical situation of heightened helplessness, gestures of “resistance” against the dominant order have both served to express the rage of helplessness while at the same time helping to suppress the feeling of disquietude that comes along with this helplessness.  The idea of fundamentally transforming society has for the most part been bracketed and, instead, replaced by the more ambiguous notion of “resistance.”

In the absence of effective leadership and long-term goals, campaigns of activism-for-its-own-sake amount to a politics of acting out, an unreflective and compulsive desire for theatrical “agitation,” “consciousness-raising,” and “resistance.”  Unwilling to acknowledge this looming sense of lost agency, participants in such blind actions refuse to reflect on their own impotence.  By stubbornly denying the inconsequence of their own actions, however, they only perpetuate their helpless, disenfranchised state.

But what can conquer this feeling of helplessness is the force of life itself; historical consciousness and activity can annul it.  In the final analysis, this feeling is simply the product of tradition, an instinctual vestige of millennia of terror and illiteracy.  More recently, it has been the result of humanity’s repeated failures to resolve its historical dilemma.  Its origin can be traced, however.  To make it the object of history is to recognize its emptiness and overcome it.  By bringing feeling, as well as fact, into the sphere of history, one is finally able to see that it is in history alone that the explanation of our present situation lies.

For we feel an enormous, irresistible force from our human past.  We recognize the good things it has brought us, in the knowledge that what once was possible might someday be possible again.  But we also recognize the bad, in the many living fossils — anachronistic remnants and outmoded states of mind — that persist into the present.  And this is why we must call ourselves modern.  Because, though we feel the past fueling our struggle, it is a past that we have tamed — our servant, not our master — a past which illuminates and does not overshadow us.

Until we gain self-conscious mastery over this social world we have created, however, humanity will remain unfree.  To date, men have made their own history, but have not made it as they please; they have not made it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.  Once we are able to finally take command of the vast forces of production we have released into the world, humanity’s own social organization — hitherto confronting it as a necessity imposed by history — will now become the result of its own free action.  The heteronomous forces that have up to this point governed history now pass under the control of humanity itself.

Only from that time forth will humanity make its own history, rather than be made by history.  It will signal humanity’s ascent from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

Behold what quiet now settles upon the Earth.  Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.  In hours like these, one rises to address history, the ages, and all creation.

This, then, is the task that confronts us.

Section III: Democracy

So it is with this vision that we claim our rightful inheritance to the legacy handed down to us by the great radical thinkers of the past.  And thus do we also take up the mantle of democracy once again in opposition to those who would deny it to us.  With Jefferson, we swear “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  And with the firebrand Paine, we unflinchingly proclaim that

Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations that preceded it.  The vanity and presumption of governing from beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all despotisms.

And if this vision of human emancipation seems too unimaginable, too wildly utopian, I have merely to reply that the only more utopian idea is the naïve belief that things will ever change under the present system — that the prevailing order could somehow be reformed through piecemeal legislation within the framework of the existing state.

A word about the philosophy of reform.  The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to its august claims have been born of earnest struggle.  The conflict has been exciting, agitating, and all-absorbing.  For the time being, it puts all other tumults to silence.  Humanity must do this or effectively do nothing at all.  If there is no struggle, there is no progress.

For “democracy” is nothing but the proclaiming and exercising of “rights” that are very little and very conventionally exercised under the present order.  But unless these rights are proclaimed and a struggle for their immediate realization waged — and unless the masses are educated in the spirit of such a struggle — emancipation is impossible.  This brings into sharpest possible relief the relationship between reform and revolution.

Every freshly drafted legal constitution is but the product of a revolution.  Throughout history, revolution has been the act of political creation, while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already been established.  In other words, the work of reform does not contain its own force independent from revolution.  During each historic period, work for reforms is carried on only by the impetus of the last revolution.  Or, to put it more concretely, reforms can only come by way of the institutional scaffolding and state apparatus set in place by the last revolutionary struggle.

These, in turn, invariably reflect the underlying structure of society that sparked this struggle in the first place.  From this real basis there arises a legal and political superstructure, along with definite corresponding forms of social consciousness.  After reaching a certain level of development, the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the already existing relations of production.  An epoch of social revolution commences.

Only after this has taken place can reforms become both lasting and meaningful.  Democracy cannot be achieved through cosmetic, incremental alterations to the existing state.  Real reform thus presupposes that the basis of society has already been radically transformed.  Along with it, this would require a simultaneous reconfiguration of the state.

But all this begs the question: Can a state ever exist without state repression? Or is the state inconceivable apart from servitude and subjection?

History teaches us that the state has always served as an instrument of the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society.  It would be folly to think it could act otherwise.  So long as the state exists there will be violence.  Indeed, it even lays claim to a monopoly on violence (or the use of “legitimate” force).  A transitional state may be necessary until society learns to freely govern itself, without recourse to some external body.  But the aim of such a state would be its own self-abolition, as its functions become increasingly redundant.  After a certain point, this state would simply “wither away” of its own accord — leaving society to democratically pursue its own ends.

The chief object of politics must therefore ultimately be freedom from the necessity of politics; this alone is what makes politics so indispensable today.

Dies Iræ

Let it be remembered, however, that this journey through history has hardly been a one-way street.  The triumph of the human spirit and democracy is by no means guaranteed.  For humanity has not just blithely wandered on from victory to victory, along a linear path toward progress.  Condorcet wrote his Future Progress of the Human Mind while awaiting the guillotine.  History has been made subject to any number of regressions and cycles of recurrence.  At best, history can be said to proceed in a cyclolinear fashion, charting a spiral course across the annals of time.

This should serve as both an admonition and a call to arms.  For until humanity chooses to transcend the tyranny of the present, unless it seizes the destiny that history has afforded it — we will be doomed to relive all the injustices of the past.  If humanity fails to take advantage of the opportunity that lies before it, the same relations of inequality and unfreedom will be reproduced yet again.  It will be just as Zarathustra warned:

[We] will return, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this snake — not to a new life or a better life or a similar life, but to this same and selfsame life…to once again teach the eternal recurrence of all things — to once again speak the word about the great earth of noon and human beings.

Mais tout cela sera balayé [But all this will be swept away],” André Gide once remarked, unless the cyclical return of the wrong triumphs after all.  Humanity’s survival is presently threatened by the very forms of its social constitution, unless humanity’s own global subject becomes sufficiently self-aware to save itself from catastrophe.  The possibility of progress, of averting the most extreme calamity, has migrated to this global subject alone.

This idea of historical progress must not, however, be conceived as a movement through homogeneous, empty time, but as a revolutionary chance to fight for the oppressed past — to blast open the continuum of history.  For our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.  Not only for the sake of our liberated grandchildren, but for the sake of our enslaved ancestors as well, must we carry out this mission.  The dead task us.  Those yet unborn beseech us.  And this is to say nothing of the many who to this day continue to suffer in squalor and destitution.  All humanity yearns to be lifted out from under the yoke of oppression.

The fate of the entire world thus hinges upon humanity’s decision.  The tired, the hungry, and the impoverished all await the final outcome of our deliberation with bated breath.  What will our decision be?