The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014
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Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha
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We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)
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The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)
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The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?

Estatesgeneral

Preliminary remarks

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Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review 61
November 2013
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Originally published in the Platypus Review.

On June 9, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion on “Revolution without Marx? Rousseau and his followers for the Left” for the 2013 Left Forum at Pace University, New York. What follows is the edited version of the first of the prepared opening remarks. A full recording of the event is available online.
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Introduction

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Bourgeois society came into full recognition with Rousseau, who in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and On the Social Contract, opened its radical critique. Hegel wrote: “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau.”

Marx quoted Rousseau favorably that “Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature…to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.”

Rousseau posed the question of society, which Adorno wrote is a “concept of the Third Estate.”

Marx recognized the crisis of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution and workers’ call for socialism. But proletarian socialism is no longer the rising force it was in Marx’s time. So what remains of thinking the unrealized radicalism of bourgeois society without Marx? Kant stated that if the potential of bourgeois society was not fully achieved as the “mid-point” of freedom then Rousseau may have been right to prefer savagery against civilization’s “glittering misery.” Nietzsche warned that we might continue to be “living at the expense of the future:” “Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely.”[1] How have thinkers of the revolutionary epoch after Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Benjamin Constant, and Nietzsche himself, contributed to the possibility of emancipation in a world after Marxism?

Karl Marx, photographed in 1870

Marx and Rousseau

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Marx’s favorite quotation of Rousseau, from On the Social Contract, goes as follows:

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.[2]

Marx wrote that this was “well formulated,” but only as “the abstract notion of political man,” concluding that,

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.[3]

What did Marx mean by “social powers” as opposed to the “political power” from which it has been “separated?” 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?

The Tragically Sublime: Schelling’s Metaphysics of Fate and Freedom in his Philosophy of Art

The discovery that man’s actions fail to produce their intended results, that the world does not bend itself to his will — this is the first instance of his spiritual alienation.[1] For herein lies the recognition that the world is not of man’s making, the understanding that nature obeys laws utterly removed from his desires. Such laws, insofar as they are intelligible, do not yet threaten mankind’s claim to freedom as such. Their necessity is only empirical. That is to say, the limitations they impose are of a merely physical character. In this respect, these laws do not jeopardize man’s moral autonomy. Rather, they are seen to possess a sort of brute factuality, an objective regularity. So long as man exempts himself from their mechanism, his freedom is preserved. His actions would thus simply be subject to material constraint.[2]

Another necessity presents itself to experience, however, of a far more sinister aspect. This necessity, by contrast, appears irreconcilable with man’s sense of free will. Its source is likewise external (heteronymous), but its precise origin remains shrouded in obscurity. As such, its machinery is wholly incomprehensible.[3] Where the one necessity persists in universality, the other exhibits itself as entirely particular.[4] In other words, the determinations of the first sort are understood to follow a consistent, uniform pattern; conversely, those which issue from the second variety seem hopelessly arbitrary, catastrophic. The apparent indeterminacy of the latter’s foundation does not alter its necessity, however. Its dictates must not, for this reason, be thought any less binding. On the contrary, the decrees of this invisible necessity govern the outcome of men’s actions with irresistible effect, deciding their fortunes without their consent.

This latter necessity is commonly referred to as fate. Qua absolute necessity, it is the essential annihilation of human freedom. Our activities are thus revealed in their impotence: we are not the masters of our destiny. It is on this account that the intuition of fate is always accompanied by a distinct feeling of horror. The moral freedom we so fervently assert as essential to our subjectivity is contradicted outright by the objective necessity of fate. Each side (subjective and objective alike) claims total sovereignty, and can scarcely tolerate its opposite. Yet both seem to contain an equal degree of reality. How can this be? To admit the one would surely be to negate the other. Are these two sides not incommensurable?

For the idealist F.W.J. Schelling, this paradox was definitive of the human condition. Indeed, it was viewed as the central problematic at work in transcendental philosophy, since the very possibility of this philosophy rests on the presumption that free will exists. In his 1800 System of Transcendental Idealism, Schelling explains the connection between freedom and fatal necessity as “a relationship whereby men through their own free action, and yet against their will, must become cause of something which they never wanted, or by which, conversely, something must go astray or come to naught which they have sought for freely and with the exertion of all their powers.”[5] Schelling here confirms much of what has been hitherto described: namely, that one’s free actions engender unimaginable consequences, regardless of intention; moreover, that the real results of his endeavors appear totally divorced from their ideal basis.

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