shaunterrywriter

These are my writings. Ideally, these are the most honest expressions of myself that I could give.

The Poetic Vehicle of Authoritarian Ideology

(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “them,” “their,” and/or “theirs” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)

 

Benjamin’s view seems to be that technology and geopolitics have formed a situation by which people’s discontent, paired with their lack of connection to reality, has opened a space available to exploitation by authoritarians. Today, we might see this as a Žižekian point: effective authoritarians often rely on poetry to motivate the masses to comply with unspeakable terrors[1]. This poetry relies on the emptying of ideological space. Benjamin’s historical dialectics proposes that modern consumption of art entails the effacement of artworks’ material and ritual aspects that initially are artworks’ raison d’etre. In modernity, the roles of art and culture are hollowed out in a way that recalls Marx’s line from The Eighteenth Brumaire: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”[2] For Benjamin, this appears in the difference between myth and allegory: myths are stories born of people’s common material experiences and conditions, whereas allegories are tales meant to instill bourgeois ideals and practices agreeable to the ruling class.

Part of the problem is that technology and capitalism have cheapened people’s experiences. In “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin says, “Since the end of the nineteenth century, philosophy has made a series of attempts to grasp ‘true’ experience, as opposed to the kind that manifests itself in the standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses.” (314) People’s experiences no longer appear to be authentic and fulfilling. Further down the page, Benjamin refers to Bergson’s relationship to the problem as expressed in Bergson’s Matière et Memoire (Matter and Memory): “As the title suggests, it regards the structure of memory as decisive for the philosophical structure of experience. […] [Experience] is the product less of facts firmly anchored in memory than of accumulated and frequently unconscious data that flow together in memory.” Memory, then, is partly determined by unconscious information that informs everything that we do, including thought. In V. N. Vološinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language[3], he fleshes out a similar idea. On p. 10, he says, “The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. They equate with one another. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present, too.” For Vološinov, all use of language necessitates what Benjamin calls “unconscious data.” Later in the book, Vološinov determines that individuals’ uses of signs rely on social construction. Members of groups of people mutually agree upon the meanings of signs. All signs reflect understandings of the world determined by the group of people who construct that particular system of signs. Signs facilitate these system formations. The process of forming these systems always already includes ideology, even before any sign is constructed.

The same signs often appear in different, contemporaneous systems. The constructions of these differing systems of signs depend on the situations in which people find themselves. Any group of people might understand a sign differently from any other group of people. In any geographical place, the proletariat at any point in time can, and often does, construct a different meaning for any particular sign than that which the bourgeoisie might construct. These signs help to determine how we view ourselves, so all aspects of the individual are partly determined by the community.

When Benjamin says, “Experience is indeed a matter of tradition, in collective existence as well as private life,” (314) he highlights how socially constructed signs inform the construction of the individual but also how these signs construct our understandings of past events. Throughout Benjamin’s writing, he points out that understandings of history are determined by interpretations of past events. Illegible and inconvenient parts of histories are removed, while recollectors of histories imbue positive content-values: what Vološinov calls “ideology” and what Benjamin calls “unconscious data.”

To return to the beginning of this essay, what is imbued in these histories can be a bit of Žižek’s authoritarian poetry—a concern that Žižek and Benjamin seem to share. As the authoritarian’s poetry determines the interpretation of history, it also determines how individuals define themselves in and against their communities.

[1] For example, see Slavoj Žižek’s “The Poetic Torture-House of Language,” Poetry. Chicago: Poetry Foundation. 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/70096/the-poetic-torture-house-of-language

[2] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Moscow: Progress Publishers. 1934. 10.

[3] Vološinov, V. N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New York: Seminar Press. 1973.

Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966. 313-55.

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Benjamin, Brecht, Hume, and Marx: The Communistic Self

“‘Communism is not radical. It is capitalism that is radical.’” — Bertolt Brecht, quoted in “A Family Drama in the Epic Theater,” (Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2, p. 559)

 

(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “them,” “their,” and/or “theirs” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)

 

Benjamin saw the individual as contingent, composed of a kind of palimpsest of constituent parts, all changing and shifting about one another. In “Notes from Svendborg,” he says, “For you have to divide up the traveler, as well as the journey. And since in doing this you abolish the unity of life, you likewise do away with its brevity. However short it may be. This doesn’t matter, because the man who started out on his journey is different from the man who arrives.” (Vol. 2, p. 788) Benjamin supposes that we have to divide up the individual in order to try to understand them, but as we divide up the individual, we must also divide up the individual’s activities. Benjamin is concerned both with time and place, and he sees them as linked in the individual’s experience. Who a person is depends both on time and space, and the individual that appears in those moment-places is always producing a new iteration of the individual. The apparent brevity of life is subverted by the fact that the individual changes from moment-to-moment. What might otherwise seem like a brief encounter is—for any particular iteration of the individual—that individual’s entire existence. This conception bears relationships to David Hume’s critique of the notion of the self[1], as well as Marx’s conception of the tension between self-interest and altruism, as described in his discussion of the alienation of the species-being[2].

The comparison to Hume’s self is clear: both Hume and Benjamin see the self as lacking a permanently static, essential component.

The comparison to Marx’s alienation of the species-being is less clear. Marx states that capitalism forces people to choose between caring for themselves and caring for the collective. In Benjamin’s “From the Brecht Commentary,” he says, “The victor must not allow the defeated the experience of defeat. He must snatch this, too; he must share defeat with the defeated.” (Vol. 2, p. 375) If we consider Benjamin’s quotation above, along with this one, the relationship between Benjamin’s writing and Marx’s alienation of the species-being becomes clearer. In the earlier quotation, Benjamin sees the individual as contingent. The individual is partly contingent on social relations, as well as on other factors. Proletarian victories, as Benjamin talks about in “From the Brecht Commentary,” require that victors also appropriate defeat. The necessity of this appropriation is what leads to the overcoming of Marx’s problem: in order for society to come into a situation by which one’s self-interest is aligned with the interest of the collective, no one can win or lose more than anyone else. By appropriating defeat, equity of classes appears where there was inequity.

[1] Hume says, “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity.” Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.1888. 252.

[2] Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.” Early Writings. New York: Penguin Books. 1992. 327-9.

Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966.

Science, Art, and Exploitation: Brecht on Cultural Subversion

            Brecht begins “A Short Organum for the Theatre” by inspecting how art relates to social relations. “This theatre justified its inclination to social commitment by pointing to the social commitment in universally accepted works of art, which only fail to strike the eye because it was the accepted commitment.” (179) What is clear here is that all works of art rely on social commitments. The most invisible of these commitments are the most banal—the least challenging to our assumptions of how things should go (which is often, simply, the way things tend to go). So, when Brecht’s theater challenges social norms, criticisms of Brecht’s works—on the grounds of their tendency to express social commitments—ring hollow. Legitimate criticism must acknowledge that all works of art have social content value, so if one is to criticize a work of art on the basis of its social commitments, those criticisms are only legitimate when they confront the content-values of those commitments. As such, works of art that do not foreground critical positions tend to perpetuate the status quo.

Brecht concerns himself with relationships between science and art, especially in their figuring of culture and social relations. First, on p. 184, he says that the bourgeoisie have stopped science from illuminating the relations between people “during the exploiting and dominating process.” Regardless of the intention, the meaning of the quoted section is multiple: the “exploiting and dominating process” can apply to primitive accumulation; settler colonization; cultural hegemony; worker relations; identity relations, like those of “race,” gender, sexual preference, etc.; neocolonialism; big data, and probably other social phenomena. In fact, humans’ exploitation of nature shares a relationship to humans’ exploitation of other humans. On p. 185, Brecht points out that attitudes that were once reserved for natural disasters now apply to “undertakings by the rulers.” Brecht then says, “But science and art meet on this ground, that both are there to make men’s [sic] life easier, the one setting out to maintain, the other to entertain us.” When Brecht says that science makes people’s life easier by maintaining the status quo, it seems to me that he is, in some sense, being sarcastic. If we consider that he sees his theater project as potentially subverting the status quo, along with the fact that he sees science as exploiting nature and exploiting humanity—all for the sake of domination by the bourgeoisie—he cannot mean that science is purely beneficial to society. So when Brecht says, “In the age to come art will create entertainment from that new productivity which can so greatly improve our maintenance, and in itself, if only it is left unshackled, may prove to be the greatest pleasure of them all,” he may be unintentionally predicting how modern society’s science and art do more to enrich the wealthy few than to liberate the underprivileged masses.

Truer Language: Anti-Rationalism in Benjamin’s “On the Image of Proust”

Part of Benjamin’s interest in Proust lies in Benjamin’s concerns over rationality and rationalism. In Proust, Benjamin sees an artist who was able to achieve a rare authenticity. The authenticity in Proust’s work is what makes him notable, but for Benjamin, the way by which Proust is able to achieve this authenticity is important for understanding humanity’s role in the world and certain truths about humanity, itself.

On p. 237 of Benjamin’s essay, titled, “On the Image of Proust, he says, “We know that in his work Proust did not describe a life as it actually was, but a life as it was remembered by the one who had lived it.” (237) What is clear in Proust’s writing is that its objective veracity is limited. That is not to say that Proust is lying but that completeness and accuracy cannot be guaranteed by Proust’s memory. In fact, can any of us make any claim to truth?

In the prologue to The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin begins by referring to the problem of representation. For Benjamin, language, as people use it, cannot achieve representation in its fullest and most accurate form. Truth in language lies elsewhere.

Later in the same paragraph of the Proust essay, Benjamin says of Proust’s writing: “For here the day unravels what the night has woven. When we awake each morning, we hold in our hands, usually weakly and loosely, but a few fringes of the carpet of lived existence, as woven into us by forgetting. However, with our purposeful activity and, even more, our purposive remembering each day unravels the web, the ornaments of forgetting.” (238) What does Benjamin when he describes the “[weaving] into us” of forgetting? Here, it is forgetting that is the more powerful than the remembering. Forgetting is what imbues in us the small particles of “lived existence.” Perhaps, what Benjamin means is that it is not our conscious thought that determines so much of how we view the world and interact with it; if Benjamin has anti-rationalism in mind as a primary concern, then the unconscious, invisible embodiment of knowledge might be privileged here. What we carry around with us from our day-to-day lives is not so much the conscious decisions that we make, but the small, unnoticed changes in our perceptions and our understandings of the world around us. In the end, it is the conscious, rational thought that leads us astray, which explains why Proust took to working at night, if we are to believe Benjamin. Proust was able to avoid so much treacherous rationalization by avoiding the rational world and the expectations of clear, visible, rational thought.

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Image of Proust.” Selected Writings, Volume 2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966. 237-47.

Sacrifice and Liberty in E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful

“Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.”
— Walter Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities[1]

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

— Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison, Volume 12

 

(note: I may use gender-neutral “them,” “they,” “their,” and “theirs” to refer to imagined persons)

 

E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful is something like a critique-of-political-economy-as-revolutionary-life-handbook.3 Were it not for the empirical work that Schumacher did to show the viability of subaltern socio-economic modes, one might assume that he should have been pessimistic. His analyses of culture, the socio-psychological welfare of people, education, technology, global ecology, nuclear potential, and geopolitics (among other things) were nothing if not negative. But, when Schumacher looked at the world, he seems to have seen opportunities and solutions in the faces of actual and potential disasters.

In 1966, E. F. Schumacher’s essay, titled “Buddhist Economics,” set the groundwork for a number of social movements that persist today.[2][3] A book containing this essay was published several years later under the title Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. It is a sprawling collection of critical essays on modern political economy and on viable socio-economic alternatives. He draws on arguments from Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, John Maynard Keynes and others, sometimes in solidarity and sometimes in opposition, but his primary mode is to present the world’s problems as a set of complex, opaque contradictions. The premises on which we operate, Schumacher asserts, are not conducive to the goals that we have nor the goals that we should have.

The arguments in Small is Beautiful depend on a few major ideas: 1) human activity is causing ecological devastation; 2) people in modern societies live economically unequal lives; and 3) people in modern societies are unfulfilled. These ideas are closely related. Increased ecological devastation increases economic inequality and contributes to people’s dissatisfactions. Socio-economic factors that cause economic inequality—as well as economic inequality, itself—also contribute to people feeling unfulfilled. Finally, income inequality contributes to greater ecological devastation. If we accept Schumacher’s arguments, then these features form a network by which each furthers the other, speeding us along a terrible path.

Another recurrent theme in Schumacher’s book is that of spirituality, but he treats the spiritual elements in his book as axioms. Spirituality in Small is Beautiful will not be thoroughly analyzed here, but it will be briefly discussed toward the end of this essay.

Somewhat hidden in Schumacher’s text is a tension that I will try to draw out—that between what have been called “positive” and “negative” conceptions of liberty.[4] Positive liberty can be thought of as liberty-as-capacity—one’s positive liberty increases as they are able to do more than they could before. Negative liberty is liberty-as-disimpediment—one’s negative liberty increases when obstacles to their health and happiness are removed. In other words, one’s position is improved—in terms of negative liberty—if they have greater access to that which they need.

The book is composed of four parts: “The Modern World,” “Resources,” “The Third World,” and “Organisation and Ownership.” “The Modern World” describes the nature and causes of the world’s greatest economic problems. In “Resources,” Schumacher responds to these grave problems in such a way as to address the most essential and effectual aspects of the world’s problems, rather than merely providing temporary reliefs of symptoms. The problems in Schumacher’s “The Third World” are those related to what he calls “neocolonialism”—that is, how developed countries exploit and complicate conditions in countries with less geopolitical and economic power.[5] “Organisation and Ownership” addresses problems in theories of scale and develops its own theoretical positions on scale.

Schumacher begins by calling attention to nature’s limitations. In “The Problem of Production,” Schumacher demonstrates that we are too quickly using too many natural resources. We treat them as unlimited income instead of as capital that degrades over time, but fossil fuels are limited.[6] He repeats this point throughout the book. On p. 29, he tells us that understandings of economics do not limit consumption, but Earth’s finite resources do limit consumption. On p. 33, he says that endless growth is unsustainable, so we must curtail our desires. If things do not change, we will continue to increase the use of fossil fuels until they are gone.[7] The point is about more than resources, though, as it says something about our humanity, too.

At this point in the book, Schumacher refers to Gandhi’s thought: love is what allows us to overcome “greed, envy, lust, and hate.”[8] Instead of allowing selfish desires to rule over us, it is concern for one another that can lead us to better outcomes. Schumacher describes Buddhist Economics as “nonviolent” and representative of detachment from “materialism.”[9] Buddhist Economics is nonviolent because it helps to ensure poor people’s survival, it reduces stress that would otherwise contribute to violence, it decreases competitiveness, and it lessens environmental devastation and natural disasters.[10] Inversely, modern economics opposes the necessary conditions for peace, so modern economics is Buddhist Economics’s violent counterpart. This argument is justified in a few ways.

Schumacher claims that profit maximization is the purpose of modern economic activity.[11] On p. 25, he explains that if we are always supposed to want more, then we can never have enough and we can never be content; instead, we will always be dissatisfied. The endless pursuit of profit leads to a situation by which, for the sake of increased efficiency, we thoughtlessly fetishize scale.[12] Because profit is so important, all growth appears to be good, and equally so.[13] This has spiritual and humanistic implications: since everything is equivalent to everything else, nothing is sacred.[14] But, Schumacher does not agree with this conclusion. After all, infinite growth is impossible, so it is reasonable that we should consume less. But, there are obstacles to reducing consumption.[15] For example, technology initially appears to be innocuous if not clearly helpful, but, in part, this is due to a lack of the kind of education that Schumacher deems necessary.

The epigraphs at the head of this essay invoke two thinkers who came from very different situations and very different traditions, but arrived at a similar conclusion. Part of what they share is distrust for a taken-for-granted socio-cultural order and the mechanisms by which that socio-cultural order is produced.[16][17] Schumacher appears to be a fairly kindred spirit. He sees education as having great potential to do good or to do bad. He says, “More education can only help us if it produces more wisdom.”[18] This “wisdom” might appear in our ability to distinguish what is reality; education without this wisdom can lead to increased destruction.[19] Schumacher determines that, in addition to the destruction that has already occurred, the prevailing education paradigm also causes tragedy in people’s daily lives. The privileging of science over metaphysics and ethics has led to increased sadness in humanity.[20] Science cannot teach us how to live.[21] Therefore, “Our task—and the task of all education—is to understand the present world, the world in which we live and make our choices.”[22] This is important because if we do not have in mind what is best for us, then conditions are likely to worsen, but if we are intentional, then we can create sustainable health and happiness.[23]

Because we have not fully considered what would be best for us, Schumacher tells us, “we can say that the modern world has been shaped by technology.”[24] The results have sometimes been counter-intuitive; they have often been adverse. The earth and everything on it naturally limits itself, but technology has no self-limiting function.[25] For example, we ruin soil by treating agriculture like any other industry.[26] Further, Schumacher asserts that, because we cannot repair the earth, we have no right to ruin it.[27] So long as we fail to consider these complications, nature appears to be at odds with our use of technology.[28] Technology also appears to be an enemy of humanity. Schumacher tells us that modern technology cannot solve poverty.[29] While technology sometimes appears to benefit us, the truth is not so clear. Technology appears to save us time, but empirical evidence shows that increased technology causes us to do more work.[30] In the end, technology creates greater ecological destruction and makes us more miserable, but it also makes us more economically unequal.

Technology speeds up our lives and causes us to work more. Industrial firms grow in cities, and when people move to cities, they need jobs, so employers have leverage in negotiating employment.[31] Schumacher’s chapter, titled “Ownership,” explains that large companies can afford to hire people to do relatively non-productive work.[32] Non-productive work is more prestigious than is productive work, so people are paid large sums thanks to the underpaid labors of others.[33] In big companies, there is often an increase in non-productive and unsatisfying work.[34] This economic reality brings us closer and closer to zero productive time, especially as automation makes work less necessary and less profitable.[35] The work of sociologists and psychologists informs us that big organizations make us feel alienated and dissatisfied.[36] For example, big businesses tend to exploit labor in ways that small businesses cannot. Small business is advantageous to society because it leads to more people being productive, it creates more equality, it makes people feel better, and it slows ecological damage relative to the damage caused by bigger businesses.[37] In general, human processes on smaller scales make things run more slowly and less destructively.[38]

The small-scale, the specific, and the intentional are important to Schumacher’s conception of what is necessary to make the world right. His empirical research shows that fixing global poverty requires that rural poor provide for themselves.[39] If development is to bring people out of poverty and make people better off, then technology choices and aid efforts need input from local people.[40] Technologies must reflect the needs and the humanity of the people whom they are meant to help.[41] If these conditions are met, then poor people can be taught how to help themselves make economic progress, instead of making aid recipients perpetually dependent on other nations.[42] This conception of what Schumacher calls “technology with a human face” has been shown to be successful, so it is only a matter of putting these principles into practice.[43]

Schumacher makes a compelling case. It is, in my view, a somewhat odd book in that it is both highly technical and highly spiritually conscious. Schumacher is clearly perceptive and well-read. On one hand, Small is Beautiful reads as a clear critique of political economy; on the other hand, it speaks to an almost ethereal human quality not unlike what Marx spoke to in his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” (especially when he talks about ideas like alienation, communism, and sensuous activity).[44] Further, a contemporary reading of the thoughts espoused by Schumacher’s book can seemingly only resonate as radical in its positions; in the mid-20th century, one might assume that the book could only have caused an uproar, been buried in ridicule, or some of both.

Perhaps the spiritual elements are necessarily axiomatic, but there is little attempt to defend them at all. Even calling his theory “Buddhist Economics” is fairly arbitrary—a point that he admits on p. 52, when he says that Buddhism is not actually distinct from other major religions in regard to the ideas presented here. The choice of Buddhism, as Schumacher puts it, was “purely incidental,” giving some of the spiritual element in the book a mysterious quality. Why include the spirituality, if it is not to be attached to any substantive content? It seems that Schumacher could have either thought more carefully through the spiritual aspects of his book or he could have simply replaced them with something more like a shared malaise being felt by much of (if not all of) humanity—perhaps even referring more to Marx’s work.

That said, I did find Schumacher’s arguments convincing. In particular, Schumacher ties social construction, individual behaviors, social and economic relations, interpersonal violence, and ecological devastation together in a way that makes them seem inextricably linked. When describing the promised land of capitalist paradise, Schumacher writes, “The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions.”[45] In other words, perhaps what we are taught to strive for is constantly undermined by what is required to get there. Maybe heaven and hell exist as feelings and sacrifices in the spaces between the banal occurrences in our normal daily lives.

The paradigm shift that Schumacher proposes is one of rethinking and of foregoing privileges and mindless going-along. He argues for a rupture by which smallness, slowness, and interconnectivity replace anonymity, constant acceleration, and disconnection. I am reminded of what Foucault said, to end his famous “What is Enlightenment?” essay, “[T]he critical task still entails faith in Enlightenment; I continue to think that this task requires work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.”[46] Schumacher says something similar: “Success cannot be obtained by some form of magic produced by scientists, technicians, or economic planners. It can come only through a process of growth involving the education, organization, and discipline of the whole population. Anything less than this must end in failure.”[47]

My interest in Schumacher’s work has to do with trying to fill the contours of the shape required by our ravenous desire for greater capacities. I suspect that Schumacher may be right to think that this necessitates education and a willingness to sacrifice of oneself for the sake of others, for the sake of the whole, and for the sake of one’s long-term well-being. Luckily, as Schumacher informs us, the kind of global society that was impossible a couple centuries ago is possible now, if we are willing to try.[48]


 

[1] Walter Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” Selected Writings, Volume 1 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966), 297-360.

2 Antonio Grasci, Letters from Prison, Volume 1, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 18.

3 E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[2] E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[3] Schumacher’s work has been important in ecology movements, degrowth movements, Buddhist Economics, and other movements that continue today.

[4] Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom, (London: Lowe and Brydone, 1942), 26.

[5] Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 194.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Ibid., 25-8.

[8] Ibid., 39.

[9] Ibid., 57.

[10] Ibid., 58.

[11] Ibid., 42.

[12] Ibid., 66.

[13] Ibid., 48.

[14] Ibid., 45.

[15] Ibid., 122, 132.

[16] Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities.”

[17] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (New York: International Publishers, 1971).

[18] Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 82.

[19] Ibid., 84, 101.

[20] Ibid., 91-2, 94-5.

[21] Ibid., 87.

[22] Ibid., 101.

[23] Ibid., 116-7.

[24] Ibid., 146.

[25] Ibid., 146-7.

[26] Ibid., 109.

[27] Ibid., 106-7.

[28] Ibid., 146-7.

[29] Ibid., 147.

[30] Ibid., 148.

[31] Ibid., 74.

[32] Ibid., 262-71.

[33] Ibid., 150, 262-71.

[34] Ibid., 151.

[35] Ibid., 151.

[36] Ibid., 241.

[37] Ibid., 262-71.

[38] Ibid., 36.

[39] Ibid., 173, 193.

[40] Ibid., 176, 178-80.

[41] Ibid., 159, 176-80.

[42] Ibid., 197.

[43] Ibid., 159.

[44] Karl Marx,“Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” Early Writings, (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 279-400.

[45] Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 24.

[46] Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader, (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 50.

[47] Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 204-5.

[48] Ibid., 74-5.

 

Bibliography

 

Benjamin, Walter. “Goethe’s Elective Affinities.” Selected Writings, Volume 1. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966. 297-360.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon. 1984. 32-50.

Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. London: Lowe and Brydone. 1942. 26.

Gramsci, Antonio. Letters from Prison, Volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press. 1994. 18.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers. 1971.

Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” Early Writings. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. 279-400.

Schumacher, E. F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York: Harper & Row. 1973.

Violence and Oppression: Anarchy and Social Movements

(note: I may use the gender-neutral “them,” “they,” “their,” and “theirs” to refer to imagined persons)

Chris Hedges generally seems to me like a decent historian, but not overly analytical, which is fine. He can be opinionated, and I sometimes agree with him, but not always. I think that his assertions that the Black Bloc is necessarily problematic and counterproductive rely on some hefty assumptions. He says, “Because Black Bloc anarchists do not believe in organization, indeed oppose all organized movements, they ensure their own powerlessness.” On what does he base this? He takes it even further: “They can only be obstructionist.” Hedges seems to paint anarchists in general—that is, not just Black Blocs (although it would still be quite ridiculous even if he limited this to just them)—with such a broad brush that it’d be funny if it weren’t tragic in its implications.

In Graeber’s longer piece¹, he brings up Kropotkin. I think of Kropotkin as a very sweet, old, eccentric Russian grandfather (despite Hedges’s views on anarchism), and I very much admire Kropotkin’s ideas about mutual aid and communalism, along with his analysis of societies that behave anarchistically (as in remote villages in old Russia, for example)—a point that Graeber brings up. I’d guess from his writing here that Hedges only knows second- and third-hand horror story distortions of what anarchism is.

Hedges’s article operates on the axiom that everyone should be bothered by attacks on people’s property and antipathy to the police. His primary example of Black Bloc anti-police attitudes is that of anti-police chanting—a kind of chanting that seems ubiquitous in contemporary protest demonstrations. He reaches a fever pitch of incomprehensible hypocrisy when he argues that the left’s is “a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police)”—those same police that he had, only a few lines earlier, criticized for their “draconian,” violent reactions to peaceful protesters. He justifies his position by claiming simply that the problem lies in the Black Bloc’s sole responsibility for the state’s violent reactions to these protests. Instead, reasonable people might conclude that people like Hedges contribute to, and help to disseminate, a narrative by which Black Bloc tactics are treated as problematic. In Graeber’s response to Hedges, I found it interesting how he treated the othering in Hedges’s analysis and how he treated the implication of treating the Black Bloc like a cancer.

When Hedges quotes Jensen saying that “violation” of “boundaries” is sometimes justifiable, he only muddies the waters. Is violence against a person ever justifiable? That is a complicated argument that cannot be done justice here, but what side is Hedges on, and why? If his point is not that he is opposed to all interpersonal violence, then he is left with saying that the Black Bloc’s violence is a tactical misstep, but previous to sufficient revolution, how can anyone argue that some particular strategy is the right one? Hedges does not seem to have any means by which he can reliably conclude that the Black Bloc has or has not been beneficial or detrimental to the left. Instead, his arguments appear as bald assertions, made all the more confusing by his animosity toward what he calls “absolutism sects” that, he sarcastically claims, “alone possess the truth” and “alone understand.” He says, “They believe only their own clichés. And this makes them not only deeply intolerant but stupid.” In general, I have a hard time disagreeing with this assessment of dogmatism, in this case, there appears to be a lack of self-awareness at play. The dogmatism of Hedges and Jensen that says what we must do first—and what we cannot do—seems to suppose that they have all the right answers for achieving some revolution that everyone else has been getting wrong for the past few centuries. I’m not convinced. While Graeber similarly claims some understanding of how certain acts would affect the future, at least Graeber’s analysis is consistent with history, as opposed to trying to claim that future responses to social phenomena would necessarily appear as opposite to the kinds of responses we’ve seen in the past.

It seems to me that Hedges here foregoes the opportunity to discuss a legitimate problem in order to exploit some low-hanging fruit. Instead of making the valid point that the Black Bloc’s intentionally disorganized nature avails it to state colonization and corruption—and, therefore, counterproductivity—as well as to anyone simply looking for a means to effect legitimated (at least by some) violence, Hedges seems content with stoking liberal fears (ironic in that Hedges seems critical of the state’s exploitation of people’s fears). The locations of his anger are truly confusing to me.

He seems to save his sharpest criticisms for destructions of property, as in the coffee shop (which Graeber points out is mischaracterized by Hedges) in Oakland. On one hand, he quotes arguments that claim that violence on someone’s person can be just fine; on the other hand, Hedges has big problems with people (ostensibly non-strategically) destroying the property owned by someone(s) (or by some entity) who (that) presumably is privileged enough to own a business in a large US city. And, Hedges’s arguments are meant to support a more strategic left. I fail to fully apprehend Hedges’s simultaneous—supposedly leftist—outrage against property destruction and simultaneous (at least tacit) support for interpersonal violence.

 

Graeber’s example of Gandhi and the shooter of the British official made me think of last week’s discussion. Gandhi didn’t approve of murder, but he didn’t disapprove of the shooter. This makes a lot of sense to me, as does the fact that Gandhi still found liberatory violence more virtuous than oppressive violence.

 

In response to Stay Woke, while I don’t believe in punishing people (it seems to me that this is just a form of interpersonal violence—again, another conversation), as long as well all have to live in this system now, I find it striking, and deeply troubling, to see the difference in how justice plays out differently for different groups of people. I also found it interesting how the messages of horizontality and direct action tied the longer Graeber piece with the documentary. I find the notion of diversity of tactics to be one that seems wise. I think that it’s probably important to attack systems of power from many different directions and in many different ways. Of course, Graeber might argue that a point of disagreement between classical anarchists and BLM members might appear in how BLM tries to appeal to the broader populace and some deep sense of empathy or morality at the heart of society’s institutions.

 

Something that repeatedly appeared in this week’s readings, albeit in varied forms, was the general sense of respect for police that appears in the US. I wonder what makes the US different from other countries in how the police are treated by the media and others. Does the answer maybe appear in something to do with responses by Nixon, Reagan, and others to the US 1968 movements? Has the US always put the police on a pedestal? Why does this seem to happen? What could be done about it?

 

I appreciated Jensen’s definition of “lifestylism” (in Hedges’s piece) and how he describes cultural markers as indicators of in-groups and self-identifications that have become simplistic substitutes for actual communities and actual intentional praxis, even if I’m not convinced that Black Blocs are necessarily astrategic. I feel that there are interesting and important problems that come from solidarity-as-individual-consumer-choices, but that’s for another conversation.

  1. Graeber, David. “Direct Action, Anarchy, Direct Democracy.” Direct Action: An Ethnography. Oakland: AK Press. 2009. 201-37.

Porousness in Naples

(note: I may use non-gendered “they,” “them,” “their,” “theirs,” and/or “themselves” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)

 

When I think of porousness, the first image that comes to mind is the sponge. The sponge is filled with holes, it has no core, it appears disorganized and random, things pass through it, there is no obvious beginning or end to it (instead, there simply appears to be more sponge or less sponge in different places, giving the appearance of greater and lesser densities), and it can be inspected from every angle by whatever/whoever passes through it.

At the heart of Naples is porousness, and the porousness of Naples social life is caused by Naples’s poverty (420). Benjamin and Lacis refer to the pervasive Catholic artifacts, the camorra, the licentiousness of the youth, the endless distraction, and the constant swindling and exploitation of Naples in a way that suggests that extreme piousness and extreme immorality run side-by-side there. Perhaps, though, it is also caused by the saint Alfonso de Liguori, who, Benjamin and Lacis explain, “made the practice of the Catholic Church supple enough to accommodate the trade of the swindler and the whore.” (417) In fact, the (then) new, expensive church built on Pompeii represents the crystallization or petrification of something that foreigners come to see, “And to it, again and again, swindling and wretchedness finally come home.” (415) In Naples, Benjamin and Lacis see the Catholic Church at the height of its influence, always-informing the constant cheating and spectacle, as well as the constant shows of devotion—those displays appearing in the kitschy art products of the commonpeople, as well as the ostentatious displays of the Church (414).

Benjamin and Lacis paint a Naples that exists as a theater, where everyone can, even if only temporarily, play a starring role (417). Bright colors, artistic displays, constant music, nightly fireworks, elaborate physical gestures, and an endless stream of goings-on pervade the city—a city within which even children might be aimlessly wandering at 2am (420). Everyone is a performer and everyone eagerly anticipates their sudden, inexplicable (perhaps by God’s Will) enrichment. Temptation is all around, but the apparent anarchy of the city permeates even a temporality that might imply prudence.

The family in Naples is simultaneously no one and everyone. It is no one because no authority appears and no rules restrict, and it is everyone because the loss of a parent means very little change in the lives of children, as neighbors simply take on the children as is needed (420).

Benjamin’s and Lacis’s Naples is a place that erases the distinctions between the individual and the community, the private and the public, the innocent and the guilty, the sacred and the profane, and the poor and the wealthy. In Naples, it seems that nothing begins and nothing ends; everything encroaches upon everything else, and for all its drama, perhaps nothing is ever good or bad.

Benjamin, Walter and Lacis, Asja. “Naples.” Selected Writings, Volume 1. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966. 414-21.

Opacity and Power: How Religion and Secularity Might Figure into Politics

(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “them,” “their,” and/or “theirs” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)

 

If religion were fully supplanted by secularity, then religion would cease to be relevant in society. This seems plain. In lieu of the complete absence of religion, one might presume that the degree of religiosity in society might determine religion’s influence on society, but this relies on the assumption that religion’s influence on society is merely proportional to its prevalence. Instead, it may be that religion is such that its influence could be greater (or less) than is immediately apparent by observing its incidence in society. Moreover, the idea that secularity and religion occupy a simple gradient by which one replaces the other assumes that all constituent aspects of each finds its opposite in the other: for any aspect of religion, there is its opposite in secularity, and vice versa, such that the appearance or absence of one necessarily implies the absence or appearance of the other. But, that might not necessarily be true. For instance, terms like “modern,” “enlightenment,” and “progress” come with particular moralistic undertones: the modern is better than the immodern, and so on. It seems that these terms all carry with them traces of ideas that are separate from the rest of the mentioned terms. So, some of what is meant by “secular” has nothing to do with “religion,” and some of what is meant by “religion” is completely irrelevant to the “secular.” Therefore, not all of what is lost in the absence of religion is replaced by in secularity in the same way that religion does not fully replace the void in the absence of secularity. They are not fully mutually exclusive and can, therefore, work in tandem and even influence each other, despite the secularization thesis.

The secularization thesis states that the secular is “a residual category,” by which the secular is all that which is areligious (Casanova 55). So, according to this thesis, religion and secularity can never overlap; they are both mutually constitutive and mutually exclusive to each other. Religion, according to this same thesis, becomes more and more privatized (Casanova 60). Lastly, as religion disappears from public view, its importance decreases over time.

Asad takes issue with each of these. First off, Asad argues that the secular is not simply a category of the other; in fact, secularity has its own influence on culture and ideology: “The modern secular state is not imply the guardian of one’s personal right to believe as one chooses; it confronts particular sensibilities and attitudes, and puts greater value on some as against others.” (“Thinking about Religious Belief and Politics” 17-8)

Despite the secularization thesis, secularism and religion do not appear to be clearly separate. As Benavides argues, in “Modernity,” modernism is closely related to Abrahamic religions. This relationship appears to be so close that one might conclude that modernism’s most distinct features were always present in Abrahamic religions. The irony, then, would come in the conclusion that secularism emerged from Abrahamic religiosities. Perhaps, the personal relationship between the Christian and their God helped to lead to privatization. As Christianity became increasingly privatized, the absence of religious discourse in the public sphere led to more freedom for people to forego religious practices and religious beliefs. As Abrahamic religious doctrine was often about explaining the otherwise inexplicable, the immanent frame developed within Christianity—that is, the sense that theological arguments had to be consistent with the apparent empirical reality—helped to facilitate the development of science. Scientific discoveries complicated aspects of religious doctrine, leading to greater doubt in modern societies. Therefore, the individualism expressed in Christians’ private relationship to God led to eventual increased non-belief and non-practice of religions.

The notion that religion would have caused its own demise is important because it means that religion’s tendencies represent the primordial condition for the historical development of secularity. Since secularity underpins modernism, religion helped to found both secularity and modernism. Religion and modernism, then, must share an important relationship. Religion, secularism, and modernism are all related ideological concepts that offer epistemological frames with which to view the world. These ideological frameworks help to inform people’s proper roles in the world, so separating these frameworks from politics and public discourse is unreasonable (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). With that having been said, it is important to recognize that each of these concepts is different, and they each come with different assumptions. In modernity, it can be tempting to think of belief as being particularly important to defining religion.

If we think of privatization in terms of the increasing role of belief over the role of ritual and the senses, belief as the distinguishing feature of religion is a new phenomenon (Asad “Thinking about Religious Belief and Politics”). Therefore, religion cannot be simply, exclusively about belief. However, the supposed separation of church and state seems to help to concentrate power (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”).

The “separation of church and state” provides two locales within which Enlightenment thinking can work to concentrate and reconcentrate power (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). As religion is supposed to have been forced into privacy, religion supposedly becomes separate from the public sphere (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). Over time, religion’s relationship to public discourse has changed. Despite concerns about religion influencing modern institutions, it is modernism and secularism that have changed religion (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). The secular state, then, creates quasi-separate spheres within which those who hold power can tell different, albeit possibly overlapping, rhetorics. These spheres sometimes overlap, but they also can reinforce each other’s mutually held and, sometimes, divergent goals.

Global trends have resulted in the legitimation of secularist and modernist conceptions of government and social institutions. The emergence of the nation-state has implied secularist institutions, with nationalism generally being thought of as a kind of public replacement for what has become a more privatized religion (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). In the same way that Christianity has, in some ways, been forced to attempt to justify itself on secular terms (in terms of science and empirical evidence), religious nationalism, in the form of political Islamism, has been forced to rely on secular and modernist conceptions of the nation-state and identity (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). In other words, there is something confusing about the idea of religious nationalism. If we take the modern nation-state as a concept that relies on the absence of religious influence, among other things, for its legitimacy, then thinking of national identity as having a relationship to religion appears contradictory, unless we are willing to concede that secularity and religion are not simply each other’s opposites. In other words, religious nationalism can avoid its inherent contradiction in terms if—again, as Asad argues in “Thinking about Religious Belief and Politics”—religion and secularity carry their own assumptions and have their own influences on culture. In such a case, religion and secularity might come to sometimes coexist and to sometimes influence each other. But, how it is that religion and secularity influence culture and government, separately and together, is a question of who has the power to do so and how that power is wielded (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). What gets called into question is who stands to gain by the rhetorics in these spaces, how these people stand to gain, what influence they are having over these rhetorics, and how these narratives influence societies and cultures. What becomes clear is that religion can still be very important in modern societies. What is notable is how modernity sometimes removes religion’s influence on politics from full public view. Under modernity, there can be cases by which religion’s influence is heightened by its invisibility. For example, unbeknownst to the full public, people in power can sometimes have (at least) two separate mechanisms for wielding their power, giving them more opportunities to influence decisions. Rather than it simply being the case that religion becomes less and less important over time, modernity’s obfuscation of activities taking place in religious spaces affords new and different opportunities.

Secularity and religion appear in modernity as something like equal opposites to each other. As one wanes, the other emerges to take its place. Particularly, modernists might propose that religion is being replaced by secularity and those ideas that are informed by, as in the nation-state and other modern institutions. As previously addressed, such a notion of secularity belies the complicated relationship between secularity and religion, darkening the ways by which secularity and religion can interact. These spaces, made secret in society by the myth of secularization, can be fertile ground for power’s influence over society, making the secularization thesis attractive to those in power who are aware enough to understand its implications. Even for those in power who are unaware, the perpetuation of the secularization thesis seems to contain the potential for advancing the goals of those in power.

 

Bibliography

Asad, Talal. “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion.” Foundations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, and Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2003. 181-201.

Asad, Talal. “Thinking about Religious Belief and Politics.” Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011. 1-21.

Benavides, Gustavo. “Modernity.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1998. 186-204.

Casanova, José. “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms.” Rethinking Secularism. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. 54-74.

Benjamin as Philosopher: Asystematic Argumentations

(note: I may use non-gendered “they,” “them,” “their,” “theirs,” and/or “themselves” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)

 

We have talked about how Benjamin is not a systematic thinker—that he does not present us with a clear, coherent philosophy. In some sense, I think that this might be fairly obvious. However, I think that there are themes that cohere. If we take Benjamin to be an anti-rationalist, then it makes some sense to me that he would not be averted to irrationalities in the forms of inconsistencies and contradictions. He tends to appear inimical to moralization and he seems to view humanity as having lost, through over-rationalization, something human—something beyond the rational. Perhaps, in Benjamin, what we see is that rationality has two opposites: emotionality and embodiment. The opposite of the thought is the emotion; the opposite of the mind is the body. It seems that Benjamin feels that humanity has lost a good deal due to devaluations of both the emotional and the embodied.

If we suppose that religion is often intended to explain the inexplicable, then perhaps Benjamin’s invocations of theological statements makes sense. After all, if Benjamin is an anti-rationalist, then he might want to foreground that of which we cannot make sense. In “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man,” Benjamin conceives of a universal language such that all of humanity shares something that is indescribable. The inexplicable appears when Benjamin refers to “essences” and “myths,” in addition to his tendency to argue in theological terms. In his The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin finds Lutheranism problematic for its internalization (138). Benjamin’s claim seems to be that the discipline and internalization, as in the emphasis on “grace through faith,” replace ritual and embodied practices that align Christians’ minds and bodies in order to achieve better outcomes. So, Benjamin here appears to be taking issue with the privileging of the mind over the body.

Going back to Benjamin’s theological argumentation, perhaps the God that Benjamin speaks of is not necessarily some God that resides in some other place, but God can be thought of as something sacred in humanity itself. What is this something sacred, then? While describing the role of mourning, what appears in Benjamin is a righting of the world (and perhaps a reclamation of that sacred portion of humanity) in the form of emotional response to the brutal banality of the rationalized world (139). And here, the emotional and the embodied seem to form a link. Benjamin seems to take the position that we should be out in the world, experiencing it ( The Origin of German Tragic Drama 141-2, “On Language as Such”). Because we do not do that well, nature responds to humanity with “sadness” and “mourning” (“On Language as Such”).

When Benjamin describes the Fall as having to do with language, it appears that the “language of man” is a language that fails to be able to fully capture the human experience (“On Language as Such”). Human language is that language that fails to fully capture the emotional aspects of humanity, and that leads to rationalism. Over-rationalization leads to sadness and suffering, which leads to moralization, which leads to suffering.

In Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, he sees human suffering as related to human tendencies to moralize. In the myth appears the superhero whose special abilities should allow them to overcome the moral complications that humans encounter. Their failures are meant to teach us lessons, but no human should be able to overcome life’s moral complications because we are limited by human capacities. This seems to be why hope and suffering are tied together in Elpis. Moralization leads us into an impossible situation, causing us guilt and sadness. This helps to explain Benjamin’s last line: “Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.” We all are hopeless because rationalism has led to the loss of emotionality and embodied practices that are important to our welfare.

Benjamin’s contradictions, mysticism, and theological arguments appear as statements in themselves: it seems that Benjamin aims to normalize non-rationalistic argumentation. While Benjamin might not be recognizable as a modern, Western philosopher, I would argue that Benjamin has a philosophy.

Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard of Harvard University Press. 1997.

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: NLB. 1977.

Constraints and Capacities: On Liberty in Social Movements

Sacrifice — to make sacred.

I haven’t read Klein’s entire book, so I can’t be sure as to what it’s all about. That said, if the point is that there are small, subaltern movements that opt out from a problematic system, then it seems to me that maybe we still need No more than we need Yes. If her point is that we are on our way to achieving more than that, I’m skeptical, but maybe.

It appears to me that so many of the world’s problems require coordination. This may be the biggest challenge facing the kinds of social changes that appear necessary in contemporary society. It seems to me that this all rests on a problem that’s been there since the start of the Enlightenment, at least. If acquisition, production, and dissemination of knowledge are all always already about exploitation, then perhaps all of our modern assumptions would be inflected by the notion, if not that exploitation was to be celebrated, that it was not to be avoided. To be clear, what it seems to me is that all discovery requires the making of a useful other. If someone discovers a new element, then that element’s newness and/or elementalness becomes useful to the discoverer. If someone discovers a new plant, the plant is then the botanist’s object. The discovery of the Americas made a whole hemisphere into the voyager’s playground. Knowledge acquisition exploits, even if that exploitation might initially appear to be in a relatively innocuous form. Production of knowledge similarly requires a form of privilege that legitimates the claims of the knowledge producers. This then gives license to the ends desired by that knowledge producer. Dissemination of knowledge requires a similar kind of privilege.

My reason for bringing this up is that it helps to show an important ideological aspect of modernity. If ideology appears as the pervasive, viscous primordial element that determines the overwhelming majority of social relations, then the thing at the heart of that ideology seems to be very important. Here, I’m asserting that perhaps what’s at the heart of this ideology is what is sometimes called positive freedom. Positive freedom is positive because it is about a kind of freedom by addition: freedom to do things, i.e. capacities. Negative freedom, then, would be freedom from impediments, i.e. freedom from obstructions to what’s needed. To put this all another way, what appears since the Enlightenment is the idea that some people are entitled to having what they want at the expense of what other people need. It’s no wonder, then, that what we call “libertarians” in the US—the contemporaneous heart of many forms of modernisms—seems to completely ignore concerns over negative liberties at the expense of concerns over liberty’s positive forms.

Why is this especially relevant to social movements? While the concerns expressed by Klein, on p. 243—“generosity, hospitality, warmth, and wisdom”—I’m afraid that these don’t go far enough. While the Occupy Boston example given in the Juris reading can be an exemplar, I think that I can do a better job of explaining what I mean by looking back at the social movements of the especially active 1960s. Feminism gained major ground during and following the 1960s, in part because leftist movements failed. What became clear in the many leftist movements around 1968 was that leftists were often just as guilty of exploiting women, as were the guilty (in so many other ways, too) elements of the status quo. Leftist movements were clearly aimed at giving greater capacities to white men of a certain ideological leaning, at the expense of what was needed by women, among others. Enough women recognized the need for their own movement that would address their needs in ways that leftist movements couldn’t, and significant progresses were made (with still more progress needed, even today, to be sure). But, these women’s movements often failed other communities: non-whites, non-cisgender women, non-heterosexual women, and others. Mostly white women tried to get what they need, but with little regard to people who had less privilege than they did. Similarly, the Juris essay points out how race and class were axes on which problems arose within the Occupy Boston movement. Problems of difference, exploitation, and privilege manifest in many of the same ways that they did in the 1960s movements. While, today, there’s often greater consciousness of these issues than there was back then, the problems still persist, even if sometimes to a lesser degree.

It seems to me that what’s at the heart of what I’ve heard described as “the Fordism of social movements” is born of the persistence of preference for positive liberty over negative liberty. And, as Graeber points out, this is a worldwide phenomenon. There’s no separating a small commune any more than there is separating a mostly-forgotten nation-state. When it comes to the social and economic preconditions for these societies to operate as they do, no one appears to be exempt from the bombardment of cultural output that requires us to buy into these ideas. China and the former USSR can attest to that. And, especially when it comes to climate change, we’re in this together. Again, in Klein’s analysis, her hypothesis that climate change was supposed to have made a difference because it’s nature’s way of constraining our behaviors presupposes that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about trying to have as much as we possibly can. That’s to say that the upper limit proposed by climate change, then, only serves to say something like, You can have as much as you want, but only to here. Joanne Barker helps to bring to light this problem, as she demonstrates that the US’s social and economic activities always have the pursuit of more—especially by a privileged few—in mind. Anyone who can find a way to get the rest of the world to stop consuming can then spend as much as they want, at least up until the point that nature decides. The problem of liberty remains.

What seems to be required might be something like what Graeber calls a “revolution of common sense”—in other words, an ideological revolution. It occurs to me that a culture that constrained people’s actions according to what was best for others wouldn’t be one in which exploitation could occur so easily. Michel Foucault once said, “I do not know whether it must be said today that the critical task still entails faith in Enlightenment; I continue to think that this task requires work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.” This “patient labor” could be that which asks us to not move ahead so quickly to gain new capacities, in favor of first filling out the contours of what actions we can justify by recognizing the needs of others.

It seems possible to me that Klein’s yesses might not mean very much until we can find a way to somehow produce an ideological shift that puts negative liberty at the heart of what we do, replacing the continuous impatient grasping for new capacities. There are hints that she might even agree to something like that, even if what we read seemed focused on other aspects of social change.

A theme that appeared in some of the readings was one that seemed to say that many of us are already engaged in lots of acts and social formations subaltern to the predominant modernistic model, so achieving something better shouldn’t seem so difficult to imagine. Without a fundamental change in how most people view their relationships to one another, I’m not so sure that the thesis holds up.

Barker, Joanne. “The Corporation and the Tribe.” American Indian Quarterly. 39. 3. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2015. 243-70.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon. 1984. 32-50.

Graeber, David. “Breaking the Spell.” The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement. New York: Spiegel & Grau. 2013.

Juris, Jeffery; Ronayne, Michelle; Shokooh-Valle, Firuzeh; and Wengronowitz, Robert. “Negotiating Power and Difference within the 99%.” Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest. London: Routledge. 2012. 1-7.

Klein, Naomi. No is Not Enough. Chicago: Haymarket Books. 2017. 222-56.

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