Saturday 3 April 2021

Radical Theory and the Crisis of the Present

As part of the series of lectures about the crisis in social theory and philosophy (one may be tempted to ask when hasn't there been a crisis?), yours truly tuned into last week's seminar to listen to Benjamin Noys talk about the crisis of the future as it exists in philosophy, and how might those of us who engage with and produce social theory could benefit from reflecting on this problem.

He began with the character of the crisis, which follows on from a set of observations made by the late Mark Fisher. That is, presently, the images of a better future that were part and parcel of capital's vision in the past, particularly in the post-war period and certainly up until the demise of the Soviet Union, have vanished. Capitalist institutions, especially the state and the media, instead cohere consent on the basis of reiterations of the past. The future then is cancelled and we're caught in a recurrent time trap. Because this sense of other, better times is no longer "spontaneously" produced, movements of the left and the right have embraced a certain voluntarism by manufacturing their own. For the left, its theory has become suffused with a utopian imaginary, culminating in the propagation of fully automated luxury communism. On the right, its "theory" has assumed the quality of a fundamental negativity and a compulsive yearning for an imagined past, something we saw with large chunks of the Brexit and Trumpist movement, and with the incels, the Men Going Their Own Way, and the so-called alt-right.

How then is this a crisis? For Benjamin, whether envisaging a progressive or regressive future, they have a fantastical quality to them. The bridge between now and these futures is fuzzy and unclear, and are symptomatic of what the crisis of the future really is: a crisis of the present, or an inability to imagine or map our present. The present then is absent, or if we take a leaf from Mark Fisher's book, a moment of stagnation and decadence. We live in a static and disappointing now among the debris of promised futures never fulfilled, and the dissatisfaction with our lot feeds the vivid fullness of past certainties or future possibilities. And the villains of the piece, at least where philosophy is concerned, stems from the Nietzschean wave of the last 50 years, refracted through the prism of Heidegger.

The scorn for the present suffuses Heidegger's critique of Western metaphysics. Beginning with Socrates and Plato, he argues what is excluded from philosophy is a willful forgetting of being, which for Heidegger was something always-already situated and embedded. For example, human consciousness is always relational and constituted through an interplay of interaction with other people and objects. This quality of being was repressed in Western philosophy, but continued to impinge and make itself present partially through the canonical thinkers. For example, Descartes's famous separation of subject and object was a distorted attempt to grasp and account for being. This wrestling, for Heidegger, was a buried but haunting presence in philsophy down to Nietzsche. Therefore, to reclaim the truths of being philosophy has to go backwards to the pre-Socratics to reclaim the importance of being. So much then for the past for Heidegger, but what of the future side of the equation? Heidegger has long appeared anti-future, what with his denunciation of technology and embrace of the pastoral and the farmer - in other words, he offers a bucolic philosophy stamped by the backwards orientation of his thought. However, for Noys, there is another possible way through for Heidegger. Again, stressing the situatedness of being he envisaged a way of working with technology and therefore preserving it, while retaining the pastoral and the poetic - a humanised modernity. The problem with Heidegger, of course, was his alternative to the futures offered by American technocracy and the Soviet Union was ... Nazi Germany. Fascist modernisation reintegrates the individual into the national community, and this is a route through the dualisms and fragmentation of being charted and accomplished by Western philosophy.

Why then for Heidegger was Nietzsche the beguiling moment for reasserting the repressed philosophical tradition? Because for Nietzsche the nihilism he noted, along with the death of God, was a consequence of Christian moralism and Socratic reason undoing themselves - the irrationality of rationality later taken up by Max Weber. The growing accent on technology is a realisation of this collapse as other, colder imperatives direct the thrum of social life which, in turn, enables an evaluation (or transvaluation) of all values. Nietzsche located his project in this conjuncture as calling for an affirmation of the powers of creativity and life. Catastrophe, therefore, midwifes rebirth, and affirming life can (and should) take from the past an aristocratic will to power. I.e. Self-assertion in (if not against) the world. As far as Noys is concerned, this Nietzschean appreciation of affirmation has made its way into the left via the standpoint of anti-capitalist critiques of culture emphasising stagnation and the manner by which culture arrests rather than fosters development - something certainly present in Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, and latterly, Fisher's thought. Except for them creative properties are the stuff of the masses, as opposed to Nietzsche who previously located this in the minority slave holding and aristocratic classes.

This crisis of the present then, of always looking forwards and backwards, has not led to a resurgence of the left. When we think about the multiple crises bedevilling capitalism, of the environment and climate, of economic slump and joblessness, of precarity, housing, and state capacity, because the system is totalising and subsumes everything, its crises appear as generalised crises of civilisation. This is a film covering and affecting to depoliticise capitalism's structural antagonisms, but is (presently) successful because, beneath the surface, the state of politics is fairly calm. And this has consequences for capitalism and the character of the politics of crisis.

Jumping off from Mario Tronti's Workers and Capital, the book makes the argument that capitalist development is driven by workers' struggle. That is containing workers, creating disciplinary mechanisms and new vectors of exploitation, all the technologies invented to intensify exploitation and, by extension, developing new products for individual consumption, is concerned not just with the production of surplus value but keeping the workers where they are so the wage relation and the power of capital carries on, unchallenged. When class struggle is at a low level or is diffuse, the pace of innovation slows because living labour is largely docile. More importantly, capital no longer knows itself. Without an opposition conscious of its interests and menacing the system, the ruling class itself starts lacking consciousness and a collective stupefaction descends upon it - hence in the UK context our very own Tory party's preference for authoritarianism, dressed up in antiquated notions of national sovereignty. With nothing to identify themselves against, the bourgeoisie start looking to the past, and the results are particular forms of reaction.

For Noys, the UK is proving to be a laboratory for this politics. Brexit, for instance, while a backward looking project actually sold itself as a future-facing affair. We know anti-immigration and racism were core components of the Leave vote, but it also had a vision of a more confident Britain bestriding the globe. "Out of Europe and into the World" went another one of the campaign's important slogans. This fits nicely with Tory modernisation, and Boris Johnson's particular fetish for high technology while pushing the politics of scapegoating and other nostalgic favourites. At this passive moment of our disappointing todays, we have to be aware that it might not contain any radical potentials. But we also require a standpoint understanding of how this passivity is uneven and might provoke layers of people who aren't as subsumed into capital's logics into action against it. Therefore, the moment, as always, requires a focus on the present, which would be a work of collective analysis and theoretical development. As Noys observed in the subsequent discussion, analysis has to provide those linkages between the past, the present, and the future.

I thought the paper was very interesting, and made explicit a few things I've thought about (but not written about) from time to time. The link between passivity, stagnation, and the backward-looking character of much of the right certainly rings true. There are plenty of times this place has railed against Tory and bourgeois decadence, for instance. The paper also offers a good explanation of, for want of a better phrase, the left utopianism we've seen much of in recent years. As for the idea capital is entirely reactive, this is the notion from Italian autonomism/post-Marxism that I've always found most problematic. Framing ruling class activity this way carries the danger of downplaying ruling class offensives and efforts bourgeois parties and governments go to while constructing cross-class alliances favourable/more favourable to the continued rule of capital. It also, on one level, provides succour for right wing apologetics for these efforts. I.e. If organised workers had behaved themselves in the 1970s, Thatcher's Tories wouldn't need to have smashed them. We must also remember capital, or rather capitalists and their parties are not omnipotent. Even when politics is "passive" they can, and do, make mistakes. Therefore, capital has agency. It is quite capable of reacting. It is also quite capable of forestalling and anticipating future issues around labour discipline and class consciousness, and working to engineer social relations and their environs to discourage or stymie their emergence. Something the Tories are adept at.

The second is the idea of an absent left resurgence. This is simply not the case. In the Anglo-American context, in Corbynism and Bernieism we have seen a huge uplift in leftist political activity. These movements were defeated, but have not gone away. Corbynism still appears to be the first wave of new cohorts of our class, which Keir Milburn has memorably dubbed 'generation left', coming into political consciousness. Corbynism was more than a generational revolt though as it drew widely from existing layers of Millennial and GenX workers whose relationship to work has been transformed by immaterial labour. Corbynism might no longer be a thing, but what is are new street movements, new political formations, and a stronger left in Labour and the trade union movement. British politics in March 2021 is unrecognisible from the perspective of March 2015.

The third is Noys's idea of a crisis of the present itself. I'm not au fait with all the ins and outs of current social theory and philosophy in academia, but to my mind there is no crisis in theory as such. Looking around at the work coming from the left in recent years, I see nothing but a relentless focus on the present and how it might be overcome. Richard Seymour's recent polemic against social media, Alison Phipp's attacks on corporate feminism, Aaaron Bastani and the communist potentials of current technology, Naomi Waltham-Smith's critique of neoliberal biopolitics, even this place fully inhabit the moment. Hundreds and thousands of other writers and activists do likewise. Militant thinking has not been in ruder health for decades. Time and again they reconstruct history, imagine the present, and try and constitute the pathways to the future.

The crisis then isn't one of theory or theory production, it is a question of practice. Or, to be more precise, of organisation. The left resurgence is real, is growing, but is amorphous and uneven. The real task of the present is to build and rebuild the vehicles and institutions of these movements, of creating catalysts for further action, coalescing political consciousness and drawing in many millions of others. It's a problem, or a crisis, as old as the workers' movement itself.

Image Credit

1 comment:

Ken said...

Corby is might not be a thing...
I thought you might recognise the analysis presented here by Alec Niven 3rd April in the Guardian. It was certainly familiar to me.

In spite of the gathering hype around NIP we should be realistic about its electoral prospects. Britain’s archaic first-past-the-post system makes it extremely difficult for smaller parties to establish a foothold in Westminster – even when, like Ukip for much of the 2010s, they have bags of money and several million voters.
As yet, NIP has none of Ukip’s advantages and most of its limitations. Barring an astonishing breakthrough, it will struggle to make much of a dent in the two-party system, and in the short-term it will probably do little more than split the Labour vote in Hartlepool.
But for all its shortcomings, the rise of NIP might just be the start of a more general realignment in British politics. The rise of a left-populist party, however small, exposes a major weakness in the strategy of the Labour party under Keir Starmer. It proves that Labour cannot simply take for granted the votes of the younger, idealistic demographic that swung so decisively behind the party under Jeremy Corbyn. Labour has no chance of gaining power unless it manages to retain some, if not all, of the leftist voters and campaigners who helped it secure more than 3.5m more votes in the 2017 election than it managed in 2015.
Given Labour’s dismal recent polling, and a general mood of apathy and bitterness among its grassroots members, the arrival of a new leftwing party shows that unless Starmer makes some conciliatory moves to regain the trust of this faction – and fast – his political project will be in serious trouble. If even a minority of disaffected Corbynite northerners get behind NIP, and if its example inspires other left breakaway parties elsewhere in the country, Labour’s downslide will accelerate.