On Crisis Learning: A Materialist View of Political Learning

One of the most important insights of modern philosophy is that “knowing that,” or “propositional knowledge,” is a “founded” or derivative mode of engagement with the world. More specifically, it is founded upon knowing-how, or practical competence. For instance, to cite a simple and obvious example, our propositional knowledge of grammatical rules is founded on something that is more “originary” [ursprünglich], to use Heidegger’s term, which is our practical competence to speak and understand our mother tongue. Children learn to speak much earlier and much more readily than they learn to state or recognize any of the rules of grammar, or even the definitions of words (for instance, any small child knows how to use the word, “time,” but very few people, even as adults, can say what the word “time” means).

A famous resistance practice-form: women banging garbage bin lids in the occupied counties, Ireland.

A famous resistance practice-form: women banging garbage bin lids in the occupied counties, Ireland. 

Probably, you can produce a set of verbal instructions detailing the steps to go through in order to tie your shoes. But this is not because you carry around with you a set of beliefs about these steps. Instead, it is because you are able to reconstruct the steps by reflecting on something more basic: your pre-cognitive facility/aptitude or know-how, by virtue of which you can readily perform the task with competence and ease, without any need to think of the steps, or to have any beliefs or opinions about how it’s done. This was a key theme in Heidegger’s Being and Time, but also Mao Zedong’s On Practice, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, to name only a few examples of important philosophical works in the early 20th century that touched on this theme. 

There are many ways in which this matters. But here I want to focus on one particular way: how people learn about politics. 

There are, I think, at least three ways that people learn about politics: first, and least importantly, there is learning through political discourse. In political discourse, people develop opinions by considering arguments that they hear or read. So much energy is devoted to the activity of making arguments (even arguments against arguments, the paradoxical apex of political discourse) that one might suppose that it was the main way in which political learning takes place. In fact, however, hardly any political learning happens this way. Part of the reason is that most people, most of the time, only bother to listen or pay attention to political arguments that they find agreeable in advance. Seldom does a socialist read something written by a conservative, or whatever other examples you can think of, in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, i.e., finding out what’s true without assuming it in advance. On the contrary, one knows in advance that one’s adversary’s main claims will be false, but perhaps one wants to find some opinions to attack, or to construct some counter-arguments to discourage others from taking the writer seriously. Actual inquiry is confined largely to exploring the nuances that divide oneself from one’s co-thinkers, on small details or narrow points of disagreement. To the extent that learning takes place via political discourse, it is mostly elaboration and clarification of what one already takes oneself to know (which is itself mainly a function what one habitually does). 

A second type of political learning, which is far more important than political discourse, is political socialization. This is the process by which one develops practical competence in forms of political activity. This can take the form of learning how to identify people and positions as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘feminist,’ etc., based on various signals, such as vocabulary, priorities, paradigmatic ‘tropes,’ and so on. One learns that use of terms like ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression’ is often an indicator that someone is a leftist of some sort, while use of terms like ‘taxpayers’ and ‘law and order’ is an indicator that someone is a conservative. Another type of political socialization or competence acquisition is learning how to perform certain types of political act, for instance, complaining to a public official, or signing a petition, or attending or organizing a protest, and so on. The number and variety of forms of this kind of political competence acquisition are far too many and varied to try to enumerate all or most of them. For now, it is enough to notice that this is not a matter of thinking and reasoning, but a matter of acquiring facility or competence and know-how. There are beliefs involved, of course, but this type of learning is not mainly about belief or opinion formation. It is mainly about learning how to carry out certain performances competently. In this sense, it is more like learning to speak a language with pre-cognitive (that is, non-propositional, non-opinion-based) competence, than it is like learning a set of explicit grammatical rules. It is learning how to perform in certain ways, not what to believe about certain things.

Before turning to the third type — referenced in my title, ‘crisis learning’ — I want to make a couple of concise observations about political socialization (competence acquisition), in contrast to political discourse (opinion-formation). The acquisition of competence is less influenced by debate and discussion. For the most part, it is influenced by leading, i.e., drawing people into a practice, which invites them to internalize standards of skillful performance that may be hard to state, but which are (as it were) internalized by people who learn how to perform in the practice. For instance, people might be invited to attend a town hall public meeting. They might see others stand up and make demands on a politician. Over time, they might develop the competence to stand up and try the activity out. Gradually, they may develop skill and facility or competent ease in the performance. They come to know how it’s done. But it would mostly be pointless to tell them what to do. Instead, it is a matter of drawing them into a practice, where exemplary performances can be witnessed, appreciated, and replicated. 

Two things follow from this practical character of political socialization. First, it tends to be only very weakly influenced by what people say or argue. Second, when people have learned to perform (behave) in a certain way, it is very hard, not to say impossible, to argue them out of it. In other words, once I learn how to tie my shoes in one way, I am unlikely to be easily won over by someone talking to me about some great new style of shoe-tying, which is much better than the way I have learned to do it. No matter how passionately they argue with me, no matter how comprehensive and rationally compelling the arguments are, I am liable to be unmoved. This isn’t because I’m irrational or a victim of ‘brainwashing.’ It is simply because how I act is not a function of opinions so much as it is a function of habits and competences that are more “originary,” to return to Heidegger’s word, than opinions. Know-how has a much firmer grip on me and how I act than knowing-that. 

This brings me to the third type of political learning: crisis learning. Suppose I find myself in the middle of a general strike. Perhaps I am one of those rare individuals who has all sorts of opinions about general strikes and how they should be conducted. (Indeed, I certainly am such a person.) In that case, my learning will be atypical: mostly a matter of figuring out how to “apply” my opinions. If so, it would be a grave error if I were to imagine that my form of learning, as applying opinions, is typical of how most others will learn during the unfolding strike process. On the contrary, most of the learning, by most of the people involved, will have little to do with the formation of opinions based on political discourse. 

For most of my neighbours and co-workers, who (1) have no opinions about general strikes and how to organize or conduct them, and (2) also have very few habits or competences that are particularly relevant to the challenges at hand, their learning will be of a very different sort: not a matter of applying opinions, but a matter of groping around for new habits. That is, they will have to cultivate new kinds of competence, in a hastily contrived way, in the absence of clear exemplars to appreciate and emulate. They may have known for years how to tell the difference between the way conservatives talk and the way feminists talk, or whatever. But now they will have to learn how to react to police officers threatening to beat them if they don’t “move back” or disperse from an area. Or they might have to learn to notice, and finds ways to push back against, certain “cooptation” dynamics in struggle-settings (which is something everyone saw happening during the Black Lives Matter organizing), or how to handle the jailing of dozens of comrades, or whatever. Depending on the background of the persons in question, this might be the first time they have had to cope with situations like this. And so, they have lots of things to learn. 

But clearly, new opinions are not what the situation demands. What they need is a kind of competence reconfiguration. And crisis learning is the kind of semi-improvisational competence re-configuration that people engage in when circumstances demand of them performances for which their existing repertoire of competences offer no guidance. 

It’s a bit like someone who was an only child (hence no younger siblings) and never did any babysitting (hence lacking any childcare skills) suddenly being charged with the care of a baby. The person in this predicament will have to very quickly find makeshift coping routines, and develop new competences, without having the luxury of comfortable socialization into an up-and-running practice with readily visible exemplars of skillful performance to emulate. This is what I want to call crisis learning. 

Politically, crisis learning is far less common than political socialization. And yet, for people with a keen interest in those rare moments of opening, in which upsurges of struggle impart an atypical dynamism and fluidity to political life, crisis learning is one of the most important aspects of politics. 

One could say a great deal about crisis learning, of course. But I only want to underline one simple point: that political discourse is a less helpful or ‘generative’ framework for intervention into this kind of dynamic situation than something else that can be done to facilitate crisis learning: the popularization of portable practice exemplars.

What I’m calling ‘portable practice exemplars,’ Michel Foucault called ‘political technologies.’ It simply means designs for the configuration of activity that can be transported and adapted to multiple contexts and situations, and can serve as a basis for coordination and mobilization in pursuit of certain ends. This is something we saw in the Assemblies Movement. Initially, in Egypt, a simple practice-form was established in Tahrir Square: camp out in a public square, set up assemblies that facilitate public discussion and at least rudimentary decision-making, and use self-organized infrastructure to both address the practicalities of the convergence and to prefigure forms of egalitarian and horizontal cooperation that inspire hopes for a more far-reaching social transformation. This basic practice form was then transported and activated in other places, including Greece and Spain, and later at Occupy Wall Street and eventually in hundreds of cities and towns around the world. 

What makes portable practice exemplars so important is that they can be transported and activated, and used as a framework for rapid crisis learning, without the need for experienced exemplary persons, whose skill at navigating a social practice can be observed, appreciated and replicated. A portable practice exemplar, like the General Assembly, can be set up in a town where no one has any experience in its workings, and everyone can learn together, quickly, in a structured and manageable manner. In crisis learning situations, political discourse is largely irrelevant to the tasks at hand, while political socialization of the usual sort (which draws people into up-and-running practices where they can learn by following the examples of those who already have the practical competences needed) is a luxury that isn’t available, for reasons of time and reasons of fundamental novelty, due the sudden dynamism and instability of the context. 

The final point that I want to make is suggested by my example. It is clear that the General Assembly in a Public Square proved to be a very infectious and fast-moving portable practice exemplar. It worked, in that sense. But did it work, in the more important sense, by moving struggles forward, and helping to open up new opportunities for far-reaching social change? It’s less clear, anyway. Other portable practice exemplars from the past have had similarly mixed results: the consciousness-raising group, the urban guerrilla cell, the ‘party of a new type,’ the commune, the pluralist anti-capitalist network, the women’s caucus, the ‘proletarian guard,’ the spokescouncil with affinity groups, the workers’ council, and so on. None of these has proved decisive, in the manner of a quick fix or secret recipe.

Still, what can be said for them, in contrast to political discourse, is that they answered (either well or poorly) to the needs of the moment in contexts of political crisis: they served as vehicles for crisis learning. And, if nothing else, that made them important and influential in shaping the political learning process of many thousands or in some cases millions of people. It’s a form of learning that ought not to escape our attention.

GWF Hegel and Ralph Chaplin

Leftist intellectuals — Marx, Luxemburg, Mao, Senghor, and many others — have been insisting for generations (going back at least to the 1830s, in some places) that Hegel, if approached in a suitably critical and selective way, can be an important resource and reference point for anti-systemic theorizing.

Ralph Chaplin and GWF Hegel

Ralph Chaplin and GWF Hegel

But given the relatively inaccessible writing style in which Hegel expresses himself, which creates a daunting barrier to engagement with his ideas, the point might need reinforcing. This is especially so in a time when Hegel is often dismissed as racist (which indeed he was, although racist themes co-exist in his work with anti- or counter-racist themes) and obscurantist, among other things. No doubt, some people interested in leftist theory are tempted to skip over Hegel, in spite of his formidable reputation among many generations of radical intellectuals.

To see why reading Hegel is important (for those interested in reading leftist theory), we first have to grasp the gist of Hegel’s “big idea.”

Hegel took as his point of departure Immanuel Kant’s pioneering insight that the mind does not simply register facts by means of observation, as empiricism had long held, but instead actively constructs facts by pre-organizing and shaping in advance the forms in which our experience could be made intelligible. Hegel and his co-thinkers, the post-Kantian “German Idealists,” thought that Kant had drawn back from acknowledging the radical implications of his own conclusions. They insisted that objectivity had to be understood as an achievement of subjective activity, a world of human constructs. But this quasi-Fichtean theme was well and truly radicalized by Hegel, who extended it well beyond the intellectual horizons of the so-called “philosophy of consciousness.”

As Hegel saw it, the world that we inhabit — with its intellectual, natural, and social dimensions — is not a discovered but a constructed world, which human activity continually produces and reproduces. This applies, he suggests, to the ideal objectivity explored in logic and mathematics (“the science of logic”), the epistemic objectivity explored in the natural sciences (“the philosophy of nature”), and the social objectivity of institutions and cultural systems like language and the arts (“the philosophy of spirit”). We do not discover them; we make them, although certainly we do “discover” the contours of our constructs as we engage with them in the form of various practical and intellectual learning processes, unfolding both within the life-histories of individuals and in the world-history of the species.

Moreover, Hegel insisted that this productivity is not accomplished individually, by solitary persons, but collectively, by the common action of communities: “the I that is we and the we that is I,” as he put it. In some cases, as he well understood, there are those who participate in these community learning processes only in the manner of barriers to be overcome, or antagonists to be resisted; but even this is a way of being drawn into a “dialectical” learning process that is ultimately and in the long run an expansively human one — a complicated and conflict-ridden journey of the human Geist or spirit, as he would say, toward more comprehensive forms of insight into the universal scope of its own achievements.

The understanding, so indispensable to Left politics, that all of the wonders of human society and culture, including science, technology, and the arts, are the product of the coordinated creativity and effort of working people — whose achievement is continually misappropriated and misdirected by parasitic elites who fetter human development — is derived in large part from this Hegelian conception of human society. Perhaps the most concise summary of Hegel’s big idea can be found in the song, “Solidarity Forever”:

“It is we who ploughed the prairies;
Built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops,
Endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving
Amid the wonders we have made…

“All the world that’s owned by idle drones
Is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations;
Built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in,
But to master and to own.

“They have taken untold millions
That they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power,
Gain our freedom when we learn…

“In our hands is placed a power
Greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies,
Multiplied a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world
From the ashes of the old….”

The politics of this “syndicalist” song, written by Ralph Chaplin in 915, have deep roots in the intellectual tradition (most famously including Marx) that tried to work out a “materialist” counterpart to Hegel’s learning-fixated account of human self-production. The materialist post-Hegelian tradition tried reinterpreted human social development in terms of human work and the social relations of production. Whether the influence of Hegel on Chaplin was direct or indirect (via Marx and others), I do not know. (It should be said, too, that Marx was influenced not only by Hegel but also by the 19th century workers’ movement, with its “productivist” critique of parasitism, and his materialist reinterpretation of Hegel was in part mediated by the self-understanding of organized leftist workers.) But there can be no denying that Chaplin’s analysis is informed by some of the leading ideas of Hegel’s philosophy.

Chaplin’s song touches on a second theme in Hegel’s work, beyond the point about culture, science and technology as achievements of the creativity, coordination and cooperation of working people (continually expropriated by a class whose parasitism serves as a fetter on human development). Chaplin also underlines the fact — central to Hegel’s thought — that we tend systematically to be oblivious to our own achievements. “In our hands is placed a power” — yes, but why then our do we “stand outcast and starving”? According to Hegel, it is because we do not yet know — we have yet to “learn,” as Chaplin puts it — that the power of the structures and institutions that we inhabit is rooted wholly in our ongoing activity to produce and reproduce those institutions and structures. 

The rich and powerful have “hoarded gold,” sure, but “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn.” This liberating insight could “break their haughty power,” a process of simultaneous learning and empowerment that Hegel calls (oddly enough) “philosophy.” Philosophy, in the long run, gravitates toward ideology-critique: the learning process of discovering that the root of all the structures and institutions that oppress us as human beings is our own coordinated activity: “it is we who ploughed the prairies, built the cities where they trade, dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railway laid.” As we gradually work our way through the learning process of “de-reification” (tracing the structures of the world back to their basis in our own collective activity), we unmask the false appearance of exteriority that makes our own achievement appear to us as an alien power that we cannot control. Its estrangement from us, the producers who produce and reproduce it, can be dissolved by exposing its basis in our own collective action.

Of course, Hegel, being an idealist, believed that the mere insight into our capacities generated, in a quasi-automatic way, a dawning of universal freedom. Hegel seemed to assert in a literal sense what Chaplin affirms in a poetic mode: we can “gain our freedom when we learn….” Modern philosophy, Hegel thought, increasingly grasped that “alle Menschen an sich, das heißt der Mensch als Mensch sei frei….” — “Every human being, as such, that is to say, the human being as human being, is free….” And this insight at the level of intellectual activity was bound to be expressed in events like the French Revolution and other political upheavals which he saw as symptoms of the learning process of de-reification. 

Today, we are perhaps less convinced that ideology-critique of the type that Chaplin and Hegel undertook to encourage yields any automatic political victories. Even seeing the point, that “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn,” we still have to find ways to organize ourselves with enough potency and coordination that the systems and structures that dominate us can be overturned. On this point, Chaplin takes an important step beyond Hegel: “The union makes us strong,” he insists. That is, our capacity for combative self-organization within resilient structures of coordinated struggle can turn the insight in to our potential power into the reality of de facto empowerment. On that basis, “we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” 

Still, what needs to be acknowledged is not that Hegel (or indeed those, like Chaplin, who draw directly or indirectly on Hegel’s insights) has somehow already said everything that needs saying. Obviously not. The point, rather, is to recognize that the intellectual achievement of Hegel is important, that there are insights in his thought that retain their luminous and penetrating character even today — in an age when people still delude themselves that “Steve Jobs,” that semi-fictional character, somehow “created the ipad and the ipod,” and so forth. Readers of Hegel will, of course, scoff at such fantasies. Thus, we can still today learn from engaging with him, and also from pushing past his mistakes and failings: treating Hegel neither as a “genius” nor a fool, but instead as someone who, like all of us, tried at times to think hard about important things.

Self-righteousness and Left-Activism

By Stephen D’Arcy

Self-righteousness is a special case of being self-satisfied, complacent, smug. But here, the smug complacency refers specifically to a person’s belief that he or she complies, to a higher than normal degree, with the demands of some strict moral standard. This claimed moral superiority in turn is supposed to justify an attitude of scorn or disdain toward others, who supposedly fail to respect this high standard and in this way discredit themselves.
Importantly, self-righteousness differs from simple “righteousness” — the insistence on doing the right thing, simply because it is the right thing — in being a vice rather than a virtue. Why, though, is self-righteousness a vice, not a virtue?Self-righteous-wide

It is a vice for at least three reasons:

1. First, because the self-righteous person helps himself or herself to a higher standing than his or her peers, and so claims to be superior, almost in the manner of a “saint,” whereas we only accept the standing of moral superior as an honorific status to be conferred on rare individuals by others, not a self-appointed status to be claimed presumptuously and unilaterally for oneself;

2. Second, because the smug complacency implies a confidence that one has little or no work to do to improve one’s own conduct and character, and thereby reveals a lack of concern for self-improvement, a confidence placed in doubt by the very behaviour that embodies it, since that behaviour itself is open to criticism and calls for correction; and

3. Third, because the most common marker or indicator of self-righteousness is the ostentatious stance of self-appointed judge, issuing explicit or implicit decrees of condemnation toward others, for their supposed failings, and this ‘judgmental’ stance reveals a lack of insight about or awareness of the universality of failings and shortcomings that motivate one’s finger-pointing, but on the contrary presumes that such failings are unique to the judged, and have no parallel in the words and deeds of the judge.

Now, it is sometimes said that social-justice-oriented political activists are particularly prone to self-righteousness. I’m not sure whether or not they are unusually quick to indulge in this sort of thing. But I do believe that it is widespread, and certainly no less typical of activists than of others. And that’s a problem, because it obviously undermines what they are trying to achieve, if (as I hope) they are trying to draw in wider circles of people, and to break out of activist subcultures to engage with the larger world. Clearly, a self-righteous attitude will deter engagement, on one’s own part, since one looks down on others and therefore won’t see them as potential comrades and partners in a common struggle; and it will also deter engagement on the part of others, because they will find one’s self-righteousness to be offensive and indicative of some activists’ contempt for ordinary people. Self-righteousness, in short, undermines both the interest of activists in engaging with the wider world, and the willingness of the wider world to be engaged by activists.

I believe that this problem came up, as a practical matter, during the Occupy movement, when many long-time activists found themselves, consciously or unconsciously, unwilling or unable to engage with wider circles of people flooding into oppositional movement politics, because some of those people had (arguably) mistaken ideas about a range of issues, from the role of ‘the Fed’ to the nature of colonialism and much else. No one would suggest that these ideas, where they existed, didn’t need to be challenged in various ways, by means of a process of popular education. But having mistaken opinions is not actually a flaw or a defect or sign of inferiority, clearly. It is actually the normal state of everyone. We just have different zones of knowledge and ignorance. So, a stance of condescension in such situations is clearly uncalled for. But in fact, at the time, I believe that some activists retreated from the Occupy movement because they were particularly judgmental about the political opinions of some of the participants. (My evidence for this is limited, but it is a perception I had at the time.) Obviously, there were in some cases perfectly sound reasons that people may have had to shift their attention elsewhere. No one would doubt that; certainly, I don’t doubt it. However, I’m quite sure that at least in a few cases, self-righteousness was an issue.

If self-righteousness is a barrier to strategically effective movement organizing, what can be done about it? I don’t pretend to know. But possibly counting it as one of the threats to left-activism — along with other threats that we express concern about, like state repression, activist burnout, or sexist behaviour, etc. — will help us resist any impulse to revel in self-righteous feelings, which seem to have some narcissistic appeal due to their ego-elevating character. If we count self-righteousness as a danger, a threat to our organizing projects, we might better be able to notice its appearance, and to motivate ourselves to walk away from it.

The Means-End Reversal Dynamic: SYRIZA, for example

By Steve D’Arcy

“There is first of all the overvaluation of the organisation, which from a means has gradually been changed into an end in itself, a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggles should be subordinated.”

(Rosa Luxemburg)

 The suggestion that there is a means-end reversal dynamic at work in many institutions is an idea so simple that no one can write a book or dissertation about it, but so powerful as an explanatory framework that no one can afford to ignore it when trying to understanding the world.

 Personification of Things, Thingification of Persons

Unless I’m mistaken, it was Karl Marx who introduced the notion of means-end reversal (albeit not the exact phrase). At first, he used it somewhat awkwardly, in 1844, to talk about how human creative doing, which should be an opportunity afforded by life, and our highest end, becomes degraded to a means of survival, which in effect converts the end (creative doing) into a means (making a living), and elevates the means (staying alive) to the sole motive for ‘showing up for work,’ the only operative end for the working person.chaplin-charlie-modern-times

But Marx made more vivid and suggestive use of the means-end reversal idea in the 1860s, under the label, “the thingification of persons and the personification of things.” Instead of commodity production being a means to human existence (productive of ‘value in use’ for living persons), human existence becomes re-interpreted in terms of “human resources,” hence as no more than a means to facilitate commodity production itself: people become “the labour supply,” available for “the economy.” Commodity production becomes the end, and people become resources and instruments.

 “Means-End Reversal”

Although Marx may have introduced the idea, the term itself, ‘means-end reversal,’ seems to originate in an article in the British Journal of Aesthetics in 1962, by C.A. Mace, a philosopher and student of G.E. Moore. Among other things, Mace proposes to understand the playing of games in terms of means-end reversal. For instance, playing golf “involves the reversal of the means-end relation. The ‘end’ — getting the ball into the hole — is set up as a means to the new end, the real end, the enjoyment of difficult activity for its own sake.” Later, experimental psychologist, Karl Pribram, seems to have helped popularize the idea in the later 1960s.

The idea of the means-end reversal (as I use it, at least) is that when some practice or institution has a history of functioning, or seeming to function, to promote some important end, that practice or institution generates interests in reproducing it, which may be psychic interests (like enjoyment) or material interests (like people deriving a livelihood from contributing to the practice or institution). As a result, what was at first a means to some end, can become so important in itself to some people that the value they attach to reproducing the practice or institution eclipses the value of the end it is supposed to serve. Ultimately, the original end serves more and more as a reference point for motivating acceptance and accommodation of the practice or institution and the costs or burden of its maintenance. Appeals to care about the supposed end are increasingly a pretext for reproducing the supposed means, so that the ostensible end becomes an actual means to ensure the survival of the ostensible means: the end is a means to preserving the means, which now becomes the de facto end.

In cases where the end is rendered obsolete, like a disease that becomes curable and so renders unnecessary an organization set up to “find a cure,” the typical response is not to dissolve the organization that was supposedly a means, but rather to find a new end for the organization to serve, a redefinition of its mandate. The weightiness of the imperative to find a new end, so that the ‘means’ can retain its claim to importance, serves as proof that the organization has become an end in itself. If, at some point in the future, all cancers are subject to cures, you can rest assured that organizations established to raise money for cancer-cure research will develop a new rationale or pretext for their own reproduction. This tells us something important about what an organization is and how it operates, even now, when its official rationale for existing still remains an important concern.

 Party as Means, Party as End

In left-activist politics, we have many examples: a union or NGO or political party is set up as a tactical/strategic convenience, to promote some end. But either because it accumulates a staff that has to be paid, or because it becomes the default way of gaining certain kinds of influence or potency, or because capacities that people had before it was formed go into disuse and cease to be available, the idea of doing without the organization itself (the “means,” at first) seems more threatening to many people than failing to secure the “end” the organization was supposed to promote. So much so, in fact, that in many cases they would prefer to keep the organization going, even if the cost of doing so was to further entrench or perpetuate the very problems that the organization was founded to remedy.

Certainly, the history of socialist (ostensibly anti-capitalist) political parties illustrates the point: if the party can only promote the downfall of capitalism by acting in ways that would jeopardize its continuing role in the ‘political process,’ the end of replacing capitalism with socialism seems always to lose out to the imperatives associated with reproducing the party (or NGO or other organization) itself, and its place in the official political process (or in some social movement, etc.). The erstwhile means has become an end in itself, and talk of socialism (or whatever) now recedes into the realm of rhetoric deployed more or less cynically, as needed, to “fire up” the party members.

 SYRIZA, for Example

Increasingly, one sees this dynamic of means-end reversal in the reaction of people to the policy defeats imposed on SYRIZA, the ostensible “anti-austerity” party in Greece. At first, the idea was that we needed SYRIZA to win the recent election in Greece, because once in power, they could accomplish important things, most notably reversing the failed austerity policies imposed by the ‘Troika’ (EU Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF), and addressing the humanitarian crisis in Greece, including mass unemployment and all of its consequences. The idea, in short, was the SYRIZA would be able to “change the world by taking power.” But once “in power” (i.e., forming a government), SYRIZA quickly reversed course, due to the unfavorable balance of power between itself and its adversaries (the employer class and their EU/ECB/IMF representatives), and the ostensibly anti-austerity party now committed itself to implementing the very policies that initially the party was supposed to be a means of combating.

In the face of this incapacity of SYRIZA to function in practice as a means to the end of overturning austerity, the response could have been to dissolve the party and move on. ‘We tried that strategy,’ one could have concluded, ‘and it didn’t work, so now we need to find some other means of attacking austerity.’ (If not now, so soon after its election, then a year or two years from now, when — possibly — it remains committed to embracing the ECB/IMF “austerian” macroeconomic strategy. I’m writing here less about the details of Greek politics, and more about the attitudes of many non-Greeks to SYRIZA, the palpable sense of attachment that leads some overseas leftists to be more wedded to SYRIZA itself than to the struggle against austerity that, in theory, was the basis for their attraction to it in the first place.)

One could have lost interest in SYRIZA, once its policy direction embraced the austerity it was designed to oppose. But many sympathizers of SYRIZA showed no interest in doing so. And this is because, for many people, SYRIZA had in the meantime taken on an independent importance, as (in part, at least) an end itself. It was now valued as a beacon of hope, a boost for morale, a much-desired prospect of a way out, or a confirmation of one’s commitment to a party-building political strategy, even if the party itself had set aside any plans or proposals that would point toward a break with austerity of the sort initially promised. As a result, many of those most enthused about SYRIZA didn’t want to give up on the party, notwithstanding its apparent surrender of any promise of reversing austerity, which was initially the party’s claimed raison d’être. Instead, they were willing to do without a reversal of austerity, as long as they could keep SYRIZA, since that had increasingly become more important to them.

In some cases, the point was taken even further. Now they referred to the need to address the humanitarian crisis (the supposed end of SYRIZA’s project) as a way of deflecting criticisms of SYRIZA and protecting the party from dangers to its hegemony on the Left. “How can you be so detached that you don’t even care about the humanitarian crisis, and you’re willing to give up on SYRIZA?,” they exclaimed. This is a variant of the all-too-familiar NGO fundraising appeal: “We’re completely ineffective at addressing the problem we were set up to address, and so now we need your support more than ever. Please send money to PO Box…..”

It is not a new or unfamiliar dynamic. So much of what happens on the Left, especially in the area of unions, political parties, movement organizations, and NGOs, follows the same pattern of means-end reversal, that we have to be good at spotting it and, where appropriate, resisting its appeal.

On Heidegger in Particular, and Racist Philosophers in General

Recently, Günther Figal, a German academic, stepped down from his position as Chair of the Martin Heidegger Society, in order (it seems) not to be associated with Heidegger’s anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic strand in Heidegger’s thought had recently been documented with a new level of thoroughness by the publication of notebooks written in the years 1931-41, in which Heidegger offers opinions on “world judaism,” and the “machinations” of the Jews, with their “talent for calculation” which gives them “influence everywhere.”magritte

One can certainly find even more vociferous outbursts of anti-Semitism among the writings of other famous and influential 20th century philosophers, notably Gottlob Frege, “the father of analytic philosophy.” But to dwell on that thought, or to attach any real significance to it, would be to set one’s bar far, far too low. Heidegger was an anti-Semite and a racist. There is no justification for trying to rehabilitate him as “less racist” than some of his peers and contemporaries. He should be condemned outright for it, without qualification or hesitation.

To that extent, Dr. Figal’s impulse had a rational basis: like everyone who aspires to function as an adversary to racists and anti-Semites, he wanted to underline his unwillingness to tolerate or to gloss over Heidegger’s egregious complicity and sinister solidarity with some of the most villainous political projects and social forces of recent centuries. It’s undoubtedly right to do so.

Nevertheless, there is something unsatisfying about his gesture.

Recall that Martin Heidegger was very, very public about being a Nazi as early as 1933, and remained a dues-paying member until the party was unceremoniously and involuntarily liquidated at the end of WW2, even if his “activist” phase lasted only for about a year.  In light of this fact — known to anyone even semi-conversant with Heidegger’s life-history, and certainly well known to someone like Günther Figal — why on earth would anyone have imagined that Heidegger might have been opposed, in any substantial way, to anti-Semitism? Does the idea of a Nazi party activist who opposed anti-Semitism make *any* kind of sense? Isn’t that like being an anti-racist Ku Klux Klan activist? And would that not be, as Heidegger said of a Christian philosophy, “a round square and a misunderstanding”?

Figal’s manoeuvre seems calculated to convey a message that few can find even remotely plausible: ‘’Yes, I knew he was an activist in the Nazi Party,” he seems to be suggesting, “but I’m shocked and appalled to learn that he harboured negative opinions about Jews!”

Really, Dr. Figal?

Still, one can give Figal the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that he might have meant only to record his (longstanding) refusal to affiliate with Heidegger’s politics, at a moment when the anti-Semitic dimension of Heidegger’s hard-right political stance was at the centre of a public controversy. He may not have been attempting to pose (unconvincingly) as someone who knew nothing of these matters until recent months.

Regardless of Dr. Figal’s motives, the publicity surrounding his action offers the rest of us a helpful opportunity to ponder an important question, raised by the whole “affair.” What are we to think about the fact that so many of the most important philosophers of modern times were racists and/or sexists of the most horrible sort? Or rather, what are we to think about the standing of their books, in light of the political alignments of so many of these authors with horrifying political projects, such as white supremacy, extreme misogyny, anti-Semitism, and colonialism, to name only a few?

If the case of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and fascism were an isolated incident, we could dismiss this one example as the singular “bad apple,” bearing no real relationship or affinity to the wider Western-philosophical tradition, and threatening it only with the risk of a flimsy and ultimately false form of “guilt by association.” That, indeed, would provide everyone with a motivation to disassociate themselves from Heidegger, in the Figal style, and perhaps even to stop reading Heidegger or taking his intellectual achievements seriously (which Figal himself was unwilling, he said, to do). Alas, however, Heidegger is not an “outlier” or an anomaly of this type. Instead, he represents yet another case of something very familiar, even normal, in the history of modern Western philosophy: the racist “Great Philosopher.”

Consider the company he keeps, in this regard:

(a) As an initial example, recall David Hume’s pioneering (in a double sense) declaration of white supremacy: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.”

(b) Another “Great Philosopher,” Immanuel Kant, attested to the influence of Hume’s sceptical view of inductive inference on his own project to develop a ‘transcendental idealism,’ immune to the problems posed by an empiricist view of knowledge. But it wasn’t only at the level of epistemology that Kant’s work followed in the footsteps of Hume. Kant took up Hume’s racism, too. According to Kant, who developed a plethora of early pseudo-scientific race-theories, the Indigenous people from the Americas are “incapable of any culture,” so that their “racial” position “stands far below even the Negro, who occupies the lowest of all other levels which we have mentioned as racial differences.”

(c) Then there is the famous egalitarian lover of liberty, John Stuart Mill. Like Hume and Kant, he thought of non-Europeans as fundamentally incompetent and lacking the capacity for autonomous self-determination. According to Mill, colonial domination was not only a good thing in general, but the very idea that colonizers could act “towards a barbarous people” in a way that might be deemed illegal or immoral was a grave error. On the contrary, he argued, “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians,” as he says in On Liberty, since, like children, colonized peoples need to be “improved” by forcible obedience to “benevolent” overseers.

(d) More recently, as mentioned in passing above, there is the case of Gottlob Frege (who died in 1925). Widely held to be the founder of what has come to be known as “analytic philosophy,” Frege was quite clear about his intense anti-Semitism, his hostility to democracy, and his fondness for virulently anti-Semitic fascist politicians (especially Adolf Hitler and Erich Ludendorff, co-leaders of the “Beer Hall Putsch”). Frege was arguably more full-throated in his denunciation of the Jews and the Marxists even than Heidegger (although, again, this hardly amounts to a defence of Heidegger!). Frege was particularly  worried that Jewish people had equal civil rights in the Weimar Republic, along with other “people of different races under us who claim to be considered as Germans.” He reflected nostalgically about how, when he was growing up, “Jews were generally not permitted to stay overnight in my native town of Wismar; only during the annual fairs were they allowed in, and they would then ring the bell for them to come in and ring the bell for them to leave.”

Thus, Heidegger is by no means an isolated case. The problem is quite general. We have, besides the cases of Hume, Kant, Mill and Frege, any number of other examples: Rousseau’s intense hostility to women; Hegel’s claim that Africans had no history; Locke’s defence of the enslavement of Africans and the forcible dispossession and displacement of Indigenous peoples; and so on.

But maybe there is something distinctive about Heidegger’s case. Maybe here, but not in the other cases, there is some uniquely inextricable interweaving, some implied or even explicit entwinement or unavoidable intellectual proximity of the political views we find so repulsive and the intellectual contributions to which we remain more or less attracted.

No. This, too, is a problem that extends well beyond Heidegger and implicates all the others.

Kant’s notions of rationality (treating as means) and reasonableness (treating as ends) are defined, in part, by contrast to notions of irrationality that have a racial subtext in Kant’s own thought. In particular, the “Enlightenment” itself, as (so he claims) the historical embodiment of “maturity” for human reason, is deemed by him to be a European achievement, thus entwining his notion of rationality and cognitive maturity with the contingencies of early-modern European culture and its emerging enterprise of colonial domination. Similar points could be made about Mill’s notion of “liberty” as a function of maturity, and “barbarians” as child-like: the distancing of “civilized” Europe from “barbarians” is integral to his understanding of the autonomy that enables white people to be free, and also to serve as “benevolent despots” in relation to the colonized.

I can’t stop to prove the point in detail for each case considered here. But Frege deserves special mention on just this point, since some of his defenders, if that’s what they are, insist that his intellectual achievement is thoroughly insulated from any substantial association with his racism and fascism, and in this way his case supposedly differs from that of Heidegger.

Frege himself insists, to the contrary, that the problem of “comprehending antisemitism” is intimately connected with foundational issues in the philosophy of mathematics, at the core of his philosophical research. “One can acknowledge that there are Jews of the highest respectability, and yet regard it as a misfortune that there are so many Jews in Germany, and that they have complete equality of political rights with citizens of Aryan descent,” Frege writes. “If one wanted laws passed to remedy these evils, the first question to be answered would be: How can one distinguish Jews from non-Jews for certain?” This, he says, “appears to be quite difficult.” Focusing in on the philosophical stakes of this line of thought, Frege writes: “If one wants to make laws against the Jews, one must be able to specify a distinguishing mark [Kennzeichen] by which one can recognize a Jew for certain.” He adds: “I have always seen this as a problem.” What did he just say? He has “always seen this as a problem”? Indeed, he has. He took up just this problem of the “distinguishing mark” in his work, Grundlagen der Arithmetik (1884), §62:  “If we are to use the symbol a to signify an object, we must have a criterion for deciding in all cases whether b is the same as a, even if it is not always in our power to apply this criterion.” (Consider, too, Frege’s attempt to develop a rigorous account of “ancestry”: http://rgheck.frege.org/pdf/unpublished/Ancestral.pdf; in this context, one can skip directly to page 4, which makes the relevant point: that establishing ancestral continuity is linked, in Frege’s mind, with foundational questions about the philosophy of mathematics. Indeed, ancestry is at the very heart of his understanding of number.) Odd as it may seem to the rest of us, in Frege’s own thinking, the problem of establishing the Jewishness of a person “for certain” is intimately connected to the problem of the nature of natural numbers, via the problematic of “ancestry” and “the distinguishing mark.”

But what conclusion should we draw about people like Hume, Heidegger, Frege, Kant, and JS Mill? Should we regard their intellectual output as thoroughly tainted, or even (more strongly) as completely discredited, by the entwinement or interweaving of their philosophical conceptions with racist (and/or colonialist and/or sexist, etc.) ideas and assumptions? Should we, indeed, stop reading these people and studying them or trying to learn from an engagement with their ideas?

No doubt, this is a tempting posture, for some. But it seems not to be plausible, on reflection.

To see why, notice that the activity of disentangling defensible from indefensible thoughts and ideas, which are at first apparently integral and interconnected, is not a special undertaking on which we might propose to embark in the special case of racist (etc.) philosophers. No, it is fundamental to our very understanding of rational inquiry and intellectual life. To think is to perform precisely this operation of disentangling. “I agree with you on this point, and this other one, but not on this third point; there I insist you have gone astray, and I can tell you why….” Isn’t the compulsion to repeat this performance, to cycle through this disentangling action again and again, the ultimate source of philosophy’s drama and its enduring appeal? Isn’t it, too, an inescapable obligation that everyone is saddled with, unavoidably and perhaps involuntarily, as soon as one takes up the task of thinking?

Yes. Of course. To dislodge and debunk the tangle of error and confusion that weaves itself through even our best intellectual achievements is exactly what we mean by thinking. And so, why not respond to the interweaving of Locke’s “right of revolution” with his “defence of slavery” in the old-fashioned way: by thinking it through? No other response seems authentically available, in fact, since to respond by sweeping him under the rug only invites his spectral persistence, as a haunting presence that we quietly agree not to mention, much less to grapple with and to confront.

This, it seems, informs us about how to respond to Heidegger. Above all, we should resist the temptation to insist, as if in the grip of an unrelenting yet unacknowledged panic, that we can just forget him and all his fascist rantings. On the contrary, we really have to accept our responsibility to think our way through Heidegger. When he claims, for instance, that a chair or a work of art can only “be,” i.e., is only possible at all (as chair, as work), by virtue of unthematic but operative interpretive contexts that confer intelligibility by themselves retreating from intelligibility, like the language that only functions to illuminate a text so long as its own readability as a text is suspended or displaced, is this suggestion itself retrievable at all in the context of an anti-racist practice of inquiry and understanding? Or, by taking it seriously, by working with it intellectually, even in a critical or differentiated way, do we in effect bolster the forces of racial domination, or anti-Semitic demonization, etc.? There are those who presume this question to be settled in advance. I must admit (impolitely, I fear) that I regard such people as, well, a little bit unsophisticated, at least in this area. The idea that this question can be resolved without sorting through the particulars of Heidegger’s writings and the questions they raise is a crude and simplistic position: the sort of thing that one whispers to oneself, seeking comfort and reassurance, insulation from the unease of not-knowing and from the necessity to think things through. I’m reminded of Marx’s admonition: “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”

This brings us back to Dr. Figal. Does he dread the fatigue of the steep climb? Does he worry about the absence of guard-rails or padding to cushion his fall? I assume he does not. I am sure that he will continue to think about Heidegger, and also about Kant, Hume, Frege, and the others. But thinking about them is not a matter of agreeing with them, or depicting them as special or great: the Heidegger Society, if such a thing is necessary, should not have any “investment” in defending or upholding the supposed “greatness” of Heidegger (an investment made all too evident by Figal’s resignation). Perhaps these “great philosophers” are persistently, pervasively wrong about one thing after another. Perhaps we have to fight them, or parts of them, by any means necessary. Certainly, they are, in each case, wrong about a great deal, often but not always in obvious ways. So be it. We don’t owe them any personal or intellectual loyalty. Rather, we owe our loyalty to the difficulty and the pleasure of thinking, and that makes us enemies of simplistic, superficial, ill-informed and otherwise indefensible ideas, whether they come from people we admire (Marx?) or people we find repulsive (Heidegger, Frege, etc.), or people whose character we neither know about nor care about. If there is to be a Heidegger Society, that should be its function: to insist on the need to disentangle insights from idiocy, because there is plenty of both in Heidegger’s body of work, as there is in the work of anyone who is fantasized by misguided “disciples” into the ludicrous position of being labeled a “great philosopher.”

What is Counter-Politics?

By Stephen D’Arcy

Politics, in one important sense, is the activity of exercising or attempting to influence the exercise of public authority, that is, power claiming legitimacy on the grounds that it acts in the name of the people who comprise a (real or imagined) political community.


“You are in Zapatista rebel territory. Here, the people rule, and the government obeys.”

By its nature, the capitalist state seeks to establish a monopoly of public authority, to monopolize not only force or violence, but also the authority to impose valid laws, to recognize individuals as ‘citizens,’ to tax, and to confer or withdraw other publicly authorized statuses and credentials (such as a building permit or a driver’s licence), and so on.

The capitalist state, however, is so much in thrall to the “higher power” of capital that its claim to a monopoly of public authority poses a grave threat to those who seek a just and democratic social order. Clearly, the Left — those who attempt to oppose injustice through struggle, on an organized basis — cannot simply cede the ground of politics to the employers and their minions in government. As Karl Marx said, “complete abstention from political action is impossible….It is only a question of how one does it, and of what politics one engages in.”

Three responses to the capitalist state’s claim to a monopoly of public authority are popular on the broad Left.

  1. A first popular response may be called new politics. In this approach, the aim is to “take power,” to get leftists “in the driver’s seat,” to “take the reins of power,” and so on. In some cases, one tries to do this by winning an election; in other cases, by armed revolt. In the new politics view, state power is not seen as a system of power designed and structured to preclude popular empowerment and public autonomy, interposing structures of armed coercion, professional representation and bureaucratic administration between the ostensibly “public” authority itself and those in whose in name it is exercised (“the public”). Rather, the state is seen as an instrument, like a hammer, that can be wielded by anyone, in the service of any agenda, even an agenda of social justice and the democratization of the economy, however much that agenda may be starkly at odds with what the state is normally used to promote. No doubt, new politics is a well-intentioned view. But it seems rather more trusting in the capacity of structures of coercion and administration to be turned to liberatory ends than good sense should allow. It is, in short, a credulous or gullible approach to power, and entire generations of leftists have been doomed by their too-trusting relationship to these structures to act in service of their erstwhile enemies, taking direction from bosses, politicians or generals.
  2. A second, perhaps more plausible Left response the capitalist state’s claim to a monopoly of public authority is what one might call alter-politics. In this approach, the aim is to try to reform the way public authority is exercised, so that it is more responsive to the broad public interest, or more just, both in form (how institutions operate, procedurally) and in content (substantive policy choices). In this view, the present-day state is viewed with more suspicion, and its structures of “representation” and “professionalization” are acknowledged as barriers to democracy (rather than instruments for it), but these dangerous structures are also seen as susceptible to reconstruction on a more democratic and egalitarian basis, consistent with a more participatory conception of democratic politics. The alter-politics view is, to be sure, more promising than new politics. At least it concedes that state structures are designed to inhibit popular empowerment. Nevertheless, alter-politics can be fairly faulted for skirting the key question: if the state is built to undermine popular power, how can we change it from the inside (e.g., by electing a government committed to structural reforms), since — as we agree — popular self-organization and self-activity is, precisely, at its weakest within the constraints and confines of the state and its anti-democratic structures and practices. It seems to set us up for failure. (Of course, I’m abstracting from the interesting and important case history here, e.g., perhaps Allende’s Chile, certainly Venezuela under the Bolivarian revolutionary process, and so on. In this context, I simply assert that I regard the exteriority and autonomy of popular mobilization and self-organization as the key variables accounting for most of what one would find on the positive side of the balance sheet, and it is this side, the side of public autonomy outside the state, that alter-politics fails to insist upon and acknowledge in robust way.)
  3. A third Left response to the state’s claim to a monopoly of public authority, a response which aspires to tap into the prevailing Zeitgeist [spirit of the time], is anti-politics. In this approach, the state is viewed with still more suspicion, because by its very nature it is implacably antagonistic to radically democratic and egalitarian aims. But the anti-politics view does not stop at standard-issue anti-statism, such as the view favoured by “social republicans” like Marx, according to which the state could never be taken over and used by the Left, but had to be smashed. No, the anti-politics advocate goes further, claiming that politics itself is irredeemably wedded to the state form and its anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian features. Here, too, one finds a certain naïveté. But this time, the naïveté is not a matter of being too trusting or optimistic about the prospects for instrumentalizing state structures in the service of the very outcomes those structures have been constructed to foreclose. Instead, the anti-politics position naively supposes that its own radically egalitarian and democratic aims can be obtained by circumventing politics, rather than traversing it. Again, Marx made the point well: “Living experience, the political oppression of the existing governments compels the workers to occupy themselves with politics whether they like it or not, be it for political or for social goals. To preach abstention to them is to throw them into the embrace of bourgeois politics….We want the abolition of classes. What is the means of achieving it? The only means is political [self-]domination of the proletariat…..The abstentionists say they are revolutionaries, even revolutionaries par excellence. Yet revolution is a supreme political act and those who want revolution must also want the means of achieving it, that is, political action….However, our politics must be working-class politics.” (Note: I cite this passage, not to invoke anyone’s “authority,” but simply because the argument seems sound: to repudiate politics is to cede the mantle of publicity and public authority to the enemy, which is a profoundly political gesture.)

In some ways, this trajectory from new politics through alter-politics to anti-politics seems like a kind of centre-left to far-left “political spectrum,” with “anti-politics” taking up the most leftward limit position. But there is a need, and also a vital tradition stretching back to Marx, the Communards, and even in some ways to the most radical forms of 18th century republicanism (e.g., Theobald Wolfe Tone), supporting a fourth position, still further to the left of the relevant “spectrum.” A fourth position to the left is needed because the anti-politics view stops short of a rigorously or strictly egalitarian and anti-capitalist stance. On the one hand, anti-politics adopts a broadly radical view of the state, rejecting it as a system of domination, ill-suited to serve egalitarian and democratic ends of the sort that would require a fundamental break with the systems and structures of capitalist politics and economics. So far so good. But, indirectly, it expresses (through the back door, as it were) a certain tacit endorsement of a fundamental assumption underlying the capitalist conception of politics and public autonomy: the assumption that there can be no politics of popular self-governance, that what Marx called “government of the people by the people” isn’t even possible. In an ironical, perhaps unintentional way, anti-politics seems to rubber-stamp one of capitalism’s worst ideological props: the axiom that the people cannot constitute themselves as a self-governing polity, or what Marx (adopting the jargon of the Paris Commune) called “a social republic.”

Acknowledging this mistake, we have to push leftward, past anti-politics in the direction of something more uncompromising in its rejection of the capitalist conception of politics. This, I think, we should call counter-politics.

4. The fourth position, counter-politics, adopts the approach of, on the one hand, rejecting the viability of the capitalist state as a vehicle for anti-capitalist social transformation, and yet, on the other hand, insisting on constructing a counter-politics, an insurgent democracy, based on practices of resolute jurisdictional contestation. The fundamental specificity of counter-politics as jurisdictional contestation is well-captured by the Zapatistas, leading advocates and practitioners of counter-politics, when they declare, “Here, the people rule, and the government obeys.”

Let’s look at some examples of counter-politics in practice.

One example is provided by Indigenous communities (in North America, for example) attempting to retain and strengthen the effectiveness of traditional governance practices and legal traditions outside of, and in antagonism to, the official politics of the settler state. Upholding Indigenous sovereignty and self-rule, in defiance of the colonial capitalist state’s claim to be the highest “public” authority, is a classic form of “jurisdictional contestation,” hence, a paradigmatic case of counter-politics. (This is a matter I take up in Languages of the Unheard, when I treat the Land Defence at Kanehsata:ke in 1990 as the “model case” of sound militancy.)

A different historical (and also ongoing) strand of anti-colonial jurisdictional contestation is found within the Irish revolutionary tradition. Perhaps the most famous example is the 1916 Easter Rising, which declared (in Dublin) a Republic, and tried unsuccessfully to defend the republic with armed force. But the practice of setting up anti-colonial, sometimes anti-capitalist republican governance structures, in antagonism to an existing state claiming a monopoly of public authority, stretches back at least to the mid-1700s. In this context, I’ll mention only two cases. First, there was the Limerick Soviet of 1919, in which the local labour council took over administration of the city, expelled the “official” (British) government, and ran the city for two weeks as a workers’ republic, printing its own money and establishing (and enforcing) its own legal authority. Second, there was the Free Derry autonomous neighbourhood in the early 1970s, which expelled the “official” state (notably RUC police and UK military) in much the same way, an autonomy defended by barricades and popular patrols, and on occasion by rioting.

These jurisdictional contestation stratagems (including the widespread use of popular militias, like the Irish Citizen Army) have played a particularly important role in the Irish revolutionary tradition, which is both cause and effect of the close connection between anti-colonial republicanism and anti-capitalist revolutionary socialism in the history of the Irish Left, an intersection embodied most notably by James Connolly. (On the other hand, what one might call the republican impulse, the impulse of a community to govern itself, autonomously, rather than to live under the domination of usurpers, is by no means a specifically Irish thing, obviously.)

In future posts to this blog, I plan to say more about counter-politics as jurisdictional contestation. For now, I just want to underline one key point: that there is a position (which I associate with the idea of a “social republic”) that rejects the state, but embraces politics (the exercise of public authority). This is the project that gives this blog its name: the project of public autonomy. “Here, the people rule.” Not the state, certainly. But not nobody, either. The idea of politics as a the self-governance of a political community of equals, the “republican ideal,” is to be upheld against the state, which usurps public autonomy. Liberating ourselves from the yoke of the usurpers, who falsely claim the mantle of public authority, “the expropriation of a few usurpers by  the mass of the people,” as Marx puts it in Capital, is what gives the Left its point and its orienting mission.

A Layered Approach to Reading Marx

Those who still try to engage seriously in the work of reading Marx often find themselves grappling with a number of apparent ambiguities or indeterminacies that seem to inhabit the source materials in advance. Here, I can only mention a few of these, hinting at the scope of the problem:

  • Is Marx’s “social-scientific socialism” somehow “objective” in the sense of being value-neutral, or is it animated crucially by an interest to “change the world” and oppose injustice?
  • Is the “dictatorship of the proletariat” a prediction about how capitalism is likely to unravel and be displaced due to acute and escalating conflict between classes, or is it a political strategy proposed as maximally advantageous for those endeavouring (voluntarily, as it were) to effect revolutionary change?
  • Is the end of capitalism and its displacement by socialism “inevitable,” in a causal sense, or is it desirable (worth wanting), in a normative sense?

Readers of Marx, confronted by these apparent ambiguities or indeterminacies, tend to part company with one another, as different “schools” or “currents” of opinion align in favour of one reading or another, with little prospect of a convergence. There are, for instance, neo-Schmittian Marxists who oppose any notion of normative assessment, in favour of a narrow “Realpolitik” conception of social conflict. And conversely, there are “humanist” Marxists who insist on the fundamentally ethical nature of Marx’s challenge to capitalism and his insistence on the “universality” of the proletarian self-emancipation project. And both seem able to cite passages in Marx (or other classical marxist writers, like Engels, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lenin, and so on), to support their views.bpp-photo

On one level, this seeming indeterminacy might be OK. Why, after all, should we favour convergence around an unchallenged official version of what Marx had to say? It seems that, whether we look at it in intellectual terms or in political terms, there is little to be gained by seeking to liquidate our differences of interpretation or emphasis. Quite the reverse, in fact: we can expect a greater fruitfulness and fecundity to accompany such conflicts of interpretation.

Nevertheless, it is always better, intellectually and politically, to strive for a sophisticated and mature, rather than a simplistic and naive understanding of any text, tradition, practice or event. And so, in the case of Marxism, we should approach this matter of indeterminacy with a critical and discerning eye, in the hope to shed some light on — if not the “right” version of Marx — at least the roots of our inability to agree about the contours of his theoretical contribution.

In this spirit, I want to urge upon Marx’s readers a general approach to examining and reflecting upon, not to mention deploying and relying upon, his core concepts and theoretical commitments. The approach that I advance here is to read Marx’s concepts as layered.

In what sense are Marxist concepts layered? In this context, I can only offer the most concise sketch of the idea. In a nutshell, my suggestion is that most of Marx’s key concepts (surplus-value, dictatorship of the proletariat, communism, and so on) operate simultaneously, and in a way that obeys a consistent logic, on three distinct levels, or in three differentiated but interconnected layers: the level of causal explanation, the level of strategic analysis, and the level of normative evaluation.

Thus, for instance, to understand the concept of “surplus value,” one has to grasp it, simultaneously, (1) as a causal-explanatory concept used to explain capital accumulation, and the source of profits, rent, etc., (2) as a strategic concept used to delineate a plausible collective agent of effective anti-systemic revolt, and (3) as a normative concept used to condemn capitalism as a system founded upon and continually reproducing injustice and dispossession.

Surplus value is only one example, however. Consider the concept of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” It functions simultaneously (1) as an explanatory concept that licences predictions about causal dynamics likely to accompany any durable dissolution of capitalist hegemony, (2) a strategic concept pinpointing the most potent strategic orientation for a decisive struggle to wrest political power from the investor class and to establish institutions of working-class self-governance in the context of an acute social crisis, and (3) as a normative concept (“public autonomy”) that links anti-capitalist revolt to the moral ideal of a “social republic” in which the “immense majority” throws off the yoke of “a few usurpers” to establish, as Marx put it, “government of the people by the people.”

But simply listing these triple-layered readings seems only to underline the problem stated at the outset, the ambiguity and indeterminacy of Marx’s meaning. It doesn’t — yet — resolve or dissolve the difficulty. This, however, brings me back to my reference above to a “consistent logic” that relates these layers one to another in every such case. This logic has a structure which, luckily for those of us hoping to read him with due care, he meticulously spelled out in the pages of his second most important work (after The Civil War in France), namely, the first volume of Capital. In particular, he outlines the logic of conceptual layering in two key places: first, the “Afterword” to the 2nd German edition, and second, in the chapter on the labour process. In essence, it is a logic of labour, understood as negation of negativity by way of purposive, world-transforming praxis.

In the “Afterword,” Marx says that his mode of interpretation “includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.”

At this point, Marx is only telling us part of the story. He’s drawing our attention to one of (but not all of) the crucial elements of his approach to conceptualizing capitalism and anti-capitalist revolt: that it acknowledges the existing state of the system, but also its fluid movement. His approach to conceptualizing capitalism, in other words, highlights the system’s “diachronic” dynamism and instability as much as its “synchronic” coherence and regularity. In this sense, his “method” is “critical and revolutionary,” unlike the conventional social sciences, which tend overwhelmingly to depict the core institutions of present-day society as self-reproducing structures that gravitate toward stable equilibria (or other such schemas of stability and recalcitrance to popular contestation).

But a mistake lurks here, threatening to trap the unsuspecting reader. Does Marx think of capitalism’s “fluid movement” as directionless, in the way that Darwin regards evolution as directionless (that is, non-teleological)? No, he does not. There is more to be said about the precise sense in which Marx’s method is “critical and revolutionary.”

For this, we have to turn to the chapter on the labour process. There, he writes: The labourer “makes use of the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of some substances in order to make other substances subservient to his aims….Thus Nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, one that he annexes to his own bodily organs, adding stature to himself.” And in this passage, among others in the labour process chapter, he reveals the key to his conceptual layering methodology: pursuit of a telos or aim can only proceed on the basis of insight into causal regularities, enabling their conversion from constraints into instruments for actualizing latent possibilities, i.e., “unleashing,” or unfettering, forces that already exist within a reality that still restrains their potentialities from being realized (prior to the intervention of praxis). Herein lies the bond that ties together Marx’s three layers: a reality to be understood (in its causal regularities), an ideal to be realized (defining a standard of success), and a plan for acting upon the former in order to actualize the latter (a plan that either works or doesn’t work, as a means of world-transforming practice, or labour).

In discussing the constructive activity of the architect, which he uses as a stand-in for human agency in general, Marx points out that the architect “raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” This is crucial not only to architecture, but also to critical social theory (Marxism), because it is only in light of — that is, under the guiding illumination of — the looming prospect of communal reappropriation (“expropriation of the expropriators,” the haunting “spectre of communism”) imagined as the orienting reference point of inquiry and practical engagement, that we know what to look for in the “momentary existence” of the prevailing situation that will unlock the secret of its “transient nature,” notably, its “inevitable breaking up,” its “crisis tendencies,” its “cleavages,” its latent, fettered forces and strategic vulnerabilities, etc. The opening up of this “continent” of possible knowledge, however, requires that we find the point of convergence between two variables: first, the mechanics of how the system reproduces itself, i.e., what Marx calls the “fetters” that presently hold at bay the construction of communism, and second, the disruptive “forces” that operate within the system-reproduction mechanics that can be brought to bear in order to “burst asunder” those “fetters” on “free development.” All of Marx’s thinking, or at any rate most of it, is rooted very specifically within this cluster, or rather this structure of concerns: the “negativity” (potentiality-withholding character) of the present order, as a system of fetters on forces of a possible, but denied liberation. Marx calls this structure of concerns “the materialist conception of history.”

Seen in this broader view, then, we can see that there is a stable connective tissue, a consistent logic, that binds together the explanatory, the strategic and the normative layers of each concept Marx deploys in the core of his critical theory. Consider again the concept of surplus value. He is only interested in surplus value because the illuminating prefiguration of communal reappropriation (the “haunting” spectre of communism) draws his attention to the existence of a (dys)functioning Achilles heel that, on the one hand, props up and enables the system to reproduce itself (explanatory layer), and on the other hand, exposes it to the vulnerability of unauthorized withdrawal, e.g., general strikes and other deployments of the power of workers to block the production of surplus value (strategic layer). But besides explaining the system and orienting strategies to attack it, surplus value is also a condemnatory concept, which exposes the fact that capitalist relations of exploitation fetter communal liberation (normative layer). The moral import of exploitation — that, in Marx’s formula, “the labour of the many becomes the wealth of the few” — is inseparable from what gives it a decisive explanatory import, and what thereby highlights a vulnerability of crucial strategic significance.

Once we get the hang of this three-layered praxis-logic (linking the causal regularity of an object to be acted upon, the pre-imagined normativity of an aim to be realized, and the strategic efficacy of an instrumental intervention to be carried out), the suggestion that Marx’s thought is ambiguous between a “social-scientific socialism,” a strategic orientation for anti-capitalist resistance, and a normative basis for condemning exploitation and oppression as moral injuries, seems like a naive and over-hurried failure to read Marx with sufficient care and attention.

When Marx says, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it,” what he means is this: We conceptualize capitalism as part of a complex labour of transforming it, and so our concepts don’t try simply to represent the system’s “momentary existence,” but also, and especially, to highlight the possibility of overthrowing it, of ensuring its “transient nature.” Accordingly, the rationality of each concept we deploy to “understand” capitalism is a function of its contribution to “the expropriation of the expropriators,” i.e., “the negation of the negation,” bringing the spectre of communal reappropriation to life, and thereby “proving the reality and power, the this-sidedness of [our] thinking in practice.”