Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Monday, August 31, 2009

As I read this article, I realised that it reminded me of a certain contemporary figure:

"The West, it seems, is living through a golden age of civilisational anxiety, marked by endless agonising about the uncertain future... The sum of these fears – or their apotheosis – is the belief that civilisation is fated to decline, to be subdued from without or collapse from within. This too, is not a new idea. History, it is true, has often been narrated as a Whiggish tale of continual progress... But this uplifting Enlightenment sentiment has always been opposed by a darker view, one that stresses the cycles of history, the tendency for what has risen to fall again – a physics of decline with its own martial undertones, including the unmistakable implication that the West, fat and happy with the fruits of its technological and cultural sophistication, is blithely tottering on the brink of oblivion.

Few thinkers savaged Europe's faith in progress with the ferocity of Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that anything called 'progress' was a mere illusion – if there was even such a thing, he suggested, its flowering could only give way to dissolution. Nietzsche’s ideas were carried into the 20th century by Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West became the ur-text of declinism in the 1920s. About history, Spengler concluded: "I see no progress, no goal no path for humanity." Spengler’s pessimism squared nicely with the gloomy mood of Europe after the First World War. If his book appears now as a curious artefact of its time, it helped to establish a template of decline – and a rhetoric to evoke its inevitability – that endures today, a kind of civilisational pessimism that exists at all points among the ideological spectrum; the declinists of the left and right obsess over very different threats, but the essential dynamic transcends politics."

If the current recession can be described as a counterpart to the great depression, it's hardly surprising that writers might respond to the times in a similar fashion to what is described above, which was why I found myself wondering whether John Gray might not count as our modern Spengler. Gray is in many ways the perfect embodiment of the spirit of our times; a self-styled contrarian whose arguments actually reflect an essentially mainstream view. Having had to live under a 'third way' government without any idea of political narrative and whose pragmatic approach to government resulted in little more than inconsistency, I do grow slightly weary of Gray tilting at windmills of Enlightenment political thinking. There were a couple of reasons why Gray came to mind when I read the above piece, of which this and this were the first:

"It is not surprising that Enlightenment thinking has become fashionable again: in uncertain times, people turn to the security promised by faith... liberal values are certainly at risk, but it is silly to look to the Enlightenment to safeguard them. It was a hugely complex movement, and some of its most influential thinkers were enemies of liberalism. Karl Marx allowed liberal values only a transitional role in human development, while Auguste Comte, founder of the influential positivist movement, rejected ideals of toleration and equality. Yet this was not simply a battle of ideas. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the anti-liberal strand of Enlightenment thinking gave birth to the 'scientific racism' that would be adopted by the Nazis. This ideology can be traced back to Kant's lectures on anthropology, published in 1798, in which he maintained, for instance, that Africans are inherently disposed to slavery. As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has always had a distinctly seamy side. In its political incarnation, it was one of the factors that shaped modern-day terror. Right-thinking French philosophes campaigned for the prohibition of torture, but their ideas also gave birth to the Jacobin Terror that followed the French revolution...

Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to "Enlightenment values"."

There's a great deal I agree with here, such as insistence that communism as an ideology was responsible for the crimes committed under it rather than any abuse of the political theory by its practitioners. Nonetheless, there are two particular aspects of the above that particularly irk me. Firstly, while Gray is certainly correct that communist denialists tend to exculpate their ideology by claiming the cultural revolution as an aberration, he comes quite close to some of Marx's tactics in that last paragraph, suggesting that objections to his ideas represent a covert proof of them. Popper disdained that sort of circular argument in Freud and Marx and would doubtless take a similar view of the above. Even without that, it seems a little disingenuous to cite communism as an Enlightenment project without mentioning that the ideas of pluralism and democracy that opposed it had the same pedigree; those ideas being the ones that provide the normative basis against which Gray himself can critique Kant for racism or Comte for conservatism. More pressingly, it's doubtful that the opponents that Gray is addressing here really exist in any meaningful form; believers in a Marxist or Hegelian conception of progress as a form of historical inevitability must be few and far between. His references to the Euston Manifesto ignore the problem that its signatories were a relatively small group without substantial influence; had they or like-minded individuals not existed recent historical events would have run exactly the same course. For all their references to democracy, it somewhat strains credulity to take the view that the political elites that instigated the Iraq war were especially motivated by ideals of progress rather than by religious faith or simple expediency. Certainly, if that was the case it left precious little trace on the domestic policies of either the British or American governments of that time.

While I tend to agree with Gray on the role of politics as a means of facilitating the co-existence of different groups and ideologies, the denial of any meliorist trend in politics is an essentially conservative or Hobbesian worldview. Susan Nieman's recent articles make this point rather well:

"It is this, the profound demoralisation of the left, that spurs Neiman on in Moral Clarity. ‘The left is where I come from’, she says, ‘but it has been so remiss in the last couple of decades.’ Realism and pragmatism, the watchwords of a left bereft of even a residual utopianism, have been no substitute for a moral vision, she continues. Rather, such realism merely left the way open for politicians of the right, like George W Bush, to seize the moral high ground. So while the then president was wittering on about ‘evil’, and by default ‘good’, the left was left with little more than hard-headed nihilism. As Neiman describes it, value-less and hopeless, the pragmatic left, content to unmask the workings of power, is content also to leave the world as it is. The left has come to see all idealism as tainted, and all talk of morality as an axis-of-evil-style charade. The left now appears to share the outlook of that arch-conservative Edmund Burke: ‘What kind of man would expect heaven and earth to bend to grand theories?’

As the figure whose work not only went beyond the static dualisms of German idealism, but sustained the left for many years, Karl Marx cannot but haunt a reading of a work like Moral Clarity. For he, above all others – including Hegel – sought to go beyond the ossified opposition of the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, by grasping reality as a process in which subject and object form a contradictory unity, in which the ‘ought’ inheres within the ‘is’. Where a dualistic perspective might render the conflicts of society as wrongs to be judged as such, Marx was able to grasp them as wrongs produced – and produced not by the labour of the concept, as with Hegel, but by the labour that produces not just use-values, but exchange value, too; that is, alienating labour, wage-labour. There was not simply a moral reason, there was also an actual reason, an actual possibility to change the world as it is.

In a sense, then, the collapse of not just the ideals but of the political movement underpinning Marx’s revolutionary perspective does seem to return us to a dualistic moment, a historical point in which the social world confronts a solitary individual. So does the dualism of Moral Clarity reflect the contemporary impasse? Neiman is resolute. The direction that Marx and Hegel took, she says, showed an impatience, a desire to force the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ to coincide. That Hegel’s absolute idealism led him rightwards, to make the ‘real rational’, and Marx’s materialism leftwards, is neither here nor there. Both sought to identify how things ought to be with necessity, whether historical or economic. Kantian idealism, however, is, as Neiman tells me, a grown-up idealism. It resists the violent utopianism of youth, but also the cynicism of youthful dreams disappointed. ‘You live with the dualism’, she says. ‘You always keep your eye on your actions and how you want the world to be. But you also need to be bound to a recognition, especially in political life, to the way that things are.’ ... Neiman at her Kantian best does not diminish but rather defends the autonomy of the moral subject. It is all about growing up for Neiman, about teaching people to use their judgment, their reason: ‘The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it.’"


posted by Richard 12:16 PM