Monday, October 18, 2010

Moralism vs. Meliorism

Sandy Levinson, at Balkinization, asks how libertarians might respond to the recent rescue of miners in Chile, which was largely funded by the Chilean state. Levinson thinks the Chilean state was right to step in and ensure that the rescue effort was made, but thinks this stepping in by the state does not sit well with libertarian notions about legitimate state action, since the state was not protecting anyone against a violation of their rights. That is, the Chilean state was acting as an insurer, not as a police force. If one admits that the Chilean state was right to act as an insurer in this case, then Levinson thinks one will be hard pressed not to endorse a welfare state, which acts as insurer in lots of cases. So, libertarians are supposedly caught between a) admitting that the state rightfully serves a welfare function, and b) looking like hard-hearted bastards who think it was wrong for the miners to be rescued.

Jacob Levy responds by saying -- these are my terms, not his -- that there's a difference between legitimacy and justification. The Chilean state, like all states, has way more power than is legitimate. This is, in large part, because actual states are never the outcome of social contracts:

CFP: Rethinking Reification


Panel to be held at the 2011 meeting of the Society for Existential and Phe-nomenological Theory and Culture, May 31–June 3, at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University, in conjunction with the Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

For much of the twentieth century, the concept of reification was a powerful tool in the intellectual arsenal of Marxist social critique. Beginning with Georg Lukács, and continuing through the work of figures such as Horkheimer, Ador-no, and Marcuse, the concept provided critical social theory with an incisive analytical capacity that also lent normative support to emancipatory goals. Along with much of the conceptual apparatus of Marxism, however, during the latter decades of the twentieth century the idea of reification grew increasingly marginalized within humanistic and social-scientific disciplines. With the new century, though, there are signs of renewed interest in the concept—for exam-ple, Timothy Bewes’ Reification, or the Anxiety of Late Capitalism (2002), Axel Honneth’s Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (2008), and Kevin Floyd’s The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism (2009). While such contribu-tions differ considerably in terms of their disciplinary foci and underlying theo-retical commitments, they nonetheless jointly attest to the idea that there may be an important place for a renewed concept of reification within contempo-rary critical social theory. The aim of this panel is to explore — from phenome-nological and existential perspectives — the potential value and feasibility of such a conceptual retrieval. Papers may address any aspect of reification, al-though those with a contemporary focus and/or interdisciplinary approach are especially welcome.

Paper proposals should be sent to Bryan Smyth ( by December 1, 2010. Proposals should include the title, author’s name, institu-tional affiliation, and a detailed abstract of approximately 250 words. Propos-als will be initially reviewed by the panel organizers, and acceptance will be conditional upon the author’s ability to submit a complete paper (not more than 4000 words) by February 1, 2011 for anonymous review.

For further information, contact Bryan Smyth (

Thursday, October 14, 2010

CFP: The Spirit of Capital: A Conference on Hegel and Marx

APRIL 28TH -29TH, 2011

“It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’sLogic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!” wrote Lenin in 1915. In 1969, Althusser responded, “A century and a half later no one has understood Hegel because it is impossible to understand Hegel without having thoroughly studied and understood Capital.” What are we to make of this challenge today? Are we now ready to understand Hegel through Marx, and Marx through Hegel? 
It is high time for a reassessment of the core stakes of the Marx-Hegel debate. What would it mean to think the concepts of capital and spirit together? This conference is a place to explore the internal relations between Hegel and Marx’s philosophical projects. Some possible questions include: how does Hegel’s phenomenology, logic, philosophy of nature, history and right internally contain the elements that Marx will use to decipher the world of property, labor, commodities and capital? Is Capital a logical theory of forms or a theory of history? How does Marx negate and realize Hegel’s project? What is the role of labor in Hegel, and the role of spirit in Marx? Does the development of history show the unfolding of freedom or the unfolding of capital?  This conference echoes the early Frankfurt school tradition, with its project for a critique of the social forms of the present. We encourage submissions on a wide range of topics and thinkers:
Possible Themes
Capital and Spirit
Hegel’s Logic and Marx’s Grundrisse
Property, Alienation, and Class
Form and Content in Hegel and Marx
Concrete and Abstract Labor
Master and Slave
Critique, Dialectic and Method
Time and History
Freedom and Necessity
Substance and Subject in Capital
The Value-Form
Critique of Labor
Revolution and Negation
Materialism and Idealism
Proletarian Self-Abolition
Commodity, Money and Capital
The Philosophy of Right

Possible Thinkers:
I.I. Rubin
György Lukács
Karl Korsch
Ernst Bloch
Walter Benjamin
Alfred Sohn-Rethel
Theodore Adorno
Herbert Marcuse
CLR James
Raya Dunayevskaya
Guy Debord
Alexander Kojeve
Jean Hyppolite
Frantz Fanon
Helmut Reichelt
Hans-Georg Backhaus
Gillian Rose


Papers should be sent as word documents or pdfs, not exceeding 5000 words. Personal information including institutional affiliation is to be sent in the body of the email and should not appear on the paper itself or in the file name.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Redeeming History: What It Is, and What It Is Not

On the basis of my lecture today:
Franz Fanon, in "On Violence," makes the following, arresting claim: “The violence which governed the ordering of the colonial world […] will be vindicated and appropriated when, taking history into their own hands, the colonized swarm into the forbidden cities.” (pp. 5-6)

This seems to say that colonialism will come to be justified, retrospectively, by decolonization.  This theme in Fanon is an echo of a theme in Marxism and many other radical liberation movements: that of an eschatological redemption of history, or the justification of suffering by its overcoming.

Monday, September 20, 2010

James Scott: Adam Smith or Karl Marx?

I can't escape James Scott right now.  Jacob Levy has contributed his two cents to the discussion of Seeing Like a State over at Cato Unbound.  There's a lot to talk about in Jacob's contribution, but I just want to point to one thing for now.  Jacob writes:
I suspect that Scott has been mildly embarrassed by the libertarian enthusiasm for Seeing Like a State, and since its publication he’s been at pains to be clearer than he was in the book that the market can also be a force of high-modernist social flattening. But he has not (that I’m aware of) pushed the thought very far, or told his readers much about when the market is that kind of force on its own, and when it is so when joined to state power
My Marxist self jumps up and down and yells: when have there been extensive markets that were not joined to state power!?!?!?!?!?!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stuff I'd like to say something about but don't have time to right now...

A back and forth at Crooked Timber and Lenin's Tomb over rational choice theory and Leftist/Marxist political theory.
And another post at CT, this one about James Scott vs. Hayek on markets and the loss of local knowledge. Scott, btw, is speaking here in Montreal this coming Monday, 20 September:
The Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University announces: Professor JAMES C. SCOTT: "The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia." A lecture on Monday, September 20, 2010, at 7pm; Hall Building (corner of Bishop and de Maisonneuve), room 763.

Monday, September 6, 2010

I could support this platform...

  1. Universal, equal, and direct suffrage with secret ballot in all elections, for all citizens of the Reich over the age of twenty, without distinction of sex. Proportional representation, and, until this is introduced, legal redistribution of electoral districts after every census. Two-year legislative periods. Holding of elections on a legal holiday. Compensation for elected representatives. Suspension of every restriction on political rights, except in the case of legal incapacity.
  2. Direct legislation by the people through the rights of proposal and rejection. Self-determination and self-government of the people in Reich, state, province, and municipality. Election by the people of magistrates, who are answerable and liable to them. Annual voting of taxes.
  3. Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army. Determination by the popular assembly on questions of war and peace. Settlement of all international disputes by arbitration.
  4. Abolition of all laws that place women at a disadvantage compared with men in matters of public or private law.
  5. Abolition of all laws that limit or suppress the free expression of opinion and restrict or suppress the right of association and assembly. Declaration that religion is a private matter. Abolition of all expenditures from public funds for ecclesiastical and religious purposes. Ecclesiastical and religious communities are to be regarded as private associations that regulate their affairs entirely autonomously.
  6. Secularization of schools. Compulsory attendance at the public Volksschule [extended elementary school]. Free education, free educational materials, and free meals in the public Volksschulen, as well as at higher educational institutions for those boys and girls considered qualified for further education by virtue of their abilities.
  7. Free administration of justice and free legal assistance. Administration of the law by judges elected by the people. Appeal in criminal cases. Compensation for individuals unjustly accused, imprisoned, or sentenced. Abolition of capital punishment.
  8. Free medical care, including midwifery and medicines. Free burial.
  9. Graduated income and property tax for defraying all public expenditures, to the extent that they are to be paid for by taxation. Inheritance tax, graduated according to the size of the inheritance and the degree of kinship. Abolition of all indirect taxes, customs, and other economic measures that sacrifice the interests of the community to those of a privileged few.

(Yes, its the demands put forward by the German Social Democrats in their 1891 Erfurt Program. Ah, smell the progress!)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Radical Political Thought (draft syllabus for the fall)

I still need to fill in a couple supplementary readings, but here's the basic outline of the class...
Course Description:
Radical political thought is a moving target. What seems radical in one setting or era may seem conservative in another. This course sets out from the hypothesis that what has marked radical politics, at least for some time, has been the effort to revolutionize culture, or to create and sustain a revolutionary culture (where ‘culture’ encompasses ideology, common sense, and everyday habits and practices, as well as art, literature, and popular entertainment). Culture has been the field of battle either because it is the weakest link in the chain of oppression, or, contrariwise, because it is the condition of the reproduction of the whole structure of society and the state. Culture war and cultural revolution are both the preparation for revolution and the means of securing and extending an accomplished revolution.
Our investigation will be divided into three sections. In the first, we will be concerned with the nature and strategy of revolutionary political thought and action, as these were articulated by the explicitly Marxist revolutionary movements of the first half of the 20th century. What makes a position or tactic revolutionary? What is the difference between revolution and reform? What is revolutionary theory, and what role does it play in political and social revolutions? In the second, we will turn to the neo- and post-Marxisms of the latter half of the 20th century, and will be especially concerned with the criticisms of humanism that emerged from the decolonizing movements, the feminist movements, and the movements surrounding the events of May ’68. In the third, we will come up to the present, in the guise of four figures of radical politics that are very much at play in the world of today: Chomsky, Foucault, Virno, and Tiqqun/The Invisible Committee.

Monday, August 16, 2010

CFP: Roundtable on Marx's Capital

2nd CFP -- note the 15 September deadline.

The Society for Social and Political Philosophy is pleased to issue a
for a Roundtable on Marx’s Capital

Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, February 24-27, 2011

Keynote address by Harry Cleaver
Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Reading Capital Politically

The SSPP’s second Roundtable will explore Volume One of Marx’s Capital (1867). We chose this text because the resurgence in references to and mentions of Marx – provoked especially by the current financial crisis and global recession, but presaged by the best-seller status of Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Marx’s surprising victory in the BBC’s “greatest philosopher” poll – has only served to highlight the fact that there have arguably not been any new interpretive or theoretical approaches to this book since the Althusserian and autonomist readings of the 1960s.

The question that faces us is this: Does the return of Marx mean that we have been thrust into the past, such that long “obsolete” approaches have a newfound currency, or does in mean, on the contrary, that Marx has something new to say to us, and that new approaches to his text are called for?

The guiding hypothesis of this Roundtable is that if new readings of Capital are called for, then it is new readers who will produce them.

Therefore, we are calling for applications from scholars interested in approaching Marx’s magnum opus with fresh eyes, willing to open it to the first page and read it through to the end without knowing what they might find. Applicants need not be experts in Marx or in Marxism. Applicants must, however, specialize in some area of social or political philosophy. Applicants must also be interested in teaching and learning from their fellows, and in nurturing wide-ranging and diverse inquiries into the history of political thought.

If selected for participation, applicants will deliver a written, roundtable-style presentation on a specific part or theme of the text. Your approach to the text might be driven by historical or contemporary concerns, and it might issue from an interest in a theme or a figure (be it Aristotle or Foucault). Whatever your approach, however, your presentation must centrally investigate some aspect of the text of Capital. Spaces are very limited.

Applicants should send the following materials as email attachments (.doc/.rtf/.pdf) to by September 15, 2010:
• Curriculum Vitae
• One page statement of interest, including a discussion of a) the topics you wish to explore in a roundtable presentation, and b) the projected significance of participation for your research and/or teaching.

All applicants will be notified of the outcome of the selection process via email on or before October 15, 2010. Participants will be asked to send a draft or outline of their presentation to by January 15, 2011 so that we can finalize the program.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Aristotle's Politics, A.1-2 a translation of my own devising. Notes and thoughts to follow.

Aristotle, Politics [that is: “what is proper to the citizen”]

(1252a1) Since we see that every city is a sort of community and that every community is joined together for the sake of some good – for everyone does everything for the favor of what seems to be good – then clearly, as every community endeavors for some good, doubtless (5) the most sovereign of all will endeavor for the most sovereign of all goods and the one encompassing all the others. And this community is called the city or the political community.

And so those who suppose that what is proper to a citizen and to a king and to the head of a household and to a master are all the same do not speak beautifully. For they hold that each of these is (10) distinguished by being many or few, but not by its form, such that a few would be proper to a master, more to the head of a household, and yet more to a citizen or a king, as if there were no distinction between a large household and a small city. And as for what is proper to a citizen and to a king, whenever one is set above, this is kingly, and whenever, one in part rules and in part is ruled, (15) according to the account of science, this is civic. But none of this is true.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Postmodern State

Israel's attack on the flotilla of Turkish boats headed for Gaza seems to me to be an object lesson in what various neo-Marxists have been calling the transition from the state to empire.

The IDF attacked the flotilla in international waters, [and there was no preliminary attempt to turn the boats back by other means -- commando raid was the tactic of first choice][Incorrect: see update]. When the soldiers boarded, they were met with stiff resistance -- the first ones were clubbed and and least one was thrown overboard. In response to this resistance, the IDF soldiers opened fire, and 10-19 activists from the flotilla were killed. No IDF commandos were killed.

The IDF maintains a blog, where you can see their portrayal of the event. It prominently features video of the raid, showing the first commandos aboard being beaten, and photos and video showing the assortment of kitchen knives, metal pipes, and sundry other weapons deployed by the activists in their attempt to ward off the raid. The blog refers to the activists' resistance this way: "the activists on board lynched the soldiers in a planned attack."

So, an army raids vessels flying the flag of an allied state, in international waters, [with no warning,][Incorrect. See update.] and those raided are supposed to meekly surrender. If they don't, then they are guilty of a planned attack on the soldiers raiding their boats.

There is a logic to this, but it is not the logic of the law, or the legal state. It is, in the Foucauldian idiom of neo-Marxism, the logic of the norm. Israel has a policy of containment regarding Gaza. The flotilla represented a risk to that policy. It broke no laws and posed no military threat, but, as a risk, it was the object of military intervention. As an identified risk, the burden was on the activists to prove, not their innocence, but their passivity. Since they actively resisted, they had to be pacified, and retroactively proved themselves to be the risk they had been identified as. The citizenship of the activists is of no import; they could have been Israeli, or Iranian, or American, or whatever -- there is no citizenship per se in relation to states acting as imperial agencies. The only question is whether you are passive with regard to empire or pose a risk.

This same logic pervades the quasi-militarized police operations that we call the war on drugs and the war on terror. What happened in the Mediterranean is of the same form as what happens in drug raids in Indiana, or in mobilizations against protesters in Minneapolis. As Foucault says near the end of his lectures on "The Birth of Biopolitics," the "law and order" mantra of conservatives has been revealed to be a contradiction in terms -- the question is: Law or order? The postmodern state -- empire -- chooses order.

I don't know where I got the "no warning" tidbit, but that's not right. The IDF announced they were boarding to search the ships. For discussions of the legality of Israel's blockade and of this raid, see here, here, and here.

Well, maybe the "no warning" tidbit was right after all. As accounts from activists have started seeping out, the raid looks worse and worse -- see here and here, for example.

Also, regarding the new status accorded "citizens" of the postmodern state, see here.

Pessimism and Anti-State Politics

My comments for today's panel at CPSA:

My project is to try to flesh out a neo-Marxian politics using resources from institutional and new institutional economics. I begin from the hypothesis that human beings are evil. I try to be a little deflationary about this; when I say we are evil, I do not mean that we are malicious – though we can be – but only that we are not very good cooperators. This is because we are, at least potentially, a) prudentially rational agents, b) who act independently of one another, but c) who are dependent on one another for realizing our desired outcomes. In other words, we face the persistent threat of coordination problems.

This specter of coordination problems does not always arrive – collective action happens – but it is a real enough threat that we cannot, in principle, rule out the possibility of prudentially rational opportunism (free-riding, defection, rent-seeking, moral hazard, etc.) in our considerations of institutional design. The threat amounts to a divergence between the common good and the good achievable by the independent actions of prudentially rational agents. Any approach to collective action that does not take this threat into account in the structure and working rules it proposes for institutions seems, by that very fact, to convict itself of criminal naiveté by entrusting the entire existence of the proposed institutions to the care of good fortune alone. My essay tests various approaches to collective action by this criterion of naiveté.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Event: After Capitalism? [Updated with reactions]

This Thursday, 29 April, 2010; Salle 422, 2910 Boul. Édouard-Montpetit
  • 13 h - 14 h Pierre-Yves Néron, CRÉUM : Public Capitalism
  • 14 h - 15 h Pablo Gilabert, Concordia University : Socialism
  • 15 h - 15 h 15 : Pause café
  • 15 h 15 - 16 h 30 David Casassas, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona : Property-owning Democracy
Info here. Poster here.


A really nice event. About 20 lightyears from my way of approaching political philosophical problems, though. Whatever -- it's normative political theory. I don't do normative political theory. But it was also -- except, perhaps, for some of Casassas' paper -- ideal political theory. And I just can't get my head to go into that space at all. For me, political theory always departs from some very robust sense of the presently given human condition, and, because of this, I can never make heads nor tails of the leap to talking about a just society in abstraction from the concrete situation.

For example: Does the just society have neighbors? Does it have borders? If so, do these facts have any impact on what it means to be a just society? A just society has citizens; does it also have non-citizen residents? Does a just society engage in foreign trade, or does it produce all it needs? Either way, what does a just society produce? What does it need? Do trade relations or production relations ahve any impact on what it means to be a just society? Are its neighbors friendly or hostile? Does this matter for justice? Does a just society have a history? Is this history a history of justice? Does this history have any impact on the institutions of the basic structure? I just don't know how to bracket these questions in order to consider a just social order "in itself."

(Hell, even Plato didn't bracket these questions; the consideration that really gets the construction of the city in speech undrway in the Republic is the consideration that the city will be one of many, will have neighbors, and must be prepared to defend itself against them.)

Anyway, a very nice event anyway...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Two links

I'd like to say more about both of these at some point, but...


the entire run of Cahiers pour l'Analyse, the locus classicus of '60s poststructuralism, is now on-line.

Friday, April 23, 2010

"Accelerate the Contradictions": Notes Towards a History

A correspondent asked me about the origin and history of the phrase "accelerate the contradictions." Here's what I managed to dig up:

It is one of the less common of several variant phrases: "heighten (or sharpen, or develop) the contradictions"; "accelerate (or heighten, or develop) the crisis"; etc. (I chose it because I like how it sounds.)

The earliest use of any of these variants that I know of is by Marx in his "1844 manuscripts." Discussing the development of English political economy after Adam Smith, Marx writes:
It is therefore another great achievement of modern English political economy to have declared rent of land to be the difference in the interest yielded by the worst and the best land under cultivation; to have [exposed] the landowner's romantic illusions – his alleged social importance and the identity of his interest with the interest of society, a view still maintained by Adam Smith after the Physiocrats; and to [have] anticipated and prepared the movement of the real world which will transform the landowner into an ordinary, prosaic capitalist, and thus simplify and sharpen the contradiction [between capital and labour] and hasten its resolution. Land as land, and rent as rent, have lost their distinction of rank and become insignificant capital and interest – or rather, capital and interest that signify only money.
There is also a passage in Hegel's Logic (paragraph 961) that clearly has all of the elements:
Intelligent reflection, to mention this here, consists, on the contrary, in grasping and asserting contradiction. Even though it does not express the Notion of things and their relationships and has for its material and content only the determinations of ordinary thinking, it does bring these into a relation that contains their contradiction and allows their Notion to show or shine through the contradiction. Thinking reason, however, sharpens, so to say, the blunt difference of diverse terms, the mere manifoldness of pictorial thinking, into essential difference, into opposition. Only when the manifold terms have been driven to the point of contradiction to they become active and lively towards one another, receiving in contradiction the negativity which is the indwelling pulsation of self-movement and spontaneous activity.
Neither of these texts, however, employ the phrase in the sense it came to have in 20th century Marxism -- promoting revolution by making the current state of things more intolerable. Rosa Luxemburg comes closer in Reform or Revolution (1900):
In other words, when evaluated from the angle of their final effect on capitalist economy, cartels and trusts fail as “means of adaptation.” They fail to attenuate the contradictions of capitalism. On the contrary, they appear to be an instrument of greater anarchy. They encourage the further development of the internal contradictions of capitalism. They accelerate the coming of a general decline of capitalism.
As had August Bebel before her in Woman and Socialism (1879):
Since one industry furnishes the raw material to another and one depends upon the other, the ills that befall one must affect the others. The circle of those affected widens. Many obligations that had been entered upon in the hope of prolonged favorable conditions cannot be met, and heighten the crisis that grows worse from month to month.
But these texts don't suggest accelerating or heightening contradictions as a revolutionary strategy, but only as part of the process of capitalist development.

Lenin comes closer, in "The Heritage We Renounce" (1897):
The enlightener believes in the present course of social development, because he fails to observe its inherent contradictions. The Narodnik fears the present course of social development, because he is already aware of these contradictions. The “disciple” [of dialectical materialism] believes in the present course of social development, because he sees the only earnest hope of a better future in the full development of these contradictions. The first and last trends therefore strive to support, accelerate, facilitate development along the present path, to remove all obstacles which hamper this development and retard it.
So maybe the folk wisdom that attributes the strategy of accelerating the contradictions to Leninism is more or less correct!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Philosophy among the humanities

I usually try to avoid commenting on these sorts of things, but I'm feeling surly this morning...

Jason Stanley, a philosopher at Rutgers, has an article in Inside Higher Ed bemoaning the fact that philosophy is alienated from the rest of the humanities. This is a distillation of various complaints Stanley has aired in recent years on Brian Leiter's blog (which writings can be perused here). He forwards three bits of evidence for this sorry state of affairs:
  1. Philosophers don't win the big prizes in the humanities -- MacArthur grants, Guggenheim fellowships, ACLS New Faculty fellowships -- at the same rate as historians and other humanists. (The numbers with which he backs this up are questionable.)
  2. "Most American humanists are unclear about how the debates of philosophers are supposed to fit into the overall project of the humanities. We are ignored at dinner parties, and considered arrogant and perhaps uncouth." (I'm not sure why Mr. Stanley's unpopularity at dinner parties is an interesting topic for IHE.)
  3. "To add insult to injury, the name of our profession is liberally bestowed on those teaching in completely different departments." (By which he means, horror of horrors, that "Many academics use the term "philosopher" not as a description of the people working on the set of problems that occupy our time [i.e., the time of academic philosophers like Mr. Stanley], but rather as a certain kind of honorific [for anyone] who constructs some kind of admirable general theory about a discipline.")
As is clear from these rather odd complaints, the title of Stanley's piece ("The Crisis of Philosophy") is misleading. The crisis of philosophy is not a crisis in philosophy. Professional philosophy in the Anglo-American world is doing just great, thank you very much. The crisis of philosophy is rather a crisis in the humanities. As Stanley makes clear by his insistence that Nietzsche and Zizek are the outside of a line of continuity running from Aristotle through Spinoza and Kant and up to Saul Kripke and David Lewis, and his further contention that the six MacArthur fellows in philosophy (Rorty, Scanlon, Cavell, P. Churchland, Kolakowski, and Shklar -- he ignores the six philosophers who have won MacArthurs under other headings [Vlastos, Cartwright, Kristeller, Fox Keller, Hawkins, and Moses]) are "an odd group," the real complaint is that humanists don't pay attention to or honor the sort of philosophy that Stanley considers central to the profession.

That may be. But I think it is weird for Stanley to complain about it, or to think that this is a defect in the humanities. Does the work of Lewis or Kripke or Frege have any relevance for your average humanist? As Stanley admits elsewhere, the philosophers he knows tend not to be humanists themselves, or to have "wisdom and insight about the human condition." He explicitly includes moral philosophers in this judgment. As he writes:
It's clear to me why (say) someone working in metaphysics is not likely to have more insight into the human condition than the average mortal. It's because many people working in metaphysics are captured principally by the problem of working out the consistencies of an abstract problem space with only dubious connections to how we live our lives. Moral philosophers tend as a whole to be exactly the same as metaphysicians, except they have chosen a somewhat different problem space to explore the logical relations between theses.
What is there for a humanist to take interest in here? Why should the logical relations among theses in a problem space be of any concern to a historian, anthropologist, or student of literature?

My own feeling is that the way in which many philosophers -- and, in particular, your run-of-the-mill, mainstream, analytic philosophers -- pose their problems and lay out the theses to be examined is utterly disconnected from anything that is a recognizable part of my day to day life. The problems defined by previous generations of (mainstream academic) philosophers have spawned partial solutions which have given rise to sub-problems which have been formalized in various ways and this continuous process has resulted in a rather arid and extremely technical set of "problem spaces" that do not seem to an outsider to hold any potential for yielding "wisdom and insight about the human condition." Now I don't necessarily have a problem with that; taking anything seriously for very long is bound to give rise to technical and obscure issues. But it is truly bizarre to complain that humanists don't appreciate the inner workings of professionalized philosophy.

Less bizarre but more problematic is Stanley's penchant for speaking on behalf of "we" philosophers. (Leiter does this all the time, too.) On the one hand, Stanley wants to insist that mainstream analytic philosophy is absolutely open and diverse because, for example, it "clearly does not place any limits upon the conclusions that can be defended in its journals." On the other hand, this very formulation maintains the substantive notion that philosophy is all about a neutral and universal methodology (a set of logical and argumentative tools) that is merely applied to different ends. I look at the history of philosophy, and at the current crop of professional academic philosophers, and I don't see a "we." I see a host of fundamental disagreements, not so much about conclusions as about what sort of activity philosophy is in the first place. Aristotle and Hobbes did not agree about a neutral methodology while disagreeing about conclusions. Same goes for Heidegger and Lewis. That's what I like about philosophy -- nothing can be taken for granted, it's open conflict on all possible fronts, including meta-fronts and meta-meta-fronts.

In other posts, Stanley is much more open to these sorts of issues. What he seems consistently to elide is the difference between philosophy as a profession -- as an academic specialization or "discipline" -- and philosophy as this possibility of open conflict on all fronts. Despite his claim, philosophy is not the oldest discipline, because it is not a discipline at all. Philosophy has only very intermittently been captured by the academy. It happened for a while in Medieval Europe. It happened for a while in Enlightenment Germany. It has been the rule during the 20th century. There is no reason to expect that it will remain the rule for very long.

Stanley and Leiter systematically confuse the academic profession of philosophy (within which they, unlike me, occupy elite positions within the mainstream) with philosophy as such (within which they are, like me, just johnny-come-lately epigones and amateurs). When they say "we philosophers" they are speaking as elite academic professionals but think they are speaking as philosophers as such. And when Stanley complains about humanists lack of concern for the former, he has no one to blame but himself.

Monday, March 29, 2010

How Straussian Marxism Is Possible

“Moral indignation is no affair of political philosophy. It constitutes no part of philosophy.”

-- Heinrich Meier, The Lesson of Carl Schmitt, p. 1.

[Blog subtitle edited to better reflect actual content.]

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Market Providentialism

Some guy over at the American Enterprise Institute claims that the fact that air pollution has dramatically improved since 1980 is proof that the catastrophic predictions made by early environmentalists were wrong (and, hence, we ought to ignore all those dire predictions being made by environmentalists now, natch). As others point out here and here, this analysis neatly ignores the fact that environmental activism led to government regulation led to averting the predicted consequences of inaction.

This would not be especially noteworthy except that a similar line of "thought" can be found all over the place among those who feel that the market will provide. Running out of oil? No worries -- as the price increases, entrepreneurs will be motivated to innovate new extraction methods, new energy sources, more efficient engines, etc. (I've written a bit about this before, discussing some things said by John Romer, husband of Obama's chief economic advisor, Christina Romer.)

This providentialism always ignores the non-market activism that precedes and motivates the market activity that "solves" the problem in question. There's always a sticky point where Cassandras start screaming and marching and demanding change, and the market providentialists have a hard time fitting these Cassandras into their narratives of this, the best of all possible worlds.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Anti-Political Pathology of the American "Left"

I haven't linked to anything Glenn Greenwald has written in a very long time. This is partly because I have not been paying nearly as much attention to US politics since Obama's election. This is partly the recoil from paying way too much attention to everything in the lead-up to the election, and partly an attempt to inoculate myself against the mind-numbing depression caused by the daily ups and downs of the political "conversation" in the US. My dad works for a senator, and I can see the toll taken on him by the ceaseless chatter and clatter of the thousands of little Don Quixotes at work slaying the dragons of their political opponents, and by the nauseating stew of opinion and analysis served up by the news media. I sort of made up my mind that the guy I wanted to win had won, and I wasn't ready to be disheartened by attending to the daily atrocities committed by the best-guys-available-at-the-time.

His basic claim is that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party sucks at politics. They suck at politics because they are incapable of making a credible threat to vote against the tiniest incremental improvement on some issue where they would like to see major reform. Their mantra is, "Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," but the effect is that the "better than nothing" becomes the enemy of the good. The HCR debate has guaranteed that the Obama administration will never make any major moves to placate progressives within the party because they know full well that the progressives will always back them no matter what. The progressives have destroyed any leverage they might have had with the administration because they have proven themselves unwilling to sink the health care bill, even though it lacks any of their "must have" provisions.

First of all, I think this analysis is spot on.

Second, I think it can be generalized to cover much of the dynamic that obtains between (relatively) liberal and (relatively) conservative blocs in most major political debates in North America. In short, liberals suck at politics because they aren't willing to accelerate the contradictions. The notion that things might have to get worse in order to get better, and that a responsible effort to make things better therefore has to accept making things worse as a valid strategy -- this is beyond the pale of most liberal thought.

If the anti-war "left" had decided to make life really hard for Bush, they could have. Obstructionism is obviously not an entirely lost art in US Congress, and those opponents of the war who had the misfortune of not being elected members of the legislature could have been infinitely more extremist in the expression of their opposition to the war than they were. But that would have entailed making life worse for people other than Bush as well -- soldiers, one's fellow citizens, one's family, etc. It would have meant taking on board the responsibility for causing deaths, even. Being anti-war could not be passed off on one's conscience as being anti-killing, or anti-suffering, or the like. It would mean taking a decision against a concrete policy or act, rather than against only abstract generalities. (If you've decided to oppose this war, then nothing prohibits you from making war against those who would take us into this war, but if you have "decided" to oppose War, there is very little you can do to stop any actual war, which will always be a concrete course of action, carried out by people with guns.)

This unwillingness to make things worse in order to get what you have decided upon as your goal means the progressive left will always get steamrolled by those who are willing to say "Give me what I want or I'll destroy something both of us care about."

Friday, March 12, 2010

An exercise in classification

Regarding and proposing solutions to coordination problems of various sorts (assurance games, prisoners' dilemmas, and the like):

Stalinists believe in the state, not in entrepreneurs.
Libertarians believe in entrepreneurs, not in the state.
Keynesians believe in both.
Communists believe in neither.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Left and Liberal Government (After Foucault)

Foucault's lectures on "The Birth of Biopolitics" have been rattling around in my head. I think they present a real challenge for the Left, in the sense that they articulate the lack of what Foucault refers to as a socialist governmentality. In fact, on might even say that, in the West, there is currently no governmental alternative to liberalism. What does this mean?

Well, first we should set aside the sense in which "liberalism" names a partisan position in North American electoral and cultural politics. Liberals in this sense tend to embrace liberal government for some issues (drugs, abortion, etc.) while rejecting it for others (minimum wage, environmental regulations, etc.). There is no neat fit between the mode of government and partisan identification, even if there are discernible patterns.

Likewise, I think it is necessary to set aside the sense in which "liberalism" names a theory of state legitimation. In this sense, liberalism asks the question: When is it obligatory that I obey a coercive power? To which liberalism answers: When that coercive power is necessary (and sufficient?) to secure a sphere of equal liberty for myself and my fellows, who are equally obligated thereby to obey. This morality of power and obedience -- basically, the social contract tradition -- has some relationship with liberal government, but is not identical to it. Hobbes offers a liberal legitimation of the state, but not a liberal theory of government. Smith proposes liberal government, but not a liberal legitimation of the state. (Foucault talks about this as the "strategic" difference between "revolutionary" (natural rights, social contract) and "radical" (utilitarian) strands within liberalism. The difference is strategic because the two strands can support one another in various ways, but are not reducible to moments in a dialectical unity.)

Liberalism as a mode of government names the technology of power that governs a natural-social phenomenon by establishing a normal range of incidence and keeping the phenomenon within this range by means of state action on the environmental variables that tend to affect incidence. In other words, liberal government accepts the thing to be governed as an ineliminable (natural) fact of the social world, and, rather than trying to forbid or otherwise abolish it, manages it indirectly by affecting those variables that encourage or discourage it by appealing to individuals' interests. In short, liberal government is economic government, government that understands and respects the economic incentives that produce harmful or unpleasant phenomena, and tries to manage problems by restructuring the incentives.

Now, when things are put in these terms, it seems, in fact, that liberalism is the only governmental game in town. The Right has a moral discourse and an effective political rhetoric, but no independent art of government. The Left has a critical discourse, but neither an effective political rhetoric nor an art of government. Mainstream liberalism has government all locked up -- but has neither a critical nor a moral discourse, and is largely lacking in the political rhetoric department, too! (Hence, the sorry state of the Democrats in the US and the Liberals in Canada, both of which must pin there hopes of electoral success almost entirely on the incompetence of their Rightist competition.)

This is a problem for the Left in that, aside from the momentous problem of, y'know, actually taking power, we have no independent practice of government by which we might wield the power of the state should it somehow fall into our hands. There are, of course, distinctive ends we would like to achieve, but when you ask: How would we go about, e.g., redistributing land, establishing a basic income, etc? the only answers that seem forthcoming are: a) a magical faith in the will of the people (a simple decree, anyone?) and b) ask the economists.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Marx and Philosophy Review of Books

  • Announcing the launch of a new online review of books covering Marxism and philosophy
  • First batch of reviews now online
  • New reviews added regularly
  • Part of the redesigned Marx & Philosophy Society web site
  • Edited by Sean Sayers and members of the Society
For reviews and to subscribe go to

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Basic Income Conference

Thursday, 15 April and Friday, 16 April, 2010, at Universite de Montreal. The full program, as well as more information, can be found here. Basic income is probably the only policy in the world advocated by communists, Rawlsian liberals, and Sarah Palin (as governor of Alaska, she presided over the only operating basic income program in existence, the state oil revenue grants).

I don't know the precise form of basic income guarantee advocated by all of the speakers at the conference, but it is certainly worth differentiating between the negative income tax advocated by neoliberals and neo-classical economists (of which the US earned income tax credit is an instance) and the basic income guarantee, which would be unconditional (except, perhaps, ofr citizenship), and hence not means-tested or tied to employment.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Echoes of Historical Materialism

So, obviously, substantive posts have been a bit scarce of late. I'd like to turn that around, both because and by means of the HM conference I attended in NYC last week. Because: it was one of the very best conferences I've ever attended, and certainly the very best Lefty, is-it-academia-or-is-it-activism sort of conference I've ever attended. By means of: I'm hoping it will be easy enough for me to half report on, half respond to what I saw and heard there, and generally to spin the experience out into a set of reflections on this, that, and the other.

First up: the matrix of historicisms.

This is an attempt to present in a more articulate manner the introductory remarks to my paper on Virno and Aristotle, which were marred by my inability to remember how to draw a simple matrix on the chalkboard.

My talk was to have been, to some extent, concerned with the “family politics” of communists – the friends and enemies, lineages and filiations, by which we construct our identities. In asking about and proposing to discuss Aristotle’s communism, I wanted to avoid – or at least postpone drawing – the seemingly foregone conclusion that Aristotle was in his day, and is even now one of the preeminent anti-communists: critic of Plato’s communist scheme, defender of private property and slavery, basing his entire ontology on the “substance” of the landed proprietor. Either he is no ancestor at all, or, if some distant consanguinity must be admitted, then it must just as surely be renounced, and any holdings that come down from it sold off, used up, or simply abandoned to the elements. Besides, the anti-communists seem more than happy to enshrine Aristotle alongside their honored dead.

However – and this is the first complication – there are several distinct anti-communist Aristotles, each of whom is anti-communist by way of a distinct proxy for communism. Murray Rothbard’s Aristotle is anti-communist because his empiricism and pluralism are supposed to be anti-Platonist. Here, communism is figured as an extreme form of authoritarian rationalism. Ayn Rand’s Aristotle is anti-communist because his realism and elitism are supposed to be anti-Kantian. Here, then, communism is figured as an extreme form of Christian subjectivism. Leo Strauss’s Aristotle is anti-communist because of his proto-Machiavellian pessimism about the possibility of justice. Hannah Arendt’s Aristotle, on the contrary, is anti-communist because he is anti-Machiavellian in his non-instrumental understanding of political discussion. Obviously, then, there is no agreement among anti-communists as to what communism itself amounts to, and hence no agreement about just which aspect of Aristotle is supposed to align him with their cause. Communism is “bad,” and Aristotle, being “good,” must be a natural ally in the struggle against communism.

Amongst socialist and communist authors, similarly – and this is the second, and more interesting, complication – Aristotle’s situation tends to vary depending upon a prior determination of the character of the anti-capitalist movement. In particular, it seems to depend upon how capitalism and anti-capitalism are situated in history. To employ a simplifying schematism, it seems to me that you can force anti-capitalists to answer two questions about history and classify them on the basis of their answers.

Question 1: Is the anti-capitalist movement an attempt to realize a break in history that has already occured at some point in the past?

Question 2: Would the victory of the anti-capitalist movement constitute or presuppose a break in history that is yet to come?

Answers can be plotted in a matrix:

"Modernists" (Hans Blumenberg, Deleuze perhaps, and certainly many Deleuzians, Negri at times) see the struggle against capitalism as the struggle to extend or realize the historical rupture that inaugurated modernity. The problem with capitalism, then, is that it represents a lingering past. Since Aristotle is almost certainly part of this pre-modern past that lingers on and must be overcome, Aristotle is an enemy of modernists. (Marx's exhortation to let the dead bury their dead might be the fountainhead of this progressivism.)

"Catastrophists" (Horkheimer and Adorno anyone?) see history as monotononous and relentless and devoid of promise, and see the overcoming of capitalism as the unprecedented inauguration of something new, a break with all that has come before. (Marx's claim in the 1859 Preface that the end of capitalism will mark the end of pre-history might be read as precedent here.)

"Dialecticians" (Murray, Meikle, Postone, Arthur, and even Althusser at times) see capitalism as the manifestation of a historical rupture that must itself be suppressed, dismissed, repeated, or otherwise cancelled. The era of capitalism is an interregnum. Use-value romantics reside here, but so do most of the folks I most admire. Not all of them are Catholic, but a rather large percentage are. These are the friends of Aristotle, who was the first to criticize exchange because it abstracts from concrete usefulness.

"Natural Historians" (Virno, Althusser at other times) don't believe in historical ruptures, epochal befores and afters. The break between capitalism and communism is not a break between histories (eras) so much as a break within every history. The field of history is not, on this approach, subject to the sorts of progressions, leaps, or returns that characterize the pro- and anti-modernization stances taken by those situated in the other quadrants of the matrix. Because communism is not a referendum on modernity, Aristotle is not subject to valorization or condemnation for his proto- or anti-modern tendencies. Instead, there is a certain freedom to approach Aristotle – or any other thinker, for that matter – in a non-reductive way. What Virno says of Simondon could be said also of Aristotle: “At a certain point it is necessary to take leave of him and proceed alone (just as we must depart from many other ‘friendly’ thinkers). We do so with gratitude for his help but without nostalgia or regrets.”