Philosophy

13
Dec

Limitations and Problems of the Western Doctrine

By Ai Silin & Qu Weijie
Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020

Abstract: The slogan “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” put forward by Western liberal scholars contradicts the principle of non-interference as stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations. The Western conception of human rights includes two main justification methods—naturalism and bottom-lineism, but neither of them can substantively justify the universality of human rights going beyond reality. This also determines that the relationship between sovereignty and human rights is not an “either-or” one, but a dialectical and mutually reinforcing one. Human rights cannot be fundamentally guaranteed without the support of national sovereignty. The culture-centric mentality implied by the doctrine that human rights are superior to national sovereignty is not conducive to international cooperation. Only by engaging in dialogue in a non-coercive, inclusive, and equitable manner would it be possible to reach a bottom-line consensus that would be widely accepted by the international community.

Since the late 20th century, and particularly since the Kosovo War in 1999 and Iraq War in 2003, Western powers have advocated the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” to legitimize starting a series of regional wars. However, the concept which lies behind this theory conflicts with a series of principles of international law as stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations, such as the principles of the sovereign equality of states and non-interference in internal affairs. According to Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, “This prohibition of intervention is indeed reaffirmed by the UN Charter; but from the beginning it stood in tension with the development of the international protection of human rights.”[1] This paper attempts to review the relationship between national sovereignty and human rights based on a critical reflection on the Western concept of human rights.

I. Two Ways to Justify the Western Concept of Human Rights: Naturalism and Minimalism

It is generally believed that the universalist concept of human rights has its origins rooted in the modern Western concept of natural rights. It must first be clarified, however, that no consensus has thus far been reached in Western political academia about how the concept of “right” first came into being. Probing into the evolution of the concept of “right”, Richard Dagger wrote that the English word “right” comes from the Latin word “rectus” (meaning “straight”), which in turn can be traced to “orek-tos” (“straight, upright”) in Greek.[2] At the beginning, therefore, the word “right” presumably did not indicate “a justified claim or entitlement, or the freedom to do something” in its modern sense, and the concept of right in a political sense did not emerge in the West until the late Middle Ages as the idea of “natural rights” took shape. Western political scholars such as Charles Beitz and James Griffin who were committed to studying human rights believed that despite the differences in connotation between the concepts of human rights and natural rights, from a historical perspective, the origin of the modern Western concept of human rights is closely linked with the theory of natural rights, which in turn is directly related to the natural law theory established by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. The influence of modern natural science and the Enlightenment Movement, however, led the natural law theory to gradually give way to Enlightenment rationalism, thus divorcing the theological elements from the concept of natural rights. From this point, the individual awareness in line with the nature secured its fundamental status in practical philosophy, and the secular concept of “human rights” emerged in the late 18th century. According to Beitz, “the most broadly influential contribution of the natural rights tradition to contemporary thought about human rights is the idea that human rights belong to persons ‘as such’ or ‘simply in virtue of their humanity’.”[3] Such justification for human rights is referred by Beitz as “naturalist” view on human rights, which is one of the most common ways to justify human rights. Its core argument is that the concept of human nature is regarded as evidence of the universality of human rights, while human nature is in itself in conformity with the nature. “Not as something evolving in the course of history, but posited by nature, because for them this individual was the natural individual, according to their idea of human nature.”[4] In the modern Western tradition of metaphysics, such an individual in conformity with the nature may either be presumed as a Kantian rational being or an experimentalist aggregate of feelings. Whichever presumption is made, the “demystified” concept of human rights attempts to justify its universalist appeal by naturalist theories.

However, the biggest weakness of the naturalist theory is that it neglects the historical aspect of mankind. To ensure the prioritization of individual rights, an individual is ridded of his social identity such as roles and status, and is translated into a moral agent in a metaphysical sense. Marx made the lucid statement that the concept of moral agent as constructed by modern Western philosophers was but a product of disintegration of feudal society and maturity of the civil society. Elaborating human rights from the perspective of an abstract and naturalist human nature has abducted human rights evolution from its historical dimension, and the understanding of rights thereof is non-historical. In fact, the emergence and application of the concept of human rights are inevitably based on certain social practices and historical conditions, and shall undergo changes correspondingly with changes in such social practice and historical conditions. The connotation and denotation of this concept remains in dynamic evolution, in which sense the naturalist view will inevitably be challenged by historicism. From a historicist perspective, political or moral concepts are neither inherent nor created at the discretion of any person; instead, any concept is a product of history and depends on certain social practice and objective historical conditions as a foundation. So is the case with the concept of human rights, which has evolved over a long history rather than remaining unchanged, As early as during the Enlightenment Movement, certain Western thinkers and statesmen made the statement that “all men are born equal”. However, this slogan is just a promissory note that cannot be cashed immediately as U.S. sociologist Robert N. Bellah argued.[5] Women were not granted the right to vote or to stand in elections until the 1920s, and the rights of African Americans were not sufficiently protected until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Even today, various social classes and groups in the West remain troubled by identity and economic gaps.

The naturalist concept of human rights can be viewed as a “top-down”[6] approach according to Griffin, i.e. deduction of human rights based on one or multiple abstract principles, and it is exclusively built on the metaphysical concept of “man himself” or “human nature”. In fact, the evolution of human rights indicates that human nature, whether deemed a factual or normative being, is not a sufficient condition of human rights. The factual concept of human nature of the normative concept of personality itself does not naturally and logically lead to the deduction of a set of concepts of plural rights. Instead, our understanding of modern concept of human rights depends more on a “bottom-up” approach: approaching the human rights theory from widely used concept of human rights in actual social interactions. Through investigation into various types of human rights, political theorists attempt to find a consensus from all known concepts of human rights that is universally accepted by all nations. The bottom-up approach differs from the top-down approach in that the former acknowledges in the first place that different lists of rights may be categorized as human rights by different thinkers, who may interpret and understand the same right in different ways. Charles Taylor believed that human rights consist of norms of conduct and underlying justification, the former referring to various rights stipulated in national laws and international conventions, and the latter referring to philosophical views on human nature and society from a metaphysical perspective that constitute the philosophical basis of the norms of conduct related to human rights. For Taylor, people with different cultural backgrounds may vary in the deep underlying justification of human rights, which, however, does not impede us from seeking consensus on the level of norms of conduct through dialogues and communication. Such consensus, similar with “overlapping consensus” suggested by John Rawls, is a minimum consensus acceptable by all parties. Taylor further pointed out that “one can presumably find in all cultures condemnations of genocide, murder, torture, and slavery”[7]. According to Taylor, such norms of conduct are deemed overlapping consensus in a culturally diversified world. This concept of human rights can be defined as minimalism. In the West, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian scholar of political science, is one of the first advocates of the minimalist theory of human rights, which he believes is tantamount to the “negative freedom” defined by Isaiah Berlin that protects individuals from physical harm.[8] Likewise, Western political scholars such as Michael Walzer, David Miller and Joshua Cohen all advocate minimalism of human rights, albeit to various degrees. Walzer proposes a set of “negative injunctions” that rules against murder, deceit, torture, oppression, etc.[9] as minimal morality for all societies.

A Kantian question is: how does the consensus in minimalism become possible? Is it possible to reach some degree of consensus in a non-coercive approach and come up with a list of human rights universally acknowledged by all countries? Many western scholars on human rights are optimistic, such as Griffin emphasizing that “We now, in these cosmopolitan times, tend to exaggerate the differences between societies.”[10] Empirical observations show that people in different countries may differ in religions, world outlooks, set of values and lifestyles, yet certain fundamental preconditions apply to all humans, as no one would deny the value of food, health and security in life, which may be translated into corresponding appeals for rights and summarize a minimalist list of human rights. Borrowing Walzer’s theory, this would be a “thin” list of human rights whose underlying justification does not build on “thick” and profound metaphysical or religious resources; instead, it proceeds from indisputable human needs or interests. In a world of complexity and diversity, many Western philosophers have come to realize that a “thick” list of human rights would unlikely be universally accepted unless by means of coercion or even violence. Yet obtaining a list of human rights by such means is in itself a violation and disrespect of human rights. It is therefore obvious that the minimalism of human rights with empiricism as the basic methodology conforms to our empirical observation. Problems arise, however, from empirical induction, and disputes over the contents of such a minimalist list of human rights have never ceased between countries and regions. Besides, the multitude of political, economic and social rights stipulated by various conventions on human rights are absent from the “thin” list of human rights as many of these economic and social rights rely on enormous public spending, and cashing these “checks” of pledged rights may incur an unaffordable cost on some developing countries.

The viewpoint that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” is unlikely to constitute a minimal consensus among all countries on the human rights issue since minimalism requires overlapping consensus based on equal dialogue. As behind the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” lurks a unilateralist and interventionist approach in international affairs, which is unacceptable for other countries advocating equality of national sovereignty.

II. Boundaries of Humanitarian Intervention and Its Subsequent Problems

It was not until after WWII that a modern and secularized concept of human rights became globally influential. Traumatized by the unprecedented calamity of Fascism preying on all nations, and in particular the holocaust by Nazi Germany, many argued that a prospective international political theory shall be advocated to safeguard human rights. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sought to provide a generic and normative foundation to safeguard human rights worldwide by listing a series of rights that all shall be entitled to. It was in this very context that “human rights diplomacy” practiced by Western countries started to gain momentum across the world, and wars were started in the name of “humanitarian intervention”, which consisted a major challenge to the concept of human rights in classical international law. So, does safeguarding human rights necessarily require a thorough abolishment of non-intervention principle within international law?

To answer this question, Western political philosophers advocating minimalist human rights argue that approving humanitarian intervention does not mean abandoning the non-intervention principle in international relations, but rather “becoming aware of particular exceptional situations” which constitute the scope and boundaries of humanitarian intervention. Walzer was one of the first Western political philosophers that expounded on humanitarian intervention whose basic viewpoint grounded upon “the norm is not to intervene in other people’s countries; the norm is self-determination”.[11] In normal situations, the principle of non-intervention shall apply in international affairs; however, humanitarian intervention is justified when it is response to acts “that shock the moral conscience of mankind”[12] and no local political organization possess the means to end the status quo. Therefore, failure in exercising sovereignty is an essential condition for the deposal of a sovereign state; while a second essential condition is the occurrence of “exceptional situation” that shock the moral conscience of mankind. Therefore, justified humanitarian intervention is essentially negative with a very narrow scope of applicability. According to David Miller, the non-intervention principle would be set aside provided that the international community reaches a universal consensus on whether the human rights violation has gone beyond the boundary of tolerance. At present, “such agreement exists in the case of genocide”[13] where the victims are deprived of all means of resistance without foreign aid. In such a case, the non-intervention principle of the international law is temporarily disabled and the boundary of national sovereignty broken, and intervention by other countries is justified. This indicates that a rather high threshold for the execution of humanitarian intervention is defined by minimalist human rights theory.

Another crucial question is: is “regime transformation” included in the “exceptional cases” where humanitarian intervention applies? Some advocates of “human rights first” argue that in order to prevent or avoid humanitarian disasters, it is necessary to transform the regime of certain countries by military means into a regime in conformity with Western liberalist democratic institutions. For them, humanitarian intervention is of a hysteretic nature and represents a negative and passive response; to eradicate the possibility of humanitarian disasters, regime transformation must be executed in countries where such disasters are possible to mold them with Western democracy. In other words, do political and military actions aiming at regime transformation deserve the name of humanitarian intervention or constitute a legitimate reason of humanitarian intervention? Walzer emphasized that democracy and rule of law of a country does not provide a legitimate ground for intervening with its internal affairs, nor is democracy of the political system a precondition for intervention; the key, instead, is whether the sovereignty is in severely conflict with human rights, and the only purpose of such intervention should be putting an end to violence. Therefore, “humanitarian interventions are not justified for the sake of democracy or free enterprise or economic justice or voluntary association or any other of the social practices and arrangements that we might hope for or even call for in other people’s countries”.[14] Every country has its own historical traditions, values and cultural beliefs, and one cannot truly understand the emergence, evolution and operation of political systems without being personally immersed in these specific cultural tradition resources. Regime transformation in the name of humanitarian intervention reflects a cultural centralism, which, in any form or type, would be refuted by cultural pluralism from a theoretical perspective in a world highlighting cultural diversity. In its very essence, an institutional and cultural superiority lurks behind cultural centralism in violation of the liberalist morality of equality and mutual respect. The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” constitutes a violation of basic liberalist moral principles such as equality, respect and pluralism, and is, therefore, a self-negation of the theory.

The minimalist theory of human rights is only in favor of humanitarian intervention under exceptional circumstances; however, as Walzer put it, since the Spanish conquest of Mexico with the pretext of putting an end to Aztec human sacrifices, the so-called humanitarian intervention in most cases has been risible. Even in a morally justifiable intervention, the country initiating such intervention might have a political agenda in mind apart from humanitarian aid, for example, seeking regional political hegemony in the name of humanitarian intervention. The absence of pure humanitarian intervention in reality is the essential theoretical dilemma of humanitarian intervention. Walzer distinguished between two types of humanitarian interventions: pure humanitarian intervention and humanitarian intervention with mixed motives, the former purely aiming at saving lives, while the latter referring to mixed cases where the humanitarian motive, among other considerations of political and economic interests, is one among several reasons for military intervention. There are few genuine cases of military intervention in which their purpose was purely humanitarian; although military powers play a crucial role in international political arena, states do not send their soldiers into other states, it seems, only in order to save lives. As Jürgen Habermas noted, “the program of human rights consists in its imperialist misuse”[15] when human rights politics is reduced to an ideological tool manipulated by major powers to cover up their political interests. Therefore, entering a country by military means always sounds an alarm, and reality has sufficiently proved that interventionism tends to end up in failure. Both the Iraq War in 2003 and Libyan War in 2011 started in the ideological frame of unilateralism and interventionism deviated from the tracks presumed by Western countries, as neither country has an effective human rights protection mechanism put in place, or achieved post-war reconstruction for a thriving economy and stable society; on the contrary, both countries are plunged into prolonged turmoil. Interventionism has produced large number of refugees in West Asia and North Africa, who are deprived of both human rights and national sovereignty by the intervention of external forces.

III. Re-examination of the Relationship Between Human Rights and National Sovereignty

The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” reflects the belief that individual rights and freedom are of a higher priority than national sovereignty, and that the respect and protection of human rights constitutes the moral foundation of legitimacy of national sovereignty. Again, “individual” here is a metaphysical presupposition, where individuals are viewed as atomic, independent moral agents entitled to the identical plural rights regardless of all identity markers such as nationality, ethnic background, culture and faith, as well as all social relations. Therefore from the perspective of philosophical foundation, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” relies on ontology where “the individual comes first, and society comes second”, on which critical reflections can be initiated in the following three aspects.

First is the Marxist rebuttal of the metaphysical presupposition of the individual. Marx criticized such an atomic individual as “an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community”[16]. Human rights are thus established on the isolation rather than coalition of individuals. Isolation here refers to clear boundaries between one another that distinguish “me” from “him”. Taking property rights as an example, private property rights are defined as the possession and use of one’s own property without intervention from others, hence the existence of others is regarded as a restriction on individual rights rather than an essential element of materializing one’s individual rights. For Marx, human beings are a species being rather than enclosed and estranged “monad”. For an individual, society is a constitutive being—constituting the identity and main source of social relations of an individual—rather than a dissident being, The notion that an individual is an atomized being free of all historical traditions and social relations is but a philosophical fiction which in reality is untenable. An individual is an individual in reality, and the question of individual identity will not dispel by itself; therefore the “cosmopolitan citizen” imagined by liberalists is but a castle in the air. When one claims to be a “cosmopolitan citizen”, he/she would inevitably be questioned on his/her nationality, ethnic background, faith, etc., therefore voiding the claim of being cosmopolitan citizen. The existence of community (Gemeinschaft) makes identity possible for an individual, and all individuals in turn find themselves in existing political and cultural communities.

Second, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” fails to dialectically acknowledge the mutual complementarity between individual rights and national sovereignty. In fact, human rights and national sovereignty are in a dialectic and mutually complementary relationship rather than a dualistic one, and there would be no guarantee of human rights without national sovereignty. A review of the theoretical origins of Western political philosophy shows that despite the differences in their philosophical origins, the thriving development of both notions is closely related to the theory of social contract. The purpose of reaching a social contract is to ensure effective fulfillment of individual rights, which in turn relies on the sovereign authority constituted through social contract signed by the people. The principle of people’s sovereignty reveals that sovereignty is essentially constituted by the common will of all people in a political community and has, therefore, a view to safeguard public interests that are relevant to all people. Thomas Hobbes made it clear that the purpose of sovereignty is not only procuration of the safety of the people, but also guarantee that every individual subject to the sovereign be granted “all other Contentments of life, which every man by lawfull Industry, without danger, or hurt to the Common-wealth, shall acquire to himselfe”.[17] In other words, the theoretical constitution of the social contract reminds us that national sovereignty should not be severed from human rights. Should no guarantee be needed for the fulfillment of rights, the purpose of the constitution of social contract would be somewhat suspicious: since an individual has already possessed and fulfilled his/her rights, what is meaningful about sovereignty authority? Subjecting an individual under the sovereignty through social contract itself indicates that the fulfillment of human rights require a corresponding institution that materializes and safeguards human rights.

A functionalist opinion holds it that sovereignty authority will be weakened as globalization deepens. Globalization has given rise to massive flows of commodities, services, capital and workforce, delivering a heavy impact on the established lifestyles and ideologies of various countries; meanwhile, human beings are facing mounting global challenges from tackling the climate change to anti-terrorism and addressing regional security concerns, which is beyond the means of any single country. Common interests and community of destiny are therefore constructed for all countries by such reality. According to Jürgen Habermas, “this conception encounters difficulties in a highly interdependent global society.”[18] Such a functionalist view is undoubtedly based on the reality of economic globalization yet its conclusion is open to debate. In reality, from a realistic perspective, there is no global political institution whose legitimacy is universally acknowledged that is able to practically defend all rights, and nation states remain the dominant institution to safeguard human rights. Overriding the boundaries of sovereign states would likely fail to secure human rights and even cause greater harm to the human rights of other nations. Furthermore, as the US President Donald Trump openly declared “make America great again” as the guiding program of his administration, this slogan in itself indicates bitter controversies over the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” within the Western society itself. Opposite to what liberalist philosophers advocating universalism of human rights have presumed, localizationist and nationalist narratives are still exerting their far-reaching influence on the Western society.

Lastly, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” ensconces the hypothesis that the contemporary Western political and legal systems are more effective in defending human rights, and that the institutional pattern of developed countries in the Western hemisphere is the only right option for the development model of modern countries, behind which lies, undoubtedly, the mindset of Euro-American cultural centrism, which is powerfully challenged by the rise of cultural pluralism that calls for inclusiveness and mutual respect in addressing cultural differences, and pursues diversity rather than singularity. Confronting Euro-American cultural centrism, S.N. Eisenstadt and Taylor both advocated the concept of “pluralistic modernity”, emphasizing that various modern cultural patterns exist among different countries, that the Western culture is merely one component of the world’s pluralistic cultural system and that Europe is but a “provincializing Europe”[19]. As mentioned above, the modern concept of human rights in the West is a universalist value proposition based on so-called universal human nature or humanity. Yet, Alasdair MacIntyre was precise to the point as he commented on David Hume’s moral philosophy that “the appeal to a universal verdict by mankind turns out to be the mask worn by an appeal to those who physiologically and socially share Hume’s attitudes and Weltanschauung.”[20] To say the least, the fact that universalist value appeal is a typical feature of the Western culture does not necessarily eclipse the cultures of other countries or regions which are also entitled to appeal for universalization, as universality is not exclusively reserved for the Western cultural pattern. In summary, based on the normative requirements for inclusiveness and equality, Western cultural values cannot be taken indiscriminately as the standard against which value appeals in other cultures are measured. The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” is detrimental for international cooperation on an equal footing, as the cultural centrism behind it jeopardizes, rather than facilitates, the consensus on human rights. Only through joint participation in dialogues with a non-coercive, open and inclusive attitude will a minimal consensus acceptable to all stakeholders be possible.

(Ai Silin: Professor; Dean of School of Marxism, Tsinghua University; Changjiang distinguished professor, Ministry of Education.

Qu Weijie: Associate Professor, School of Marxism, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.)

This paper was first published in Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020 in Beijing, China.

* This paper was first published in Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020 in Beijing, China.

[1] Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other, edited by Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff. The MIT Press, 1998, p. 147.

[2] Terence Ball et. al. (ed.) Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 293.

[3] Charles R. Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2009, p.59.

[4] Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58, “Introduction”, Marx & Engels Collected Works. Vol. 28, Lawrence & Wishart , 1986, p. 18.

[5] Robert Bellah, What Changes Very Fast and What Doesn’t Change: Explosive Modernity and Abiding Truth, Journal of Peking University (Philosophy and Social Sciences, 2012 Vol. 1.

[6] James Griffin, On Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.29.

[7] Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 106.

[8] Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 173.

[9] Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, University of Notre Dame, 1994, p. 10.

[10] James Griffin, On Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.138.

[11] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 81.

[12] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, Basic Books, 2006, p. 107.

[13] Lukas H. Meyer (ed.) Legitimacy, Justice and Public International Law, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 249.

[14] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 69.

[15] Jürgen Habermas, The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 41, No. 4, July 2010, p. 477.

[16] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question,1844, Marx & Engels Collected Works. Vol. 3, Lawrence & Wishart , 1975, p. 164.

[17] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 258.

[18] Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, Translated by Ciaran Cronin, Polity Press, 2008, p. 320.

[19] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke University Press, 2004. p. 196.

[20] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, p. 231.

Category : China | Democracy | Philosophy | Theory | Blog
20
Apr

Fromm was famous for this critique of consumer capitalism as well as for his penetrating studies of authoritarianism. He was a significantly influential figure on U.S. radical thought during the second half of the 20th Century.

 

By Kieran Durkin
Marxist Sociology Blog

April 15, 2020 – Erich Fromm (1900-1980), who passed forty years ago March of this year, was a leading Marxian sociologist who made considerable contributions to U.S. sociology and to U.S. Marxism. Best known for books such as Escape from Freedom, The Sane Society, and The Art of Loving, Fromm’s account of authoritarianism and critique of mid-twentieth century “consumer capitalism” influenced millions both inside and outside of academia.

Prior to arriving in the U.S. in the early 1930s, amidst the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fromm, who was raised in an orthodox Jewish family, was a central member of the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. There he worked alongside Max Horkheimer on an interdisciplinary project that sought to mix social philosophy with the empirical social sciences. Having studied sociology under Alfred Weber (Max Weber’s less famous brother) at Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg, followed by training at the famous Berlin Psychoanalytical Institute, Fromm was given central responsibility for the Frankfurt institute’s attempts at synthesizing sociology and psychoanalysis.

One of the first manifestations of this synthesis was an innovative study of manual and white-collar German workers, which was led by Fromm along with Hilde Weiss. Through use of an interpretative questionnaire, Fromm and Weiss were able to reveal that while the majority of respondents identified with the left-wing slogans of their party their radicalism was considerably reduced in more subtle and seemingly unpolitical questions – pointing to what Fromm argued was evidence of an “authoritarian” character.

Although the study itself wasn’t published until the 1980s, under the title The Working Class in Weimar Germany – this was at least partly due to the breakdown in Fromm’s relationship with Horkheimer – it is clear that it shed considerable light on what transpired in Nazi Germany, as well as telling us something about the nature of the left-wing authoritarianism.

Escape from Freedom, Fromm’s most famous work, was published in 1941, after he had left the Institute (Fromm was effectively pushed out to make way for Theodor Adorno in 1939). The central theme of Escape from Freedom was that Europe, which had hitherto been marching towards greater and greater forms of political freedom, and even towards socialism, over the course of the preceding centuries, had capitulated to fascism. Fromm wanted to try to understand this process in order to explain how and why it was that Nazism had taken hold in Germany, and why so many individuals came to support Hitler.

Like most Marxist analyses at the time, Fromm focused on the role of the lower-middle classes. He argued that the decline of their socio-economic status in the face of monopoly capitalism and hyperinflation alongside the defeat Germany suffered in the First World War and ensuing Treaty of Versailles had a deep psychological effect, removing traditional psychological supports and mechanisms of self-esteem.

In an expanded Marxian account, in which ideas and emotions played an important mediating role, Fromm identified deep feelings of anxiety and powerlessness in this class, which Hitler was able to capitalize on, with his sadomasochistic messages of love for the strong and hate for the weak (not to mention a racial program that raises “true-born” Germans to the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder), which provided the means of escape from intolerable psychological burdens experienced on a mass basis.

Fromm’s next engagement with Marxism came in the form of his The Sane Society (1955). The book is notable for its criticism of Marx, particularly of his account of revolution. Fromm argued that the famous statement that concludes The Communist Manifesto, that the workers “have nothing to lose but their chains,” contains a profound psychological error. With their chains they have also to lose all those irrational needs and satisfactions which developed because these chains were worn. Because of this, Fromm argued that we need a concept of “revolutionary humanism,” of revolution not only in terms of external barriers, but internal ones too, one that deals with the roots of sadomasochistic passions, sexism, racism, and other forms of character that aren’t necessarily going disappear immediately in a new society.

The Sane Society also contained an extended critique of mid-twentieth century U.S. capitalism, which for Fromm was an essentially bureaucratic form of mass-consumer capitalism. As part of this critique, Fromm put forward the notion of the “marketing orientation” to describe what he saw as the newly dominant form of personality that was associated with this stage of capitalism. A social psychological refraction of the Marxian notion of alienation, the marketing orientation for Fromm was one in which people experience themselves and others as commodities, literally as something to be marketed.

Fromm’s critique of contemporary capitalism continued a year later in The Art of Loving, perhaps his best-known work. Not the most obviously socialist or Marxist book (in fact, Herbert Marcuse criticized Fromm for supposedly betraying radical thought, and becoming a “sermonistic social worker”) Fromm was nevertheless adamant that “[t]he principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible,” and thus that the criticism of love (which, as he understood it, referred to the antithesis of narcissistic, racist, sexist and other forms of interpersonal relations) was also a criticism of capitalism and the ways in which it mitigated against genuine forms of love that would manifest in a more human society. Fromm believed that we must analyze the conditions for the possibility of realizing love and integrity in the present society and seek to strengthen them.

It is also during the 1950s that Fromm joins American Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation and seeks to rewrite its program. The resulting document, although rejected for this purpose, was published as Let Man Prevail (1958). It marks out Fromm’s distinctive form of Marxism, which he here calls “radical humanism” and characterizes as a democratic, humanist form of socialism. This analysis is deepened in 1960, in May Man Prevail?, an analysis of Soviet Communism that was intended to influence the move to unilateral disarmament during the Cold War.

Fromm’s most significant contribution to U.S. Marxism, however, was Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Containing the first full English translation of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, prefaced by a few short essays by Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man helped to popularize Marx in the U.S., as well as counteract some of the more common misinterpretations of Marx.

Fromm’s contribution to Marxism continued during the 1960s, with the publication of Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), in which Fromm developed his Freudo-Marxism social psychological theory of social character. Fromm was also responsible for the publication of Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (1965), an impressive global collection of humanist Marxists and socialists, largely from Eastern Europe (including many from the Yugoslav Praxis school) but also from Africa and India.

In the years that followed, Fromm was a prominent figure in the anti-War left, influencing Martin Luther King Jr. and writing The Revolution of Hope, an attempt to influence the 1968 Presidential election. Aware of criticisms of such apparent social democratic reformism, Fromm protested that “if one is not concerned with the steps between the present and the future, one does not deal with politics, radical or otherwise.” He also wrote, Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and To Have or To Be? (1976), all of which further developed his distinctive Freudo-Marxian inspired humanist sociology.

Looking back on Fromm’s legacy today, at a point where sociologists and Marxists are increasingly returning to his work, it is clear that what Fromm left us is a nuanced form of Marxian sociology that can help account for the relations between economic life, political movements, and inner emotional dynamism that underpin many of the changes that we are witness to in the current world situation. In a situation that is rapidly moving into dangerous territory, in what promises to be a recession as deep as 1929, we could do worse today than to look to Fromm for assistance.

Kieran Durkin is Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellow at University of York, and Visiting Scholar at University of California Santa Barbara, where he is conducting the first dedicated study of the Humanist Marxist tradition. He is author of The Radical Humanism of Erich Fromm, and editor with Joan Braune of Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future.

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Philosophy | Theory | Blog
6
Jan

China’s Loose Canon

 

china-old
Qing Dynasty painting depicting Confucius presenting Buddha to Laozi

By Shaun Tan

China-US Focus

Many people are familiar with the Western canon, those core works of literature, history, and philosophy that are considered essential to the study of the subject. In the West, students of literature read Shakespeare and Cervantes, students of history read Herodotus and Thucydides, and students of philosophy read Plato and Aristotle. This canon is considered an integral part of Western civilization, and has shaped thinkers, artists, and statesmen for generations.

Yet few outside China know much about the Chinese canon, a canon that is as rich and valuable as its Western counterpart, that has been revered and reviled at different points in Chinese history, and which may be the key to consolidating the Chinese Communist Party’s authority – or destroying it.

In the field of literature, it includes what’s known as “the four great books,” The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber.

The Water Margin features 108 heroes who, renouncing a corrupt and unjust Song Dynasty, form a band of outlaws and live, Robin Hood-style, in a marsh, righting wrongs and defending the weak in accordance with their own (extremely violent) code of honor. It explores the theme of a just insurgency, with the heroes choosing to serve “the will of heaven” over the Song rule of law.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a historical novel, and follows the breakup of the Han Dynasty into three warring kingdoms. It relates the battles and the intrigues as the three kingdoms vie for supremacy. Its characters show strategic brilliance, nobility, and valor, but also hubris, stupidity, and self-destructive envy, in short, the full spectrum of human nature amidst triumph and disaster.

The Journey to the West is a fantastical account of the monk Tripitaka’s journey to bring Buddhism from India to China, in the company of an anarchic fighting monkey, a lustful pig demon, and a fearsome sand demon, and the adventures they have on the way. The central theme of the comic novel is the tension between temptation and virtue, between passion and discipline, as the heroes strive (or fail) to live up to Buddhist ideals.

The greatest of the four is Dream of the Red Chamber. This novel follows the doomed romance of the protagonist Baoyu with his cousin Daiyu amidst the decline and revival of the illustrious Jia family. Its excellence lies in its execution, in its witty and spirited characters, in its colorful depiction of life inside a great house peopled by relatives and servants and the complex, shifting relations between them. It is a meditation on the meaning of life, as Baoyu is caught between his natural romanticism, the stern Confucianism of his father, and the Buddhist detachment born of suffering and enlightenment. Blurring the lines between reality and illusion, it is a bittersweet tribute to youth and youth’s end.

In the field of history, the Records of the Grand Historian are widely regarded as the greatest classical work of history. Written by Sima Qian, the Records cover over two thousand years of Chinese history. Depicting rulers with all their virtues and vices, it’s the primary means by which we know of many of them today.

The Chinese philosophical canon begins with Confucius. Far from the patron saint of Asian authoritarianism, as he is so often made out to be by opportunistic Asian dictators and clueless Western commentators, Confucius actually counseled balance, reciprocal obligations between ruler and ruled, and integrity in the face of unjust authority.

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Category : China | Intellectuals | Philosophy | Blog
27
Aug

When Cold War philosophy tied rational choice theory to scientific method, it embedded the free-market mindset in US society

By John McCumber

Aeon Magazine

McCumber is professor of Germanic Languages at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book is The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (2016).

The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was worried. It was May 1954, and UCLA had been independent of Berkeley for just two years. Now its Office of Public Information had learned that the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner was preparing one or more articles on communist infiltration at the university. The news was hardly surprising. UCLA, sometimes called the ‘little Red schoolhouse in Westwood’, was considered to be a prime example of communist infiltration of universities in the United States; an article in The Saturday Evening Post in October 1950 had identified it as providing ‘a case history of what has been done at many schools’.

The chancellor, Raymond B Allen, scheduled an interview with a ‘Mr Carrington’ – apparently Richard A Carrington, the paper’s publisher – and solicited some talking points from Andrew Hamilton of the Information Office. They included the following: ‘Through the cooperation of our police department, our faculty and our student body, we have always defeated such [subversive] attempts. We have done this quietly and without fanfare – but most effectively.’ Whether Allen actually used these words or not, his strategy worked. Scribbled on Hamilton’s talking points, in Allen’s handwriting, are the jubilant words ‘All is OK – will tell you.’

Allen’s victory ultimately did him little good. Unlike other UCLA administrators, he is nowhere commemorated on the Westwood campus, having suddenly left office in 1959, after seven years in his post, just ahead of a football scandal. The fact remains that he was UCLA’s first chancellor, the premier academic Red hunter of the Joseph McCarthy era – and one of the most important US philosophers of the mid-20th century.

This is hard to see today, when philosophy is considered one of academia’s more remote backwaters. But as the country emerged from the Second World War, things were different. John Dewey and other pragmatists were still central figures in US intellectual life, attempting to summon the better angels of American nature in the service, as one of Dewey’s most influential titles had it, of democracy and education’. In this they were continuing one of US philosophy’s oldest traditions, that of educating students and the general public to appreciate their place in a larger order of values. But they had reconceived the nature of that order: where previous generations of US philosophers had understood it as divinely ordained, the pragmatists had come to see it as a social order. This attracted suspicion from conservative religious groups, who kept sharp eyes on philosophy departments on the grounds that they were the only place in the universities where atheism might be taught (Dewey’s associate Max Otto resigned a visiting chair at UCLA after being outed as an atheist by the Examiner). As communism began its postwar spread across eastern Europe, this scrutiny intensified into a nationwide crusade against communism and, as the UCLA campus paper The Daily Bruin put it, ‘anything which might faintly resemble it’.

And that was not the only political pressure on philosophy at the time. Another, more intellectual, came from the philosophical attractiveness of Marxism, which was rapidly winning converts not only in Europe but in Africa and Asia as well. The view that class struggle in Western countries would inevitably lead, via the pseudoscientific ‘iron laws’ of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, to worldwide communist domination was foreign to Marx himself. But it provided a ‘scientific’ veneer for Soviet great-power interests, and people all over the world were accepting it as a coherent explanation for the Depression, the Second World War and ongoing poverty. As the political philosopher S M Amadae has shown in Rationalising Capitalist Democracy (2003), many Western intellectuals at the time did not think that capitalism had anything to compete with this. A new philosophy was needed, one that provided what the nuanced approaches of pragmatism could not: an uncompromising vindication of free markets and contested elections.

The McCarthyite pressure, at first, was the stronger. To fight the witch-hunters, universities needed to do exactly what Allen told the Examiner that UCLA was doing: quickly and quietly identify communists on campus and remove them from teaching positions. There was, however, a problem with this: wasn’t it censorship? And wasn’t censorship what we were supposed to be fighting against?

It was Allen himself who solved this problem when, as president of the University of Washington in 1948-49, he had to fire two communists who had done nothing wrong except join the Communist Party. Joseph Butterworth, whose field was medieval literature, was not considered particularly subversive. But Herbert Phillips was a philosophy professor. He not only taught the work of Karl Marx, but began every course by informing the students that he was a committed Marxist, and inviting them to judge his teaching in light of that fact. This meant that he could not be ‘subverting’ his students – they knew exactly what they were getting. Allen nevertheless came under heavy pressure to fire him.

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Category : Cold War | Intellectuals | Philosophy | US History | Blog
25
Oct

By Robert Ware
Philosophy Dept
University of Calgary

Posted on April 5, 2014
Socialism and Democracy Online / sdonline.org   

Few outside China would think of China as a socialist, or Marxist, society. Inside China the views vary widely, but few would say, without qualifiers, as the Constitution does, that China is socialist. No one – anywhere – now sees China as a model for socialism. Nevertheless, socialism is a strong force in China and Marxism a subject of continuing investigation. Just how significant a role socialism and Marxism play is not easily determined, but the importance of that role and some of its complexity is well worth considering.

Recently I have taught Marxism in Beijing and have had occasion to see some of the strengths and weaknesses of the theory and its application. After some remarks on my experiences there, I will discuss my observations about the nature of Marxism in China in theory and practice. Whatever one says about China’s problems and about how Marxism is discussed there, a large role for studying, developing, and applying Marxism in China remains.

I argue here that the significance of Marxism in China can be compared to that of democracy in the west, especially in North America. In both settings, the relevant practices are dysfunctional in significant ways, but both Marxism and democracy give a rationale and a tissue of support – and, consequently, a locus of struggle – for efforts to improve life for the majority. Their actual influence can be depressingly weak, but both are worthy of investigation, for political as well as intellectual reasons. I will consider some questions about the kinds of socialism and Marxism that prevail in China, but also, importantly, what topics are rejected or simply ignored.

Visits, courses, and socialists

Teaching Marxism in China is fascinating, although the same can probably be said for teaching most other subjects there, primarily because of China’s great development and energy, as well as its complexity and chaos. My observations here come largely from recent visits to China, including three weeks in the fall of 2007 (accompanied by my wife, Dr. Diana Hodson), a month at Renmin University in Beijing in July 2010, and two months at Peking University (again with my wife) in September-November 2011. I have also learned much from many helpful correspondents and subsequent contacts, both inside China and out.

In 2007, I visited five academic institutions in Beijing and Shanghai, lecturing on analytical Marxism and libertarian socialism and discussing Marxism and democratic theory, in China and abroad. (I was revisiting universities, where I had taught analytical philosophy in 1984-85 [Fudan University in Shanghai] and 1986-87 [Peking University and the Institute of Philosophy in Beijing]. In the 1980s, I also lectured on analytical Marxism at a variety of universities and institutes throughout the country.) I also participated in a conference in 2007, at a Communist Party university in Shanghai, celebrating the 140th anniversary of Marx’s Capital with over a hundred economists, mostly Chinese, and a few theorists from other disciplines. In 2010, I taught a summer course at Renmin University of China (RUC) in Beijing and served as a commentator at a conference at the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (CCTB) celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Grundrisse.1

At Peking University in the fall of 2011, I taught a small undergraduate philosophy course on analytical Marxism and a graduate philosophy seminar on Marxism and radical politics. G.A. Cohen’s philosophically acute and influential studies were the central texts for the seminar. We looked at new approaches to historical materialism, the core of Marxist studies in China, and at equality and freedom, which are generally not discussed as Marxist topics.

The first reading assignment I gave for my summer course in 2010 on analytical Marxism at RUC2 was Albert Einstein’s “Why I am a Socialist” and two introductions to analytical Marxism. The first short writing assignment was to answer the question “Why I am a socialist,” or alternatively “Why I am not a socialist.”3 From the start, I had a good opportunity to learn about young people’s views in contemporary China through this small group of university students in Beijing. Of the thirty students, twenty gave reasons for why they were socialists and ten gave reasons for why they were not. In the twenty, I include one who became socialist later, after reading the Communist Manifesto (I assume again) in English. I also include two who said they were not socialists because they were communists.

Given what I had heard previously in China, I was surprised that two-thirds of my students were socialist, but of course I could not conclude anything in general about young people from that exercise. Certainly, that the course was on Marxism would be a factor, although there were students in the course who were there for the credits, out of curiosity, and for the opportunity to develop their English. After the assignment was handed in, we talked about what young people in universities and in the country generally think about socialism. Before telling them the results, I asked them to guess the division of the class in the exercise. There was a fair amount of variation about the class and greater variation for figures about the views of other groups. Afterwards, I learned, through quizzing many friends and contacts, that there is little idea of how many people, young or old, are socialists.

I know of no good studies of the number of Chinese who are socialists, but it is also difficult to know what a good study would be. Much depends on how the question is asked and what the meaning of socialism is in the relevant context. The same is true for understanding what significance to give to the 2009 Rasmussen poll that ‘found’ that one third of US young people under 30 believe that socialism is superior to capitalism. What do the people polled think socialism is? In the case of the Chinese, young people would naturally think of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought or socialism with Chinese characteristics.

The reasons that people give, however, tell something about what they mean when they think of socialism. Quite a few of my students explained their allegiance in terms of their beliefs about human nature. Several said that they were socialists because it is human nature to be altruistic or collectivist, and a similar number were not socialists because, they said, people are self-interested by nature. Of course, this was a good topic for discussion in the class on a topic that is usually given short shrift in Chinese Marxist studies.

Many students were socialists because of parents or grandparents who were members of the Communist Party or had fought in Korea or the War of Liberation. And there were a variety of personal reasons, including moral reasons. An interesting rhetorical question was: if not a socialist, what would you be? The suggestion was that capitalism is not a viable alternative. The dominant question is what kind of socialism should there be.

With even cursory contact, it is obvious that there are millions of socialists in China. There were twenty in my class, and if two thirds of the adult population were socialists, China would have about 500 million socialists. That surely wildly overestimates the numbers, even for a country with a constitution that proclaims its socialism. For a more plausible estimate, consider first that the Communist Party of China has about 80 million members. There is certainly a lot of opportunism and cynicism amongst them, but on the basis of my private queries of many members, I cannot imagine that more than a quarter of them would actually reject socialism, even in their hearts.4 That leaves at least 60 million socialists in the Party.

Then there are surely several million socialists outside the Party. Many people are principled Maoists – some who see positive aspects of the Cultural Revolution – for example those involved with the Utopian Bookstore in Beijing, which has a wide variety of socialist and anarchist books in translation, where lectures are given, and with a widely followed Chinese website – until early 2012 when it was closed down after the detention of Bo Xilai. Bo, the former mayor of the megacity, Chongqing, is thought to have had millions of socialist followers because of popular social policies with Maoist trappings. These days there are also many “Marxologists” and other socialist theorists who do not want to be Party members. Some committed Marxists reject membership for principled reasons. Some socialists prefer not to undergo the strictures and discipline of the Party. Many lack the enthusiasm and happily go on with their own private lives. I would add another 10 million socialists outside the Party.

Thus, my very rough guess is that there are at least 70 million socialists in China. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who observes the intellectual scene in universities, institutes, and the media. Socialism is a known ideology that many take seriously and many more are curious about. (I also heard of many who scoffed at fellow students studying Marxism and socialism.5 There is a lively diversity of opinion.)

This is not to deny that there is also strong interest in capitalism and ideas of neoliberalism in some circles, although there are ways in which such interests are against the grain, historically and politically. Economic decisions might favor private ownership and individual entrepreneurs, but rarely would they be justified on the basis of capitalist ideology or neoliberal theory. Occasionally, ideas are drawn from western “capitalist” thinkers, but almost always in support of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

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Category : China | Marxism | Philosophy | Blog
8
Apr

Youth rebellion in the ‘banlieues’ of Paris

Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative

Interview by Filippo Del Lucchese and Jason Smith

FILIPPO DEL LUCCHESE and JASON SMITH: We would like to begin by asking you to clarify the relation between philosophy and politics. What do you mean when you speak, for example, of a militant philosophy?

ALAIN BADIOU: Since its beginnings, philosophy’s relationship to the political has been fundamental. It’s not something invented by modernity. Plato’s central work is called The Republic, and it is entirely devoted to questions of the city or polis. This link has remained fundamental throughout the history of philosophy. But I think there are two basic ways of structuring this relationship.

The first way assigns philosophy the responsibility for finding a foundation for the political. Philosophy is called upon to reconstruct the political on the basis of this foundation. This current argues that it is possible to locate, for every politics, an ethical norm and that philosophy should first have the task of reconstructing or naming this norm and then of judging the relation between this norm and the multiplicity of political practices. In this sense, then, what opens the relation between philosophy and politics is the idea of a foundation as well as an ethical conception of the political. But there is a second orientation that is completely different. This current maintains that in a certain sense politics is primary and that the political exists without, before, and differently from philosophy. The political would be what I call a condition of philosophy. In this case, the relation between philosophy and politics would be, in a certain sense, retroactive. That is, it would be a relation in which philosophy would situate itself within political conflicts in order to clarify them. Today, in the extremely obscure situation that is the general system of contemporary politics, philosophy can attempt to clarify the situation without having any pretense to creating it. Philosophy has as its condition and horizon the concrete situation of different political practices, and it will try, within these conditions, to find instruments of clarification, legitimation, and so on. This current takes seriously the idea that politics is itself an autonomy of thought, that it is a collective practice with an intelligence all its own.

It is quite clear that today the question is particularly difficult because we are no longer in a situation in which there is a clear distinction between two opposed political orientations—as was the case in the twentieth century. Not everyone agreed on what the exact nature of these opposed politics was, but everyone agreed there was an opposition between a classical democratic bourgeois politics and another, revolutionary, option. Among the revolutionaries, we debated spiritedly and even violently what, exactly, the true way was but not the existence itself of this global opposition. Today there is no agreement concerning the existence of a fundamental opposition of this sort, and as a result the link between philosophy and politics has become more complex and more obscure. But, fundamentally, it’s the same task. Philosophy tries to clarify what I call the multiple situation of concrete politics and to legitimate the choices made in this space.

DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: So you see your own philosophical interventions as taking place within this new situation that you describe as “more complex and more obscure” than the classical confrontation between two opposed political orientations?

BADIOU: Definitely. As a result, I see my philosophy as an inheritor of the great contestatory movements of the sixties. In fact, my philosophy emerged out of these movements. It is a philosophy of commitment, of engagement, with a certain fidelity to Sartre, if you like, or to Marxism.

What counts is that the intellectual is engaged in politics and commits to or takes the side of the people and the workers. I move in that tradition. My philosophy tries to keep alive, as best it can (it is not always easy), the idea that there is a real alternative to the dominant politics and that we are not obliged to rally around the consensus that ultimately consists in the unity of global capitalism and the representative, democratic state. I would say, then, that I work under the condition of the situation of political actuality, with the goal of keeping alive, philosophically, the idea of the possibility or opening of a politics I would call a politics of emancipation—but that could also be called a radical or revolutionary politics, terms that today are debatable but that represent all the same a possibility other than the dominant one.

DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: You mention Sartre in this context where the name Althusser might have been expected. What is your relation to the Althusserian tradition?

BADIOU: The Althusserian tradition is extremely important, and I’ve devoted several texts to Althusser. If I mention Sartre it is simply because my philosophical youth was Sartrean before my encounter with Althusser. I think the Althusserian current was a particularly important one because it gave a new life and force to the link between philosophy and politics and in a less idealist mode—that is, a relation that no longer passed through the form of consciousness. In Sartre, of course, we still find the classical model of the intellectual understood primarily in terms of consciousness—an intellectual must make contact with the struggle and the workers’ organizations, be they the unions or the communist parties. Althusser’s greatness is found in the fact that he proposed a new schema in which the relation between philosophy and politics no longer passed through the psychology of the form of consciousness as it still did with Sartre. Althusser begins with the conviction that philosophy intervenes in the intellectual space of politics. When he proposes the formula “philosophy is the organization of class struggle in theory,” what does he mean? That class struggle exists and that philosophy certainly didn’t invent it. It exists and cuts across intellectual choices. Within the struggle between these choices, philosophy has a special role. It is to intervene and therefore to name, norm, classify, and finally choose in the field of intellectual or theoretical class struggle. Sartre and Althusser are very different, even opposed. But you can reconcile them on one point, namely, that philosophy is nothing if it is not linked to political commitment.

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Category : Intellectuals | Marxism | Organizing | Philosophy | Blog
3
Oct

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the famed novelist, our reporter searches the north African nation for signs of his legacy

  • By Joshua Hammer
  • Smithsonian magazine, October 2013,

The Hotel El-Djazair, formerly known as the Hotel Saint-George, is an oasis of calm in the tense city of Algiers. A labyrinth of paved pathways winds through beds of hibiscus, cactuses and roses, shaded by palm and banana trees. In the lobby, bellhops in white tunics and red fezzes escort guests past Persian carpets and walls inlaid with mosaics. Beneath the opulence, violence lurks. During the week I was there, diplomats descended on the El-Djazair to repatriate the bodies of dozens of hostages killed in a shootout at a Sahara natural-gas plant between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Algerian Army.

Violence was in the air as well in January 1956, when the celebrated writer Albert Camus checked into the Hotel Saint-George. The struggle against French colonialism was escalating, with civilians becoming the primary victims. Camus was a pied-noir—a term meaning “black foot,” perhaps derived from the coal-stained feet of Mediterranean sailors, or the black boots of French soldiers, and used to refer to the one million colonists of European origin living in Algeria during French rule. He had returned after 14 years in France to try to stop his homeland from sliding deeper into war. It was a perilous mission. Right-wing French settlers plotted to assassinate him. Algerian revolutionaries watched over him without his knowledge.

The Casablanca-style intrigue—freedom fighters, spies and an exotic North African setting—seemed appropriate. Camus, after all, was often thought of as a literary Humphrey Bogart—dashing, irresistible to women, a coolly heroic figure in a dangerous world.

Camus is regarded as a giant of French literature, but it was his North African birthplace that most shaped his life and his art. In a 1936 essay, composed during a bout of homesickness in Prague, he wrote of pining for “my own town on the shores of the Mediterranean…the summer evenings that I love so much, so gentle in the green light and full of young and beautiful women.” Camus set his two most famous works, the novels The Stranger and The Plague, in Algeria, and his perception of existence, a joyful sensuality combined with a recognition of man’s loneliness in an indifferent universe, was formed here.

In 1957, Anders Österling, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, acknowledged the importance of Camus’ Algerian upbringing when he presented him with the Nobel Prize in Literature, a towering achievement, won when he was only 43. Österling attributed Camus’ view of the world in part to a “Mediterranean fatalism whose origin is the certainty that the sunny splendor of the world is only a fugitive moment bound to be blotted out by the shades.”

Camus is “the single reason people outside Algeria know about this country,” says Yazid Ait Mahieddine, a documentary filmmaker and Camus expert in Algiers, as we sit beneath a photograph of the writer in the El- Djazair bar, alongside images of other celebrities who have passed through here, from Dwight Eisenhower to Simone de Beauvoir. “He is our only ambassador.”

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Category : Culture | Intellectuals | Middle East | Philosophy | Terror and Violence | Blog
27
Sep

 

Legal Orientalism: China, the US and Modern Law

By Teemu Ruskola

Reviewed By Dinesh Sharma
Asia Times

Sept 27, 2013 – What is international law and who owns it? Why has China become the symbol of a lawless nation after the Cold War? Why is the US seen as the law-enforcer-in-chief while China as the law-breaker? Historically, how is it that the US is invariably seen as the chief exporter of law to the emerging BRICS economies by the international business and legal community?

In an era of globalization, we are all asking these questions. Teemu Ruskola, Professor of Law at Emory University, reveals in Legal Orientalism: China, the United States, and Modern Law that this association of China with lawlessness has a long historical trail. He defines "Legal Orientalism" as consisting of political and cultural narratives about the law, which invariably associate the law with Western institutions (the European Union, the United States) and lawlessness with the non-Western societies (Asia, Africa and the rest). Analyzing the history and global impact of these cultural narratives, Ruskola demonstrates how legal Orientalism continues to shape the law and politics in remarkable ways – in China, in the US, and globally.

Ruskola claims that China has a history of corporation law by reinterpreting Confucian family law as a kind of corporate law. He asserts that the rise of extraterritorial jurisdiction in the nineteenth-century by the US into Asia-Pacific region was a form of legal imperialism. He traces its culmination in the establishment of a "US Court for China," an all-but-lawless tribunal where the constitution held no sway. The present-day reforms of Chinese law, Ruskola claims, are a kind of self-Orientalism. These and other fascinating exegeses help the reader understand the history and consequences of legal Orientalism, and to envision a new conception of global justice.

When I asked Ruskola why he relied on Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism to interpret international law, he said, "The literary scholar Edward Said used the term ‘Orientalism’ to describe the way in which Europe has historically defined itself against Oriental ‘Others’ – so while Europeans are free individuals, Orientals are enslaved masses; the West is dynamic, the East stagnant; etc. I use the term ‘legal Orientalism’ to refer to the narratives we tell about what is and isn’t law, and who has it and who doesn’t."

China, he argued, historically has been seen as the home of Oriental despotism and, thus recently, it has been seen as the chief human-rights violator.

 

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Category : China | Hegemony | Philosophy | Blog
20
Sep

Peter Sloterdijk, photo credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Adam Kirsch

The New Republic | July 19. 2013

Peter Sloterdijk has been one of Germany’s best-known philosophers for 30 years, ever since the publication of his Critique of Cynical Reason in 1983—a thousand-page treatise that became a best-seller. Since then Sloterdijk has been at the forefront of European intellectual life, contributing to public debates over genetic engineering and economics and hosting a long-running discussion program on television, all while publishing a steady stream of ambitious philosophical works.

The Critique of Cynical Reason appeared in English many years ago, but it is only recently that Sloterdijk has begun to emerge on the American horizon. Bubbles, the first volume in a trilogy called Spheres, his magnum opus, appeared here in 2011. Now it is followed by You Must Change Your Life, another wide-ranging and challenging book. Along with Rage and Time, which appeared in English in 2010, these volumes make it possible to begin to come to grips with Sloterdijk as a stirring and eclectic thinker, who addresses himself boldly to the most important problems of our age. Above all, he is concerned with metaphysics—or, rather, with what to do with the empty space that is left over when metaphysics disappears—along with religion, faith in revolution, and the other grand sources of meaning that long gave shape and direction to human lives.

Sloterdijk was born in 1947, making him just the right age to participate in the student movement of the 1960s. By the early 1980s, when he wrote Critique of Cynical Reason, the idealism and the world-changing energy of that movement had long since dwindled into splinter-group violence, on the one hand, and accommodation to the realities of capitalism and the Cold War, on the other. In that cultural moment, Sloterdijk’s diagnosis of “cynicism” was very timely. “The dissolution of the student movement,” he wrote, “must interest us because it represents a complex metamorphosis of hope into realism, of revolt into a clever melancholy.”

Despite its parodic Kantian title, Sloterdijk’s Critique is not a work of theoretical abstraction; it is a highly personal confession of this generational world-weariness. As a philosopher, Sloterdijk is especially struck by the way he and his peers were able to master the most emancipatory and radical philosophical language, but utterly unable to apply its insights to their own lives and their own political situations. Coming after Critical Theory, whose post-Marxist diagnoses of social ills are a key reference point and antagonist for Sloterdijk, younger thinkers have found themselves brilliant at diagnosis and helpless at cure. “Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference,” Sloterdijk observes. The result is cynicism, which he defines in a splendid paradox as “enlightened false consciousness”: “It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice.”

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Category : Hegemony | Philosophy | Blog
17
Aug

Gigi Roggero: The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America

Translated by Enda Brophy,
Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2011.
194pp., $69.50 HB.
ISBN 9781439905739

Reviewed by Dave Mesing
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books

July 26, 2013 – After the death of neoliberal politics, Gigi Roggero argues, contemporary capitalism finds itself in a state of crisis in which the possibility exists for an autonomous organization of labor against capitalist command. When put this way, Roggero’s argument sounds too utopian for a context in which academic laborers face increasing precariousness, anxiety and pressure, at the same time as a decrease in compensation, influence and control. However, Roggero’s opening salvo that neoliberalism is finished is not a naïve profession of faith in the prospects for the struggle against capital; he is critically attuned to the possibilities and limits of the contemporary conjuncture. In positing the death of neoliberalism at the outset of his study, Roggero does not mean that specific instances of neoliberal politics or its effects no longer exist. Instead, he argues that a fundamental point of analysis necessary for an accurate understanding of the current political situation in both Europe and North America is that neoliberalism is no longer able to constitute itself as a coherent system.

Roggero refers to this situation as a double crisis: both the global economy and the western university are in trouble. For Roggero, crisis is no longer a stage in an economic cycle, but rather the contemporary form of capitalist accumulation, and the university is undergoing a similar crisis which he claims is intimately connected to the economic crisis. This is because Roggero takes his point of departure from the fact that ‘it is impossible to understand the transformations of the university if they are not connected to the transformations of labor and production.’ (3) In order to explore the commonalities between the crisis in capitalism and the crisis in the university, Roggero reads the conflicts within the university in terms of class struggle, power relations and production. He argues that the production and management of knowledge is central to contemporary relations of production, but notes that this thesis does not mean that there is an alternative between intellectual and manual labor, or that manual labor is disappearing.

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Category : Marxism | Philosophy | Technology | Blog