Friday, September 9, 2016

Stuart Jeffries - Why a forgotten 1930s critique of capitalism is back in fashion

In our age, to be sure, anyone reviving critical theory needs a sense of irony. Among capitalism’s losers are overworked, underpaid staff in China, ostensibly liberated by the largest socialist revolution in history, but driven to the brink of suicide to keep those in the west playing with their iPads. The proletariat, far from burying capitalism as Marx predicted, are keeping it on life support. 

“The domination of capitalism globally depends today on the existence of a Chinese Communist party that gives delocalised capitalist enterprises cheap labour to lower prices and deprive workers of the rights of self-organisation,” Jacques Rancière, the French Marxist and professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII, told me. “Happily, it is possible to hope for a world less absurd and more just than today’s.”

…This is the 1990s, a time, Franzen seemed to suggest, of a consumerism so brazen that it was advantageous, brand-wise, for high-end grocers to appropriate ironically the rhetoric of capitalist critique for their stores’ names. It was also a decade in which the nightmare of the Frankfurt School came true. There was, as Margaret Thatcher put it, no alternative. No alternative to capitalism, to what Marcuse called one-dimensional society, to liberal democracy.

As if to clinch that point, in the 1990s the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama decided to erase a question mark. In 1989, he had written a paper called “The End of History?”, arguing that there can be no new stage beyond liberal democracy because it is that system which guarantees the greatest possible level of recognition of the individual. Three years later, when Fukuyama published his book The End of History and the Last Man, the question mark had gone. He may have smuggled a neoconservative agenda into his post-ideological thesis, but Fukuyama’s suggestion that the great ideological battles between east and west were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed, seemed incontestable….

But the times that Fukuyama supposed were eternal came to an end, thanks not to revulsion at the prospect of an eternity of boredom, nor in disgust at a dignity so degraded it could only be expressed by one’s shopping choices, but due to an old-school capitalist crisis.

“What is going on?” asked the Maoist French philosopher Alain Badiou in The Rebirth of History in 2012. “The continuation, at all costs, of a weary world? A salutary crisis of that world, racked by its victorious expansion? The end of that world? The advent of a different world?” Badiou was writing about the unexpected consequences of the global financial crisis since 2008, in particular movements such as Occupy and Syriza. He might have added the failure of the US to “democratise” Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bolivarian socialist renaissance in Latin America. Through such movements people demanded what they had been denied under neoliberal capitalism – recognition, or what Lambert called dignity….

In his 2009 book Valences of the Dialectic, the American Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson argued that when the fitful apprehension of history does enter people’s lives it is often through the feeling of belonging to a particular generation: “The experience of generationality is … a specific collective experience of the present: it marks the enlargement of my existential present into a collective and historical one.” In this, Jameson was disinterring one of the Frankfurt School’s most fruitful thoughts. 

Walter Benjamin dreamed of exploding the continuum of history; the experiences Jameson described involve that dream’s realisation. The homogeneous, empty time Benjamin associated with the onward march of capitalism and positivism is halted, albeit briefly, and replaced by a more experientially rich and redemptive notion of non-linear time. That, at least, is what Jameson took from Zuccotti Park.

In that rebirth of history about which Badiou wrote, Marxism made a comeback. As did Frankfurt School-style critical theory. Perhaps if Lambert had held on to his library until, say, 2010, he might have got two salmon for it. But the hunger for books providing a critique of capitalism continues….
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see also
"Those who are obsessed by language finally come to the conviction that there is nothing but interpretation" Stanley Rosen in Hermeneutics as Politics (1987)