Epigenetics Prehistory: An Historical Science

“At the International Congress on the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931, they were galvanised by the dramatic intervention of a delegation from the Soviet Union led by Nikolai Bukharin…The Soviets rejected the Whiggish view of the history of science as a progressive, disinterested search for truth, insisting instead that science – even its greatest and most theoretical achievements – was driven by the political economy of the time…When, a few years later, an English translation of Engels’s Dialectics of Nature appeared with an introduction by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, a close associate at Cambridge, the group felt that at last they had the theoretical tools they needed.

Life could not be reduced to mere molecules, they argued, but neither was some non-materialist vital principle required to explain it. The material world consists in a multitude of entities and processes of various levels of complexity. Each level is governed by a set of organising principles dependent on, but irreducible to, those that govern lower levels. The properties of water cannot be deduced from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. At each level of complexity, from molecule to cell to organism to ecosystem and society, new properties and organising relationships emerge, and to each belongs its proper science. Above all, the TBC insisted, the living world is self-organising and dynamic: it should be understood not so much as an assemblage of things but of dialectically interacting processes. Biology, unlike physics, is a historical science.”

Rose, Stephen. 2016. “How to get another thorax.” London Review of Books 38(17): 15-17.

Sociology, like biology and unlike philosophy, is an historical-comparative science, a product of the Enlightenment and the issuing, fraught, capitalist semi-tendency to attach some contested value to work, rather than simple, pure, brute warlord power over territory, assets, and life. As  historical-comparative sciences, biology and sociology are knowledges built upon and adjusting for both human capacities–including capacity for development, senses and dexterities, capacities of communication and organization, logic and rhetoric– and human limitations –non-omniscience, domineering organization and underdevelopment, environmental and social disorganization, resilience and adaptability through suffering and stunting, misdirecting rhetoric and marketing, and large-scale, pervasive violence capacity.

Science contrasts to philosophical knowledge, historically built upon and adjusting for the mere interests and autocratic perspective and experience of a hierarchy apex, asserting impossible, superhuman omniscience and refusing to recognize collective contribution–refusing humanity.

But just as capitalism easily drifts into brute power, sociology wrestles with both the diminishment of science to the commercial laboratory, and how to incorporate masterful philosophical arguments and styles derived to discredit and supplant democratic knowledge and to support imperial warlord power. In either case, the integrity of the difference is threatened with collapse.

When science is diminished to the commercial laboratory, in inegalitarian societies, it is funded and feted as a privileged site of highly-specified, secured-conditions knowledge. For example, a lab identifies as unreliable a technique for isolating and identifying epigenetic modification. That that technique is faulty is actually an inference from the observation that the epigenetic modification seems too prevalent. But what is the norm? This feeling and the inference are not pure logic, as it is presented in marketing. Rather they constitute an hypothesis, an expectation given by a specific theory. Nonetheless, when the argument is presented and marketed, it is quickly sold as an example of the superiority of efficient laboratory experiment, implicitly in contrast to the full range of scientific methodologies.

Yet science is not simply efficient knowledge. Philosophical knowledge and the knowledge of warlords–these are efficient knowledge. The laboratory scientists are producing one study; even published, it’s not yet definitive, it’s not scientific knowledge. It is a contribution. It is not science, which is definitively collective and aggregate. Science incorporates a range of craft contributions to knowledge over time and across physical and social space. Science has not yet established to what extent that lab’s theoretical interpretation of the finding–The epigenome should not, per theory, be so widespread; therefore the technique that finds it so must be unreliable.–corresponds to reality. We need more contributions to adjudicate the validity of the contribution. Hold yer horses, marketeers. Make way for science.

Superhuman agents in particular have the capacity to use this kind of knowledge, commercial lab knowledge, to intervene in the world, conforming it to a design that locks in incentives, ideas and feelings, and that directs a flow of power. Yet the reduction of science in theory and method to the commercial laboratory threatens the scientific difference with collapse, as Canguilhem’s successors through to Latour’s philosophical knowledge machine have demonstrated. The commercial laboratory dispenses with key components of science as an Enlightenment craft knowledge.

By scientific craft, we mean the methodical interpolation of theory–with its resistance supplied by logic and craft precedence–and thoughtful, rigorous, collective empirical exploration and verification–with its resistance supplied by the socio-physical world beyond the mind community. Without privileging and using these scientific kinds of resistances as knowledge resources, we do not dispense with resistance’s role in directing and shaping knowledge. We only revert to social power as the resistance directing and shaping our knowledge–as is done in religious knowledge and marketing. The specification of metaphysics is crucial to distinguishing the resistance our knowledge is based on.

Epigenetics is a case in point that scientific knowledge has the capacity to transcend  social power, including as it works through the efficiency bluster of commercial lab marketing. But at least under inegalitarian social conditions, science is still efficient in the sense that it takes only a century of biological science and science reduced to the commerical lab, contributors to science at marketing and funding odds, to tentatively merge, inform, and emerge in fuller scientific knowledge.

“In the nineteen-forties, Conrad Waddington, an English embryologist, had proposed an ingenious answer: cells acquired their identities just as humans do—by letting nurture (environmental signals) modify nature (genes). For that to happen, Waddington concluded, an additional layer of information must exist within a cell—a layer that hovered, ghostlike, above the genome. This layer would carry the “memory” of the cell, recording its past and establishing its future, marking its identity and its destiny but permitting that identity to be changed, if needed. He termed the phenomenon “_epi_genetics”—“above genetics.” Waddington, ardently anti-Nazi and fervently Marxist, may have had more than a biological stake in this theory.”–Mukherjee, S. 2016. “Same but different.” New Yorker, May 2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/breakthroughs-in-epigenetics.

Epigenetics emerged out of a scientific approach at explicit odds with capitalist social power’s knowledge, and while it could not dominate the scientific research agenda in such a socially-marginal position, it incubated through the scientific community’s collective, multi-method efforts to build knowledge, finally collectively identifying the limitations of genetic determinism with the Human Genome project. The Human Genome Project played an important turn-of-the-21st century role in confirming the limitations of genes, and thereby moving and expanding biological craft knowledge, thus the biological theory of genetic-environmental interpolation, into a broader research agenda-governing knowledge.

To advance scientific knowledge, commercial lab knowledge had to both contribute to the constraints of capitalist-directed socio-environmental design, and at its limit, eventually submit a bit to biological knowledge that could not fit an inegalitarian agenda systematically discounting universal life development and interaction. The commercial lab scientific reduction will try to incorporate and redirect anticapitalist scientific knowledge, as where a psychology lab was given huge grants in the early aughts to  use the lab to reduce epigenetic knowledge into a Mother-blame knowledge, where mothers are conceptualized, per psychological theory, as a sovereign, discreet, autonomous environment of preferences and individual choice. The marks of capital upon science that emerge in the commercial lab science reduction, that distort even trained scientists’ understanding of the scientific difference, continue to be branded by unchanged socio-environmental requirements to marketing in a capitalist social world of manufactured scarcity. But even diminished and partially-exiled, scientific knowledge advances beyond domineering interest, if perhaps in doing so, it functions less efficiently than philosophical decisionism or marketing.

An excellent example of fuller scientific knowledge is given in the revealing contrast between commercial laboratory’s confinement to medical knowledge versus biological knowledge. Biological knowledge–across basic animal and plant breeding, through entomology, and most strongly in the Marxist-fueled developmental biology knowledge forwarded by the research of Lewontin, Levin and Gould–has long scientifically established that organisms’ development is conditioned by the environment, including but not reducible to progenitors’ living conditions. By contrast, medical epigenetic knowledge is in its infancy and its findings are still highly contested. Commercial labs are only starting to work out experimentation with the environment-driven epigenetic intermediaries, histones, methylations, and RNA interactions modifying gene expression–for the purposes of producing profitable (if state-subsidized) interventions for the medical market, particularly cancer drugs.

What has been accomplished over the last century is that biological craft knowledge has been reunited with narrower commercial-lab medical knowledge. That is a mighty shift, not to be dismissed. This biological restoration produces anxiety, but some confidence that with privileged funding and the universalization of marketing, commerical-lab knowledge can control and contain fully-scientific biological knowledge. The latent threat to the power order is that, emerging from the same Enlightenment, sociological knowledge has, like biology, a comparative historical-materialist scientific core. Within the social sciences, great idealist capacity, enhanced by the capacity to work with positivism to bury metaphysics out of sight, has been built up over the neoliberal period. As per its method, “expert” cherry-picking and fetishizing historical cases of cartesian-boundary flaunting injustice–particularly focusing on Gilded-Age eugenics, this philosophical tradition will police the boundary between epigenetic findings and sociological knowledge of social construction. It will attempt to forbid, by its justice-of-the-exception argument, the organization of egalitarian collective agency to reduce crippling violations of shared humanity.




Sociology of science

To understand and evaluate scientific knowledge, my aim is threefold. One, I wish to clarify the unique advantages of democratic Enlightenment scientific method, including its methodological collectivism, in producing knowledge permitting efficient democratic interventions, where inefficiency is a common critique of democracy. TBC.


My analysis will also clarify the limitations or alternative products of often-truncated scientific method and scientism in normal, non-democratic contexts, such as state-husbanded capitalist expansion and intensification. I will argue that our grasp of science should not be reduced to commercial science, as is common in social philosophy girded by interactionist studies of the laboratory. I will argue, rather, for the ongoing importance and universal benefits of a free global scientific community; and I will suggest how we should understand normal, non-sovereign science and scientific knowledge, given that the liberty of science can only be a utopia to strive for. Here I will make the distinction between agency and sovereign agency. TBC.

As a model for understanding how science works and doesn’t work, I recommend the comparative historical approach to science studies that Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield advanced in The Architecture of Matter (1962) and The Discovery of Time (1965). In addition, I recommend the social scientific approach carefully demonstrated in Pierre Bourdieu’s lectures upon symbolic revolution, Manet (2017).


I will show the importance of context–social, economic, and political–on scientific development.

The example I pursue below is the case of Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko, his state science, and the collaborative denunciation of his work by his abused scientific rivals, by populations disrupted, sometimes fatally, by his modernization management, and by communism’s capitalist rivals. Because Lysenko was so intimately associated with the Stalinist modernization, I would like to introduce some more measured reflections on Lysenko as a scientist and particularly on his scientific theories. Just as we blithely accept that the psychology profession cannot be reduced to its founding scientistic moment, in which invalid methods were deployed to justify for the funder, the US Army, the institution of inegalitarian, militarized social policy that has certainly resulted in millions and millions of excess and premature deaths in the US and abroad over the past century, so it is invalid to claim that scientific theories and experimental methods associated with “Lysenkoism” are either not scientific theories or operate uniformly across social contexts.

As a chief agronomist, Lysenko is recognized for contributing to the 20th century Stalinist modernization of Eurasia, and the very well-documented social, human, and environmental disruption and casualty that abrupt reorganization entailed. For the most part, Lysenko was no hero; he stands amongst the men and women who have chosen and will choose to ride power over democratic Enlightenment–in his case, not just the agrarian populations upended by agricultural modernization, but also the genetic science community in the USSR.

Yet it is also important to recognize that Lysenko’s betrayal of his colleagues did not result in his lionization within the communist context, but rather his excessive power was dismantled within his career, a significant difference from the capitalist context where betrayal of colleagues and the demos is rewarded with heritable wealth and permanently canonized as a universal virtue. This is to observe that where Stalinist modernization was as inhumane as, if much briefer than, the Late Victorian Holocausts engineered for imperial Anglo economic expansion, the self-critical and self-correcting capacity of communism is not structurally broken as it is in the exclusive power accumulation political economies.

We will remember that histories of science are formulated within larger social projects. The repetition and sacralization of the narrative of communist failure and violence is particularly important in the toolchest of the rival Anglo-American Atlantic empire, where fled many migrants upended by that modernization.

Lysenko was not as wrong or unscientific as his restored rivals or the capitalist Cold War community have preferred to simply depict him. His disinterest in the 1950s British geneticists’ Central Dogma of Molecular Biology was reasonable, given the modernization agenda he helped manage. Because it was a theory that was also fitted to a larger social project–the legitimation of Atlantic ruling class global power, the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology was marketed and adopted throughout the West, by commercial organizations, media, and scientists, in the highly idealistic way Lysenko identified, without consideration for its finer qualifications and limitations.

The Dogma tended to authorize social theories, scientific research programs, commercial science, and policies essentializing and reinforcing capitalist inequality, often at terrible costs to animal lives, the sustainability of smallholding farming communities, nutrition, soil health, water quality, race relations and institutionalized policies, underdeveloped countries’ economies, and so on. For example, a weakness of genetic determinism that has certainly perpetuated racialization is genetic determinism’s overextension of a species imaginary, assuming radical ontological difference and marginalizing environmental conditioning as a causal life development factor. Thus a cost which would have endeared it to authority in capitalist economies was genetic science’s contribution to the persistent crowding out (ghettoization) of democratic research investigating mutable socio-natural environmental causes of human suffering and stunting, such as war, pollution, or maldistributions of resources, credit, and cooperation.

Research examples of environmental exposures causing transgenerational epigenetic dysfunction inheritance:

Overkalix study (Bygren et al 2014): Dutch famine cardiovascular mortality;

Wolstenholme et al (2012): Bisphenol A->neural genesàsocial behaviour;

Skinner lab (Washington State University) 2005-2013 studies): DDT, Vinclozolin, Methoxychlor, Plastics, Hydrocarbons (jet fuel). See work published by EE Nilsson (2018).

Both males and female parents’ diets can change inherited gene expression across generations: f: increase body size, reduce insulin sensitivity (Dunn & Bale 2011);  impaired glucose intolerance and decreased insulin insensitivity (Wei et al 2014).

Source: Sadler-Riggleman, I. & M.K. Skinner. “Environment and the Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Disease.” Chapter 15 in Epigenetics, Current Research & Emerging Trends (2015), edited by Brian P. Chadwick.

Lysenko was a scientist licensed to address an historical, prioritized state-society requirement: reorganizing the production of food and other essential biological inputs to the massive Eurasian workforce and economic modernization agenda. As such, the scientist Lysenko was a theorist of the conditions of biological systems’ success and improvements; but he was also experimenting.

The scientifically-literate will also recognize that it is typically the case that mechanisms are discovered through the contributions of the community of scientists over time. After many decades of trying, usually in vain, to follow the Central Dogma and conceptualize genes as if they were computer code, for example, the limitations of that theory became increasingly difficult for the biological sciences community to overlook, and epigenetics researchers have recently begun to demonstrate some of the many crucial cellular mechanisms by which the organism’s experiences within and relations with her greatly human-organized context (environment) activate or suppress genetic information to produce specific organism functioning, phenotype, and phylogeny.

After capitalist states spent billions on the holy grail hunt for absolute genetic causation, biological scientists now recognize that within cells, complex biological intermediation crucially links genetic possibility and environmental conditioning. Some of that epigenetic intermediation of the environment has been found to be heritable, though reversible, as some of the scientific community, including Lysenko, long hypothesized–or in the case of the historical-materialist developmental biologists, previously demonstrated (For example, in Richard Lewontin‘s study of Achillea).

A recent anti-Lysenko, anti-Russian, anti-Marxist, conservative Cold War American chauvanist article in the Atlantic claims that para-genetic inheritance is impossible or valueless because epigenetic inheritance is always fleeting. This overdrawn rubbish claim is false as formulated, and completely irrelevant as a critique of either Lysenko or any other associated enemies and market competitors, even in a generous reading.

Epigenetic effects and epigenetic inheritance are not necessarily ephemeral. They are reversible, which is actually the advantage of changing the environment or epigenetic mediator over against interventions irreversibly mutating genes. Why would we want to permanently mutate genes? Why would we want to permanently mutate genes out of sync with their environment? One of the problems of genetic modification is that (in addition to the horrible experimental torture inflicted on legions of genetically-modified animals over the years), life changes, conditions change on Earth–which you would know if you were a Marxist, with their incorporation of Epicurean philosophy.

Once mutated by human intervention, it can be difficult for the gene to further shift. Who benefits from that excessive stabilization, bound as it is to a commercialized technological monopoly? Even in its ideal form, correcting disadvantageous genetics, CRISPR technologies are privately-owned, expensive, for-profit interventions, accessible exclusively to very affluent families. Most of the world cannot benefit from a capitalist technology, which must allocate advantages unevenly and as durably as possible to satisfy essential capitalist reproduction conditions of economic scarcity and duress. As such, genetic modifiers’ most tender ministrations also must in their main reinforce social inequality, exacerbating human social, economic, and political pseudo-speciation, moral exclusion, and predation.

Genetic manipulation can be overkill. It’s designed for, and can be of more benefit to, locking in genetically-modified seed firm profits, rather than to crop productivity or to human nutrition. From The Smithsonian to Current Biology to The Atlantic, it is very telling that the rabid Western attacks today on Lysenko and his Russian rehabilitation are executed by GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) marketers, who facilely equate profit hog-tied commercial science with science as a complete, semi-sovereign truth-seeking (collective) enterprise.

The Atlantic GMO marketer tries to blame Lysenko for the 1933 famine; yet the article The Atlantic relies on, a similar anti-Lysenko/anti-Russian/pro-GMO argument in Current Biology, merely implies that Lysenko “did not prevent” the famines. Agriculture was reorganized. That’s what caused the famine and malnutrition response in 1933, as such agricultural reorganizations have tended to across regions and history.

If it had not involved sending to prison the genetic scientists, Lysenko’s would have been a fair scientific effort, trying to improve productivity by experimenting with environmental conditions and change factors other than permanently mutating genes. Though hegemonic capitalists prefer to modify the environment to augment and secure exclusive wealth accumulation (thus tending to require an understanding of the morally-excluded environment–“factors of production”–that includes de-humanized humans), experimentally modifying the environment to enhance the organism has been done before. It will be done again. It’s not anti-science. It’s anti-ruling order. It’s democratic Enlightenment.

Lysenko’s experimental, agricultural context-optimizing scientific project was oriented toward economic modernization, and its inhuman implementation time frame was forced by World Wars. If Russia had not been economically-stunted by its ruling class and imperial rivals previous to the USSR, and if Russia did not have to battle Germany, Austria, and other conservative empires also trying to maintain power or overcome the British Empire’s rival-stunting effects, Lysenko’s theories and experiments may not have received so much state support.

Rather, his scientific work may instead have routed through the global scientific community, where, moderated by peer review (assuming the Russian geneticists were perfect scientific gentlemen and didn’t suppress it) to reinforcing findings in developmental biology, it might have perhaps permitted the biological sciences to advance more efficiently past over-investment in the capitalist core’s politically-overdetermined genetic-determinist research agenda.

Soviet Agricultural Productivity, Without the Hysteria, In Context

  1. “For a brief period in the 1920s, compelled by circumstance amid the daunting wreckage of Civil War, the new Soviet state became the world centre of development economics. In swift order arrived Preobrazhensky’s model of surplus mobilization from agriculture (1926), Feldman’s theory of capital accumulation (1928) and Chayanov’s model of the peasant household (1925). While the Soviet Union has since received its traumatic quietus, the topic at stake in these discussions — industrialization of a largely rural, middle-income economy, in a territory subject to repeated military incursions — never quite vanished.”–Churls Gone Wild
  2. From elsewhere in the interwebs, a reliable, informed, but anonymous exchange:
  3. “With regard to export during the 1933 famine, it is important to note that exports were curtailed in that year as a result of the battle with starvation, which the central government launched once it was informed of what was going on in the Ukraine (but also in other regions).” The Russian ruling class, which despite the theories of elite nimbleness, was sclerotically unable to move on from its former role as the military guardian of the inbred European ruling class, had left the country in an economic shambles. “Unfortunately, at that time, the grain exports of the USSR were the only thing the country had to finance its industrialization, and anyone who criticizes Stalin for his callousness in this regard has to understand that there simply was not any other way to industrialize and prepare for war.”
  4. “The main problem of Soviet agriculture overall was transport and storage related wastage. Upwards of 1/4 of all production went to waste because of the lack of transport or storage infrastructure and its poor maintenance.”
  5. The arable land is in the southwest.soviet_ag land_82
  6. “I think Soviet agriculture was actually fairly good for what it had to work with. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that a higher percentage of a population works in agriculture. There’s really no use for a lot of the workers displaced from agriculture in the U.S. A lot of them were moved to worthless service jobs, so it looked like they were doing something.” A fifth of American workers were structurally redirected into the military, and into militarized policing, surveilling and guarding other workers.
  7. Total factor productivity, Russia/USSR and North Dakota compared:USSR-GrainYield
  8. “The USSR started importing grain (in the Khruschev era, at the turn of the 1960s) only as the result of a decision by the party to dramatically increase the population’s meat and poultry consumption. This required vast quantities of feed grain, and this for the most part is what the USSR imported from Canada, the US, and Argentina. This is not an issue of collective farms vs. private farming, nor of the efficiency of farming between different eras. Ordinary people began to demand more than the autarkic system could supply, and so the USSR bought grain from abroad.” “Meat consumption takes up a huge amount of resources compared to low meat consumption. It takes at least 10x more resources to feed grain to animals and eat them instead of eating grain and vegetables directly. Meat consumption grew rapidly in the 70’s in the Soviet Union, and had almost reached the level of the U.S. by this time. The Soviet Union actually had fairly large increases in agricultural production during this time, but meat consumption grew even faster. In the 1980’s, the price of meat stayed the same as in the early 60’s, but wages grew significantly during this time. This fueled the demand for more meat consumption.”
  9. “The family farms in the United States and Canada are exploitative in the sense that the majority of them hire vast quantities of seasonal immigrant labourers, who work long hours and for low pay, without citizenship or labor rights. In Canada these seasonal labourers are selected to come over from poor countries like Haiti and the DR, to work a few months while living in barracks, and then forcibly sent home. Unfortunately for many crops, the conception that family members and maybe one or two helpers can run the whole operation is simply untrue.” That has never been how farming has worked. It was either collectivist, or, as with capitalist farming, it has relied on a combination of oil slaves and cheap, unfree labour.
  10. Altieri & Fuenes-Monzote. 2012. The paradox of Cuban agriculture. Monthly Review.
  11. The Original Fake News: One of the problems of commercial scientism is the large, unjustified role that marketing hype plays in its knowledge production. Grassini, Eskridge & Cassim (2013) have shown that while Green Revolution technology is consistently assumed, per economic theory/marketing hype, to produce infinite and exponential increases in crop productivity, the global historical record shows that oil, genetic, chemical, mechanization, and other technological modifications to agriculture and silviculture can only improve crop productivity linearly, and that productivity will plateau. “Trajectories in national average yields are driven by changes in crop management practices, crop genetic improvement through conventional breeding and genetic engineering, climate and interactions among these factors, under influence of surrounding social, economic and political environments”30. Moreover, the application of commercial scientism to fisheries has only resulted in epic depletion. Of course, capitalism has incentivized highly-disruptive dust bowls, pollution, and devastating species extinction, but even where it “works,” for example the agricultural Midwest, the product is not food for the masses, as advertised (including in mathematized economic theory), but excessive stabilization of agro-ecosystems around financialized land rents, resulting in irrational public supports for the unhealthy corn and soybean pulp manufacture and distribution that secure those rents.
  12. Magnan, Andre. 2015. “The financialization of agri-food in Canada and Australia.” Journal of Rural Studies 41: 1-12.

Communist Science

Monthly Review has published some recommended accounts of communist science in the 20th century.

Foster, JB. 2015. Late Soviet Ecology.

Wallace, R. 2016. Revolutionary Biology. On Christopher Caudwell (nee Christopher Sprigg), a darling of JB Foster. Interesting note for Marxist police: Caudwell started out impure. On Caudwell’s epicurean swerve:

For a short period, in 1926–7, Christopher was sub-editor, and later editor, of the journal of the Association for British Malaya, whose principal aim seems to have been the development of the rubber and tin markets. The views of British Malaya were those of the upholders of the British Empire and were probably not uncongenial to the Sprigg brothers, for during the General Strike of 1926 they were among those who volunteered to replace the striking workers.

But by a personal path winding out of the Labour Party’s impotence, the economic crisis, the rise of the British Union of Fascists, the malaise of bourgeois culture, his scientific materialism, and readings in Marx, Caudwell joined the CPGB in 1934.

Unfortunately, due of course to financial exigencies, Marxists in capitalist societies don’t interpret this kind of thing as any reason for reducing the vitriol of their peer policing and shunning, but instead as a firm case for embracing Salon Bolsheviks with a conservative streak. There are after all only two forms of contribution: money, and labor delegated to another’s direct aggrandizement.


A separate note on the current flush of anti-Lysenko articles in the capitalist American media market:

The Smithsonian, The Atlantic, & Current Biology all have recently (2018) sponsored feverish Cold War denunciations of Lysenko.

They were written by GMO marketers, who make the argument that Stalin/Russians = epigenetics = anti-science.

The most telling thing is that they describe epigenetic interventions as useless because “temporary.” Epigenetic interventions are not temporary. They are reversible. Whereas engineered genetic mutation is excessive stabilization, bound to a commercialized technological monopoly.

The Cold War genetics author-marketers explicitly argue that epigenetic and environmental research will take global resources away from proper All-Anglo-American genetic modification industry monopolization. Commercial scientism proliferates biased knowledge, as confirmed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. 2009. Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically-engineered Crops.

Epigenetics’ potential political advantage over genetic determinism is that it does not support genetics’ overextension of the species imaginary, in which radical ontological difference is assumed, marginalizing environmental conditioning as a causal life development factor.

As sociologists have already observed, epigenetics’ political disadvantage, relative to genetic determinism, is its capacity to restore patriarchal Mother Blame, the capitalist-friendly environmental reductionism. Watch for assumptions and arguments that reduce science to laboratory technique. While seeking political and funding advantages in the capitalist context, this misrepresentation of science will suggest that the only environment that can be studied scientifically is the womb-as-lab.



Council for Responsible Genetics: Books.

Simoncelli, Tania. 2003.

Jabr, F. 2013. “Gattaca a Reality.” Scientific American.



Conservative Social Reproduction via Social Media


Social media and capitalist dispositions

Another medium for classic conservative social reproduction strategy

I don’t like engaging with liberal wonk and pop culture fetishes, including neophilia, but where I work, there’s a lot of both engagement with and promotion of their baby, psychologist Jordan Peterson. So I’ll mention this as a case of how social media is crude and stupid, and entwined with crude, stupid professional comms. So, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Jordan Peterson is a successful academic psychologist whose academic years are mostly behind him. When I say that, you may key in on “successful,” so I should underscore that the framework here is: he is a psychologist. His scientistic theory of natural human inequality is founded on his belief that humans = invertebrates (to be precise: lobsters). As Zach Beauchamp (2018) has helpfully clarified,

The relationship between human and lobster brains is outside Peterson’s area of academic expertise. Experts in the field who have evaluated his claims have found them lacking, as lobsters’ and humans’ neurological systems are radically different. One important distinction is that humans have brains and lobsters (technically speaking) do not.”

It seems to be absolutely standard in Psychology, the belief that human dispositions are both fixed by nature and best represented by random animal behaviours. I can never get over the Psych PhD dissertation defense I guest chaired where the data on human motivation came from intermittently observing four (4) goldfish. That is just the stark, raving insane way that psychologists understand human behaviour. I think they feel such equivalences are scientific? Because animals are natural? Only through anti-liberal arts disciplinary siloing can a discipline get away with such validity-trashing scientism. The crass, anti-biological illogic makes you want to stab yourself in the eyeball. Science: Humans are vertebrates, have brains, and those brains are big because we are radically social, and humans have mostly lived in egalitarian relations.

Peterson has produced psychology studies of personality. He went into Psychology from undergrad Political Science because he felt political mass movement was pathological, and he was interested demagoguery, which he seems to have studied as a how-to guide. His affinity with academia is that he is drawn toward the organizing, civilizing work of the minister, which has gelled into political ambition at this late point in his working life.

You’ll recall that at the turn of the 20th century social-psychologist Emile Durkheim’s big project was to advocate for capitalist churches to organize people in liberal capitalist societies. Little did Durkheim imagine that this would not be a problem. Peterson once wanted to buy a church, before realizing that young people use Youtube as a church. Low, low fixed capital costs.

Like most psychologists, he has expertise in how to manipulate people, and he is an ideological extreme individualist and conservative. As a productive, professional, heterosexual family man, his flamboyant and domineering personality was given a very long leash in Psychology, a profession infamous for its long leash. And who could believe a Canadian is a fascist? Give that man-with-a-plan all the credit in the world, has been the reliable response to Jordan Peterson.

growls playfully

Like all conservative attachés to economic power, his conservative individualism is about advancing himself as a Philosopher King. He harvests status and wealth by delivering to the doorstep of socio-economic power a corralled and disciplined consumer, servant, and political constituency, young men.

While he is recognized for exclusively expressing (sometimes tearful) compassion at the plight of young men, advising them to sit up straight to be competitive, modeling for them both coldly interrupting and trolling and screaming explosively at opponents, Peterson organizes a constituency by manipulating a crowd’s anxieties and narcissistic defenses. The classic, proven conservative marketing pitch and collective platform, to men and youth in liberal societies is:

You feel your birthright entitlements are inaccessible; but you can get your shit together and be the ubermensch, like me, by joining my exclusive pyramid scheme of credit and cooperation, subordinated only to economic power.

Outside of this collective, we do not act in good faith; we do not extend credit, and we do not cooperate.”

Although this conservative sales script is dog-eared, a new generation of surprised-to-be-challenged-in-dear-old-capitalism proto-patriarchs arises repeatedly, ready to buy. Peterson himself was one of these, at an early age steered by Alberta librarians and teachers toward Ayn Rand and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago inter alia, top sellers among the voluminous anti-egaliberte young-adult fiction hallowed in the English-language tradition, in the imperial, capitalist-slaver Anglo-American empire.

Conservativism’s patriarchal individualism works as exceptionalist flattery and a membership password signal; but the method is organizing a ‘password’-protected, ‘gated’ collective. It is a pyramid scheme, not unlike Tupperware or Avon, but not for busy, isolated 1950s housewives. This is for busy boys and young men, rightly terrified by the commodified competition and instrumentalism marketed through the corporatized university, and anxious to Get Theirs. Joining the network is for recognition, maybe cooperation and credit once you’re in. So continuing male socialization, abjecting the network’s abjected, feminized outside plays a much more important role than even at Amway.

Because the guru Philosopher King, Peterson, is fundamentally the organizing principle for a pyramid network, his various opinions on things outside his limited expertise–personality and the manipulation thereof, as well as navigating academia as an institution–do not have to be, and are not informed, consistent or coherent. This allows him to extend and retract radically inegalitarian conceptualizations here, civilized-comportment principles there, never providing the respect of sincerity, coherency, and consistency, never providing cooperation to interlocutors outside his church. You join his church, you buy and sell his pyramid-scheme commodities (Youtuberie; books; Patreon donations), you hoist his flags. Hopefully your new Peterson-brand friends will hook you up with exclusive financial opportunities at some point.

You know, because they’re rightfully gripped, young men are really hopeful in this regard. I used to watch my brother for years, desperately convinced that his young, pothead, Jewish scion golf-and-drugs buddy would at any moment hand over his family’s wealth so my brother could use it to make a dream bar. I hate to give away spoilers on what eventually transpired there, after years of immovable faith and diligent planning on my brother’s part, but No. No. Nope. Never. No. Capitalism. You can search high and low, but no transgender politeness ever intervened to cause the inevitability of my brother having to settle for a respectable if not blingy career with UPS.


Dude: “We had so much in common: Soup, pot, golf, contempt for women. Why didn’t he open his trustfund to me? To this day, it is a baffling mystery.”

Capitalism: “Dough$ before Bros.”

Peterson is a conservative, and that’s not just about stepping into the Philosopher King ideological organizer role. He’s also a Canadian from oily Edmonton, Alberta, selected for by Anglo-American immigration policy and raised to base all his ideas on a toxic, facile, historically-invalid equation of genocide with egalitarianism. He’s a psychologist, so his political ideas and historical and biological knowledge are on the same level as your average Engineering or Econ 101 student, but he tells a beautiful, familiar tale for such primed audiences, reassuring them that everyone is compleat in conservatives’ eyes, there is never any need for human or intellectual development, just male hardening.

Male hardening. Psychologists sure understand markets.

Peterson’s captivating tweak on the Classic Conservative Marketing Script: ‘In this, our magical land, inegalitarianism is biologically natural; we know because lobsters = humans. Then communism came along to deaden everyone who was otherwise living peacefully in a natural, inegalitarian daisy field. After we bravely, heroically disappeared the communists and thereby buried in Davey Jones’ Locker the unnatural notions of human development, egalitarianism, and democratic social construction forever, “Underground Communists,” AKA postmodernists oozed up to disseminate the devilish notion that (non-class-based, capitalism-compatible) equity and social construction (or at least transgressive textual interpretation) are still legit. RALLY TO ME (Specifically: my Patreon account, political warchest), JUNGIAN WARRIOR IDEAL-TYPES, AND WE SHALL RID THE UNIVERSITY OF TERM PAPERS! In their place, you shall have a totally-gameable, purchasable test bank from a major textbook sales firm in which I have a not-inconsiderable financial interest. ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR!’

Peterson sashays this conservative conspiracy slur in the face of the empirical fact that the post-1968 poststructuralists and postmodernists have nearly all been avowed Commie Hunters, like him. The communists were not disappeared by conservatives working alone, much as conservatives are in fact deeply, madly into mass killing, and would love to take the credit. All those pomos ever wanted was to choose and be chosen by (free-ish market) meritocracy. But even that is, in the last instance, another ancient enemy of conservative entitlement.

So Peterson is another Commie Hunter, but since his Cold War youth, the commies have been successfully hunted down in Anglo-America (Yay, elite/objective freedom!), and he’s reduced to hunting capitalism-compatible ladies, transfolk, and people of color in universities, as the scapegoat cause of young white males’ anxieties. Not the Chamber of Commerce seated on the university Board, nor the parasitical university administrative management and marketeering overhang, all redefining the university as a commodity mine, and students as Tuition Units. No, for those obvious sources of anxiety are powerful, and thus existentially right in the conservative mind. No, the scapegoat for the grand conservative politics of fear will be scholars, professors and fellow students. Peterson’s branded Lobster Crusade no doubt seems deeply relevant to 19-year-old undergrads and their dealership-owning Chamber of Commerce dads.

Okay, compared to hunting Real Commies, this may be a bit of a pitiful hunting ground, more drone practice than WWI trenches, but, dammit, it’s where the boys of summer are at, and–take heart!–there is a respectable market for the hunt. For there are Sexual Enemies who have gone through university civilization, and (though professional men of course generally only reliably provide income-generating professional opportunities to other men) these lady-pretenders have snagged some decent-paying jobs, and potentially could be shot, bagged, and cleared out, so that…ah…so that the youthful members of a special frat collective should forever be free of education for democratic development (“Democracy is hard!”–Ken Doll.), leaving the struggle through adversity to the Weak, and (this is where we make another brave, brave logical leap) instead may be restored to easy, exclusive ownership over that income stream that ideally should be theirs by patriarchal and slaver social contract…if not actual capitalist relations, where dividing and playing workers off against each other is the name of the game. Surely, all the conditions for the Petersonian Longleash Utopia are coming into place–Soup, pot, golf, contempt for women! Psych! Let us wait with ‘bated breath for the Treasure Island bank vaults to spill open for the Lost Boys, while Jordan Peterson nets himself a fat Tory sinecure.

The usual suspects–conservatism’s target congregation/army of energetic, competitive, anxious, entitled men, hugely frustrated on capitalism as it is founded upon the private property principle of scarcity, and thrilled to be urged to scapegoat to avoid a real fight with  men of truly exclusive power and their armies (So hard, the lobsters.)–these are Peterson’s devoted congregation.

Similarly, a wider liberal media and audience beckons, catches, and hangs on, fascinated over bits and snatches of Peterson’s whirling, hodge-podge opinions, much as they catch and fetishize the floating values that occasionally attach to liberalism–toleration and inclusivity, civilized comportment and politesse, self-actualization, professionalism, Merit and Competence, entrepreneurialism, equity, commodity scientism, accountability, etc.

Snatching at and clinging to these unmoored bits, loving them because they are optional, elective, all about the virtues of choice and taste, liberal communications professionals adore the conservative Philosopher-entrepreneur King, because he has a market locked and loaded, because he is a proven, credentialed meritocrat (because he has a market and institutional credentials), and because he talks to them not of his expertise, or even his message of a capitalist patronage settlement for young white heterosexualish men, but of uninformed, incoherent, politicized opinions on random but sexy topics.

Experts on Canadian law said that Peterson was misreading the bill — that the legal standard for “hate speech” would require something far worse, like saying transgender people should be killed, to qualify for legal punishment. This is an early example of what would become a hallmark of Peterson’s approach as a public intellectual — taking inflammatory, somewhat misinformed stances on issues of public concern outside his area of expertise” (Z. Beauchamp 2018)

Legal opinion? Hey, let’s talk to the chatty Ayn Randie with a PhD in Personality Psychology! He comes with his own market of vigorously-typing/rape-threatening youth! My oil-industry-sponsored Wednesday lunch club at the Palm Room tells me that he’s the next Rob Ford.

Comms Pros hate and avoid scholarly experts talking about their expertise, because so often that expertise is not carrying the Chamber of Commerce’s brand message. Comms Pros’ job is to sell shit to a pre-manufactured market, and therefore they elicit insincere, scattershot opinions flying out of a middle-aged white male maw atop a shiny row of institutional brass. Incapable of distinguishing between liberalism and conservatism because clinging to the inessential bits of liberalism as evidence of their civility, incapable of admitting the conservative-friendly, but distinct, anti-democratic taproot of liberalism, absolute private property right, liberals accommodatingly provide conservative entrepreneurs venues to organize the conservatives’ own private Church of the Steep and Immobile Hierarchy. They beckon these conservatives to join them in conversations in which conservatives will not participate in good faith. Their Chamber of Commerce bosses smile on wanly.

The Youtubes overflow with reposted interviews between liberals and the conservative Philosopher-entrepreneur King, invariably labeled “Watch [conservative] Destroy Leftist Ladies.” No lefist has ever been permitted within 8,000 miles of a corporate teevee talking head job, what with that glorious Commie Hunt that perhaps you’ll recall. Never in the interviews is anyone actually ‘destroyed,’ because no one is ever talking about the same thing, or anything at all consistently. To non-congregationalists, the conservative misdirects and dissimulates. That’s what counts for conservatives as ‘destroying’ their opponent.

And it’s all win-win. Liberals love it because liberals are those people who are deeply opposed–for reasons of market and personal interest, and incentived and socialized disposition–to pursuing and advancing radical–rooted–informed and coherent ideas. Across the Pro Comms media, liberals celebrate Peterson’s yogi guru advice to the youth: “Harden up, lads, but don’t develop, and most of all, don’t change society. Leave it to the bosses.” Do you hear that? It’s the smell of paid liberal Loyalists creaming their pants throughout the land. God Save the Queen.

And so society will continue to oscillate between our dumb twin poles of, on the one side, dudes who’d rather punch girls (who won’t carry the dude’s own private genetic stock) than ever get serious, organize, and fight the actual capitalist manufactured scarcity and worker competition that is dividing and riding us all, and on the other side, the comfortable, networked liberals guarding absolute private property right with a whipped cream topping of meritorious taste and choice. For joy, all the livestock are lowing in their pens, and there is past & future wealth to be privately, exclusively extracted to the apotheosis of social and environmental irrationality!

Won’t someone please think of the children?

See also:

Peterson is a conservative organizer, by Bernard Schiff.

Pankaj Mishra’s critique of Peterson’s mystical “self help” youth conservative mobilization programme. Self-educated Mishra is sometimes an insufferable colony Anglophile snot; but Peterson’s mysticism is properly historicized in this critique.


The darndest things you find in social media

  1. Mobs of guys bitching about some moment’s published analysis.
  2. Mobs of rightwing guys shitting on some woman with a published analysis.
  3. Mobs of leftwing guys in the Instagrams or Reddits shitting on some woman with a published analysis.
  4. Rightwing guy snipers in the Youtubes comments section, announcing their intent to rape some woman who has given a speech.
  5. Young Darlin Brand Princess intellects promoting their brand whilst shitting on other intellectual women outside their promotional collective.
  6. Young male professional photographer Brand Princesses on the Instagrams anxiously defending the sanctity of their brand.husky convo
    Online conversations, but with more attractive, loving creatures


Findings: Social media engagement is for 2.5 purposes

a) Professionals with established markets hawking wares, enlarging their market.

b) An outlet for mental health problems.

c) Pack male sociality, which usually looks like mental health problems.


Update April 2019

I am in the processes of slightly reevaluating my view of the political impact of Jordan Peterson. While I have not changed my mind on either conservatism or psychology, which is basically conservative, I am moving toward viewing Peterson as playing a necessary role. This is almost to say that I can see a role, a marginal role, for conservatives in society.

Today, at the end of another long term in which I worked my ass off for students, and spent way too many hours on serving them, when I should have been applying for grants and researching, doing adult things, thinking adult thoughts, like an adult, I unfortunately happened upon a student coming from a makeup test. The student was a Linguistics major, not a major from my department, and she was a senior student. There, within the span of a few short minutes she conveyed to me: 1) the test was too easy; 2) she shouldn’t have taken my 2nd year class because she found its coverage of Enlightenment controversies over the good life to be “boring,” 3) I violated and made feel unsafe the African students in the course because I didn’t say that contemporary African-American moralists denounce the 19th century equation of women’s oppression with slavery, regardless of the fact that those are African students and thus are more likely to be descended from slavers than slaves–a fact she perhaps did not consider since she is not African or African-American; 4) she wasn’t sure if I was going to go “All Jordan Peterson” on her.

I replied in cheerful but kindly, measured tones that since the course–not a seminar but a larger classical theory foundations lecture course, which she took because she thought it would be a slide–is about classical theory and we really couldn’t stop and have a seminar discussion about every thing a contemporary moral authority has objected to about 19th century thought, I wondered what prevented her from raising her hand and mentioning in lecture this crucial, morally-rectifying literature she had learned in her contemporary linguistics theory courses. She replied that she couldn’t formulate her thoughts in time, but that it was my responsibility to convey her discipline’s theory material, cuz it’s objectively moral, the most moralest.

She wrapped up these pleasantries by musing that I could Go All Jordan Peterson on her, to which this this was my immediate reaction: “Get the fuck away from me, you little SJW shit.” It came in the passive-aggressive form of big smiles and a firm, “Well, have a good summer! Good bye,” whereupon I turned and left.

Now two things: 1) I will be discouraging upper-level undergrad Linguistics students from all my classes in the future. My experience is that they are all trained to be disrespectful, snotty little morality-policing SJW shits. Whether introductory or advanced, my courses are not about discursive morality policing, which I do not regard as democratically liberating, so, they’re not for undergrad Linguists! 2) Jordan Peterson? Fine. Fuck it. If he’s out there priming asshole young white men to go to battle with asshole ethnically-ambiguous undergrad girls who insist that scholarship = discourse-determinist moral regulation, just like Good Ol’ Mom made back in her Linguistics philosophy courses, that is fine by me. Enjoy your classically-gendered division-of-labor, kids! Just keep reproducing conservative liberalism amongst yourselves, as is done.

WWII & the twilight of Western Enlightenment

AT the turn of the 20th century, ruling classes mobilized nation states to struggle for territorial control and economic development, while working classes struggled for emancipation

From the 16th century, the Atlantic ruling class (the ruling class of Britain, the Netherlands, the US, France, and other North Atlantic territories) successfully ascended to world power through a potent combination of capitalist relations and primitive accumulation, including enclosures, global imperialism and colonialism, and slavery. By the turn of the 20th century, both German and Russian networks were left out of this power ascent, stagnant but still latently capacious and entitled. They had long-influential ruling classes managing and intervening in European territories. Where Russia had dwindled from Enlightenment and power influence to supplying mercenary militaries to the ultimately-losing European ruling class repressions of democratic revolts, German society had lost its influential long-time role supplying the educated, princely managerial staff to European monarchies.

Communists overthrew the dissolute Russian monarchy network, and mobilized massive and disruptive economic modernization campaigns across the Soviet Union’s vast Eurasian territory. German territories attempted to correct their over-investment in European aristocracy by reorganizing as a militarized nation-state mobilizing strong managerial and productive capacity. To carve out territory in an already-owned world required warfare. While the Atlantic ruling class has had enormous capacity to absorb other ruling elites, it has not accommodated them, with the exception of the semi-independence concession to Middle East absolutist tyrannies ruling keystone geopolitical and oil extraction territory. When upstart Germany lost WWI, the Atlantic ruling class sought to crush an independent Germany and the German sense of entitlement with the Treaty of Versailles. This vainglorious effort only produced more outraged re-organization in Germany, spawning the fascist campaign to put Germany on the global capitalist map.

Germany’s reactionary, anti-socialist fascism at first was thought to be compatible with the anti-communist Atlantic ruling class order. For seven years, from 1933 to the September 1939 invasion of Poland, the capitalist Atlantic ruling class had agreeable relations and multiple pacts with the pro-capitalist, anti-communist fascist regimes, including Nazi Germany. During this period, the young Soviet Union had been struggling with imperial, fascist Japan, which was invading China.

13 Nation-state Compacts with Fascist Germany


A side product of Britain’s imperial expansion and its opposition to Russia and that country’s power, Polish and other weaker-community nationalisms surged in the 16th century. Russia and Poland then struggled for territorial control, with Russia controlling the territory from the 18th century until Russia’s collapse after WWI. By contrast, the Atlantic ruling class gained further power after WWI, taking control over former Ottoman Empire territory and populations.

In August 1939 Germany made an opportunistic, temporary alliance with the Soviet Union and Slovakia to re-take Poland and divide it. Britain and France had a post-WWI pact that should Poland be invaded, they would regard the invasion as an act of war against the Atlantic ruling class. Polish gold was smuggled out to London and Ottawa. In reclaiming territory, the Soviet Union was again acting independently of the Atlantic ruling order, and so was a categorical enemy. But the geopolitical crisis was a fascist state acting independently of the Atlantic ruling order. In an already-owned world, German economic development intolerably forced both (temporary) capitalist-communist cooperation and a dis-identification between the Atlantic ruling order and capitalism.

While the Atlantic ruling class has remained in fairly-constant geopolitical opposition to Russia (regardless of its government), British sponsorship of Polish and Eastern European national ambitions has been rather more opportunistic than a primary goal. It is the Polish (among other Eastern European buffers) nationality’s perspective that the Western powers “betrayed” their sponsorship agreements in 1939 (inter alia), as the North Atlantic powers allied with the Soviet Union to fight WWII, to stop Germany’s further territorial invasions and expansions. The Soviets ground down the imperial German war machine; and the Soviet Union’s gambit to reduce the Atlantic ruling order’s combined anticommunist and geopolitical opposition was thus soon played out.

British war leader Winston Churchill hoped to simply redirect WWII against the Soviet Union upon Germany’s defeat in April 1945. But British analysts concluded that the Atlantic powers would not be able to defeat and control the Soviet Union’s territory via direct warfare. So, in another “betrayal,” Churchill and Stalin divided up the former Austro-Hungarian borderlands (the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in WWI), from 1945 until the modern Russian communist experiment was liquidated in 1989 under the co-optative idea, and a patently false and geopolitically-naive expectation, suggesting that simply by dissolving communism to the benefit of oligarchs, Russia would become included and supported as an autonomous capitalist country in the North Atlantic metropole archipelago, much as Germany, Italy, and Japan had been under the redistributive Marshall Plan. But in that North Atlantic, states had since largely been claimed by a financially-liberated, cosmopolitan ruling class, and that class already had a capitalist relationship with the great reserves of Chinese and Indian labor, resources, pollution sinks, and consumers. Nor was it possible for even-oligarchical Russia, with its broader social networks and infrastructure, to be integrated into the Middle East tyrants’ efficient, special relationship with the Atlantic ruling class.

Since then, the Atlantic ruling class has pursued an oppositional relationship with Russia, offering instead the City of London as an increasingly-posh haven for the Russian klepto-collaborators and their booty, the once-public wealth accrued with brains, blood, sweat and tears within the Soviet Union territories. A globally-networked, cosmopolitan ruling class with key bases in North Atlantic financial cities and countries currently enjoys the restoration of its undiluted, unrivaled power, as well as steep and immobile social hierarchy and all its effects. As billions of people are surveilled, policed, incarcerated, militarized, exploited, poisoned, dispossessed, violently disrupted, and dislocated into spectacular migrations, outside of continental Europe, aristocracy and servitude have been restored. Western Enlightenment ideas, culture, and institutions have fallen, but the extraction and slavery infrastructure remains and has been technologically enhanced.

Thus, while there are still states and of course market institutions managing cosmopolitan extractivism and the social reproduction of inegalitarianism, with the eradication of Enlightenment thought and institutions, nation-states have been reorganized as rigid, stagnant Night-watchman states. Nations are reserved for the industrializing countries.

Historical materialism v. modern scepticism

 An outline of the historical march of the skepticist-materialist argument


1)       Scepticism (From 360 BC, Democritus et al) rests on the idealist epistemological assumption that we can only know an artifice of categories, which may or may not correspond to the world behind it. The world is behind a veil of categories and inaccessible. Therefore we can never know the non-artificial world. All paradigms (and their theories, approaches, etc.) rest upon a foundation; each foundation is a biased selection of these artificial categories, with no guarantees as to their veracity. Therefore no paradigms are truthful, except the paradigm that points out that paradigms are untruthful.


2)       The founding Western materialist Epicurus (307 BCE) follows Democritus, but critiques the logic of the skeptic epistemology, holding that applied consistently it undermines itself and it does not correspond to how we navigate and encounter the world—how we know. (Pace Bhaskar) For realism, we must allow for actual encounters with (and feedback from) a world that can resist artificial constructions and promote innovation in categorical construction. Epicurus elaborates upon the physics foundations that emerge in our characteristic array of human senses and that emerge in but do not fully determine our concepts (constructions). The materialist system is designed to register changing (and distinguish them from consistent) relations, for a fuller discussion see Lewontin, Gould, Levins (but this has ramifications for your critique, see below). (I also have a lecture on this.)


3)       Christianity teams with other Western idealists to destroy almost all materialist texts and expurge from recorded scholarship the materialist tradition for 1,000 years (from the 3rd century AD)–until the Enlightenment recovers the materialist tradition in the 17th century.



4)       In the 1840s Historical Materialism (Marxism) modifies materialism’s sensory epistemology with historically-situated social constructionism—pace The German Ideology (The materialist Feuerbach introduced ahistorical social constructionism to materialist epistemology), see also Marx’s dissertation on Epicureans v. Democritus (Skeptics). Thus the epistemology of historical materialism is distinguished by three forms of recourse to the world behind social categories (which includes social and natural relations): a) categories partially informed by sensory information, b) sensory information, and c) historically-embedded relations. These three historical-materialist epistemological foundations are not held to provide knowledge completely independent from social constructions—they do not preclude social constructions, but rather they can cast into doubt, modify, limit, and check social constructions; although Marxists use social constructionism as a tool (consider the false consciousness argument), Marxism as an historical-materialist paradigm is not a radical social constructionist (idealist) epistemology. As historical materialism does not jettison ontology and its epistemology is a combination of sensory information and historicized social constructionism, its social constructionism is not absolute social constructionism.


5)       In the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the 1968 “collapse” of the French Left, Postmodernism brings the idealist skeptic project to “political intervention” by isolating (and, claiming exclusive ownership of) modern materialism’s social constructionism, while rejecting Hist-mat’s sensory epistemology and its ontology. Postmodernism claims that to know we purely depend upon social constructions, built with power-over, which can only be known as it weaves the veil of artificial constructions absolutely separating human knowledge from the social and natural world. For logical reasons adumbrated below as well as historical-political context reasons, Postmodernism’s frequent political intervention targets Marxists.



6)       Thus targeted, historical materialists (Marxists) have responded to Postmodernism with the Epicurean critique of scepticism, adding the “Healthy Approach” manouever (see below). Insofar as we recognize that all categories are socially-constructed, all approaches and paradigms must rest upon assumptions, and thus scepticism can be applied to any approach or paradigm. Thus when we engage in deconstruction, critique of metanarratives, critique of grand narratives, etc., we are never innocent of politics, we always choose which foundations of which approaches and ideas we attack at which juncture. Ethically, we should be able to defend with integrity why we see the target as either the prime enemy worthy of continuous deconstruction, or as particularly prone to obscure its assumptions (eg. Because it rejects social constructionism). The Hist-mat approach holds that it clearly forwards social constructionism, that postmodernism’s social constructionism is derivative of and not epistemologically superior to Marxim’s, and Marxists clearly have explicitly, repeatedly laid out Marxist epistemology. Marxists point out that as Postmodernism fixates on Marxism as especially needing foundations-exposing political intervention above most other given paradigms, Postmodernism’s scepticism/Deconstruction/critique of metanarratives are subject to critique on the basis of what kind of social relations they support, because they can and they do choose. Although postmodernists assert the claim that the very act of deconstruction alone is definitively ethical, liberatory (as ultimately guaranteed by the skeptic epistemological assumption), nonetheless from the historical materialist epistemological position (a refutation of skepticism), each particular application of skepticism remains vulnerable to a critique of its situational ethics.


7)      When postmodernists are confronted with the ancient materialist critique of skepticism (the modern version being absolute constructionism), they deploy the rhetorical move of temporarily moving down to a “soft” constructivist approach–eg. From “Lyotard’s work is characterised by a persistent opposition to universals, metanarratives, and generality. He is fiercely critical of many of the ‘universalist’ claims of the Enlightenment, and several of his works serve to undermine the fundamental principles that generate these broad claims.” down to “Lyotard’s narrative in The Postmodern Condition declares the decline of only a few defunct ‘narratives of legitimation’ and not of narrative knowledge itself. It is not logically contradictory to say that a statement about narratives is itself a narrative, just as when Lyotard states that “every utterance [in a language game] should be thought of as a ‘move’ in a game” his statement is itself a ‘move’ in a language game.” Here in its soft constructionist version, we have a postmodern admission that recognizes the defensible approach involves not fighting against the tyranny of metanarratives or grand narratives per se, but making political choices (with ethical ramifications) about which community to demand to defend its foundations. This is in essence a reversion to the historical-materialist position, which is more sustainably undergirded by historical-materialist sensory-soft constructionist epistemology, not radical constructionist skepticist epistemology in temporary suspension. If you are going to attack historical materialism on the idealist grounds of scepticism, then you must know that its critique of scepticism’s infinite logical regress is forthcoming, and you can’t in good faith defend your position from that critique by pretending that you invented or you own soft constructionism, which is a partial epistemology forwarded by historical-materialism and designed to require a materialist supplement.




Although they have been in conversation (and in the case of materialism, suspension), over 2500 years, no one has found a way to reconcile materialism to scepticism (of whatever necessarily idealist bent). They are distinct traditions, with distinct epistemologies corresponding to a presence and an absence of ontology. 


Appendix: Skepticism v. Epicureanism
Skepticism (Democritus) rests on the idealist assumption that we can only know an artifice of categories, which may or may not correspond to the world behind it; we shall never know. The world is behind a veil of categories and inaccessible. Therefore we can never know the non-artificial world. All paradigms (and their theories, approaches, etc.) rest upon a necessarily biased selection of these artificial categories. Therefore no paradigms are truthful, except the paradigm that points out that paradigms are untruthful (scepticism!).
While Democritus is the skeptic that Epicureans originally critiqued, the idealist Descartes (Cogito ergo sum) is the first modern skeptic. Descartes’ skeptical hypotheses included “reality” as a dream or alternatively a contrivance of the devil. (Other modern skeptic hypotheses about reality include Brain in a Vat, Matrix, and Last Thursdayism, incl. Creationism. We will get to postmodern scepticism in a moment.)
Most philosophies have weaknesses and can be criticized, and this is a general principle of progression in philosophy. Pierre Le Morvan (2011) has distinguished between three broad philosophical approaches to skepticism. The first he calls the “Foil Approach.” According to the latter, skepticism is treated as a problem to be solved, or challenge to be met, or threat to be parried; skepticism‘s value on this view, insofar as it is deemed to have one, accrues from its role as a foil contrastively illuminating what is required for knowledge and justified belief. The second he calls the “Bypass Approach” according to which skepticism is bypassed as a central concern of epistemology. Le Morvan advocates a third, historical-materialist approach—he dubs it the “Health Approach”–that explores when skepticism is “healthy” and when it is not, or when it is virtuous and when it is vicious.
The Greek Materialist Critique of Skepticism
Epicurus started with Democritus, but had critiques of Democritus’ approach.
Materialist Epistemology is connected to Ontology
Epicurus says that all sensations give us information about the world, but that sensation itself is never in error, since sensation is a purely passive, mechanical reception of images and the like by sense-organs, and the senses themselves do not make judgments ‘that’ the world is this way or that. Instead, error enters in when we make judgments about the world based upon the information received through the senses.
Skepticism-tends-to-Nihilism (Infinite Regress)
Epicurus says that it is impossible to live as a skeptic. If a person really were to believe that he knows nothing, then he would have no reason to engage in one thought or course of action instead of another. Thus, the consistent skeptic would engage in no thought or action whatsoever, and would die.
Epicurus thinks that, in order to make judgments about the world, or even to start any inquiry whatsoever, we must already be in possession of certain basic concepts, which stand in need of no further proof or definition, on pain of entering into an infinite regress. This concern is similar to the Paradox of Inquiry explored by Plato in the Meno, that one must already know about something in order to be able to inquire about it. However, instead of postulating that our immaterial souls had acquaintance with transcendent Forms in a pre-natal existence, as idealist Plato does, Epicurus thinks that we have certain ‘preconceptions’–concepts such as ‘body,’ ‘person,’ ‘usefulness,’ and ‘truth’–which are formed in our (material) minds as the result of repeated sense-experiences of similar objects. Further ideas are formed by processes of analogy or similarity or by compounding these basic concepts. Thus, sense-experience undergirds all concepts, through which sensory data is filtered. (Historical materialists will modify this epistemology by adding a non-absolute social constructionism, but not excising the role of the senses in knowledge formation.)
Epicurus is concerned to refute the skeptical tendencies of Democritus, whose metaphysics and theory of perception were similar to Epicurus’. At least three separate anti-skeptical arguments are given by Epicureans, all basically addressing the problems with vicious scepticism, AKA either infinite regress (No idea or action can be asserted to be true, including this one, because nothing in human understanding can rest upon anything other than unprovable assumptions. A thoroughgoing commitment to scepticism precludes thought and action.) or poor-faith posture scepticism—a postured commitment to absolute scepticism (eg. A stated commitment to critiquing metanarratives.) as a fig leaf over an actual political game, the selective application of scepticism against a political enemy, whether the skeptic is calculating or being used as a tool.
For example, Harvey implicitly critiques (by analogy) a form of vicious skepticism:
“(T)he whole baggage of ideas associated with postmodernism could be deployed to radical ends, and thereby be seen as part of a fundamental drive towards a more liberatory politics, in exactly the same way that the turn to more flexible labour processes could be seen as an opening to a new era of democratic and highly decentralized labour relations and co-operative endeavours” (Harvey 1992: 353).
But though it can be portrayed that way, that is not how it is deployed nor how it operates.
Obviously, there is an alternative to vicious, bad faith, or “unhealthy” scepticism, and that is, for explicit reasons of political choice (which, Historical-materialism holds, can themselves be subject to contextual critique), deploying the sceptical approach, not as a total (totalizing) approach, but to instrumentally identify (and possibly to refine) or critique paradigmatic assumptions. Virtuous skepticism requires political judgement, and a refinement of epistemology to permit social constructionism, and not social constructionism to the epistemological occlusion of all else. (Correctly) identifying assumptions is not a complete manoeuvre, as, explicitly acknowledged or not, all approaches must rest on epistemological assumptions, even scepticism, and this includes postmodernism.
The Epicurean/Materialist Critique of Skepticism (incl. Democritus)
As Skepticism has been modified by postmodern social constructionism, the following 2/3 Epicurean critiques of scepticism pertain:
1) Skepticism is a Self-refutating Argument
If a skeptic claims that nothing can be known, then one should ask whether he knows that nothing can be known. If he says ‘yes,’ then he is contradicting himself. If he doesn’t say yes, then he isn’t making a claim, and we don’t need to listen to him.
2) The Argument from Concept formation
If the skeptic says that nothing can be known, or that we cannot know the truth, we can ask him where he gets his knowledge of concepts such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth.’ If the senses cannot be relied on, as the skeptic claims, then he is not entitled to use concepts such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ in formulating his thesis, since such concepts derive (at least partially-HM) from the senses.
The “Modern Epicurean” (Historical materialist) Response
Given the Epicurean tradition was destroyed for a thousand years by an idealist coalition of Christians & skeptics, materialist assumptions have been modified since the Enlightenment, notably by historical-materialism:
1) Maintenance of insistence on the role of senses in epistemology (Epistemology connects with ontology.), while allowing that social relations (featuring power) also condition the concepts (which are therefore partially social constructions) through which knowledge passes.* See E Scarry, Marxist historical materialism.
2) Maintenance of the Epicurean insistence on the necessity of establishing concepts (paradigmatic assumptions), adding a condition that those concepts should be made explicit (which is NOT understood as a property of postmodernism). The paradigm is not moot when the assumptions are exposed; the paradigm changes when both the sociological relations and the sensations informing the assumptions no longer hold.
*Note: You can see here that false consciousness is a problem for historical materialists because it is produced when power disallows and strips away sensory information from social construction. In effect, Marxists recognize in false consciousness radical social construction, and since radical social constructionism legitimates such concept-stripping (or refuse to recognize a diminishment in concept formation), Marxists do oppose radical social constructionists.
Postmodern scepticism (The aftermath of the 1967 Six-day War and conservatism’s 1969 defeat of the Paris students)
Postmodernism is modified form of scepticism that rests upon rests upon the epistemological assumption (as all positions and approaches, not just Marxism or other “totalizing ideoglogies,” must rest upon characteristic assumptions, pace Kuhn) that we can only know social constructions. This is an assumption because it is not provable against the alternative (Hist-mat) epistemological assumption, sensation interacting with social construction; but it is required to found the postmodern project (to found the view that deconstruction is a particularly, and uniformly liberatory project). It is this epistemological assumption (and the corollary jettisoning of ontology) that distinguishes the skeptic (incl. Postmodern) tradition from the materialist (incl. Historical materialist) tradition.
Postmodernism is a form of scepticism that in adopting historical materialism’s constructionism (a part of the epistemological foundation of historical-materialism, which also retains materialism’s sensory epistemology connected as it is to its ontology), was reformulated in a reaction to the materialist critique of scepticism’s tendency to solipsism (see above). Post-modernism tries to save the idealistic skeptic project by isolating and adoting historical-materialism’s social constructionism and jettisoning Hist-mat’s sensory epistemology and its ontology. Postmodernism claims that while our senses are immaterial to epistemology (sensation is always behind the veil of social constructions), we instead use social constructions, built with power-over. For social science postmoderns, rejecting historical-materialist dual epistemology and clinging to sceptical idealism, material relations do not inform concepts. The social constructions are the pure product of BrainS in a Vat. Social change is a matter of wilfully changing the concepts against a social power that exists only to the extent that we imagine it to. Historical-materialism’s weaker and sensory-supplemented version of social constructionism fails to reach the same political diagnosis.
This idealist diagnosis is what repeatedly leads postmodernists to determine that historical materialism is the most direct and dire political threat to freedom. However, historical-materialists are dissatisfied with the postmodern approach not (just) because it fingers historical-materialism as the problem but because its sceptical epistemological assumption is logically unsatisfactory and postmodernists tend to play fast and loose in alternating between absolute scepticism and soft social constructionism (just as conservative economists interpolate between hard and soft versions of their own assumptions when faced with devastating critique, pace Varoufakis, who also examines further correspondences between the contemporaneous assumptions of postmodernism and conservative economics).

Hobsbawm on the Vicissitudes of Left-liberalism

Hobsbawm, Eric. 2012. “After the Cold War: Eric Hobsbawm Remembers Tony Judt.” London Review of Books, April.

Beautifully-written rebuttal of the 20th century liberal rejection and condemnation of communism, as well as homage to civic courage. Crafting a story of intellectual and political maturation and redemption, Hobsbawm dissects how Tony Judt traversed from the Cold Warrior troops and conservative tooldom (as Judt started out trivially focused on critiquing dying French Left intellectualism) to trenchant critic of imperial Israeli apartheid politics.

Both Hobsbawm & Judt understood the twentieth century’s “basic passion: namely the belief that politics was the key to our truths as well as our myths.”

 …Judt “launched one of the most implacable attacks on (Hobsbawm) in a passage which has become widely quoted, especially by the ultras of the right-wing American press. It amounted to: ‘make a public confession that your god has failed, beat your breast and you may win the right to be taken seriously. No man who doesn’t think socialism equals Gulag should be listened to.’

 …after 1968 (Judt) became much more of a militant oppositionist liberal over Eastern Europe, an admirer of the mixed but more usually right-wing academic tourists who provided much of our commentary on the end of the East European Communist regimes. This also led him and others who should have known better into creating the fairy tale of the Velvet and multicoloured revolutions of 1989 and after. There were no such revolutions, only different reactions to the Soviet decision to pull out.

 …Four things shaped French history in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Republic born of the incomplete Great Revolution; the centralised Napoleonic state; the crucial political role assigned to a working class too small and disorganised to play it; and the long decline of France from its position before 1789 as the Middle Kingdom of Europe, as confident as China of its cultural and linguistic superiority. Denied a Lenin and deprived of Napoleon, France retreated into the last and, we must hope, indestructible redoubt, the world of Astérix. The postwar vogue for Parisian thinkers barely concealed their collective retreat into Hexagonal introversion and into the ultimate fortress of French intellectuality, Cartesian theory and puns. There were now other models in higher education and the sciences, in economic development, even – as the late penetration of Marx’s ideas implies – in the ideology of the Revolution. The problem for left-wing intellectuals was how to come to terms with an essentially non-revolutionary France. The problem for right-wing ones, many of them former communists, was how to bury the founding event and formative tradition of the Republic, the French Revolution, a task equivalent to writing the American Constitution out of US history. It could not be done…

 …Tony had so far made his name as an academic bruiser. His default position was forensic: not the judge’s but the barrister’s, whose objective is neither truth nor truthfulness, but winning the case. Faced with governments and ideologues who read victory and world domination into the fall of communism, he was honest enough with himself to recognise that the old verities and slogans needed to be junked after 1989. Probably only in the ever nervous US could such a reputation have been built so quickly on the basis of a few articles in journals of modest circulation addressed exclusively to academic intellectuals.

 …(Judt) was well aware of the risks, personal and professional, he ran in attacking the combined forces of US global conquest, the neocons and Israel, but he had plenty of what Bismarck called ‘civilian bravery’ (Zivilcourage) – a quality notably lacking in Isaiah Berlin, as Tony himself noted, perhaps not without malice. Unlike the ex-Marxist scholiasts and intellocrates on the Left Bank who, as Auden said of poets, made ‘nothing happen’, Tony understood that a struggle with these new forces could make a difference. He launched himself against them with evident pleasure and zest. This was the figure who came into his own after the end of the Cold War, widening his courtroom technique to flay the likes of Bush and Netanyahu rather than some political absurdity in the Fifth Arrondissement or a distinguished professor in New Jersey. It was a magnificent performance, a class act; he was hailed by his readers not only for what he said, but what many of them would not have had the courage to say themselves. It was all the more effective because Tony was both an insider and an outsider: English, Jewish, French, eventually American, but plurinational rather than cosmopolitan” (Eric Hobsbawm 2012).

Communism is the Father of Capitalist Culture

It is communism that elicits culture in capitalism. Britain’s Channel 4 and The Independent newspaper report the story “Modern Art Was CIA Weapon” of how the CIA in the mid-20th century promoted and used modern art–Abstract Expressionism–to flog the idea that capitalism can foster artistic freedom, where communism cannot. However, the extent to which the market fosters artistic freedom was greatly exaggerated–by the elite cadre of American secret police that temporarily, for propaganda purposes, fostered that freedom. And that little mid-century “long leash” blip of freedom depended on capitalists who believed that they had to compete with communism for world opinion.

Capitalist Artistic Freedom (2 AA Communist Batteries Required)

Without communism, do we have freedom in capitalism? For the working class, the post-communist evidence points to “not much” or “no.”

Interesting in the report are 2 subplots:

1) The mid-20th century division of labor/personnel between the CIA and other ruling institutions in the US, and
2) An early chapter in the long tradition of media manipulation:

“The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.”

The Capitalist Press