6 pivotal class collective action moments in the US, second half of the Twentieth Century

…that led to the complete evisceration of the US working class’ capacity to contribute political leadership,[1] and thus stripped the US of capacity for public good, and stripped the nation from the state. This dismantling of US social and state capacity resulted in the triumph of charismatic-front direct capitalist rule in the US.

1)    No political party organized labour, or built working class collective action capacity across the US

By contrast, the Social Democratic Party (SAP) in Sweden methodically propelled itself to political hegemony by first and foremost working to build unions and a labour movement in Sweden.[1]

In 1930s Minnesota, the Farmer-Labour party had similarly worked with organized and state management radicals to build worker collective action capacity, including with anti-racism programs, and power resources; but on altruistic behalf of anti-fascist solidarity, the national Democratic Party took over and dismantled the Farmer-Laborers in WWII.[2]

While this strategy eventually provided Humphrey, Mondale and Freeman the political force to oust the controlling Southern slaver Democrats from the Democrat Party–to the benefit of the Republicans, and so permitted liberals to use the Democrat Party to help leftists reduce some of the apartheid features of US society at the tail end of the financial regulation era, the victory was pyrrhic. The deregulation of finance was soon to undercut desegregation by restoring inegalitarianism and Herrenvolk democracy, inequality and economic scarcity, and labor import substitution.

Why is this pivotal? Where the Swedish Social Democrats built working class cohesion and collective capacity, and a strategic radical organized edge to “moderate,” state repression of communists shut down the working class’ capacity to organize, institutionalize, and coordinate external-internal (social movement-polity organization) strategy, preventing labor autonomy, cohesion & collective action capacity, and power resources development in the US.

In comparison, in Canada, during WWII when the Atlantic ruling class required labor cooperation but Canada did not have strong policing capacity, the state prioritized targeting and imprisoning (especially labor-organizing) communists, while developing legislation to channel wildcat strike labor eruptions under liberal, labor-policing professional, bureaucratic unions.

Because policy tends to be shared and it is well known that significant resources were devoted to repressing communists in the Atlantic ruling class’ nation-states, evidence from Canada supports Kolin’s (2017) historical research conclusion, suggesting that under historical conditions more favorable to the establishment of labor power resources, the US shared and pursued the communist repression priority as the keystone in the Atlantic ruling class’ broader labor-repression strategy. Without communist organizers, the American working class could not build an effective inside-outside strategy capable of supporting labor political capacity to advance the public good.

Against the capitalist hegemony that only states and labor cause economic decline, no ideas. laws,[3] policies, or institutions capable of moderating and directing capital for the public good, capable of countering both regional and international capitalist strategy, could sustainably develop in the US.

2)    Instead, professionalized policing targets, represses labor collective action capacity in the US

In addition to the communist repression priority as the keystone in its broader labor-repression strategy, the US and its capitalist class had built up and continued to amass strong public and private policing capacity with which to repress labor and prevent the development of working-class power resources. The US was able to further minimize class compromise, minimizing the development of robust labor rights law and labor-policing unions.

Bereft of an organized radical edge, professional organized labour, as structured by Anglo-American law, mainly served to police its own members, forbidding and punishing collective action and strikes.

In the latter 20th century, after the global capitalist mid-century demonstration of finance’s power (coordinating capital and enforcing inflation until US politicians submitted), Democrats as well as Republicans devoted their efforts to policing and cutting down vestigal unions and labour cohesion and communication capacity.[4]

Why is this pivotal? Deeply-crippled working classes made the US (and UK) a beacon for global capitalist investment support, the basis of the “Trickle Down” claim that exclusive elite liberty and rule can contribute to the larger “club society” (Therborn 2017) economic welfare.

Obviously, while the US (and UK) rose to global prominence on the backs of slavery, colonial genocide, and other forms of terror visited upon working class peoples, there is a profound, venerable debate over the value of Herrenvolk democracy (Losurdo 2011) as it broadly cripples human development while attracting resources distributed to reinforce economic, political and social inequality and ecological entropy (Climate crisis). At best, Herrenvolk democracy broadly fosters lotto-mentality dispositions that occasionally throw up anti-social, risk-affine fresh recruits to the benefit of ruling class reproduction, and, in the conservatized-liberal Hobbesian spirit, it manufactures exclusive, strong militarized state capacity, and in that sense, a protection racket worthy of Great Apes.

3)    Anti-communist campaigns left a flaccid, rudderless, unsustainable liberalism[5]

Why is this pivotal? The US was incapable of sustainably governing global economy as a democratic country because (see Geoff Mann, 2017, In the long run we are all dead) liberal leadership only fleetingly, unseriously entertained the notion that capitalists need moderation, which requires strategic labor capacity and power resources. Communists would have been needed to maintain such a counter-hegemonic vision, to coordinate a robust, complex labor organization structure including both multiple levels of institutionalized, multi-dimensional power resources (in unions, union federations, and the state) and agile disruption capacity.

While it arose with a spectacular democratic revolution, the US collapsed into a frail, senile liberalism requiring extensive conservative buttressing and a humiliating return to slavery ideology and institutions, which the media, the police institutions, the carceral institutions, the militaries, elite US academia, and the US judiciary and its conservative constitutional law supply to the global Nightwatchman state that has replaced the nation-state.

4)    1955-1963 the UK deregulated financial speculation, enabling currency speculation on the dollar.[6] The US state did not shut the deregulation down.

The UK deregulates finance, breaks US state-US capitalist alignment

Why is this pivotal? Because the US’s global job, per Bretton Woods & the Marshall Plan, was to direct capital into productive activities, economic growth. This required, inter alia, repressing global finance’s capacity to coordinate and direct capital. In this, Keynesian economic theory tentatively broke with the conservative economics tradition. Keynesianism in its boldest hour assumed distinctively that not just states, and not just labour, but capital can cause economic problems and crisis, especially since (per Smith 1776) it is capable of exclusionary, excessive cohesion capacity and power concentration.[7]

All the other countries stuck with the plan. But Keynesians were elitists; ultimately, their fear and loathing of the working class crushed their innovative but wavering resolve to moderate capitalist power (Mann 2017). When the UK subverted financial regulation from 1955-63, partly in order to maintain global financial power in London, it cut the US state’s alignment with US capital, and ended the US state’s capacity to manage capital at all.

While the US had supported the UK’s financial deregulation as a way of removing war expenditure pressure on the dollar, US capital was immediately organized into an inflation crisis campaign targeting the US’s inflation-vulnerable “strength” at the center of global capitalism: The dollar as the currency of exchange, and the US’s assumption of repressive imperial warfare.

Although ceteris paribus, cheapening money can reduce money lending returns in favor of borrowers, ceteris was not paribus. After decades of state regulation of finance, state deregulation of finance allowed finance to gain the global system-regulating upperhand as the quantity of global money flowed into the banks, offsetting the decline of individual units of money, concentrating and coordinating capital.

Sponsored conservative economists were loosed to develop policy intervention models again based on the Atlantic ruling class (Van Der Pijl 2012) belief that only states and labor hurt the economy (Blyth 2002). A fearful, chastened liberalism shrivelled and crawled back into the womb of conservatism.

5) In the early 1970s, after Nixon demonstrated with corporatist pricing boards that capital could stabilize prices, capitalists, coordinated by finance, refused to do it voluntarily.[8]

Boss Battle: You’ll have your inflation & you’ll eat it too

Why is this pivotal? US capitalists collectively jacked up commodity prices as Saudi Arabia (Britain’s long time satellite.) led OPEC to jack up oil prices, creating a heightened inflation crisis and hysteria throughout the US. With the help of conservative economists, capitalists maintained that this inflation was the sole fault of the US state and American labour, meaning that American labour would have to be completely repressed and the US state–the state’s institutionalizing, coordinating, legal and police coercion, and resource distribution capacity–would have to be completely captured by capitalists.[9]

Liberalism and its Rule of Law ideal (“Judicial Activism,” it was then-derided by conservative jurists and comms pros) were left desanguinated corpses in the US, though the state’s institutions were still embedded with and surrounded by armies of liberal lawyers and bureaucrats. The next steps would be the conservatization of those managerial forces, the denunionization and the demeaning of the US working class, and the import substitution of a new, un-enfranchised labor force.

6) From Nixon on, US state efforts to use policy and institution building to mediate capitalist interests with societal interests (OSHA, the EPA, a Fed independent of Wall Street, state responsibility for directing new economic sector development, etc.) were killed or occupied directly by unfriendly capitalists.

Charismatic Reagan was propelled into the front of the Executive to host the Republican restoration of direct capitalist rule over US institutions.

The Dem Party’s only response, from the liberal repertoire, was to sell itself as a “Credible” organization that could more conveniently (than direct rule with charismatic fronts) be delegated the management of capitalist interests.[10] From the conservative (Public Choice) repertoire, the Dems could extract rents for this convenience service and the reassuring, resonant professionalism they performed for international audiences in capitalist countries with semi-independent professional states and remnant liberal institutions. But the neoliberal Dems’ convenient, performative professionalism has offered no value-added for working class Americans–on the contrary, even contributing and managing policies to disorganize and police the American working class, and usually, precious little value-added for regional and global capitalists.

Why is this pivotal? Blanket-policed by their employers, professional unions, political parties, and the police, American labour rapidly realized that they had no collective action capacity and no institutional power, not even in the state. Further, culturally, intellectually, labour would only be conceptualized as an economic problem to be targeted.[11] Without any labour power resources in the US, US and global capitalists were liberated to absolutely, directly run the country (with the currency and the military) at the center of global capitalism.

American smallholders and working class people could align with the Credible Delegates Party or they could align with the Charismatic Direct Capitalist Rule Party. As time, repression, and inequality marched on, it became evident that it didn’t matter. Working class Americans and smallholders would get nothing—padded with crippling law and policing, economic disruption, precarious exploitation, debt, criminalization, incarceration, disenfranchisement, pollution, alienation, racialization, sexual assault, shame, and contempt.

Charismatic Direct Capitalist Rule in the US

Trump, as a charismatic capitalist ruler, offers a wink, a little reality teevee strum und drang, a little business shock ‘n’ awe, a little commedia dell’arte to symbolically lighten the inescapable burdens carried by hundreds of millions of Americans, workers and their guards, managers, and owners. Along with powerless labour, they still have guarding, policing, and incarceration economic opportunities, military national socialism, access to beautiful public lands, lovely climates, remnant infrastructure, and more, slightly higher- quality commodity goods than much of the world. It could be worse…

[1] Blyth 2002, Chapter 4.

[2] Delton, Jennifer. Making Minnesota Liberal.

[3] Glasbeek 2017.

[4] Murakawa 2015, etc.

[5] Kolin, Andrew. 2017. Political economy of labour repression in the United States. Lexington Books.

[6] Schenk, Catherine R. 1998. “The Origins of the Eurodollar Market in London: 1955-1963.” Explorations in Economic History 35: 221-238.

[7] Per Smith 1776.

[8] Blyth 2002: 135-6

[9] Blyth 2002, Ch. 5.

[10] Blyth 2002, Ch. 6.

[11] Blyth 2002.

[1] As observed in Gilens & Page 2014.

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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

YEAR SIGNATORY COUNTRIES NAME OF PACT
1933 UK, FRANCE, ITALY THE FOUR POWERS PACT
1934 POLAND HITLER-PILSUDSKI PACT
1935 UK ANGLO-GERMAN NAVAL AGREEMENT
1936 JAPAN ANTI-COMINTERN PACT
1938 SEPTEMBER UK GERMAN-BRITISH NON-AGGRESSION PACT
1938 DECEMBER FRANCE GERMAN-FRENCH NON-AGGRESSION PACT
1939 MARCH ROMANIA GERMAN-ROMANIAN ECONOMIC TREATY
1939 MARCH LITHUANIA NON-AGGRESSION PACT
1939 MAY ITALY PACT OF STEEL (FRIENDSHIP & ALLIANCE)
1939 MAY DENMARK NON-AGGRESSION PACT
1939 JUNE ESTONIA NON-AGGRESSION PACT
1939 JULY LATVIA NON-AGGRESSION PACT
1939 AUGUST SOVIET UNION MOLOTOV-RIBBENTROP NON-AGGRESSION PACT

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.

Olaf Palme, 1964, on theory’s role in political and social change

“Politics, comrades, it is to want something. Social Democratic politics, it is to want to change because change provides promises of improvement, nourishes the imagination and energy, stimulates dreams and vision.

But naturally will must have a focus and a change must have a goal. We socialists are presumptuous enough to want something because the idea is the driving force of will, and we are bold enough to want change because change may make utopias into reality.

This is fundamental. Often we encounter the claim that ideologies are dead, that their capacity to pierce reality has decayed in withered phrases that could possibly be used to distort the perception of people, but that have lost their ability to innovate, initiate and stimulate. People rail against ideological superstition with a frenzy that would have blown Don Quixote’s mind and made his windmills leak.

To a certain extent, one can go along with this. The grandiose imaginations of the 1800s, their efforts to find a unified formula for explanation and a solution for all social problems have been corrected by an inexorable reality. Yet we are all strongly influenced by those ideologies, and we have much to learn from them. We cannot escape the allure of logic and symmetry, the thought’s stature and the imagination’s power of illumination that we encounter in their bold blueprints. We find an analysis of the social and economic conditions that remains viable to this day.

But we no longer believe in any unified theory. We cannot beat the scriptures and find absolute answers, and we experience ourselves not as participants in a destiny-bound process. There is no longer any absolute truth, but at least  two or three alternative truths, depending on the values assumed and how we interpret a complex reality. School children in communist states may rattle off quotations from Marx and Lenin with the same studious frenzy that our children recite hymn verses, and American industry associations may divulge writings that with basically the same narrow vision expound private capitalism’s gospel. For us, free debate has funneled into the place of nailed theses. Our fate is constantly asking questions and surely to try again, to doubt authority and distrust authority. Our responsibility is to deepen our knowledge, refuel independently and anchor our ideas in a personal conviction. It is perhaps less grandiose. But that is our freedom and our honor.

But the attack on ideologies is driven even further. Sometimes ideology is dismissed with a sigh of relief and deliverance. Finally, they say, we can free ourselves from “the dead hand of the past” and from “the suffocating hand of the future”. Finally, we can proceed to evaluate each issue on its own merits, for the special circumstances existing in each case.

We can be practical, realistic, and grounded. “All theory, dear friend, is grey. But the golden tree of actual life springs ever green,” we recite from Goethe’s Faust. Let us toss theory in the waste basket, let us value life.

Perhaps that can be hard hitting. I may dare to wreak havoc in response: when you remove the long direction of will provided by a foundation of theory and value engagement, you remove the emotional conviction, leaving cold, raw power and politics, as democracy fades to gray. Without theory, possibly one can make things a little better, but one can never change society. Possibly one can do something else, but one can never make something different. If you go ahead with the nose to the ground, without perspective, and without looking at a future that lasts beyond the next quarter, you can never do harm in society, and you are equally unprepared for the problems that the future offers. The historical experience clearly tells us that the ascendance of the practical man drives ideas out of the political arena, promulgating a vigorous decay of democratic policy.”

(To be continued, from P. 6 of “Politik ar att vilja” 1964.)

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
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).

Who really supports the arc of Western civilization?

“All that is real in the universe is an infinity of void space, and an infinity of primary particles in random and everlasting motion. Such is the physics of Epicurus…The Epicurean idea of an infinite universe of matter and space, indifferent to human hopes and concerns but whose workings can be understood, is the predominant scientific idea with which we now live. We have fellow feeling with the importance Epicurus attaches to happiness in this life, with his desire to diminish pain and overcome irrational fears, and with his attempt to understand and come to terms with death, the frontier we shall all reach but not cross as the individuals we now are…

The one world realism of Epicurus is made sharper by the principles 1. No thing is ever created out of nothing by divine will; everything happens according to natural laws without the aid of gods. and 2. No thing is ever put out of existence: natural laws resolve each thing again into its primary parts.

…This would commonly be taken as a contradiction of the Genesis story which forms the foundation of Jewish, Christian and Islamic credos about God creating ex nihilo.

But there is an ambiguity. The first two verses of the Book of Genesis may mean either (a) ‘In the beginning God created (out of nothing) the heavens and the earth and (when he had done this) the earth was without form and void…’ or (b) ‘In the beginning the earth was without form and void and (from the pre-existing condition) God created the heavens and the earth…’

The first time that meaning (a) appears unequivocally in the Hebrew canon is in Maccabees 7:28. Generally Christians have preferred (a) and Muslims (b)” (Gaskin, John. 1995. The Epicurean Philosophers: ix, xxiv, xxvii.).

Distinguishing social democracy

Distinguishing social democracy:

Under left-liberal (as opposed to soc dem) regimes, organized labor does not participate in mid- to longer-range socio-economic planning. However, left think tanks can contribute mid- to long-range planning analyses.

Conversely, there are a variety of ways in which business leaders contribute to public policy formation, because business (public and private, but not cooperative) is regarded by the lib-left govt as the engine of growth.

This exclusion of cooperatives from the field of perceived contributors to growth indicates that lib-left govts may also be distinguished from social democratic govts by an assumption that growth is a product of “efficient” social-hierarchy-inflating organizational forms.

In lib-left regimes, labor views its role, and the liberal government views labor’s role as (often obstructive) ballast to economic growth initiatives that are seen as the natural concern of business. That’s labor’s negative role. It’s not a leadership role.

Labor’s positive role in capitalist democracy thus largely devolves to delivering votes to the left-liberal govt, because although the lib-left does not regard labor as a central social or economic policy resource, as opposed to conservative govts the lib-left govt will not actively try to break organized labor and it may implement those modest proposals of labor that do not impede the business-driven growth planning.

Hence, with a range of ruling (capitalist) political perspectives that always preemptively block information from labor (except what little leaks obliquely through the market), we repeatedly sink into crisis cycles–crisis of profit begets > capital deregulation and overmobilization, working class overregulation, demobilization, and dispossession beget > speculative bubbles/primitive accumulation beget > underconsumption crisis begets > further primitive accumulation, repeat. We fixate on the speculative bubbles moment in the midst of all this autistic failure, hoard wealth, and laud ourselves endlessly for being such top-notch managers and philanthropistes.

This is why for Rawlsianism to work, socialist politics and the communist horizon must be more highly valued, and even defended– by liberals.
As far as I know, this seeming impossibility has only been (temporarily) accomplished in Scandinavia and Minnesota. (While Latin America leftists tried to forge a left-lib coalition from scratch, the US destroyed this effort and enforced conservative rule in Latin America, see Greg Grandin.)

In “Right-wing Rawlsianism: A Critique” (forthcoming in Journal of Political Philosophy) Samuel Arnold argues that if liberals agree that agency is the essence of justice, then liberals have to pick which side they are on–because economic democracy fosters more agency than Trickledown provides.

Arnold’s is a clever detonation of a bridge from liberalism to conservatism, using some of the bridge-builders’ own ideal theory tools. (Particularly with respect to Rawls’ difference principle: A liberal justice-maximizing directive to choose the political-economic system that maximizes the least-advantaged group’s expectations for an index of primary goods that include income and wealth, but also status (qua capacity for agency in the workplace and self-respect in society).)

Upon deriving the optimal realization of liberal justice (agency) in workplace democracy, Arnold concludes (p. 32),

Milquetoast liberal egalitarianism is unstable: liberal egalitarianism must move far to the left in order to avoid being jerked far to the right.”

We need to keep heaping on the demonstrations that economic democracy fosters more agency than GDP/GNP tumescence.

For one example, insofar as political-economic systems can be said to have intentions, how plausible is it that capitalism does not intend to support social pathologies (Arnold, p.29)? Studies of primitive accumulation, the WEB DuBois tradition, socialist feminists, Harvey et al have a lot to say about how capitalism “intends to” (is built and maintained to) and does depend upon and support social pathologies. This approach apprehends the connection between economic (eg. workplace) tyranny and racism, sexism, colonialism, etc., for a powerpunch assertion that inequality is both fundamental to capitalism (even if it is shifted around across some social groups, over time and space) and fatally (from the perspective of justice) undermines agency (power to).

…& on the matter of historical-materialism’s putative incapacity to deal with difference (from a postmodern POV), from Arnold (p. 29):

Patriarchy, discrimination against the weak or the different, pressure to conform, and countless other social practices that prevent people from realizing their full agential potential: how long can these pathologies withstand the countervailing winds of a social democracy, with its democratic workplaces, its flattened division of labor, its robustly egalitarian public institutions?”

Deleuze’s "Bartleby; Or The Formula"

Deleuze, Gilles. 1998. “Bartleby; Or, The Formula,” pp. 68-90 in Essays Critical & Clinical. Verso.

This is a sometimes-breathtaking work of social-literary analysis, see especially pp. 84-90.

(According to Melville,) “If humanity can be saved, and the originals reconciled (with secondary humanity, the inhuman with the human), it will only be through the dissolution or decomposition of the paternal function…As Joyce will say, paternity does not exist, it is an emptiness and nothingness-or rather, a zone of uncertainty haunted by brothers, the brother and sister…Melville will never cease to elaborate on the radical opposition between fraternity and Christian ‘charity’ or paternal ‘philanthropy’…(The fraternal/sororal society) requires a new community, whose members are capable of trust or ‘confidence,’ that is, of a belief in themselves, in the world, in becoming…Long before Lawrence, Melville and Thoreau were diagnosing the American evil, the new cement that would rebuild the wall: paternal authority and filthy charity” (Deleuze 1998: 84-88).

“And what was Bartleby asking for, if not a little confidence from the attorney, who instead responds to him with charity and philanthropy–all the masks of the paternal function?” (Deleuze 1998: 88).

If they haven’t already (and I’m sure they have), someone should take Deleuze’s essay as foundation, and focus more penetratingly, in a more sustained fashion, on Melville’s anti-conservative unfinished-Enlightenment politics, his class politics, and how they inform his critique of the (Anglo-)American Confidence-Man–i.e. the betrayal of fraternity/sorority and confidence/trust for the sake of profit/surplus accumulation, power accumulation (Not necessarily one’s own; usually one’s employer’s or client’s surplus/power accumulation).

Doesn’t the Confidence-Man betrayal = Magical Rectitude, eg. liberal social progressivism?