Oakeshott Establishes the Bien Pensant on Nietzsche

In a 1948 Cambridge Journal review of a book (by Lavrin) on Nietzsche, conservative Catholic English toff Michael Oakeshott announces the correct interpretation of Nietzsche.

Oakeshott identifies Nietzsche as an artist. This means that Nietzsche’s work is to diagnose European culture. Nietzsche’s diagnosis is that European culture is plagued with nihilism, irreligion, and weakness, which pathologies Nietzsche illustrates “in every field of human activity” (Oakeshott 1948). European culture is decadent and inclined to disintegration.

Nietzsche’s syphilis Oakeshott and Lavrin consider a mystical font of truth. Like a smoldering lightning strike from a god, syphilis bestowed not just suffering and mortality but as well divine Sight, Nietzsche’s prophetic diagnosis of Europe. Where both liberal and socialist analysis would locate private troubles within social relations (which for the socialist could be alterable, if the private troubles undermined distributed sovereignty), and in so doing diminish shame as a social weapon, conservative logic rather reassigns the Great Man’s problems to others’ shame: “The disintegration of me, a Great Man, is in Truth the disintegration of society.” Oakeshott and Lavrin affirm the equivalence as especially “sharp-eyed,” “sharp perception,” “vigilant,” “clear-eyed,” even “clairvoyant” “scrutiny.”


Instructively, Oakeshott spills a lot of ink insisting that up to the late 1940s idiots (“culture-philistines up from the suburbs”) misattribute Nietzsche’s importance to his reform platform, calling for the reinstitution of aristocracy. Focusing on Nietzsche’s reform platform, Oakshott warns, is akin to abridging or systematizing Nietzsche; it’s all destruction of Art. Not the reform platform, but the artist’s complaint (His J’accuse! corpus) is Nietzsche’s contribution, Oakeshott insists. It is not knowledge. It is a stimulus to sweet, sweet, manipulable affect. Nietzsche is a primer.

(Although, to be fair to him as an individual contributor to the conservative community, Oakeshott advocated Homo Motus issuing a total kingdom of aethestics: Everything that should exist ought to be understood as art, inducer of emotion, and everything produced should be art, inducer of emotion. Metaphysics, sociology, interests, strategies are not fit topics for polite society.)

Oakeshott is at pains to point out, a few times in a two-page review, that only a Great Master could correctly conduct a genealogy–be it Nietzsche or his interpreter. This foundational requirement of conservative theory tends to escape Sociologists, impressed by the bold conservative command to black box the metaphysical structure of Nietzsche’s work. These Sociologists adopt genealogy and encourage their students to adopt it. The authority of genealogy as a conservative epistemology relies strictly on an ontological precondition, the recognized social power of and behind the interpreter. Foucault had the power of the French state behind him. Little Debbie Hinterlands Masters Student has jack shit. She has the erstwhile backup of Latour and other 20th century German-inspired French philosophers cherry-picking cases to argue that collectivist scientific knowledge has no capacity to allow people to know their world beyond the habituated thought conferred by state (commercial) power. But that’s not much, as the point of that argumentation is to frighten and splinter scholars off from scientific communities of scholarship, reasserting the Cartesian compromise with the church (scientific knowledge of the inert material world v. divine, expert knowledge of the soul), driving them back to submit to the authoritative, decisionist expertise of French state-backed philosophers (at best). We hope these patriarchs mean us well?

In adopting genealogical method against social scientific craft, the student both repudiates democratic knowledge accumulation and proliferates claims without social power. It’s fine for pumping out cheap commodities in a market without demand; but recommending individualist genealogy for students ill-equips them for effective civic engagement, thereby fulfilling its domineering conservative logic. To paraphrase Anatole France, the idealist philosophy, in its majestic equality, permits the patronized as well as the commodified to pronounce bridges, streets, and bread.

In another essay, Oakeshott locates Germany’s philosophical rebuttal to democratic science in the works of (Dane) Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.



Elements of Stoicism

Stoicism as a materialist philosophy in reaction to materialist  has the following elements:

1) The charismatic male father-substitute proselytizer-guru.

a) Aphorism and self-help register aim at converting a popular audience.

b) Contemporary version: Male academic psychologist: Jordan Peterson, Svend Brinkmann.

2) Establishing human limitations, but not shared human capacities.

a) Stoicism is less oriented to scientific knowledge, remaining a knowledge of Great Men, although Great Men challengers to established, idealism-protected power.

3) Rejection of idealism, marketing, moralistic marketing.

a) In refuting their sped-up treadmill work discourse, Svend Brinkmann aims to supplant the moral authority of marketeering management. He emphasizes that we need to consider what we lose in valorizing continuous adaptation and work speed up, qua “self-improvement.”

4) Stoicism can blend with Platonism, eg in Nietzsche.

a) Brinkmann does not historicize managerial morality of continuous work speed-up–It’s not a moralistic strategy of labour control he’s critiquing, and he’s not suggesting the possibility of an alternative path of change. Rather, his goal is to save ethics, qua fealty to social contract, by the Stoic strategy of recognizing only human limitations, and categorically denying that humans share the capacity for development. In doing so, he attempts to organize a psychological “slave revolt,” refusal of the worker/slave-corroding moral-rhetorical strategy of the neoliberalizing Masters.

While the Stoicist rhetorical strategy is overblown, its organizing ambition is modest. Stoicists will let you understand yourself as enthralled and sub-humanized. They will not demand you organize into a collective with the capacity to intervene in the world in opposition to dominant economic, marketing, managerial, military, and idealist networks’ interventions. Stoicism is a step. It’s not an endgame. But as a step toward making slavery less miserable, it carries with it some conceptual Trojan Horses. Epicureans seek to dismantle Stoicism’s Trojan Horses.

The Stoicist rhetorical strategy is not just a check on marketing-strong idealism. It does not correspond with reality. It will be an alarming move to American pragmatists in the Deweyan tradition, as well as to developmental biologists, social epidemiologists, and epigenetic post-cartesians. As Dewey argued in Democracy and Education (1916), humans can be understood as having two complementary development capacities or strengths, the child strength of plasticity (responsiveness to environment) and the adult strength of efficient praxis (theoretical frameworks that efficiently permit interventions in the world).

If neoliberal idealism and skepticism have operated to turn workers into slaves by reconceptualizing us all as perpetual children, the essence of malleable, Stoicism doesn’t help us remember that we also have adult human capacities for intervening in the world in a democratic and (real) pro-life way (by which I mean Earth life-affine, not patriarchical control over women, as the term was brand co-opted by conservatives).

Stoicism may function as an intermediary, indirect conceptual reorganization where a dominant network is geared for destroying direct challengers, but the cost is that Stoicism preserves anti-realism and patriarchy, and these remain levers for tyrannical power to strategically reassert itself against a mystified, dehumanized, and internally-divided working/enslaved class.

b) Historically, while Epicureanism started out as a rejection of idealistic Platonism, it became the main opponent of Stoicism, as per the above critique model. Epicurean materialism uniquely asserts the human capacities basis for normative shared sovereignty.

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The Canadian Right-wing Academic Argument Against Environmental and Social Justice

A McGill historian of science, looking as much like Foucault as he can, in 2018 published an article, with a fellow conservative holding physical science credentials, in which he makes an argument that epigenetics should not be linked as a rationale to egalitarian policy change.

After a two-paragraph intro to epigenetics, Canadian Foucault-Latour coins three neologisms, three sins, to package his argument for prohibiting a bridge between physical science findings and egalitarian social policy:

1) “Mischaracterization”: This is the (dubious) problem where the Historian of Science doesn’t agree with findings–for example, that epigenetic information can be transmitted intergenerationally, and he selects those particular epigenetic findings to dismiss as inconclusive.

2) “Extrapolation”: This is the problem (for Canadian Foucault-Latour) where scientists bridge the physical and social sciences, particularly including social epidemiologists, to suggest that with the theory-backed, mechanism-identified evidence of correlation and time-order, we can make a scientific claim that the material world and institutionalized social relations impact human health, and thus changing institutions, design, and infrastructure can reduce the socio-material harm.

Canadian postmodernist doesn’t say here how he defines science, but it’s probably commercial laboratory science, per postmodernism’s capitalism-accommodating idealist reduction. Along with positivists, discourse-totalizing postmodernists are a Cartesian Praetorian guarding the sacred boundary between the human, idealist world(s) and the base, material projection.

The article is basic, and extremely light on the empirical evidence. Yet with masculinist aesthetics, it presents errant pedantry as technocratic rigor. The McGill third arm of policing–not particularly well supported– is to attribute to mostly-unidentified other scholars a lack of his own fine appreciation of the connection between genetics and epigenetics. He decides this is the 3) “Exceptionalism” sin. This is raw crank. Even in pop culture accounts of epigenetics, the historical relation between the Human Genome Project and the growth of epigenetics is emphasized. The authors need to spend more time reading other people’s academic work, and less time in the patio party conversations.

It is a very thin article evincing a cursory familiarity with the substantive topic–which is not a survey of epigenetics. It is how epigenetics are being approached by anti-cartesians. Extremely thin on data, the article is only justifiable by an overinvestment in either positivism or in the postmodern, idealist, theoretical reduction of science to the commercial lab. It is a “textbook” recent case in reactionary “critical” idealism. It is the embodiment of the institutionalized Canadian settler-extractivist theoretical approach to reconciling private-property-reifying liberalism with hierarchy-reifying conservatism: effacing the inequality while censoring the inegalitarianism.

The basis for this authority’s institutionalized expertise is that while he was a grad student, he had to work with an indigenous community, as most Canadian social science and humanities academics did by the second decade of the 21st century, and that required him to write an article denouncing the association in medical studies of Canada’s First Nations with health problems due to the colonial relationship. I know this, because that is what I was being commanded to do then. You were told, by indigenous leaders in institutions, that you had to write stories about how there is no problem. Obviously, indigenous people outside of power were not clamoring for academics to amplify this particular voice. It became a theoretical specialty to argue that the material world is radically divorced from, inaccessible, and unknowable to humans–unspeakable.

Then McGill had a short burst in 2012 of trying to set himself up as an authority on how the biome is just imaginary and a bad discourse, because its metaphysics connects the material to the social–social design, institutions, and infrastructure overdetermine human health– and so its justice telos is about reducing social, economic and political inequality. He analyzes surveys, which is what he uses to back up the idealist social science theory.

In idealist thought, human health is not a thing. Health is just a holographic projection of bad Minds. Some physical scientists twiddle around with health because the tyrannical state. In idealist thought, design, institutions, and infrastructure are not recognized to create different kinds of social relations oriented to distinct justice teloi. Their discursive ontology only permits them to recognize difference, and they reject the idea that inequality is a thing, let alone a problem. The only problem, for which idealist humanities and social science academics are the official police, is reduction of difference–for example, state policy changes that reduce social hierarchy. Reducing inequality is the ultimate injustice from the idealist position. They believe the historical-materialist justice telos competes with the idealist justice telos–to proliferate difference, including inequality.

Inegalitarianism is difficult for postmodernists. Like good imperialists, and against all historical and concurrent evidence, they believe we can have moral, tasteful, polite inequality, reconceptualized as playful, fecund difference, without the discursive rudeness of inegalitarianism, which they typically project outward upon Americans, because of the brutish conservative culture of slavery-backed capitalism that feeds the US global imperial role, or another geopolitical Other–Nazis or Russians.

Canadian Foucault-Latour also sprinkled an article in his CV about how “contagion” is really financial crisis; wholly within discourse, that was a less-reactionary effort.

When critical idealists can keep within texts, they do not necessarily support capitalist and capitalist-state efforts to repress egalitarian, developmentalist design, institutions, infrastructure, and relationships. A postmodernist, like this McGill Man or Latour, may instrumentally play with a conservative, positivist physical scientist–they share the inclination to denounce inequality recognition and egalitarian redistribution; they both bury metaphysics; and they are both keen to reduce science to the commercial lab.

Yet the alliance between postmodernists and positivist commercial scientists of course contains an inner crack. Postmodernists as idealists are distinct from physical scientists in that they abject recognition that the world we live in transcends the textual. The Postmodernists reject an ontology material and historical and social. There are only words, which is the hermetically-sealed flat universe of the social, and when the textual ontology is imported into the social sciences, the lacunae–through which, in proper discursive philosophy, the historical-material world enters–is papered over. Thus postmodernists reject expanded, scientific methodologies, rather than just authoritarian bluster (“Meritcratic” decisionism, eg genealogy, and associated speculative idealism). When they use their idealist hermeneutics against the Earthly and human material world, it is all reactionary conservatism and it has been for a long time.

McGill ref: Huang, JY & NB King. 2018. “Epigenetics changes nothing.” Public Health Ethics 11  (1): 69-81.

Note that the Swedish Universities by contrast are immersed in studies linking epigenetic difference and health effects. Canadian idealism v. Scandinavian historical-materialism. University of Washington has an anti-cartesian epigenetics lab.

After “Who Made Me?”

Star Wars: A Democratic-ish but  Patriarchal Discourse on Ethics

I am of life. To exist in (inegalitarian, alienated) human society, I need a guarantor. So, Who made me?

The Star Wars series locates this weird, infantile, alienated, possibly patriarchal question as the root anxiety spurring our ethical and political choices as we grow older; and Star Wars shows the political consequences of how we are able to settle on this (socio-)psychological question–a decision, a judgment we must take responsibility for, we cannot evade, once we recognize the question. Though to be clear, you don’t have to recognize the question. Han Solo doesn’t worry about it.

Well, also, there is a very common way to evade responsibility, see below, but that way dehumanizes you, turns you into part of the war machine, a Stormtrooper to show the cards.

I find the question odd. I don’t know why life needs a guarantor, why this should be the anxiety.  Whose culture is creating this anxiety? To be transparent again, I really suspect it’s an inability, conferred by patriarchy, to accept coming from a female, coming from Earth. The question does give more reason to creepy philosophical efforts to break down the ontological divide between humans and the commodities they produce and which are owned by an elite in an inegalitarian social order. Anyway, I do know why life needs to protect itself from human tyranny. But the anxiety that this should spur is the anxiety over whether you can organize other people.

From orphaned hinterlands farmboy Luke Skywalker to orphaned hinterlands scavenger Rey, the main audience-avatar character walks us through their variable processes of settling the root infantile anxiety with a judgment that commits them to a democratic ethics, and puts them on a democratic political path. Another, side model is Han Solo, a skilled, strategic orphan who doesn’t care about patrimony, but unlike his girlfriend the Mother of Dragons (Qi’ra), is naturally oriented toward cooperation with democratic organizing, a “good guy” as Qi’ra pronounces. We don’t know what is propelling Qi’ra toward the Dark Side. A lack of options path-dependently leading to a lack of democratic confidence, apparently.

We also see in the distance, by contrast, that the para-princes Darth Vadar and Kylo Ren arrive at contrasting decisions upon that root infantile anxiety, a commitment to a contrasting Dark Side political path and ethics. (There’s also some indication that mother-attachment propels the Dark Side ethico-political decision. This can be read as trashy 1970s cultural psychology, or it can be read as a diagnosis of exception-fetishizing conservatism: When the conservative rejects life, he has to create a pocket of exception–typically Mother and Wife–to sustain the advantage of his own nurture.)

Pursuing the freaky, infantile dread-hope, Who Made Me?, down into its dark hole, the protangonists and antagonists can find no father, no parent, no god, no protective, recognized lineage. Just the self. But it is not clear what this means. A decision is required.

We see that the emotional responses to this discovery are variable and consequential; but, contra conservatism, the emotional response flavors–but does not determine the consequent ethical and political judgment. The interpretation of what it means that one does not come from a direct, parental Maker, a protective lineage recognized by all, does determine one’s ethics and politics; and in the Star Wars cosmology, the interpretation is to a large extent a fateful choice of reason.

There are two possible opposing ethical-political interpretations containing judgment: 1) I made me. Man is will to power. This is a conservative insistence that there must be a monadic originator. 2) I make myself. I am (Wo/man is) life, a diverse collective in development/(We are Groot, to borrow another narrative). These opposing interpretations entail judgment, and thus ensuing ethics and politics.

As a sociologist, I would have to point out that the interpretative choice is generally overdetermined by the built social environment. In that sense, interpretation is not usually, really a choice of reason, but a reflex instilled by institutions. Thus, most people slip the responsibility, and hegemonic liberals call this deference virtue.

For example, the Abrahamic religions instill the need for, and so overdetermine the “choice” to reassert an abstract monadic originator, as the alienated, individual, willful self, substitute for God the Father. Thus the Abrahamic religions reproduce inegalitarianism and inegalitarian economies. Because this overdetermined “choice” means no shared space for development, most of us become processed down into dehumanized, violent Stormtroopers, or, in its less-destructive version, sheep. The “Great Men” that end up on the top of the pile dominate and own. Society flinches, genuflects, and reflects upon the Ubermensch the myth of their apotheosis.

The Star Wars narrative doesn’t precisely deny the social, built environment. Rather, it places the responsibility for the interpretation/judgment on the individual because it is interested in the ethical torch carried by a small, beleaguered band of comrades in the long historical moments when institutions do not reproduce the collectivist, democratic, Light Side I am of life judgment.

The Dark Side decision is idealist. In the discovered absence of the mythical consciousness-giving father, as the culturally-foreign, alien-ness of complex, developing life (See also Vanderbeek’s Annihilation) is rejected in favor of the choice to incorporate the mythical God into the individual self, the moment of judgment is fetishized (See Carl Schmitt). All emotion and rationality recoils and wraps around the individual self’s will to power against all else, all others. Because humans are objectively a social (part of) life, the idealist Dark Side decision requires working in tension with that reality, working strategically with other Dark Siders, idealists, enemies all, to kill them when you can, to assert your will, to torture all others into serving as your voice, your idealist self.

By contrast, the Light Side decision reconnects to philosophical materialism. It is oriented to development, and full human expression, including connection, organization, and balancing reason. Understanding that one is not a wanted, recognized projection of a superhuman father into a guaranteed space of existence, but that as life, one becomes onesself, the self is developed, in the materialist approach is foremost recognition that the self is material, existing in a unique interstice, and connected. “You’re not alone,” Rey tries in vain to convert Ren; the Nietzschean idealist is unmoved, and I say, enthralled. The materialist Light Side is a mutualist ethics of creating the space, organizing the infrastructure, relating with others– for life to develop into its own complex, historical, changing self. It foregrounds proliferating and activating full human capacity, working with others, as opposed to imposing one’s self upon, diminishing and obliterating the others.

In the Disney corporation’s hands, it’s hard to say where the Star Wars discourse on ethics will end. They have performed above expectations, particularly in Rogue One, and yet there is much foreshadowing that the Ubermensch and the democrat will be reconciled in some sort of neoliberal alliance between Rey and Ren. Or perhaps, more hopefully, the Light Side Resistance will be taken up by the stableboys and the class conflict will continue and advance.

The great tactic of conservativsm, a la Strauss, is lying to the hoi poloi, the repository of conservatives’ misanthropy. Conservative Austrian tactician and Anglo-American consultant Friedrich von Hayek best formulated this tactic for the modern era, in portraying the elite-owned heap as a porous social formation, full of degrees of freedom putatively for all, while portraying universally-developmentalist democracy as an excessively-demanding ethos and infrastructure, and in that way constricting, a kind of “servitude.” Would it be true to the democratic spirit of the Star Wars discourse on ethics to conclude with some Stormtroopers and stableboys, having observed and suffered the contrasting relations the Sith lords and Rebel Alliance have made (the arguments the philosophers and social scientists have forwarded), casting off the enculturated disposition to Mastery/Servitude, and enjoining the deferred decision to organize a new social space for shared life development? In the 20th century, most philosophers rejected working for democratic development. In the 20th century, most philosophers rejected working with social scientists. As the narrative develops, will the philosophers and Jedi figure out a way to contribute to the liberation, the full human development, the organizational capacity of the stableboy and Stormtrooper class?


Conservative wheelhouse: Assuming the impossibility of mutual recognition

David Graeber summarizes Hegel’s account of human desire for recognition in the Master-slave dialectic as a prime example of conservative theory’s assumption of the impossibility of mutual recognition. Most philosophers and many social theorists playing in the conservative wheelhouse proceed to theorize recognition upon the assumption of highly-unequal, slavery relations as normal, universal human relations. “But it’s one thing to say that the quest for mutual recognition is necessarily going to be tricky, full of pitfalls, with a constant danger of descending into attempts to dominate or even obliterate the other,” Graeber cautions. “It’s another thing to assume from the start that mutual recognition is impossible.”

“As Majeed Yar has pointed out (2001) this assumption has come to dominate almost all subsequent Western thinking on the subject: especially, since Sartre refigured recognition as ‘the gaze’ that, he argued, necessarily pins down, squashes, and objectifies the Other.

As in so much Western theory, when social relations are not simply ignored, they are assumed to be inherently competitive. Todorov notes (2000) that much of this is the result of starting one’s examples with a collection of adult males” (Graeber 2015).

Philosophy rejects collectivist, knowledge-building science, rigorous, collectively-regulated empirical methods to discern the range of –not just probability but also– possibility, including by identifying trends, averages, standard deviations and other summaries of main dynamics in a select place and time, as well as variations within that milieu and in main dynamics across space and time, identifying via theory, correlation, time-order, and comparison together their contributing factors, to systematically refine and correct these descriptive and explanatory frameworks collectively. In science, empirical disconfirmation of theory is maintained as part of the knowledge ideal–thus, the pursuit of scientific knowledge employs a diverse collectivism; one study is not science, nor is uniformity stable in this kind of collectivism (per Kuhn 1962).

Science constructs probable descriptions of what tends to exist or not, how–under specified relations or conditions, within a comparative understanding of the constellation of possibility in complex, often reflexive life relations. Philosophy’s desultory knowledge method, by contrast, tends to rather rely on a few, fetishized “expertly”-chosen cases (Olympe de Gouges!) exclusively confirming elite interests (Social rationality = death!). Philosophy celebrates the exception.

Not theory exactly, but due to its method, in particular philosophy’s (including theory primarily based on philosophy) long-term characteristic problem tends to be importing, as its bed of assumptions, the wisdom of the ruling social segment–classically, property-owning man between the ages of 20 and 50. While we have arrived at a point in global capitalism where such perspective can be readily denounced, the discrediting move tends to issue from within the desultory, antidemocratic-elitist philosophical knowledge project itself, and in the conservative effort to maintain manufactured scarcity across global integration, it tends to be directed at waged workers and science, or rather, commercial scientism qua science tout court. Weber saw doom in the shift from princely state managers to working-class state bureaucracies. Bruno Latour has made a career and academic institute based on showing that white-coated technicians working in commercial labs are irrational. Foucault reified opportunistic, scientistic Psychology as his reduction of science, even while admiring conservative economics. Philosopher GA Cohen argued that in the communist utopia the affront to philosophy that is social science would die, as it contributes nothing to knowledge besides demystification of labor and commodities. With these expert Great Man philosopher selections of cases “demonstrating” that Enlightenment scientific method offers no advantages to knowledge issued by Great Men serving warlords, and many disadvantages (a lack of independent genius, per Nietzsche), philosophers–particularly the French school by way of the German-Catholic idealist philosophy tradition–protect and advance the reputation of philosophical contributions to knowledge, based upon an elitist assumption bed–particularly elite distributions of misanthropy and anthrophilia, elite assumptions about the distribution of sovereignty and rationality, and elites’ recognition failures, in addition to assuming that humanity is reducible to young, elite male experience, including autism and unbound competitiveness. These elitist assumptions provide the foundation for arriving at the philosophy and theory objective, the foregone conservative-wheelhouse conclusion that non-elite human development and democracy are impossible. It is a venerable, neat political ecology.

(For a prime example, see the neo-Hobbesian, French (cum German idealist)-school philosophy of Justin Smith, as his recent contribution to this tradition offers a crystallization of this ancient, antidemocratic Atlantic elite project.)

Elitist Idealism v. Democratic Materialism

Graeber discusses Catholic Europe’s Medieval psychology theory, which started with the proto-Cartesian premise of a human soul divorced from an object world, where a kind of intermediary mucus or film, a “pneuma,” was posited to represent that world like a script or teevee show to the temporarily-embarrassed (separated from Heaven) soul of man. Desiring to apprehend and embrace that world–for example with the human body– was pathological, in Catholic Medieval thought. In its ethics, the externally-imposed passion must be self-managed, via a priest-like, contemplatory orientation to the imagined pneuma.

This baroque and improbable idealist theory set up a few conceptualizations useful for inegalitarian organization in feudalism: 1) Humans are conceived as utterly alien to Earth. This alienation will be useful, from a warlord perspective, in isolating people and extracting and exploiting. 2) As shared sovereignty within human relations is impossible, desire is reduced to unrequited sexual tension. The male adolescent experience is reconceived as the universal human condition, and we all pretend priests don’t molest children. 3) Ethics: The proper business of man is not to organize and engage in collective action with other people, since slavery relations are universal and we cannot share sovereignty. It is to sit alone on the couch and absorb the Pnetflix…er, pneuma, a normative individualism sanctified as a relationship between a man and his imaginary lord. Man is a teenage monk.

Graeber’s genealogy identifies an historical shift from understanding individualist, imaginative desire as erotic, in Medieval Catholic Europe, to understanding it as consumption, eating food, a universal, individualist act of private property destruction and incorporation in global capitalism.

“The ultimate proof that one has (absolute) sovereign power over another human being is one’s ability to have them executed. In a similar fashion, one might argue, the ultimate proof of possession, of one’s personal dominium over a thing, is one’s ability to destroy it—and indeed this remains one of the key legal ways of defining dominium, as a property right, to this day. But there’s an obvious problem here. If one does destroy the object, one may have definitively proved that one owns it; but as a result, one does not own it any more.”

In either the conservative Catholic tradition or the liberal capitalist tradition, desire is propelled, and an inegalitarian social order is perpetuated, by the logical impossibility of an isolated individual simultaneously having a cake (or bang, or slave) and eating it too. These are logical proofs of the impossibility of absolute sovereignty distributed across human individuals. What ho, we’re not gods. The infantile passion imposed by the gulf separating man from consumerist utopia in capitalism is conceived as the proper focus of individualist man. (This is why psychologists classify philosophers as neurotics.) Man’s passion is imposed upon man from outside, above. It is solitary man’s duty to self-manage the imposed passion, and not to judge, decide, and act collectively, not assess and allocate resources to wants and needs over time and across life, as per materialist philosophy. Selecting illustrative cases, philosophers and economists pump out denunciations of such shared, socially-rational use of full human capacity, while conservative Catholic legal authorities forbid it in favor of elite rationality.

Note by contrast what democratic Enlightenment’s scientific approach to knowledge does with the reality that humans are not gods: It devises social knowledge-acquiring methods that both deploy our human capacities and compensate for our human limitations. Not Genius-boy philosophy, tho, based as it is upon a misanthropy that instrumentally excludes the exceptional.

Ideas before Organization

In Graeber’s theory, the origin of capitalism is Medieval Catholic Europe’s individualist idealism, the conceptual requirement for consequent capitalist individualist practice.

“The shift from a conception desire modeled on erotic love to one based on the desire for food (“consumption”) was clearly a shift in the direction of popular discourse; at the same time, though, one might say the innovative aspect of modern, consumeristic theories of desire is to combine the popular materialist emphasis on consumption with the notion of the ephemeral, ungraspable image as the driving force of maximization of production.”

“The idea of human beings as creatures tainted by original sin, and therefore, cursed with infinite wants, who therefore were in an almost natural state of competition with each other, was already fully developed in authors like St. Augustine, and therefore a part of Christian doctrine throughout the Middle Ages… the notion of the maximizing individual existed in theory long before it emerged in practice.” Still in Catholic European Medieval society, “almost any increase in popular wealth was immediately diverted into communal feasts, parades, and collective indulgences. One of the processes that made capitalism possible then was the privatization of desire.”

Distinguishing Making (Unalienated Work and Social Reproduction) from Consumption

Graeber calls for scholarly specification of what we identify and analyze as consumption, limiting consumption to those activities that involve incorporation and destruction (eg. burning fossil fuels) driven by capitalist possessive-individualist desire. He argues that expanding the concept of consumption to encompass all of human life beyond the manufacture of commodities renders absurd moral narratives. “When ‘creative consumption’ is at its most creative, it’s not consumption; when it’s most obviously a form of consumption, it is not creative.” In inflating the concept of consumption to conform with a marketeer’s desiderata, scholars are rendered sub-critical, ridden by the historical, hegemonic metaphor, not scholarly. Scholars of integrity–as opposed to court philosophers–have to be able to distinguish between activities that are really semi-sovereign, unalienated, and creative making (in Scarry’s 1985 sense), and those that are not.

This distinction, however, requires of conservatives and liberals a perhaps-impossible conceptual shift to recognition of non-elites as humans, with a human range of capacities and limitation, capable of human development and making. It forces a conceptual shift in our understanding of sovereignty–not to dispense with the notion, but to shift it from a God-like absolute ideal, jealously monopolized over a dominion, to an alloyed and socially-distributed attribute, fit for a social life on Earth.

By classifying all non-productive activities as consumption, commodified acts of ceremonial destruction making way for more production, we deny all human making (imagination and realization to address a suffering) beyond the capitalist class. Consumption scholars “are categorizing all non-alienated forms of production as consumption, which has the incredibly reactionary political effect of treating almost all every form of unalienated experience we do engage in as somehow a gift granted us by the captains of industry.” Graeber calls for us to replace the (pseudo-) “Marxist” (capitalist) opposition between production and consumption with another understanding of human activity–effectively Marxist social reproduction, what Anthropologists conceive more idealistically as “the sphere of the production of human beings, not just as labor power but as persons, internalized nexes of meaningful social relations.” Human creative activity essential to capitalist value accumulation, because mostly uncommodified and so expropriated.

(Graeber, an anarchist, sometimes is a little sketchy on Marxist theory, or at least prone to viewing the Frankfurt School as a logical extension of Marx, rather than an historical-psychological extension from the Holocaust. Note that while Marxists do analyze consumption as one of several forms of capitalist alienation–commodity fetishism, the Marxist “sphere” distinction is between the sphere of production and the sphere of circulation (not a “sphere of consumption”), and that contrasting-spheres conceptualization serves in Marxist theory to explain capitalist incentive, anxiety to secure the surplus, profit.)

“Insofar as social life is and always has been mainly about the mutual construction of human beings, the ideology of consumption has been endlessly effective in helping us forget this. Most of all it does so by suggesting that: a)human desire is essentially as a matter of a relation between individuals and phantasms; b)our primarily relation with other individuals, then, becomes an endless struggle to establish their sovereignty, or autonomy, by incorporating and destroying aspects of the world around them; (MF: So idealist capitalist phagocytotic desire compels us to revoke others’ sovereignty absolutely.) c) this logic ultimately becomes the basis for ways of imagining the very possibility of relations with other people (the (Sartrean) problem of “the Other”); d) materially, it becomes the basis for imagining society as a gigantic engine of production and destruction in which the only significant human activity is either manufacturing things, or engaging in acts of ceremonial destruction so as to make way for more: a vision which in fact sidelines most (social reproduction) things that real people actually do, and insofar as it is translated into actual economic behavior, is obviously unsustainable.”

“Even as anthropologists and other social theorists directly challenge this view of the world, the (overly-broad,) unreflective use and indeed propagation of terms like ‘consumption’ ends up completely undercutting their efforts and reproducing exactly the tacit ideological logic we would wish to undercut” (Graeber 2015: 30).

…That is if consumption theorists wish to undercut the Catholic-capitalist logic. But it’s not clear that anyone playing in the wheelhouse of conservatism wants to undercut conservatism’s logic. Perhaps all they aspire to do is wittily, pseudo-critically, conservative-ethically coordinate and regulate pneumatic contemplation, prescribe the self-management of the delegated passion, wonder at the creativity–a munificence bestowed by capitalist lords upon the multitudinous bellies, and assert the fatal impossibility of mutual recognition, shared sovereignty,  non-elite development, and democracy.

See also: Post on Star Wars: An Ethics Discourse on Who Made Me?


Elitism & Patronage: The Inegalitarian’s Theory of Justice

Theory literacy & its application

On how theoretical assumptions provide specific foundations producing specific varieties of knowledge:

Methodologically, comparison is a great way of understanding what exists, what is possible, and how alternative approaches and projects function. In the contrasting discipline of Linguistics, theory tends to be based on the distinct philosophical ontological assumption that the knowable world is a projection of human discourse—oral and/or written language. In a world of language, there is no inequality, no violation of shared commonality. There is only difference within language. Thus, in the philosophical linguistic ontology, the diminishment of difference is injustice. Recall Burke from Unit One: Arguing that when democratic Enlightenment theorists reduce inequality, they reduce the beautiful, natural difference that is Excellence, and so they reduce justice, is the conservative social philosophers’ political argument.

Conceiving of injustice as strictly the diminishment of difference, philosophical-linguistic ontology historically emerges from and is built for supporting the reproduction of high-inequality societies. The world-as-text assumption foundation justifies linguists’ disciplinary knowledge, including against the social scientific knowledge that arose within the struggle toward Western Enlightenment.

Social scientific knowledge distinctively assumes that humans exist together in an historical, material, embodied way within a knowable world that exists in but also beyond our linguistic networks. Corrollaries:

  • Social scientific ontology distinctively recognizes inequality, the violation of human commonality, as injustice.
  • Scientific knowledge is not only about what is, but also what can be. Fully specified science is descriptive (identifying trends), predictive (identifying the trajectory of trends), and normative (identifying alternatives we can socially construct).

In linguistic theory, “aporias” are empty spaces, treated as black boxes beyond knowledge, that within language structure the linguistic world, which for linguists is the whole world. Linguistic theory’s “aporias” correspond to the material world in science.

However, in science, the world beyond discourse is not treated as a black box, but is rather the focus of scientific knowledge-seeking. Recall from Marxist historical-materialism: In science, we strive to mobilize across space and time our distinctively human, material capacities to know the world. These capacities include not only our logical and emotional capacities, not only our social communication capacity, but also our hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and proprioreceptor senses as well. With our distinctive human physical manipulation capacity (manual dexterity), we can build technological augmentations for our capacities, to further help us know the world beyond human language networks. Through scientific method employed across the community of shared scholarship to compensate for our human limitations, this aggregate knowledge will be incorporated in theory, in language according to democratic methodology, changing language in a distinct way. We think the virtue of scientific knowledge for democracy is that science is fundamentally built to involve a diversity of people, including a wide range of non-elites, in continually probing and searching for knowledge beyond elite exceptionalist, strategic interests. Scientific findings thus are not transcendental “truth,” but have validity. The ongoing conflict between elitist philosophy and scientific validity, as between inegalitarianism and egaliberte, is which is more just: transcendental truth, perhaps cherry-picking history, but always secured strictly by righteous power and entitlement, or validity, a provisional truth based on methodically apprehending and collectively interpreting aggregations of knowledge across humans.

How do contrasting ontologies, epistemologies,[1] and corresponding theory assumption bases impact the knowledge we produce?

Consider this case of the equivalence Mill (1869, “The Subjection of Women”) was arguing between slavery and patriarchy.

For a disciplinary Linguist, what is important is that slavery involves race, whereas patriarchy is about gender, and these concepts reflect distinct linguistic networks. A discourse theorist would argue that connecting patriarchy to slavery in terms of their function, as Mill did, creates an injustice against racialized people because it erases linguistic difference. Erasing linguistic difference is the ultimate injustice within philosophical-linguistic theory. You might recognize that this is a type of justice philosophy, the elite, conservative justice of the exception, which is oriented to find injustice where solidaristic connections are made between non-elite majorities and non-elite minorities. German idealism, including its Nietzschean, Weberian, and Ordoliberal branches, developed this approach through the German university system, originally dedicated to training the princely managers of European monarchies.

Perhaps ideally, exception-justice theory could be incorporated in democratic knowledge, could correct for science’s focus on aggregating positional knowledges and finding central trends. However, instead, in a capitalist society of manufactured scarcity, exception-justice theory tends to be deployed as a proprietary antithesis to scientific knowledge. In that context, it relies on righteous moralism.

For example, in a 2018 account of the Nazi construction of Asperger’s as a designation allowing for special socialization of sub-social boys into productive German society, a writer, L. Sheffer, married into Silicon Valley tech wealth, links Dr. Asberger’s cruel Nazi treatment of non-Asberger child deviants to the welfare state, in its social coordination functions that impinge on the lives of the exceptional. The conservative logic and morality are structured to support elite interest: opposing state intervention in market power.

For the conservative wealthy mother of a child on the autism spectrum, justice is a state free of democratic redistributive capacity, a social contract that permits economic elites to retain wealth without redistributive taxation or income and wealth compression, while the responsibility is laid upon presumably-brutish sea of Muggles to adjust, like the servants they are, to the autism-spectrum Silicon Valley inheritors of society’s wealth. To market this elite interest requires a moving–emotionally manipulative–story, ostensibly about Asbergers, connecting and reducing the welfare state to shameful, murderous Nazis…who did not kill boys designated with Asbergers. No matter the leaps and strains in the story (this time, putatively about Asbergers). Painting elite interest as moral crusader for the most vulnerable and marginalized is the feminized half of the inegalitarian conservative social order. In place of egaliberte, elites shall gift us a society of patronage (and servitude). Then when conservatives retell another cobbled, holey, moralism-patched account of why everyone should support inegalitarian absolute private property right, the tale is always marketed (as M. Pridmore-Brown did in the March 29, 2019 LRB) with hype around how brilliantly nuanced and complicated the argument is–That is conserva-code for crookedness and emotional manipulation.

To demonstrate the “truth” of exception-justice theory, a Linguist might gesture to a justice-of-the-exception argument forwarded by a community of African-American philosophers, such as the claim that slavery is an exceptional, incomparable experience of difference. This project argues that 99%-solidarity arguments such as Mill’s are injustice, from within the difference morality of the justice-of-the exception paradigm.

By contrast, a Sociological social scientist would be more likely to understand Mill’s argument about the slavery nature of patriarchal relations within the historical-materialist theory of capitalist development, in which capitalist relations (allocating to a small elite exclusive ownership and control over the means of production) repeatedly rely on and reproduce a “sea of appropriated work” (Jason Moore 2014), such as both slavery and patriarchy, among other kinds of expropriation.

Because it is based in a democratic-justice paradigm, does this mean that social science cannot forward a morality argument like a discursive exception-justice paradigm can?

No. Sociologists can gesture to, for example, Du Bois’ democratic justice arguments finding homologies (similarities) between the development of patriarchy, slavery, and racism (among other injustices, like ecological destruction) in the history of capitalist relations. Today, scholars of color including Angela Davis, Sedef Arat Koc, Glenn Coulthard and Leanne Simpson, et al, forward democratic-justice arguments rooted in social science and other (eg. indigenous) historical-materialist paradigms. Likewise, climate scientists have found their moral voice in recent years.

Moralism is a classic crutch propping up inegalitarianism. Although exceptionalist knowledge tends to be especially defended with moral arguments (eg. Burke), moralism is not an exclusive property of any one kind of justice paradigm or political wheelhouse. As the philosophical materialists, and as Dewey, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft maintained, democracy requires moral development, toward a capacity to balance goods (or “pleasures”) over a lifetime and across lives. Yet advancing democratic capacity requires us all to learn theoretical literacy and scientific craft, rather than to lean on moralistic discourse.

Feminist social reproduction theorists JS Mill, M Wollstonecraft, V Woolf, and E Clews-Parsons would argue that education for democratic development requires us to rigorously study the theory and practice the empirical skills to move beyond reproducing an inegalitarian, gender-segregated society disposing feminized people to specialize in the moral regulation of segregated private worlds, as a social-reproductive complement to men disposed to be club conservatives bound to exploitation and imperialism.


Historical context: Social science knowledge v. Social philosophy knowledge

In the 20th century, as part of their neoliberal mobilization to reorient liberalism, as it’s centered on private property right, back toward the conservative wheelhouse of inequality and inegalitarianism, conservatives organized scholars around the claim that scientific, democratic social knowledge is unjust and requires correction–specifically correction with the elite-governed justice-of-the-exception paradigm. To make this claim, some conservative scholars depicted science as nothing more than state-subordinated scientism. Others, such as conservative economists, practiced and proliferated scientism.

Yet arguably, the neoliberal project to demonstrate that the elite-interest-governed justice-of-the-exception best represents the interests of the most marginalized non-elite peoples tends to be a co-optative reaction to democratic justice approaches and projects. Along with scientism, restoring justice-of-the-exception theory is part of a “neoliberal” conservative restoration project explicitly formulated to disrupt, dismantle, and replace democratic knowledge development.

[1] Ontologies: philosophies of what exists. Epistemologies: philosophies of how we know.

Queer-constructionist Political Economy?

Seriously, though, I don’t get the promotional friendship between Melinda Cooper and the US East Coast-networked leftists, their combined attempt to mischaracterize and discredit Nancy Fraser, as if she were an opponent of queer constructionism.

Where Fraser, as a philosopher, did a philosophical analysis of how neoliberalism co-opted the antimarxist liberal and postmodern feminism that developed upon a conservative philosophical tradition championing the justice telos of difference against the justice telos of egaliberte, Cooper just appropriates some of the 1990s family sociology and political soc work, tosses in a couple superficial gestures to Marx, and tacks it onto a hatchet job on Fraser. Australia has the worst academic production incentives. Maybe it would seem fresh and necessary if you were a Political Scientist and thought queer social constructionism was birthed in the 2016 H. Clinton multijurisdictional campaign. Cooper’s latest is the most manipulative, orchestrated, bad-faith academic work I have seen coming out of the social sciences in recent years. Because the empirical history retelling is so derivative, it seems like it was done just to sell the denunciation, maintain the conservative elite + patronaged-exception political coalition.

Every time I see a reviewer scratch “Masterful” or “Magesterial” next to Cooper’s cheap appropriation smacked onto a wildly-bad faith denunciation, I grow curiouser and curiouser. Is this about Political Science just co-opting Political Sociology work, and Political Scientists rallying behind that? After all these years, I finally worked out how much the tenured Arts academy (not just commercial science faculty) is a collection of people seeking patronage from (or contributing to the campaigns and interests of) political parties, foreign states and defense industry, banks, etc. Is this a security institutions thing–some attempt to hush down the political, antimarxist role of academic poststructuralism in the academy? Why is Cooper so well networked into the Anglo-American Atlantic–to the point where a quick ‘n’ dirty, basic, redundant lit review is hailed as “magesterial”? Usually, Australians are networked into the Commonwealth. Curiouser & curiouser.

Maybe Cooper gets carte blanche for some reason after “Life as Surplus”? Maybe she just earned publishing house-backed credit as someone who can crank out books. Again, quality is at issue.

For obdurate reasons of ontological difference, Queer social constructionism is not a logical fit with political economy. Micro constructionism (discursive essentialism) and macro-constructionism (political economy) can make space for each other, but they cannot fuse. All Cooper did to bridge the ontological incompatibility was fake a shared epistemology–by appropriating it. This is clearly not sustainable, because it required not producing knowledge but stealing the work of and then denouncing all the people who did the empirical work, the social science social reproduction feminists, whom Cooper dismissed by reducing and subsuming them under their philosophical-interpretive ally,  Fraser. This is not scholarship; it’s gaming. While I understand that ambition’s at play here, it’s really not going to work to demand that older feminists in particular submit like good cis-het girls to queer-careerists humping their leg, because to be a mature female feminist is also to work with being existentially queered, and it always has been. It’s not a choice. It’s not a strategy. It’s not a brand.

For leftists, it is not worth selling out all the socialist feminists who do the social reproduction empirical and theoretical work, have done it since Kollontai (1915), just to try to fake like there’s a viable, hybrid queer-constructionist political economy tradition or agenda to market. Don’t force it. If you need a queer path to political economy to fill out the cocktail party or to compete with a Coca-Cola commercial, some slightly-less-mercenary queer careerist can plagiarize Stephanie Coontz and Sarah Diamond (not queer enough 4 U ?) without profoundly disrespecting all the sex-heterogeneous socialist feminists and their work.

By contrast…The great things about Fraser are that as a philosopher she pays attention to the empirical, craft work of feminist social scientists without appropriating it. She does her own work. And b) her work is rigorous, reflective, coalitional and politic, informed by experience, and a reorienting, politically-necessary intellectual intervention that guides and clarifies ideas. Like a philosopher is supposed to. It’s not just a weathered French academicism–pre-scripted, delegated, conservative imperial market-state reproduction strategy–slap-dash and slathered with bluster, a la Cooper.