Sic et Non

Uncertainty, perplexity, ambivalence. I'm pretty sure this is where it's at.

DiEM25 is in the air – a preliminary Q&A

Varoufakis announces the launch of DiEM25, a movement “to develop a pan-European consensus on how to address serious problems and crises afflicting Europe as a whole.”

Yanis Varoufakis

DiEM LOGO 1 colour background.jpgDiEM LOGO2 White Background.jpg

DiEM25 is, indeed, in the air. Our website (www.diem25.org) has made its first appearance on the airwaves, as have our Facebook and Twitter (@diem_25) pages.

DiEM’s Manifesto will appear in the next few days and our webpages will ‘mature’ into a fully fledged website by our launch date – the 9th of February. While waiting for the Volksbuehne Theatre event of that night, here is a brief Q&A, answering some of the questions we have been receiving from all over Europe. 

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Recommendations to the New Commissioner-designate for Economic and Monetary Affairs

Pierre Moscovici

Bruegel, the Brussels-based think tank and one of the most influential European institutions in economic policy matters, has issued a series of Memos to the President and key economic policy Commissioners of the new European Commission, announced on 10 September. The new Commissioner-designate for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, under the new Commission structure, is Pierre Moscovici, a French socialist and Minister of Finance, 2012-2014.

In the memo to the new Commissioner, Bruegel points out the need to “move ahead relentlessly with structural reforms”, specifically mentioning “regulations [which] inhibit the growth of firms … administrative requirements… protectionist regulations… labour market regulations [which] do not encourage workers towards higher performance… public institutions [which] work ineffectively and various kinds of public spending [which] are used wastefully and need to be financed by distorting taxes.”

Although it stresses the need to vigourous implementation of fiscal rules, the Memo also recognizes the imperative of demand management, stating that “relying predominantly on supply-side oriented structural reform and a tough adherence to current fiscal rules is not enough for growth.” An investment programme is recommended, of “at least 1 percent of EU GDP in addition to investments currently planned… financed by the European Investment Bank, project bonds and an increase and improvement in the EU budget.” It adds that countries with weaker economies and higher unemployment should “benefit disproportionately” from the programme. (Compare with economist Yianis Varoufakis’ Modest Proposal, Policy 3.) Sectors to be thus targeted would include the European energy and telecommunications networks.

As regards inflation, Bruegel suggests supporting an expansionary policy and insists it “is essential that demand increase, in particular in countries with large account surpluses… Public and private investment and wages will have to rise”.
A warning is issued about the possible re-emergence of the crisis. Bruegel’s position is that if “inflation and growth remain subdued and debt dynamics remain unfavourable, it will be only a matter of time until the next financial attack against member states”. In this context, they warn against a repetition of “the Greek debacle – the pretence that a non-sustainable fiscal position is sustainable”, and they go on to propose “re-profiling or even restructuring if debt is unsustainable”.

Finally, the Memo outlines the key elements of any new programme of financial assistance, which pertain to the Commission’s and the ESM’s role (with the recommendation that the latter be strengthened and transformed into a “true European Monetary Fund”), as well as that of the ECB (it should be reduced to “silent participant” and “should not define conditionality”); a third element concerns the “strengthening of ex-post democratic control” with the involvement of national parliaments and the European Parliament.

Read the Memo here.
Jean-Claude Juncker’s 10 priorities as Commission President.
Juncker’s Mission Letters to the new Commissioners.

How do the powerful get the idea that they ‘deserve’ more? Lessons from the… laboratory

“Arbitrary distributions of roles and wealth are not only sustainable in competitive environments but, indeed, they are unavoidable until and unless there are political interventions to keep them in check.”

Yanis Varoufakis

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 1.56.20 PM The ‘haves’ of the world are always convinced that they deserve their wealth. That their gargantuan income reflects their ingenuity, ‘human capital’, the risks they (or their parents) took, their work ethic, their acumen, their application, their good luck even. The economists (especially members of the so-called Chicago School. e.g. Gary Becker) aid and abet the self-serving beliefs of the powerful by arguing that arbitrary discrimination in the distribution of wealth and social roles cannot survive for long the pressures of competition (i.e. that, sooner or later, people will be rewarded in proportion to their contribution to society). Most of the rest of us suspect that this is plainly false. That the distribution of power and wealth can be, and usually is, highly arbitrary and independent of ‘marginal productivity’, ‘risk taking’ or, indeed, any personal characteristic of those who rise to the top. In this post I present a body of…

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The Ancient Greeks: after the “dark ages”, a new beginning

From “dark ages” to the “Golden Age”.

“The European spirit spent its youth in Greece” (Hegel)

Democracy, philosophy, the theater, timeless art and architecture, values that shaped the civilization of Europe and the Western world centuries later and have since come to be respected almost universally were born in and around a rugged peninsula in a corner of the Mediterranean Sea, among a people who lived in separate, largely autonomous communities without any central political organization, in the span of a few hundred years. That was an exceptional era in world history – “the seedbed of almost all that played a dynamic part in shaping the world we still inhabit” (J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of the World, p. 159). We often think of all this as “just” history – an ineluctable series of events that simply happened like that, as a matter of course. Familiarity breeds blandness, when it comes to history, but if we pause for a moment and think about it we realize that this was an extraordinary phenomenon worth exploring the roots and development of.

The first thing that needs to be stressed is that the history of what we know as ancient Greece was not continuous. The civilization that produced classical Greek culture and thought is separated from the previous one by a sharp break that lasted several centuries and is known as the Greek “dark ages”. Around 1150 BC the so-called Mycenaean civilization suffered systemic collapse, for reasons that are unknown to us. It could have been climatic change or natural disasters (such as a draught), internal revolt, some kind of economic disruption or an invasion, but there is no hard historical evidence about any of that. In any case, the Mycenaean world was thoroughly destroyed. The whole edifice – political, social, commercial and cultural structures – crumbled to ruins. Palaces and elites, workshops and craftsmen, merchants and their ships, armies and fleets and all the technology of that society were apparently wiped out. Even literacy disappeared along with the bureaucracy (the script the Mycenaeans used served administrative purposes). Life went on in “small, loosely organized units, and from cultivating pastures and farms, from hunting and fishing, and a bit later from piracy and sea trade” (Christian Meier, A Culture of Freedom, p. 52).

A new beginning

If we were to mentally position ourselves at that point in historical time and try to look ahead into the future, we wouldn’t be seeing glimpses of a “golden” classical age in the horizon. Just small-time, grind-along subsistence in the backwater of the Mediterranean. So, what went on between the 12th and the 8th century that laid the foundations for that dazzling burst of civilization that followed? Historians try to surmise mainly from circumstantial (e.g. the Homeric epics) and archaeological evidence the developments that took place during the Dark Ages.

It seems that the people of that time, having found themselves facing completely new circumstances and challenges, were forced to respond by gradually developing new social and cultural institutions. The way they responded to each of those new circumstances and challenges was at every step shaping possibilities for a future that to them, of course, remained ever indeterminate and uncertain. Successive generations of them made choices that led to what for us is one of the most intriguing chapters of world history. As Professor Kurt Raaflaub puts it: “To master these challenges [the Greeks] needed their own particular culture. They developed it” (Meier, Foreword).

Unlike most other peoples around them, “dark age” Greeks found themselves living in independent, largely autonomous communities after the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms. Perhaps due to the influx of immigrants/invaders, groups of people fled from mainland Greece to the coast of Asia Minor, where they founded new settlements. Historians believe that it was among those isolated communities that the polis, the unique and typical Greek form of political [political < polis] organizationfirst took shape. From there, it spread first to the islands of the Aegean and then to the Greek mainland, where it prevailed over earlier forms of tribal administrative structures. The polis was partly a product of the relative isolation and independence of communities that characterized life in Asia Minor towns (because of their position as scattered settlements among foreigners) but also on the islands of the Aegean and in mainland Greece (where geography encourages the formation of small communities and the centralizing Mycenaean powers were now gone), but it itself fostered independence and autonomy. The polis was the polity [< polis] of landowners. They saw in this form of community organization a way of maintaining their independence and asserting their dominant status. So, in place after place, they succeeded in establishing viable political units with a strong communal element. The poleis must have started as aristocratic communities of peers – independent, equal citizens, not subject to any master. In order to do that, they had to overcome the resistance of earlier lords, the basileis, and eventually bring about a radical political change – the weakening and reform of the institution of hereditary “lordship”, which evolved into an annual civic office.

Religion, warfare, citizenship

A particularly significant element of this emerging culture was a pluralistic religion that was embedded in the life of the polis. It was not a religion in the sense that we use the word today, and the Greeks did not have a term corresponding to ours. It was an ’embedded religion’ in that it permeated all aspects of private and public life, cemented communal ties, was a part of civic identity, fundamentally tied to the polis. There was no formal dogma, no sacred scriptures, no exclusive priesthood class. Hence, religion didn’t lend itself to exploitation by political authority as an instrument of domination; the elites did not control access to the gods and their will – “they lacked both the ambition and the ability to seek lasting rule” by that means (Meier, p. 110).

At a certain point, another important development took place, that had far-reaching political repercussions. By the early 7th century, in most of the Greek world a new technology of warfare was adopted: the phalanx, or hoplite warfare. Wars were fought between tight formations (phalanxes) of heavily armed foot soldiers (hoplites), several men deep, which clashed with each other. These were short wars, usually decided in a single battle, fought in early summer, just before the harvest. The Greeks generally showed no interest in conquest; they were satisfied to maintain the independence of their limited, restricted communities and the territories that sufficed to sustain them. At the same time, no Oriental power took an interest in the Aegean region during the dark or archaic ages, which meant that for many centuries the Greeks were left alone to shape their world according to the peculiar circumstances, challenges and opportunities that presented themselves to them. Therefore, the small city-state remained the norm for centuries to come, practically all through ancient Greek history up to the time of Alexander the Great.

Phalanx warfare brought about a new civic identity for several reasons. First, hoplites fought side by side, each man protecting with his round shield only half of his own body, the other half being covered by the shield of the hoplite fighting next to him. The phalanx was a body of warriors par excellence. Second, a hoplite had to provide his own armor and weapons, which was less costly than maintaining a horse and its equipment but still required an income surplus, such as that of small landholders or artisans or merchants. Thus, those free men in the “middle” of society (and even men of lower status that fought as light infantry) who contributed to the city’s defense with their means and/or their own bodies – all free, native inhabitants, eventually – were granted political rights and recognized as full-fledged citizens, members of the body politic as well.

The polis evolved into a social structure where no other permanent ties (patronage/clientage, hereditary obligations, etc.) applied, save the direct one between the individual citizen and the city. This meant that the constitution of the citizen body and the polis itself could be reformed by the collective will of its members, something which was crucial for the eventual development of democracy. Citizenship became perhaps the single most important formative element of identity for the Greeks.

During those times, the Greeks also rediscovered literacy. They now adopted the Phoenician script and adapted it to their language. The earliest known inscriptions using it date from the mid-8th century BC. Homer’s epic poems could now emerge from the obscurity of prehistory to become not only the normative texts of Greek culture, but also the founding texts of western literature. Thus, by around that time, the beginning of the archaic period, the setting was in place – the fundamental elements of a culture of freedom, independence and radical reformism – for the astonishing achievements of the classical period. It was formed slowly on the ruins of the Mycenaean world through the interplay of circumstance and collective will, choice, action.

The rest is, quite literally, history.

Sources:

Christian Meier, A Culture of Freedom, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Heinz – Günther Nesselrath (ed.), Einleitung in die Griechische Philologie(Greek edition, Εισαγωγή στην Αρχαιογνωσία, Τόμος Α΄, εκδ. Παπαδήμα, 2001).

J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of the World, Penguin Books, 1995.

Religion as Poetry

There must have been a time when human beings sang songs and only believed in the omnipotence of the images that haunted their dreams and populated their stories, leaping into the world of appearances as things-in-themselves.
There must have been a time when God was dead and his children didn’t know.
There must have been a time when suffering was taken for granted and there were no words for happiness, atonement, grace.

Then, someone said, “let there be surplus” and there was surplus. And the world became too complicated to be ruled by stories and songs and things-in-themselves, and it was clear that accounting and logistics would have to be invented. “Cui bono?”, naturally followed.  And the people looked around them and saw that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong and someone said, “yes, but the race is to the swiftest and the battle to the strongest” and so the superlative came to being. And from there it was a very small step to the Superlative Being.

One might imagine that by that time the songs would have ceased and the stories wound up, but Cui Bono wasn’t such an imbecile and decided to use some of the surplus to hire those with the sweetest voices and those with the wildest dreams to be Guardians of the Peace (this was before Babel and nobody knew what that last word meant, but it didn’t matter). Thus, Poetry was pirated by Religion. Nobody lived happily ever after, but quite a few people at least had peace of mind, as that new mental state came to be called which was free of the turmoil of perplexity and haunting dreams and, well, death-in-itself.

Now, poets will procure inspiration wherever they may find it, and so deities proliferated. But in a certain corner of the earth, a little obscure corner where surplus could hardly be created and resources were scarce, it appeared that pooling would be a better idea than diversifying, and that pooling they tentatively called Yahweh. Later, a generic name was adopted, the Lord, which was not patented and so came to be used as a blanket designation for all sorts of beings that secured the surplus and oversaw its distribution. Poems were of course composed for the Lord, and stories and songs, some of them quite lengthy.  But in all of them the same figures paraded, the same shadows from those haunted dreams, dressed up in the new clothes of faith and devotion.

Humans must have sang songs since the beginning of time. They will continue to do so when religion has found its proper place in the Annals of World Literature.
Amen.

Nietzsche and Schopenhauer; pessimism and the ascetic ideal.

May we not inquire whether a pessimist who denies God and the world, but stops short at the problem of morality, says Yes to morality, to a laede-neminem morality and plays the flute: well then? is this person really—a pessimist? (Beyond Good and Evil, 186)

Was Schopenhauer a pessimist?
No, says Nietzsche. He wanted to be one, but he wasn’t.

Schopenhauer, of course, has at the centre of his philosophy the denial of the meaning of life. But Nietzsche views this metaphysical position (metaphysical, precisely because it denies the meaningful nature of existence) as a variation of the “ascetic ideal” (the ideal historically expressed par excellence in religion, notably in Christianity), which denies, defies, antagonizes earthly, “natural life”.

For Nietzsche, the only real pessimist, the only one who can really claim to have denied life and its meaning, is the man who commits suicide. Anything else, even the metaphysical denial of life and its meaning, is but another manifestation of the “will to power”, a militant attitude towards antagonistic forces, an affirmation of one’s existence. “Schopenhauer … needed enemies … his enemies seduced him back to existence again and again”, says Nietzsche. His enemies were “Hegel, woman, sensuousness, and the whole will for existence, for continuing on”.

Metaphysical nihilism and the ascetic ideal are but stratagems of the “will to power” aiming precisely at the preservation of life! They give meaning to suffering (for the problem, Nietzsche says, is not suffering in itself – it is man’s inability to find some meaning in it). So, the ascetic ideal makes suffering meaningful (mainly through guilt). By denying the meaning of life (but affirming the meaning of its suffering) the ascetic ideal makes the life of guilt-ridden man meaningful – he is tormented in order to pay for his sins – it binds him to life, giving him something he can believe in: the absence of meaning (because, as far as the instinct of life is concerned, the will to nothingness is better than the nothingness of will – “man will sooner will nothingness than not will”). And this is how the denial of life is transformed into a positive value that generates will to life (and this is how Schopenhauer managed to actually live for many-many years − playing the flute, “every day, after dinner” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil) − serving the will to power of the ascetic ideal and the denial of life!)

Nietzsche, of course, dislikes the New Testament (“you will already have guessed as much”). His scathing, scorchingly ironical critique is worth quoting, as it exemplifies his view of Christianity as a force that antagonizes what he deems the real values of natural life (plus, it’s a delicious example of his masterful polemics): “Here, it seems, there’s a lack of all good upbringing. How can people make such a fuss about their small vices, the way these devout little men do? … They even want to possess ‘the crown of eternal life’, all these small people from the provinces. But what for? What for? It is impossible to push presumption any further. An ‘immortal’ Peter: who could endure him? They have an ambition that makes one laugh … And the most appalling taste of this constant familiarity with God! … There are small despised ‘pagan people’ in east Asia from whom these first Christians could have learned something important, some tact in their reverence”

But Nietzsche sees even the “free spirits” of the modern world, science and even atheism as manifestations of the ascetic ideal: they share with religion the “belief in the truth” – truth as “a metaphysical value,a value of truth in itself” (and even the agnostics “worship the question mark itself as their God”).

* All quotes, except otherwise indicated, from The Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay: What do Ascetic Ideals Mean?

Deconstructing TINA

Ideologies often recruit believers by putting forth the argument that There Is No Alternative to their programme. For Marxism it was the inevitable Revolution and victory of the Proletariat; for Liberalism it was Progress, Scientism, the natural laws of market economy and individualism. In recent decades, proponents of Neoliberalism insist that the only way to prosperity is a return to free trade, deregulation, freeing up socioeconomic recourses that protectionism, interventionism and the welfare state had rendered dormant, in order to create growth and wealth to benefit all. The widespread adoption of such policies globally across the political board shows, perhaps, that the argument is powerful enough to garner support even where one would not have expected it to. (Or else, we would need to subscribe to a conspiracy theory, which I find much less tenable). Economic realities seemed to dictate the turn, and those who did turn skillfully seemed (for a time, at least) to be doing better than those who insisted on alternatives.

Very often, when the elites tell you there’s no alternative, they have made sure of that beforehand. Or they have made sure it looks that way. They have configured the system in such a way as to privilege certain choices over others, so that the scope of action is effectively restricted. You may not like the new rules and you may want to refuse to play by them, but there may be little choice if you want to remain in the game; you ought to have done something when they were paving the one way street. Now you may indeed have no alternative, or, to be more accurate, the alternatives are seriously constrained.

So, at any given time, antagonistic forces shape and reshape reality; you can never start with a clean slate. You never start with page one. You always carry on a story whose composition was begun by others, and what has been written in the previous chapters necessarily limits how you carry on. Even if you decide to rip off a half-written page and start a new chapter, you can never really start an altogether new narrative. “Men make their own history” wrote Marx, “but not … under conditions they have chosen for themselves; rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them”. (Eighteenth Brumaire, I) This can be frustrating, but so are many things in life.

But, you will say, I don’t want to play the game then; I refuse to play the game. If the game is that of global capitalism, you really have no choice but to play, though. This is a case in point for TINA. There is no other game played in our world. As Immanuel Wallerstein, an important scholar of historical capitalism, aptly points out, capitalism “is that social system in which those who have operated by such rules have had such great impact on the whole as to create conditions wherein the others have been forced to conform to the patterns or to suffer the consequences.” Even the former communist bloc was effectively part of the capitalist world-system (Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism, pp. 18, 65-69). Only North Korea is perhaps out of the game, but this only proves my point, I should think.  So, your options are really about how well you’re going to play. This is, of course, not entirely up to you, because the playing field is never level; countries of the periphery start with a disadvantage and need a lot more effort to catch up than more developed countries need to maintain their dominant position. Still, skillful players have managed to gain advantages and improve their position. If you are an influential player, you can also try to modify some of the rules of the game; you can make it more or less hierarchical, more or less exploitative, more or less reciprocal. After World War II, for example, the US set up a surplus redistribution mechanism that allowed large parts of the world to prosper; in recent decades, on the other hand, it has pioneered a version of capitalism that has dramatically skewed the playing field in favour of those at the top of the social pyramid. Only when the endgame is played out, when a system has reached the limits of its adaptive capacities, can new games be contemplated and fundamentally new directions pursued. (Wallerstein, by the way, is one of those who believe we are at, or are approaching, this stage right now).

The point is, how do you know if you really are in a situation where there is, indeed, no alternative? More often than not, things are not so straightforward and neat as to allow an easy answer. In a world that is more pluralistic than ever, perhaps, power is a coordinate of a multiplicity of social, economic, political, etc., forces. How to make sense of this mesh of power relations, contingencies and necessities, continuity and disruption that constitutes our mode of being? The only meaningful response I have found to this is a relentless critique of the order of things, informed by an open-ended inquiry into the perplexing, tangled, fascinating chaos of “this small world the great” (Odysseus Elytes, The Axion Esti).

And here are the two guiding principles that, for me, ought to frame this inquiry:

“So many things can be changed, being as fragile as they are, tied more to contingencies than to necessities, more to what is arbitrary than to what is rationally established, more to complex but transitory historical contingencies than to inevitable anthropological constants”. (Michel Foucault, Libération, 30-31 May 1981)

“Mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve”. (Karl Marx, Preface to the Critique of Political Economy)

Eurozone Crisis Monitor: Update on the Debate

On September 6, Mr. Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, announced an Outright Monetary Transaction programme (involving potentially unlimited bond purchases), in order to “address severe distortions in government bond markets” and to provide “a fully effective backstop to avoid destructive scenarios”. He stressed, by the way, that “the euro is irreversible”. [Press Conference Statement]

At about the same time, the Commission issued a proposal for a European banking union and the German Constitutional Court upheld the European Stability Mechanism, Europe’s bailout fund. To many, these developments signalled a turn in the right direction in the management of the euro-crisis. They also seemed to pacify financial markets, as Spanish and Italian bond yields fell.

Kemal Derviş, Vice President and Director of the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution, had already pointed out that for such a program to succeed “a decisive change in the macroeconomic policy mix throughout the eurozone” would be required. More recently, in an article entitled “Back to the Brink for the Eurozone?” (10/10/12), Derviş stressed that although “there has been some progress, albeit slow, toward agreement on the institutional architecture of a more integrated eurozone … there has been virtually no progress at all … in the recalibration of the macroeconomic policy mix”: Europe insists on a pro-cyclical strategy of excessive austerity and internal devaluation that is producing a “deflationary spiral”, thwarting the efforts to curb deficits and the debt/GDP ratio. He points out that the enormous combined current-account surplus that northern European countries are running at the same time “subtracts net demand from the rest of Europe and the world economy”. He warns against the fallacy of the rationale behind this (increased competitiveness in the global market), arguing that “surplus countries must contribute no less than deficit countries to global and regional rebalancing, because the world economy cannot export to outer space”. Insisting on such policies, he fears, could “bring about the end of the eurozone”.

Yanis Varoufakis, a Professor of Economics and one of the most vocal and eloquent critics of the Eurozone’s crisis management policies, has tried to assess the credibility and viability of the OMT scheme in a series of three brilliant posts on his blog under the general title “Europe’s Modern Titanomachy” (Part A, Part B, Part C). His view is that “all depends on whether bond market participants take a look at it and decide that it will not pay them to bet against its integrity”. His conclusion is that “the OMT conditionality constraints, if imposed, guarantee that the Eurozone’s Periphery will continue along its present path toward” catastrophe, because “Italy and Spain … will apply for an ESM-EFSF-OMT program only when their situation is so desperate that their commitment to deficit reduction … lacks credibility, in turn wrecking the ECB’s own credibility regarding the threat to discontinue an OMT program when deficit reduction falls through” (as a decision to withdraw OMT support might well be tantamount to suicide for the eurozone and “no ECB President can convince politicians that he will prefer to pull the plug on an OMT program, rather than find a rationale to continue with it, if their fiscal targets are continually missed and they relent in their implementation of increasingly harsh austerity”).

Wolfgang Munchau, the Financial Times columnist and associate editor, agrees that “trouble is already building that may soon destroy the OMT’s credibility”. (“QE would be right for Europe, too”, FT, 16/09/12). Is it just a “confidence trick”? Munchau thinks that “there are good political reasons that stop elected politicians from applying for the OMT”. And even if current leaders do apply, what happens if a newly elected government tries to “tweak the reform process”? Will the ECB be willing to withdraw its support? As Varoufakis says, “when I threaten my daughter that I shall stop breathing till I die unless she does her homework, she has every reason to ignore me, knowing that, if she does not do her homework, I will be far worse off if I carry out my threat”. Hence, Munchau worries that “we might be damned if the OMT works and damned if it does not”. He urges quantitative easing, as a monetary stimulus, to counteract the effects of pro-cyclical austerity policies and “halt a self-reinforcing crisis”.

Critical Theory: Who remembers the “Frankfurt School”?

Fragments from The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, ed. Fred Rush, Cambridge University Press, 2004, and Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Eric Bronner, Oxford University Press, 2011.

CHRONOLOGY

1923       Institute of Social Research founded in Frankfurt.
1928       Theodor Adorno (1903–69) begins his association with the Institute.
1930       Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Erich Fromm (1900–80) join the Institute.
1932       Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) joins the Institute.
1933       Hitler becomes chancellor. Institute moves provisionally to Geneva.
1934       The Institute relocates to Morningside Heights in New York City.
1947       Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment.
1949       Horkheimer and Adorno return to Frankfurt to reestablish the Institute there.
1955       Adorno appointed codirector of the Institute with Horkheimer.
1956       Jürgen Habermas (1929–) becomes a member of the Institute.
1958       Horkheimer retires.
1966       Adorno, Negative Dialectics.
1970       Posthumous publication of Adorno’s unfinished Aesthetic Theory.
1981       Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action.
1992       Axel Honneth (1949–), Struggle for Recognition.
1997       Honneth joins the Institute.

CONCEPTUAL FOUNDATIONS OF CRITICAL THEORY

HORKHEIMER hopes to create a new, philosophically informed, interdisciplinary social science to displace both social philosophy and sociology as they were then represented in Europe. In this sense, Critical Theory is an account of the social forces of domination that takes its theoretical activity to be practically connected to the object of its study.

For early Critical Theory the project was one of a philosophical reconstruction of idealism, ultimately through a materialist reinterpretation of those of its features that can be preserved in order to counteract reductive and instrumental tendencies of early twentieth-century European philosophy and social science.

The nature of the theory-object relation
  • Contrary to accepted view, physical sciences are, like social sciences, characterized by the theory-dependency of their objects, which leads to an instrumental understanding of the world: purposively deploying concepts – based on one’s understanding the world to be a certain way, which in turns involves one’s interests – in order to achieve predictive and manipulative control over things.
  • Critical Theory asked: can instrumental thought ever achieve the goal of overcoming the fear of a distanced nature? What effects does such distancing have cognitively and politically? How is it possible to eliminate the base alienation that produces the perceived need for instrumental thought?

Materialism contradicts idealism because “according to materialism neither pure thought, nor abstraction in the sense of the philosophy of consciousness, nor intuition in the sense of irrationalism, is capable of creating a connection between the individual and the permanent structure of being”.

Reductive materialism takes two forms that Horkheimer wants to blunt: the sociological positivism of Comte and the logical empiricism of the Vienna Circle (one consequence of the verifiability principle is that ethical and political statements are meaningless.) Positivism, for the members of the Frankfurt School, is the ideology of capitalism; it is the explicit philosophical formulation and glorification of the incorrect, objectifying attitude people in capitalist society have towards their world.

CT attempts to rescue from idealism a conception of reason as unified in its practical and theoretical employment, coupled with a dialectical and materialist account of human flourishing.

The concept of alienated labour is central for MARCUSE, while Horkheimer believes that overemphasising it valorises instrumental rationality.

WALTER BENJAMIN’s thought is characterised by a distinctive Kantianism: a turn away from purporting to investigate the nature of reality, towards an investigation of our experience of that reality. For Benjamin, the system of correspondences, the “non-sensible similarities” to which individuals respond without being aware of it, gives expression to economic life in noneconomic reality.

THE DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT

This work investigates how instrumental rationality expels freedom from the historical process and enables commodification/reification – the reduction of individuals to their ability transiently to “substitute” for variables in functional contexts – to penetrate every aspect of society. Capitalism, bureaucracy and science – all expressions of instrumental rationality – constitute the real core of the Enlightenment. Liberal ideas were betrayed by the instrumental framework in which they were embedded: the totally administered society. The irrational beliefs that the Enlightenment sought to destroy reappeared as itw own products. Humanity pays for an increase of power over nature with the loss of subjectivity.

REVOLUTION & POLITICS

Aim: to emancipate humanity from injustice; stems from applying negative dialectics to the contradictions of social reality (the confrontation between the professed goals of the bourgeois economic revolution and what that revolution had become – inversion of liberal values into their opposites); opens up the possibility for radical change; more and more difficult to imagine anyone breaking out of the logic of domination; clear thinking and the correction of error and confusion within theory were the tasks.

Capitalism has a stranglehold on the imagination of the workers in two complementary ways: they have some of the beliefs and attitudes they do because of the society they live in, and these beliefs and attitudes are somehow inappropriately constrictive; and they have some of the desires and needs they do because they live in a society of a certain kind, and having these desires or needs inappropriately limits what they can imagine and thus what they can reasonably be expected to do. This is how the capitalist system is reproduced. A false need is not one the satisfaction of which fails, or even fails systematically, to be gratifying, but rather one that the agents in question would not have developed had they been in a position to develop their need-structure freely. “Free development” here means development subject only to the conditions imposed by nature and the level of development of our forces of production.

Objectification: When I adopt an objectifying attitude I treat my beliefs as if they were completely distinct from and external to the state of affairs to which they refer, and as if they were practically inert and had no effect on the state of affairs. The members of the Frankfurt School took a Hegelian view of human society that construes it as a self-reflexive, historically developing totality – that is, the beliefs and attitudes people in the society have about themselves and their society are themselves an integral part of the society.

Social institutions all have an inherent teleology – they are directed at contributing to the “good life” – and by analyzing their structure and their operation one can extract from them their “concept” in the technical sense in which Hegel uses that term: the internal teleological mechanism that governs their operation. Dialectical thinking criticizes existing institutions, practices, or states of affairs simply by contrasting what they are with what they could be, and are in some sense striving to be but are not.

ADORNO had by far the more pessimistic attitude towards revolution – for him dialectics could be at best a defense against pressures of conformism, but without much hope that this could be more than a rearguard action. HORKHEIMER and Adorno intended to confront the limits of Enlightenment from the standpoint of enlightenment itself. Their point of departure was the erosion of autonomy. Because the whole is false, and mediations are never introduced, critical theory becomes compelled to consider negation as its guiding principle. If the totally administered society is truly total, and capable of integrating and domesticating all critical undertakings, then the prospects for political action are dim. Instrumental rationality is the problem, the commodity form is the culprit, and the culture industry is the enemy. Divorcing experience from critical reflection creates an opening for ideology and compromises the ability to resist what Adorno termed the “ontology of false conditions”. There is no alternative. The only available option is negation (negative dialectics) and the relentless criticism of the present.

MARCUSE was at times more sanguine about the possibilities for the development of a potentially revolutionary “new sensibility”: a spontaneously generated need for solidarity and aesthetic satisfaction, and an intolerance of repression and coercion. He saw this new sensibility arising within western capitalist societies among those who were not yet fully socialized, those who rejected the values of society by a kind of spontaneous act of will, or those who for one reason or other were excluded. On the other hand, central to his thought is the concept of The Great Refusal: A refusal to be drawn into the life of late capitalism (incl. reformist politics) – against Enlightenment. “The critical theory of society posseses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal.” (One-Dimensional Man)

HABERMAS rejects this total critique and argues that the Enlightenment presents a Janus face of possibilities. Deliberative democracy: formal institutions of representative democracy, informal interactions of a public forming their opinion in a well-ordered public sphere. We must find a way of talking with each other as equals about the elimination of systemic inequality before we can eliminate it. Decentered democracy: plurality of grass-root forces.

ADORNO’S AESTHETIC THEORY

PHILOSOPHICAL AESTHETICS AS A THEORY OF REASON

Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and HABERMAS all agree that formal or scientific reason necessarily surmounts and then excludes the authority of the sensible as its condition of possibility. For Kant and Habermas, the exclusion of sense from reason is driven by the presumption that the space of reason is normative, and thus necessarily a space of freedom, the very opposite of the domain of material coercion and causality.

The governing animus of Critical Theory aesthetics is to claim that sense is indeed the repressed or repudiated other of reason, not in the Nietzschean sense of an alternative to reason as a form of comportment towards the world, but rather as a repudiated and hence split off part of reason itself. Sensory matters belong intrinsically to reason. The domain of art (or, more widely, culture) is the social repository for the repressed claims of sensuousness, society’s sensory/libidinal unconscious. Simultaneously, it is the social locale where the normative binding of reason and sense is forged, elaborated, and reproduced.

MARXISM AND AESTHETICS

Western Marxism developed from an initial questioning of the base/superstructure model of society. For this to work, one must shift to a broadly two-level, functionalist model of the social world. On the level of system integration, what is required is a functional integration of the consequences of social action, which must occur both within single social practices and among institutional practices. On the level of social integration, agents are able to coordinate their social actions by adopting harmonious action orientations, which itself involves adopting (internalizing and believing) the same or essentially complementary meanings, social rules, and values. If social integration is necessary for system integration (the functionalist equivalent of base/superstructure), then the two levels can be thought of as mutually conditioning one another, and the transforming of action orientations, hearts and minds, would be providential for social change.

Western Marxists came to think that the primacy of the economic base was not transhistorical and, therefore, not the deep motor of history but, in fact, a unique feature of capital itself: capital is defined by the economic becoming autonomous and the consequent relegation of other social instances, including the political, to the economic instance. The mechanism through which this occurs is not a dialectic of forces and relations of production but – said sotto voce – the long-term processes of occidental rationalization as theorized by Max Weber. Institutionally, rationalization involves social rules becoming more abstract, decontextualized, formal, impersonal, and means–ends rational, hence less traditional (historically bound) and less dependent on the character of reasoners and their relations with one another. This rationalization of reason is the process through which the sensory – the contingent, contextual, and particular – is first dominated and then repudiated as a component of reason. The general pattern of rationalization involves the subsumption of particulars under universals. For Adorno, this process is irrational in its endpoint because a part of reason – nature controlling, instrumental reasoning – is taken as the whole of reason.

AUTONOMY: ART’S DOUBLE CHARACTER

“[Art] epitomizes the unsubsumable and as such challenges the prevailing principle of reality: that of exchangeability”; “it criticizes society by merely existing.”

“Something severs itself from empirical reality and thereby from society’s functional context and yet is at the same time part of empirical reality and society’s functional context”.

Primacy of form over content. Form is the internal bearer of art’s (external) sociality.

Art: Spirit coming to know itself in the alien medium of sensuousness (Hegel). Modernism contests these conceits: “Art’s spirit is the self-recognition of spirit itself as natural”. If art’s meanings were rational meanings in a wholly alien setting, then those meanings would be capable of being fully abstracted from their alien setting, and judged and communicated in exactly the same way as standard cognitive and moral claims. If intuitions, then, are to be meaningful in themselves and not solely through what concept they fall under, then it is necessary that some portion of cognition be nondiscursive; and, conversely, perhaps it is necessary for the possibility of nondiscursive cognition that meaning adhere to things, have a moment of nondetachability; and perhaps it is necessary in order to think of nondetachability that we have in mind the idea of a “nonconceptual, nonrigidified significative language.” If meaning can adhere to objects, then factual states of affairs can be normative in themselves (priority of the object over the subject).

“By its form alone art promises what is not; it registers objectively, however refractedly, the claim that because the nonexistent appears it must be possible”.

THE CULTURE INDUSTRY AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE

According to the Frankfurt School, the culture industry integrates all oposition by its very nature. The cultural or utopian potential within a work of art is nullified, reduced to just another form of free expression in a free and affluent society, thereby rendering people more and more receptive to tradition and authority. Mass culture is an essential feature of the totally administered society.

ADORNO’s “On the Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938) noted that the products of the culture industry were not works of art that were only later packaged as commodities but, instead, conceived as commodities from their inception.

HABERMAS introduced the public sphere (all the activities and organizations capable of fostering public debate) into the sociological lexicon. All the great movements for political democracy and material equality generated a vibrant public sphere. The problem arose, however, once public opinion became identified with publicity and, with the domination of mass media, popular struggles began surrendering their power to the organizations and experts involved with the bureaucratic welfare state. . Still, he believed that an altered civil society might yet contest the increasing dominance of instrumental reason.

HABERMAS’S “KANTIAN PRAGMATISM”

Central to Kant’s account of human reason: our capacity for freedom (to “set ends”) that is, to think and act on the basis of considerations (“reasons”) that one can reflectively endorse.

On Habermas’s model, normativity does not depend on a voluntaristic notion of the capacity of an agent to give a law to itself. Rather, it is specifically within social practices of “reciprocal recognition,” where individuals mutually ascribe the status of reason-giver to one another, that the notion of an agent as a “law-giver” (and hence the source of normativity)must be located.

Basic distinction between “consent-oriented” (communicative) and “success-oriented” (purposive-rational) action. The goal of communicative action is expressed or realized in an attempt to reach agreement or mutual understanding. Communicative freedom refers to the capacity of individuals to take a yes/no position (or abstain from taking one) with respect to the claims raised in contexts of social interaction – reasons responsive, “reflective endorsement” (Korsgaard), sociality of reason. To see agents as “rational” requires viewing them from the deliberative stance, to see them as acting under the idealizing suppositions of communicative action (she is assumed to be able to provide justifying reasons for her actions). Something ultimately can count as a reason not in virtue of some property it possesses independent of the practice of reason-giving, nor solely in virtue of its endorsement by an agent, but as a result of its status within the normative practice of the exchange of reasons (intersubjectivity as opposed to subject-centered reason).

INTELLECTUAL LEGACY

The historical past should be understood as a process of development whose pathological deformation by capitalism may be overcome only by initiating a process of enlightenment among those involved. Social pathologies are to be understood as a result of deficient rationality. One might say with Marx (and echoing Hegel) that social pathology depends upon the actual organization of society falling short of the standards of rationality that are already embodied in the forces of production.

Central premise of CT: the social circumstances that constitute the pathology of capitalist societies have the structural feature of disguising precisely those states of affairs that would otherwise provide particularly urgent grounds for public criticism. In blending Marx and Weber, they arrive at the conviction that the potential of human reason unfolds in a historical learning process in which rational solutions to problems are inextricably bound up with conflicts regarding the monopolization of knowledge – a conception of capitalism energized by a theory of rationality.

Freud: the stress from suffering (result of impediment of the rational ego) presses towards a cure by means of exactly the same rational powers whose function the pathology impedes. CT expects in their addressees a latent interest in rational explanation, since only winning back an integral rationality can satisfy the desire for liberation from suffering.

Voices in the EuroWilderness, Pre-Crisis

John Gillingham, professor of history at the University of Missouri (he teaches Modern European Economic History and The History of European Integration, inter alia, and has written extensively on EU matters) published Design for a New Europe in 2006 (Cambridge University Press), which includes a scathing critique of EU institutions and practices and some proposals for reform. This is what the book said then about the Eurozone:

The EMU … is intrinsically unstable. The burning question of the hour is, What will happen once bondholders start worrying about the “full faith and credit” of a state that has never existed and likely never will? The threat of financial panic must be dealt with immediately. (…)
The euro need not be taken out of circulation but can instead be allowed to find its value in competition with restored national currencies. Individual countries should have the choice of opting into or out of Euroland or of using both domestic and European currencies concurrently. (…)
Adoption of [a one-size-fits-all monetary] policy was like using a single thermostat to regulate temperatures at the same time in both Lisbon and Helsinki. … The euro is also of particular benefit to ill-managed member economies, whose credit ratings it artificially boosts. (…)
The credibility of the euro depends on little more than the self-restraint of the national governments. In other words, there is good reason to worry about currency instability. (…)
In early 2004, financial experts from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley started recommending that buyers take heed of the “country factor” when purchasing Eurobonds. (…)
No provision was made for exit from the EMU on the theory that it should more painful to leave than to stay in, even if a bailout of some kind should become necessary. If such a rescue operation should fail, a distressed country could leave the EMU and simply remonetize back into a reissued national currency. This action would almost surely entail a partial de facto default, because the new issue would necessarily be weaker than the euro. … If several economically ailing countries should have to leave the EMU at the same time, the big G-8 powers would, however, have to rescue and reform or – in a crushing blow to “Europe’s great experiment in transnational governance” – liquidate it.

Then, in May 2009, exactly one year before the first Greek bailout, the Economist Intelligence Unit published a brief on Greece, stating:

We expect the deficit to rise further to 5% of GDP in 2009, before easing moderately to 4.8% of GDP in 2010 and 3.3% of GDP by 2013. Greece’s high deficit and public debt will adversely affect international confidence in the Greek economy. Although not our central scenario, there is a risk of Greece defaulting on its long-term bonds during the forecast period. If this happens, Greece would seek support from the IMF and the EU, both of which would force tough austerity measures.

[Note that the deficit turned out to be more than 3 times higher than expected, which is probably why that was not their “central scenario”.]

Retrospectively, it is very interesting to see how much of what has transpired in the last couple of years was actually predictable. None of this just fell out of the sky, but the public was unaware of the situation and the potential risks. This is, I think, one of the reasons we’ve been having unrealistic, quasi-metaphysical debates about things that have very concrete historical roots and causes. It is always very difficult to understand what’s happening if you don’t understand what’s happened.

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