Report from France: “Yellow Vest” Revolutionary Unity and Its Lessons for Americans

Over Christmas, my daughter and son-in-law took us all on a ski vacation in the French Alps followed by a full week in Paris. Since at my stage of life, skiing is no longer advisable, I decided to focus instead on looking into the country’s Gilet Jaune (GJ) protest movement that’s shaken France to the core.

So, for several months before leaving the U.S., I studied French each day trying to recover the little I retained from 7 years (!) of extended formal French study 3 in high school and 4 in college.

And then, once in France, while my sons, son-in-law, and 4 grandchildren were on the slopes, I studied up on the Gilet Jaunes themselves I read about them in French newspapers, watched TV coverage of their demonstrations,and tried to join them in Albertville my first Saturday in the country, in the Champs Elysee on New Year’s Eve, and in front of the Hotel de Ville my final day in Paris.

As an activist and student of the left, my point was to become a kind of accidental reporter covering a phenomenon that has seen hundreds of thousands of political protestors in the streets across a country whose history since 1789 has given it quasi-ownership rights to the word “revolution.”

Dressed in the yellow safety vests that French drivers are required to wear in case of highway emergencies, the GJs are stopping traffic on busy roadways. They’re occupying toll booths to allow travelers escape from burdensome fees. Some see them as suggesting a “Frexit” that may mirror the UK’s recent Brexit withdrawal from the European Union.

Interviewing those protestors, some U.S. ex-patriots, teachers, and small businesspeople, as well as reading those newspapers and attending GJ protests have all made it clear to me that the Yellow Vests have valuable lessons to teach Americans about overcoming our current political fragmentation. The GJs suggest that it’s possible for both left and right extremes of our own political spectrum to cooperate for mutual benefit regardless of positions even on divisive issues like abortion, gun control, immigration, violence and terrorism.

The Yellow Vest Phenomenon

In the U.S. the GJ movement is typically reported by the Fox News right and even by “progressives” in terms of identity politics. It’s a rebellion, we’re told, against an “eco-tax” on diesel fuel. According to this view, the Yellow Vest rebels are part of a culture war pitting climate skeptics against a government whose vision has been captured by environmental extremists.

Such identification of the GJs with right-wing politics is adopted with good reason. French President Emmanuel Macron lent it credence in his annual New Year’s Eve address. There, he identified the Yellow Vests as “hateful” enemies of the state, of Jews, the media, homosexuals, and of law and order itself.

A more comprehensive view however, was inadvertently suggested by an American ex-pat living in Paris. At first, she described the Yellow Vests as “exactly the same as the U.S. Occupy Movement.” By the end of the interview, however, she portrayed it as mimicking the Republican Tea Party.

In my assessment, both evaluations are accurate. That is, far from being either predominantly conservative, liberal or radical, the Yellow Vest Movement is an all-sides rebellion against neo-liberal globalism itself. It has brought together forces on both the left and right extremes of the French political spectrum. Le Monde describes them as “retirees, the unemployed, poor workers, small businesspeople, and the self-employed within the gig economy.” It’s as if the Occupy Movement had united with Tea Partiers.

In terms understandable to Americans, yellow in France has become the new purple with each shade contributing from its corresponding degree of political consciousness. Right wingers like Marine Le Pen see the Yellow Vests as a protest against open borders that allow foreigners to corrupt French culture. Left wingers see it more broadly as a rejection of a globalism that accords free mobility to capital, while forbidding such movement to labor from France’s former colonies.

All sides see GJs as repudiating the status quo. And they’re working together to overthrow it. Therein lies the lesson for Americans. The lesson is that recognizing broad class interests as opposed to narrow and exclusionary identity-politics can unite normally fragmented citizens against a tyrannous plutocracy that is crushing us all.

The Real Yellow Vest Issues

Yes, a fuel tax purporting to address climate change was the precipitating “last straw.” But the tax was galling not because the French are climate-change deniers, but because it regressively impacted low-income workers living outside of the country’s big cities and dependent on auto commutes to get to work. It’s those people from the French countryside who constitute the majority within the Yellow Vest movement.

That’s because the government had persuaded commuters in France to switch to diesel cars as cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than gas guzzlers. Then, as diesel fuel became more expensive, the government reversed course on diesel cars. Suddenly, the vehicles were a major part of the climate problem.

Additionally, the revenue gathered by the fuel tax was never intended to advance the cause of alternative energy sources. Instead, it would revert to the general fund and end up in bank coffers as loan repayment. In other words, the bankers and their rich cronies who have recently been awarded huge tax reductions, would actually benefit from the fuel tax. Meanwhile, its pain would be felt by those already suffering from austerity measures imposed by the European Union following capitalism’s world-wide recession in 2008.

There’s also concern here about immigration. Open borders across the E.U. are changing the nation’s identity. Additionally, the creation of immigrants and refugees by climate chaos, poverty, and the post-2008 economic depression in France’s former colonies are all contributing to the identity-crisis syndrome decried by the French right-wing.

Nonetheless, ever class-conscious, and with their traditionally strong socialist and communist historical ties, the French (with 80% public approval) have apparently drawn conclusions about root systemic causes. And they’ve taken to the streets. To repeat, this is class struggle that transcends identity politics. Across the political spectrum, those on the left and those on the right are upset about:

· The emerging perception that the E.U. (like free-trade agreements everywhere) is geared towards disempowering the working class while enriching transnational corporations

· The rich not paying their fair share

· Resulting wealth inequality

· Wages that have not kept up with living-costs

· Austerity measures that threaten social programs like universal health care, public education, government-sponsored child care, and month-long worker vacations

· An educational system that devalues teachers, overloads their classrooms, and pays them poorly

Yellow Vest Lessons for Americans

As I said, all of this contains lessons for Americans fragmented into political siloes where the working class (those whose income is dependent on wages) are schooled to identify other workers as our enemies rather than our wealthy bosses, corporatists and financiers. Rightists tell us that our enemies are immigrants and people of color. Leftists say they are patriarchs, gun-rights advocates, and pro-lifers. Gilet Jaunes disagree. They say that the real enemy is what the Occupy Movement identified as the richest 1%; they are the corporate elite, our employers. The GJs would instruct us to get out into the streets and embrace what unifies the working class rather than what divides us on issues such as:

· Abortion: It’s time for grass-roots pro-choice and anti-abortion activists to join forces on the shared terrain of respect for human life. On that score, we are not each other’s enemies. Accordingly, the Gilets Jaunes implicitly invite us all to provisionally bracket the contentious issue on which we’ve been led to disagree so strongly. It’s time, they imply, to join forces to oppose the military-industrial concerns that spend billions to destroy human life for vaguely-defined and questionably-achievable purposes. Their bombings and drone attacks liquidate human life in the wombs of bombing victims as well as in homes, schools, churches, mosques, temples, hospitals, restaurants, and on farms where other wage-earners like the rest of us gather for peaceful domestic purposes. All of us share those purposes. In that sense, we are all pro-life.

· Gun Control: On New Year’s Eve, I attended what I thought would be a GJ protest in the Champs Elysees. The police were out in force on behalf of a government seen as coddling the rich at the expense of the working class. The heavily-armed gendarmes frisked us all before entering the Parisian equivalent of Times Square. In another demonstration (the day I left the country) the police tear gassed everyone as more than 5000 of us rallied outside the French President’s offices in the Hotel de Ville. The Robocop’s menacing presence made me wonder (along with Chris Hedges and Paul Craig Roberts) why we working-people and pensioners allow such service “dogs” (as the rich characterize their own police) to routinely beat and otherwise abuse us without response-in-kind. I found myself ruminating about the historical wisdom of gun-rights advocates. They embrace the history lesson that nothing usually changes until the battered have risen up and retaliated against police goons and strung politicians from the lampposts. Without advocating such violence, the over-the-top response of police in the Champs Elysees and before the Hotel de Ville represented for me another GJ invitation. It was to recognize common ground with those previously seen by leftists as enemies and nothing more. It may be time, the Yellow Vests imply, for gun-control advocates to enter serious and respectful dialog with those they’ve previously seen only as deplorable enemies. Perhaps there’s more wisdom than pacifists have been willing to recognize in Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that the tree of liberty must periodically watered with the blood of tyrants.

· Violence: Relatedly, I found it interesting how opponents of the Yellow Vests routinely attempt to discredit them by characterizing GJ demonstrators as “violent.” Ignored in the accusation is the critical point that any violent attacks by demonstrators on property or on the police is only one form of violence. More accurately, the GJ acts in question are often likely the work of agents provocateursBut even if not, they certainly represent a reaction to a first act of violence in the form of the structural arrangements that precipitated the Yellow Vest movement in the first place. As described to me by a Paris university professor, those structures underpay workers and make it impossible for their children to attain the classic “French Dream” of liberty, equality, and fraternity. They impose austerity measures that deprive pensioners of a decent living and give rise to the widespread homelessness I witnessed on Paris streets and under the city’s bridges. All such inherently violent arrangements dwarf the broken store windows that the GJs are blamed for. And then there’s the third level of violence that critics routinely fail to recognize the outrageous police response to the Gilet Jaunes mentioned above. (I can still smell the tear gas.) The bottom line here is that the state, not the protestors, represents the most prominent purveyor of violence in this French context. Insisting on recognizing this habitually overlooked fact can go a long way towards defusing disagreements between leftists and their right-wing counterparts sparked by a one-dimensional approach to the divisive issue of “violence.”

· Immigration: What the left characterizes as xenophobia is really an implied, mostly unconscious, but highly accurate perception by the right that corporate globalization is totally impractical. It is founded on a fundamental contradiction. That inconsistency claims to champion “free market capitalism.” Yet such economic arrangement accords unrestricted freedom of movement across borders to only one element of the capitalist equation, viz. to capital itself. Meanwhile, labor, the other equally important factor in the system is forbidden such mobility (in the United States) and is restricted to other members of the E.U. on the continent. When the world’s labor force (in the former colonies) intuits the injustice of such double-standard when it votes with its feet to appropriate for itself the privileges routinely accorded capitalists all of us are made to recognize the unworkability of current forms of corporate globalization. The same is true of refugees caused by climate change and resource wars. Like free trade agreements, both are intimately connected with current forms of globalization. Such recognition in turn reveals a common struggle shared by both the political right and left. Following GJ partisans, our focus should correspondingly shift from villainizing fellow workers who happen to be immigrants to the corporatists who exploit both them and us by their destructive trade alliances. Invariably, those pacts benefit the 1% rather than those they (dis)employ. In other words, massive immigration should drive all of us to oppose reigning models of free trade and their destructive impact on workers everywhere as well as on human habitat.

· Terrorism: Something similar can be said of the war on terror. Those whom our leaders would have us fear as “terrorists” are arguably patriots desiring to “Make the Caliphate Great Again (MCGA). Often, they are partisans claiming ownership of their homelands. They’re Pan Arabs who envision an “Arabia for Arabs,” rather than for oil-thirsty westerners whose culture contradicts the values and monumental historical achievements of Islam in science and culture. At the very least, the so-called “terrorists” represent blowback against western aggression epitomized in the invasion of Iraq, the greatest war crime of the twenty-first century. Donald Trump’s MAGA supporters should be able to recognize such common ground both with MCGA enthusiasts and with anti-war activists in the United States. Once joined there, both the U.S. left and right could further cooperate in advocating reinvestment of what used to be called “the peace dividend” in a Green New Deal and its benefits for wage earners of every political stripe.

Conclusion

My accidental research project in France has given me hope. It’s helped me see as unnecessary the counter-productive divisions between descendants of Tea Party Activists and of their counterparts in the Occupy Movement. Actually, we have more in common than we might think. It’s the powers-that-be who want us fragmented and at each other’s throats!

If we could but recognize our points of unity, rather than the ideological fissures we’ve been schooled to cherish, we might well be as successful as today’s French Revolutionaries in making politicians more receptive to the real issues that unite wage earners across the country and throughout the world.

After all, polls across the political spectrum indicate we all want similar outcomes. We all want profound change that disempowers the world’s 1% and spreads around the wealth we’ve all produced, but that has instead been funneled upwards to the plutocrats.

Above all, adopting the cooperative spirit of the Gilet Jaunes means finding an alternative to the neo-liberal form of capitalism with its dreadful austerity measures. It’s destroying the planet and making paupers of us all.

Christmas Vacation in the French Alps!

I can hardly believe this. But here I am with my whole family in the French Alps for a skiing vacation at the Ski Loge Broski in Belleville near San Martin.

I used to be a skier. However, after nearly 50 years away from the slopes, I’m thinking it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to resume here at the age of 78. So, if anything, I’ll confine my skiing activity to the cross-country variety.

We arrived in France last Saturday. Our eldest son, who is now living in Paris, hosted us overnight in a very comfortable three-bedroom apartment.  

One of the reasons I’m especially happy to be in France is that it’s currently the center of what may well be a truly revolutionary movement not only in France, but across Europe. I’m referring to the Gilet Jaune  (yellow vest) protesters who have been demonstrating on weekends here for the past month or so.

In the course of our drive to Belleville, we encountered some of them who had occupied a toll station. The waved us through the facility without making us stop to pay. Anyone can see how that contributes to winning hearts and minds.

In my understanding, the Yellow Vests are very like the OccupyMovement we experienced in the United States beginning in 2011. Like the Occupiers, the umbrella issue of the Gilet Jaunes is what (outside the United States) is called “neo-liberalism.” That’s the lionization of deregulated free-market capitalism which benefits the 1% while demanding austerity from the rest of us.

It’s that austerity in the form of low wages, raised taxes on gasoline and cut-backs in social programs that has angered Europeans, most notably in France, Spain, Greece, and Italy – not to mention the Brexit advocates across the pond. People here are now talking about “Frexit.” If that occurs, it will signal the end of the European Union.

When we return to Paris next weekend, while others in my family will be visiting museums, I plan to attend the protests scheduled in the city center. To that end, I’ve been brushing up on my French. In any case, I’m sure I’ll be able to get along quite well in English.

Everyone in the country, I’m finding, has an opinion on the Gilet Jaune movement and is quite willing to share thoughts on the topic.

I’ll report here on what I find.

In the meantime, having arrived here only late last night, I’m off to explore the environs here in Belleville.

More later . . .

The Canonization of George H.W. and the Elevation of the Bush Crime Family

Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent: BAR 5:1-9; PS 126: 1-6; PHIL 1:4-6, 8-11; LK 3:1-6

It all made me very sad. I’m referring to this week’s post-mortem celebration of George H.W. Bush. I was saddened not only because of a family’s loss, but because of what the event said about our country’s amnesia concerning Mr. Bush’s crimes.

Absent that forgetfulness, I saw the funeral as the transformation of a deplorable mass murderer into some kind of Christian saint. It demonstrated what’s wrong with our country and with its supporting Christian ideology.

I’m emboldened to make such irreverent observations because the readings for this Second Sunday of Advent. They reintroduce us to the great prophet, John the Baptist who got himself martyred because of his own irreverent criticism of the royal family of his day. And the Bushes, who occupied the very highest offices in our country for 20 years [8 as vice-president + 4 as president (Bush 41) + 8 as president (Bush 43)] come as close to royalty as our country will allow. So, consider these remarks as coming from John’s voice in the wilderness. They may get me in trouble too.

In any case, I watched H.W.’s celebratory funeral unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of the other side of the story that I and my students at Berea College had learned about the man back in 1990. That’s when participants in my Freshman Seminar section researched Bush’s Desert Shield and Desert Storm disasters as they developed. We produced a book on it all: Eye on the Storm: Berea College Students Examine the First Gulf War.

The book was finally published in 2002 as Mr. Bush’s disgraced son prepared for the even more disastrous Second Gulf War. Here’s how the book-jacket blurb described our work:

“This book shows how the Gulf War was motivated by greed for oil, how it violated elementary ethical principles, and even more elementary human rights. Additionally, this study indicates how such motivations and violations were papered over by a basically uncritical, cheerleading press.

But not all Americans joined in the cheers. There was significant opposition to the war throughout the United States. That opposition surfaced strongly at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky. There, teach-ins and rallies were held regularly; many students traveled to Washington to join the national protest; General Studies courses focused on understanding the war. One student, whose essay appears in this volume, spent days encamped in front of Berea College’s administration building to make his dissenting voice heard.

That voice and the others appearing in this volume, deserve to be heard. So do dissenting voices today, at Berea and throughout the country. For the Bush war on our immediate horizon threatens not simply to repeat the history of twelve years ago, but to make its horror seem benign.”

Right now, all of that seems eerily prophetic – especially in the light of Bush 43’s indirect creation of ISIS, the absolute devastation of Iraq, and the more-than-one-million deaths caused by his war of aggression.

But before I get to what I and my students learned about W’s father, think of the contrasting story we heard and witnessed about the patriarch last week. 

“He was such a good and noble man,” all the mainstream commentators seemed to whisper in hushed and reverent chorale refrain. “A class act,” Ms. Clinton said. “I so admire his family – so dignified even in mourning,”others gushed. “He was so unlike the present occupant of the White House.” “There’ll never be another like him – such a statesman. “A wonderful father,” Mr. Bush’s son (the greatest war criminal of the 21st century) proclaimed from a pulpit of all places!

That’s what we heard. What we saw was even worse.

All the surviving war-criminal heads of American Empire had come together in Washington’s National Cathedral to normalize a mafia don and invoke God in doing so. There they were: Carter, Clinton, George W., Obama, and Donald Trump. As Chomsky has said, they’re all war lords and mass murderers, every one of them.  

But each had his church game-face on as if they themselves were followers rather than enemies of the non-violent Jesus who was ironically a victim of imperialists exactly like themselves. That’s right: Jesus was tortured and executed in an imperialized province – his own day’s equivalent of our oligarchs’ killing fields in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

But there they all sat solemnly honoring one of their own – a rich patrician, a CIA spook, an inveterate racist, a bald-faced liar, and contemptible war criminal. So, we heard the prayers (I’m not sure addressed to whom); we witnessed the crime- boss’ canonization, and our hearts went out to the members of the Bush crime family.

And yes, we all listened in respectful silence. Instead, all of us should have been shouting “Shame! Shame!”

And that returns me to my students’ research. What we discovered was eye-opening. We found out that:

  • George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, did business with the Nazis during World War II. In other words, President Bush came from a right-wing Nazi-sympathizer family. (Can you imagine the dinner-table-conversations young George overheard and participated in?)
  • Bush was a racist and misogynist. He pioneered dog-whistle campaign tactics to become POTUS through his infamous Willie Horton campaign ad. He opposed Anita Hill in her testimony against his SCOTUS appointee, Clarence Thomas. (We later learned that Mr. Bush was a serial groper as well.)
  • H.W. was the first ex-CIA Director (1976-’77) to become U.S. president – having served as Vice-President during Ronald Reagan’s genocidal war of terror in Central America which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. In those official capacities, and contradicting the hypocritical “war on drugs,” Bush employed the drug cartel boss, Manuel Noriega, as a CIA asset. He looked the other way as Noriega dealt drugs that eventually ended up in the veins of U.S. citizens.
  • Then just before leaving office, Mr. Bush pardoned his Iran-Contra co-conspirators — the ones responsible for all those Central American deaths.   
  • After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush invaded Panama to arrest Noriega (1989) when the Panamanian leader got too independent for his own good. In the process Bush oversaw the killing of anywhere from 3000 to 10,000 impoverished and unarmed Panamanians in the country’s poorest neighborhood. He destroyed the Panamanian Army so that the U.S. would have reason to stay on after a recently-signed treaty turned over ownership of the Panama Canal to local authorities. 
  • According to a long-standing goal articulated in 1988 by Miles Ignotus, the real reason for Bush’s First Persian Gulf War (1990-’91) was to “Seize Arab Oil.”
  • To that end, Bush induced former CIA asset, Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait by allowing his ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, to mislead Saddam into believing that the Bush administration would not interfere with his invasion of Kuwait.
  • Bush also manipulated U.S. public opinion by using a 15-year-old “eye-witness” from Iraq to falsely allege that Iraqi soldiers tore infants from incubators and left them to die on hospital floors. Bush’s lies swung national opinion in favor of his war.  
  • In the first Gulf War, Bush oversaw the slaughter of retreating Iraqi soldiers, shooting untold (literally!) thousands of them in the back in what perpetrators described as a “turkey shoot.”
  • In a clear effort to dispel the “Vietnam Syndrome,” Mr. Bush elevated the concept of “fake news” to an entirely new level by strictly controlling reporters’ access to combat zones in Panama and Iraq.

That last point deserves special notice, because of my daughter Maggie’s contribution to my class’ study of the Persian Gulf War. At the time of our work, Maggie was in the 6th grade at our local Berea Community School (BCS). For her science project that year, we decided to study the war’s coverage by our local Lexington Herald-Leader.

Together, we collected and examined all editions of the paper from day-one to the war’s official end. We categorized its news accounts, editorials, and cartoons as pro-war, anti-war, or simply descriptive. We counted words and measured column inches.

As you might expect, Maggie found that Bush’s implementation of his “embedded journalist” strategy proved completely successful in his prescient creation of fake news and alternative facts. Words criticizing the war were few and far between. But Maggie’s project ended up achieving recognition beyond BCS. It got her into a regional competition for best science project. As a result, she was exposed to the concept of fake, state-controlled news long before Donald Trump. So were the judges who reviewed her work.

It was all so ironic, isn’t it — transforming a war criminal into a noble saint?  It’s a complete distortion of American history – not to mention of God, Jesus, and Christianity itself.

But what else can we expect in a nation whose entire people have been systematically taught to ignore what all our leaders have done without exception at least since World War II. None of them deserve our admiration.

Our “Christian” leaders are not much better. They’ve wedded themselves to blood-thirsty, deceptive regimes. They’ve sent the authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth down Orwell’s memory hole. In his place they would have us worship as our saviors the rich white patricians who rob us blind while terrorizing and exterminating poor red, yellow, brown and black people across the globe?

As John the Baptist might say, “Shame! Shame!”

Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and the Teachings of the Hunchback, Paul of Tarsus

hunchback

This is my 4th blog entry connected with a course I’ve been taking in New York City for the past 7 weeks. The course is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.” It’s taught by the great critical theory scholar, Stanley Aronowitz and has been a great joy for me. I love the subject; my classmates are very smart, and Stanley is . . . well, Stanley. He’s provocative, delightfully quirky, and extremely sharp even after the stroke that (at his age of 85) has confined him to a wheelchair. It’s a great privilege studying with him. As you can see from my previous blogs here, here, here, and here, the course readings from Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin have been challenging. The ones analyzed below are equally so. This week, my responses are to Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, and to a brief essay from Walter Benjamin called “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

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Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and the Teachings of the Hunchback Paul of Tarsus

What is the basis of critical thinking? Is it rationality? Is it logic? No, it’s theology.

That, at least, is the implied argument of the critical theorists, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. For them, the foundation of critical thought is what economist and liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert (the convener Costa Rica’s Critical Thinking Group) terms “the critique of mythic reason.” That is, the foundation of critical thought for Marcuse and Benjamin is myth involving interaction between human beings and the divine or ineffable transcendent. Marcuse’s preferred mythology is Greek. Benjamin suggests that his derives from the Judeo-Christian tradition in general and from St. Paul in particular.

The purpose of what follows is to summarize and offer some brief commentary on the relevant arguments of both Marcuse and Benjamin. To do so, this essay will first of all place Marcuse’s use of mythology within the context of his more general argument as outlined in his Eros and Civilization. Marcuse’s thought will then be compared with that of Walter Benjamin as expressed in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” with each Benjamin’s highly poetic 18 theses “translated” into more straight-forward prose. The essay will conclude by arguing that Benjamin’s theological approach is more effective than Marcuse’s in terms of critical theory. It will add, however, that Benjamin’s use of the Judeo-Christian tradition stops short of the depth achieved by Hinkelammert’s commentary informed by the theology of liberation – and in particular by Hinkelammert’s analysis of the writings of Paul of Tarsus whose thought he identifies as the root of what has come to be known as critical theory.

Eros and Civilization

Herbert Marcuse’s seminal Eros and Civilization attempts to elaborate the critical implications of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory (245). In doing so, it builds on the model of repression so brilliantly explained by Freud in his own Civilization and its Discontents. Marcuse connects Freud’s theory of the inevitable conflict between civilization and its laws on the one hand, and the fundamental human drive for complete happiness on the other.

With Freud, Marcuse identifies that drive with the Greek word Eros understood on his view, as much more expansive than mere sexual love (205). In doing so, Marcuse acknowledges the term’s mythological roots. Even more, Christian theologians might find theological overtones in his use of Eros which arguably makes the drive for complete happiness equivalent to “God” as described by the author of the Christian Testament’s First Letter of John which identifies God with love itself (I JN 4:7-21).

In the process of stating his argument, Marcuse critically reviews the stages of human development shared by all human beings from birth, through early family life, education, employment, marriage, family life, and death.

Marcuse notes that throughout those stages, humans gradually internalize restrictions on the self-centered drives (especially sexual) common to all humans. Such restrictions are necessary for the ordering of human community that avoids Hobbes war of each against all. Nevertheless, Marcuse finds that the social control required for such order soon develops into “surplus repression” far beyond that required for rational order (35, 37, 87f, 131, 235).

In the light of that reality, Marcuse’s overriding question becomes how to identify and escape excessive control that ends up serving the interests of dominant few, while immiserating all others. The chief misery imposed by those classes is that of alienated labor which requires that humans spend most of their lives performing (and recovering from) mind-numbing and body-destroying activities that have little or no intrinsic value (45).

Again, in order to answer his question about exiting this situation, Marcuse traces the origins of surplus repression. It begins, of course, in the family with a child’s relationship to his parents, especially (in the west’s patriarchal culture) with one’s relationship to father. Following the pattern of Freud’s myth of the primal horde, male children begin their lives confronted with a father who unreasonably imposes surplus repression upon them. His excessive demands cause rebellion paralleling that described in the Primal Horde myth (15). However, in most cases, rather than actually murdering the father, rebellion usually takes the form of sexual deviation from patriarchal restrictions.

Deviation from sexual restrictions is especially important, because (in the words of Erich Fromm) “Sexuality offers one of the most elemental and strongest possibilities of gratification and happiness.” Moreover, “. . . the fulfillment of this one fundamental possibility of happiness” of necessity leads to “an increase in the claim for gratification and happiness in other spheres of the human existence” (243). In other words, the human sexual drive represents the spearhead of Eros, the fundamental life force. That basic drive, Marcuse argues, lurks at the heart of all rebellion against civilization’s super-repression.

Eros differs from sexuality in that it is far less focused on genitalia (205). Even more, it locates its contested terrain on the fields of myth, art, philosophy, liberating education, and play.
Play proves especially important for Marcuse, because (in contradiction to society’s demands for productivity – and its “performance principle” expressed in alienated labor) “play is unproductive and useless precisely because it cancels the repressive and exploitative traits of labor and leisure” (195). It manifests existence without anxiety or compulsion and thus incarnates human freedom (187).

As noted earlier, the repressed human drive towards such liberation finds expression in philosophy, art, folklore, fairy tales, phantasy, and myth. Marcuse finds the latter especially expressive in the cases of Orpheus, Dionysius, Prometheus, Narcissus, Pandora. Accordingly, he devotes two entire chapters (8 &9) to analysis of Greek mythology. Myths provide instances of phantasy’s expression that “speaks the language of the pleasure principle, of freedom from repression, of uninhibited desire and gratification” (142).

Nevertheless, phantasies based on Greek mythology, though preserving the truth of “The Great Refusal” (to be entirely controlled by alienated labor), remain according to Marcuse’s analysis, “entirely inconsequential” in terms of actual resolving the problem in question (160).

In other words, while Marcuse focuses on a divine Eros in a promising way, he throws up his hands regarding the question of how to talk about its liberating reality to those for whom the very Greek mythology he finds so meaningful lacks resonance. He similarly characterizes folklore, fairytale, literature and art as also insignificant in terms of yielding a reality principle that realistically provides liberation from the “surplus repression” of the one that prevails (160).

This leads to the question: if Greek mythology is so ineffective, then why spend two chapters on the subject? Why did not Marcuse instead explore the liberating dimensions of the mythology of the Judeo-Christian tradition with which so many in the West can indeed identify? It might even be said that for the 75% of “Americans” who identify as Christian, their religious tradition amounts to a kind of underlying popular philosophy that supplies meaning for their lives. Therefore, finding and describing connections between that tradition and liberation from surplus repression would hardly be “inconsequential.”

Clearly, Marcuse was aware of such possibilities. His friend and Frankfurt School colleague, Erich Fromm, had already identified them in his The Dogma of Christ also published (like Eros and Civilization) in 1955. Moreover, Marcuse himself references such possibilities in Eros and Civilization, although he doesn’t elaborate the allusion. There, he observes:

“The message of the Son was the message of liberation: the overthrow of the Law (which is domination) by Agape (which is Eros). That would fit in with the heretical image of Jesus as the Redeemer in the flesh, the Messiah who came to save man here on earth. Then the subsequent transubstantiation of the Messiah, the deification of the Son beside the Father would be a betrayal of his message by his own disciples – the denial of the liberation in the flesh, the revenge on the redeemer. Christianity would then have surrendered the gospel of Agape-Eros again to the Law . . .” (69-73)

Here Marcuse introduces a crucial distinction between the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth on the one hand and his “transubstantiation” from a human being into the very equal of God. Beforehand, Marcuse says, Jesus was actually a heretic, an earthly Messiah intent on liberating actually existing human beings from oppressive legal systems. His followers, however gradually transformed his liberating Gospel of Agape-Eros into an instrument enforcing a super-repressive Law.

Having opened this promising door of critical analysis, Marcuse unexplainedly leaves it ajar without pursuing its promise.

Benjamin’s 18 Theses

In his final entry in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, a collection of Walter Benjamin’s works reflecting his work as a critical theorist, Walter Benjamin ventures into the realm of Judeo-Christian theology that Marcuse so carefully avoids. Benjamin does so in the context of offering a series of eighteen theses on historical materialism and its philosophy of history. By the way, I take “historical materialism” to mean the philosophical conclusion holding that historical experience creates ideas rather than ideas creating historical experience.

Following this conclusion, Benjamin presents a highly contextualized approach to history wherein each of the latter’s moments is shaped by all previous ones as well as by prevailing ideologies and the historian’s own experience of life.

In other words, the writing of history is not simply a matter of recording events that unfolded in time understood as homogenous and empty of cultural influences and repercussions from what came before. Neither is it merely a matter of recording the past for the sake of preserving disconnected memories. Rather, historiography has the social purpose of shedding light on present dangers and crises for purposes of discovering exits from such existential threats.

Crucially for Benjamin (as already indicated), historical method is not only materialistic in the sense just referenced; it is also highly theological. As we shall see, Benjamin’s very first thesis in his list of 18 makes this point by suggesting Pauline theology as the guiding force of critical thought. Subsequently, virtually every thesis in the author’s list contains some reference to elements such as: theology itself (253), redemption, Messianic power, Judgment Day, the kingdom of God, spiritual things (254), good tidings, the Messiah, redeemer, Antichrist (255), theologians (256), angels, Paradise (257), monastic discipline, friars, meditation, Protestant ethics (258), savior (259), mysticism (261), Messianic time (263), the Torah, and prayer (264).

Moreover, like medieval religious practice, Benjamin’s theses are intended to turn the attention of readers away from the world and its affairs – but this time as described by traitorous politicians entrapped by a stubborn belief in the religion of progress (258). In fact, given Benjamin’s theological interests (4, 253) it is easy to interpret his theses on the philosophy of history as attempts to reinterpret theology in the service of historical materialism.

All of this may become evident in the following summaries of each our author’s 18 theses:

Thesis I: In an atmosphere of smoke and mirrors, and guided by theology, critical thought in the form of historical materialism promises inevitable victory over its opponent – viz. automated technology. And this, despite the latter’s deceptions that distort and reverse perception of reality into its mirror-opposite.

Thesis II: Historical materialists agree that Past (lost opportunities), Present (attempts to reverse those losses) and future (refusal to deal with the consequences of present action) exist in dynamic dialectical relationship captured by the words of history, redemption, and envy.

Thesis III: It is true that no event is insignificant in the long course of history. However, the significance of particular events can only be known at history’s conclusion.

Thesis IV: Despite apparent setbacks in workers’ struggles against ruling class domination, the long arc of history bends towards the victory of the poor and oppressed, because their subtle courage, humor, cunning and fortitude are more powerful than the gross tools of their oppressors.

Thesis V: Historical materialists (vs. mere chroniclers of past events) realize that recollection of past events is valuable only insofar as those events relate to and illuminate the present.

Thesis VI: The threats represented by ruling class attempts to reduce traditions about the past to tools supporting conformism must be resisted so that the past’s recollection might serve resistance and liberation instead.

Thesis VII: Historians who recount history without connecting it to present existential threats serve the interests of the world’s rulers (past and present) who steal the spirit and artifacts of those they’ve subdued. Historical materialists swim against that current.

Thesis VIII: History must reflect the “pedagogy of the oppressed,” which makes us aware of the changes necessary to overcome the perennial state of danger that has always characterized human existence and its struggle against oppression, which even its opponents treat as inevitable.

Thesis IX: As history’s messengers (angels), historical materialists perceive “progress” as responsible for an unending series of catastrophes. Ironically however, the devastating power of those very calamities prevents historical materialists from successfully alerting audiences to their own loss and lack of perception.

Thesis X: The accepted understanding of history (as a detached chronicling of the past) only serves traitorous politicians who have surrendered to fascism with its uncritical belief in progress, its manipulation of the masses, and its totalitarian structures.

Thesis XI: The conformity of the German working class is grounded in the conviction that “progress” includes and benefits its members. Alienated and enslaving factory work has been dignified by this belief. However, contrary to the convictions of “vulgar Marxism,” technology need not destroy, but could actually enhance and make nature more fruitful.

Thesis XII: It is angry recollection of the past rather than concern for the future and future generations that inspires resistance and rebellion in the working class which is the real repository of meaningful history.

Thesis XIII: Any valid critique of the Social-Democratic concept of progress (as anthropocentric, boundless, and irresistible) must be context-based rather than ignorant of historical context – as is the common Social-Democratic understanding of history.

Thesis XIV: Since only the present moment (the mystical nunc stans) is real, any consideration of the past has value only insofar as it sheds light on the present always characterized by ruling-class domination.

Thesis XV: Revolutionary holidays stop the ongoing continuum of history at decisive junctures – eternalizing the moment of liberation like the clocks simultaneously stopped by bullets on the first evening of fighting in the French Revolution, July 1789.

Thesis XVI: In contrast to historicists, historical materialists experience the present not as a transition to the future, but as an end in itself shaped by past events.

Thesis XVII: Unlike historicism, materialist historiography is not merely additive and does not treat time as homogenous, empty and inexorably in motion. The materialist approach is more contemplative, since it allows thinking (and therefore time) to stop so that history’s flow might be perceived as a unified whole. This pause and perception enables the historian (and his audience) to identify history’s underlying oppression and to uncover openings (past and present) for revolutionary change as the overriding project of one’s life.

Thesis XVIII: Humankind’s 50,000-year stature in a 14 million-year-old universe is nearly insignificant. As a result: (A) Alleging causal connections between historical events remains highly speculative (though any given present is both influenced by the past and contains intimations of a salvific future) and (B) the Jewish concept of time (as fundamental openness to a better future) is helpful here, since it is neither empty nor homogenous, nor magical.

Franz Hinkelammert’s Reading of Benjamin

Analyzing the story recounted in Benjamin’s first thesis on the philosophy of history, liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert specifically connects Benjamin with Paul of Tarsus and with critical theory. In doing so, Hinkelammert advances the theory of this brief review, viz. that theology constitutes the foundation of critical theory.

In fact, Hinkelammert considers Paul as the West’s first critical thinker. As such, Paul’s thinking, Hinkelammert argues, anticipates critical theory’s historical materialism, universalism, anarchism, and identification of the messianic function of the world’s poor and oppressed (Hinkelammert: La malidicion que pesa sobre la ley: Las raices del pensamiento critico en Pablo de Tarso. Editorial Arlekin. San Jose, Costa Rica, 2010. 16). More specifically, Hinkelammert recognizes the apostle as the hunchback pulling the strings of the puppet (historical materialism) in Benjamin’s cryptic parable (pictured above) recounted in the opening lines of “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

Hinkelammert justifies doing so on the basis of the following observations:

• By his own admission, Benjamin’s basic orientation was decidedly towards the biblical past.
• He lamented that the biblical “wizened” founders of modern thought remained hidden and out-of-sight (Benjamin 253, Hinkelammert 23).
• In one of Benjamin’s surviving fragments, the latter’s closest friend, Gershom Scholem, celebrated Paul as the most notable example of a revolutionary Jewish mystic (Hinkelammert 14).
• Like the hunchback in Benjamin’s story, Paul suffered from some kind of physical deformity as described in II COR 12:7-9.
• Benjamin description of the parable’s puppet as wearing “Turkish attire” reminds us that its hidden alleged puppet-master, St. Paul, came specifically from Tarsus which is located in modern day Turkey (Hinkelammert 15).
• Other commentators like Jacob Taubes have found the presence of Paul’s thinking prominent not only in Benjamin, but in the most important currents of modern thought including that of Freud and Nietzsche. (The latter by the way, signaled support for this review’s thesis by villainizing Paul for the apostle’s anarchism, defense of the poor and oppressed, and prefiguration of Marx and of historical materialism) (16).
• Above all, Paul’s criticism of Law as the sin of the world, prepared the way for critical theory’s criticism of market law and of the state as the armed force imposing the will of the ruling class on the oppressed majority (17). For both Paul and critical theorists, complying with an oppressive law remains completely immoral (18).

Conclusion

Tellingly for this review’s thesis – that theology is the basis of critical theory – Hinkelammert points out that after Benjamin’s suicide in 1940, his fragment “Capitalism as Religion” came to light. The fragment drew a direct line from orthodox Christianity to capitalism whose system and ideology, Benjamin argues, replicates point-by-point (in secular terms) the elements of medieval Catholic orthodoxy.

However, according to Hinkelammert, Benjamin failed to note, much less exploit, the critical difference between such orthodoxy and the original message and praxis of the thoroughly Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. Had he done so, Hinkelammert observes, Benjamin would have strengthened his conclusion about the connections between Paul and historical materialism, since the teachings of St. Paul followed so closely those of the radical prophet and mystic Jesus of Nazareth.

In the end, it is Paul’s critique Law as well as the apostle’s anarchism and defense of the poor that prefigures the elaborations of Marx and Freud as understood by critical thinkers Benjamin and Marcuse. Only by embracing Paul’s influence, Benjamin correctly observes, can historical materialism claim its assured destiny as victor over the technological automaton intent on destroying us all.

Contemporary critical thinkers and activists would do well to heed Benjamin’s advice. They would do well to join liberation theologians in exploiting the popular power of a reinterpreted Judeo-Christian tradition that supports subversion, anarchism, and the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.

Film & YouTube as Means of Revolutionary Production

Walter Benjamin

This is the third essay I’ve written for a course on critical theory I’m taking under Stanley Aronowitz at the People’s Forum in New York City. It’s a response to a piece written by Walter Benjamin (pictured above) entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

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Film & YouTube as Means of Revolutionary Production

As we complete the first third of our course, “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory,” I’m beginning to see the logic behind the progression of our assigned readings so far. To my surprise I’m also perceiving more clearly the vital connections between our course and the book on critical thinking that I published in the middle of April.

My book is called The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news. Written specifically to introduce advanced secondary students as well as college freshmen and sophomores to easily-understood critical theory, Magic Glasses centralizes structural (especially economic) analysis along with ideological distinctions and historical considerations in the form of Ten Rules for Critical Thinking.

The rules are deduced from the work of liberation theologians at a think tank in San Jose, Costa Rica, where my wife, Peggy, and I have worked on-and-off since 1992. The study center is called the Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones. Until recently, it was headed by Franz Hinkelammert, a leading economist and liberation theologian who now leads The Critical Thinking Group also located in San Jose. His many books are generously peppered with references to Frankfurt School authors.

Drawing on Hinkelammert and others, and in the spirit of our reading from Benjamin, my Magic Glasses also forges connections between contemporary politics in this age of Donald Trump in terms of an unmistakable world-wide drift towards fascism. But even more to the point of this week’s reading assignment, Magic Glasses highlights film as a tool for awakening within students their latent revolutionary consciousness.

With all of that in mind, what follows will first of all briefly connect this week’s assignment from Walter Benjamin with our previous readings from Theodor Adorno on “Progress” and “On Subject and Object.” Secondly, this review will present my summary of our third reading, Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There he identifies film as “the most powerful agent” for facilitating the work of contemporary mass movements. Though warning of its dangers, he sees it as a tool for raising consciousness and catalyzing political praxis. My brief essay will conclude by illustrating Benjamin’s points with my own teaching practices as reflected in the book referenced above.

Reading Connections

Our first two readings from Adorno emphasized vital points about human beings in general and critical thinkers in particular. Contrary to biblical teachings and the analysis of Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Adorno insisted that human beings were not created fully-fledged.

Instead, they are products of evolution; they are works specifically “in-progress” importantly shaped by their historical and material contexts. As such, their fate is still undetermined and might well end in failure – even in the extinction of the human race. Technological development does not guarantee human progress. Rather, uncontrolled it actually threatens the very survival of our race.

Only progress understood as a development of critical consciousness paralleling technical advance and given direction by the very victims of merely mechanical progress, can save us. Salvific consciousness of this kind liberates its possessors to employ technology in the service of human development rather than for its destruction.

In other words (and this brings us to Adorno’s “On Subject and Object”), a major task of critical thinking is to facilitate the transformation of those who use technology from objects to subjects – into conscious agents employing technology in the service of human liberation.

Put more concretely, technological gadgets like radio, movies, television, computers, and I Phones can easily objectify or reify unconscious users and stealthily shape their lives and thinking. Transformed into subjects, the gadgets themselves can turn those who use them into unthinking objects and deprive the unwary of their essential identity as conscious agents directing their lives towards specifically human purposes. Once again: according to Adorno, those purposes centralize the liberation of those whom the structures of capitalism routinely objectify and deform into oppressed, marginalized, despised, and humiliated sub-humans.

So, how exactly do Adorno’s abstract generalizations about technology’s power to captivate and transform human beings into objects shake down in concrete, historical terms?

Benjamin’s Essay

The question brings us to Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There, the author confronts his readers with stark political choices inherent in technological “progress.” That choice, Benjamin argues, is principally between fascism on the one hand and communism on the other.

However, before he gets to that decision, Benjamin delineates the status questionis. He reviews the history of mechanical reproduction. The Greeks knew exceedingly few forms of mechanical duplication. Reproductions took the form of stamped coins for commercial use, along with bronze and terra cotta artifacts. Other forms of mechanical reproduction followed. They took the shape of wood cuts, the printing press, lithographs, photographic negatives, and movie films including sound recordings. (We might add that “progress” continues today in the forms of computers, I Phones, digital cameras along with associated social media.)

Each development in the list just itemized profoundly impacted human beings in Adorno’s terms, specifically as objects and as subjects.

On the one hand and objectively speaking, the developments in question often straightened the horizons of those interacting with the resulting products. As Benjamin puts it, a reproduced piece of art detached from the history of its production and ownership lost its uniqueness. It lost its “aura” – the halo connecting it to time and space beyond the context of its immediate user. Thus, one viewing a Greek statue of Venus might have no idea of its original value as an object of religious veneration, much less as an object of condemnation by the medieval church which considered it an idol. Moreover, the decontextualized observer would typically remain detached from the history of the statue’s ownership and of the monetary value given it in various contexts.

Even more importantly in terms of reifying naïve observers, Benjamin points out that objects of art produced in mass quantities can be used to propagandize viewers-turned-consumers. This is especially true in the case of photography appearing in magazines and even more so with film. In magazines and newspapers, de rigueur captions actually tell people what their eyes should be seeing. Movie images change so quickly that (for the unaware) successive frames in effect give meaning or interpret the ones preceding them. Assaulted by rapidly changing figures and scenes, the viewer has no time to analyze her or his past or immediate experiences.

In this way, photography and film, especially when coordinated by the ruling classes become perfect vehicles for propaganda and the spread of ideology. Germany’s fascists (in power at the time Benjamin penned this essay in 1936) were quick to recognize the potential of this new technology. Accordingly, they utilized the new visual arts for purposes of brain-washing and massive indoctrination – even employing film to glorify war as the apotheosis of human development. Anticipating their later U.S. counterparts, the Nazis effectively convinced the uncritical that “being all you can be” involves killing one’s fellow human beings and utterly destroying their property in “beautiful” acts of murder, mayhem, and self-immolation. Carried to its logical conclusion, such human objectification, Benjamin warned, leads inexorably to envisioning the apex of human development as mass suicide. (The subsequent development of nuclear weapons and dawning awareness about anthropogenic climate chaos may well prove him to be prophetic.)

Yes, without doubt, Benjamin is correct in expressing serious reservations about the objectifying dangers of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. However, there’s another side to the coin he describes. By its virtue, human subjects as such can also seize the apparatus of such duplication and employ it for purposes of human liberation. Thus:

• Widespread reproduction of art works has turned everyone into a critic.
• Or into film actor of sorts
• Similarly, (and even more-so with the advent of the internet) virtually everyone can discover “an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports,” etc.
• And (I would add) the capability of YouTube to excerpt clips from Hollywood films and from documentaries enhances possibilities for critical teachers to (in Benjamin’s words) “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property.”

And that brings me back to The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news.

Magic Glasses

There I use YouTube clips of classic and contemporary films to illustrate each of my ten rules for critical thinking which include (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Select Market (as an organizing principle), (3) Reject Neutrality, (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Quadra-Sect Violence, (8) Connect with Your Deepest Self, (9) Collect Conclusions, and (10) Detect Silences. Film clips featured in the book come from films such as Traffic, The Post, Avatar, Sausage Party, The Distinguished Gentleman, Good Will Hunting, American Sniper, Captain Phillips, American History X, War Dogs, Bulworth, and the Broadway musical, Hamilton.

The clips, lasting no more than ten minutes each, have been selected to connect directly with my ten rules. Because of their brevity, and if students missed the point or wanted to see the clip again, any film excerpt can be viewed again with nothing lost in terms of class time. This ability to extract and repeat overcomes Benjamin’s objection about film images whose rapid succession prevent careful analysis or reflection.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. It comes from Good Will Hunting. There the Matt Damon character, Will Hunting himself, is interviewed for a position in the National Security Agency. He’s asked why he shouldn’t take the job. Hunting responds:

Will’s answer is, of course, ironic. However, his response provides a good example of the kind of critical analysis that can be stimulated by short film clips. This one raises questions about connecting contemporary issues into a coherent whole. Will Hunting traces the effects of an anticipated assignment at the NSA from his desk there, to a war involving senseless carnage, a friend’s participation in that war, oil prices, environmental destruction on a massive scale, unemployment problems in the U.S., job loss to cheap Third World labor, and to corrupt politicians, who avoid military service, while somehow managing to get elected to the highest office in the land.

In terms of stimulating critical thinking, all the teacher has to do is ask students, “What did you see?”

Conclusion

I suppose what I’m saying here is that I found Walter Benjamin’s essay not only helpfully coherent with previous readings in our course; I also found his words about film and its use in stimulating critical thinking encouraging in terms of my own thoughts and praxis as a teacher and author.

Against Individualism: a Review of Theodore Adorno’s Essay “On Subject & Object”

Army

This is the second “homework” essay that I’ve written in connection with a course on critical theory that I’m taking at The People’s Forum in New York City. As I mentioned last week, the course is taught by Stanley Aronowitz and is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.”

This week’s reading, our second from Theodore Adorno was entitled simply “On Subject and Object.” It was extremely abstract and difficult to understand. So, during the class I proposed the following question for Stanley. I said,

“I truly admire Adorno’s brilliance. And I appreciate how spending hours trying to decipher his meaning can yield a satisfaction and kind of pleasure for intellectuals who enjoy solving world-puzzles. In addition, I recognized that the expenditure of such time and effort can certainly lead one to think more deeply and to appropriate insights that might not emerge from grappling with more easily understandable prose.

However, who besides the intellectuals just mentioned can suffer these texts? Who, besides the exceedingly few, has the energy to endure them? Their ideas are obscured, not clarified, by references, vocabulary, and tone that comes off as pretentious, elite and even obscurantist.

If they are truly interested in world-changing praxis (as critical theorists claim) why write like this, rather than in a more accessible manner?”

Stanley’s response to me was direct. He said, “The text is so difficult because Adorno is writing for me, not for you.” He went on to explain that our author was actually quite adept at writing for ordinary people in very engaging ways. Adorno frequently spoke on the radio during the 1930s, and was very popular. However, when authoring essays like “On Subject and Object,” his audience turned out to be philosophers familiar with the entire works of Kant, Heidegger, Hegel, Freud, Marx, and others. Stanley himself falls into that category — I, not so much. Hence my difficulties and those of my classmates.

In any case, and for what it’s worth, here is my attempt to “translate” into concrete language what I understood from grappling with this Adorno text myself.
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The Need for Greater Objectivity
(A review of Adorno’s “On Subject and Object”)

In our contemporary culture, the forces of capitalism, advertising, and consumption all lionize individualism. Standing out from the crowd, doing-your own thing, and writing your own story are sold as paramount forms of being human. Outside one’s own family, any kind of collectivism is perceived as a threat.

Even the military claims to be a vehicle empowering enlistees to “be all that you can be.” In the end, however, those who sign up inevitably discover that all the army allows them to be are pawns whose highest aspiration is not individual development, but reduction to sameness, conformity, and blind obedience in the service of an organization whose main purpose turns out to be killing and breaking things.

Apparently, it’s the same for everyone. In psychological terms, those the culture has encouraged to be autonomous subjects – whatever their line of work – are reduced to objects not only on the job, but at home and even in their recreational activities. We all end up doing what we’re told within parameters that stifle (in Theodor Adorno’s words) pure spontaneity and originary apperception. That is, our systemic structures frustrate what we’re told is our absolutely dynamic principle (255).

But is that our fate as humans – universal objectification and individual frustration (247)? Why is it so difficult to be a subject and so easy to be reduced to object-hood?

In his essay “On Subject and Object,” Adorno takes up those questions. In short, his answer is, “Well, it’s complicated . . .” (245). You see, he argues, individualized subjectivity (as understood by the dominant culture) isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it leads to isolation, self-captivity and ultimately to the domination of others (246, 252, 257).

However, there is another form of subjectivity –one more authentic than encouraged by our culture – that recognizes a dialectical relationship between subjectivity and objectivity. Appropriating that subjectivity, so to speak, should be our life’s objective.

Moreover, being an object should not be entirely vilified. Ironically, and properly understood, it should be embraced as humankind’s salvation, as the prerequisite for achieving authentic subject-hood and the peace we all desire. To achieve peace, Adorno observes, the individual must selectively subordinate self to collective (247). In that dialectical process of on-going give-and-take between subjectivity and objectivity, lies our salvation.

In other words, “On Subject and Object” is written against the popular understanding of overriding individualism. Adorno’s basic argument is that the individual cannot be understood apart from society. This is because the individual is actually the product of society – and this according to the insights provided by linguistic analysis, evolutionary theory and biology, along with reflection on personal experience, philosophy, and, above all by critical theory.

Adorno considers those sources one-by-one.

• Language: Adorno begins his analysis linguistically. He points out that what we call “subject” is intelligible only in its relationship to “object.” Or more clearly put, the very terms “subject” or “individual” make sense only in relationship to humanity at large. Similarly, any reference to a particular person as such presupposes the concept of human species from which subjects distinguish themselves. Even personal names such as “Stanley” or “Michael” are employed to separate the individuals so-called from presupposed others. In other words, our very language reveals a dialectical relationship between individuals and society. The dialectic suggests that the collective is more important than generally recognized in our highly individualistic culture (245).
• Evolutionary biology supports that suggestion. Contrary to origin myths found in all cultures, human beings did not emerge full-fledged (246-247, 258). Rather (as works-in-progress) they developed gradually from lower forms of life. Even then, and for millennia, their primary identification remained with group, clan, or tribe (258). Only gradually did any concept of individual emerge. And only in the last few centuries, with the surfacing of capitalism – with the emergence of homo oeconomicus – did individualism and its ideological emphasis on subject become primary (248). Put otherwise, evolutionary biology testifies to the fact that any notion of subject contains within it a certain objectivity; deep down, it has a core of object (250). The subject was produced by the collective.
• Personal experience as a primary criterion of truth (252, 254) supports the relevant conclusions of evolutionary biology. For years in childhood and adolescence, none of us can really fend for ourselves, but are dependent for survival on family and tribe. Confronted by a hostile environment, human beings are much more ill-equipped to survive than other creatures. Instead, we require a kind of rudimentary social cooperation with others of our species even to defend ourselves from less developed counterparts. All of this signals a priority of species over individual subjects (258).
• Philosophy since the Enlightenment has obscured such primacy. The “Copernican turn” of Immanuel Kant emphasized human subjectivity as never before (251, 254). Till Kant, conventional wisdom typically imagined the process of knowledge as the result of a knowing subject confronting an object “out there” (246). For Kant, however, inborn categories of knowledge fundamentally shaped all objects perceived by the subject in question. In a sense, then, on Kant’s analysis, the human subject actively constituted reality (255).
• Critical Theory, however, along with the general sociology of knowledge has called Kant’s radical subjectivity into question. True: critical theorists (like Adorno himself) agree that human beings do in fact interpret reality according to subjective categories. However, those categories themselves are produced by society. Specifically, and increasingly since the middle of the 18th century, they have been manufactured by capitalist ideology (248, 250-254). That ideology has deformed humans into individual subjects pure and simple. On the one hand, it has made them captives within themselves (252, 257). On the other, it has set them against the collective as they seek to impose their sovereign wills upon the group (246). War is the unavoidable upshot.

Conclusion

Adorno is interested in peace, not war (247). Yes, he wants to affirm subjectivity, spontaneity and originary apperception as our absolutely dynamic principle. However, on his view, absolutizing the subject over-against the collective fetishistically reifies and deforms human beings (251). It sets them against each other and creates a tragic situation where it is indeed possible for army propagandists to convince the young that they can reach their highest potential by killing their brothers and sisters and by destroying the latter’s homes, schools, churches, hospitals and factories.

Only by de-emphasizing individual subjectivity, by recognizing the priority of human community, by retaining a dialectical understanding of subject’s relationship to object, and of individual to species, can such tragedy be averted.

“Sweet Little 78” and Back in Class Again

Aronowitz

As readers of this blog might remember, Peggy and I have just moved to Westport, Connecticut. In an earlier posting, I explained that we’re here largely to be near our four grandchildren. My daughter, Maggie, our son-in-law, Kerry, along with Eva (9 yrs.), Oscar (7), Orlando (5), and Markandeya (3) live at 69 Clinton Avenue. Peggy and I are now located at 33 Clinton. It’s a 10-minute walk between our two houses.

And so far, it’s working out just fine. We’re pretty well moved into our new digs which are quite a bit smaller than what we became used to in Berea, Kentucky. But we’re finding comfort in the down-sizing. After all small is beautiful.

33 Clinton

Along those lines, however, I do find myself missing the small-town atmosphere that we got so comfortable with in Berea. Forty-five years in Kentucky definitely turned me into a country mouse. Here in Westport, a virtual suburb of New York City, things are quite different. The pace if faster; the traffic is heavier; the prices are higher.

But with Westport and that proximity to NYC come a lot of benefits. For instance, our new location has a wonderful Playhouse. Just this weekend, Peggy and I took in “Man of La Mancha” that had been performing there to rave reviews. The reviews were well-deserved. We came away truly inspired.

And then there’s a nine-week course I have enrolled in and am attending each Saturday in the heart of Manhattan. That’s what I want to tell you about here. As Chuck Berry might say, at sweet 78, I’m back in class again.

The course is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.” The sessions are taught by Stanley Aronowitz (pictured above), an emeritus professor of sociology, cultural studies, and urban education at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Stanley is a widely-published authority on critical theory. Peggy and I had met him years ago (around 1990) at the Socialist Scholars Conference at CUNY. His work on Paulo Freire and our friendship with Paulo were our connecting points.

My primary purpose in attending Stanley’s class is to deepen my understanding of critical theory, which lies at the basis of my related book The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: Seeing Through Alternative Fact and Fake News.

True, my book addresses what is called “critical thinking” here in the United States. But the latter’s exclusive emphasis on logic and detecting fallacies is a far cry from critical theory as understood in the rest of the world. There it is profoundly informed by Marxism and the work of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm – all members of the so-called Frankfurt School.

Just as my book does, the Frankfurt School emphasized the structural causes of the way we think: capitalism, its ideology, and the ways thinking is influenced by capitalism’s history, colonial practices, and associated understandings of violence, terrorism and other obfuscations. As I explain in my book, I picked up almost everything I know of that kind of critical thinking from the liberation theologians I’ve studied with in Rome, Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, and Israel. Liberation theology is deeply influenced by the Frankfurt School.

So, my first purpose in attending was to learn more about critical theory unfiltered through theology. My secondary purpose was to meet other leftists, to find out what they’re up to in the NYC area, and to possibly join them in their efforts at creating a world with room for everyone.

The Aronowitz class meets Saturday afternoons from 12:00-2:00 at The People’s Forum on 320 East 37th Street. Getting there has me taking the 10:08 train from Westport to Grand Central Station. That reaches its destination about 11:30. Then I walk a mile and a quarter down 42nd Street to Broadway, and then to East 37th. On the way, I pass the New York City Library and thousands of very interesting-looking people.

The first meeting drew about 30 people. Though extremely interesting, it frustrated my purpose of getting to know people. Stanley didn’t have us introduce ourselves. So, I came away with only the vaguest notions of who was there. They were of all ages, though slightly tilted towards my own cohort. Mostly men, though about a third were women.

For homework, Stanley assigned a very difficult reading from Adorno’s Critical Models. It was an 18-page essay called “Progress.” It turned out to be one of the most abstract pieces I’ve ever read. I found it kind of exciting though. It made me feel like I was in graduate school again – reading something very serious. However, Aronowitz was right: “You have to read it about three times to get what Adorno’s saying.”

Well, I did that. It took me about half-an-hour to read each page. And later (even though it wasn’t part of the assignment) I wrote a 1000-word essay of response. It’s the kind of essay I always wanted my students at Berea to produce after readings I assigned there.

In any case, Stanley’s second class had about half the number of attendees as the first. Our actual class size is 12 students. (Stanley said the class size-difference is normal.) As it turns out, most of them (largely 50 yrs. and older) are Aronowitz groupies. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one who hasn’t taken a previous class with him. The others are all Marxists more or less (I guess I fall into that category as well) – all very smart and well-read.

So, I’m having fun here in Westport. The three classes I’ve attended so far have been dynamite.

Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll share the essay I mentioned above.