I’m up far too late, having worked all evening on my talk for the RMMLA. Winding down I came across Anodyne Lite’s terrific post meditating on political change and engagement. Anodyne writes:

Being a materialist, to my way of thinking, has always entailed the belief that some people most definitely have it better than others; that having nicer things, a more comfortable standard of living, access to the latest in medical treatments and technologies, and being born with the privilege afforded to certain classes but routinely denied others (along with the rights that tend to come along with this) certainly does make a difference in life. Being born privileged in the mind of a materialist does make your life qualifiably and quantifiably better than the life of someone else who doesn’t have the benefit of those same privileges. Perhaps the standard unit of measure is not necessarily “happiness”, but “comfort”, in this equation.
Otherwise, one wonders, what is the point of pushing for revolution (or mutation, or change, whatever you want to call it) at all? If there is nothing necessarily better about having things, having a nicer home, having running water, a comfortable salary, and easy access to medical care, then why buck the system at all? If even the most privileged among us might, after a revolution, end up being just genuinely as sad and depressive as everybody was before, despite being very comfortable, what exactly is supposed to be the point of ushering in a “revolution”? Why bother? If “life sucks, then you die”—even if you’re white, rich, and can get SSRIs and free visits to the shrink on your awesome state-sponsored universal health coverage—should we seriously consider waging war (revolution, whatever) with only the promise of our own unhappiness to extend to others afterward?

Since I don’t add teleological/utopian nonsense to my materialism, I generally refuse to direct all of my thinking toward a future world where our political work will be accomplished, and there will be no need to push for change anymore. I’m sure there will always be a hegemonic superstructure, there will always be something to struggle against, there will always be an apparatus or power structure that needs dismantling and reconfiguring. Things can and they will get better, I’m convinced, even if they will never be perfect or entirely fixed.

Read the rest here.

One of the things I love about Anodyn’s writing on these sorts of issues is that she’s just so damned sensible. I know that “being sensible” is not generally counted as a virtue among leftists, that it’s immediately seen as being ideologically complicit or bowing to “capitalist reason”, but I do think these debates and theories could use a good dose of “sensibility”. I get the sense that what many of us are looking for is something more “sexy”, something “world historical”, something that has the sense of a secularized cosmic struggle and that therefore the “sensible” is systematically excluded because, well, it’s boring and requires attentiveness to concrete details. However, for this very reason the sensible becomes the truly radical because rather than maintaining particular structures in the manner of Hegel’s “beautiful soul“, it offers the possibility of producing real and meaningful changes.

read on!

Here at Larval Subjects I have often railed against forms of political discourse that target “capitalism” or “neoliberalism”. This is not because I am pro-capitalism or pro-neoliberalism, but because I believe these sorts of discourses turn capitalism and neoliberalism into “super-entities” against which it is impossible to struggle because they are everywhere and nowhere. Just as you cannot eat fruit as such, but only grapes, apples, oranges, etc., you can’t fight capitalism or neoliberalism as such. The point is simple, you can only act on a global system through local elements within a network. The problem with discourses centered around capitalism and neoliberalism is that they’re just too baggy and they render these local networks invisible, denying us any route of action. We fall into theoretical pessimism. In this respect, the struggle against capitalism resembles the struggle against terrorism under the last administration. By turning “terrorism” into a super-entity or an entity in its own right, we turned it into something that is everywhere and nowhere. Yet all we can act on with respect to terrorism is local networks. However, acting on these local networks can have profound effects on the larger network.

Anodyn’s points about happiness are well taken. As I observe and participate in debates surrounding normativity and political engagement, I find myself wondering why happiness, a better standard of life, etc., is not a sufficient ground for political engagement. I get the sense that happiness is seen as somehow being too “vanilla”. The more serious concern seems to be that happiness is far too idiosyncratic, far too personal, far too vascillating, to provide sufficient grounds for engagement. Situating this in a Kantian context, happiness can never provide us with categorical imperatives, with absolutes, but only with hypothetical imperatives restricted to the aims of a specific subject. As such, the argument runs, happiness is unable to provide us with binding grounds for engagement (merely giving us subjective whims and preferences) and cannot give us grounds for solidarity.

This, however, strikes me as a rather superficial understanding of happiness. First, when we look at actual, real world, political struggles these struggles do not appear to be motivated by a set of categorical imperatives, but by very real interests and pursuits for a better life. During the last century, union solidarity was not produced out of some a priori set of norms, nor by some abstract conception of justice, but by misery in the workplace and a recognition that these conditions could not be changed without entering into relations of solidarity with fellow workers. If workers recognized their own struggle in the struggles of workers elsewhere in very different networks, then this is because they recognized the systematic nature of the problem they were attempting to overcome and that it did not simply exist with respect to their local network. The case is similar with struggles over gay rights. It is actual living conditions, lives, that lead to the formation of solidarity among gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered folk. And it is because those who don’t have this sexual orientation nonetheless have brothers and sisters that are GLBT, or because they have friends that are GLBT, and because people who don’t have family or friends that are GLBT but nonetheless who have friends who have friends and family that are GLBT, that solidarities are formed. The important point here is that since we are relational beings, self-interest is collective interest and collective interest is self-interest. It requires a great feat of abstraction to see the two as entirely separated and to believe we must appeal to some selfless altruism to ground collective interests and solidarities.

It just doesn’t seem to me that there is a big mystery here. Whether we are talking about the Manifesto or Capital, it is also noteworthy that Marx does not appeal to norms or normativity to explain the formation of “revolutionary groups”. In the Manifesto, for example, Marx discusses the manner in which the factory both led to a new form of subjectivity and generated solidarities due to working conditions and a shared plight. In Capital we get a more complex story about the extraction of surplus-value from labor, how labor is pitted against itself, and how the only way to overcome this systematic structure is through the formation of solidarities. Norms here result from shifts in material conditions, they don’t precede material conditions in an a priori fashion. Again, I have a difficult time seeing what the mystery is here.

In many respects it’s difficult to escape the impression that recourse to a discourse about norms is a symptom marking a failure or something that has broken down, rather than a condition. In communicative discourse, for example, we only evoke norms when relations among communicants threaten to break down because of some communicative move that threatens to dissolve bonds or relations between the communicants. “Your remark lacks civility!” Likewise in the case of social and moral norms. These discourses emerge when things have broken down and we are no longer able to maintain bonds or relations.

If recourse to discourses about normativity seems suspiciously symptomatic, then this is because it suggests that we are no longer able to imagine what might motivate us to have a stake in particular struggles. Unable to see how my life is directly implicated in certain struggles, I make recourse to very abstract norms like justice, the good, right, etc., to ground my engagement. In other words, these discourses seem to be more about what might motivate possibly be able to motivate us, rather than anything about the struggle itself. I strongly suspect, for example, that the gay activist, in his soliloquy to himself as to why he’s engaged in his struggle, seldom lands on abstract normativity as the reason or ground. Norms are, of course, evoked in public struggles. The gay activist will speak to the politician, the public, the boss, etc., about justice, rights, and all the rest. However, these are but one tool in the activist’s toolbox and, in my view, among the least effective tools. The worry seems to be that without being able to evoke ironclad normative principles to ground one’s cause it is impossible to engage effectively and produce change. This, however, strikes me as a ridiculously naive and abstract understanding of how change takes place. When did solemn talk about educational values ever persuade administrators and politicians not to ram through noxious educational reforms? When did talk about the profound injustice of poverty ever effectively lead to people being fed. These solemn speeches certainly play their role, but the real action, I believe, takes place elsewhere through the formation of collectivities, the short-circuiting of key points in networks through activities like strikes or shutting down highways, etc., etc., etc.