Response to Andrew Coates on “negative dialectics”

The following was originally posted as a comment on Andrew Coates, “Platypus versus Weekly Worker: negative dialectics” (July 12, 2011).

We in Platypus consider our project to be Marxist in the sense that the necessary agent of social transformation remains the working class. Looking back on history, it becomes clear to us that the highest moments of social potential have coincided, not unproblematically, however, with the high points of the workers’ movement for socialism.

The question is if and how the working class is presently constituted as a political force. We don’t think it is.

For it is not only the case, for us, that the “Left is dead!,” but also that the labor movement is dead.

This is perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow. But we think that the labor movement and the Left share fates: that one cannot advance without the other, and that they both go down together.

In this sense we would agree with Luxemburg and Marx concerning “social democracy.” But this then poses the further question of in what ways Marx, Luxemburg, et al. were (“immanent”) critics of the social-democratic workers’ movement, or, of proletarian socialism, and not merely its advocates.

Furthermore, the issue is not simply “democracy” but also “liberalism,” that is, what is the relation between individual and collective social freedom?

On “instrumentality,” there is a common misunderstanding of Frankfurt School Critical Theory on this score: “reason” becomes “instrumentalized” not in the way people exercise it, but rather as a function of the social-historical logic of capital. Our reason is reduced to an instrument of the reproduction of capital.

So it becomes a matter, not of thinking our way out of capital, but of pushing further and more acutely the immanent logic of capital, and trying to raise it to consciousness (this is the notorious “Hegelianism”).

The question is whether that is happening today or not.

On “Bonapartism” the issue is not whether conjuncturally the capitalist bourgeoisie has lost control here or there, but rather how the logic of capital has escaped effective human control, especially in terms of politics, ever since 1848. The index of this train-wreck of capitalism is the “authoritarian” character of politics, in which no one really believes that the political measures taken will solve the social problems, but everyone submits to them, in “bad faith,” anyway. Bourgeois society in its continued decadence has sacrificed not merely the workers’ social empowerment and freedom, but that of all members of society.

Not only the working class, but importantly also the bourgeoisie, individually and collectively, submits itself to the strong and arbitrary state. For it’s quite unclear that the state today acts in the capitalists’ interests, other than by default. As Marx put it, the capitalists are less worried about losing their rights than they are afraid of the workers gaining theirs. The issue is the general trend of capitalism becoming more illiberal, ever since 1848, and what are the political and social-psychological phenomena of this taking place.

As Adorno put it, it becomes easier to believe the lie one knows is a lie than to struggle for more uncertain and dangerous emancipation. This is what it means to advance through history with one’s back turned, transfixed by the horror of the past. But, according to Benjamin, it is not we humans who do this, but rather the “angel of history,” who has ceased to be our guardian companion and instead has become our horrified reflection. History, in Hegel’s philosophical sense of the story of reason in freedom, has abandoned us.

“Those who labor must rule.” Platypus agrees with this Marxist truism. But we ask the question of why this is so. We do not assume it.

Why does the workers’ movement for socialism express emancipatory potential?

In avoiding this question, as the basis for critically thinking and practically working through (supposedly) “anticapitalist” politics, the present (dead/pseudo-) “Left” instead (at best) reifies the “proletariat.” Rather than seeking to push (the contradictions of) working class politics further, the “Left” cheerleads what the working class is already doing, ignoring how the struggle for socialism, as it was pursued in Marx and the best Marxists’ times, has long since ceased.

The critical conversation on the death of the Left that we in Platypus seek to host is not between ourselves and others, but among the broadest range of “Leftists” today who can contribute to expressing the buried but remaining historical tasks of human emancipation that were once more acutely (and not uncontradictorily) expressed by the historical Left and Marxism. This is not a directly political project, but an indirect one.

We seek to manifest the force of history in the present “dialectics at a standstill.” As Adorno put it, the “less popular” aspect of the Hegelian dialectic is its “static side.” But this expresses the condition that “The law that, according to the Hegelian dialectic, governs the restlessly destructive unfolding of the ever-new consists in the fact that at every moment the ever-new is also the old lying close at hand. The new does not add itself to the old, but is the old in distress” (Adorno, “Reflections on class theory,” in Can one live after Auschwitz? A philosophical reader, Stanford 2003, 95). | §

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