Posts Tagged ‘politics


Ideal vs. Material

If anyone read the review of Irving Kristol’s posthumous collection of essays The Neoconservative Persuasion, they may have also noticed the strict line that neoconservatism draws between the dynamics of the material world and the “moral” and “religious” considerations. It never occurred to me before, but it seems like a great number of the larger ideological debates of the modern era can be drawn along these lines. To quote from the review, most of Kristol’s essays

add up to an extended tirade against American liberalism, which I think should figure as still another of neoconservatism’s principles — the largest and most energetic principle of all, judging by the evidence here. The tirade rested on two main inspirations, neither of which can be dismissed out of hand. Kristol repeatedly argued that American liberalism, in its domestic programs, has relied on a parched and narrow vision of human nature, which attributes too much importance to material conditions and not enough to moral and religious considerations.

Such dogmatism and rabid anti-materialist sentiments (in both the capitalist and the philosophical senses of the word), of course, are the cornerstones of modern American religion, and the dogmatism, at least, carries over to the American right. It’s not outlandish that American religion and conservatism make for such wonderful bedfellows.

The main sticking point for me, the one thing I cannot get past, is this reactionary attempt to deny what is so obviously true about the world: things change quickly and dogmatic rules prove to be inadequate to them as soon as they’re printed or typed. What’s so bad about admitting this fact and trying to deal with it rather than taking the conservative path by closing one’s eyes, plugging one’s ears, and yelling as loudly as possible. Wanting to believe something doesn’t make it true, and attempting to strong-arm materialist (or realist) considerations in the name of morals, dogmas, and static, proscriptive ideals won’t make it go away.

That this is an accepted and acceptable route is something I just cannot fathom.


The Ideology of Post-Ideology

“I’m not an ideologue.”
“It’s time for something new. Let’s try common sense.”
Obama during his meeting with House Republicans, 1/30/2010

“…Mr. Obama’s coolness, even his seeming detachment, became a political virtue. The corollary to that belief is that he won because he was the anti-ideologue after eight years of an intensely ideological presidency.”
New York Times, “Where Clinton Turned Right, Obama Plowed Ahead”

Every speech by President Obama begins with a discussion of great perils followed by pleas for post-partisan unity and an assurance of a saving power in the resiliency of Americans. Obama’s State of the Union Address tirelessly emphasized utilizing collaboration and post-partisan expert knowledge to fix our nation’s crises. This message also resounded in Obama’s open discussion with House Republicans. Republicans repeatedly raised ambiguous cost-free governmental solutions to both the economy and health care. Though it was of some encouragement that a U.S. president could honor a series of baseless questions with articulate responses, Obama’s invocation of the so-called ‘neutral’ and ‘practical knowledge of experts’ was deeply problematic.
Obama was rightly critical of the ineffectual proposals by Republicans for health care and the economy. The stubborn commitment to minimal government interference is an absurd position in the contexts of a severe economic crisis and corrupt health care system. While Obama ostensibly recognizes the need for a strong government, he falls short of offering solutions when he refers (or perhaps defers) to notions such as ‘what works’ and ‘common sense.’ The current national crises necessitate an interrogation not just of ‘what works,’ but also of the measures and principles used for diagnosing a ‘healthy’ market and for determining a cost effective guarantee of health care.
The idea that we can all agree upon what works in isolation of any ideology is a myth steeped in neoliberal economics and imperialism. It is common parlance in the media and popular discourse to characterize ideology as a negative attribute associated with various forms of ‘extremism’ that plague our lovely democratic world. The eight-year reign of Bush is constantly portrayed as an era of ideology and ideologues, such as Paul Wolfowitz. Paul Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush had arguably detestable world-views premised on an aggressive notion of the United States as the world’s sovereign power. While their ideology was deeply flawed, it is not the case that ideology itself was the cause. Ideology is merely the set of principles used to interpret the world. Pretending to operate outside, beyond, or above ideology is arguably ideology’s most pernicious form.
The pretension to post-ideology is a particularly juridical concept, so it is not a surprise that Obama would latch on to it. The concept of a law or power that operates without any force, as if directly transcribed from ‘nature’ or ‘God,’ is problematic on numerous levels. This idea is a type of theology that has no way of constituting itself or allowing for alteration. In legal theory, there is an ongoing debate over functions of negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from infringement upon one’s rights, whereas positive liberty is the freedom to a set of rights. There is a strong fear of positive liberty in advanced capitalist nations, particularly as it is seen as potentially tyrannical form of justice conducive to dictatorial policies. This fear is echoed in allegations that Justice Sotomayor is an activist judge, and her ultimate assurance to the public that the function of justice is not to make laws, but to enforce them. A social context of slavery, segregation, and the informal segregation of today, with banks red lining neighborhoods (such that whiteness has become synonymous with property upkeep) necessitates an appeal to positive liberty.
Historically, the ideology of ‘post-ideology’ is deeply entangled in an imperialism, which (mis)translates things like ‘U.S. interests’ as universal rights and world peace. It is an ideology which rationalizes the United States’s wars in the Middle East as merely peacekeeping missions. A close look at the actual promises Obama made in his State of the Union Address furnishes the following: tax cuts, earmark reform, (an eventual) spending freeze, off-shore drilling, and the notorious oxymoron ‘clean coal.’  These measures reflect not a pragmatic transcendence of ideology, but rather an affirmation of center-left neoliberalism. Aligning these policies with post-ideology, as if politics were an a-historical science, reduces political discourse to shallow buzzwords. The capacity for genuine debate in this context is diminished and overtaken by un-analyzed fictions of nature and common sense. This has the effect of obscuring the actual policies that constitute a given political position. Making one’s ideology visible is the only way for one’s position to be understood in context and for the reader or listener to be trusted as an active participant in the debate.



“I feel powerless to avert these tendencies and yet somehow feel guilty in complicity. I think that’s part of being american. I also think that it also requires a level of self-respect and self-awareness to counteract these tendencies.” You seem to have these qualities, as do most of my friends. and we should continue to be conscious of them. But, unless you’re proposing a radicalizing business model, this is a fact of economics — surely we’ll go along with the progressives, but we need a leader to change it. (ARE YOU HER?)

“But it isn’t a fall from grace, and we aren’t regressing, per se. You could watch a television commercial and say “Look at how stupid Americans are now, buying/watching/being tricked by all this crap”, but what is the alternative? What would you rather have? When has it ever been better? The 50s? The 30s? When people were hanging each other in public squares? Was that a golden age?”

Last paragraph: CALM AND PRECISE. CALM AND PRECISE. if everyone wanted to be so careful in their readings, blogs wouldn’t exist. they (interesting blogs) simply aren’t the medium for such things. now i’m guilty of my own hyperbole — so instead, let’s change that: please, everyone, write interesting blogs which dissect and complicate issues we are all engaged with. Is this the space of ghostisland? Or is it more creative? Or are they the intermixed? (they certainly aren’t the same thing)

Back on track: no offense, but you’re not being calm and precise. you’re conflating 2 million years of human history with a naive crisis in the present. Though I agree with what you’re saying, I don’t agree with your methodology. It’s fine to propose a question or two to the “radical” community, but what do you expect of such a community? It would be interesting for you (or someone else) to publicly articulate the conception of the radical that you’re thinking of.

As a student of both radicals and non-radicals, I tend to side with the latter, however right they may be, because they tend to tell the truth. hyperbole is inspiring, but history is fascinating: let’s use both to construct reasonable, practicable world-views.


How does “radical politics bloody its fist pounding at the obvious”? Do you mean this in the context of the human race you provided: a race, which, “destabilized populations of easy-to-kill animals with such speed and ferocity” and “once it got a little crowded…immediately commenced eradicating each other with an endless enthusiasm, as the vast majority of all species on Earth seem to do”? I think this reading ascribes too much weight to evolution, science, and human nature in its understanding of history and radical politics. That said, the events you describe and your plea for calm and reasonable critique seems important.

Though, I wonder: how can one be calm and reasonable in the scenario you have sketched? A critique of our social order needs to have as complex and expansive a concept of responsibility as the social order itself is today. Our individual actions and even actions of individual nation states are thoroughly intermingled. But, this complexity of global affairs under global capitalism musn’t cause us to shy away from a political critique of oppression and imperialism. At stake is the notion of who’s accountable for the criminal acts and violence so pervasive in our society; war crimes and criminal wars such as: Israel’s occupation of Palestine and continued aggression against a dislocated population deservant of reparations, and Obama’s Middle East Wars entail both individual actors who slaughter innocent civilians directly and indirectly (through crippling infrastructure) and high up actors such as Cheney, Obama, Gates, Eric Holder who set the conditions for such practices.

BEN SEGAL’S remarks provide some insight into the potential and shape of radical critique: critical praxis, which “takes history seriously and seeks radical change from a standpoint of hard, clear, and non-idealized historical memory….Foucault’s notion of ‘archeology’ is a perfect example of this. Radical politics can then work from a better understanding of the determinant and often hidden structures that tend to lead to humanity’s violent and destructive behavior.”


The Legacy of Liberal Tolerance

The 19th century German anthropologist (the combination of ‘German’ and ‘Anthropology’ is a clear red flag) Johann Friedrich Blumenbach specialized in the study of human races and racial taxonomy. He postulated that physical characteristics constitute an idea of race, which also determine certain forms of character. Blumenbach, to the surprise of his European readers, asserted that “our black brethren” have “a natural tenderness of heart…which has never been benumbered or extirpated on board the transport vessels or on the West India sugar plantations by the brutality of their white executioners.” In fact “they can scarcely be considered inferior to any other race.” He cites the physical anthropologist Niebuhr to support this astonishing claim: “The principal characteristic of the Negro, especially when he is reasonably treated, honesty towards his masters and benefactors.” Wow! A race of people who harmoniously contract into servitude with the utmost humility and gratefulness, if we can just learn to treat them tolerantly. Is Starbucks the 21st century progeny of Blumenbach? Do we not hear an echo of Blumenbach in Starbucks’ Global Responsibility Report? If Blumenbach were alive today, would he not be a distinguished professor of business ethics/theorist of imperialist conquest or a socially responsible CEO?

April 2014
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