Web Exclusive: Critique of Impure Reason
It is a nightmare phenomenon that virtually every ‘leftist’ thinker and activist has, at one time or another, encountered. Engaged in mortal argumentative combat with agents of the ‘right’, they find themselves punching in a total intellectual vacuum. Having pulled out the big guns of ‘historical context’, ‘multiply-corroborated fact’, and ‘logically unassailable discursive narrative’ they suddenly ascertain that they are alone on the battlefield; their adversary, having suffered terminal historical amnesia and void of both knowledge and rational argument, has, instead, begun carpet bombing from 30,000 feet with purely rhetorical devices, i.e. ‘You gotta support the troops, man’ or ‘What are you, a communist?’
Now the trick in dealing with such fine thoughts—after having first collected oneself, and resisted the impulse to scream or to murder—is to immediately go on the offensive and fight fire with (measured) rhetorical fire: ‘Support the troops? Absolutely. I think the Nazi storm troopers should be studied in endless, glorified detail from Kindergarten on. Long live the SS.’ Or, ‘Communist? Wasn’t Jesus essentially a communist? You’re not some money changer-loving capitalist are you!? Tell me it isn’t so.’
Said with appropriate fire, dripping irony, or affected innocence, as the drama of the moment dictates.
These, of course, are extreme—if, still, all too regularly encountered—examples. The point is, first, that we on the so-called ‘left’ are held to a much higher standard of intellectual rigour than those of the know-nothing-right and, second, that given the facile recourse of establishment debaters and writers to arguments routinely based on mere authority, assertion, or regurgitated state propaganda, ‘we’ are forced willy-nilly to become rhetoriticians of a rather high and nuanced order.
Now, in regards of the latter point I hope to address a future essay. It is then, in respect of the first item, ‘intellectual rigour’, that I wish to direct my attention now, for it is not entirely the case that ‘progressive’ thought is without its weaknesses. Thus—whilst naturally claiming no infallibility on the subject—there have come to my attention over two decades a long list of characteristic chinks in the standard logical armamentarium of many a leftist thinker and activist. Let’s take a brieflook at a few of them.
It is remarkable that though ‘post-modernism’ is all-pervasive in our lives so few outside a small academic coterie know what it means. So what does it mean?
Fundamentally, post-modernism began as worthwhile critique of the ‘totalizing narratives’ (the big, all encompassing theories of ‘everything’—Marx, Freud etc.) that sprang from the Enlightenment belief in progress and rationality. It considered modernist thought to be too monolithic, too rigid, and lacking in a concern for disparate ‘other’ voices (i.e. race, gender, national identity etc. as opposed to, say, just ‘class’). Now, while this concern for ‘otherness’ was a valuable contribution to cultural, social and political philosophy, the post-modernists went totally overboard into outright philosophical nihilism. What I mean by this is that they began suspecting all thought, reason, and argument as harbouring merely irrational, subjective points of view (this goes back to Shopenhauer and Nietzsche). Having started out by critiquing what they considered to be a grey, mechanistic, purely rational mode of life and thought, they ended up descending into sheer solipsism, and, ultimately in undercutting the very grounds for any rational enquiry whatsoever. In other words, they backed themselves into an extreme form of subjectivism whereby all narratives are equally weighted, all points of view equally valid, where nothing is really real, where everything is, well, ‘just relative man’.
This has had at least two profound political consequences. The first is that by undermining any sense that there is an underlying unity amidst the diversity of political, social and economic life, the post-modernists effectively decapitated the ability of the intellectual left to analyze and thus confront the growing ideological (and substantive) penetration of Capitalism, not only into every crevice of the globe, but ever more deeply into the very fabric of cultural life itself.
The second consequence is more germane to the lay level. In everyday political parlance one often is confronted with specious admonitions—generally by those who are attempting to dodge the subject under discussion—to temper one’s “bias”, or to be more “balanced”, or to realize that “everyone has their point of view”, or that, in any case, “everything is relative”. But, of course, everything isn’t relative. Absolute truth may, indeed, be the prerogative of the divine, but here on Earth political truth usually has a very distinct, palpable and often terrifying reality to it. Though the leaders of death squads in El Salvador or Colombia may, indeed, have their “points of view”, that doesn’t mean those views carry the same logical or moral weight as those of their victims. And “balance” is fine as long as you’re not playing word games to the effect that one lie equals and balances out one truth (which is usually how the ‘advice’ is rhetorically employed). As for “bias”—a favourite charge of the right against the left—bias does not logically equate to intellectual malfeasance. Bias towards the truth, as opposed towards propaganda, is entirely commendable.
‘Communism vs Democracy’
Whilst expressive of an entirely false dichotomy, the subtitle yet encapsulates a fundamental misconception common to much, otherwise progressive, thought. Now, one need not be a card-carrying communist party member to appreciate how this misconception could be purely a product of capitalist propaganda. Indeed, one need only conduct a rough survey in one’s head of how many capitalist countries are now, or have been in the past, right-wing military or fascist dictatorships, to realize that these comprise the vast majority of the list. Don’t forget, Nazi Germany was ‘capitalist’, as was Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, Pinochet’s Chile, Somoza’s Nicaragua, Indonesia’s Suharto, Salazar’s Portugal, Duvalier’s Haiti, etc.
In one sense, ‘communism’, ‘socialism’, ‘democracy’ etc. are just words. Whether the socio-economic-political structures that go by any of these names actually manifest the principles they claim for themselves is entirely an empirical question, i.e. Are they really? And, of course, to what degree?
‘Communism’ is, in fact, in terms of its founding principles, wholly democratic. Whether, then, a country that purports to be ‘communist’ actually is democratic, is, as I say, a matter for empirical analysis. But, then, the same is true for the long list of smugly self-proclaimed ‘democratic’ capitalist countries. Moreover, capitalism is most definitely not an inherently democratic system. Indeed, it is primarily an economic arrangement that can support virtually any political order—except, as many a Marxist would argue, a true participatory democracy; this because capitalism inevitably places the vast majority of power in the hands of a relatively small economic elite.
To then claim, as I’ve heard many a ‘progressive’ thinker do, that communism or Marxism or even socialism are ‘passé’ or ‘undemocratic’ is to fall into a simple logical error brought on by a deep desire to cozy up to at least one cherished and seemingly unassailable norm of Western political mythology.
The baneful upshot of this error is twofold. First, it has lead to a perceptible ostracism of our communist and Marxist brethren many of whom are, without a doubt, the most knowledgeable and dedicated political activists among us. Second, it has led to a devaluation of the most important intellectual tool in comprehending the political world at large—’class analysis’. For any environmentalist, any social democrat, any feminist, race, gender, health, educational or civil rights activist who believes that he or she can penetrate to a core understanding of our current socio-political reality without recourse to its over-arching viewpoint is, I am sorry to say, seriously misguided.
White Man’s Burden
Whenever I hear talk of the ‘war’ in Iraq or Afghanistan I am often compelled to ask my interlocutor, ‘What war?’. Then, gesturing expansively with outstretched arm over a pastoral scene of urban cafe bliss, I press further, ‘Where is the war?’ ‘For, of course, we are no more at war than were ancient Roman citizens when the legions invaded Gaul or Britain inquest of imperial booty.
Equally absurd, and again reflective of a profoundly entrenched, if mostly subliminal, imperial mindset, is the notion—seriously proposed in some ‘progressive’ discussions I’ve recently been privy to—that Canada stay in Afghanistan because to do otherwise ‘would only leave the place in chaos and make a bad situation worse’. Now, this is not the time to enter into the long and sordid history of ‘our’ near total responsibility in the utter ruination of that tragic land—that must await a future essay. Suffice it to say that the notion of transmogrifying the legions of Mordor into the peaceful, beneficent denizens of the Shire is tantamount to a murder of logic in the first degree. Specifically, it turns the entire geo-strategic function and rationale of the enterprise on its head, and asks that the perpetrators simply abandon their political raison d’etre. In truth, a close digging at the motivation behind such fantasy scenarios will inevitably unearth a rationalization—of which hidden crevices lurk in all of us—of a pervasive imperial prejudice.
Now, we’ve covered only a few salient items above; there remain many others worthy of discussion including, for instance, the North American left’s convenient and cowardly love affair with pacifist ideology, i.e. at the ideological expense of the foreign resistance forces fighting the depredations of our legions. But let me leave off on a final and more positive note; with a ‘rhetorical device’ in response to that old chestnut questioning the wisdom of wanting to ‘change the world’. It comes from a line in the movie. ‘Contact’ in which one of the arch antagonists says to an unjustly excluded protagonist (Jodie Foster):
‘It’s too bad your idealism wasn’t rewarded…but you have to understand, we have to live in this world, the real world, the world we’re given.’
To which she replies simply:
‘It’s funny, I always thought the world is what we make of it.’