Friday, 18 December 2015

Boltanski's On Critique

Having just finished Luc Boltanski's On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation (2011, Pollity Press), I just want to jot down two things I found interesting. So this post is going to be brief!

First point: the bodiless being of the institution. Having always been fascinated by the stubborn persistence of quasi-transcendental forms in social life, I was quite happy to read Boltanski's explanation of the role of institutions. His starting point is that “no individual possesses the requisite authority to say to others, all the others, the whatness of what is” (Boltanski 2011:74). Whatever is claimed by a mere individual can always be dismissed as a mere "private" standpoint or opinion.

Hence follows the necessity of installing what Boltanski (following Olivier Cayla) calls “the device of a third party", namely an institution "to whom is accorded, ‘by agreement’, the prerogative of ‘having the last word’” (ibid.). We can observe that there is a certain Hobbesian flavour to this argument - the institution fulfilling the function of what could perhaps be called semantic sovereignty, defining reality in a way that would be out of reach for any single individual. He takes the example of a constitutional judge, who in impersonating the institution is no longer viewed as a flesh-and-blood individual. “To hear him it is necessary to ignore his body. The only conceivable solution is therefore to delegate the task of saying the whatness of what is to a bodiless being” (ibid.). The institution, Boltanski states, “is a bodiless being to which is delegated the task of stating the whatness of what is” (ibid. 75). 

The fact that institutions have a certain form of independent existence over and against the individuals that make them up has important implications for critique. Just exposing them as fictions is not enough to weaken them, since they fulfill their function even though “everyone knows full well that these institutions are mere fictions and that the only real things are the human beings who make them up” (ibid 85). Boltanski refers here to Octave Mannoni’s "je sais bien, mais quand même...” ("I know very well, but all the same..."). The problem he brings up is the peculiar impotence of critique against quasi-transcendental forms that seem to be inscribed in reality itself, upholding it and thus acquiring their own stability and inertia regardless of the extent to which people believe in them (another example would of course be that of commodity fetishism). However, unlike many other theoreticians who have focused on this problem, Boltanski chooses not to dramatize this difficulty. Instead he identifies a number of points where he believes institutions are still vulnerable to critique. Although I won't have time to enter into the intricacies of the argument here, these possibilities are grounded in the distinction he makes between the "reality" upheld by institutions and the "world" outside this reality, which consists of everything that is the case and which has the potential of upsetting reality since reality can never map it completely. To mention but a simple form of critique, the very fact that institutions are bodiless means that they always depend on flesh-and-blood spokespersons who can always be suspected of using their position for private motives or who can simply make mistakes, thus disrupting the order they seek to stabilize (ibid. 84).

Second point: Boltanski's description of today's dominant classes. The first remark on these classes comes early in the book. In connection with a discussion about ideology where he makes the interesting (although perhaps not wholly water-tight) argument that ideologies are mostly meant to convince the dominant classes themselves of their right to lead.
While not challenging the idea that something like dominant ideologies does indeed exist, seeking both to underestimate and justify inequalities, we can nevertheless show that these constructs are directed in the first instance to disciplining the dominant classes themselves, whose members, especially when they reach the threshold separating the status of child from that of autonomous, responsible adult, also encounter the tension between an egalitarian ideal and a massively unequal reality. The social function of dominant ideologies is therefore above all to maintain a relative cohesion between the different factions that make up these classes and to reinforce [...] their members’ confidence in the validity of their privileges. (ibid. 41)
The bulk of his discussion of the dominant class comes in the two last chapters (ibid. 143-149, 151f). He begins by criticizing Bourdieu since the new global elite no longer shares a habitus based on classical culture. What then do they share? Apart from sharing a new “international culture that is rooted in economics and, above all, in disciplines of management” and having the power to affect the lives of many other people, their distinguishing characteristic is a certain moral double standard. Let me just throw out a few forceful quotes where Boltanski makes this point: 
What members of the dominant class implicitly share... is, on the one hand, that it is indispensable that there should be rules – law, procedures, norms, standards, regulations and so forth; and, on the other, that one can do nothing really profitable... that one simply cannot act, in an uncertain world, if one follows these rules. (ibid. 146).

The observance of rules therefore presents itself as a handicap for them... Conversely, they are inclined to think that rules are necessary and sufficient to constrain and order the actions of underlings. (ibid. 146)

[T]his kind of wisdom cannot be made public; or shared with those who are not leaders. (ibid. 147)
Does this mean that leaders have no morality? Certainly not, but they have a ‘higher’ morality... [T]he ‘great ones’ believe that they can be assessed only in the light of the ultimate success of failure of their enterprises. They therefore lay claim to a time-scale which can far exceed that of human existence (‘history will judge’). (ibid. 151)
I'd just like to make two remarks concerning this description of today's dominant class. Firstly, I am not sure that this double standard is so very new. It sounds remarkably much like the capitalist class portrayed by Braudel in Civilization and Capitalism: The 15th to the 18th Century, where Braudel makes his famous distinction between the sunlit and transparent world of the market and the shadowy realm of capitalism "where the great predators roam". The market, one might say, is the world of the small people, those referred to by Boltanski as the dominated ones, who believe in following the rules or standards of fairness which govern human interchange and which are grounded in their own experience and knowledge of the small-scale economy in which they are active. Capitalism, on the other hand, is where the great profits are made, and they are made by breaking the rules, circumventing them or by creating new ones, in collusion with political rulers and through the support and mobilization of political, diplomatic and military power.

Secondly, I sense that this description of the dominant class betrays - just like his description of institutions - a certain fascination with the problem of sovereignty. In connection with institutions, Boltanski explicitly refers to Kantorowicz' discussion of the politico-theological dimensions of medieval monarchy. Like the medieval monarch, the constitutional judge possesses two bodies - being a frail human being with private interests and weaknesses, but also, at the same time, impersonating the institution in all its glory. As regards dominant classes and their relation to rules, it is easy to spot similarities to Schmitt's discussion of sovereignty. Isn't Boltanski's description possible to understand as an account of how sovereignty ("sovereign is he who decides on the exception") has become dispersed and exists as a form of cynic elitism within each member of this class, who believe themselves to be standing above their own rules and who are always ready to grant themselves an exception?

These were just two points I found particularly interesting. There won't be time for me to do justice to the other major points Boltanski tries to make - e.g. the relation between his own sociology of critique to Bourdieu’s critical sociology, the world-reality distinction, contemporary forms of managerial domination or the possibility of emancipation. For anyone interested in those points, please read the book!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Sadness as COP15 ends

This is not a report from the COP or the activism here in Paris, so much as a report on my feelings. An undeniable feeling of sadness is gripping me. Sadness for the earth and the climate. But also sadness for this movement, parts of which I’ve been able to observe at rather close range over the last week and a half. For the activists who are trying so hard to keep up hope. Who struggle, in almost every conceivable way, to find ways of being effective – either by influencing the text or, despairing of that, by groping for ways to stave off catastrophe or at least healing some wounds without having to rely on the politicians colluding with business that make up the elite dominating the climate summit. They do so by discussing strategies for how to show their displeasure despite the repression legitimized by the state of emergency. They call for support for frontline communities, for blockadia, for real solutions, for an end to colonialism and racism, for system change, for a stop to the madness and the injustice done to nature and to so many people. They have learnt from Copenhagen not to place too much hope in the politicians. They know that a long struggle awaits them, us. But despite this, there is this sadness in the air, at the palpable feeling that the system is moving, unstoppably, in the wrong direction.

Can sadness go along with action? Yes, I believe it can. Sadness is not resignation. There are people – people who are like angels or boddhisattvas – for whom action and sadness go well together. But for most activists, I suspect that sadness is not an 'appropriate' or at least not a very effective feeling. Anger is perhaps better, or rather: a particular mixture of anger, hope and confidence. To all activists, therefore, I want to end by quoting the end of a speech I heard last Sunday at La Parole Errante in Montreuil, at the People’s Summit. The speaker is Kumi Naidoo. I can’t quote it verbatim, but here is, more or less, what he said. I leave the word to him:
The planet does not need saving. We will be gone, but the planet will still be here. It will be greener without us. Make no mistake about about it!

Whatever happens here, please don’t be sad. Remember Copenhagen! What we got there was not a fair deal, but a flab deal – full of loopholes and bullshit. We were devastated. But the struggle will continue.

When I was 20 years old I fled South Africa into exile. That was a time when there were many burials. My friend said: “Kumi, what is the biggest contribution you can make to justice?”. Then she said: “No, it’s not giving your life. It’s giving the rest of the your life!”.

Two years later she was brutally murdered by the regime.

Struggles for justice – climate justice, gender justice, economic justice, social justice – are marathons. They are long-term struggles.

Do not give up hope!

If you are courageous, victory is certain!
What we can note here is that substantive issues are only briefly alluded to in the vaguest and most general of gestures. Instead, the speech plays almost entirely on an emotional register. Clearly Kumi Naidoo's aim is to intervene in the emotions of the listeners. He wants to raise spirits and inspire courage and confidence. But at the same time, his speech bears testimony to the sadness, the anxieties and the fatigue that he senses already exists in the audience, or at least will exist once the summit is concluded, and which function like a dark, inescapable fond against which his own forceful words shine forth like stars.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Refugees are welcome - and let's not forget to be anti-capitalist! (Sorry, only in Swedish)

Jag vet att många tycker att vi behöver "sända en signal" till omvärlden, och på så vis minska trycket och rädda välfärdsstaten. Jag uppskattar engagemanget för välfärden, men jag håller inte med om resonemanget.

Innan jag kritiserar det vill jag peka på dess styrka, nämligen att det riktar uppmärksamheten mot att flyktingmottagandet måste ses i en social och ekonomisk kontext. Det handlar inte bara om kommunala budgetar, utan också om det samhälle som vi välkomnar flyktingarna till. Stämmer det inte att ett ökat antal flyktingar mycket väl kan leda till ett ökat antal låglönejobb och otrygga anställningar och på så vis spela kapitalet i händerna? Kommer det inte bara att leda till ”billigare RUT-jobb åt medelklassen”, som en av mina bekanta uttryckte det?

Här är det kanske många läsare som nickar. Nog är det lätt att åtminstone nicka lite kort åt det här argumentet. Adorno skriver någonstans – jag tror att det är i en aforism skriven under kriget – om hur förledande lätt det är i konversationer att genom en liten nick ge sitt bifall till massmord. Och något liknande kan sägas om situationen idag. Var gång jag hör argumentet om att ”rädda välfärdsstaten” känner jag mig utsatt för utpressning. Vad är utpressning? En situation där vi upplever att inga goda val är möjliga. Vill vi vara medmänskliga får vi offra välfärdstaten och vill vi rädda den senare får vi slå igen dörren. Men frågan är om detta är de enda alternativen. Utpressare vill alltid få oss att tro är att vår frihet ligger i att välja mellan de alternativ utpressaren erbjuder, medan ju frihet i själva verket – om ordet ska ha någon mening – måste betyda friheten att kunna välja annorlunda.

Låt mig ta ett annat exempel på utpressning, några årtionden tillbaka i historien. Boltanski & Chiapello beskriver hur efter 68-revolten kapitalismen erbjöd sina kritiker ett slags val: i den nya post-fordistiska ekonomin kunde de krav på individualitet, självförverkligande och kreativitet uppfyllas som den "konstnärliga kritiken" av kapitalismen ropat efter under 60-talet - men bara på villkor att den avsvor sig den "sociala kritik" av klassskillnader och ojämlikhet med vilken den under revolten hade gått hand i hand. Återigen utpressning och skapandet av illusionen av enbart det ena alternativet kan väljas. Den kombination av båda som varit så kraftfull under revolten fick man framgångsrikt att framstå som omöjlig. 

Vad finns det då för möjligheter att välja annorlunda? Kanske är det inte så svårt att hitta. Inget hindrar oss ju från att verka för ett ökat flyktingmottagande och sedan gå över till att kritisera RUT-jobb och prekarisering. Istället för att välja mellan välfärd och flyktingar skulle vi kunna svara att vi ju i görligaste mån måste rädda båda. En premiss för argumentet att ett ökat flyktingmottagande bara kommer att leda till "billigare RUT-jobb" är att vi även allt framgent kommer att leva i ett samhälle som ekonomiskt fungerar som idag, d.v.s. ett kapitalistiskt samhälle som utvecklar sig i nyliberal riktning, där klasserna är tydligt åtskilda och där det med officiell uppmuntran vuxit fram en stor prekär arbetsmarknad.

Detta betyder att vi mycket väl kan stödja ett ökat flyktingmottagande utan risk att spela kapitalet i händerna, givet att vi samtidigt verkar för en samhällsförändring i icke-kapitalistisk riktning, d.v.s. i en riktning där klasskillnader minimeras, människor blir mindre beroende av en prekär arbetsmarknad för sin försörjning och den främsta samhälleliga drivkraften inte längre är kapitalackumulation. En sådan position skulle också vara förenlig med en bibehållen välfärd förutsatt att vi tänker oss att välfärd inte nödvändigtvis behöver vila på en kapitalistisk välfärdsstat.

Vad menar jag då med välfärd? Jag tänker mig ett samhälle där resurser fördelas så lika eller rättvist som möjligt enligt principer som får bestämmas i demokratiska former på ett sätt som öppnar upp för deltagande av så många berörda som möjligt. Kärnan i välfärd är inte att alla ständigt får det bättre, utan att man delar på risker, tar hand om hjälpbehövande och på så vis skapar trygghet. Inget säger att välfärd i en sådan bemärkelse måste vara oförenligt med ett stort flyktingmottagande.

Det är uppenbart att det jag kallar välfärd inte nödvändigtvis behöver ta sig formen av en välfärdsstat. Välfärdsstaten bygger på kapitalism - på en omfördelning av resurser genererade genom ständigt fortgående tillväxt. Dess premiss har varit att ett ekonomiskt överskott genererats som funnits tillgängligt att omfördela. Så fort något sägs kosta för mycket har det därför varit möjligt att förkasta det med hänvisning till behovet att "rädda välfärden". För att tala klarspråk måste välfärdsstaten uppfatta varje hot mot kapitalackumulationen som ett hot mot den själv och det gör att det finns en mekanism inbyggd i den som tillåter och rentav uppmuntrar intolerans. 

Det tvetydiga i välfärdsstaten och i den politik som kräver att den "räddas" ställs på sin spets genom att den under senare decennier alltmer undergrävts genom skiftet mot en mer nyliberal politik. Detta skifte är resultatet av att stora delar av kapitalet försöker dra sig ur den klasskompromiss som historiskt varit central i upprättandet av välfärdsstaten. För detta kapital är, som nämnts, ett stort flyktingmottagande inte nödvändigtvis ett bekymmer - snarare har det varit ett sätt att öka reservarmén av billig arbetskraft och slå in ytterligare kilar i den redan uppluckrade arbetarklasssolidariteten. Den sociala oro som kunnat förväntas som ett resultat av den sönderfallande klasskompromissen har hittills uteblivit i Sverige. Istället har så kallat vanligt folk framför allt reagerat med att betona behovet att "rädda välfärdsstaten" vilket betytt: rädda företagen och låt oss slippa dela med oss.

I det här läget är det nödvändigt att skärskåda den ideologiska funktion som ordet ”välfärdsstat” har börjat spela. Själva brutaliteten i de åtgärder som nu införts – identitetskontrollerna, de skärpta kraven, det ohöljda medgivandet att alltsammans bara har som syfte att avskräcka människor att ens komma hit och söka asyl – har uppenbarat att den stat som agerar här inte bara är en välfärdsstat som försöker rädda välfärden. Välfärdsstaten avslöjar sig här som en stat vars byråkratiska instrument är lika trubbiga som knölpåkar och som på ett implicit men uppenbart sätt använder sig av hudfärg som grund för att dela in människor i önskvära och mindre önskvärda. Det handlar om en stat som ger sig rätt att köra över människor och strunta i principer som den tidigare försäkrat sig stå bakom så snart en "kris" infinner sig. Snarare än att bara fråga oss om välfärden kan räddas bör vi kanske fråga oss: är en sådan stat värd att räddas?

Som jag nämnde är intoleransen inbyggd i välfärdsstaten. Det som legitimerar intoleransen är människors rädsla att förlora välfärden. Det är därför det idag är nödvändigt att fundera över om vi nödvändigtvis behöver en välmående kapitalistisk välfärdsstat för att ha välfärd. Faran med att modellera vår tanke om välfärden på en idealbild av Norge eller Schweitz är att det försvårar för oss att tänka kring vad välfärd kan innebära. För det första skyler den över det faktum att rikedomen inte ens i en välmående kapitalistisk välfärdsstat är jämnt fördelad utan koncentrerad i en bråkdel av befolkningen. För det andra gör den att vi glömmer att reflektera över att det inte finns något logiskt samband mellan rikedom och välfärd. Att vi tenderar att koppla samman dem beror på att vi historiskt levt i kapitalistiska välfärdsstater i vilka kapitalackumulationen setts som kritisk för välfärdsskapandet.

Vad vi behöver är en idé om välfärd som inte är beroende av eller prioriterar ekonomisk tillväxt. Med tanke på globala miljöproblem och demografiska och ekonomiska trender som åtminstone i den så kallade västvärlden gör det svårt att tänka sig någon kommande ekonomisk guldålder är detta en idé som vi behöver för att kunna leva tillsammans på ett anständigt sätt i framtiden. Framför allt behöver vi en sådan idé för att sluta rädas en framtid utan tillväxt och för att få mod att sluta nicka bifall åt praktiker som orsakar lidande.  Den föregivna motsättningen mellan att "rädda välfärden" och att "rädda flyktingarna" är förenklande och missvisande. Idag verkar allt fler tro att det enda sättet att lösa krisen är att stänga dörren. Man det finns ett alternativ. Ett gästfritt flyktingmottagande är möjligt utan att sabotera välfärden eller riskera att gå kapitalets ärenden – nämligen genom att kritisera kapitalismen och försöka verka för icke-kapitalistiska välfärdsformer. Förvisso kan det i nuläget vara svårt att skapa ett sådant samhälle. Men om vi vill motstå den utpressning jag talade om ovan är det i den riktningen vi behöver röra oss.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The difference between Marcuse and Benjamin - and why they affirmed popular culture for opposite reasons

Last month I went through a number of texts by and about Herbert Marcuse. This made me think a little bit about the relation between him and some other thinkers associated with the so-called Frankfurt School, such as Adorno and Benjamin.

It's fairly common to find texts contrasting Marcuse to Adorno. Despite many similarities in their theoretical ideas, they diverged in their view on the student movement of the late 60s. It is well known that Marcuse championed the students while Adorno disparaged and antagonized them. Unlike Adorno, Marcuse also affirmed parts of the popular culture of the 1960s, such as black music and Bob Dylan. Generally, the picture one gets from these texts is stereotypical: Adorno was elitist and conservative while Marcuse was open and genuinely interested in social change - or, as Zizek put it: "Adorno is bad, he hated jazz. Marcuse is good; solidarity with the students and so on" [1].

The difference between the two thinkers is well captured, I think, in the following passage by Wiggershaus, which suggests how something of the different temperaments of these two thinkers coloured their theoretical concepts:
Marcuse spoke of liberation from exploitation and oppression, meaning the liberation of those who were exploited and oppressed. Adorno, when he spoke of emancipation, was thinking more of a form of emancipation suggested by his view of his own situation, and emancipation from fear, from violence, from the humiliation of conformism; he characterized a “better condition” as one in which “one can be different without fear”. (Wiggershaus 1994:394) 
Other writers go a bit further, probing for the theoretical reasons for their differences. Habermas, for instance, argues in an influential essay that Marcuse's affirmation of libido was a crucial difference between the two thinkers. Unlike Adorno, Marcuse possessed an "affirmative" trait that saved him from defeatism and that was rooted in his "chiliastic trust in a revitalizing dynamic of instincts" (Habermas 1988:. 9). [2]. 

However, in my view a more interesting comparison can be made between Marcuse and Benjamin. Why? Like Marcuse, Benjamin is often said to have been a champion of popular culture, and like Marcuse he is often contrasted to Adorno. Yet the impulse to lump them together must be resisted. In fact, I think it can easily be shown that they are more of polar opposites than Marcuse and Adorno, at least in terms of their theoretical positions and their view on art. Below I will try to show why.

Marcuse and Angela Davis

Habermas is quite right that there is an affirmative side to Marcuse's thought. This is evident in his view on art. To be sure, Marcuse never forgets to remind the reader that art is ideological: the beauty, happiness and reconciliation it offers only exists within the work of art itself and leaves the suffering of the real, social world as it is. The consolation it offers us is thus false. But at least in the best works of art, there is a promise of happiness that keeps alive the painful awareness that the world doesn't live up to its ideal, that the real social world should be better than it is. Good art is thus not only ideological but also utopian: the reconciliation it offers us is only imaginary, yet precisely this imaginary, fictitious resolution throws the suffering of the real world in sharper relief and makes us long for something better. The ideological and utopian sides of art are not neatly separable. It is precisely by successfully presenting a beautiful semblance separated off from reality that art keeps the utopian promise alive.

This view of art's ambiguity remains remarkably constant throughout Marcuse's writings, from the first programmatic formulation in "The Affirmative Culture" from 1937 to his last book The Aesthetic Dimension from 1977. Here it should be noted that the art Marcuse writes about is almost exclusively the famous, classical or modernist pieces of bourgeois art. It is there, above all, that he seems to be able to locate the promise of happiness. Very seldom does he find much positive to say about popular culture. Popular culture is simply too much part and parcel of the general tendencies of society to be able to offer resistance to it.

The only exception is in works like An Essay on Liberation or Counter-revolution and Revolt, written at the height of his engagement with the student movement. Here parts of popular culture - above all black music and the culture of the "black ghetto" - are given a warm embrace. Take the following famous quote from An Essay on Liberation:
But a far more subversive universe of discourse announces itself in the language of black militants. […] Thus, the blacks “take over” some of the most sublime and sublimated concepts of Western civilization, desublimate them, and redefine them. […] they are soul brothers, the soul is black, violent, orgiastic; it is no longer in Beethoven, Schubert, but in the blues, in jazz, in rock 'n' roll, in "soul food". (Marcuse 1969:29)
The background of this shift is clearly that Marcuse is no longer as pessimistic about the possibility of social change. Only a few years earlier, when he wrote One-dimensional Man, he had still tended to see the flattening out of art's utopian function the dominant tendency in society. What happens with An Esssay on Liberation is that he starts to sense that there is a real chance for the promise of happiness once vouchsafed in the realm of autonomous art to become a political force and to be fulfilled in society itself. "Now", he writes, the "threatening homogeneity [is] loosening up, and an alternative is beginning to break into the repressive continuum” (Marcuse 1969:7). Against Adorno, he defends the social efficacy of the aesthetic. Rather than standing above society, it can impact the relations of production directly. Art doesn't have to remain in the domain of "illusory" art. Instead, he suggests "the historical possibility of conditions in which the aesthetic could become a gesellschaftliche Produktivkraft"(ibid. 35).

Art, then, no longer needs to isolate itself from society since the Utopian aspects anticipated in the great works of bourgeois art are starting to overflow the borders of art and infiltrate society itself. It is becoming a social force, realized in society and expressed in popular culture, especially black culture. Along with this change, the need for an autonomous art isolated from society lessens. In a suggestive passage, Marcuse describes this transformation as an incorporation of the "libertarian possibilities of the revolution" into the material development that frees them up from the need to be confined to art: "Prior to their incorporation into the material development, these possibilities are 'sur-realistic': they belong to the poetic imagination, formed and expressed in the poetic language" (ibid. 28).

Almost a decade after An Essay on Liberation, when the revolt of the sixties had ebbed away, Marcuse wrote The Aesthetic Dimension. Recognizing that the promise of happiness remained unfulfilled after all, Marcuse now reverts to a defense of autonomous art, acknowledging his debt to Adorno. Art is still said to be revolutionary but only because because of its own aesthetic dimension and its ability to maintain an "uncompromising estrangement" from society (Marcuse 1978:30). His view of popular culture has also become more disparaging [3]:
If it is at all meaningful to speak of a mass base for art in capitalist society, this would refer only to pop art and best sellers. In the present, the subject to which authentic art appeals is socially anonymous; it does not coincide with the potential subject of revolutionary practice. (ibid. 32)
This work seemingly appears like a retreat from Marcuse's previous optimism regarding the potential of art to be realized in society as a social force. Yet even in this work, he emphasizes that the potential itself remains intact. Autonomous art is necessary only as long as the "images (Schein) of the Beautiful and of fulfillment" are "denied by the society” (ibid. 28). In the sixties, he tells us, the world was on the verge of ending such denial. “Even now in the established society, the indictment and the promise preserved in art lose their unreal and utopian character to the degree to which they inform the strategy of oppositional movements (as they did in the sixties)” (ibid. 28). To Marcuse, then, art was not condemned to remain trapped for ever in the dichotomy between separating itself from the masses or degenerating into one-dimensional amusement. The protest movements of the sixtees showed that there was a real possibility for the utopian promise of art to be realized in society. 

What remained the same in Marcuse's thought was his affirmation of the image of happiness offered by art. No matter whether he saw the possibilities of realizing this happiness in society as closed or not, he was always able to point to something valuable in art which he could hold on to and which in his view deserved to be realized in society. As I will show below, this is a decisive difference between him and Benjamin.


Rather than searching for a redeeming feature of art in its promise of happiness or beautiful semblance, Benjamin tended to prefer forms of art that in some sense disrupted or destroyed such promises or such semblance. We can see this in his embrace of surrealism, which he was fond of just like Marcuse but for different reasons. What attracted him wasn't the attempt to shape a poetic language capable of expressing Eros or serving as a vehicle for its possible realization in society but rather the use of the shock effect. The montage in particular attracted him as a possible model of criticism. Through the montage-like juxtaposition of incongruous elements, criticism could set off explosive disruptions that might trigger a "dialectics of awakening" from the mythical slumber constantly regenerated by capitalism.

The philosophical ideas underpinning this preference for the negative or disruptive are presented already in The Origins of the German Tragic Drama. This is a pre-Marxist work in which the basicaly theological structure of Benjamin's thought is plain to see. The work is famous for the opposition he establishes between the symbol and the allegory, but to understand how he thinks about these two terms it is crucial to relate them to a third element which is only briefly mentioned in the work but which functions as a kind of inivisble center around which the other two terms circle.

This is element is the theological symbol, the only symbol Benjamin is prepared to grant the status of a placeholder for truth. Art can never aspire to transmit this truth. As long as symbols remain within the domain of art, their ability to create a semblance of truth and beauty - of providing direct access to a higher meaning which is brought into our presence by artistic means - becomes precisely what makes them so perversely false in Benjamin's eyes. The Romantics elevated the symbol over the allegory, claiming it was aesthetically superior. Benjamin, by contrast, defends the allegory. The allegory may very well be clumsier than the symbol, having to refer to its pairing with a concept rather than carrying its meaning within itself. But this very clumsiness redeems it. At least it never pretends to be hand us the truth. Its very operation proclaims the distance from truth, and thus helps us free ourselves of the spell of art.

In his later writings, as Benjamin's thought shifts to Marxism from Jewish mysticism, the terminology of The Origins falls out of use. However, the categories developed in this early work remain central, structuring and influencing his Marxism. Although he ceases to write of the theological symbol, the place of the latter remains central in his conceptual scheme. The place becomes filled with terms like divine violence, general strike, revolution and the arrival of Messiah. As for the symbol, it shows up as aura or auratic art, while the place of allegory is taken by terms like technical reproduction, shock, montage, photo and glass architecture.

Let us have a closer look at the aura. Just like the symbol, the aura endows its object with beauty but at the same time blocks us from truth. Benjamin describes it as the appearance of a beautiful presence, which is felt to be like the scent of another world, distinct from the everyday. In what he calls auratic art it is not difficult to recognize the kind of art whose promise of happiness Marcuse embraced in "The Affirmative Culture". In contrast to Marcuse, however, Benjamin's quest is for the very opposite of auratic art. His preference is for art forms that by bringing about a dissolution of the aura help us "wake up from the 19th century": Dada, montage, mechanical reproduction, film, photo, glass architecture and the theatre of Brecht. If there is a truth, it cannot be approached through the aura, but only negatively, though shock-like montages that "ruin" preexisting contexts of meaning in order to make way for the arrival of this truth.

It is this quest for an awakening from the 19th century that explains Benjamin's preoccupation with popular culture. He closes in on it, in fascination, yet he keeps his distance. He affirms it not because he likes it, or sees happiness in it, but because it liberates him, however brutally - because it is eye-opening in its destructiveness.

While both Marcuse and Benjamin at times affirm parts of popular culture, they thus do so for opposite reasons. To put it roughly but concisely: Marcuse is very much in thrall of the idea of art as beauty, functioning as a symbol providing a glimpse of truth, while Benjamin prefers the allegory, the 'clumsy' device that never pretends to contain the truth towards which it gesticulates. Marcuse tends to affirm art because it offers an anticipatory image of the reconciliation and freedom that would be possible in a better society. When he affirmed popular culture in the 60s, it was because this better world was no longer confined to art, but had started to spread to society itself, encouraging people to think that life might one day become as free, happy and beautiful as in art.

Benjamin's affirmation of popular culture, by contrast, reached its apogee in in the 30s, a period of catastrophes when a better society must have seemed very distant indeed. To him, popular culture pointed to the absence of truth, like the allegory. He affirmed it not so much because it contained anything - such happiness or freedom - that he wanted to realize, so much as because it was destructive of the mythic spell under which he was living. The shock experiences offered by the city crowd or popular art forms relying on mechanical reproduction like film and photography were affirmed since they could trigger a dialectics of awakening that might disrupt this spell.

To be sure, the contrast between Marcuse and Benjamin shouldn't be exaggerated. Marcuse sometimes affirmed the more destructive, shocking or anomic aspects of modernist art. He didn't think that art had to portray happiness or reconciliation directly to have a utopian function. What was crucial was that it should preserve the promise of such happiness, the awareness of difference to the present. Conversely, Benjamin didn't always reject the symbol. It is significative, however, that the only really famous passage in which he approves of the symbol in art is in a passage (in his essay on Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften) when the symbol turns into a "torso" - that is, when it is mutilated. Only then does it release its truth-content, namely the hope that is "given to us only for the sake of the hopeless". Finally, although I have no time to write about it here, another similarity is that they both developed theories celebrating the role of "play". Again, however, we can note that they affirmed play for rather different reasons. To Benjamin, play was an alternative to auratic art, while to Marcuse play was simply part of art itself.

So how about Adorno then?

The discussion so far has shown, I think, that it is misleading to lump together Marcuse and Benjamin as champions of popular culture presenting a united front against the elitist Adorno. In terms of theory, this opposition is superficial. More fruitful is, I think, to focus on the theoretical contrast between Marcuse and Benjamin, and to view Adorno as occupying a middle position between the other two.

Might not Adorno be seen as mediating between the positions of the other two and, in the process, remedying certain one-sidednesses in them? On the one hand we see him defending auratic art against Benjamin's attacks, insisting on the critical potential of the promise of happiness. But on the other, he was always far more suspicious of positivity than Marcuse, insisting on the need to criticize it. To him, affirmative art could never simply be realized in the world, since it was itself a deformation caused by an unredeemed society. At most it could give rise to a sense of the non-identity between subject and object, and thereby help shelter this non-identity from the compulsive attempts by an identity-thinking that had grown dominant in society to obliterate it. Reconciliation or utopia could itself only be built on a preservation of this non-identity, however painful it might be. Neither was it possible to pin one's hopes on insticts or human nature - such a conceptual move would itself amount to a reification that would partake in the general reification of society.

Adorno is rightly accused for his hostility to the protesters of '68 and to popular culture. But I want to believe that this stance didn't derive from his aesthetics or his philosophy of non-identity. If anything, it opens up for the recognition that, while ideology may very well pervade all of culture, there may also be a truth-content to all kinds of cultural phenomena, including popular culture and political movements, that co-exists with the ideological aspects. Recognizing truth-content doesn't have to mean giving up criticizing it. Like Marcuse, he often referred to the promise of happiness preserved in autonomous art, but who can say that there was no such promise in the revolt of the sixties, or jazz for that matter? Happiness that makes you forget about pain is ideological, but isn't there another happiness that consists in lending this pain a voice? Like Benjamin, his own style opened up for a form of political intervention, namely shocks and unexpected juxtapositions that functioned like slaps in the face of identity-thinking. But revolts too are like shocks delivered in the face of the social body. 

Adorno and Hans-Jürgen Krahl


[1] For some personal anectotes, see the recollections by Angela Davis (2004) and Peter Marcuse (2004). See also Kellner's preface to One-dimensional Man. For Marcuse's and Adorno's positions on the student movement, see also their exchange of letters (Adorno & Marcuse 1999).

[2] Wolin (2001) too points to Marcuse's theory of instincts as a crucial difference to Adorno, arguing that this theory reflected the legacy of heideggarian "ontology" in Marcuse's thought. It may well be true that the "affirmative" side in Marcuse has deeper roots than his Freudianism. Already before the war, this affirmative side shows up in his interpretation of Hegel in Reason and Revolution where he embraces the idea that the human desire for freedom can be a historical force from realizing freedom. As is well known, Adorno’s view of Hegel is much more critical: he enjoys twisting around and reversing Hegel quotations, portraying Hegel as a thinker sacrificing the non-identical or devouring otherness etc.

[3] When Doug Kellner asked Marcuse about the abrupt shift in his theory of art from the 60s to the 70s, Marcuse denied that there was any discontinuity in his theory, instead explaining the shift by the fact that the countercultural art was better in the 60s than in the 70s and mentioning Bob Dylan as an example (See Kellner’s introduction to Art and Liberation, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Vol. 4, London: Routledge, 2007: 54)


Adorno, T. W. & Marcuse, Herbert (1999) “Correspondence on the German Student Movement”, New Left Review I/233 (January/February): 118-136.

Benjamin, Walter (1985) The Origin of German Tragic Drama, London: Verso.

Davis, Angela Y. (2004) “Marcuse’s Legacies”, pp. 43-50, in John Abromeit & W. Mark Cobb (eds.) Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, London: Routledge.

Habermas, Jürgen (1988) “Psychic Thermidor and the Rebirth of Rebellious Subjectivity”, pp. 3-12, in Robert Pippin & Andrew Feenberg & Charles P. Webel (eds.) Marcuse: Critical Theory & The Promise of Utopia, Houndmills: Macmillan Education.

Marcuse, Herbert (1969) An Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press

Marcuse, Herbert (1978) The Aesthetic Dimension, Boston: Beacon Press.

Marcuse, Herbert (1999) Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Amhearst: Humanity Books.

Marcuse, Herbert (2007) “The Affirmative Character of Culture”, pp. 82-112, in Douglas Kellner (ed.) Art and Liberation, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Vol. 4, London: Routledge.

Marcuse, Peter (2004) “Herbert Marcuse’s ‘Identity’”, pp. 249-252, in John Abromeit & W. Mark Cobb (eds.) Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, London: Routledge.

Wiggershaus, Rolf (1994) The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wolin, Richard (2001) Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sunday, 15 November 2015


Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern EuropeI'd like to use this post to offer some reflections on what might be called the "anti-political" discourse among some social movement activists. I do so by bringing together a few of my impressions from a (quite lovely) conference I recently atttended in Zurich on contemporary activism in Japan with another set of impressions from a book I've just read on activism in central and eastern Europe: Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Ashgate 2015, edited by Kerstin Jacobsson). My hope is of course that the two sets of impressions will cross-fertilize.

During the conference, I was struck by the fact that many presentations concerned forms of activism that weren't overtly political, such as consumer initiatives, collective housing, "invisible" forms of transnational network building and some forms of DIY. Although it seemed that these activities were generally motivated by a wish to change the world for the better, they usually lacked conspicuous elements of struggle, conflict or confrontation. Often it was hard to detect any attachment to specific political ideologies. In many cases I got the impression that participants seemed to prefer to frame their engagement as rooted in personal circumstances related to daily life or to their families, rather than as politically driven.

The question of to what extent such ostensibly apolitical activities can be regarded as social movement phenomena is of course familiar to most students of social movements. Since most definitions of social movements involve a reference to conflict, it's not always easy to categorize activities where the conflict element is submerged, invisible or denied, i.e. where it isn't publicly stated by the activists themselves.

Social movement scholars have long recognized that there's an important non-public side to social movements - a side that's been theorized using concepts like latency or abeyance. Alberto Melucci, for instance, stressed the importance of focusing on this latent side for understanding the culture of a social movement, which he described as a "laboratory" where activists could experiment with alternative lifestyles and identities - i.e. activities that at first sight may appear unpolitical. But usually this "latent" side has been considered to be a supplement to the movement's more "manifest" or publicly visible activities. So-called free spaces, for instance, are considered to be important to movements not only as cultural laboratories but also as incubators of protest and bases for more overt political action.

But what about cases where even the manifest side of movements is presented as apolitical? Why do many activists seem to prefer to frame their activities as apolitical even when they appear in public? After all, there's nothing especially hidden about consumer initiatives or collective housing - or, for that matter, transition towns and local sharing economies. Instead of engaging in another round of discussion about what forms of activism should be classified as political or not, the crucial quesiton to investigate would seem to be: what are the circumstances that make people reluctant to label their activities political?

This question seems especially pertinent in the case of Japan. This is a country where the traumatizing experience of the New Left in the 70s didn't just lead to a decline of radical protest but also a general and long-lasting stigmatization of all political activism. The result was the so-called "ice age of protest" which didn't really end until the big anti-war demonstrations in the early 2000s on the Japanese mainland (Okinawa being a different story). However, as many conference presenters pointed out, activism didn't disappear even during this ice age. Everything didn't just freeze over. Rather, activism became submerged and invisible. Some of it took the form of engaging in establishing transational networks. Other activists tried to preserve their political ideals in less political forms, such as setting up collective houses. As I myself discuss (Cassegård 2014), there's a fascinating history of submerged freeter groups in the 1990s that helped prepare the way for the resurfacing of youth protest in the last decade in Japan. It seems reasonable to believe that the avoidance of the label "political" among these activists was partly the result of the stigmatization of overt political activism in the general public. Partly, it also stemmed from disillusionment with the political establishment among activists and the general public. Especially among more radical activists, this disillusionment explains their reluctance to address mainstream political parties and their tendency to stress personal factors rather than public committment in explaining their involvement in activism.

As Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe makes clear, Japan is not unique when it comes to the tendency for activists to adopt an "anti-political" discourse. It is from this book that I've borrowed the very term "anti-politics". As becomes evident from several of the chapters, there are striking similarities between the "anti-political" discourse among activists in Japan and central/eastern Europe. Examples treated in the book include bicycle activists in Belgrade (Kopf 2015), elderly people guarding their dachas in winter-time in Ukraine (Leipnik 2015), and "playful" forms of resistance in Vilnius (Lindqvist 2015). Intriguingly, these similarities appear to have emerged despite considerable differences in historical background. Instead of the legacy of the New Left, it was the post-socialist transition that played the cruical role in shaping this discourse in the case of central/eastern Europe.

This isn't the place to summarize this book, but there are a few points that seem relevant to highligh. As Kerstin Jacobsson points out in her introduction, there's a need to get away, firstly, from the tendency of many Western scholars to expect social movements in a post-socialist context to follow the same repertoire as in Western Europe or North America; secondly, from the narrow focus on contentious action in the form of protests and demonstrations that risks missing other forms of activism more related to local struggles of everyday life; and, thirdly, from the picture of advocacy-oriented NGOs as the main civil society actors in a post-socialist context (Jacobsson 2015a:4f, 9). It strikes me that all these three points deserve to be stressed also in regard to Japan.

Below is a handfull of quotes from the book that, from various angles, illuminate the theme of anti-politics:

The ‘anti-political’ tendencies of activists in the region, too, show their double rootedness in the socialist experience of living under an overpowering, repressive state and in the post-socialist experience of living with corrupt and unresponsive authorities. Against this backdrop, anti-politics are positively associated with a right not to be ‘political’… by engaging in moral rather than political resistance… Thus, while many urban movements in the region… show an anti-systemic orientation, some of them deliberately refrain from framing their action in political terms. (ibid. 2015b:283)

[Dissident thinkers like Adam Michnik, Václav Havel and György Konrád] were also influential in promoting the stance of ‘anti-political politics’, favouring an ethical rather than political understanding of civil society... Nevertheless, the anti-political sentiments among activists in the region also stem from experiences of corrupt and repressive authorities. (ibid. 2015a:14)
It can be argued that if most countries of the region today represent hyper-versions of global trends such as neoliberal urbanisation, this is not so much despite as because of post-socialist legacies... Neoliberal, individualist subjectivity, for instance, goes very well with the anti-collectivism that followed from the state-socialist experience. As Hirt has argued: ‘socialism did not obliterate the private; it obliterated the public…’, socialism paved the ground for what she calls the post-1989 privatism. (ibid. 2015a:15)

[T]he activists speak about making an intervention even if they are not inclined to call their practices for ‘politics’. Instead, they make clear that they mistrust political leaders. (Lindqvist 2015: 44)

Although the bike activism takes up political questions… it is framed as ‘anti-politics’, an issue that ‘has nothing to do with politics’, by Belgrade’s activists. Instead, the bike activists define themselves as gradani (‘citizens’ or ‘city dwellers’) who just aim to make Belgrade a greener and more livable city. (Kopf 2015:100).

Furthermore, the bike activists also distanced themselves from NGOs since some of the negative characteristics, such as corruption, nepotism and inefficiency which the bike activists associated with the political sphere were also attributed to the NGO sector. (ibid. 114)

[Many of] the bike activists believed that any politicization of their interests and especially the intermingling of their activism with those of the LGBT community would cause a loss of credibility and thus weaken the public’s acceptance of their activities. [Instead they prefer] playing down the political dimension of their engagement by emphasizing the funny and peaceful character of the bike ride (ibid. 116)

Are these social movements rooted in local grassroots initiatives and in the protest participants’ daily life then ‘political’?... [A] move of grassroots movements towards something more openly ‘political’ may indeed become possible.... All of this is incipiently political – although not about politics ‘high up’, but about politics ‘from below’, pursued in a collective act of self-empowerment by ordinary people prompted to action by their everyday concerns. (Clément 2015:191)
To many readers, I think the similarities to Japan are obvious. Japan too is often said to have weak civil society, an institutionalized NGO sector lacking in independence vis-à-vis authorities, a public distrustful of “dirty politics”, and activists eager to try out forms of empowerment that emphasize direct and practical action related to everyday concerns.

Collective housing in Tokyo
Comparing Japan and central/eastern Europe, is there anything in general we can say about what historical circumstances tend to favor the rise of "anti-political" discourses? At first sight, the circumstances in these two regions appear to be very different. In the one case, we have a country that achieved democracy in the early postwar years and that has already experienced at least two great waves of social movement protest; in the other case we have group of countries whose turn to democracy is more recent and that in some cases are still ruled by repressive regimes. In Japan, it is hardly fear of repression, but rather the fear of being associated with the stigmatized legacy of earlier protest that seems to underlie the reluctance of activists to appear "political" in public. But there are also similarities. In both cases, there is a tendency to equate politics with party politics, with the "dirty politics" that mainly takes place between institutionalized actors and with little participation of ordinary people. In both cases, the framing of activism as apolitical seems grounded in a desire to achieve respect and legitimacy among people in general.

I should point out that the "anti-political" discourse I've discussed so far has been that of grassroots groups, i.e. mostly rather small groups composed of non-professional activists that haven't been very institutionalized (e.g. activists engaged in guarding dachas to protect their crops or activists engaged in setting up or running a collective house). Although the "anti-political" discourse seems to be a symptom of the more general conditions in the Japanese and central/eastern European societies, we shouldn't generalize from these rather small grassroots groups to those of other movement actors in these societies where we can certainly find other, more "political" discourses.

Finally, I'd like to mention two questions that might be interesting to pursue in future research:

1) What happens to the anti-politics discourse when grassroots groups become part of big mass-demonstrations, such as the kanteimae demonstrations in Tokyo or those at Maidan Square in Kiev? Do they shift to a more political and confrontational discourse? If so, to what extent is the discursive shift accompanied by a reevaluation of the historical legacies that previously made them adopt more "anti-political" stances?

2) How does the anti-politics discourse of grassroots groups relate to the "depoliticized" or "post-political" discourse associated with very institutional actors, such as NGOs deeply embroiled in partnerships with authorities? Here we're obviously talking of two distinct phenomena that shouldn't be confused. The anti-politics discourse is typically employed by activists who are most disgusted with the corrupt world of ordinary politics - a world that NGO "partners" of the governments are often considered to be part and parcel of. In contrast to the depoliticized discourse of institutionalized actors, grassroots groups can at least in some cases contribute to politicizing issues by addressing problems people experience in daily life and which authorities often prefer to keep invisble. Despite their explicit disavowal of politics, they thus have the potential to become quite political in the emphatic sense intended by authors such as Zizek, Mouffe or Rancière, namely that of questioning and disrupting the institutionalized field on which the politics of established actors is played out. This point is important, for it touches on the real political possibility and potential of this form of activism. It implies that the "anti-politics" discourse isn't necessarily only adopted out of meekness, out of the fear of repression or social sanctions. Sometimes it can be the very opposite.


Cassegård, Carl (2014) Youth Activism, Trauma, and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan, Leiden: Global Oriental.

Clément, Karine (2015) “From ‘Local’ to ‘Political’: The Kaliningrad Mass Protest Movement of 2009-2010 in Russia”, pp. 163-194, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Jacobsson, Kerstin (2015a) “Introduction: The Development of Urban Movements in Central and Eastern Europe”, pp. 1-32, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Jacobsson, Kerstin (2015b) “Conclusion: Towards a New Research Agenda”, pp. 273-288, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Kopf, Sabrina (2015) “Urban Grassroots, Anti-Politics and Modernity: Bike Activism in Belgrade”, pp. 99-118, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Leipnik, Olena (2015) “The Elderly as a Force for Urban Civil Activism in Ukraine”, pp. 79-98, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Lindqvist, Beatriz (2015) “The Playfulness of Resistance: Articulations of Urban Grassroots Activism in Post-Socialist Vilnius”, pp. 33-54, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Honneth's Freedom's Right (I)

Freedom's Right is Honneth’s grand undertaking to “normatively reconstruct” the principles of freedom and justice embodied in the major institutional complexes of modern society – the sphere of intimate relations, the capitalist market and the democratic public sphere. As can be expected from a critical theorist, Honneth’s aim is normative as well as descriptive. The reconstruction is meant to provide the foundations of a theory of justice which, in turn, can provide critical theory with yardsticks for critique.

The grand scope and ambition is evident in the book's design, which is modelled on that of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Honneth announces his intention to create an updated version of the latter already in the preface. In an amusing aside he complains about how burdensome his undertaking has been compared to that of Hegel, who was still writing in the very beginning of modernity and never needed to pay attention to the complex developments that took place in the two hundred years of history separating him from us (p. viii). Although this remark sounds like a joke, it is significant since it signals that his book will be about history as much as it will be about theory. According to Honneth, a valid normative theory cannot be founded on abstract principles, but must rest on a "reconstruction" of norms that have developed historically and that are already embodied in the major institutions of modern societies.

It's an ambitious book, and for precisely that reason it also invites critical reflexions. In this post, I will try to summarize Honneth's argument. I start with presenting his basic idea of normative reconstruction. I then turn to his argument that the major modern institutional complexes are institutions of "social freedom". Finally, I discuss how Honneth believes that the promise of freedom embodied in these institutions can be betrayed in two ways: pathologies and misdevelopments. In future posts, I plan to follow up on this discussion by adding some critical comments on Honneth's undertaking.

Normative reconstruction and immanent criticism:

The critical intent behind Honneth's normative reconstruction is to show how criticism is possible by appealing to values already embodied in the institutions that are being criticized, and that criticism indeed must appeal to such values in order to be legitimate and socially effective: “the criterion for determining what counts as just can ultimately only be judged in terms of the ideals actually institutionalized in that society” (p. 5). Criticism must, in other words, be an immanent criticism that judges to what extent institutions live up to their own values. The aim of the normative reconstruction is to “examine, by following the historical development of each of these social spheres, the degree to which the understanding of freedom institutionalized within them has already been socially attained” (p. viii).

By seeking to ground criticism on a normative reconstruction of the ideals of freedom that have historically become instittuionalized in modern societies, Freedom's Right marks a departure from Habermas' version of critical theory as well as from early versions of Honneth's own theory of recognition. The yardsticks meant to be uncovered by reconstruction would neither be quasi-transcendental presuppositions immanent to language (as in Habermas) or anthropological constants (as Honneth tended to portray them in his earlier work). Like Hegel, Honneth seeks to draw not on “an external standard” but to “point out ‘reconstructively’ the neglected potential of already existing institutions” (p. 10).

That he views the yardsticks as being historically embedded in the core institutions of modern society doesn't mean that he affirms the existing order in toto. What he seeks to do is rather to trace over time how the three institutional spheres have developed, sometimes approaching and sometimes betraying the underlying principle of mutual recognition and the promise of freedom with which they are associated. There is thus always room for criticism, but that criticism can never be totalized since it must be done “in light of embodied values” (p. 9).

The centrality of institutions

The premise of Honneth's undertaking is that promises of freedom are indeed embodied in central institutions. As he writes: “this project could only succeed if the constitutive spheres of our society are understood as institutional embodiments of particular values whose immanent claim to realization indicates the principles of justice at work in each specific sphere” (p. vii). Freedom and justice are linked since individuals are mutually dependent on each other in order to realize their individual freedom. Individual freedom, in a nutshell, rests on mutual recognition. Mutual recognition in turn can only be guaranteed by institutions. Freedom can therefore only be fulfilled with the help of institutions that “inform subjects in advance about the interdependence of their aims” (p. 65).

But what does Honneth mean by institutions? Mostly informal ones, it seems. He points out that he is not chiefly or only interested in juridical relations “but in practices, customs and social roles” (p. 66). We owe most of our individual freedom “not to legal entitlements granted by the state, but to the existence of a web... of routine and often only weakly institutionalized practices and customs” (p. 67). More important than the formality or informality of the institutions is therefore that they are stable, recognized and hence able to provide clear guidance for action. This is an important clarification which it is important to keep in mind when evaluating Honneth's theory. His business is not to justify existing state institutions; what he does want to show, however, is the necessity of certain normatively underminned practices for realizing what most people in modern societies think of as freedom.

Social freedom

In his book, Honneth focuses on three insitutitional complexes – those of intimate relations, the capitalist market and democratic will-formation (corresponding to Hegel’s well-known triad of family, civil society and state). Why these three? The answer is that Honneth believe that they embody institutions of "social freedom".

What then is social freedom? Honneth tries to argue that a viable ideal of freedom cannot simply be a "negative freedom" (freedom from external interference) or "reflexive freedom" (self-determination in the Kantian sense of being able to rationally decide over one's own choices). Instead it must be a “social freedom” in which the individual recognizes that his or her freedom can only be realized through the freedom of others, or in other words that people are mutually dependent on each other for their individual freedom. Thus in the family or love relationship, we usually don't look on the other as a limitation of our own freedom, but as a precondition for it. To love another person means to be unfree without her, as Hegel pointed out. In similar fashion, we cannot be free in the market economy if we remain totally on our own. The market economy is a system of interdependencies in which we only achieve our goals by engaging in transactions with other people who are also pursuing their own goals. Finally, in the public sphere too we can only realize our own goals by having them recognized by others or acting in concert with them. In all these cases, the institutional complexes create systems in which my own freedom is dependent on that of others. 

According to Honneth, the possibility of social freedom provided by these institutional complexes isn't just an objective part of the way they function. It also needs to be subjectively recognized. Fundamental to social freedom is thus the element of mutual recognition, a notion which has long been central to Honneth’s work. Social freedom thus rests on “the condition that other, accommodating subjects confirm my own aims” (p. 65). The reality of freedom is only given “if we encounter each other in mutual recognition and can understand our actions as a condition for the fulfillment of others’ aims” (p. 124).

That the institutions are recognized as contributing to social freedom is also what legitimizes them and makes them capable of gaining our support. When I engage in, say, the market economy, I can thus legitimize my action by referring to the "promise" of mutual freedom. Similarly, whenever I engage with any of these institutional complexes, I am entitled to do so in the expectation that the promise of social freedom will be fulfilled. Precisely because of this, I am also able to criticize the complex if this promise is betrayed. As Honneth shows, the history of each of the three institutional spheres is also a history of struggles, through which social movements of various kinds have brought accusations to bear on the institutions in order to make them live up to their promises of freedom. By constantly invoking this promise, these movements have also contributed to endowing the institutions with traditions in which these promises have become firmly embedded.


Normative reconstruction seems to presuppose the possibility of separating the empirial reality of institutions from their essential normative core. Although institutions may very well betray this normative core in the course of their development, the core nevertheless remains embodied in them as part of their tradition and thus exists in them as a form of "promise" to which criticism can appeal whenever institutions fail to live up to it. Honneth thus presents us with a high ambivalent portrayal of these institutions as Janus-like. On the one hand they possess a "good" core which remains intact through their history, but on the other they have increasingly come to deviate from that core through their historical development.

How does Honneth analyze these deviations? According to him, they can happen in two ways, through "pathologies" or "misdevelopments".

Pathologies are deviations that are rooted in the institutions themselves. Honneth defines them as “any social development that significantly impairs the ability to take part rationally in important forms of social cooperation” (p. 86). They arise when people one-sidedly adhere to limited ideas of freedom, i.e. "negative" or "reflexive" ideas of freedom. Although such ideas have a legitimate place in modern societies - Honneth writes that they help individuals “assure themselves of their intersubjectively accepted and socially anchored possibilities of retreating from the social lifeworld” (p. 66) - pathologies typically emerge as soon as these types of freedom are asserted alone. An example of this is the pathology of legal freedom, which occurs when everything is interpreted as being a matter of subjective rights (pp. 86-94).

But how does Honneth think that these pathologies come about? Are there any systematic causes behind these tendencies to assert one type of freedom alone? Honneth seems to suggest that the rise of pathologies is a result of the shift to a more complex society, “found at a higher stage of social reproduction” (p.86). For instance, people can be so overwhelmed by the “rapid increase of options for action” that they “cling fast to their legal claims”, leading to pathologies of legal freedom (p.87). Later on, Honneth specifies that he believes that the “major factor” behind the increasing tendency to rely on legal freedom is “the increasing legal codification of spheres of life that were previously organized in a largely communicative manner” (p.89), i.e. the process that Habermas referred to as juridification in The Theory of Communicative Action. This process leads people to “take up an objectifying stance toward their highly individuated interaction” with the result that “subjects are forced to abstract from their concrete experiences and recognize their needs only to the extent that they fit into the schema of generally typified interests, thus undermining overall communicative life” (p.90).

These remarks are interesting since they provide a glimpse into how Honneth addresses alienation, the phenomenon whereby human beings no longer recognize themselves in their own products which thus appear to possess their own independent being. An aspect of this is that people become unable to recognize their own freedom in institutional structures. Although Honneth discusses these processes in his book Reification, he never really provides a sociological explanation in that book of why reification occurs (a problem that I have addressed here). Here, however, he does provide at least part of the sociological explanation that is missing in that book - although the explanation is admittedly sketchy and doesn't really go beyond Habermas.

While this discussion of the social background to the "pathologies" is interesting, it is also slightly problematic. To begin with, if the social cause of legal pathologies is located in juridification or in a broader trend to growing social complexity, then what becomes of the claim that they are rooted in the institutions of freedom themselves? To trace them back to any internal processes within these institutions seems reductive (in relation to this, see Freyerhagen's criticism of the distinction between pathologies and misdevelopments; Freyerhagen 2015). Furthermore, if social complexity is really the cause of the pathologies, then there would be no remedy again them and alienation would have to be defined as a feature of modern society as such, rather than of the capitalist system.

In any case, while negative and reflexive forms of freedom are clearly important, Honneth believes that they must be kept from going to excesses. To keep them in their proper place, well developed institutions of social freedom are necessary - in other words, institutions regulating intimate relations, the market economy, and the political public sphere.


According to Honneth, the major instutitions of social freedom - those regulating intimate relations, the market and the public sphere - yield no pathologies. Instead they suffer from misdevelopments, meaning that the causes of the problems are external rather than internal to the institutions themselves. To Honneth, pathologies are in fact only a rather minor part of the problems faced by modern societies. Most of the book is instead taken up with the misdevelopments.

Here I think we should pause and reflect a bit on what the distinction between pathologies and misdevelopments does to Honneth's theory. One of the chief functions of this distinction is to provide a theoretical basis for arguing that these institutions are not bad in themselves, despite the fact that actual practices in these institutions may well fail to live up to the values embodied in them. The misdevelopments are certainly deplorable, but they are not the fault of the institutions. They are rather “anomalies” (p.129) for which the institutions are not responsible.

What then are the misdevelopments from which the major institutional complexes suffer? The sphere of intimate relations and the family is being hollowed out by the capitalist market. The political public sphere suffers from problems such as mistrust of public institutions and apathy, obstacles for the participation of all citizens, as well as the tension between the democratic constitutional state and the capitalist market.

So we can see that when it comes to the misdevelopments affecting intimate relations and the public sphere, Honneth to a considerable extent locates the "bad" external influences as having their root in the market economy and its tendency to encroach on these other institutional complexes. To rectify at least some of these problems he proposes that limits to the economic sphere must be determined, so as to prevent “the colonization of neighboring spheres of social freedom” (p.154). An important point the he makes is that the democratic public sphere has a key role in counter-acting misdevelopments not only in its own sphere but also in the other two institutional complexes, since the realization of social freedom in this sphere depends on “free” conditions in the other two. The public sphere, he writes, “can only live up to its principles of legitimacy if it learns... the necessity of supporting struggles for social freedom in the two other spheres” (p. 254f, also see pp. 330-335).

An important remaining question is, of course: if the market economy is a major cause of the misdevelopments affecting intimate relations and the public sphere, what causes the misdevelopments in the market economy? By definition, these causes would have to be external to the market economy, but where then do they come from?

But that is a question that will have to wait to my next post!


Freyerhagen, Fabian (2015) “Honneth on Social Pathologies: A Critique”, Critical Perspectives 16(2): 131–152.

Honneth, Axel (2014) Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Karatani's The Structure of Empire

Bildresultat för 帝国の構造Here are some impressions after reading Karatani Kōjin's Teikoku no kōzō: Chūshin shūhen ashūhen (The structure of empire: Centre, margin, submargin), which is a follow-up on his Sekaishi no kōzō (published in English as The Structure of World History). Although covering much of the same terrain as the latter, the new work's substantial historical discussions centered on China and Japan are a welcome addition to the older work. The new book also introduces a theoretical novelty, namely the distinction between two kinds of nomadism (an idea that also plays a central role in Yûdôron, a companion piece on Yanagita Kunio and nomadism which also appeared last year). Finally, the new book is notable for its carefully celebratory description of empire, which is shown to contain utopian elements..

Karatani starts of by presenting his work as an attempt to grapple with Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. To start with Hegel is necessary, he states, as an antidote to the general lack of awareness that we are trapped within the closed circuit of nation, state and capital, a triad which he describes as a Borromean knot in which the three components mutually supplement each other and make any attack on any single one of them unlikely to succeed. Even large protest movements such as the recent insurrections against Mubarak and Morsi in Egypt only ended up strengthening this closed circuit rather than overcoming it. Being a work in which the interconnection within the triad are firmly grasped, The Philosophy of Right is thus more relevant than ever (Karatani 2014:12ff).

Unlike most Marxists, who in their attempts to overturn Hegel by "turning him on his head" ended up in a problematic base-superstructure model that left them little choice between either an economic reductionism or assserting the "relative autonomy" of the superstructure, Karatani uses a model focusing on four modes of exchange, which he believes are equally basic and irreducible:
  • A: Reciprocal exchanges within a community, a norm that lives on in our time in the idea of the nation.
  • B: The exchange of "plunder and redistribution" typical of feudal lordship and basic to modern states.
  • C: Commodity exchange, which is central to capitalism.
  • D: Egalitarian sharing through associations between free individuals (singularities) that transcend the community.
While A-B-C are all integral parts of the closed circuit of nation, state and capital, D is external to it. It lacks any historical emodiment except as a recurring utopian element in millennarian movements and modern social movements, but Karatani sees it as a viable model for a possible communism which would also be a Kantian world republic.

Figure 1: Karatani's four modes of exchange

From nomadism to capitalist nation-states

Like in his recent book on Yanagita Kunio, Karatani distinguishes two types of nomadism (yûdôsei), which is a clear novelty compared to The Structure of World History. The nomadism of the earliest bands of hunters-gatherers preceded the emergence of settled communities (A), whereas later forms of nomads - such as the pastoral nomads of Central Asia or Arabia - moved between the settled communities, managing the traffic between them and in the process furthering the rise of trade, markets and empires. The latter form of nomadism thus paved the way for the present dominance of capitalist nation-states and in no way acts as a counter-force to them. Unlike some thinkers like Delezue & Guattari or Amino Yoshihiko, Karatani refuses to see anything liberatory about such nomadism, insisting instead on the need to direct attention to the earlier nomadism of hunters-gatherers as a model for the primordial freedom that subsequent religious and social movements have sought to "repeat" in the form of associations (D).

The rise of settled communities is thus an important watershed to Karatani. By itself, however, it didn't lead to an abandonment of the egalitarianism of hunters and gatherers. Settlement created the possibility of concentrating wealth and power, but this was avoided through the system of reciprocal gift-giving which regulated relations between communities. Settlement forced people to conduct exchange in order to get hold of necessities, but this exchange was generally hostile in character. Outright war was avoided through ceremonial gift-giving, which - once peace had been established through the gift - could be accompanied by barter-like exchanges like in the Kula ring. The hostility could also be sublimated and expressed in the exchange itself, as in potlatches. These exchanges prevented inequality within the communities by forcing chiefs to exhaust their wealth through compulsory generosity. Chiefs were therefore unable to become kings. By creating these systems of reciprocal exchange, societies thus preserved the equality of earlier nomadic societies while preventing the rise of the state. By contrast, strict reciprocity had played a much less prominent role among hunters and gatherers, who instead shared or pooled things without regard for reciprocity.

According to Karatani, this means that the origin of the state cannot be found in factors internal to settled communities, such as rising wealth and class differences. The decisive factor must instead be searched in the role of nomads, whose mobility made them the key mediators between communities. Often making their living out of trade, they turned on communities that threatened the trade lines and conquered them, a process that helped them establish huge empires. Wars of conquest were thus crucial in the formation of states. Such wars turned chiefs into kings who were no longer bound by compulsory reciprocity to the conquered subjects. Furthermore, the creation of empires extending over a plurality of communities made laws necessary, since mere custom was no longer sufficient to regulate the relations between them. Standing armies and imperial bureaucracies become possible when people no longer needed to be treated like equals.

To maintain themselves, however, the empires had to embody what Karatani calls the “imperial principle” (teikoku no genri), a Utopian aspect expressed in popular millenarianism as well as in the idea of a universal monarchy. This allowed the empires to transcend boundaries between particular communities, to be cosmopolitan and tolerant of diversity and to receive active support from peoples under its rule. This means that it was not enough for them to simply offer protection in return for submission (B) - they also had to partake to some extent of the utopia of D. Universal religions helped them do this, as he illustrates through a discussion of St Augustine, who argued that the state was not simply an "organization of robbers", since it has had a redeeming side to it, namely its potential to grow into a City of God where people would not be driven by self-interest but by “love of the neighbor” and “love of God” (ibid. 94-100). Helped by this imperial principle, the empires became centres of civilization, whose scripts, laws and religions shaped the cultures of their subject populations as well as their peripheries. The discussion of empire is substantiated in several chapters dealing with the history of China, the Mongols, Russia, the Ottoman empire and the Mogul empire.

However, even while the empires (dominated by B) were flourishing, the nucleus of a "world-economy" (dominated by C) formed in what Wittfogel calls their "submargins". These were distinct from the "margins", i.e. those areas that were geographically closest to the empires and politically dependent on them. Submargins were located far enough from the empires not to be immediately threatened by them but close enough to be exposed to the imperial civilization which could be selectively imported and wedded to a social structure that, in comparison with the empires, was more pluralistic and lacking in a strong central power - factors that were favorable to the rise of trade and a strong merchant class. This could be seen in feudal Europe which became the birth bed of the modern capitalist economy, not because it was more advanced that the Eurasian empires but because it was peripheral to them and (from an imperial perspective) more "barbaric".

The idea of imperial centres and their margins and sub-margins (which plays a prominent role already in Karatani's earlier work) performs a crucial theoretical function to him, helping him make better sense of history than the old classical Marxist stage theory. However, we can also note that Karatani is not so much discarding this theory as rescuing it in a modified form. In his version history is still made to progress from a stage in which A predominates to one where B is dominant until B in turn is supplanted by one in which C is predominant, namely present-day capitalism. This, however, is not a developmental ladder to be climbed by each society in isolation (first the European countries, then the Third World...). Instead, he brings in a spatial dialectics centred on the interplay between the empires, mostly located in Asia, and their margins and sub-margins. Doing so helps him get rid of that old anomaly, the notion of an "Asiatic mode of production", which was the way empires had tended to be conceptualized from the standpoint of the old stage theory.

It also provides the theoretical tools for properly grasping the spatio-historical place of feudalism. Feudalism isn't characteristic of all pre-modern societies, but above all of the submargins where the remnants of older clan-based social systems tend to be stronger than in the empires. Thus European feudalism was rooted in the clan-based systems of the peoples that had been sub-marginal to the Roman Empire. Their legacy of was evident in the fact that strong elements of reciprocal relations remained within the ruling stratum. These, however, disappeared with the rise of capitalism and the formation of absolutist states. The absolutist states differed from empires since capitalism was an integral part to them. They formed when the absolutist monarchs allied with the rising bourgeoisie to buttress their power and used this power to protect the flow of capital from interference by feudal lords and the Church. Even later when these absolutist states become imperialist, they didn't become empires in a strict sense. Following Arendt, Karatani argues that imperialism is merely the expansion of the nation-state, the rule of one nation over others. Hence it lacks the universal aspect of the “imperial principle” and invites resistance in the form of national liberation movements.

Japan as submargin

Karatani demonstrates the fruitfulness of his concepts of empire and submargin in a chapter on Japan, whose history can to a great extent be explained by reference to its submarginal status. Thus Japan's backwardness in relation to the Chinese empire was expressed in its clan-based feudal social system, which persisted despite superficial cultural and organizational imports from China (as seen in the persistence of bilinearity, the ineffectuality of the Ritsuryôsei, etc.). Unlike imperial "margins" like Korea, the "sub-margin" Japan was free from direct military threats from China for most of its history, a fact that encouraged Japan to set up its own "miniature-empire", emulating China instead of subordinating itself to it.

Within Japan, however, there were regional differences. As the historian Amino Yoshihiko has pointed out in a number of works (e.g. Amino 1998), medieval Japan was far from a homogeneously feudal country in the European sense, dominated by a warrior elite ruling over an agricultural peasant population. Although such a portrayal has a measure of truth when applied to eastern Japan, the western parts and especially the capital region around Kyoto was more diverse, involving a separate hierarchical ordering with the emperor at its apex that linked together "non-agriculturalists" such as artisans, performers, traders, religious practitioners and outcasts. Karatani adheres to this portrayal, arguing that feudalism developed mainly in the submarginal east while imported “imperial” elements were more prominent in Kyoto and western Japan (Karatani 2012:239).

Nevertheless, on the whole Karatani believes that Japan's "success" in modernizing was rooted in a feudal past more or less similar to in Europe. This past helped it develop capitalism and achieve a rapid modernization that enabled it to escape colonization by the West. The idea that Japan modernized successfully because of structural similarities to Europe goes back at least to the 1960's when the anthropologist Umesao Tadao argued that Japan resembled Western Europe more than China because of its fringe position on the Eurasian continent and its feudal past (Umesao 2003). Karatani admits that this thesis lost popularity after the capitalist development of China, but he still chooses to adhere to it (ibid. 238).

If Japan is seen as similar to Europe, however, how should one explain the absence in Japan of an absolutist state? Karatani argues that something akin to European absolutism was in fact set up by the warlord Nobunaga, who not only established a form of absolute rule for himself but also actively furthered Japan’s participation in the world-system of capitalist trade. The Tokugawa shogunate, however, was different: although possessing power comparable to that of European absolutist regimes it preferred to set up a facade of feudalism, pulled out of the world-economy and opted out of military and technological development, i.e. it deliberately chose to pursue a policy quite different from the European absolutist states. Of course, the reason that it had the leeway to do this was that it was relatively safe from invasions, unlike the European states. But in the end, it proved impossible for the Tokugawa regime to stop the process of capitalist development and nation-state formation. Japanese capitalism didn't start to develop after the Meiji Restoration, but much earlier despite the efforts of the Tokugawa state to suppress it (ibid. 247-252).

The decline and return of empire?

With the rise of the European "world-economy", the old empires went into decline. Although they largely managed to resist being colonized, their old margins - e.g. vassal states like Korea - fell prey to colonization. To Karatani, however, the empires are not simply remnants to be discarded. "They contain something important that is lacking in the modern world-system. Hence, the principle for overcoming the modern nation-state and capitalism must in some way or another resurrect the empire” (ibid. 156). What Karatani refers to here is of course the "imperial principle". This principle, however, can only be resurrected by first negating it, i.e. “sublating” it, as he puts it using the Hegelian term. Such attempts at sublation could be seen for instance in Kang Youwei's attempt to revive the Qing empire by orienting it to the ideal of datong ("great unity"). China's Marxist revolution too, Karatani suggests, can be seen as an attempt to sublate and thereby resurrect the imperial tradition (ibid. 168ff).

Today China rises economically again, but that doesn’t mean the return of the “East” as an empire. Instead it means simply that China is today functioning as part of a pluralist capitalist world-economy like other capitalist nation-states (p. 145). Karatani believes that the resurgence of national liberation movements within China is a sign that it has jettisoned its old "imperial principle" and instead become similar to the "imperialistic" European national states of a century ago. What China needs today, Karatani believes, is not to pursue neoliberal capitalism but to reconstruct empire. If China opts for further neoliberalization, social unrest and ethnic conflicts will exacerbate and it will risk disintegration (p. 171).

In the last part of the book, Karatani repeats his prediction, familiar from previous books, that today's predominance of large regional blocs – of which China is one – in combination with environmental degradation and an intensified struggle for resources will lead to world war, and that the only way to escape this fate is the establishment of a Kantian world-republic. Interesting in this connection is his explicit assertion that the models of such a world-republic found in Kant and Augustine are rooted in the idea of empire (p. 197). Like in previous books, he argues that the traumatic possibility of a new world war will make the formation of such a world-republic inevitable, since it will compel states to voluntarily renounce war and imperialistic ambitions (one of his models here, surely, is Japan and the firm popular support enjoyed today by its "peace constitution"). Powerful states can play a crucial role in creating world-republics, he believes. By voluntarily renouncing war as a “gift” to the world, other states will be compelled to reciprocate the gift, and thus a world-republic of peace can be established (p. 208f).

Critical remarks 

Many of Karatani's assertions are stimulating and thought-provoking, and - as part of that - they also invite criticism. Below are some of my critical comments: 

1) A notable shift in Karatani's recent works is his interest in early nomadic bands before the rise of settled communities. Here he admits that societies existed where none of his four modes of exchange had yet come into being. Can they then really be fundamental to explaining societal change?

2) The shift of attention to early nomadic bands destabilizes Karatani's theoretical edifice in yet another sense as well. In his texts until now, Karatani has claimed that D is a repetition "on a higher level" of A (along the lines of a Hegelian sublation or a Freudian "return of the repressed"). Such passages also exist in this book (e.g. p. 29). Now, however, we also find suggestions that D is a resurrection of an even more egalitarian and "communist" stage prior to the emergence of A represented by early bands of hunters and gatherers (this claim is explicitly made in Yûdôron). But how can D be a resurrection of A on a higher level if A didn’t even exist in these bands? To put it in a nutshell: is D supposed to resurrect the reciprocal gift-giving of A or the pooling of the early nomadic bands?  Karatani himself is aware of this ambiguity, which he addresses explicitly in interviews published after the appearance of the book. Thus he nowadays refers to the primordial nomadism (gen-yûdôsei) of hunters and gatherers as U (the "U" standing both for the German prefix Ur- and the yû of the Japanese word yûdô) (Karatani & Satô 2014:20; also see Karatani & Akashi 2014); the ambiguity is also pointed out by Kobayashi Toshiaki in his recent book on Karatani; Kobayashi 2015:258ff). Can this ambiguity be resolved? A possible solution is hinted at when Karatani states (2014:49) that A is instituted in order to stop inequality from arising once peoples abandon nomadic life - a formulation that suggests that A itself arises as an attempt to preserve the equality of nomadic society and that A is thus already a repetition of that equality.

3) Karatani argues that his typology of four modes of exchange is superior to those theories (e.g. the Frankfurt School) who argue for a relative autonomy of culture or other parts of the superstructure. Instead of relativizing the key role of the economy, he claims to widen the concept of the economy to include modes of exchange in his sense. However, in widening the “economy” to include all forms of exchange, isn’t he just redefining what used to be seen as parts of the old superstructure into exchange, and, if so, how is that better than talking about the relative autonomy of the superstructure? Karatani still needs to conceive of some form of “relative autonomy” for the different forms of exchange.

4) We can note, however, that not all parts of the superstructure are included among the forms of exchange. For instance, he doesn’t have much to say about culture in the sense of language, discourse or ideology or how such cultural phenomena should be understood in relation to his four modes of exchange. Doesn't this risk leading to a belittling of the role of such factors in history? The neglect of language is surprising considering how central it has been as a concern in Karatani's early writings, in which language figured as one of a prime form of exchange with its own form of autonomy.

5) In addition, Karatani often seems to end up rather close to the position he criticizes - namely the "Frankfurt School" position of asserting the relative autonomy of culture. For instance, when he describes D as a return of the repressed or as a non-yet-conscious anticipation of Utopia “coming from the future” (p. 39), he seems to be relying on culture as a realm autonomous from historically existing economic exchange, much in the manner of Ernst Bloch.

6) In connection with this, is it really reasonable to call D a form of economic exchange when it is always represented as“coming from the future” (e.g. in the great universalist religions) and existing as “not yet conscious” rather than actually existing in historical form (p. 39)? Isn’t this culture rather than economic exchange?

So, does Karatani succeed in his struggle with Hegel? Can he break out of the "Borromean knot" and, if so, how? To be sure, he introduces a world-historical logic that, unlike Hegel's, points beyond the closure of the status quo thanks to the element of D. But here an objection arises: what is D? If it has never existed historically except as an ideal in universal religions and some social movements, isn't it then merely a Schein that co-exists with the system rather than offering a genuine possibility of exit from it? As Karatani himself points out, religious and social movements have often started out as critical of the established order only to be reabsorbed into it at a later stage. Indeed, the universal religions used by Karatani as his primary illustrations of D were indispensible parts of the ideological appratus that helped legitimize the empires. Karatani's intention is of course not to portray D as an ideological supplement to the existing order. But if it is instead taken as an ideal to be actually realized, won't it then fall victim to Hegel's criticism of the utopianism of abstract freedom? Karatani seems to rely on Freud to escape this accusation: by using the analogy with Freud's idea of the return of the repressed, he tries to argue that D is both external to historical reality (since it must always appear to come "from without", destabilizing the existing order) and internal to it (since it repeats a repressed content, namely the primordial freedom of the early nomadic bands that existed before the rise of settled communities).

Freud, then, plays a crucial role as a resource to Karatani in his struggle with Hegel. The death drive and the associated idea of compulsive repetitions that destabilize the system are turned against the Hegelian dialectics. While the latter operates through the concept, i.e. the conscious mind, the compulsive repetition Karatani hopes for relies on a form of historical unconscious. The key role played by Freud here is interesting. We can recall that even to Slavoj Zizek, who likes to portray himself as a great defender of Hegel - and who has criticized Karatani for criticizing Hegel unfairly (Zizek 2004, 2006) - it is the inability to theorize the death drive that reveals the limitations of Hegel's dialectics (ibid. 2012).


Amino, Yoshihiko (1998 [1982]) Higashi to nishi no kataru Nihon no rekishi, Tokyo: Kōdansha gakujutsu bunko.

Karatani, Kōjin (2014) Teikoku no kōzō: Chūshin shūhen ashūhen, Tokyo: Seidosha.

Karatani, Kôjin & Satô, Masaru (2014) ”Karatani kokkaron o kentô suru”, Gendai shisô Vol. 42-18 (January): 8-29.

Karatani, Kôjin & Akashi, Kengo (2014) “‘Toransukuritîku’ kara ‘Teikoku no kôzô’ e”, Gendai shisô Vol. 42-18 (January): 46-69.

Kobayashi, Toshiaki (2015) Karatani Kôjin-ron – Tasha no yukue, Tokyo: Chikuma shobô.

Umesao, Tadao (2003) An Ecological View of History: Japanese Civilization in the World Context, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Zizek, Slavoj (2004) “The Parallax View”, New Left Review 25 (Jan – Feb): 121-134.

Zizek, Slavoj (2006) The Parallax View, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Zizek, Slavoj (2012) Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.

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