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
Marcuse

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.


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)


References

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

Anti-politics

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.


References:

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.





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