Reclaim the heritage
Rex Dunn concludes his exploration of Marx’s concept of the human
‘Dystopia abandoned’ (2012)
In the final article in this series I will discuss the remaining three problems that I believe we need to address in relation to Marx’s essentialism and his concept of the human.1
1. Post-Stalinist vacuum
The first of these concerns the vacuum left by Stalinism, which continues to be filled by post-structuralism/postmodernism(and now ‘post-capitalism’). The overthrow of the ‘grand narrative’ approach to knowledge, relativism and pluralism has replaced the idea that there can be any objective understanding of reality, based on dialectical and historical materialism. The ‘logics of disintegration’ provides an intellectual fig leaf for neoliberal ideology, whose material basis (of course) is neoliberal economics: ie, the free-market economy, whilst labour is stripped of its rights to organise in defence of wages and conditions, etc.
Post-structuralism/postmodernism also facilitated the rise of multiculturalism (still popular within the social sciences). Its basic premise is that we now have to put an equals sign between secularism and all other cultures: despite wide-ranging differences between rational and religious beliefs and practices. This is in the interests of bourgeois society based on ‘freedom in diversity’ - look how progressive it still is! Therefore we have the introduction of faith schools supported by the state; animals can be slaughtered inhumanely; women have the right to wear the burqa (even though this is a symbol of patriarchal oppression); but female genital mutilation is a step too far (even if little is being done to stop this in Britain), etc. Rather than combating racism and xenophobia, for example, multiculturalism exacerbates it, especially amongst poorly educated workers who are victims of globalisation (job losses, low-wage jobs snapped up by immigrants, competition for housing and healthcare. All of these things, however, have nothing to do with immigration: rather they have everything to do with austerity.) But today the ‘left behinds’ constitute another kind of identity politics: us against them.
Alongside this, thanks to technology and the modern mass media, we have a society where the individual becomes increasingly atomised by the system - and not just within the body politic: this is also reflected/reinforced by the entertainment industry. The latter fully exploits the mind-crippling effects of the bourgeois division of labour. As a result, with the help of advertising and the celebrity industry, it is able to fulfil the ‘needs’ (manufactured, not genuine) of the masses. This involves techniques designed to provide distracted viewing and listening. Instead of allowing for a sense of totality to develop, the emphasis is on disjointed stimuli. The audience is meant to amuse itself (hence the ‘pornography’ of violence, on the one hand, or the plethora of trivia, on the other; noise instead of music, etc.) Amusement encourages the ‘elimination of critical thought’.
In addition to the infantilisation of entertainment, we also have standardisation - notably stereotypical images of beauty (the female is still the traditional object of desire - albeit in a commodified form, as a means to sell other commodities - but now the male as object is fast catching up!). The impact of these manufactured images on the individual consumer is underlined by the proliferation of beauty products, fitness studios, the obsession with white teeth, as well as cosmetic surgery (for women and men). Of course, ordinary people react to these stereotypes, because they are unreal; but many go on to create their own sub-cultures, usually associated with entertainment (eg, goths); but they also include the celebration of the opposite to standardised beauty (eg, extreme body-tattooing/piercing and the celebration of fatness, all of which are easily appropriated by the market). At the same time, the need to conform to this or that manufactured image means that individuals are unable to realise their own human potential, as well as their uniqueness.
Hence the culture industry, despite its contradictory turns, reinforces the sense of loss of individuality. In this regard, the rise of identity politics today may be seen as a ‘what about me!’ protest against the tidal force of mass culture. Although it is driven by the need for affirmation, it is becoming more and more negative and protective. This leads to calls for institutionalised censorship - eg, the ‘safe spaces’ policy - which in turn leads to self-censorship. Therefore identity politics becomes a form of group ghettoisation, within which old and new struggles are made to fit. Of course ,‘black lives matter’, as do the lives of GLBT people. But the problem is that they have become inward-looking in their search for solutions to their oppression. Some transgenders, for example, have a policy of ‘no-platforming’ gays and lesbians, who disagree with them. Therefore it becomes difficult - if not impossible - for Marxists to convince GLBT people (etc) that, if they are to be truly free to decide what they really want, capitalism has to be overthrown and this can only be done by building a mass movement of workers and all the oppressed. Meanwhile identity politics is trumpeted by the neoliberal establishment as freedom in diversity - proof-positive of a bountiful capitalism for the 21st century!
The transgender phenomenon also raises the much bigger question: how far can we push nature’s envelope?Marx’s favourite maxim was: ‘Nothing human is alien to me’. But where does the human end and the inhuman begin? Clearly, the post-capitalists (eg, Paul Mason) believe that anything is possible, based on technological utopianism: in 2013, two American academics - Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams - issued a “Manifesto for an Accelerated Politics”, affirming “mastery”, technology and the liberator possibilities of capitalism if “pushed beyond its limits”. They include the “post-gender dreams of radical feminism” and even more: ie, the possibility of a “new kind of human being” - “an interventionist approach to the human”, an embrace of “individual bodily experimentation” set against “restricted images of the human”, “a new human with a new body’, in conjunction with the creation of a new society, whose agency is the “internet generation”.2
But, as Lenin says in his Philosophical notebooks,
Human knowledge ... does not follow a straight line, but a curve ... Any fragment can be transformed ... one-sidedly into an independent ... straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the interests of the ruling classes).3
2. Computer technology and the digital media
Could this lead to a disconnect between intelligence and consciousness (including empathy)? Technology per se is not a determining factor. But, as long as it remains in the hands of the privately owned corporate media, it poses a threat to humanity, because it serves the instrumental ends of the managerial bureaucracy.
It is already using artificial intelligence in the form of algorithms to manipulate our tastes and desires. So far there has been no movement against this, partly because people have become atomised, both physically and psychically; also because they are happy to be manipulated, as long as this leads to sensuous satisfaction in one form or another.
The digital media has an atomising effect, in the sense that people are spending more time online; therefore they are spending less time in the real world of social interaction. This is particularly true of young children, for whom the old media (TV, etc) comes second to the new, digital media. But adults too are just as addicted to the latter; except that their generation was raised under the influence of the former: eg, they grew up watching TV together; they still read newspapers, etc.
One only has to consider recent events - in particular Donald Trump’s election victory. Why did the pundits get the result so badly wrong? Firstly, and to reiterate an earlier point, the latter are familiar with more than 50 years of mass consumerism, including mass entertainment and the mass media that “serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system”.4 But now this is exacerbated further by the digital age and the new forms of communication, over which the neoliberal elites do not have complete control.
To be more exact, Trump’s victory shows that we have a war between traditional and new media: ie, TV and the press, as opposed to the internet and social media. A new corporate-controlled communications system is using the new to usurp the old. At a superficial level, information technology is in the hands of the masses, but it is really controlled by the technocrat capitalists who own Google, Facebook, etc. Together they can remove material which is ‘politically incorrect’, whilst at the same time they rely on advertising and algorithms for their revenue.
To put this another way, Trump’s victory was partly the result a major disconnect between the ‘Washington bubble’ (which relies on traditional media), and the ‘echo chamber’ (the new digital media), the modus vivendi for Trump and his supporters. Facebook, for example, is quite happy if its clients discuss only those things which they want to believe in (eg, his show-biz election campaign), at least for the moment. Then there are the professional hackers in faraway places - like Macedonia - who make up lies and post them on social media under ‘Daily News’ banners, just to confuse everybody!
Of course, Trump’s victory also has a material basis: it is a reflection of the rise of rightwing populism, which is presently sweeping the world. It was a backlash by the American working class (mostly white men and women; but it also included a considerable minority of blacks and Latino’s; despite Trump’s misogyny, racism xenophobia, etc) against the neoliberal elites - or the ‘political class’ - in Washington (who are responsible for globalisation, job losses, low wages, mortgage foreclosures, etc). Even if Trump ends up carrying out a modified version of his election promises, this will still be significant, if not the end of neoliberalism. In order to “make America great again”, he might build some kind of wall across the southern states; he might throw out more illegal immigrants (especially Muslims), such as those with criminal records; he might invest in jobs and infrastructure (but for whom - the police, the military or workers?); he might scrap America’s free trade agreements, put up tariffs against cheap Chinese imports (including Apple products, currently made in China), etc - but that would amount to a seismic shock for neoliberalism which has ruled the world for the last half century or so on behalf of finance capital and the banks. The world could be turned upside down. China may or may not retaliate with a trade war. But if it does come to pass, then this would be extremely dangerous for the world, given the build-up in American nuclear missile bases in the Pacific. It depends on whether Trump delivers on his pledge to return to the protectionist policies of the 30s.
To sum up, Trump’s election showed that the working class still exists as a conscious force, but today this does not mean that it will be drawn towards socialism.5 Finally, what would happen if there is another financial crash like that of 2007-08 during his watch?
Digital devices and empathy loss
The power of the TV generation is long gone (so brilliantly satirised in the 1976 film, Network). Of course, it did not stop the flourishing of the anti-Vietnam war movement and the rise of the Marxist left. But the digital age produces a different kind of challenge.
In the epoch of capitalist decay, technology is becoming an obstacle to the human, because we have allowed this to happen. In the absence of a successful social revolution, false consciousness (in the form of technological utopianism) means that we have embraced the digital media with open arms, which then becomes a new reality. But, unlike the old media, it is eroding the human capacity for empathy and compassion. How so? This new technology threatens to replace reading, especially literature, as opposed to bestsellers. We prefer to play with our iPhones or read the latest marketed book on Kindle. Moreover, although digital technology is still based on private corporate control, it is more of a problem, because it exacerbates the atomisation of the individual.
Google and Apple are pushing the values of speed and efficiency above all; they also decide what we want. But, according to psychologists, it
takes time for the brain to comprehend the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth - redefining ‘text’ from what fills hundreds of pages of a novel - the less likely and able we are to care.6
Humans need undivided attention to develop a sense that they are truly loved; but in the digital age, we are getting less and less. Hence “our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly”. But “Google ... is in the business - as they put it - of organising and making accessible ‘the world’s information’”. Apple is doing the same. Whereas the old phone was designed by engineers for its functionality - communicating with another person - “the phones in our pocket ... are always built in dialogue with marketers, who have carefully noted how colour and curve, brightness and texture, heft and size make us feel”.7 Texting is faster and easier than a phone conversation, because it does not require complexity, especially with regard to feeling and attitude. The same thing applies to shooting off emails.
The novel is dying as an art form. This results in a human loss, because
To read a book is to devote oneself to the book. Novels always traffic empathy, always bring the other closer, always ask us to transcend our perspectives ... [Like all authentic art, they have always] stood in such stark opposition to the culture that surrounds it.8
On the other hand, “phones and the internet have, in subtle ways, made life less rich, provided bright pleasures at the expense of deep ones, have distracted [us] made concentration more difficult”. We have to consider the question: has “technology in the forms in which it has entered our everyday lives ... diminished us?”9
Digital media and the rise of the technocratic state
Over the past few years Ofcom has been conducting an experiment on children and young people, who are spending increasing amounts of time online. Not only is this a constant distraction from real life, such as social interaction or study, but, once again, it is leading to a lack of empathy.
An interim report reveals that today children spend less time watching TV and more time on their tablet. On average, five-15-year-olds spend 15 hours per week online, as against 13 hours, 36mins watching TV. Around 24% of eight-year-olds and 38% of 12-15-year-olds identify sponsored links on Google as advertising, while 27% of this age group assume that if Google lists a website they can trust it.
A senior professor of psychology at the University of California reported on an experiment with two cohorts of juniors. One was deprived of digital devices for a week. As a result, they tested as emotionally more interactive than the other cohort, who were allowed to carry on using their handsets. It would seem that the use of digital devices reduces the human capacity for empathy.
More worrying still is the fact that today many three-four-year-olds are given iPhones. This means that children are starting to spend more time online from a much earlier age. Screen time is replacing interpersonal communication between real people, which suggests that empathy loss will become more widespread across society.
What about the bigger picture? In his book, Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow (London 2016), Yuval Noah Harari has an ambivalent attitude towards humanity’s future (compare the post-capitalists). Interviewed about his book for Channel 4 News (September 7 2016), he warns that, if things remain the way they are, technology is going to make most of us redundant. Given the rise of intelligent algorithms - whose main function is to monetarise the material needs of everyone, every minute of the day - along with artificial intelligence/robots, there is the possibility that within 50 years, hundreds of millions of people will be pushed out of the job market. In the 21st century we might very well see the creation of a new ‘useless class’.
But, as Harari reminds us, technology is not deterministic: it only plays this role if we allow it to. Therefore it could also be used to create a either a communist or more democratic society than what we have at present (although he has a pessimistic view of communism). But, if society continues down the same road as at present, then he offers the scary prospect that, in the not too distant future, the state might decide to provide the opportunity for people to spend more leisure time within virtual reality (eg, playing computer games) rather than in real life! But it would have to pay them for the ‘privilege’ of continuing such an escapist activity; otherwise they might reject this, even though this is currently an obsessive activity for millions of people. Harari assumes that this would make it easier to maintain the neoliberal strategy of austerity, cutting welfare and imposing low-paid, unskilled jobs on millions of people across the western world (especially the young).
On the other hand, Harari is right when he says people are beginning to realise that political power is shifting away from their democratically elected governments to a new managerial layer. It is the latter which is beginning to run the capitalist system on behalf of capital. Meanwhile the governments we elect have absolutely no idea of where humanity might be in 20-30 years time. The people who do have some idea or plan are currently working in ‘Silicon Valley’ on behalf of the private corporations who employ them. So bourgeois democracy has become a sham: its cant and hypocrisy becomes more shrill; along with a penchant for referenda, etc.
This is not a good situation for humanity to be in. As technology advances, it becomes more concentrated in the hands of these technocrats, who serve not just private institutions like Google or Apple, but also bigger national and international ones like the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Bank and the International Monetary Fund; along with the media, of course, in both its traditional and the new (digital) forms; all of which are unaccountable to the masses.
Nevertheless, Harari tries to end his interview on an optimistic note. The new revolutionary technology could also be used to create a very different kind of society. But the crucial thing is for all of us to have the opportunity to start thinking about what kind of society we would like, rather than just leaving it to market forces to decide the future for us. So far this is not happening. Rather, when confronted by the new digital media - which threatens to reduce us as humans, beginning with the impact of algorithms on human behaviour - scientists of all stripes appear to have submitted to a resurgence of technological utopianism. (It is only a few lonely novelists who are raising some doubts.)
In his review of Harari’s book,10 David Runciman reiterates the point that it is unaccountable technocrats and the media who want us to believe that mankind’s “unparalleled ability to control the world” is turning into “something new”. This takes the form of western-centric statements, such as “War is increasingly obsolete; famine is rare; disease is on retreat around the world.” Such claims are, of course, obscene. Whereas Harari seems to be warning us that “The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within”, on the other hand,
Corporations and governments will continue to pay homage to our individuality; but in order to service them they will need to “break us up into biochemical subsystems”, all of them permanently monitored by powerful algorithms. [But] individuals who sign up first to the [data-based] project will be the only ones with any real power left.
Hence we will see the rise of a “new super-elite”. Thus, according to Runciman, we have “the grim prospect that the rest of humanity [will become] simply tools in their vast schemes”: ie, a dystopian, Orwellian/Huxley/Phillip K Dick view of the future.
3. Degradation of the environment
While it is directly linked to Harari’s observations, the degradation of the environment is arguably a more imminent threat. But, combined with the threat outlined by him, the ongoing destruction of the environment could bring about the end civilisation as we know it.
I refer to the reality of global warming - the disappearance of the Arctic ice cap, which is increasing year on year, will speed this process up. This will have a huge impact on the whole planet, not just in terms of a rise in sea level, but also in terms of unstable weather systems in the temperate zones of the planet, leading to more floods, storms, etc.
This is already happening. Deforestation of the equatorial rainforest is continuing on a massive scale, along with desertification. Deadly toxic waste from factories is being poured into the earth’s major river systems; even the oceans are becoming polluted (which are many times greater in area than the earth’s land mass). Finally, we are seeing a new mass extinction of species (many of which could be of great use to man); only this time it is man-made. The devastating impact of China’s rapid industrialisation on the earth’s environment, as well as the health of its 1.3 billion people, is a warning to us all.
What is happening now in north-eastern Nigeria represents a ‘perfect storm’: ie, it is a disastrous combination of climate change, terrorism and a huge refugee problem, which is getting worse. Here four countries border on Lake Chad, which due to warmer temperatures has shrunk in size by 90%. Experts say that this is an indirect cause of violence in the region and subsequent displacement. Recent crop failures have resulted in at least 400,000 children being malnourished. More than 1.4 million people have become refugees, which is a quarter more than those who reached Europe by boat in 2015.
Nearly everyone is running from the jihadis, who control large parts of Lake Chad. The largest of these is Boko Haram, which is at war with a corrupt central government. So far, it has forced 2.6 million people from their homes (more than the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey). The governor of Borno, which is the largest state in the region, believes that “more Nigerians will try to go to Europe. At the moment, most of them are economic migrants, but if this madness is not solved ... you will see a mass of humanity trying to get to Europe via the Mediterranean.”11
The extent of environmental destruction today exceeds Rachel Carson’s wildest nightmare. Man is the most intelligent of all the primates. He is now capable of producing artificial intelligence, even robots, which should be able to solve problems that confront us, as well as make life easier for all. On the other hand, loss of empathy is increasing. Therefore we are capable of making the world uninhabitable for higher forms of life and ultimately ourselves. In the worst-case scenario, especially if there is a nuclear war (brought closer by ‘Trumpism’? ), the world will go on, based on the same principles of instrumentalism and technological utopianism, even if civilisation is reduced to a level lower than the Middle Ages.
In his review for The Guardian of a new book by Peter Frase,12Ben Tarnoff describes it as “Phillip K Dick ventriloquising Marx”.13 In his consideration of potential futures, Frase states that automation will be a constant. However, politics and the ecological situation will change (for better of worse?) and climate change will affect the resources upon which technology depends. Will this be clean energy or not? If so, what will be its basis? Nuclear, wind, sea power, solar? Artificial intelligence will give us super robots, but who will control them?
Of Frase’s four possible futures, I shall mention only two here: communism and ‘exterminism’. We could have communism, based on social ownership and control of an abundance of resources: “Robots running on unlimited clean energy, providing a material basis for a post-work, post-scarcity, post-carbon world.” But without communist consciousness and the abolition of the existing division of labour, the economic elites will be able to preserve their power and privileges, even if a system of wage labour is “totally superfluous”.
On the other hand, we could have “exterminism”, based on neo-feudal rule, degradation of the environment and scarcity. The rich will have retreated into their fortified enclaves, whilst robots do the work; but the majority will be trapped outside in a “soggy hell, a rapidly warming planet ... At a certain point, the rich [will want] to exterminate the poor ... now that they are no longer needed as workers”. Thus we have a hyperbolic image of the barbaric present.
I have only scratched the surface here: there is not enough space and it is too much for one mind to deal with (certainly this one). So I must defer to Marx, once again. In The German ideology (1845), he reiterates the telos of man as a “species being”, albeit from the standpoint of dialectical and historical materialism. To quote Mikhail Lifshitz:
Communist society removes not only the abstract contradiction between work and pleasure, but also the very real contradiction between ... “the play of bodily and mental powers” and “the conscious will”. Together with the abolition of classes and the gradual disappearance of the contradiction between physical and spiritual labour comes the all-sided development of the individual ... Only communist society, in which “the associated producers regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by some blind power”, can establish the material basis for “the development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom”.14
If Marx were to return, what would he say now about capitalist decline and transition to communism? Even for a rational optimist, the results and prospects of the past 150 years do not look good. That transition is contingent upon the achievement of “communist mass consciousness”, which has not materialised, and the ‘window of opportunity’ is in danger of closing.
Given the gaps in Marx on this vital question, it remains our responsibility to fill these in and so reclaim his heritage. Lenin tried to do this in a hostile environment, which eventually failed. So far we have not been able to improve on his vanguard model or envisage an alternative to it. We are still dealing with the consequences. Stalinism also gave capitalism a second chance, and look at what it is happening!
Meanwhile the odds for the success of the human become even more difficult.
1. For the first two articles, see ‘Marx’s concept of the human’ Weekly Worker January 26; and ‘Filling the gaps’ Weekly Worker February 2.
2. O Hatherley, ‘One click at a time’ London Review of Books June 30 2016.
3. VI Lenin, ‘The question of dialectics’ CW Moscow 1972, Vol 38, p363.
4. G Debord The society of the spectacle New York 1995, thesis 6, p13.
5. Cf VI Lenin in What is to be done? (1903).
6. JS Foer, ‘Losing touch’ The Guardian December 3 2016.
10.The Guardian August 27 2016.
11.The Guardian November 26 2016.
12. P FraseFour futures: life after capitalism London 2016.
13. The Guardian November 26 2016.
14. https://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/12/15/art-is-dead-long-live-art-mikhail-lifshitz-on-karl-marxs-philosophy-of-art. Lifshitz’s quotes are taken from K Marx The German ideology London 1965, pp483-84.