Speak truth to power and let us think again

speak truthIn the face of neo-liberal austerity there often appears little real hope that another world is possible.  Mainstream political parties form their new consensus around the orthodoxy of market capitalism.  This new consensus disempowers the alternative, which is its purpose, shifting the terms of the debate so thoroughly that any opposition appears to be little more than an unhelpful resistance to reality.  The mainstream politicians might even respond to protests against austerity with paternalistic sympathy – ‘we know it’s difficult but we all have to make sacrifices, hard times force hard decisions.  They might even believe this, arguing that the job of a good politician is to lead their electorate through the difficult times, enabling the decisions for the greater good to be implemented in the face of individual and local group opposition.  The anti-austerity campaigns, when they do seem to gather any degree of support, appear as local issues – a hospital closing here, a service cut there.  Opposition to austerity is local and as such over-ridden by the needs of the wider community that are supposedly articulated by the new consensus of the market economy.  The terms of the debate have already been set and whilst they exist all local opposition is little more than part of the process of implementation, grit in the wheels no doubt but those wheels of change keep turning, fundamentally driving in one direction.  Of course it is necessary to oppose actual local cuts in any opposition to austerity, as such local campaigns are crucial, but without producing a change in the terms of the debate then one local victory today will likely just postpone tomorrows loss.

It is possible, theoretically, to conceive of politics outside of elections and politicians.  In the actual everyday world of politics, however, the terms of the debate are fundamentally determined by the options available at elections.  Those options have to, moreover, be more than theoretical – it is no option to have a candidate on a ballot paper who will always lose.  This was the key Blairite understanding with regard the Labour Party.  Blair was clear that if Labour was to be an option, in actual politics, then it had to be an option for power, it had to be ‘electable’.  He also began, of course, from the parallel assumption that the new consensus of the market economy was a dominant within the population.  Thatcher had done her work, which was fundamentally orientated towards the culture of the population.  She had established the power of the new consensus of the market economy, made it a viable option through forcing it into existence.  Thatcherism established a new common sense – that closed shops were negative, that unions were undemocratic, that people were individuals who succeeded or failed financially on their own efforts, that  the state was a blockage in people’s lives rather than an enabler.  The negative experience of the state under governments that identified as socialist or communist, a negative experience that was partly real and partly generated by the long term propaganda of the cold war, produced fertile ground for the new consensus on the market economy.  A radical, strong political faction – the Thatcherites –  who believed governing didn’t rely on consensus but understood, instead, that it rested on power enabled this fertile ground to be ploughed deep and the seeds for the future – our current reality – to be planted in almost ideal conditions.  The downfall of Thatcher, almost inevitably, came when she pushed the limits of her power to the point where another power appeared on the horizon.  The more sophisticated members of the new consensus understood that the appearance of alternatives was necessary but that it had to be appearance, not reality.  Power is fundamentally like a sorcerer’s illusion, wielded only as long as the illusion is maintained, as long as consent is obtained.  As soon as such consent slips, the power dissipates and so the purpose of the post-Thatcher Thatcherites (Blairites) was to maintain the illusion through maintaining consent.

Consent is a curious concept and one that is easily misunderstood.  Consent is fundamentally passive, rather than active.  If power rests on consent, consent in the illusion of power, then passivity is vital.  Passivity can itself take a number of forms.  It can be simple passiveness, a not-doing-anything, for whatever reason, usually because there is no impetus, no need to bother.  It can also take a curiously active form, where the ‘lack of consent’, the opposition, becomes a form of acting out.  In this latter form the passivity arises from the impotence of the opposition.  The child may not consent to the imposition of the will of the adult, might even throw a tantrum, embarrass and anger the parent, but usually this stays at the level of impotence.  The child throwing a tantrum is impotent.  In part this impotence, this lack of actual challenge, is vital to the capacity to throw a tantrum.  There is a need to know, or feel, that the tantrum won’t actually destroy anything, won’t change anything fundamental.  In politics analogous complications also arise.  Passivity through impotence is comfortable.  The danger of comfortable opposition is perhaps the greatest threat to the destruction of consent and the possibility of actual change, the possibility of opening the doorway to another world.  The danger of comfortable opposition arises from the reactive, fixed, settled reality of the opposition.  To be able to oppose is to be able to be comfortable in opposing.  At the point at which opposition becomes a matter of life and death, then it becomes no longer possible to oppose – it becomes necessary.  Of course, the more that opposition is actually necessary, the less will be the numbers of those who choose to oppose.

To oppose a policy, of austerity or cuts for example, is to remove consent from it and in doing so make oneself feel not responsible.  This lack of responsibility is gratifying and the righteous indignation of the left appears too often to be little more than a self-gratifying denial of responsibility for what is happening, a kind of emotional crutch to make things seem better – ‘at least I’m doing something, it’s not my fault if nothing changes’.  Now there is truth in the claim that the responsibility for what is happening rests with those in power.  That is not the issue.  The issue is, those in power have power through consent, consent is obtained through maintaining the passivity of those ruled and so the real question is to do with the increase or decrease in passivity.  Do my actions increase or decrease political passivity?  To increase political activity involves producing non-impotent alternatives and only then can the possibilities of other worlds begin to appear real, rather than ideal, actual rather than abstract.

This is in some sense a pedagogic question, although that is something I’m likely to say no doubt, given that I’ve been in the field of education for a while now.  The task of an educator – at least an educator in philosophy, although I suspect this holds for a wider realm of subjects – is to produce an active student, one that engages with and thinks through the material that is being studied.  This ‘thinking through’ is complex.  For example, there is a need to develop familiarity with the terrain of a discipline, the landscape of the area, so that students of philosophy need to know some of the history of the subject, they need a rough sense of the lay of the land.  They also need familiarity with some specifics, some concrete arguments, problems and solutions.  This is a little like learning openings in chess – if you make this move, then that response can be made in return.  In the end, however, a student who could only ever reproduce a few key moves within a general description of historical contexts would never have actually got to the essence of the matter, the ‘thinking through’ the material.   They might be able to re-present the material but would never be able to present any ‘new’ thoughts.  So when teaching philosophy we seem to encounter at least two different types of students.  On the one hand, those who are ‘good students’, studious, learn the material, regurgitate it well and in doing so earn a good grade, easily passing but never quite getting beyond good functional essays.  They will pass, often quite well, occasionally even with a first but will never have said anything interesting in the whole time they are at University.  On the other hand there are students who are troubled by questions, trying to find answers and who often rave about new ideas or new arguments, whose passion takes them into the subject but who will gradually come to encounter the weakness of the vast majority of their ideas when faced with anyone who actually disagrees with them coherently.  In the case of the first type of student (studious student), the educators task is to try and find a way to get some piece of philosophy to bite them on the arse, to get some idea or thinker to say something that disrupts their studious, organised, disciplined life and which will then push them beyond simple functioning into the need to actually think.  In the case of the second type of student (troubled student) the educators task is to find a way to gently show the weakness in their current fascination, the closures it brings with it as well as the openings it seems to offer and to do this by offering a way into the resources provided by the history of philosophy.  In both cases the task is to increase the active aspect of the student, but in each case it is done quite differently – crudely speaking, on the one hand we might need to inject imagination, on the other hand we might need to inject humility.  These are, of course, crude outlines of a much more complex process.  The central point, however, is the primary directive: increase the active forces, the capacity to actually think for yourself, sometimes by speeding up, sometimes by slowing down.

There is in this sense something similar needed in the opposition forces, those opposed to the new consensus.  The traditional left operates on little more than a continuous ‘forward, forward, quicker, quicker’ process, shouting at the top of their voices about the horrors, the terrible deprivations, the need to do more and do it more often.   Attend this demo, this meeting, this group, this next thing, tomorrow, today, yesterday, all-day, everyday.  This incessant ‘activism’ is the studious student, the one who is ‘doing the work’ but in doing so is little more than a functionary, literally, someone fulfilling a function.  The function of the vast majority of the left is, in reality and in spite of itself, to enable passive non-consent.  This is not the function they believe themselves to have and it is not the only function they can have but in effect, in objective terms, given an understanding of the role of passive non-consent within the maintenance of power, this is their role.  This is clearly a claim that will make few friends, not least amongst the radical left that I know and which I am/was part of.  To offer some further comments to try and back up this claim that the radical left functions to enable passive non-consent (in reality and in spite of itself) I would point to two factors that I think would be interesting to examine.

The first is the ‘throughput problem’.  This can be thought in terms of a question – if we were to ask, how many people in the population have once been a member of a radical left or anarchist group, do you think that number would exceed the number currently involved?  Now, by a factor of what?  Are there twice as many ex-members as members?  Three times as many?  Four times as many?  Or is it, as I suspect, nearer a ten-fold factor, possibly larger.  Let’s be clear about what that might mean if it were true.  At present, let’s say, we might estimate there to be 10,000 people organised into the radical left and anarchist groups.  If the number who have passed through is a factor of ten greater than that then we are talking about 100,000 people.  That is a mass party, albeit still a small one, but a mass party by any reasonable standards.  That is not a ‘small sect’ or whatever else we might derogatarily call the radical groups.  There seems to be – and I stress this is impressionistic at this point – a far larger number of people who ‘have been members’ than ‘are actually members’.  Why is this?  Is it because most of those ex-members are now right wing, no longer part of the radical left?  In some, rare, cases yes but in most cases no.  It is, for whatever reason, primarily because the radical groups did not keep their members.  Let me emphasise this in case it passes by too quickly. The problem of throughput is the responsibility of the left groups – as opposed to the responsibility of the individuals leaving.  It is a failing of the culture and structures of those groups, one that is fundamentally problematic.  The great danger is in explaining away this failing, in assuming that ‘it’s not our fault, nothing could be done about it because of (X, Y, Z – insert your social, philosophical, economic analysis of choice here)’.  To explain things away is to make excuses,  to make make ourselves comfortable in face of a reality that challenges our ideas of who we are and what we think.

The second factor I would suggest is what we can call the ‘intellectual problem’.  Why is it that the intellectual wing of the radical left is so weak?  In previous periods of time the intellectual wing of the Communist Parties could engage the intellectual wing of the wider community, there were key strategists and theorists who were plainly from within the radical left and who were engaged with in the wider intellectual community.  The last flowering of the radical left intellectual who seemed deeply connected to radical left parties was perhaps the eighties, and the effects of that in terms of Euro-communist thought were probably a part of the development of the new consensus.  Yet at the moment there are radical left intellectuals on the horizon again, from David Harvey to Daniel Graeber to Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, but their connection to the radical left seems – again, this is impressionistic – weaker than in previous times.  Where there are connections these intellectuals seem to relate to the Occupy-type movements, the spontaneous resistance movements that arise, but very little to the wider radical left.  More importantly the radical left seems comfortable to simply dismiss these forces as some sort of class enemy, usually with trivial and rather amusingly stupid pieces on ‘post-modernism/structuralism/something or other’, with the cry that ‘they never have any class analysis so never know what they’re doing’, a cry that is so deeply confused as to be amusing in its ritual repetition.  Again, the thought here is simple, and it is that the radical left, if it were being successful, would be part of the on-going intellectual debate in the wider community rather than cut off from it like a isolated psychotic.  This is not a luxury but a necessity.  Why does it not happen?  Well, just as the majority of people who leave the radical left groups do not do so because they are now right wing, the majority of intellectuals do not engage with the radical left because the radical left is stupid and boring.  It is simply impossible to actually engage with someone who already knows that you are wrong, what’s the point?  Yet this is the way the radical left appears to think engagement should take place – ‘engagement with the intellectuals’ is simply a matter of pointing out how stupid and class-less they are in their analysis, that seems the general format for discussion.  It is unsuccessful for obvious reasons, which is that it precludes from the beginning the very discussion it purports to want to engage in.  To do so is to reveal that such a discussion is simply not wanted.

These two factors – the way in which things are explained away rather than understood and the obvious unwillingness to engage with the intellectual – both point to a problem the left has with thinking, both in the sense of ‘doing it’ (I’m thinking about it now…) and in the sense of the existence of it (there is a thought about that over here …).  Thinking, including thinking politically, involves a continuous risk and a continuous engagement, it’s a balancing act between triviality taken to be knowledge and knowledge taken to be opinion.  To think is to act, to risk and to challenge but it is also to acknowledge, to accept and to agree.    The difficulty for all of us as students of political reality is to fully work out how to negotiate this strange, living reality of thinking rather than simply functioning.

The current radical left, I would suggest, is partly like the studious student.  They are good at what they’re doing but they know not what they’re doing.  The studious student thinks they are learning philosophy when in fact they’re simply being processed through the educational factory.  The radical left thinks they are opposing power when in fact they’re simply being processed through the machine for manufacturing consent.  The other type of student, however, has their own problems.  The bubbling enthusiasm and passion soon finds itself running out when faced with insurmountable problems, with no change occurring in the world around them.  If the educator is not careful the troubled student, initially troubled in a positive sense by questions that forced them to think differently, becomes troubled in a social sense.  They find that there is something painful in not being able to answer questions and there seem to always be more questions the more they try to offer answers.  They find it difficult to maintain their enthusiasm as they find themselves unable to persuade and they drift off into isolation or at best into small social cliques.  If they find a few friends then they can usually survive, with some sense of their enthusiastic challenging thought left intact – but the smallest social division can bring their world tumbling down.  The clique survives if it is at on optimum size, not too small but small enough to form an identity, and if the sexual inter-relations within the clique don’t explode in acrimonious split-ups.  They grow, they develop, they feel radical but gradually find some other interest in the world, something other than simply thinking differently to engage them.  They settle into a kind of sub-cultural identity and a low level depression with the world around them, occasionally drifting into misanthropy.  They keep in touch with some of the studious students and might even regret the fact that they could have done better if they’d chosen to get stoned a little less often and spent a bit more time reading the set material and working on that essay.   The task of the educator is to show this student that concrete change can arise from their thinking differently, whether this be in their personal character – less possible in our current mass education industry – or in their social character, in the form of the ‘public success’ of good grades and good references, with economic opportunities as an end result.  The troubled student is probably closer to the non-party affiliated radical left, all those ex-members.  Their activity is now piecemeal at best, discontinuous and fragmentary or personal and practical social engagement.   They are no more active in their opposition than the radical left, in the sense of being part of a development of the active forces of opposition.  They do what they think is necessary and occasionally a bit more but the necessities that drive them are not the voluntaristic goals of the radical left parties but the individual necessities of challenges they face in life.

At the moment it seems that the forces gathering around Left Unity in the UK are a mixture of the studious and the troubled students.  The two dynamics of discipline and enthusiasm need to be counter-pointed by imagination and humility.  Those with the worked out programmes and pre-existing answers need to realise that studiousness doesn’t create anything, it merely reproduces what already exists.  The existing left parties, the studious left, simply cannot create the imaginative possibilities of the new worlds that are needed, and as long as they insist that they can they form nothing more than a dead weight on the shoulders of the living.  On the other hand the troubled students, the enthusiastic ravers, simply cannot create enough time for things to change, they want it now and if it doesn’t happen immediately something is wrong.  On both sides of the dynamic (and I won’t use the term dialectic, I think it’s theoretically weak and covers up a myriad of bad thinking – but you can read it in that way if you want to) the weaknesses are familiar and should be obvious.  Yet they are not obvious to anyone involved, because just like the students, each side sees the world only from within its own world.  The role of the educator is often little more than to provide an outside source of authority, one that operates the illusion of knowledge so that we can trouble the certainties of self-conscious individuals.  The illusion of knowledge, like the illusion of power, does not mean we know nothing, just like it does not mean there is no such thing as power.  What it means is that its operation is not in the actual fact of knowledge but in the way it is encountered.  The student encounters the educator as someone they listen to, for the moment at least, someone outside them that has enough outside to let a little of it in.  The educator inoculates the individual with the outside world.  In doing so, in letting the outside into the student, we hopefully enable them to develop in a positive way.  In terms of the radical left the options for letting this outside in are more difficult.  The illusion of knowledge is not going to be a game we can play, there is going to be no ‘educator’ who can stand in that role, no ‘father figure’, no ‘great teacher’ – that route has been tried, Stalin and Mao understood it well, and it produced nothing more than another illusion of power.  Instead the radical left will need to become its own educator, its own door to the outside.  To do so it will need to first realise the position it is in and want to transform it, realise that it must change and take that risk, without losing itself.  To become its own educator the radical left will need to begin to let itself think again.   Only by developing the capacity to think again, in ourselves and in others, do we begin to develop the active forces that can herald the birth of another world.

Then again, what do I know.

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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