Marie-Josée Lavallée

A Gathering of Forces Against Capitalism and Neoliberalism: A Comment on “The Great Transition” Conference (May 2018)

Marie-Josée Lavallée

If the unbridled neoliberalism which imposed after the collapse of the Communist bloc has not been welcomed without reservation, the discredit which then fell upon left-wing political options contributed shutting or marginalizing oppositional voices for a long time to come. Heterogeneous groups and scattered actions gathered under the banner of altermondialism stood as the sole tribunes on which these voices could hope to be heard.

Since this movement tends to put forward interests associated with specific groups rather than broader social and political demands, the forces which unite themselves for a while within it have few chances to merge into a united front. Altermondialism’s lack of direction and cohesion makes it powerless against capitalism which, in the meanwhile, steadily increased its grip on all areas of social, economic, and political life.

Since capitalist domination goes unnoticed by most people, whose lives are nevertheless conditioned by its sideeffects, it tends to meet resistance only in times of crisis and catastrophes, when the suffering it causes suddenly intensifies and appears in broad daylight. This happened in the midst of the financial earthquake of 2008. Dissidents then stepped out of the shadows, invaded the streets, while bookshelves were suddenly flooded by anti-capitalist books.

As to Marx, he got out of the “dustbins of history” for good, and many analysts and scholars gave him back his status as a great prophet of capitalism’s collapse. If implementing a sustainable alternative to capitalism has not been seriously considered then, regulating and reforming capitalism were minimalist requests made even in conservative milieus. Pleading for the status quo almost looked suspect. However, the years went by and neoliberalism got through the crisis without too much damage, so that the hopes awaken by the open protests of 2008 and mere reformist demands faded away. But this moving back does not amount to a new impasse.

The consequences of 2008 still make themselves feel, to the extent that the consensus on which neoliberalism relies has been undermined from various sides, while critics of neoliberalism did not lose their legitimacy. Outbursts of political and social unrest throughout the world have become common. The rise of extremist parties and groups is without doubt the most obvious (and worrying) symptom of a profound discontent with existing conditions, and of deep political and social fractures, whose origins are diverse. Protests against neoliberalism and its order all around the world exhibits increasingly striking similarities, so that they may appear as various expressions of a single antagonistic current, even if the latter is still diffuse and lacks unity. Its contours become more perceptible when actors coming from different horizons gather together.

“The Great Transition” Conference held in May in Montréal has been one of these privileged moments. No fewer than 200 speakers from academic milieus, political parties, activist groups, and unions coming from different countries, offered critical assessments of different aspects of neoliberalism and capitalism from theoretical and practical viewpoints, and sketched avenues of reflection and action for the present and the future. This “global” mosaic was perfectly in tune with our era of globalism. Only an equally “global”rejoinder, in sociological and geographical terms, could have any chance to shake neoliberalism.

The public was highly interested and enthusiastic, thus creating a strong and stimulating synergy. Under the same roof, the attendee had the opportunity of being initiated to Marxist theories and critical theory broadly understood, of getting informed about the most recent academic work related to neoliberalism and capitalism in fields like political science, economy, sociology, history, psychology, gender studies, education and ecology, and of taking the pulse of oppositional activism and left-wing action. The conference program was most impressive and exciting, but because too many panels were running at the same time, the attendees have not had the opportunity to make the most of it. One had to make difficult choices between equally interesting topics. So, the following comment can only underline a couple of the interesting or provocative ideas which have been expressed during this exciting event.

Presentations on economics underlined capitalism’s structural changes since World War II. Since then, capitalism became a process, put forward the dogma “everything is open”, and increasingly went with non-governance, held Robert Latham (York University, Toronto, Canada). These tendencies worsened since the year 2008, which also initiated a new approach for capitalism that the speaker called “hyperfabrication”. Transgression of norms and customs became much common.

Paul Kellog (Athabasca University, Canada) put into question concepts and paradigms widely used to analyze capitalism in economic and political sciences. One should not think in terms of unipolarity, but of multipolarity, he held, underlining that the United States had to face serious competition by West Germany and Japan since the end of the 1960s, a situation which is not alien to the decline of the American dollar which started then. Also, the pattern of North-South diffusion, which underlies the belief that the development of the proletariat in the “South” (he gives the example of China) would be the immediate consequence of the expansion of capitalism in the North would be oversimplistic, and should be revised through careful analyzes of local conditions. In addition, Kellog refuted the idea of a neoliberal ideological counterrevolution: he seems to believe that neoliberalism is a powerful autonomous force which the ruling class is unable to control.

A panel dedicated to the relationships between technic and capitalism opened fruitful avenues of reflection on the economic and psychological sides of the problem. Stéphane Chalmeau (PhD student, HEC, Montréal, Canada) reminded us how much the dynamism of technic, whether broadly understood as a set of means to attain certain goals or restricted to digital technologies, plays the game of capitalism. Relying on insights from famous thinkers of the 20th century, he pointed out that under the reign of technic, society focuses on means rather than ends, while human beings are severed from their own needs through their subservience to a production dedicated to maximal performance and profit. If it’s true that the wide distance between producers and consumers makes the latter indifferent to the former’s predicament, it has become almost impossible to understand fully the consequences of our acts, and to feel that even the most banal ones could be harmful. Technic and technology, rather than serve the motto of maximization, must be aligned to the norm of the sufficient. Only in this way could they be beneficial to individual and social life. This drastic shift would require workers’ self-management.

Sharry Taylor (PhD student, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, Canada) explored the (too often) overlooked relationships between labour’s double process of “intensification” and “extensification” under neoliberalism, and psychological and psychiatric disorders. Ever-increasing psychic and emotional pressure at work cause physical reactions and distress, which are too often explained by subjective factors. They are considered asmerely individual disorders and routinely treated with drugs. In fact, psychological distress often has its roots in capitalism.Thus, psychiatry would be an accomplice of capitalism by acting as a device of social control.

A series of three plenary talks tackled with the issues of the current situation of the Left and the prospects for social and political change from a theoretical perspective. The scholar and activist David McNally (York University, Toronto, Canada) held that in spite of the failures of the Left, there exists a “dialectic of defeat”, so that no defeat is definitive.  “Our time is not completed,”he said, one must reclaim the “not yet”. Affirming the enduring pertinence of Marx’s thought, McNally commented a public address in which the famous philosopher, reflecting on the failure of the revolutions of 1848, claimed that the “greatest revolutions still lay ahead”. Against a long tradition of interpretation, the speaker believes that Marx’s conception of history was multilinear rather than unilinear. This implies that the milieus where class struggle can unleash and the potential paths of emancipation are multiple.

As to Bruno Bosteels (Cornell University, Ithaca, United States), he explained how various philosophical currents since the 1960s, heideggerian in particular, have nourished the defeatism of the Left. We are “in need of a postmetaphysical Left”, the speaker claimed. The reassessment of radical philosophy is one of the crucial challenges of the 21st century. Frank Fischbach (Université de Strasbourg, France) explained that whereas demands for autonomy and cooperation in workplaces were traditionally tied to emancipatory ideals, just as the “values of 1968”, they have been captured by the management. This observation forces the disturbing conclusion that liberating ideas and strategies can be harmonized with democratic regressions, a situation which the Left has much pain understanding. The current situation characterizes itself by the convergence of neoliberalism, cultural neoconservatism, and populism. While the socialist bloc dissolved itself, neoliberalism constituted itself into a hegemonic bloc, which must be undone. This is a very hard task, but it should start from the “reinvestment” of the content of “the popular”, the “cultivation of an ethic”, and the ending of all compromises which are harmful to workers. Then a real experience of cooperative work would open the path toward emancipation.

Several panels gave the attendees a glimpse of the concrete situation of the Left and the challenges pending over it in various areas of the world. The so-called Pink tide, a name which refers to a set of more or less leftist governments which rose to power in countries of Latin America, is now seriously receding, underlined René Rojas (Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York). While it can count on powerful mobilization, the Pink tide has been unable to lay on a social basis which would have been strong enough to defeat neoliberalism. The fact that the Pink tide is perceived as a threat to capitalism is closely tied to its weakening.

Taliria Petrone from the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, from Janeiro, Brasil, denounced in a passionate speech the routine violations of human rights and the violence committed against the people in her country. She called for an offensive attitude rather than a defensive one, and said that there is no other viable choice than socialism. Hendrik Davi, from France insoumise, presented the main goals of the anti-liberal program of his formation, which includes emancipatory measures for workers, ecological actions and the constitution of a 6th Republic, which would be based upon improved citizen representation and participation. Activism must invest the level of ideas no less than action, while all actors, parties, unions, and civil society, must gather and support themselves in order to ensure winning conditions.

Lorenz Gösta Beutin, from the left party Die Linke, from Hamburg, Germany, gave the attendees the political pulse of his country a couple of months after the entry of the AfD, an extreme right party, in the Bundestag. In the current situation, the Left must endorse the important task of proving that there are alternatives based on solidarity rather than division, on hope rather than hatred. The deputy also emphasized that governmental action must be sustained by social movements. Besides, he noted that Die Linke has been attracting new members recently, whose major concerns are labour and social justice, and climatic changes.

In sum, the vitality of intellectual and practical action whose “The Great Transition” Conference testifies is most promising. Strong convergences emerged on the level of ideas, like the acknowledgment that ideas are no less important than action, and that change can only occur through the mutual support of political and social action. Nonetheless, one may have the feeling that there is not yet a sufficient dialog between various actors and perspectives. In addition, the ideological disparities between them are a considerable obstacle. While some advocate a kind of reformism which would be possible inside the existing system, others plea for a more drastic change, but refrain from promoting models like socialism, which stands as the only solution for other actors. These ideological discrepancies run the risk of obstructing the great synergy of forces which is needed in order to fight against neoliberalism’s hegemony.

The differences could surely be set aside during this first, “negative phase”, but the obstacles to overcome would be more formidable in the “positive phase” of change, when it would be time to decide on a common political and social project. Many bridges remain to be crossed, but one has to acknowledge that the first step, which implies increasing unity in opposition, has been taken.

The author is a Lecturer of History at Université de Montréal, Canada.

Western Civilization, Modernity and Reason: An Unavoidable Conflict?

Marie-Josée Lavallée

Review of Jay, Martin. 2016. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press.

Reading Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung for the first time may be a rather disconcerting experience. The authors seem to support without qualification the claim, widely popular since the time of the Great War, that Western Civilization was then experiencing a crisis which could take her straight to her intellectual, spiritual, and even physical destruction. This pessimistic prognosis was only boosted by the catastrophes of the Second World War and Nazism, which were the background of the composition of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s book.

Let’s remind briefly a part of their argument. Enlightenment thinkers had had a strong confidence in the potential of reason to liberate and emancipate human beings. Reason, however, can turn against the latter, and sink into barbarism if its regressive tendencies surface and become dominant. The roots of this regressive process are to be sought in Ancient Greece, where the split between reason and myth occurred. What was happened in the Enlightenment’s century has been a renewal of the struggle between those henceforth old adversaries, but this fight reached new highs.

If the concept of reason was to become central to Critical Theory, reflection on the perplexing multiplicity of reason was current in German thought in these times. The conservative thinkers Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, for example, also distinguished between “instrumental reason”, which imposed itself at the same pace as modernity, and “sound reason”, which has been repressed by its instrumental counterpart. This process underlies the surprising affirmation to the effect that reason may have a corrosive effect on human autonomy and freedom.

This type of discussion, however, often lacks theoretical clarification. The distinctions between instrumental reason and sound or critical reason, and universal and subjective reason are often taken for granted and put forward without much explanation. This is precisely the task renowned intellectual historian Martin Jay has set himself in his last book. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory guides the reader throughout the theoretical ambiguities surrounding the concept and its kindred terms (for example, rationality, rationalization, reasonable) by painting a broad history of its philosophical appearances and uses over time. It sheds light in particular on German thought between the end of the 18th century to the last quarter of the 20th century.

Martin_Jay,_Graduate_Center,_November_2016

Martin Jay (left), in conversation with Richard Wolin. Photo by Joseph van der Naald (licence C BY-SA 4.0).

The author begins his study by exploring the first “Age of Reason” which runs from Ancient Greece to Enlightenment, before considering Kant in a separate chapter. The next one, devoted to Hegel and Marx, introduces a couple of notions which prepare the analysis of discussions of reason by thinkers of the Frankfurt School in the second part of the book. The fourth chapter skims over late modernity’s crisis of reason which, having started in the late 18th century reached a high point between 1848 and the unleashing of the Great War, before transforming itself into the “embrace of unreason” from 1914 to the 1940s. These two phases characterized themselves by a decisive “erosion of confidence in reason”.

At each step of his study, Jay distinguishes various layers of meaning tied the concept and underlines the impacts of reason’s coexistence with religion or science. He does not try to build a homogenous history of reason but rather fully confronts the reader to the full range of complexities and contradictions surrounding this notion. While Jay’s perspective is wide, he does not lose himself into subtleties. His synthesis is highly efficient, and will benefit anyone who has an interest in the concept of reason. This is why the book’s appeal does not restrict itself to Frankfurt School’s thinkers’ readers. The latter’s criticisms have attracted a great deal of attention, but one should not read them as their “last word” on reason.

In the chapters of the second part of the book, “Reason’s Eclipse and Return”, Jay analyzes the attempts of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas to “rescue” reason and “defend a viable concept” of the latter. This part, however, lacks balance. The reader could be disappointed by the too synthetic treatment of the first three thinkers, which are grouped together in a single chapter, in spite of the fact that Marcuse would have deserved a full chapter, as well as Adorno and Horkheimer. Habermas’ thought is treated more in depth, since two chapters are devoted to him.

Besides its contribution to the understanding of the various meanings of the concept of reason among Frankfurt School’s thinkers, and throughout intellectual history, Jay’s book also contribute to reopening wider paths of historical-philosophical investigation, for example on the topic of the modern project’s failure. It also helps to open new research avenues pertaining to our own time, since we must suspect that the conflict between reason and material progress has not come to a close yet.

The author is a Lecturer of History at Université de Montréal, Canada.