Ljubodrag Simonović: Contemporary Bourgeois Thought
CONTEMPORARY BOURGEOIS THOUGHT
What is the point of philosophy in a contemporary capitalist world dominated by destruction and where humanity has been pushed to the edge of the abyss? Ideologues of capitalism create an illusion that the ruling relation to reality is based on a certain way of thinking, that it has a rational nature. Philosophy has become a “rational” echo of destructive capitalist irrationality. It is but one of the humanist masks of an inhumane and destructive civilization and, as such, is advertising for capitalism. It provides and strengthens a way of thinking that, like religion, is deprived of critical self-reflection and prevents man from becoming aware of the tendencies of global development and the objective possibilities of liberation that through subjective practice (political struggle) can turn into real possibilities for freedom. At the same time, “philosophizing” is reduced to the creation of a network of formally and logically consistent concepts that are supposed to mediate between man and the world. Philosophy has become a means for confusing reason and distracting it from the crucial questions. Contemporary bourgeois philosophers disqualify reason as the most authentic and most important human means for ensuring survival and freedom. It is reduced to an instrumentalized ratio and has become the means for mystification of the existing world and for the destruction of a visionary consciousness that offers a possibility for overcoming capitalism and creating a new world. Philosophy has become a technical subject and, as such, is a means for turning concrete existential and essential questions into abstract theoretical questions. Instead of a revolutionary concept, the dominant concept is that of conformism. Instead of a fight to eradicate the causes of non-freedom and destruction, a theoretical discussion about consequences is being imposed. The bourgeois theory offers a critique of capitalism which does not question it and which seeks to “perfect” it. “The essence of capitalism” acquires an idolized dimension and becomes the basis for criticizing capitalist reality. Thus the mythologized past becomes the basis for criticizing the present. Everything that might and should happen has already happened. A struggle for the future becomes a struggle for the past. The bourgeois intelligentsia multiplies the “field of research” by creating numerous “grey areas”, primarily to expand its space as much as possible. It acts like the market: it produces increased quantities of intellectual goods with ever-lower quality, which are sold in the form of books, lectures, studies, and reports.
Max Horkheimer came to the conclusion half a century ago that serious philosophy was nearing its end and that society was becoming an anthill. Philosophers contribute to that state of affairs by not developing a philosophy that is grounded in the emancipatory legacy of civil society and national cultures, they rather adapt to a ruling order that, rather than a wise man, needs an stupified consumer. Philosophy becomes an entertainment skill and, as such, is a part of show-business, while philosophers become the “jesters” of capitalism. The philosophical mind is being integrated into capitalism by the destruction of its emancipatory potential and by turning philosophy into another commodity in the marketplace of consumer society. The amount of the commission fee becomes the “measure” of the quality of the philosophical thought. Even when significant matters are communicated, they are expressed in such a manner as to lose their political dimension and obtain an entertainment or clownish dimension. Philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Bernard-Henri Lévy are typical examples of “Coca-Cola” intellectuals. Their “reflections” are being tailored to provide “philosophical” legitimacy to the ecocidal and genocidal activities of the stakeholders in the “new world order”. Their thought represents a philosophical merit badge on the chests of the capitalist executioners who obliterate nature and humankind. At the same time, the leftist bourgeois intelligentsia, headed by Jürgen Habermas, Oskar Negt and Oskar Lafontaine, create an illusion that capitalism could be “brought to reason” by means of enlightened thought. It does not address the workers, but an abstract “citizen”, a petty bourgeois who has been degenerated by the consumer way of life and who can not be bothered with radical social changes that might jeopardize his consumer’s standard of living. “Bringing to reason” does not imply the development of combative sociability and the nullification of the capitalist order as it is reduced to the “pacification” of workers and the technical development that implies the obliteration of man as a social being and of nature as life-generating entirety. Even when the ruling political circle (alienated from the citizenry) is being threatened by an insistence on the necessity of the direct participation in political life of the largest possible number of citizens, this is performed in a manner that does not stand for an appeal to the citizens to fight against the ruling order. The “social peace” needs to be preserved at all cost in order to prevent economic crisis and the ensuing social crisis – without which the petty bourgeois consciousness and its “consumer society” cannot be eliminated. At the same time, a critique of capitalism is increasingly present. But it is of an academic nature and is deprived of any political, change-creating dimension. It does not address the destructive nature of capitalism and is not moved toward a vision of the future based upon a radical step away from the capitalist world.
The purposefulness of philosophic thought is determined by whether this thought poses concrete historic questions. Today, in a world that faces an ever more realistic possibility of destruction, that principle means concrete historical questions might be the last questions posed by man. It is this quality that makes a difference between today’s concrete historical questions and all earlier such questions. The development of capitalism as a totalitarian order of destruction imposes the question of survival as the most important concrete historical question. Actually, by bringing humanity to the brink of destruction, capitalism ”has answered” all crucial questions. Bearing in mind the intensity of the capitalist destruction of life, all questions come down to one: what can be done to prevent the destruction of humanity? The only meaningful thought is of an existential character, that is, it creates the possibility for a political (changing) practice that will prevent the world’s destruction. In that context, philosophy is meaningful as a critique of capitalism and a visionary projection of a future world. There is a need for creating an integrating critical and visionary thought with an existential nature, which will contain the emancipatory legacy of civil society and national cultures. Humanity will again appreciate the importance of serious thinking when people return to the basic existential questions. The seriousness of those questions will make people serious: crucial existential issues will eliminate any trivial ways of thinking and direct the mind towards the essential issues. Riding the wave of the French bourgeois revolution, classical German philosophy shaped the self-consciousness of modern man. Today, the humanist intelligentsia should shape a thought that will guide the last revolution in the history of mankind. It is not the hoot of Minerva’s owl in the twilight, but the war cry of a man who has been awakened and who is ready not only to liberate humanity from oppression, but to prevent its destruction. Ultimately, what is philosophy if it is not capable of answering the questions that are of vital importance to human destiny?
The 1854 letter from the Chief of the Seattle tribe to the American President Franklin Pierce indicates the important limitations on modern philosophy with respect to basic existential issues. It is a sobering fact that modern man does not turn to the greatest thinkers of the modern age to find solutions to the critical existential issues but, rather, to someone who, by the predominant criteria for evaluation, is considered a “savage”. The Indian Chief’s letter indicates that all modern Western thought has gone astray. It depicts the true nature of capitalism, and the basic tendency of its development, better than all the philosophical and sociological thinking of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Chief’s letter, at the same time, indicates that the question of being, as one of the central “traditional” philosophical questions, can no longer be viewed at the essential level. Being, as a symbolic source of authentic humanity and the mirror in which man can see his authentic human image, above all, is the affirmation of man’s life-creating powers acquiring a concrete historical dimension with respect to capitalism as a totalitarian destructive order. The fact that the letter was written in the mid-19th century is of primary importance as it refutes the claim that at that time it was not possible to see the ecocidal nature of capitalism. The words of the Indian Chief not only show the limitations of Western scientific and philosophical thought, but also that it is not necessary to have science and philosophy in order to recognize the true nature of capitalism. The truth that capitalism is an anti-existential order is based on immediate empirical evidence. This was the guiding thought of Fourier when, in the early 19th century, he questioned (capitalist) “progress”, suggesting that it is based on the destruction of forests, fields, sources of water, climate…
A specificity of the contemporary historical moment, that is, a specificity of capitalism as a system of destruction, also conditions the specific view of the past. The ruling ideology sterilizes the libertarian and change-oriented charge of philosophical thought and reduces it to a lifeless “history of philosophy”, which becomes a vehicle for the destruction of the libertarian and life-creating power of reason. Critical theory, based upon existential humanism, needs to create the possibility for “reviving” the creative and libertarian spirit of our ancestors by engaging it in the fight for survival and for the creation of a new world. In the struggle for humankind’s survival, the thinking of the past has to realize its own humanistic, i.e., existential and libertarian, potential. The deepening existential crisis forces man to focus on the basic existential issues and, in that context, to integrate the libertarian and cultural heritage of humankind and to rid it of any “tails” that only weaken it in combat and drive the mind astray. The “fullness of humanity”, in the sense of perceiving man from a historical perspective, is conditioned by increasingly dramatic existential challenges. The libertarian past needs to become a source of man’s life-creating energy in the struggle for the survival of humankind. A “return” to the mythological past is justified only if it is to revitalize libertarian and life-creating myths. Otherwise, it amounts to driving reason astray and has, regardless of personal motives, an anti-existential nature.
What provides a certain thought with a concrete historical dimension is the actual historical position toward it. Only a life-creating critique of the existing world, from the point of view of a future (humane) world, can “revive” previous thoughts. Bourgeois thought does not revive but sterilizes the legacy of reason in an analytical, mythological or some other form. It exterminates its effective historical potential, which deprives it of its mutative charge and turns it into a lifeless thought. A typical example is the position of Leszek Kolakowski toward Marxist thought (Main Currents of Marxism). His analytical approach to the development of Marxism does not open up but rather closes down the horizons of the future. The “balance” principle, which he asserts as the starting point of his theoretical (political) analyses, is formally logical, of abstract nature. What sort of “balance” could be offered to capitalism if it has already become a totalitarian destructive order? Kolakowski’s “balance” has no existential and, in that context, no libertarian nature, but, rather, it has a politically compromising and, therefore, an anti-existential nature. Kolakowski’s contradiction between “skeptical” and “utopian” philosophy is of a formally logical character. It represents an obvious example of the failure to perceive phenomena in the context of their actual historical development and of the creation of an abstract reflective stance toward reality. Kolakowski does not comprehend that the concrete idea of the utopian is conceivable only when related to the ruling capitalist order with its destructive nature, or in other words, that turning capitalism into a totalitarian destructive order preconditions the nature of the utopian as a political confrontation with capitalism. The utopian does not merely imply the creation of a new world, but also the preservation of life on the planet. Kolakowski opted for the “objectivist” critique of Marx, which is based on the bourgeois ideology within which “democracy” does not have a concrete historical nature, but rather a mythological nature. His point of departure is “democracy”, which represents just one of the ideological forms in which capitalism presents itself, and not the actual nature of capitalism. He also insists on a false antipode: “democracy” v “totalitarianism”, which counterfeits the actual historical antipode: capitalism v humane (communist) society. In that context, he fails to indicate the emancipatory and life-creating potential of the Marxist thought with respect to capitalism as a totalitarian order of destruction.
The gradual deviation of the civil thought toward the right well suits the development of capitalism which, by the means of the “consumer” way of life, has integrated a majority of workers into its own existential and moral orbit. At the same time, in order to impede the class-based organizing of workers and the ensuing class struggle, the bourgeois intelligentsia has adapted the “nature” of capitalism to the political project for which it advocates and has thus hindered the development of an adequate critical consciousness for a political struggle against capitalism. Bourgeois philosophy is a form within which the mind is alienated from man and made to serve as an intermediary between man and reality. It blurs the image of the world and creates an optical distortion that keeps man from perceiving the truest course that leads toward the future. Bourgeois thought is a theoretical form of ideation within which capitalism suppresses or annihilates the political struggle of the oppressed and their endeavors to prevent the destruction of the world. The bourgeois intelligentsia has been, and still is, a mace in the hands of the capitalists, a weapon wielded for the elimination of the libertarian and visionary consciousness of the working class. It neuters the mind as a force in the political struggle against capitalism and pulls it off its historical course. In that way, it buys some additional time for capitalism and contributes to the destruction of the world. When capitalism turned into a totalitarian order of destruction, bourgeois thought became an anti-existential thought, and the bourgeois theorists became the horsemen of the apocalypse. The obliteration of the emancipatory possibilities of bourgeois society also implies the destruction of the emancipatory potential of the civil thought. By annihilating the effective historical nature of bourgeois society, capitalism sterilizes bourgeois philosophy and turns it into lifeless thought. Capitalism marginalizes the bourgeois intelligentsia and turns it into a “cleaner” of its own bloodstained crime scenes. Capitalism, thus, devours its own (spiritual) children.
In becoming a totalitarian order of destruction, capitalism has imposed the necessity for a new (possibly a final!) historical “reading” of the philosophers whose thoughts have defined the contemporary epoch. The authentic humanistic potential of their thinking stands in stark contrast before an increasingly gloomy background of capitalist nothingness. It seems as if great thought no longer exists. What currently is nonexistent is any political movement capable of providing a great idea with an appropriate practical (change-creating) dimension. However, the deepening existential crisis created by capitalism conditions the inception of such a global political movement as would be capable of eliminating capitalism and creating a new world in which “spiritual riches will be the measure of human wealth” (Marx). The true historical quality of the critical thought is represented by the width of the aperture it opens on reality.
In relation to man, the capitalist world has become a totalitarian and destructive power to such an extent that it has lost any need for scientific knowledge, and it has become, in the hands of the capitalists, an anti-humane and anti-living power. At the same time, an escape from knowledge becomes an escape from any responsibility for the world’s survival. The realization that a group of capitalist fanatics can in an instant destroy the world, along with an awareness of the increasing possibility of environmental destruction and, thus, the end of humanity, itself, bring man, mired in the quicksand of “consumer society”, to the brink of madness. An escape from knowledge is a “natural” defense mechanism. The predominant science reduces the reality of capitalism to certain “facts” that enable a “scientific view” according to which there is no alternative to capitalism, that all “problems” can be “overcome” by capitalism, itself, through technologically “perfectioning”. The capitalist vision of the future has a “scientific” character. The myth of the “omnipotence of science and technology” has become a means for the creation of a capitalistically degenerated religious consciousness and, in that context, the image of the future. The vision of a “paradise”, in which the “souls of the deceased are reunited in God”, is replaced by the vision of a “perfect technical world”. Everything is mediated by money; everything acquires a trivial dimension – including the individual’s relation to death. Ideologues of capitalism promise man (the rich “elite”) “immortality”, which will be provided by creating technical devices that will enable the “revival” of frozen corpses. Scientists have become the capitalists’ contract killers and the driving force for the destruction of the world. A vast majority of scientists are engaged in the production of weapons of mass destruction, devices for mass control, the genetic distortion of man, the destruction of nature, the manipulation and idiotization of people… Scientific knowledge has been deprived not only of its human purpose; it has acquired an anti-existential motive.
Since manipulation of people does not proceed only in the realm of ideology but, more importantly, in the psychological sphere, art, reduced to a technique of using images and symbols for manipulation, becomes of the utmost importance. Its primary role is not to create a “cultural” decor for the ruling order, but to distort man and all the symbols by which he can reach his libertarian, creative, life-creating and social being. Capitalistically degenerated art mutilates the human being with an “artistic” form given a spectacular dimension. The “spectacle” does not only serve to deceive – it does not only prevent man from seeing the important – but it kills in him his humanity and, thus, any possibility of ever seeing the important. A blind man is not blind. Blind is the man who cannot see humanity in the other. Capitalism eliminates from culture the esthetic criteria for an evaluation based on traditional forms of artistic expression and the emancipatory legacy of civil society – the traditional need to confront formalism and the destruction of the human. Instead of something new, a variety of the same old same-old is offered. Instead of ideas opening a space in the future, new techniques are offered that destroy man’s need to fantasize along with his visionary consciousness. Capitalistically degenerated art has become a spectacular kitsch. Its value is determined not according to esthetic value but to market impact: so, the success of an advertising campaign sets the “value” of a work of art, while depriving money of any value equivalent. As for the “globalist culture”, how can universal cultural values be ascertained if the legacy of national cultures is discarded? The emancipatory legacy of national cultures is not only the source of people’s esthetic heritage, but also of their libertarian and life-creating consciousness. The superseding of national cultures by a universal human culture is possible only through the development of the emancipatory legacy of national cultures. As to the relation between universality and collectivism, there need be no counter-opposition here if collectivism, rather than being based on “the masses”, is based on emancipated personalities. Universal human values should be the basis for collectivism, whereas collectivity should not mean the elimination of individuality, but, rather, the establishment of a community of emancipated human beings. At the same time, universality cannot be the privilege of individuals who perceive themselves as an “elite”. It is, in actual fact, a class principle, but veiled by a “struggle for the individual”. A typical example is found in Nietzsche, who speaks of a “Superman” as the anthropological manifestation of “a new nobility”, of a new ruling class (plutocracy). Walter Benjamin believed that technical means can obviate the elitist character of art and bring it closer to the workers. A capitalistically degenerated technique has deprived art of its elitist exclusivity by depriving it of its humane essence. It has destroyed man’s creative being and thus does away with art’s aura, that human emanation, which contains the emancipatory heritage of humanity and suggests what has not yet been but might come to be. The development of an “esthetical sense” has been achieved by destroying the sense of the human. It turns out that there is no point in making art as a means for changing the world if it is not an integral part of a comprehensive political movement seeking to create a new world. Thus a distinction should be made between a false (capitalistically degenerated) art and a libertarian and genuine art. The role of libertarian art is to unmask the true nature of capitalism; to create a vision of the new world; to indicate objective possibilities for the creation of a new world and, most importantly, to develop man’s need for his fellow man – as the basis for a genuine socialization without which no political movement can save the world from destruction. As for art as a reflection of human misery, which is, as such, an alienated form of de-alienation: a vision of life appears as an artistic act where man’s social being realizes his libertarian and creative being.
Translated from Serbian by Vesna Todorović (Petrovi)
and Svetlana Đurić
English translation supervisor Mick Collins>
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