To Meet the Challenges of the World, Thought Must Change, Composing, 14/01/2014

As much as I like to bicker with some of Daniel Smith’s interpretations of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy, I do find his compendium of essays to be an excellent read, and quite valuable to someone exploring his work. They also help remind me why Deleuze is so important to my own thinking, especially some of the foundational ideas of the Utopias project.

European philosophy over the last century or so has included a strong tradition of theorizing about the nature of ideology, conceived as a destructive form of political philosophy, especially those influenced by Marx. I’m not going to run through all the definitions and conceptions of ideology that were developed over this tradition. But here’s a Deleuze-inspired conception that I thought of while reading Smith’s discussions of what it means to create a concept. Ideology: A set of ideas that pitches itself as eternally true, and articulates itself politically with the aim of conforming the world to its premises.*

* A quick distraction. Here’s a point of convergence between my thinking on Deleuze and some of the ideas in Doctor Who. An old quote from The Doctor, in The Face of Evil: “The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views, which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that need altering.” Essentially, this is the definition of ideology I’m using today.

For someone with a reputation for such
dense writing, Deleuze is an inherently
practical thinker.
Deleuze conceives the activity of thought in the world as if a kind of pragmatist. I face a problem, perhaps in political activity, society more generally, my own personal or psychological history, my mental health, my discipline or tradition of knowledge. This problem provokes thinking in me, sometimes self-consciously, but more often than we like to admit, autonomically. This thinking, if I’m doing it well, will formulate a concept. A concept, in this conception, is an assemblage of other ideas, perhaps with some new elements, that has particular capacities to shape one’s thinking, understanding, and action. This concept will go to work in the world through my action, and in so doing, deal with that initial problem. My work will transform the problem such that it goes away, and the order of the world changes. This new order produces new problems, which require new thinking and new concepts to work through. 

Because thinking transforms the world, the process is always a fluctuating one. The worldly conditions of thought, why we’re thinking, changes. The thoughts that the original problem sparked are now obsolete; the world has changed to render those old ideas unnecessary. We now need new thinking.

The inability to understand that new problems require new thinking produced the second-most annoying kind of article I read during the research for my Ecophilosophy project: looking for explicitly environmentalist principles in the works of established great Western philosophers, even of the pre-industrial era. You might be able to find some common features, but you can’t just get a simple answer to a question like, “What environmentalist thinking did Aristotle develop?” for instance. Aristotle didn’t develop any environmentalist thinking. The problem of environmentalism didn’t exist for him. It’s only through a great deal of creative mutation (which these articles never understood) that you can turn a pre-industrial philosopher into an environmentalist. Environmentalism only arises as a concept once humanity achieves greater destructive powers than nature. Only now that we have the capacity to pollute the drinking water of a city of hundreds of thousands or millions out of our own greed and stupidity can we (or at least some of us) develop the capacity to think our way through the problem.

Ideology, however, is a kind of thinking that ignores this change, that takes for granted several initial premises about the world (whether they are true or not does not even matter much to the function of an ideology, only that they can convince people of their truth), and follows them through in action, presuming that those premises are essential truths of existence that apply to all existence, and so their action would always be appropriate. 

That’s the kind of thinking, thought that ignores reality’s capacity to change, that constitutes the enemy of the Utopias project. This is why time is so important a concept for it: at best, ideology sees only one direction of time, the movement of the ideology’s realization, a forward propulsive motion that always embodies the ideology anyway. At worst, ideological thinking ignores the reality of time altogether, completely unable even to form the notion that the world can change and render ideas obsolete.

Here’s a very brief, admittedly amateurish sketch (so don’t take it 100% seriously or comprehensively) of how ideologies clashed in the 20th century, conditioning our current global economic messiness. This is just one picture, of course, and I’m not pretending it’s a complete one. Consider it an exercise in understanding social change through ideology.

If social democracy was truly a response to the problems of
Stalinism, then we'll need a new social democracy to face
the problems caused by the victory of social democracy.
The Soviet Union under Stalin crystallized and purified its ideological position: the world must be transformed into a classless proletariat through mechanisms of paranoia and fear, the purge and collectivization as social policy to remove distinctions among the masses. Confronting this ideology, democratic politicians and theorists developed a set of political concepts in response, social democracy. We have a market economy of individual freedoms and a democratically transparent welfare state acting in the ostensible shared interests of the public. Social democracy and Stalinism transformed the world: Stalinism collapsed under its ultimate instability (an inability to adapt to changing global economic contexts and the social fragmentation of a public under constant threat of purge); Social democracy creates a generation of increasingly affluent working class people. 

But now the challenge is that a welfare state and social conventions favouring the economic priority of the working classes (by this, I mean people who have to work for a living, who can’t rely on capital gains to survive) no longer have a Soviet menace against which to fight. The working classes don’t have to be mollified, because there’s no enemy for them to convert to. So we have a social movement toward oligarchical capitalism, where the wealth of elites rises phenomenally while that of working people stagnates. Social democracy as an ideology must change if it is to answer this new challenge from within the democratic state itself. I think perhaps it requires an infusion of anarchist principles into contemporary political thinking of the left, and a turn away from statist solutions to problems. I’m still not entirely sure, but this will be the practical political element of the Utopias project.

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