Is Your Power an Illusion? Research Time, 04/08/2016

Talking about putting together some ideas for Utopias today. For one, it will engage with a bunch of different lines of marxist thought. And it’s going to be super-critical of everything. Not just the marxist stuff, but especially the marxist stuff.

I mean, Utopias is going to be a book about achieving a complete social revolution to craft a perfect society. A few ideas from the marxist tradition are required, if only to manage social expectations. 

A life of deprivation and pain can uplift itself to create
great wealth and beauty.
There are so many marxisms, I really only need to choose a few that are most useful to my thinking for my focus. After all, I’m not writing a book of marxism scholarship, but a work of creative political philosophy that draws from different elements in the marxist tradition. 

Some of those ideas come from Louis Althusser, as you can tell by the last week or so of posts about his book For Marx. This and the next series will also explore Althusser’s ideas. One thing I want to talk about today is an idea of Althusser’s that squeezes the heart of Utopias as a book and a philosophy – the implications of his structuralism.

Particularly, how he expresses one of these implications. Basically, Althusser argues that the only way to bring a universal dignity to humanity is the total transformation of our economic, social, and moral orders. 

A pretty reasonable assessment.

The devil is in the implications, though. Theoretically, Althusser leans on his structuralism to conclude that all human agency is only expressed in these macroscopic structures. The entire capitalist set of relations, basically, is all that acts. 

In contrast to this structuralist idea, we have the notion – common in political activism – that each of us, no matter her station in life, has the power to help transform the entire world. We might not always be able to develop or grasp that power, for many different reasons and causes, but that potential is always in us.

A life of privilege can be beset with difficulties like
mental illness, and success can come crashing down
in horrifying tragedy.
His theoretical structuralism leads Althusser to reject this notion, but his politics leads his rejection to a peculiar form. He dismisses it as a “bourgeois illusion.” In the pages of the book, he spits it out. It’s an epithet, an insult. 

That the common people have power as individuals is, says Althusser, a dogmatic idea central to bourgeois capitalist ideology. It convinces people that they have power when they’re really powerless. So they spend their energies essentially spinning their wheels instead of hammering away at the macroscopic structures where human agency really rests.

I have a pretty strong ontological belief in emergence – that macroscopic structures are constituted from the aggregate activity of mesoscopic and microscopic bodies and processes. The macroscopic also constitutes smaller-scale processes, but these are all in feedback loops, mutually determining each other. 

So I’m no structuralist. But I should still develop an argument against structuralism. That argument is, basically, developing that ontology. A lot of that was done in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, and Utopias will return to that argument in its more explicitly political context.

For the sake of this blog, I have the ontological argument against Althusser’s rejection of individual agency taken care of. Just read my last book. But the political-ideological argument is another thing. 

I’ll get more into how I understand Althusser’s concept of ideology in the series of posts that will start tomorrow. But the political argument runs something like this. There are basically two possible ethical consequences of rejecting individual agency on structuralist terms. Two implied conceptions of humanity’s powers. 

1) You become a docile revolutionary. The kind of revolutionary that so frustrated Antonio Gramsci’s own activism – the man who thinks he doesn’t even have to do anything himself to change society because its macroscopic structures will do all the work for him.

2) Resentful resignation. You resign yourself to your lot, but let the frustration of your situation rot your soul. This description will probably lean a lot on Nietzsche. No shit.

His shadow is everywhere in Western politics,
whether you like it or not.
Both of these amount to quietism. You believe that nothing can be done, so you do nothing. That’s the tricky thing about admitting that macroscopic structures do have power. They can seem overpowering, dwarfing the ability of people from downtrodden demographics to succeed and change the situations of their communities along with them.

J. D Vance is one writer who’s theorized how that can happen on the individual and community level, and his new book Hillbilly Elegy is going on my list of sources for Utopias. And there are many examples of people who’ve used their success for activism and community uplift. Artists like Elza Soares are notable and vibrant examples.

That's the paradox of that “bourgeois illusion.” While people can spin their wheels and dig themselves in deeper if they misdirect their energies, the idea that they can change their lives and the world can really work. Believing a better life possible is the first condition for the possibility of achieving it.

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