Sunday, April 11, 2010

Back to Sartre's Futures

Unlike the other contributors to our series, The Futures of Sartre's Critique, I've only recently returned to his work. I had studied, in my very early twenties, parts of Being and Nothingness, paged through, with varying degrees of interest, the pieces collected in the anthology Essays in Existentialism, and maybe even looked over a few  post-68 interviews. I'd written a few papers on Sartre, but overall, I felt that his work was incomplete. Indeed, it should have felt that way; only the essays on art found in Essays in Existentialism were published after the 1940s. I read and wrote, but only tangentially with Sartre (there's a few more twists in this winding story, but I will leave them aside for the time being).

This changed in June 2007. I had read Sam Harris's The End of Faith, hoping to find an ethical atheist...but I found a moralizer. For somebody so concerned with what he now calls "well-being," Harris's book is overwrought with indignation and self-righteousness, not to mention lacking a sense of justice. Anything goes, including torture and benevolent dictatorship, for Harris, if it can 'save' us from the benighted hordes of the non-Western world. Of course, political interpretations of so-called religious fanaticism are excluded from his inquiry, in order to focus on the religious ideas themselves. That's nice, but it does not tell us why some concepts become prevalent at some points and not others, how these concepts come to represent not just religious but political struggles. But Harris won't take the long history of imperialism seriously. Those who do, such as Noam Chomsky, are treated with a general condensation.

So, I had to turn to an ethical atheist...and Sartre provides a clear language to engage these kinds of arguments...but then, as it always happens, I write for a few days and then quickly get diverted, because defining the actuality of atheism (it's political and metaphysical commitments) is only part of a much larger political struggle. The fight between new atheism and religion is a particularly western kind of political fight; they can go on talk shows, sell their books and t-shirts, and feel as self-righteous and as persecuted as they want. They can inspire people, convince them to change. Either way, it's all narrated in a self-interested, self-help kind of way. There's a "secret solidarity", as Ronald Aronson states it, between the two.  It's a spectacular substitute for a much more difficult struggle for social justice.

If it's about social justice, however, what does Sartre have to say for future struggle? That's what I want to discuss here. Even though we're commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Critique of Dialectical Reason (Volume 1, of course), I'm going to introduce that book through Search for a Method. Sartre writes that
Far from being exhausted, Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy; it has scarcely begun to develop. It remains, therefore, the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it (30).

And yet he states:
Marxism stopped. Precisely because this philosophy wants to change the world, because its aim is "philosophy-becoming-the-world,"  because it is and wants to be practical, there arose within it a veritable schism which rejected theory on one side and praxis on the other....Marxism found itself unable to bear the shock of these new struggles, the practical necessities and the mistakes which are always inseparable from them (21-22).
How to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements about Marxism, that philosophy of our time  which has nevertheless stopped? Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperative Community rejects the claim that a philosophy could be the horizon of our contemporary times. The very idea of a horizon, Nancy claims, is no longer valid. And, obviously, all of us educated in more or less pluralist philosophy departments might find this claim to be obvious, but it's not.

Sartre introduces three periods of modern philosophy-- the first dominated by Descartes and Locke, the second by Kant and Hegel, and the third by Marxism-- but this third period is qualitatively different. While each of these three philosophies acts, during its respective period, as a horizon to cultural and philosophical forms of its time, Marxism also describes the relationships of the means of production. Descartes, Locke, Kant, or Hegel may have put forward systems that governed other cultural and philosophical forms, but Marxism does something entirely different; it broke down the wall between philosophy and political economy. Class struggle against the bourgeois or capitalist modes of production are "the circumstances which engendered it." This has shaped previous philosophy, but not in a decisive and reflexive way. If we follow Marx himself, we could say that the crises of philosophies that do not overstep their boundaries into political economy can be refuted by their very own ideological means; their abstraction becomes a weapon against them.

And yet, "Marxism stopped." How? Sartre introduces a crucial distinction between 'philosophy' and ideology.' A philosophy constructs new set of relationships between thought and praxis, and ideology comes in and does the practical work, it takes inventory, it extends new methods (8). Existentialism, according to the Sartre of Search for a Method, is an ideology and not a philosophy. Marxism stopped, according to Sartre, because it can no longer measure the life of the masses as it is lived by them; instead, Marxism interprets a priori this lived world, individuality is reduced to a series of formulas and types. Marxism needs existentialism to seek out man (sic) "everywhere where he is, at his work, in his home, in the street" (28), but, Sartre argues, "historical materialism furnished the only valid interpretation of history and that existentialism remained the only concrete approach to reality" (21).

Sartre calls this the "double demand" of praxis, for both thinking concrete reality and criticizing political economy. He also identifies the the central and persistent problem: how to make the political imagination that drives praxis (its desires, passions, and fidelities) overlap with a totalizing critique of political economy (the production and reproduction of the relationships that organize and dominate the masses under capitalism) and vice versa? This question is just as relevant today as it was in 1957, just as "the circumstances which engendered" Marxism are, broadly speaking, just as relevant today as they were when Marx wrote.

Sartre's challenge to Marxism revolves around its treatment of the concrete and lived world of the masses.He is one of the first to see that the 'factory' is no longer the locus of the political imagination, that the locus is elsewhere (anticipating post-Fordism?). He has been criticized for his lack of interest in rank and file party organization due to his petty bourgeois background, but I think we should turn this critique around. His relative lack of interest in party organization is also connected to the emphases he placed on local spontaneity and systematic anti-colonialism. 'Imagining' this intersection of spontaneity and anti-colonialism has proved to be difficult for praxis (historically speaking, it was rejected or ignored by the French Communist Party), but it does explain Sartre's proximity to post-68 Maoism.

Schematic conclusions are risky to draw, but it is probably safe to say that many of the figures of post-68 post-structuralism, with their emphases on micro-politics and resistances, lost sight of the totalizing movement of political economy. The upshot is that political practices were extended into previously marginalized social spaces (the prisons, psychiatry, sexuality, etc). Nevertheless, today, we need a totalizing critique, which should pass again through Marx, the later Sartre, and the anti-colonialism and post-colonialism of Fanon, Césaire, and others. We need a  renewed critique of capitalism and a critique of the privilege that Westerners live by virtue of living in North America or Europe, and the exploitation and violence that engender it,  we need a sense of vigilance in order to critique and refuse every so-called humanitarian justification for imperial war and exploitation. We too need to be decolonialized, de-imperialized.

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