A Note on Evil

My comment in the previous post on how voting for McCain is evil drew a lot of negative respnse, both in the comments here and in those on Jodi’s blog. This led to Jodi’s own explicit comments on evil in politics, to which, I think, I need to add my own. Like Jodi, though perhaps for different reasons, I am not in general prone to use moral categories to address political issues. I think that the leap from the political to the moral register often leads to the effacement of contextual complexities, through the simplistic imposition of absolute, transcendent modes of judgment. In Deleuze’s terms, the appeal to moral categories is a way of evading the difficult work of developing immanent perspectives and immanent criteria, by simply imposing judgment from outside. It’s a policing action, short-circuiting both political economy and aesthetics.

Nonetheless, there are times when such a judgment seems necessary. At the risk of being excessively pedantic, I want to point out that my use of the term “evil” in the previous posting was quite precise in its reference to Kant — rather than just generally using it as a means of rhetorical posturing. In particular, I was referring to Kant’s essay “An Old Question Raised Again: Is the Human Race Constantly Progressing?”, which forms one part of the late (post-Critical) book The Conflict of the Faculties. I think that this essay deserves a contemporary rethinking and “updating” — in much the same spirit in which Foucault rethought and “updated” Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?”.Foucault rejects the way that, in the hands of Habermas and others, Kant’s Enlightenment principles have become the basis for what Foucault “like[s] to call the ‘blackmail’ of the Enlightenment.” Foucault says that it is ridiculous to demand “that one has to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Enlightenment.” For “the Enlightenment is an event, or a set of events and complex historical processes,” rather than a permanent set of values to be identified with “rationality” or “humanism” tout court. Indeed, for Foucault it is precisely in refusing this for-or-against “blackmail” that one can most truly remain faithful to the Kantian task of a continued “historico-critical investigation” of our own assumptions and presuppositions, including precisely and especially the ones that seem to us to be most self-evidently “rational” and “humanistic.”

With regard to “An Old Question Raised Again,” similarly, we might do well to rethink Kant’s interrogation of the possibility of “progress,” precisely because we now find ourselves in a world where nobody can believe any longer in “progress” in the sense that Kant meant it. Lyotard wrote in the 1980s that nobody could believe in “grand narratives” (like the Enlightenment and Marxist one of progressive human emancipation) any longer; Francis Fukuyama wrote in the 1990s that the perpetuity of neoliberal capitalism was the only “end of history” that we could ever hope to attain. Today, in 2008, we are if anything even more cynical, as years of booms and busts in the market — with the biggest bust of all currently looming over us — have all the more firmly established capital accumulation, with its concomitant technological improvements, as the only form of “progress” that we can at all believe in.

But it is precisely in this context that Kant’s essay speaks to us with a new relevance. “An Old Question Raised Again” makes the point that there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to maintain the proposition that the human race is progressing — by which Kant means morally progressing, to a state of emancipation instead of slavery, mutual respect (treating all human beings as means, rather than just as ends) instead of subordination and hierarchy, and cosmopolitan peace instead of strife and war. (In other words, Kant is implicitly referring to the three watchwords of the French Revolution — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — though we might well want to replace the last one with “cosmopolitanism,” to avoid the gendered connotations of “fraternity”). There is no empirical way to assert that humanity is progressing in these terms, rather than regressing or merely remaining at the same point. (It is worth maintaining this Kantian point against all those fatuous attempts to claim that the USA is benevolently improving the lot of the rest of the world, or somehow standing up for “freedom” and “democracy,” when in fact it is exporting the imperious demands of neoliberal capital, whether by outright war or by other forms of influence or coercion, to other parts of the world).

However — and this is the real crux of Kant’s argument — although there is no empirical evidence in favor of the proposition that “progress” has taken place, there is a reason, or an empirical ground, for us to believe in progress, to hope for it, and even to work for it — rejecting the cynicism that tells us that any such hope or belief is deluded or “utopian” (this latter word is most often used pejoratively, in the form of the claim that any attempt to make human life better, such as all the efforts of the Left in the 19th and 20th centuries, inevitably has “unintended consequences” that end up making things worse). This ground is the occurrence of certain events — for Kant, the French Revolution — whose sheer occurrence, in itself, however badly these events miscarried subsequently, “demonstrates a character of the human race at large and all at once… a moral character of humanity, at least in its predisposition, a character which not only permits people to hope for progress toward the better, but is already itself progress in so far as its capacity is sufficient for the present.” Humanity hasn’t actually gotten any better, but its active ability to imagine and project betterment, on a social and cosmopolitan scale, is itself evidence that a “predisposition” to betterment does in fact exist.

Now, I left out a couple of phrases in the citation above; the entire sentence actually reads: “Owing to its universality, this mode of thinking demonstrates a character of the human race at large and all at once; owing to its disinteredness, a moral character of humanity, at least in its predisposition, a character which not only permits people to hope for progress toward the better, but is already itself progress in so far as its capacity is sufficient for the present.” The two key terms here are universality and disinterestedness. Kant is not merely praising enthusiasm and fervor. He is almost oppressively aware that enthusiasm and fervor guarantee nothing, and that they have propelled many of the worst happenings and the worst movements in human history — something that is all the more evident today, after the horrors of the twentieth century. Nothing that is narrowly drawn, chauvanistic, nationalistic, etc., can stand as evidence for a predisposition towards betterment.

But beyond that: Kant is not saying that the French Revolution in itself is the evidence of a human predisposition to betterment. He is saying, rather, that the “universal yet disinterested sympathy” that “spectators” from afar felt for the French Revolution is such evidence. Our “moral predisposition” for betterment is revealed in the way that “all spectators (who are not engaged in this game themselves” feel a “sympathy,” or “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm,” for the distant revolutionary events of which they are the witnesses. Such sympathy-from-afar can be “dangerous,” Kant warns us; but it is genuine evidence for the potentiality or “predisposition” toward improvement of the human condition — at least to the extent that it is “universal” (rather than being partial, chauvinistic, or favoring one “nation” or “race” against another — as fascist enthusiasm always is), and that it is “disinterested” (not motivated by any expectation of personal gain; an aesthetic concern rather than a merely self-aggrandizing one). (I think that, for example, Foucault’s enthusiasm from afar for the Iranian revolution can be regarded in the same way as Kant’s enthusiasm from afar for the French revolution; in both cases, the bad outcomes of these revolutions does not disqualify the reasons for which Kant and Foucault found themseves in sympathy with them; and this is why such events, and such expressions of sympathy, must be radically distinguished from the enthusiasm for fascism that consumed so many early-20th-century artists and intellectuals).

I suppose that, genealogically, all this is Kant’s secular-Enlightenment updating of the old Christian virtue of hope. But it locates what is hoped for in this life, this world, rather than in an afterlife, or in some sort of post-apocalyptic recovery (in this way, it is actually more secular, and less mystical and religious, than, say, Walter Benjamin’s messianism; and although it refers, or defers, to an as-yet-unaccomplished future, it is more materially and empirically grounded than, say, Derrida’s “democracy to come.” Benjamin and Derrida must both be honored as true descendants of Kant, yet arguably they have both diminished him). The human predisposition towards betterment already exists in the here and now, even if its fulfillment does not. Quoting Kant again:

For such a phenomenon in human history is not to be forgotten, because it has revealed a tendency and faculty in human nature for improvement such that no politician, affecting wisdom, might have conjured out of the course of things hitherto existing, and one which nature and freedom alone, united in the human race in conformity with inner principles of right, could have promised. But so far as time is concerned, it can promise this only indefinitely and as a contingent event.

Human improvement depends upon happening that have not yet taken place, and that in fact may never take place — it requires a “contingent event” in order to be realized. But nonetheless, the “phenomenon” of a capacity towards such improvement is in itself perfectly and altogethe real. In Deleuze’s terms, a “predisposition” is something virtual. Our predisposition towards improvement exists virtually, even if it has not been actualized in our social, political, and economic systems. It is for this reason that the denial of our potential or predisposition towards improvement is a secular version of what the Christians call a “sin against the Holy Spirit” — in Kant’s terms, such a denial is “radical evil”, in that it negates the very potentiality that makes any sort of moral choice thinkable in the first place. (Hence, Kant insists that human beings have a predisposition towards betterment in precisely the same way, and for the same reasons, that we all also have a “propensity to evil” or depravity).

In the grander scheme of things, this means that we must reject, on Kantian grounds, all ideologies that declare that humanity is incapable of betterment because human beings are inherently limited and imperfect (such is the tenor of the anti-“utopian” rejections of anything that goes beyond the limits of contemporary predatory capitalism), and all ideologies that declare that the narrow self-interested maximizing behavior of Homo oeconomicus cannot ever be transcended, as well as all ideologies that limit the prospects of emancipation to any particular group, nation, religion, etc. And in the narrow, tawdry limits of contemporary US politics — to move from great things to small — this is why the boundless cynicism of the Republican Party must be rejected as evil. The Democrats may well be playing games with our hopes for betterment, hypocritically encouraging those hopes only the better to betray them, etc., etc.; but at least they represent a world in which such hopes stil exist.

39 Responses to “A Note on Evil”

  1. Chris says:

    It’s worth recalling that the Kantian problematic has been updated first by Jambet and Lardreau in L’Ange and then in Badiou’s post-Maoist work. Basically they replace Kant’s barely grounded faith in human progress by a more stringent Pascalian wager on rebellion. (It’s already too late for revolution.)
    But surely all this has almost nothing to do with McCain versus Obama…..and I think one of the comments on Jodi’s blog is right: for Badiou McCain would be preferable to Obama, not just because the latter is finally more entangled in social democracy, the real enemy, but because for Badiou the state is a more dangerous enemy than the market.
    One of the most important differences between Obama and McCain concerns their different relations to the state. And that difference is not the stuff of evil.

  2. Kirby Olson says:

    Maybe the problem is how to take one small reasonable step in the right direction at a time.

    Life could be better for the people of the third world.

    Life could be better for the people of the second world.

    Life could be better for the people of the first world.

    Life could be better for cats.

    For goldfish, even.

    But you have to think in terms of tiny achievements.

    And some of the people you deem evil (like McCain) might be more than willing to help.

    Or might even be able to achieve some of the things you can’t.

    The idea that life could be better for women.

    I think Sarah Palin will maybe do something along those lines: especially for moms with disabled tots.

    And for hockey moms.

    Personally, I think something like Lyme’s Disease could be confronted if we threw enough money at it. That would making hiking with children not so scary.

    And would be probably achievable in a year or two.

    Eradicating all disease and making everyone into a fantastic dancer would, on the other hand, be too big.

    Obama’s ideas are too big — they are noble, but they are too big.

    Bush’s idea of changing the whole Middle East into a Democracy is probably also too big.

    Noble, but too big.

    I’d rather he threw the billions at getting a better form of alternative energy going.

    It’s not that he didn’t have ideas of the good.

    Or that Obama doesn’t.

    They just seem to be somewhat misplaced.

    Even Hitler had ideas of how to improve the country. Slaughter the Jews, and there would be more money for his homies.

    Mugabe had similar ideas about the whites in Zimbabwe.

    Those ideas don’t work, but they are attempts at improvement.

    You just have to have sound and practical ideas, but very few people actually have them.

    This is because everybody is an idiot.

    But almost everybody does believe in progress. That’s NOT the problem.

    It’s that their notions of progress are idiotic, costly, unachievable, and won’t work, and if they do come to fruition, they wreck the gains already made.

  3. Chris —

    I think that Badiou is altogether wrong, and that the “market,” or more precisely the systematic process of expropriation and capital accumulation on the basis of “private” ownership and control of the means of production and finance is the real problem, and not the State. When the State, rather than Capital, becomes the main object of critique, the realities of exploitation and capital accumulation are dissimulated. Leftists who see the State as the problem, rather than Capital, are unwittingly ratifying everything Thatcher and Reagan have done.

    If this sounds like old-fashioned “vulgar Marxism,” so be it. I think that the events of the last days, and the last weeks, are confirmation — the State moves from guaranteeing “property” by “deregulation” (which is really a form of differential protection) to guaranteeing it by a federalization that “socializes” losses even as profits remain privatized. The old-line claim that the State is merely an organizing committee for Capital is far more accurate than the currently fashionable philosophies that oppose various forms of domination and bureaucratization while totally ignoring exploitation.

  4. Joe Clement says:

    Steve,

    This was a great peace. I really jumped on board when you suggested that “this essay deserves a contemporary rethinking and updating’ — in much the same spirit in which Foucault rethought and ‘updated’ Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?'” If I have to, I can walk down to the library and get a copy of The Conflict of the Faculties, but if you had a copy of it that you could put online or email I could dig into it today.

  5. Jodi says:

    I join Steve. If this is vulgar Marxism, then (I refrain from hilarious vulgar example) so be it.

    A question, though, about the argument: if predispositions are virtual, then they exceed actualization; ideologies that deny progress can’t control/completely configure virtuality; they realize some predispositions and hinder others. But any ideology does this. A denial of potentiality, then, can’t be a complete negation. So it can’t be evil on these grounds. What am I missing?

  6. Chris says:

    But isn’t all this just a return to humanism?
    two (very difficult) points which radicalism needs to take account of:
    1. the will to ‘betterment’ is part of what got us into this mess.
    2. that will does not adhere to individuals or to dispositions in any philosophically or politically important sense, it adheres to societies and imaginaries.

  7. Jodi, you raise a good question — I am probably being too hasty in my effort to conflate Kant on predispositions with Deleuze on the virtual. I think I might still want to make this conflation, but obviously it needs an argument that I haven’t worked out. I still want to say that the absolute foreclosure of any possibility of even recognizing this predisposition is a will to evil

  8. Jodi says:

    Thanks, Steve. I think you may be right about ‘absolute foreclosure.’ Perhaps the challenge is figuring out what that entails or consists in. Is it possible that ‘absolute foreclosure’ is too strong? Maybe a disposition or position that constitutes itself via such a foreclosure? This could be a point of overlap with Lacanian (Slovenian school) understandings of psychosis.

  9. Jodi — could be, though I do not know enough to validate this or work it out. I do remember finding Zupancic’s book on Kant very worthwhile, but it has been too long since I read it.

  10. Henry Warwick says:

    Steven – I’m wondering if you’ve looked into Bronner’s work, “Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement”. It seems he’s going at the same problem, just from a very different direction (Adorno, Horkheimer, et al). I think your idea of re-examining post-Critique Kant is a good one, which led me to think of Bronner. (full disclosure – Bronner was my Poli Theory prof in undergrad at Rutgers) Still, I think his (re)viewing of the enlightenment project could be useful, as his direction deals with some questions, while yours works on others.

    What I fear is that the forces of reaction and their tools of Administrative Communication Theory (Bernays/Hovland/Lutz et al) have proven so powerful in their ability to hold the emotional centers of the less/differently educated, that there may be no viable alternatives for progressive forces.

    I find this especially disturbing as we face a world at a crux, an apex, fulcrum of development, yet the resources wrested from the earth are so woefully maldistributed, and the suffering amping up, that it makes a mockery of the neoliberal promise. The failure of the American Ponzi Scheme is just the first shock wave. Oddly, if it results in a massive economic downturn, it may provide the demand destruction necessary to stave off a true and immediate collapse (viz easter island on a global scale)…

    The important part, relative to our discussion, is how to maintain the “Enlightenment Project” in a world blinded by superstition, and burning in its greed.

    Chris pointed out:

    1. the will to ‘betterment’ is part of what got us into this mess.

    Indeed, but that’s a grim condition. I was at a Sustainability conference a few months ago, and someone in the audience asked the panel “OK – so you all are talking about community and compassion and all that great stuff – what is going to happen to the developmentally disabled? Or the elderly and sick? Where’s your compassion there?”

    One panelist said “An important part of life is a dignified death.”

    Another said something to the effect of: “Compassion is what got us into this mess. compassion for people exceeding our compassion for the world.”

    Widening our circle of empathy to include the environment and our resources and other living things? This would be a radical transformation of the enlightenment project. Issues of “the virtual” would cease to matter, as the virtual is brought into the actual as a perception made by people. (?)

    I need to think about this…

    My intuition tells me that THIS is the time for someone to re-write/answer/revive Kant in a way that makes sense going forward – a way to profoundly link ethics, action, idea, and practice (aesthetics) without resorting to superstitious nonsense, or using metaphysics to paper over the unknown. It’s a bigger job than I’m interested in taking on… I have different fish to fry right now, but if you want to do that – more power to you!

  11. jane says:

    I wholeheartedly support Steven’s critique of Badiou (“When the State, rather than Capital, becomes the main object of critique, the realities of exploitation and capital accumulation are dissimulated”), but it doesn’t sit easily with the Kantian position; I don’t think they’ve been synthesized here so much as forced together. Here I think we must take seriously Marx’s mistrust of philosophy without political economy; the result of Steven’s position (common enough, I fear) is to propose Marxist analysis as a justification for voting capitalist.

    The same problem manifests itself if one considers this from the vantage point of Kant rather than Marx. What happens here is, in effect, that the hope implicit in sympathy for the French Revolution whatever its real failings is annexed to sympathy for the Obama campaign. All hope is the same hope. And so it is that a demand for an actual and absolute changes in the form of government is forced to testify for maintaining the form of government as it is, King Mob made to vote for a technocrat. That is not what philosophy is for, nor Marxism — however vulgar or refined.

    Kant’s defense of sympathy for the French Revolution — indicative of a desire for real change, regardless of the Revolution’s actual outcome — has to be reocnciled wit

  12. [I suppose that, genealogically, all this is Kant’s secular-Enlightenment updating of the old Christian virtue of hope. But it locates what is hoped for in this life, this world, rather than in an afterlife, or in some sort of post-apocalyptic recovery]

    The same emphasis of “in this life, this world” can also be found in the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, even though his thought comes under the rubric, spiritual. Reading Sri Aurobindo is like reading an updated Kant.

  13. montag says:

    If the appeal to moral categories is an evasion of the development of immanent criteria, it is obvious that the appeal to political categories is an evasion of the development of transcendent criteria.

    Furthermore, there is nothing in transcendent modes of judgement that necessitates them being simple and non-complex. To leap from the political to the moral register only removes complexity if one’s morality is sufficiently meager and scanty to begin with.

    So I believe your detour into moral concepts need not offer any apologia for its existence, for your sense of morality seems to be sufficiently complex.

  14. I am not going to argue about the conjunction of Kant and Marx right now; but I would like to reference Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique as a support for this conflation (as discussed here and here).

  15. Ken says:

    Steve,
    This is wonderful, inspired (and inspiring) even. In denying “hope” for betterment one is always (falsely) denying what is for what is not.

    But I repeatedly get confused when you say things like the updated Kantian position you seek to sketch out is “more materially or empirically grounded” than a Benjaminian or Derridean position. I guess I am particularly confused by the “more.” I don’t mean to prompt an either or argument — that one is either this or that — but the distinction you press for eludes me.

  16. Cary says:

    The recent posts here have been very interesting but I just wanted to address a side note.

    Let’s not attribute to Badiou the words one of the commenters here has put into his mouth. Badiou has said that an Obama, Hillary or Royal victory would not be an “event” in the sense that he uses the term, but the idea that he would prefer the victories of Sarkozy or McCain is ridiculous. He has never suggested that social democracy is a greater evil than the unfettered “free” market. Badiou is staunchly against electoral politics, but also says that he is not dogmatic about it. He wrote approvingly of the victory for the “No” vote to the EU constitution precisely because he saw it as a “No” to neoliberal economics.

  17. Yusef says:

    Explain to an idiot why I can have hope but cannot think progress is real.

  18. Kirby Olson says:

    It’s because all change is idiotic.

  19. jane says:

    Steven, your account of Karatani as eloquent, and persuasively draws out the structural isomorphism of critique between Kant and Marx. It doesn’t, alas, respond to the matter at hand, and I’m not sure you’ve taken the force of my doubt. Let me see if I can restate.

    Your clear rebuke to Badiou (“When the State, rather than Capital, becomes the main object of critique, the realities of exploitation and capital accumulation are dissimulated”) must include as its demand that the changing of life Marx demanded of philosophy is the changing of the situation of capital, not the changing of the situation of the state. That is, the changing of the relations of production. And yet, your reasoning via Kant produces a defense of an activity (voting Obama) that is locked within the arena of the state, while merely affirming the relations of production. Thus Marx’s insight about the distance between philosophy and political economy, which you otherwise purpose to take seriously, is cast down. Showing that Kant and Marx had kinship in their intellectual methods does not in any regard serve to efface this problem. How does an Obama vote not dissimulate “the realities of exploitation and capital accumulation”?

    The fact that the Kant you quote is a defense of sympathy for, again, changing the State absolutely (which is what the French Revolution intended) does show the horizon where Kant and Marx meet as something more than a formal exercise. But it’s this very reconciliation you undo by (via Zizek) letting the destruction of the state be replaced analogically by mild forms of participation in the state. Within the logic you reproduce, a sympathy for the Commune, the Durutti Column, or the Intifada would function just as well, since they are all reduced to their formal character as signs of desire for change, as if all change were one. But that is not the fullness of their formal character at all, much less their content.

  20. Yusef says:

    Jane, if my say so, this does a beautiful job of addressing my confusion. What Dr. Shaviro is providing is not an argument for an Obama vote. It’s an argument for persisting in work for changing the relations of production. (It would be an argument for an Obama vote if Obama would work for changing the relations of production.) It’s an argument for seeking out and supporting whatever and whoever is working for changing the relations of production, no matter how beleagured they be or however incremental the results would be. In light of your clarification, it occurs to me this argument exposes a vote for Obama as evil.

  21. What can I say here that won’t just be a sterile repetition of what I have written already? (This is the reason why I don’t respond to comments on my blog postings very often). I don’t think anything I write now will convince Jane or Yusef; in fact, none of my arguments have convinced people very close to me to vote for Obama instead of abstaining.

    But let me quote something Naomi Klein recently wrote:

    The dumping of private debt into the public coffers is only stage one of the current shock. The second comes when the debt crisis currently being created by this bailout becomes the excuse to privatize social security, lower corporate taxes and cut spending on the poor. A President McCain would embrace these policies willingly. A President Obama would come under huge pressure from the think tanks and the corporate media to abandon his campaign promises and embrace austerity and “free-market stimulus.”

    Now, of course, Klein’s distinction between the two candidates here is purely notional. We already know that a President Obama would in fact give in to this “pressure”; there is little evidence that he would even consider acting any differently.

    But I still think the wishful fiction (or fantasy) of thinking that Obama might do otherwise, that the “loud, organized grassroots pressure” Naomi Klein calls for might make a difference, is not without significance. It is significant that one can imagine Obama bowing to anti-corporate pressure, or not bowing to the pressure from the “think tanks and corporate media,” or even having convictions that might point him away from just serving corporate power. One can imagine this of Obama, and one cannot possibly imagine this of McCain. What I am saying is that this imaginary contrast makes a difference, even though in actuality Obama will never do it, just as McCain will never do it.

    Or, to put it another way. A number of the speeches at the Democratic convention last month choked me up, and even brought me to tears, because I was affected by all that rhetoric of empowering, supporting,and giving economic rights to ordinary people, in opposition to the way that nearly all of us have been plundered in order to fatten the coffers of the already obscenely rich. The rhetoric worked on me, even though it was all patently a lie. (In contrast, the Republican convention seemed to me to be nothing more than a self-congratulatory gathering of country-club fuckers who were alternately gloating about their privileges and throwing temper tantrums about not having even more).

    Of course, responding in this way to the Democrats’ rhetoric is extremely embarrassing — and if I am recounting my embarrassment publically here, it is because exhibiting it and reveling over my embarrassment in this manner is the most effective way I know of overcoming it. Now, the only thing to which I can compare my reaction to the Democrats is my similar reaction to classic Hollywood melodramas — and especially to Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, whose ending absolutely reduces me to uncontrollable bawling, no matter how many times I have seen it.

    These tears are a sign of emotional release, of recognition of an irreparable loss, but also of hope for renewal, or for something better. I weep for Annie’s death, but also because Sarah Jane does return for the funeral — she is too late to actually reconcile with her mother, but her evident mourning — as she cries “Mama! Mama!” while rushing up to the hearse and coffin — seems like a reconciliation to us, the audience. Yet at the same time (as Sirk himself was perfectly aware, and pointed out in interviews) this sense of reconciliation is totally phony. Nothing is resolved, everything — both the racism, sexism, and general vapidity of American society, and the hopeless emotional deadlock of all the characters — remains exactly as it was. The greatness of Imitation of Life has to do with the way that it simultaneously wrings or extorts tears from its audience, and points out how these tears are the symptom, or the affective correlate, of an insidious ideological imposture. The film would be lame and trivial if it just demostrated the imposture, without also making us into victims of it.

    Now, this is exactly how I felt about the Democratic convention. My tears were extorted, quite genuinely, for something that I also knew at the same time to be a false promise. The difference, of course, was that there is no Douglas Sirk in the Democratic party; I entirely supplied the second-order knowledge of the imposture myself. But still, I take my tears as seriously as I do my rational demystification of them. Leftist politics has usually, and with considerable justice, denounced this sort of ideological manipulation. But I still believe that such hypocrisy and manipulativeness is infinitely preferable to the utter cynicism and contemptuousness of the Republicans.

    Call me a sappy humanist if you want. The Democrats are, admittedly, sappy humanists at best, and will sell us out the way sappy humanists always do. That still marks a significant contrast with the Republicans, who are (to adapt a William Burroughs metaphor) traitors to all mammalian values, and whom I wouldn’t even call reptilian, because that would be an insult and an injustice to the reptiles.

  22. Greetings.

    Jane asks:

    How does an Obama vote not dissimulate “the realities of exploitation and capital accumulation”?

    From my view, it doesn’t. However, a McCain victory would be a complete disaster that would entail an enormous amount of needless suffering. An Obama victory would be a partial disaster, that would entail a lot of needless suffering, but much less than McCain. If one sees government as the protection and protection of the interests of the ruling class, then one can see Obama (like Roosevelt) the greater protector of ruling class interests, as an Obama administration would likely be more honest and less corrupt than a McCain administration, thusly propelling the American War Machine along with less catastrophic management.

    Some take what I would call the “Chthulu Strategy”, i.e., “why settle for the lesser evil?” and figure that McCain would heighten the contradictions in American society to such an extent that it would provoke a crisis, providing the grounds for a real revolution (per Lenin). In my view this is a deeply flawed notion, as it presupposes the survival of a revolutionary group that could take power in the event of such a crisis. Due to the capabilities of contemporary military technologies, such a presupposition has absolutely no grounding in fact.

    The revolutions of the 19th and early 20th century grew from a Marxian teleological position, which, I would argue, grew from a Kantian teleology, in so far as Kant saw culture as the prime product of human endeavour, and humanity as the prime product of nature. As such, Marxian teleology points to cultural (r)evolution as the end of human endeavour. I think the trail is pretty clear on that.

    However, Marx’s world was nearly identical to that of Kant’s, in comparison to our own. Our world teeters on the brink of extinction. This isn’t simple fear mongering – this is simply an acknowledgment of our precarious contemporary condition. Thusly, an ethics based in survival come to the fore: actions that drag us closer to the edge are “bad” and actions that drag us away from the cliff are “good”. some will be better or worse – it’s a continuum of course, not a binary.

    Hence, I think it is reasonable to say a vote for McCain is evil. His policies and inclinations are exactly wrong. This doesn’t mean Obama’s are right. They are simply less wrong. The American left is fractured and has no political mass, and while a leftist government could well be the best thing since Thomas Jefferson suggested a revolution every 20 years, the practical facts on the ground do not auger for that.

    I’ve noted before the fundamental differences between Obama and McCain (McCain is a unipolar imperialist bent on global domination, Obama is a multipolar imperialist bent on regional hegemony) and while they are both imperialists, their visions are very different, and I would suggest that McCains are a short fast drive off a deep rocky cliff.

    For there to be any kind of “leftist revolution” or any revolution at all, there has to be a population of humans capable of organising labour for the creation of surplus. A McCain administration, per the policy statements in the Republican platform, would endanger the human project in general, making notions of revolution moot.

    As Yusef noted:

    It’s an argument for seeking out and supporting whatever and whoever is working for changing the relations of production,

    that makes his conclusion

    it occurs to me this argument exposes a vote for Obama as evil.

    as incorrect, as a vote for Obama permits the argument to continue, while a McCain administration could easily result in a complete catastrophe, preventing any change in the relations of production, as there would be no production to have relations to change.

    best,

    HW

  23. jane says:

    Steven, I actually accept that line of reasoning. I don’t agree with it, but it’s a clear and nuanced formulation of the lesser-of-two-evils position. I don’t cotton to its pragmatic results — a guaranteed continuation of the move to the right of conventional U.S. politics — but I understand it.

    This remains in distinction to the leveraging of sympathy for world-historical revolution, and of a commitment to a Marxian analysis of capital, toward an Obama vote, which risks being philosophically suspect.

    I have no debate with the idea that even the loathsome Democrats — who wish to steal the lives of labor in a way structurally identical to Republicans — can mobilize a hope in you whcih is meaningfully different from Obama’s “hope.” It would seem that the task of philosophy would be to stop you from submitting your real hope to the Democrats’ simulacral hope, and instead mobilize that hope toward something more closely resembling Kant’s French Revolution, or Marx’s change in the relations of production.

  24. Yusef says:

    I feel terrible if my meager participation here insults or frustrates Dr. Shaviro. I am eagerly listening and I do believe I understand the line of reasoning.

    About the emotional response to Obama (and the Democrats.) I feel the same way. When I look at Obama, I feel a certain kinship, an admiration, as if, if I were as talented and intelligent, AND decided to “work within the system”, I might wish to be doing what he is doing, as he is doing it. And I feel this regardless of what he is actually saying and what I suspect he will actually do. It is as if I believe I see a gleam in his eye which matches a gleam in my soul.

    There’s still no doubt that when I do vote for Obama, my act will be cynical. For me, the vote will be cynical.

    But I want to shift the direction of concern here just slightly. This gleam I think I see in Obama’s eye is probably the same thing as what others see when they look at Palin, and I do believe they know or suspect Palin isn’t really Palin, (just as I know Obama isn’t Obama.) When Palin supporters stretch out their hands to me, (as they sometimes do,) it may be that the “Obama gleam” acts as some kind of hard-brass-core, impermeable, which resists (unthinkingly,prejudicially,involuntarily,) their efforts to reach me, and their “Palin gleam” acts in the same way against my efforts to reach them. Efforts to objectify my “obama gleam” or their “palin gleam” fail. Efforts to treat this intersubjectively end up politically neutral and are useless. Make a rhizome? Fat chance of that, though maybe rhizomes are making themselves–I do have some hope efforts on this blog and elsewhere could be part of that.

  25. Kirby Olson says:

    Someone still will have to work, and unless you have a genius as the entrepreneur, the factory itself won’t produce. The communist party will never produce a Bill Gates. It will only produce Stalins, who tell other people to get to work.

    Peter Dews, in The Idea of Evil, concludes, “we are what’s wrong with the world,” which produces, he says, “the most desolate of questions: why the world, being good, is yet not good” (232).

    Funny bit that. Funnier bit this:

    When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before. — Mae West.

  26. Kirby Olson says:

    IF everyone is inherently selfish, and you nevertheless nationalize industries, then you will have selfish pricks in charge of the factories who are also synonymous with the government.

    The role of government is to make certain that industry does not break laws governing the rules of production (against pollution, etc.).

    If you make government itself into industry, then this watchdog role collapses, and there is no one to go against corrupt industries. This is what happened in the USSR with Chernobyl, or the disappearance of the Aral Sea when they let the cotton industry drain it for irrigation. There was no one to complain. The Aral Sea is filling up again finally after two decades of capitalism as the norm. Fish are coming back!

    It’s far better to allow industry to work on its own, and to set the government against it, as a watchdog.

    This does not mean that one is good and the other is bad. Rather, it’s necessary to see everyone as bad, but to set two bads against one another. This is also why any one party system is evil, because only out of two bads can you get a good.

    Competing factions, or checks and balances, is a better understanding of human nature, since absolute power will always yield absolute evil. Marx was foolish and sentimental to think that the working class was somehow a good bunch, while the owners were bad.

    They were both bad to the bone — wanting something for nothing. So the best possibility is to set them against one another in rivalry and in competition (competition is something that communists can’t handle because they were bad at it as kids is my guess so they think there must be some way around it, har har).

    But it’s nevertheless a good thing, as it mirrors nature, and nature, after all, is all we have in this world.

    Again, nature is something that Marx didn’t know anything about. He was a stupid romantic.

    He wanted to create heaven on earth.

    What a primitive yahoo.

    You have to allow competition, and you have to allow that all parties are selfish and out for their own good, or else you just make a mess.

    I’m for McCain because he at least understands this.

    Obama does understand competition and is capable of it apparently on the basketball court. But he doesn’t understand that it’s also the best thing in the marketplace, with a separate governmental function to watchdog or referee for cheaters.

    Competition is a very very bad thing, because it can make you nervous. However, that nervousness is good, because it can make you turn out a better product, which in the end is good for everyone.

    Communists were so lazy and stupid that the lunch bag and the toilet paper factor were the same place, and created the same product. You had to wipe your butt with a paper bag, and eat shit for lunch.

    And nobody could complain or you went to the gulag.

    Hooray for capitalism!

  27. Yusef wrote:

    This gleam I think I see in Obama’s eye is probably the same thing as what others see when they look at Palin, and I do believe they know or suspect Palin isn’t really Palin, (just as I know Obama isn’t Obama.) When Palin supporters stretch out their hands to me, (as they sometimes do,) it may be that the “Obama gleam” acts as some kind of hard-brass-core, impermeable, which resists (unthinkingly,prejudicially,involuntarily,) their efforts to reach me, and their “Palin gleam” acts in the same way against my efforts to reach them.

    I know what you mean – I see the same thing. At the same time, I’ve been on or near a stage for most of my adult life (as a musician, performer, or lecturer) and I can attest to David Bowie’s statement that “everything on stage is an act – even sincerity”. One can “act” sincere, and depending on how good an actor you are, you can simulate any variety of affect. That said, like you, I see that gleam – that little glint of him where he says (neoliberal nonsense) but his eyes say (I’m saying this to get elected and don’t believe a bit of it). But then I wonder if that’s a rehearsed act.

    Frankly, the proof is in the pudding. If he wants to exist as something greater than his rhetoric (i.e., as something other than a multipolar imperialist bent on regional hegemony) then his actions as president will have to prove it.

    Your vote for Obama need not be “cynical”. Making difficult choices between flawed alternatives is part and parcel of a chaotic universe.

    cheers!

    HW

  28. Daniel says:

    In relation to two things:

    1. Jodi’s question about whether predispositions are virtual, and

    2. Steven’s comment: “But I still think the wishful fiction (or fantasy) of thinking that Obama might do otherwise, that the “loud, organized grassroots pressure” Naomi Klein calls for might make a difference, is not without significance. It is significant that one can imagine Obama bowing to anti-corporate pressure”

    My sense is that the virtual would be more “neutral” than predisposed towards betterment, given that the virtual as such tends towards pure difference in-itself, irreducible to any particular constellation (whether good or bad) of virtual singularities. To think about how there might be a Deleuzian account of betterment, I think Steven’s language of “wishful fiction” and “imagination” is the key indication: it’s fabulation, rather than the virtual (though of course fabulation needs the virtual), that provides conditions (or that provides the maintenance of the conditions) for betterment.

    As an aside, this was an incredible post, especially wrt to the perfectly precise analogy to the sin against the Holy Spirit.

  29. Kirby Olson says:

    The sin against the Holy Spirit in Christian terms is the refusal to accept God’s salvation:

    http://www.catholicexchange.com/2006/06/15/83557/

    When you argue that there is a secular version of this I think you are saying that the sin against the Holy Spirit in communist terms is the refusal to accept the Party’s salvation.

  30. I don’t remember any suggestions that “the party” had any salvation on offer when I applied for admission to doctoral study. I remember getting a few hints that I might want to line myself up with one of the several churches within a block or two of the campus. I also remember a trip to Orlando with my wife shortly after we were married. I played golf with the husband of the president-elect of the organization that was meeting there. He was from the Twin Cities and I suspect he’d been pretty well acquainted with Hubert Humphrey at one time or another. We got rained out after twelve holes, but not before I’d made three birdies from the back tees. He teed off from the members’ tees about forty yards closer to the hole. Does that make me a country club conservative? The game of golf still makes a major distinction between public and private. I do remember hearing a pithy saying about American education from a West German linquist. “Sie koch Wasser auch.” He seemed to think there could be prospects for me in East Germany if I thought there was any possibility I might be gay.

  31. Aaron P says:

    Can’t help but wonder if the move towards “hope” as a fundamental category in political deliberation can escape a return to the question of lack, i.e. of the “hoped-for.”

  32. Kirby Olson says:

    Vote for McCain to help overturn the violent prejudice toward the elderly and restore hope to that sector of the population: far and away to be the most likely to suffer depression since they are discriminated against, and rarely are allowed to appear on television except as drooling dolts.

  33. Kirby Olson says:

    The communist party of the USA has a Wikipedia page here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_USA

    It struck me on reading it that many of the positions of commenters here are more or less indistinguishable from the positions there.

    The one notable difference is that the CPUSA totally denounces terrorism of any kind, and ejects anyone who espouses it.

  34. roger says:

    The problem I have with evil is the problem I have with greed. When I read denunciations of the Wall Street bankers as greedy, I find it extremely annoying. Any random poor person could be as greedy. I, a random poor person, am greedy in my own way. The point is that they had scope for their greed, and that scope was in the system. Instead of greed, one has to concentrate on power. Having the power that arises from rentseeking wealth, they used it – not because they were morally debauched, but because their position in the system encouraged that use. They used it to buy protection – which actually is kinda cheap. It means bribing politicians, it means funding think tanks and economic departments (vide George Masons) to produce a crop of propagandists, and it all worked rather well, and is continuing to work rather well. Greed is a moral issue that can be easily absorbed into the system – McCain, Bush and whoever wants to can pick up that word and make an easy denunciation of the plutocrats. But it isn’t so easy to pick up that word if one is denouncing the power of that wealth, its non-productive origin and use, and the fact that it skews the system to entrench the wealthiest. That is just not something McCain, et al. – or the Dems, for the most part – can say.

  35. Henry Warwick says:

    Roger wrote:

    The problem I have with evil is the problem I have with greed. When I read denunciations of the Wall Street bankers as greedy, I find it extremely annoying. Any random poor person could be as greedy. I, a random poor person, am greedy in my own way.

    OK – how about some other “eternal” aspect of human behaviour like violence?

    Anyone can be as violent – genocide isn’t committed by “special” people who are exceptionally violent. Just some dumb schmoe caught up in a violent system.

    Labelling something “evil” is a way to identify something as irredeemable – something that mustn’t ever be tolerated. Labelling a person evil is a way to do the same.

    For the most part we no longer engage in mortal combat between families or clans. Cities compete in sports, not the battlefield. Scaling that same level of co-operation to a global scale has proven elusive, but that doesn’t mean the cause is foolish – just wildly difficult.

    Greed is another thing that can also be controlled. And should be.

  36. schluehk says:

    When I read denunciations of the Wall Street bankers as greedy, I find it extremely annoying. Any random poor person could be as greedy.

    It makes a difference whether you are playing poker and you are just greedy ( scoped, being part of the game ) or you mark your cards ( out of the scope, cardshaper ) to enforce your own win. But what happens when the game goes out of control because everyone playing it is cynical, accepts cheating and is open to fraud as long as everyone benefits for a while? The moral problem is transformed into another one being layered upon greed. It is one of benevolent fraudand it can’t easily be rejected without rejecting temporary benevolence.

  37. G.M. Palmer says:

    “in both cases, the bad outcomes of these revolutions does not disqualify the reasons for which Kant and Foucault found themseves in sympathy with them”

    I’m sorry, but are you joking? The fact that the outcomes of the revolutions were so vile should be more than enough to call into question the reasons for sympathizing with them.

    If I thought someone was pretty great and they turned out instead to be a mass murderer, I would wonder what was wrong with me that was so attracted to them. If I supported a political regime that became a vile, oppressive machine state, I would not only ask what went wrong with the state but what went wrong with me.

    The idea that we can separate our theories and beliefs from the actions they cause is naive at best and dangerous at worst.

  38. Kirby Olson says:

    It seems to me that everybody is a communist. Now even McCain wants to throw 300 billion at bad mortgages. What a communist!

    If everybody is a communist why shouldn’t I just vote for the CPUSA. At least they’re honestly communistificationalalitarianesque. The others are all crypto-communists.

    There is a point at which being good forms a Moebius strip into evil.

    It’s like when you give away all the donuts at your Dunkin Donuts and the business collapses.

    But if everybody is going to go around being a crypto-communist, then I’m just going to vote for the communist party.

    Darn it.

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