ontology and political commitment (+)

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Tue Jul 4 21:55:11 MDT 1995

I repost the following in light of Leo's layest lengthy and interesting
explanation of his views on state authoritarianism. I wish, haing read the
latest account, that I could understand where Leo's views do differ from
those briefly described below. The new account seems purely idealistic in
the technical Marxist sense, taht is, granting unmoved mover status to
ideas. As I read the story he tells, all previous (pre-liberal and
pre-Marxist) forms of the state were internally limited in their ability
to intrrude on the individual by the logic of their ideas. For examples,
the feudal state couldsn't, according to Christianity, touch the soul. But
with the notion of popular sovereignty in liberalism we get the idea of
a state without limits on what it can do--no souls of whatever external to
the state. (Leo grants that classical liberalism in Locke's version does
have a pre-social individual whose rights are supposed to constrain the
state, but for some reason this doesn't work--perhaps because there is no
such thing. Of course there are no souls either, but for some reason taht
isn't a problem.) In any event the issue of constraints in state power are
ideas and their internal logic. Social groups, economic or other, with an
interest in prevernting other groups from passing laws or using the
machinery ofd state to stop them from doing what they want, seem to play
no role in Leo's story. I find this implausible for the reasom stated below.

Ley me rephrase it in different terms. Leo invokes Lclau and Mouufe;s idea
that the social (Leo like them is big on abstractions: The Social, The
Political, etc.) is "fluid, has no more or less given internal structure
which constraints it, but instead can be infinitely recreated by
reconceptualizing it. I would submit taht in fact this descriotion fits
ideas a lot better than social reality. Social reality is structured ion
ways independent of what people want or think, although also in ways
partly deoendent on it. But ideas are malleable and take lots of content
depending on the social forces which inhabit them. We can make "democracy"
mean "what we have in the US," and come up with stories about how lack of
participation is a good thing, strengthening democracy--thus Schumpeter,
Hayek, Berelson, et al. Or we can read it as popular rule, and insist ona
n expkansive notion of "popular" and a participatory notion of
"rule"--which of these becomes effective depewnds on who can make it
stick. The notion of "democracy" in the abstracts provides very weak
constraints on whata nyone can do in its name, or what that name means. If
you want constraints, you have to get organized and make them real.

This means that Marxism can be as authoritarian as self-styled Marxists
wish to make it, or as emancipatory as a self-organized working class can
hold out for. Leo is right taht it is quite inadequate to point out Marx's
emancipatory intrentions and let matters stand at that. He is also right
that Marxists cannot be content with Marx's own undeveloped
conceptualization of democracy and political theory. But ifis not
committed to the view that the key to emancipation is getting our ideas
straight, I do not understand his argument. Which is quite possible. By
the way I agree with Leo, and so I think do most Marxists, that politics
cannot be reduced to economics, that political phenomena have their won
independent logic. But I thinkj that logic has to be understood in terms
of the dyanmics of political institutions and the interests of political
actors, not primarily in terms of the legitimating ideas which those
actors use to advance their interests within the institutions.

--Justin Schwartz

On Tue, 4 Jul
1995 LeoCasey at aol.com wrote:

> Justin writres:
> >Leo seems to think that we must interrogate the adbsences in >Marxism. We
> will find the secret of the rise of Stalinism in Marxis,'s >reluctance to
> sanction an official moarl meta=theory, or use of >terms dictatotship of the
> proletariat. etc... Now Marxists should >welcome interrogattaion and
> development of their concepts, but it's >poltroonery to think that simply
> getting those straight will stop bad >men from using whatever language you
> like for evil purposes if the >alighnment of forces is such atht it's in
> their intererestsa nd within >their abilities to do so.
> Justin, Justin, Justin.
> If I hadn't spent a great deal time of time and effort to discuss this issue
> in considerable depth just a day ago (State Authoritarianism and Ontology)
> maybe it would be understandable that this caricature bears so little
> resemblance to what I actually believe.
> Well at least you gave me a new vocabulary word -- poltroonery. I have to
> remember that one.
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