[PEN-L] the Clinton years - or how Bill had something in common with Vladimir

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Sat Nov 15 07:59:47 MST 2003

I think Alexander Cockburn does a great job debunking myths about the
Clinton area, and I would not dare to dispute his points. My small criticism
about him concerns a different aspect, namely the purpose of argumentation.

Debunking myths is indispensable if myth pretends to be fact or truth, on
this all rational and progressive thinkers are agreed. But this is only
one-half of a critique, because now it is necessary to transcend the
correction of the myth, and provide an alternative, which can positively
orient behaviour. Mao Tse Tung referred to this as "the negation of the
negation", a reference to the dialectical forms of the development of
consciousness discovered by Hegel, and not just a reference to "little girl
lies". If I just tell somebody he is talking bullshit, or somebody else just
tells me I am talking bullshit, then this does not do anything other than
recommend a limit on behaviour, to the effect that we should not talk
bullshit. But this doesn't of itself mean that sense will then be talked, in
a way that shows what is to be done and how problems are resolved, i.e. it
does not automatically enlarge a behavioural repertoire, so that
constructive sense replaces bullshit.

One can of course feel very desperate about the neo-conservative and
neo-liberal mentality, and wish one could ram their heads into a brick wall,
but if their ideas nevertheless take hold among a large population, then we
have the problem of how we transform that mentality into something else, and
for that purpose, we must interact with that mentality, expose its internal
contradictions, show that it leads to conclusions which the people who have
that mentality could not accept, and offer an alternative policy. If I
simply say that Krugman is bullshit, this might be true perhaps, but it
earns no political credit or mileage other than among devotees of the Left.
If, on the other hand, I distinguish between the person and the behaviour,
such that I respect the person, but criticise what he writes as wrong,
within terms he would accept, and suggest an alternative, then that can earn
a lot of political credit and mileage, even among people with whom I
otherwise disagree.

In politics, what people respond to best, is precisely that alternative
policy, because, since the human subconscious is positively intentioned,
autonomy-seeking and abhors a negative, whatever conscious deformities of
this natural inclination there may be, people want to know what they should
positively do, rather than just recognise the limits on their behaviour.
This is so true, that when 9/11 happened, and Bush told Americans an
invasion of Afghanistan was necessary, they believed him, even if this
required numerous leaps in logic.

For all the odes to Lenin's "What is to be done", this type of insight is
largely lost on the Marxist left, and this has its ultimate source in the
fact that Marx and Engels never proposed a sophisticated theory of socialist
morality and socialist forms of association, beyond the categorical
imperative to revolt against all conditions which make humans less than
human, i.e. enslaved, oppressed, humiliated, downtrodden and alienated
creatures, and beyond specifying the goal of human liberation as the freedom
to become all that a human can be, based on the premiss that "the liberation
of each is conditional on the liberation of all, and vice versa". The
philosophy of dialectical materialism subsequently invented by the epigones
did not fill the gap.

Lenin himself insisted that in politics it was insufficient to just be
correct in your assessment; one had to be correct at the correct time, and
the correct view had to be asserted in the correct context, in such a way,
that the audience was won over, and brought to one's own side. Bill Clinton
was a master at this as well, although one might question his principles;
even as the situation of the American working class deteriorated and the
world situation worsened, he could be tremendously successful nevertheless.
So whereas the prophets could take pride in having anticipated events ahead
of time, and the minorities could say "I told you so" after the event, the
aim, Lenin and Clinton agreed, was always to strike the iron when it was
hot, and intervene in the event in order to change it, by saying those
things which not just acknowledged the problem, but suggested a solution.

The problem with debunking myths is not that it is useless or valueless, to
the contrary, effective action cannot be based on the myth that justifies
it. The problem is rather that just as you have debunked the old myth, the
new myth takes its place, whereas the aim is to get social consciousness
beyond myth, but in order to do that, we must appeal to that part of social
consciousness which is not mythical, and doesn't drift off into religious or
pre-religious metaphysics. You cannot argue with a metaphysical
consciousness, because its proclaimed truths or values do not submit
themselves to change through rational experiential falsification or
confirmation, there is quite simply no logical or empirical proof of its
assumptions; they only change in the sense that experience might show them
more important or less important than previously thought, less valuable or
more valuable, a worthwhile insight or a less worthwhile insight, and so on.

By way of illustration - in another article in the current issue of
Counterpunch, Gabriel Kolko notes that the CIA "did not anticipate the
Korean War, the Czech crisis of 1968, the October 1973 Mideast War, the 1974
Portuguese upheaval, India's explosion of a nuclear device in 1972, the fall
of the Shah in 1979--and much else that took the U.S. by surprise. The CIA's
analytic deficiencies and errors on yet other questions, above all Vietnam,
are well known and documented; and that policy determines what its analysts'
report has been conventional wisdom for decades."

He also explains why this is so: "The large technical and ideological cadres
that purvey intelligence, rather than becoming a source of rationality and
clarity, burden the already insupportable complexity of foreign policy
formulation with worthless data, and accurate information becomes worthless
as soon as it fails to reinforce what America's political and military
leaders wish to hear. Intelligence functionaries accept the constraints of
the system quite willingly because it pays their salaries. These personnel
transform themselves into peddlers of just one more economic activity and
they never transcend the policy limits that the non-technocratic ruling
elites impose. This is just as true in all areas of domestic affairs as in
foreign policies. The state's intelligence mechanisms are constrained by a
larger structural and ideological environment and by the inherent
irrationality of a foreign policy which foredooms any effort to base action
on informed insight to a chimera. Even when the insight is exact, and
knowledge is far greater than ignorance, political and social boundaries
usually place decisive limits on the application of "rationality" to
actions. The political and ideological imperatives and interests define the
nature of "relevant" truths. Intelligence's pretension to being objective is
a hoax because those parts of it that do not reconfirm the power structure's
interests and predetermined policies are ignored and discarded."

This is an erudite and probably accurate analysis, but now what ? All we
have here, someone might argue, is a grumpy dismissal of the validity of the
CIA, as an instrument which doesn't even serve the purpose for which its
masters intended it. Yet, not only can we extend this analysis, by noting
that the very reason why the CIA exists, is because it is impossible to tell
the truth to the public about the world in an honest way, insofar as this
conflicts with the aims of the elites, we can also convert the negative into
a positive, by showing that what the CIA fails to do, because of the
deficiencies of the situation in which it operates, can be achieved in a
different context, so that by reframing what the CIA negatively does, we
obtain principles and policies about what positively to do, which might
enable us to predict far better what the future will bring, than the CIA

If moralism, mysticism, myth and subjectivism sway people more and more,
then this must mean that the reasonableness of life in society as a whole
has been reduced, so that the efficacy of rational norms is reduced, i.e.
intensifying social contradictions create a culture of lying or doubletalk,
and in reaction the search for a new moral framework, which is provided by
religion, new age, lifestylism and suchlike. But even if that is the case,
not all is lost, because we can still focus on those areas of human
endeavour or culture where honesty and veracity are indispensable, and
develop the argument from there. And it is really remarkable how honest most
people are, even when they don't need to be - an insight closely related to
my previous remark about the positive nature of the subconscious mind, which
must first accept a truth in order to deny it consciously.

Which brings me back to Krugman, because even if he has a different opinion,
we share the same experiential "database" and respect for economic
arguments, and that is something which we both accept, and which provides a
basis for argument, allowing us to shift opinion and win a hearing - maybe
not necessarily of Krugman himself, but of those who believe in the wisdom
of Krugman, and apply his methods.


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