'We are not players, but forgotten, voiceless subjects'By Roy Ratcliffe: An extended book review of. ‘Being in Time’ (a post-political manifesto) by Gilad Atzmon.
Despite the two abstractions in the title of this recent book by Gilad Atzmon, (ie. ‘being’ and ‘time’) it’s main subject matter is far from ‘being’ abstract. Indeed, it commences with the results of the 2016 American presidential election of Donald Trump and it’s complex connection to the phenomena of identity politics and political correctness. Nevertheless, the author acknowledges having been influenced by the extremely abstract ideas of Martin Heidegger whose book ‘Being and Time’ deals philosophically with what it is to ‘be’ and it’s connection with the concept and practice of the measurement of movement or – ‘time’. [For a critique of the misuse and confusion over the concept of ‘time’ see the article ‘The Fetishisation of Time’ on this blog.]
I shall comment (briefly) later on the abstract conceptual framework, as developed by Heidegger, meanwhile I will focus on the lucid and important criticism which Gilad Atzmon applies to the current political symptoms of ‘identity politics’ and ‘political correctness’. These are two aspects of left/liberal (or what I personally designate as petite-bourgeois) ideology, which he suggests many people have uncritically ‘borrowed’. This act has impeded their ability to ‘think’ for themselves and ‘follow the rules of reason’. In explaining his motive for writing the book he writes;
“For some time now, we the people who dwell on this planet, have been reduced to a mere audience to a devastating drama that tells the story of our own destruction. Despite all the liberal democratic promises, we are not players, but forgotten, voiceless subjects. The time to speak out is long overdue.” (page 10.)
The author continues by pointing out that in his opinion the ‘left’ political vision is based upon ideas of what ‘ought to be’ whilst the rival ‘right’ political vision is based upon ‘what is’. Elsewhere, this is also often referred to as idealism versus pragmatism. But these two partially rival tendencies he insists are not just simple opposites but represent a functional socio-political relationship which supports and sustains the liberal, and neo-liberal democratic agenda. In other words, they are like two sides of one official bourgeois coin of the realm. They ‘belong’ to each other. I largely agree with this perspective and would merely add to it the following. The left/liberal (social democratic) wing of the political class mainly wish to make capitalism much fairer, whilst the right/conservative political wing mainly wish to make capitalism more effective. But both sections are champions and defenders of the existing capitalist system. The author goes on to suggest that the ‘political’ is now totally detached from the ‘human’ and that the role of politics is now to ‘facilitate consumption’ by being subordinate to a range of capitalist interests. Interests which, he notes include ‘oligarchs, major market forces’ big monopolies and banks’. He writes;
“Democracy operates to convey a false image of freedom of choice. It suggests that this dystopia in which we live is actually the crude materialisation of our own (democratic) choices. Democratic freedom only conceals the fact the choice is illusory and generally meaningless or non-existent.” (page 22.)
This assessment will come as no surprise to many of us on the revolutionary-humanist left, since experience from past and present working class struggles has amply confirmed it. Nevertheless, the source of this shared perspective is interesting. This is because the author does not come from an established anti-capitalist tradition. This is only one reason (of many) why this is an important book and should be read by everyone on the revolutionary-humanist and anti-capitalist left. A further reason lies in the fact that it delivers a much needed merciless criticism of much of the lefts infatuation with political correctness and identity politics.
Of course, the political strategy of Political Correctness (PC), is not something new. Nor is criticism of it. [See, for example, the article ‘Political Correctness’ (July 2016) on this blog.]. But importantly, Gilad Atzmon reminds the reader that it was a defining ideological component of the Leninist and Stalinist branches of Bolshevism which insisted on the adherence to an ever-changing supposedly ‘correct’ (sic) party line whether this corresponded to reality or not. It was in the 1920s and 1930s, of the Soviet era, that the concept of political correctness was first used to suppress criticism of, and enforce patterns of behaviour, acceptable to the then ruling Bolshevik elite. He notes that George Orwell, author of ‘Animal Farm ‘ and ‘1984’ had experienced this trend during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 – 1939. The revival of a ‘political correctness’ strategy by the liberal Left in the 1970s served essentially the same purpose. He writes;
“Even at its most innocuous, political correctness crudely interferes with freedom of speech, freedom of expression….Initially we don’t say what we think; eventually we learn to say what we don’t think.” (pages 38/39)
In my opinion, the advocates of ‘political correctness’ arrogantly assume that there is a social and political ‘truth’ about life which only certain privileged intellectuals and elites are capable of understanding, promoting and enforcing. They elevate their one-sided, considered (or more often ill-considered) opinions into relative or absolute social truths. Not content with such acts of cerebral arrogance, these elite diviners and Guru’s of life’s ‘truths’ (sic) insist that the rest of us must follow their dictates or suffer whatever consequences they are capable of inflicting. This is a process eloquently described by the author in this book. Incidentally his observations confirm the point made by Marx that the literary representatives of those who dominate the economic and social world also dominate the language and customs available to those who they consider socially and intellectually below them. Not content with simple disaproval, however, many of the PC proselytising elite are quite prepared to indulge in distortion and character assasination with the intention of depriving people of their livelihood if they fail to conform.
The other side of the social and intellectual ‘political correctness’ currency which is promoted by this section of the petite-bourgeois elite, (liberal and left) is the demand that we should pander to the current obsession with the politics of ‘identity’. Critics of the capitalist mode of production, along with the rest of humanity, are invited to turn their backs upon issues of class and prostrate themselves in front of the recently erected altar of ‘identity politics’. But Gilad Atzmon clearly and consistently refuses to do this. Instead he subjects this tendency to a critical examination.
Using Old Testament imagery, the author of ‘Being in Time’ describes the political Lefts current ‘identity-led’ catagorisations of struggling humanity, in the following manner.
“..newly emerging ‘tribes’ (gays, lesbians, blacks, vegans, etc) are marched into the desert, led toward an appealing ‘promised land’, where the primacy of the symptom (gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, skin colour etc.) is supposed to evolve into a world in itself. But the liberal utopia is in practice a sectarian and segregated amalgam of ghettos that are blind to each other. It has nothing in common with the promised universal inclusive cosmos.” (page 50)
He is correct in my view that identity politics strives for various forms of sectional symbolic unity in opposition to a general class or national unity. There have, of course, been attempts to bridge this psychological/ideological divide as was the case with the Lesbian and Gay support groups for the miners in their strike in the 1980s, but this particular form of unity seems to be an exception which only serves to prove the general rule. The author gives some examples of how this segregation functions in the chapter ‘United against Unity’. The author then draws the readers attention to the fact that identity politics is primarily based upon biological criteria and not economic class. In this way modern petite-bourgois ‘left’ ideology, by concentrating on unity of skin-colour, biological gender, sexual orientation, disability etc., ignores or bypasses the underlying socio-economic system of capital which fundamentally divides humanity by economic class.
He therefore argues, correctly in my view, that the lefts eager acceptance of identity politics produces a form of sectarianism and that this commitment has rendered it’s adherents incapable of being an effective oppositional force to ‘capital accumulation’ or the ‘dominance’ of Mammon. By this strategy, the Left, he suggests, have separated themselves from the bulk of the ordinary people. Furthermore, the current domination of biological characterisations of humanity has also led to the simplistic identification of many oppressed working people as ‘privileged whites’! In this way identity politics has functioned to divert public discourse away from the fact that most white-workers are also precarious wage-slaves, have long been so and are therefore far from being privileged in any real sense. In general I agree with this assessment but arrive at it from a different and almost opposite line of reasoning.
In my view it is the liberal ‘lefts’ firm ideological support for capital accumulation and Mammon that in the modern era leaves it with no other form of political expression than identity politics. This is also nothing new. The historic mission of petite-bourgeois liberalism and social democracy has been to attempt to prevent (or rescue) the capitalist mode of production from wallowing in its own worst symptoms and to protect it from those who wish to supercede it by a revolutionary transformation.
During the 19th century, significant numbers of Left liberals and social-democrats in Europe, for example, chose nationalism and later, sections of the same political milieu, supported national socialism during the 20th century. Both times this was accompanied by militarily armed geographical expansion in order to save capital from its internal and international contradictions. From a working class perspective, their backing of that strategy twice spectacularly backfired in two world wars of genocidal destruction. Unemployment was replaced by military employment, further hardship and of course millions dead. However, this whole-sale human and material destruction did allow the system of capital accumulation to be rebooted during the various post-war reconstructions and expansions. This post-war period also served to create an illusion that capitalism had changed for the better.
So in my opinion too, identity politics has added to and perpetuated the range of biologically-orientated distinctions devised by the ruling elites, to split humanity into manageable sub-groups pitted against each other. So from this perspective, it is now ok for black workers to see white workers as the main problem, for female workers to see male workers as the main problem, for gay workers to view straight workers as the main problem and so on. Again in my opinion, exclusive focus and stress on these important but secondary characteristics of suffering humanity takes attention away from our common humanity and our common economic exploitation and oppression under the domination of capital. But that is not all. Gilad Atzmon usefully points out that some of these identity – politics criticisms of patriarchal prejudice have been cleverly used (co-opted) by the neoconservatives and Zionists to provide a moral fig leaf for the invasion of Afghanistan and the confrontation with Palestinians and Russia.
In a later section, the author draws attention to the repression of inconvenient events and the related evidence in the historical records of most countries. It is ‘no wonder’, the author suggests, that ‘a sincere investigative historian is often perceived as a public enemy’. As the author also asserts “The past is dangerous territory; it contains some inconvenient stories.” It certainly does. And it is not only the past which is hazardous to explore. The radical criticism of the present is also dangerous territory and exposure of inconvenient stories linked to the capitalist mode of production and it’s supportive institutions also brings ‘public enemy’ status. Witness the recent treatment of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange and remember these are the tip of a huge iceberg of punitive measures against critics and whistle-blowers who put the exposure of unfairness and injustice above self-interest.
Jewish Identity Politics.
For those who do not know that the author is also an extremely talented musician of Jewish origin, it may come as a surprise that he is so knowledgeable and critical about Jewish ideology and politics. However, once it is understood that he is humanist supporter of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination against the Zionist State of Israel, then his viewpoint cannot be surprising. He is tireless in his criticism of the tribal mentality of those who subscribe to Jewishness and their ties to the dispossesion of Palestinian land and resources. His first book ‘The Wandering Who’ (also reviewed on this blog) provides much detail on the question of Zionism, Israel and Jewishness and in many of the pages of this latest book he fearlessly returns to the same topic and what has been described as the ‘The Jewish Century’ by Yuri Slezkine. He points out that many Jewish intellectuals are openly proud of Jewish positions of power, wealth and influence, but adds the following caviat;
“The real power of the Jews is to silence criticism of Jewish power.” (page 144)
He goes on to outline how Left Jewish intellectuals are in the vanguard of those who wish to silence criticism of the connective tissues between Jewishness, Zionism, and the Apartheid state of Israel. In a later section of the book he examines the concept of the Bell Curve in relation to the concentration of individuals of Jewish birth in intellectual and financial affairs. [The bell curve was a diagramatic representation of a suggested division of social groups into three categories based upon alleged cognitive ability; ie. low ability, average ability and high ability. RR]
His conclusion is that the particular features of Jewish educational and social traditions meant that the high ability elites within Judaism were concentrated in finance and scholarship. From this he reasons that Jewish people are particularly suited to a mode of production (as is the case under capitalism) in which these two realms of endeavour provide access to wealth and elite status. This explains their disproportional representation in these two areas of modern life. He writes;
“Jewish elites were uniquely suited to succeed in mammon and scholarship – not only were they often more sophisticated in certain fields, they were also far more clannishly organised than their European counterparts.”(page 164.)
Although using different language and lines of thinking, this view does come close to Marx’s position regarding the adopted role of many Jews in the development of merchant capital and the rise and domination of finance capital. Marx in a short article pointed out that with or without Jewish cooperation money had become not just a means of exchange, but a world power. It was merely logical that those Jews who where able, welcomed and absorbed this power into their own lives. Marx summed it up in the following way;
“Judaism could create no new world; it could only draw the new world creations and relations, within the orbit of its activity…..” (Marx. ‘On the Jewish Question. Section 2.)
For a good deal of this book I was with the author in spirit as well as in most opinions. My initial assessment was that as far as it went the book was soundly based but that in some aspects it did not go far enough and in others it went too far. However, on reflection, a few points were just too important for me to ignore. To my mind, the concept of ‘big capital’ used by the author to account for negative contemporary economic problems represented something of an uneccessary regression. So too, the idea in the chapter on ‘Mammonism vs Production’, that capitalist production can be separated from Mammonism (!) and be often viewed as ‘healthy’. In my view this is wrong, and such abstractions will not help the reader to adequately understand the domination of finance-capital and its incestuous relationship with globalised industrial and commercial capital. It is the absolute and relative control of the mode of production by these inter-related branches of capital which in my view has created, the five-fold nature of the current crisis facing humanity. [See the ‘Five-fold Crisis of Capitalism’ on this blog.]
In this same chapter the author claims not only that ‘capitalist production is often healthy’ but also that ‘capitalism facilitated prosperity’ and that ‘capitalism was a positive force’. It must be said that such claims are frequently made by apologists for, and defenders of, the capitalist mode of production and for this reason it surprises me to find them in this book. Taken as a whole since its inception, capitalism has never facilitated prosperity, except for a privileged few. The industrial revolution, ushered in by the owners of capital, was accompanied with an extended period of poverty and devastation for generations of ordinary working people in the European heartlands of capital.
Even the short – lived and narrowly spread boom times for European and North American workers in the 1950s and 60s (as noted above) only came about as a result of two capitalist inspired devastating wars (nothing positive there) and was achieved at the expense of the degradation and impoverishment of the rest of the workers of the world (very little positive there either). In addition, capitalist production is the most unhealthy system ever created by humanity. Its negative environmental and ecological pollution impact is second to none and it’s food production methods are arguably the most toxic and dangerous to human health ever invented.
However, it is also where it goes too far which unfortunately requires a further critical rebuttal. For me, the problem arises, when Gilad appears to disrespect Marx, rather than just the ‘Marxist’ distorters of Marx’s revolutionary-humanism. For example, in regard to the acceptance of certain ideas in the West, the author asks why this has occurred and then includes the following phrase;
“….Marx and his crude misinterpretation of Hegelian dialectics..” (page 103)
The mentioning of these two great thinkers (Marx and Hegel) in the same sentence and using such a dismissive expression with regard to Marx, cannot be allowed to go without further comment on this blog or its assumption remain uncontested. There is so much ‘borrowed thinking’ within modern economic and political discourse, that readers of this book may be tempted to accept such a common and prejudiced assessment of Marx. That would be an unfortunate mistake. In my opinion, no one who has extensively read Marx would wish to string together such a sequence of words.
A reading of the three volumes of Capital, the three volumes of notes on surplus-value, along with the 1844 manuscripts, the Grundrisse and his criticism of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, let alone his extensive political writings cannot be undertaken without arriving at the conclusion that whenever Marx ventured on research and offered an opinion it was far from crude. Indeed, the consiencious reader of Marx, I suggest, cannot fail to be struck by the detailed complexity of his researches and the equal profundity of his conclusions. The same applies to his interpretation of Hegel. However, don’t take my word for it. Just read Marx’s own words with regard to Hegel.
“The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly thirty years ago…But just as I was working at the first volume of ‘Das Capital’, it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre (commentators) ..to treat Hegel in the same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing’s time treated Spinoza ie as a ‘dead dog’. I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there , in the chapter on the theory of value, coquette with modes of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present it’s general form of working in a comprehensive manner. (Marx. Preface to the Second Edition of Das Capital.)
I have included such a long extract so the reader can judge for themselves whether Marx’s view of Hegel was crude and whether he was disrespectful of the contribution Hegel (the “mighty thinker”) had made to dialectical analysis and criticism. Karl Popper, who the author later favourably mentions, for example was much more scathing of Hegel, claiming that he was a kind of missing link between the authoritarian Plato and modern forms of totalitarianism. It has long been my own advice to readers, never to take the prejudicial words of any author or speaker, without first checking any possible primary evidence for themselves. I have provided some, here and on this blog (see Marxists versus Marx), but there are others for those so inclined. Unfortunately, that was not the only reference to Marx which I consider needs challenging. In my opinion a further implied criticism of Marx by the author of ‘Being and Time’ is contained within the following words.
“The less Marx’s thought is able to predict events, the more ardent the Marxist disciples are;” (page 105)
The first part of this assertion seems to assume that Marx was in the business of prediction. In essence this implication is repeated on page 107 so it seems the authors opinion on this proposition is seriously held. However, in my opinion this too is mistaken. For a start; Marx’s thoughts were never aimed at creating predictions, but aimed at detailed description and analysis and (as we shall see later) a criticism of everything that exists. If those who claim to follow in Marx’s footsteps try to use his analyses as a means of predicting events, then this was not of Marx’s doing and it merely proves that they, along with far too many others, have not understood either Marx’s methods or his purposes.
Even Marx’s general conclusions suggesting repeated economic and financial crises for capitalism were presented as tendencies, given the developing circumstances – not as predictions. He knew (and frequently remarked upon the fact) that unforseen or unknown circumstances could alter future outcomes in both economics and politics. His examination of social and economic contradictions and tendencies was merely one aspect of the materialist dialectic he did much to develop. Nevertheless, despite multifarious attempts to discredit Marx, the economic and financial tendencies including potential economic and financial crises he outlined are still working themselves out as the 1890s, 1930s and the 2008 crises demonstrate. After 2008, even neo-liberal economists were forced to admit that in general Marx had been proved right.
Karl Marx and the criticism of everything.
So in this new book, Gilad Atzmon is correctly (in my opinion) severely critical of the Marxists who inhabit the restricted world of sectarian and dogmatic politics, however he perhaps unintentionally joins the liberal establishment (who he elsewhere severely criticises) and unfairly extends that criticism to Marx himself. Of course it should be well known by now that Marx before he died frequently criticised those who claimed to be Marxists and declared in writing he was ‘not a Marxist’. Furthermore, it should be born in mind that although Marx could only take in the evidence and resources available at the time he was always alert for (and open to) reassessing his opinions in the light of new evidence or changed circumstances. Having said that, Marx’s economic, social and political research on and analysis of the capitalist mode of production was outstanding at the time and has still not been bettered in my opinion.
Here is another relevant point with regard to Marx and criticism. Very early in his career as a revolutionary-humanist, Karl Marx in a letter to a collaborator wrote the following;
“– I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of it own conclusions, nor conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx. Letter to Ruge 1843.)
I suggest in this regard, that Gilad Atzmon is also closer to some of Marx’s revolutionary-humanist motivations than he perhaps realises. And incidentally this suggestion by Marx is in keeping with the observation by Karl Popper (mentioned by the author) on refutation. To paraphrase Popper; if it is science it must be refutable, if it is not refutable it is not science. For Marx, criticism of everything that exists, implies that what exists is refutable and moreover – ought to be refuted – by rigorous criticism. To my mind, despite the authors preference shown to Heidegger over Marx, the author of ‘Being In Time’ is not really at one with Heideggers abstract philosophical jargon and purpose in ‘Being and Time’.
I suggest he is closer to the above-noted, life-long attitude proposed by Marx for he too is not afraid of challenging the most basic assumptions and prejudices of those on the left and the right. This includes his challenge and refutation of the pretentions of the most powerful interests such as the Israeli intellectual and political class along with their supporters in the Jewish community. In his first book, and in this one, he engages in a ruthless criticism of the established sectarian ‘left’ and the various supporters of the Israeli state, caring little for the opinions of the powers that be.
Heideggers’ concepts including ‘Being’ and ‘Time’.
Since the author seems to admire the philosophical positions of Martin Heidegger rather than Marx, and given that not all readers of his book (and this review) will be familiar with Heidegger, it is worth presenting a couple of short extracts, from numerous examples, of what I personally consider are Hedegger’s ‘newspeak’ word inventions and fog-encrusted abstractions. First;
“World is present insofar as it worlds. That is, the worlding of the world is neither explainable in terms of others nor can it be ground in others.” (Heidegger. ‘The Thing’.)
“Being, by which all beings are marked as such, Being means being present. Considered with regard to what is present, being present shows itself as letting-be-present. But now we must try to consider this letting-be-present explicitly insofar as being present is allowed. Letting-be-present shows its own – most character in bringing into unconcealement.” (Heidegger. ‘Time and Being’.)
‘Worlding of the world’; ‘letting-be-present’; ‘unconcealement’, ‘lostness’, ‘thrownness’and many other such obscure, made-up words and phrases are the main substance and content of Hedegger’s writings. It cannot be surprising, therefore, that many people, including other philosophers, considered Heideggers work fancy-full, dominated by Jargon, and self-indulgent. Whether such reactions and responses were entirely justified or not is a matter of opinion, but it needs to be recognised that Heidegger offered the following typically convoluted observation of his own kind of abstract reasoning.
“It might be that this kind of thinking is today placed in the position which demands of it reflections that are far removed from any useful, practical wisdom.” (Heidegger. ‘On Time and Being’)
Having read (and now re-read) quite a lot by Heidegger I cannot but agree with his own provisional assessment. However, despite the critical comments I have made, this book by Gilad Atzmon, is far from replicating Heideggers abstract way of thinking. In contrast it is useful and practical. I would go even further and claim that it is not only a useful contribution to a clearer understanding of the political world we encounter today but an extremely important one. It deserves to be on the bookshelves or electronic devices of all those who are not afraid to challenge their own perceptions or the dominant ideology perpetuated in the mainstream media.
Finally, I should say that I also offer this review, in the collaborative spirit advocated by the above noted Karl Popper. Eg.
“Reason like science grows by mutual criticism.” (K. Popper. ‘The Open Society and it’s Enemies.’ Volume 2 page 226.)
I would merely include ‘respectful’ within the concept and practice of ‘mutual criticism’.