Thursday, December 31, 2009

Schwarzmantel 1

What's a neo-Gramscian Marxist to do these days? John Schwarzmantel, a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Leeds, has a plan. As it happens, an interesting plan.

He wants social change. So he looks at society today and asks what the dominant ideology is. His answer? Liberalism. He sees liberalism as having "ideological hegemony".

He then sets out what he hopes is an effective "counter-ideology" to liberalism.

A vulgarised liberalism?

Schwarzmantel believes that liberalism as a philosophy is based on a vision of a society of fully self-determining individuals. In its vulgarised, ideological form, however, it presents itself in terms of individual choice and the free market.

I'd accept much of this. Notice, though, that Schwarzmantel emphasises here a free market, right-liberalism as the reigning ideology. This makes it sound as if left-liberalism is, at best, the junior partner in the making of modern society.

Nor is it such as surprise that a philosophy which emphasises individual self-determination should then make individual choice one of its ideological planks. This doesn't seem like a corruption of the original vision to me, but a kind of logical fulfilment.

Here's Schwarzmantel himself:

... it is liberalism which is the dominant ideology (p.1)

... the dominance of liberalism as ideology has been purchased at the expense of its theoretical sophistication and intellectual depth ... (p.3)

... What passes for liberalism is a rather crude ideology of individual choice, individual rights and an uncritical view of what one author calls 'market-driven politics' (Leys, 2001) ...

... liberalism as a critical ideology has in its vulgarised 'ideological' form lost that critical edge, and abandoned its vision of a society of fully self-determining individuals ... (p.4)

Narrowing of politics?

One thing that concerns Schwarzmantel is that liberal ideology has succeeded in discouraging a commitment to the public sphere.

Liberalism (I claim) has won out as an ideology, an ideology which sees fulfilment above all as lying in the private sphere. As Benjamin Constant noted in his famous lecture on the liberty of the ancients and moderns, 'our freedom must consist of peaceful enjoyment and private independence' ... the dominance of contemporary liberalism as ideology has given liberalism a strong push towards attitudes valorising the private sphere, primarily that of consumption, and maintaining a detached, even cynical, attitude to public spheres of political activity. (p.5)

I think he's right. This is a problem not only for neo-Gramscian Marxists seeking new mass political movements, but also for traditionalists seeking to organise opposition to modernist politics.

He also believes that people have lost interest in politics because liberalism itself has swallowed up the opposition in the act of becoming hegemonic:

Traditional conservatism is not a strong contender ... the same is true of statist socialism in the period following the collapse of the USSR ... So what then is left, as ideological planks on which parties in liberal-democratic systems base their appeal?

The answer is various versions of liberalism ... Liberalism ... has absorbed the critique of other historically influential ideologies, at times taking on board a dose of social democracy to reduce the harshness of classic liberalism of the Manchester school. By the same token, those ideologies critical of liberalism, like conservatism, have entered on liberal terrain by abandoning or downplaying their own distinctive traditions ...

Other formerly more critical ideologies have adapted themselves to this vulgarised liberalism, which has been able to present itself as an ideology of freedom, choice, diversity, and thus capture if not public enthusiasm then at least acceptance as 'the only game in town'.

This then gives rise to a very impoverished spectrum of ideological and political debate ... this reduces the interest and attraction of politics and the public sphere. (pp. 5-7)

Although I don't agree on all particulars here, it's a better analysis than we usually get from the left. There's a recognition that mainstream conservatism has effectively given up a principled opposition to liberalism  (and has become part of the liberal orthodoxy); there's a recognition too that traditional conservatism is one of the possible principled alternatives to liberalism (if it were more prominent).

There's a lot more of interest in Schwarzmantel's article, but I'll leave this for a future post.

9 comments:

  1. Interesting post.

    Mark, you say that,

    Nor is it such a surprise that [liberalism] which emphasises individual self-determination should then make individual choice one of its ideological planks. This doesn't seem like a corruption of the original vision to me, but a kind of logical fulfilment.

    And then you explain that Schwarzmantel is disappointed by moderns' lack of public spirit.

    I agree with you that individual choice is a logical outcome of liberalism's deification of the Individual Will, but I wonder if we can explain both Schwarzmantel's objection and the seeming contradiction you pointed out in your last post (liberals' objecting to some of our individual choices) by remembering the leftist nature of liberalism.

    If liberalism, like all leftist, anti-traditional orders, believes that the traditional order is corrupted and oppressive, then they should believe that all decisions, even individual ones, which are inspired by that order are also corrupted and oppressive.

    From there, it's not hard to see why liberal judges might strike down such decisions or a non-liberal leftist might bemoan most moderns' individual choices as a betrayal of the core, leftist nature of liberalism: the re-ordering of the larger, public order. Both liberals and this leftist recognize that moderns' choices, although individually made, are often not individually inspired. These moderns may be using procedural liberalism to live their lives, but this is a hollow victory for liberals and leftists in general who don't want us just to change the way we reach traditionally-inspired decisions but rather want us to reach different, "individual" or leftist decisions altogether.

    I wonder, does Schwarzmantel invoke the familiar leftist construct of "false consciousness" anywhere in his paper to explain the contradiction between moderns' behavior and an "uncorrupted" liberalism's expectations?

    ReplyDelete
  2. A further example of modern liberals' objecting to individual decisions, even when made in the public sphere because those decisions are traditionally rather than individually/anti-traditionally inspired is the aftermath of the minaret ban in Switzerland.

    Every liberal politician in Europe, allowing for the unprincipled exceptions of a few Sarkos, has taken a strong, public position against the ban. And many liberals, not just leftists, have even questioned the procedurally very liberal referendum method precisely because in this case it served as a vehicle for a very traditionally-inspired decision.

    Liberalism is not a mere procedure but rather first and foremost a new social order. We should not be surprised then if liberals suspend procedural liberalism to further their social plan. That's why I also think it makes sense that non-liberal leftists like Schwarzmantel criticize liberalism when it seems to allow procedural liberalism to trump the social plan.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That liberalism destroys any committment to the public square, i.e., committment to sacrifice one's own wealth and time for the good of the community, is a logical outcome of that particular creed.

    Liberalism thus goes hand in hand with multiculturalism, which also destroys any committemnt to the public good. A person will commit homself to defending his own way of life, his family and the extended family of the community and the nation, only as long as that nation is committed to his way of life.

    Carrying that committement to the extreme, I predict, unless the current paradigm is overthrown, that we will see greater reluctance of British and Australian soldiers ready to lay down their lives, when all they will be defending is a Sharia Britain or Australia.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "I wonder, does Schwarzmantel invoke the familiar leftist construct of "false consciousness" anywhere in his paper to explain the contradiction between moderns' behavior and an "uncorrupted" liberalism's expectations?"

    - Batholomew

    I didn't see it in there. His new ideology seems to be socialism with added emphasis on women's rights and what he calls "ecologism". To me those two things seem like merely taking Liberalism to the next step. Of course, he says he doesn't like people not being involved with the social sphere and not "self developing", but I think he only thinks he doesn't like that. What happens when they "develop" in a way he doesn't like?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Rob said,

    Of course, he says he doesn't like people not being involved with the social sphere and not "self developing", but I think he only thinks he doesn't like that.

    OK, but why?

    If Schwarzmantel has a specific vision of society (for example, feminist, "ecological" etc.) why would he approve of choices--even by individuals--that undermine that vision? Put another way, if Schwarzmantel's vision for society requires public sphere cooperation, why would he approve of individuals' choice to withdraw into the private sphere?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Bartholomew:
    "non-liberal leftists like Schwarzmantel"

    If he were based in the USA, though, he would call himself a "liberal progressive". He sounds a lot like my Gramscian colleagues at work. They are happy enough that cultural Marxism has triumphed culturally, but not so happy that we still have a free market capitalist economy, hence the grouching. But that of course was the whole point of cultural Marxism - avoid direct conflict with the capitalists while hollowing out the culture. They want people to be communitarian, but joined with the right-liberal capitalists in destroying all basis of community.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Excellent comments.

    Simon is right. Schwarzmantel in his article is clearly opposed to the continuing role of the free market. So in this sense he is a leftist attacking a "right wing' ideology. But he's smart enough to recognise that what he's attacking is not a traditional conservatism but liberalism (he doesn't use the word but he's effectively attacking right-liberalism).

    ReplyDelete
  8. Simon wrote:

    "But that of course was the whole point of cultural Marxism - avoid direct conflict with the capitalists while hollowing out the culture. They want people to be communitarian, but joined with the right-liberal capitalists in destroying all basis of community."

    What shits me about right liberals is that they're willing to surrender so much provided they're left alone and can still go about making money.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Jesse wrote,

    What shits me about right liberals is that they're willing to surrender so much provided they're left alone and can still go about making money.

    You nailed it, man. They're cold, vicious and greedy.

    I was never tempted by Marxism because I hated the idea of taking something from someone else that I hadn't earned. It's wrong. But it was also unmanly, almost insect. I used to think the right-libs' opposition to Marxism was because they felt the same way.

    But whom was I kidding--why should the right-libs care about "manhood" as long as personhood pays the same?

    ReplyDelete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.