‘Negativity and Democracy: Marxism and the Critical Theory Tradition’ by Vasilis Grollios reviewed by Cristopher Morales Bonilla

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Cristopher Morales Bonilla obtained his PhD in philosophy in 2013 at the University of Barcelona …

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Although it may seem otherwise, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School tradition has had a rather indirect relationship with theories of democracy. There are no abundant direct treatments of this topic in the work of its early members, and perhaps with the exception of Marcuse, its treatment is more of a questioning of certain very specific aspects of liberal representative democracy, which today often seems to be taken as an immutable form of political organization.

Without a doubt, the place theorists of the Frankfurt School have given to democratic theory is provided by the experience of German fascism. Despite their fierce criticism of western democracies,a formidable reality they faced was fascism. Concentration camps and the murder of millions of Jews were two key elements to which a theory of democracy seemed to be put behind.

On the other hand, critical theory understood that offering a positive program of social transformation was likely to limit the free development of negativity, the deployment of those critical intellectual forces that posed a threat to domination and fascism. On the basis of the critique of identity thinking, any closed and detailed model of an alternative world had to fall by definition in a system similar to that of totalitarianism.

However, within Negativity and Democracy: Marxism and the Critical Theory, Vasilis Grollios tries to rescue what he considers to be a tradition within critical theory of questioning of bourgeois democracy and of the proposal of an alternative world, a practical realisation of utopia. To do this, Grollios reconstructs that tradition which started in Marx’s critique of bourgeois democracy in the second half of the nineteenth century proceeding until the later contributions of Frankfurt School authors Herbert Marcuse and Ernst Bloch.

It is apt that in this type of reconstruction Marx is situated as the founder of critical theory. Marx was the first to apply a varied form of the Hegelian dialectic to social and material problems. In the history of philosophy he is the first attempt to grasp an entirely materialist theory of society in which all its possibilities comes from an radical immanent analysis of social contradictions. As such, trying to reconstruct Marx’s theory of democracy constitutes one big problem of Negativity and Democracy: if such critical theory is intended to be a materialist critique of the living conditions that make up society and the individuals which comprise it, then Marx’s critique of bourgeois democracy in the second half of the nineteenth century simply serves to clarify the origin of this theory without explaining the fundamental aspects of the crisis of western democracies today.

The reason for this deficiency of reconstruction is precisely the big difference between the material conditions in which Marx develops his theory and our own. If Marx’s critique was located in a highly technologically industrialized capitalism orientated towards the production of commodities, today we face a capitalism that every time receives fewer and fewer benefits from commodity production, and more and more through fictitious capital such that the relationship between capital and labour is increasingly inscribed by other types of social relations (e.g. gender, national, linguistic, cultural, etc.).

At the same time however, this is one of the greatest merits of Negativity and Democracy: to rescue the idea that Marx’s critique is not only determined by the capital-labour relationship but that it is also a commitment to democracy. In other words, while readings which had understood that the contradictions between productive forces and production relations composed a fundamental field of development of negativity, Marx explains that these are connected in turn by struggles for the conquest of social and political rights, which is frequently forgotten by a certain Marxian economism for which the transformation of ownership relations of the means of production appeared as sufficient for the abolition of capitalism.

Another merit of the book is to have a broader framework from which to develop the reconstruction of Marx’s theory of democracy. Grollios takes the logic of the perverted, inverted and topsy-turvy world of Volume 3 of Das Kapital to obtain a different focus for democratic theory. If Volume 1 is determined by the circuit of M-M’, the idea of the topsy-turvy world puts the issues not at the level of the critique of political economy but on terms of the consequences of that critique. In other words, to substitute political economy for a new version of that critique of alienation, already presented in the 1844 Manuscripts, Grollios escapes from the vulgarities of twentieth century Marxism, especially the Soviet version of it, for which all social problems could be reduced to the terms and concepts of classical political economy. With this new ground adopted by Grollios, social problems cannot be viewed just with the conceptual tools developed by Marx in Volume 1 of Das Kapital.

In other words, although one of the main traits Grollios highlights in all of the authors of the book, it is still a too abstract point of view. The element of immanent critique, so well explained in Grollios’ section on Adorno, and which can be seen as one of the axes of the reconstruction of the theory of democracy, is still a concept that works only in the field of theory. It is not a practical one. To give one example, in the section on Lukács the already mentioned reconstruction of his theory of democracy lacks explanation on the relationship between the preponderance of the Communist Party and the role it had in the first decades of the twentieth century, and more particularly within the context of the Russian Revolution.

But we could see the problem also in the reconstruction of the Frankfurt School Grollios presents. Having here the critique of identity thinking as the pivotal point from which to make the reconstruction, the theoretical approach is ill-suited to influence practical action. Although concepts of praxis could have been useful for new theoretical perspectives on democracy, they are hard-pressed to be derived out of this theoretical framework.

What must be understood here is that there is a possibility to rethink the reconstruction Grollios makes in Negativity and Democracy beyond the history of social practices that have been conceptualized here in a too theoretical manner. What if, for instance, we establish the necessary connection between every single concept presented in the book as the result of a concrete, historical and immanent process? What does it mean, for example, to establish the necessity of the criticisms of capitalism by Horkheimer and Adorno even in the midst of the defeat of real socialism as itself a real alternative to capitalism?

In sum, the necessary reconstruction of the theory of democracy made by Grollios, while a tool for emancipatory change, seems underused. Keeping the history of concepts of practical change to an inner field of philosophical thought, diminishes their great power under a conceptual control that fails to let them become practical concepts. But even more: a strictly philosophical and theoretical treatment of concepts such as immanent critique, capital or democracy won’t allow them to become historical practices, real and material social relations, institutions, concrete struggles and conflicts, all real processes that occur to real people. To do this, critical theory, and philosophy in general, would have to return to the conviction that what is important, as Marx said, is not to simply interpret the world but to change it.

17 April 2019

11 comments

  1. The Marxian ideal, as I have understood it, is a stateless society — in short, a self-governing society without the state and its apparatuses. Marx envisages the ultimate disappearance or abolition of the state after the infrastructures have been suitably transformed and reconstituted under socialism or communism. In the final analysis, the election of people’s representatives by popular vote within a bourgeois social formation makes no difference to the people. Representation through elections is only a mode of transfer of power from people to the rulers, to the state. The situation may improve if the representatives work for the people like other professional workers and (b) can be recalled if they fail to do their duty. This does not happen in reality, as we know. True democracy can arrive only of a society is self-governing and based on equality and pluralism. Global capitalism operating alongside the system of competing/hostile nation-states will not permit any move towards these ideals.

  2. I agree that for Marx and Engels an ultimate goal was the abolition of the state, in favour of self-managing people regulating and governing their own lives, together.

    However since competition and rivalry are a feature of all imaginable forms of society, this would mean that competition and rivalry would have to take forms that did not produce any serious *conflicts of interest* at any level. But that is obviously not how competition and rivalry are structured at present or in the foreseeable future. At best we can say that Marx’s ideal is something that one might want to try to approximate.

    It is simply false to suggest, that popular democracy in bourgeois society makes “no difference” to the people. Take Brexit for example. At the very least, bourgeois democracy enables the people to vote representatives whom they disagree with, out, and to replace them with other ones, which is not possible under a true dictatorship or militarized oligarchy.

    It is also false to suggest, that representative democracy simply “transfers” power from the people to representatives. The people still have a lot of potential power, irrespective of which representatives they choose to elect, because they can give or refuse their support or cooperation, in ways large and small. Representatives do work for the people, and they can be voted out of power, if they don’t. If representatives and public servants do not obey the law, or do not honour their obligations, they can be ousted.

    If “true democracy can arrive only of a society is self-governing and based on equality and pluralism”, this still involves majority rule, which involves the principle that the minority must accept the decision of the majority, even if it conflicts with the interest of the minority. It moreover assumes, that the masses are always correct in their opinions about the general interest, but this may not be the case.

    The point about the “ideal communism” is, that it would *transcend* democracy, since there simply would not be any conflict between a majority and a minority. In actual fact, there would be no space for politics whatever, since there would be no conflicts of interest, only different interests which are at least compatible, and at most complementary.

    Politics exist precisely, *because* there are conflicts of interest, rooted in competition and rivalry, which have to be resolved through a workable compromise thought to be in the interest of all. Anybody who does not understand this, doesn’t understand anything about politics at all. Political understanding involves, understanding what conflicting interests are at stake.

    If global capitalism will not permit any advance to the communist ideals, it is simply unrealistic to expect that any advance to those ideals will occur at all, ever. The new society can never be born, if there are not even any potentials and forces for it, latently present in the old society. In that case, it is misguided to picture a utopia that can never be achieved.

    Part of the failure of the Left, I think, is to believe that more democracy at all levels is a general panacea to cure all the ills of society. This is simply not true, in the first instance because there is simply no guarantee that democratic participation will solve the problems of society in the best interest of all.

    Democratic decision-making can be efficient, but it can also be terribly inefficient, and fail to produce good decisions for the good of all. It is efficient, if all concerned are very aware of everything that is at stake, and agree on the priorities that serve the common good. But that may not be the case, among other things because in a democracy anybody can in principle be elected, irrespective of their knowledge or competency.

    If we want to get really serious about democracy, we have to understand very much about how life in modern capitalist society is in reality organized, in all respects, and consider how things could be much better organized. Yet we often don’t know much about that. Why?

    When I was looking at the *general theory* of the foundations of human cooperation, I found that the valid theoretical literature on it is remarkably small. Okay, there are anthropologists delving into it, but they rarely produce any general treatises. Why is that? You might say, it is because bourgeois ideology is obsesssed with competition. But this is most likely not a very good answer.

    A more likely answer is, that the whole issue of cooperation in capitalist society is primarily a task of management, the managers of the state, private enterprises and nonprofits, within the legal framework which exists. And Marxists have rarely acknowledged, that all human societies are structured by principles of both cooperation and competition, voluntary and involuntary. They have rarely stood still, to grasp what that truly means. It is true that there exists a literature on “game theory”, but it often abstracts from the realities that people face in real life, with assumption so far removed from reality, that they cannot do justice to the real world.

    All managers face the problem, of uniting the people they are responsible for to work together to achieve the aims of their organization. And they have the power and a mandate to decide, about how that is best achieved. And so the whole problem of cooperation becomes a management issue, about which there exists a huge literature, with new fashions popping up every year. The common assumption of that literature is, that you have the power to decide, that you are in a management position, but what if this is not the case?

    Why there is a huge management literature, is probably best explained by the fact that management tasks differ a great deal, depending on the kind of activity that managers are concerned with. And what the central problems are, changes all the time. It is therefore difficult to extract any principles of cooperation from the literature that are universally applicable. And if there exists universal competition and rivalry, then the principles of cooperation we might extract are often so abstract, that it is likely that they have only limited relevance in real life, or are flouted in practice.

    What this kind of analysis I am making leads to, is just the idea that in order to make progress, leftwing critics of the status quo not only have to forge a new morality for how things ought to be organized, but also invent new ways of organizing things that work much better, in the sense that things really function better, and provide people with what they need. It can be done, I think, but not by telling the story as I am doing right now, but by being the story. And being the story is not simply a matter of protest but an alternative. That may be a terribly difficult undertaking, but it is the only one that will get results.

    The general conclusion of this drift of thinking is just that the Left has to go beyond abstract philosophical and ideological blather about democracy and communism. The devil is in the details. It is not just about abstract principles. It is about the concrete actions which can give real effect to the principles. Anybody can fail in that, but the chance and the opportunity also exists to succeed.

    As regards the Frankfurt School, the basic presumption that Horkheimer had, was that Marx had already provided the theory of the economic base of bourgeois society, and that the task was to theorize the superstructures of bourgeois society, through a critique of the prevailing ideas about that.

    The problem with that approach was, that (1) Marx never provided a theory of the whole of the bourgeois economy, he focused only on its characteristic mode of production, and (2) the Frankfurt critique of the prevailing ideas about the superstructures of bourgeois society often failed, because it either accepted without good reason some crucial assumptions of the ruling ideas, or substituted an alternative which was hardly credible. They thought that they were criticizing the ruling ideas, although in reality they were espousing ideas that large parts of society were already tending towards. The Frankfurters imagined that they were freeing themselves of the ruling ideas, while they were being absorbed by them. About that, some more another time.

    1. Jurriaan Bendien engages in a ‘close reading’ of the few lines I wrote, but unfortunately not always getting the meaning right. Fiery polemicism has its own risks. My point, stated in commonsensical language, was simple: That there cannot be ‘true democracy’ until the separation/contradiction between the political state and civil society disappears. “In modern times,’ wrote Marx, ‘the French have understood this to mean that the political state disappears in a true democracy.’
      Stating an ideal is one thing, recognising the obstacles to its realisation at a particular conjuncture is another. Given the stranglehold of global capitalism under western hegemony and domination alongside the division of the world into nation-states, the march towards the Marxian ideal seems extremely difficult. But history is not predictable and, confronted with an unforeseen crisis, any existing system can collapse. Marxists need to seriously ponder over the modes of transition to post-capitalism and engage in honest praxis to bring it about.
      Having said that let me cite some of Marx’s views on bourgeois, liberal, or representative democracy:
      ‘The deputies of civil society are constituted into an assembly and only in this assembly does the political existence and will of civil society becomes real. The separation of the political state from civil society takes the form of a separation of the deputies from their electors. Society simply deputes elements of itself to become its political existence.’
      Marx continues:
      There is a twofold contradiction: (1) A formal contradiction. The deputies of civil society are a society which is not connected to its electors by any “instruction” or commission. They have a formal authorization but as soon as this becomes real they ease to be authorized. They should be deputies but they are not. (2) A material contradiction. In respect to actual interests… Here we find the converse. They have authority as the representatives of public affairs, whereas they represent particular interests.’
      In the Indian context, the idea of ‘swaraj’, or moral self-government (self -rule and self-reform) was elaborated by the gentle anarchist, Mahatma Gandhi. His writings can surely give us added help in understanding what swaraj is and how to move towards the ideal (even if it is hard to fully realise it).

  3. Sarban, I wasn’t engaging in fiery “polemicism”, just offering some criticism. These days, if you plainly criticize somebody’s views, it is often interpreted as a personal attack, or even an insult – which is an infantilization and a regression of democratic culture – but that is not my intention at all. A few points:

    1. In a modern complex society, i.e. a society with a large population and a complex division of labour, any democratization process cannot avoid democratic centralism, however that is organized with the given technologies available (today, computers can expedite decisionmaking and administration much faster, at lower cost). If say people working and living in area A decide to do X, and people working and living in area B decide to do the exact opposite, then that can easily lead to an unworkable situation. You would get all kinds of different organizations taking all kinds of “democratic decisions” which are completely incompatible with each other. The result would be fragmentation and chaos, rather than efficient cooperation. Hence the need for all to play by the same basic rules, and those rules can only be formulated, enacted and enforced by a central authority. This practical necessity was recognized in all socialist countries that there have been so far. It was just that – this is the liberal criticism – the socialist government had the tendency to simply wipe out political opposition where it occurred, rather than to accommodate it in some way, (according to the idea that any minority must have at least the possibility to have a voice and to become a majority, and that real freedom means freedom for dissent, within the framework of the law). If oppositions were simply wiped out, democracy could only occur, for the most part, within the framework of the ruling party in a one-party state.

    2. The political art of democracy involves that decisions are made at the appropriate level, taking into account those who are really affected by the decisions. You don’t require a parliament to decide on the best timetable for a busroute, for example. Some decisions affecting all citizens have to be made at the highest level, others can be made at lower levels, because that is much more practical and effective. If everybody starts to butt in all the time, and wants the right to vote on every decision that has to be made, you also get an unworkable situation.

    3. The kind of democratic institutions that are most effective and efficient depend completely on how the economy, the state and civil society happen to be organized.
    You provide some quotology about Marx’s views, but what you have to bear in mind is, that in his time, the aegis of the state was very small, government expenditure was to the order of 5-10% of gross product, production and consumption was to a large extent localized, etc.

    4. In developed capitalist societies, the state’s role is much larger than it has ever been before, state expenditure is equal to between 35% and 50% or so of gross product, and a large part of the population is mainly dependent on the state for their livelihood. If revolutionaries “smash the state”, the result would be, that lots of people would die, or would be without means of living. The main contemporary critique is, that in reality decision-making shifts from “government” to “governance”, since often unelected state technocrats work out complex policies which are just rubberstamped by the ruling parliamentary fraction – with ordinary citizens have no real say in the matter, other than electing parliamentarians for a term of three or four years. In some democratic countries is there is also a problem of corruption, where decisions are effective “bought” by various lobbying groups with favours, bribes, donations etc. These are undeniably real problems, but they can be solved only if the citizenry does get politically active, rather than being passive. If the electoral system is simply treated as a market, where people vote on the basis of “what is in it for me”, or do not vote at all, then democracy will not get any better.

    5. The problem today in most democratic societies may not be not so much the “lack of democratic rights” in a legal sense, but that people do not actually use the rights and opportunities that they actually have. The citizenry is just not very politically active on the whole, in the sense of joining parties or grassroots political campaigns. They distrust the political system, because they are dealing with bureaucracies and professional politicians who are far more politically sophisticated and knowledgeable than they are. Ordinary citizens often don’t believe anymore that they can make a difference, because the ruling polity is very agile at sidelining and neutralizing anything they do not want to happen. A realistic political engagement is inspired by the belief, that something has to be done about a problem, and that by doing it, you can make a difference. If people don’t even believe anymore that they can make difference, then they aren’t going to get involved in politics anymore, they may not not even write to the council or the government to state their views. In that case, the problem is not that there is lack of possibility for democratic politics, but that people just do not use the opportunities they have available.

  4. You could of course argue, that there is no need for any central authority to formulate, enact and enforce the basic rules of the game for everybody, because people themselves can do all that, on their own accord. Which is probably true, at least to some extent. Anarchists, syndicalists and libertarians have been arguing this, for at least a hundred and fifty years.

    In such a situation though, what tends to happen is that people abandon the rules, when it suits themselves to do so. or they pretend to follow the rules, while in reality they are doing something else.

    Yes, there are honest players, as well as dishonest and oppportunist players. But if people habitually drop the rule, any time that it does not fit in with their self-interest, then it is not a rule at all, and then the law is an ass – since everything is negotiable and nothing is non-negotiable, without any guarantee that the rights of others will be respected.

    Even in the most aggressive soccer or rugby game, there is still a referee, and if the players do not stick to the rules, there are penalties for that. De referee does not control the game, but he does set the limits of behaviour in the game. You can make plenty moves, but if you go over the limit, there’s a penalty.

    If some musicians in an orchestra decide that they want to play a completely different tune, rather than harmonize with the conductor, the result will be an awful cacaphony. If you want to hear good music, then the players really have to cooperate, with a certain self-discipline, or effortless command of themselves, and a fine ear so they hear what others are playing and can blend in with that.

    When I was a young socialist student, I was highly critical of the state. I got arrested for nothing, protesters got beaten up badly and were in hospital for days, the state robbed the less well-off, to make the rich richer, it promoted environmental destruction etc. Subsequently, when I worked for local and central government, I got to see another side of the story, about what happens in the real world.

    You wouldn’t believe how many people and how often people break the law, to get their own way, in all sorts of ways. You wouldn’t believe how anti-social people can be, in ways large and small. It is described in trails of official documents that stretch back hundreds of years into the past, even although a lot of the offences were not even officially registered.

    Law enforcement can only deal with the worst transgressions, but if this law enforcement was not there, things would be one hell of a lot worse. As soon as the law enforcement is not there, for some reason, the number of incidents rise, even although people may not even report them anymore, because they know it has no effect.

    So if you are ging to talk about “self-government”, then this presupposes, that people are willing/able to be * fair and impartial referees* on their own turf. Because if there is no “policing” in this sense, crime will indeed go from bad to worse, and then, pretty soon, you will be dealing with VERY conservative moods among citizens, to the effect that criminals ought to be expelled or executed when they are caught.

    Who, however, can be an “impartial referee”? Neoliberal nannies wanking on about “identity politics”? Far Left yobbo’s screaming about global warming and legalizing hard drugs? Anarchists claiming the autonomy of the commune? Not very likely.

    How is authority formed, and maintained? How can authority be enforced in a fair way? These are the real questions that need to be answered, and they have to be answered *before* the old order is destroyed or has destroyed itself. Otherwise, the new order will just be a disorder, that is even worse and more unworkable than the previous one.

  5. No, Jurrian, I did not use ‘fiery polemicism’ pejoratively nor did I take your criticism as a personal attack. But I do find your style of writing a bit brash. But it’s all right. Never mind.
    We need to have a clearer vision of the post-capitalist social formation (the end) and of how to bring it about
    (the means). It is undeniable that, as suggested by Marx, a radical transformation of the economy, civil society and the state will be needed in the move towards post-capitalist or truly democratic socialist society. People’s self-rule in all spheres of life will be the defining characteristic of the new society. It is an ideal, a potentiality, the actualisation of which will entail a massive intellectual-political effort on the part of all concerned. Surely, human beings cannot continue to live in a wretched system based on infinite greed, exploitation and inequality (of all kinds) doing violence to humankind and nature alike.

    PS: I did not provide quotology, Jurrian but only two quotes from Marx.

  6. The move towards post-capitalism and self-rule will a long and complex process. Political take-over by socialist forces through a non-violent mass movement will be the pre-requisite for the restructuration of society and its institutions. The movement itself will begin to change popular consciousness. The next steps will be to remould already existing objective structures or invent new ones. Alongside new forms of work, association, organisation, and representation will
    emerge new modes of thought and codes of conduct.
    Political self-rule implies self-control at the individual level – a new sense of moral discipline, responsibility and culture. Does all this appear utopian, naive? well, as E.P. Thompson once remarked, utopianism has some value in ‘educating human desire’. The point for all us is how to move out of and go beyond the dirt called capitalism which constricts human vision and freedom, encourages unbridled hedonistic individualism and generates violence – hidden and not-so-hidden.

    This is all I have to say. Thank you.

  7. Just in case you thought that my comments about democracy and authority were a superficial, punkish quip, I should perhaps note that the liberally enlightened Financial Times editor Martin Wolf recently stressed that US watchdog Freedom House reported in February a “13th consecutive year of decline in the global health of democracy” (Martin Wolf, The age of the elected despot is here”, Financial Times, 23 April 2019). Wolf’s deftly diplomatic story about the vexed topic is actually instructive, because it reveals clearly the mindset of his peers.

    Wolf refers to the worrying popularity of “strongmen” and autocrats like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Donald Trump in the US.

    Of course, because Wolf is a liberal, his explanation for this phenomenon is primarily psychological: it is a psychological response by individuals to all sorts of “factors” whose real interconnection is never made clear. Can this really explain, for example, why Mr Trump was elected, in the “land of the free and home of the brave”?

    According to Wolf’s narrative, there are two main reasons why Trump could conquer the presidency: “One is the strength of the fear and anger. This is partly due to longstanding economic failures, partly to the financial crisis and partly to cultural changes. The other answer is the willingness of parts of the elite to exploit such emotions, to achieve huge tax cuts and eliminate regulation.” Apparently, parts of the elite are just not living up to their previous standards anymore. They are now willing to bet on strongmen and autocrats.

    So according to Wolf it is not the systemic crises of capitalism, the general moral decay of the bourgeoisie, or systems of bourgeois democracy with their electoral forgeries that are at fault. Instead, the emergence of autocrats and strongmen are pictured as a human abberation of, and a deviation from “good” capitalism, “good” elite rule, and “good” democracy, of the type that we had in the past.

    This is hardly credible in the light of the facts, and, unsurprisingly, Wolf’s conclusion about the serious problem he has described is rather insipid. He warns sternly that “Institutions alone will not contain this threat” (the yearning of populist movements for new führers is just too powerfully present). So, he says that we also need faith in the better side of human nature: only “a politics built partly on hope” can “contain” the threat.

    Indeed, “hope” was the theme of Barack Obama’s first election campaign. But, oh boy, now look what happened! And what the world experienced under Obama’s presidency apparently had nothing to do with that! Actually, Trump’s campaign slogan was “making America great again”, which was also a statement of hope, the hope that Trump could make it happen.

    The real point is, that populist movements long ago gave up hope in the system, and they are taking action for an alternative inside and outside of parliaments. If they put their hopes in a strong leader, it is because they hope he can override the problems of the whole system, and in this way will make a positive difference. That is to say, many no longer believe, that the present democratic system can or will deliver any positive change, they are completely cynical and derisive about that.

    Wolf finds that scary, because apparently a lot of the populist riffraff thinks that bourgeois law is pretty much an ass, or a swindle. You have to slash through the legalistic rigmarole, to make progress. This presents a direct and serious threat not only to healthy democratic institutions, but also to the “better parts” of an elite which, being the elite, owns most of the wealth.

    Yet it is precisely these democratic institutions which, in the recent past, failed to deliver any better policy for the majority of the people around the world, people whose food supplies, jobs, incomes, savings, housing situation and pensions were hit hard already, by the disastrous failure of a system of securitized debt that was supposed to create more financial security – a system which was rebuilt after 2009, and which is now even bigger and more dodgy than it was before. Things are starting to fall apart more and more, and even the experts think that it is only a matter of time, before the global financial system fractures.

    We ought to ask, where were the “better parts” of the elite (or the “angels of our better nature”, as Wolf puts it, quoting Abraham Lincoln) when all this was happening? You bet, they were quietly making heaps of money globally, while effectively indebting the population of their own country (which was hardly patriotic of them), courtesy of the government.

    Instead of blaming the system, Wolf implicitly blames certain people – nasty people, gullible people, ignorant people, scared people etc. In this sense, he is himself already captive to the populist moods. No wonder then, that many people blame men like himself, for confusing the issue, and have no hope that people like him can put things right.

    What Wolf reallty implies, is that the populist plebs are, if not irrational deplorables, misguided people who don’t know what’s good for themselves. They are an abberation of an otherwise good social order. That is why he has no rational explanation, for why anti-liberal forces are gaining more and more traction, not just at the grassroots, but within the elites.

    Before the great financial crisis, Wolf sang the praises of globalization. Afterward, he started to talk about “fixing globalization”. Now he no longer thinks there is any “quick fix” anymore. How long will it be, before he reaches the conclusion, that the system cannot be fixed at all, and… joins the populists?

  8. I would like to thank Cristopher for doing the painstaking effort of reading my book and writing a review of it.

    Yet, I feel the need of expressing my disagreement for his main accusation that the book maintains a lack of interest for practice and so lacks a practical orientation towards changing the world.

    Unfortunately, he did not read the book so carefully to identify the fact that it clearly clarifies and brings to the fore a kind of practice. So, the question to be posed is not if critical theory, at lest in the book’s interpretation of it, embraces practice or not, but what kind of practice it endorses. The fact that it rejects the practice of occupying state power and attempt to change the world through the state establishment does not mean that it is indifferent towards any real change.

    The practical change it suggests is opening cracks in our daily life by standing up to the rule of money and the demands of abstract labour, that is of the rationale of ‘time is money’. In page 200 I clarify that for Marcuse cracks take the very practical form of

    ‘a collapse of work discipline, slowdown, spread of disobedience to rules and regulations, wildcat strikes, boycotts, sabotage gratuitous, acts of non-compliance’
    and that he endorses council communism.

    Also, as I mention in page 258, John Holloway becomes very practical when he states that cracks open by

    ‘House occupations, social centres, community gardens, alternative radio stations, free software movements, teachers who encourage stu¬dents to be critical, doctors who think about their patients and not just about money, peasant rebellions in which the people say ‘Enough! Now the people will rule’, factory occupations.’

    Any reader is free to disagree with the possible outcome of this kind of practice, yet it is a practice nevertheless!

  9. I would like to clarify here, that I am myself not associated with Marcuse, Holloway, or Grollios in any way, whether politically, scientifically or otherwise. I was merely sparring impromptu with “Sarban”, concerning some comments about communism, democracy and the Frankfurt school.

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