§ Beard to Beard with William James: Truth as a Practical Notion

images4From Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking, William James on the practical nature of truth:

“[T]here can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen.”

What we hold to be true works for us–somehow–up to the most abstract and seemingly inconsequential products of the imagination. Or it doesn’t work for us anymore but remains as an obdurate sedimentation of some past mode of conduct that did once work. That is, truth (remember, lowercase “t”) is subordinated to the contingencies of broader life. These comprise some of the more acceptable and basic pragmatist notions which James vigorously helped shape.

Now, we can only presume that these notions themselves become validated because “truth-as-what-works-for-us” is a notion that at this juncture itself works for us. Can we know this given that life is not and cannot be structured like an experiment with an observer behind it? Even more so if we are asked to perform a meta-experiment!

If we pursue this line, what are we left with but an arch-contingency where truth annihilates itself? What lies beyond? Is it release? Or further entanglement? Is it just chaos? Or is it some kind of fluid structure of reality itself? Bah, how unbearably abstract!

I’m not sure how such a notion might work for anybody, though. Oh, wait. It could be lingering as a shadow of metaphysics, which seems to always inform philosophy. In this case, a shadow of pragmatism: nothing but a question about the contingency of the notion of contingent truth.

Some quietism, implied in much pragmatist thought, would certainly work this morning. Instead, this.

2014 (Sept 2-6) Leipzig Degrowth Conference—Some Animalist Remarks


A 2,500-strong conference with vegan catering sounded promising. And indeed, on many points, it did deliver. Diversity, color, animated surroundings—these were all there at the downtown location where the events to come took place. I’d been hoping that with degrowth’s turn to the local and the real, the blindfold precluding notice of horrendous conditions of life and death in animal exploitation would come to some prominence. But my optimism was premature.

Animalist issues were not only severely underrepresented. The animal theme was often an object of scorn and ridicule, attesting to a sorry status quo dominated by an exclusionary focus on human/nature affairs. This dialectic, itself dubious, has left no place for other animals to even be noticed beyond some rather insignificant gestures à la “let’s drop a sentence on ‘the animals’ so we can finally move on to more substantial matters.”

francois_bordeau2Continued animal use seems to be part of an overwhelming majority of degrowth visions for the future. For instance, Growl, a pan-European project aimed at creating a network of degrowth trainers, and founded by François Schneider, is now offering what they call “donkey tours” or “caravans,” where the animals are once again instrumentalized as “beasts of burden.” Talk about the good old days!

Reactionary? You bet.

We didn’t fail to show up to one of the conference’s biggest sessions (“Décroissance, Postwachstum, decreixement, decrescita—all degrowth but different?”), a panel frequented by the movements leading intellectuals, such as Joan Martinez-Alier, Schneider, Niko Paech, and Mauro Bonaiuti. “No-animal zone,” we thought. For a while this prediction held. And then came the evening’s comedic moment, a breath of fresh air many dull panels like this could use. Except it was, as usual, the ridiculed figure of the animal that resonated with the now-booming audience of 500. The moderator, Dr. Elisabeth von Thadden, feeling star-like and full of herself, had hilariously—so she thought—confused Schneider‘s use of the donkey (in his walking trips) with “monkey,” whom, as far as I’m aware, he hasn’t yet used. So, monkey-donkey. See how the two rhyme? Loads of fun, right? And now, immediately, came the moderator’s own convulsions of laughter, keeping us waiting for an interval that seemed all but sinister, and keeping both donkeys and monkeys (sheesh!) safely subjugated in the heads of many an audience member.

All in all, the cows, chickens, or pigs condemned to industrial exploitation were either referred to as “meat” or, when the time came to criticize the suffering inflicted on them in these large-scale facilities, got framed (pun intended) in the usual discourse of “care without freedom”—clearly a position the most horrible industries now capitalize on. For degrowthers, it was not the misery but the scale that was relevant.

hand+shakeThe scope of speciesism at Degrowth 2014 was blatant. The originally planned session on Animal Liberation was in the end cancelled, to be replaced by a more vaguely titled session on the “Crisis of the Human and Nonhuman World.” But a bunch of us were there as animalists to the bone. Arianna Ferrari, Anne Fremaux, and I presented our papers to a warm reaction from the audience in one of the more remote lecture rooms, and Friederike Schmitz led a successful animal liberation workshop. All of this took place on a day devoted to “Building Alliances.” Ironically, for all their face-value inclusiveness, degrowthers turn out not to be easy to build an alliance with.

On Friday we attended another big session where we were (un)fortunate enough to hear yet more panelists equivocate on issues of animal rearing and small-scale agriculture which, we showed, reproduces the dynamic of domination culminating in factory farming and represents a of defense for the “meat,” dairy, and egg industries’ rationale in a time when it is officially no longer OK to wantonly maim and kill. Eric Holt-Giménez, the executive director of Food First, would keep cows and sheep etc. bound to farms because of how they “enrich farm biodiversity” (???) and help “create corridors connecting farms to forests.” I’m sure I got this last point wrong. Then again what Eric said had nothing to do with the questions we asked or comments we made.

In turn,  Christiana Schuler, a small-scale dairy farmer and former shepherd, said she “didn’t mind us not wanting to raise and kill the animals ourselves.” Once again, capitivity and killing become issues of mere opinion. Smells like speciesism: I cannot hear anybody at Leipzig making arguments for reinstatement of human slavery or feudal subjection. In the end, farmed animals own interests (don’t mention freedom from domination to environmentally psyched degrowth folks!) not only do not matter to degrowthers, they do not compute. The discussed session, “The Food Challenge. Struggling for Just and Ecological Food Systems,” had been badly mistitled.

For degrowth in general it is OK to make other animals part and parcel of human technical apparatuses. From there, it takes a single step to the humans/nature dialectic mentioned near the beginning of the article, where cows, chickens, and other sentient beings are conflated with “nature” and come to be seen as exploitable within certain sustainable boundaries. It is here that terms like “overhunting,” “overfishing,” or “overexploitation” are born. As if exploitation of sentient life as such was fine in the first place. To argue these finer points against degrowth’s negligence would take a separate text. But these are already out there, and more are coming.

We challenged the speakers on the many points raised and not raised, in the Q&A, whereafter we left the room feeling like our words were not really heard at all. It is amazing how unintelligent otherise incisive theorists and professional thinkers become once challenged on an inconvenient matter of what’s on their place. While we all know this, we at the conference had enough at this point.

On the same day, we improvised an extra-programmatic Animal Liberation Open Space, during which we co-authored a statement to the organizers expressive of our discontent:

                                                                                                                        Leipzig, September 5, 2014

Dear Degrowth,

As participants of the Leipzig Degrowth Conference 2014, we feel it is our responsibility to point out a serious blind spot in the discussion.

The concrete suffering and exploitation of animals has to be addressed—not only in industrialized but also in small-scale practices.

Opposing only factory farming without questioning power relations between sentient species is a gross omission.

The question of the good life, so central to degrowth, must not be limited to the human species alone.

The ethical and political aspects of neglected animal interests require space for articulation.

The undersigned…”

This followed by a bunch of last-minute signatures. Pretty mild, no? We were, mind you, way angrier than this.

Of course, the conference was more than what we managed to take in amidst the mass of events jam-packed into an otherwise wonderfully organized event. But what we did catch offered a lesson: We need to go on the offensive, to participate in and skillfully disrupt the egregious consipracy of silence and ridicule at events where are not welcome—either rejected outright or reluctantly tolerated—silence and ridicule that would have animal liberation relegated to a peripheral, easily dismissed, and frivolous interest.

To Be Mindless

Really_Big_WaveTo be mindless can mean widely divergent things: either to be être-en-soi, being in itself, like a stone that perfectly coincides with itself and thus is devoid of subjectivity and concern; or to be a sentient creature so proficient at a certain activity as to perform it without stopping to think. Such seemingly effortless activity corresponds to the Chinese-Taoist notion of wu-wei, natural or uncontrived action; or to the related Japanese ideal of mushin, performance unfettered by analysis, especially in and around martial arts. 

The apparent simplicity of the mindlessness that comes with such (non-)action should not fool us. Performative mindlessness has very little to do with mechanical reproduction of previously inculcated behavioral patterns, and requires that the body be sensitive and awake to its surroundings, and not react “automatically.” If a behaviorist can see in it but the analogue of the machine, well, this says about his inability to relate to this sort of experience beyond narrow mechanistic presuppositions that a priori reduce the live body to a machine. Performative mindlessness deserves all the ethical consideration currently given to thematized consciousness, to deliberation and reflection, in the animals that exhibit them most profusely. It stands beneath and upholds the thin layer of reflective thinking (much current cognitive science admits this, if you need the claim to be validated by this sort of apparatus).Nor does the sort of visceral intelligence exist, enmeshed in the world around it, in order to uphold consciousness. To think so would be to have it upside down.

Reflection is sign of a sort of emergency in the interface between body and world, a dialectic which, when animated through skilled practical activity, stabilizes a rhythmic fluidity. Its discursive metastatis notwithstanding, mind is strictly related to activity. Beyond it, in idleness, it constitutes our prior activities’ echoing residue.

leopard_2244916kWould you confuse a mindless surfer, who receptively gears his whole body into the wave beneath him, with the wave itself? Would you confuse the mindlessness of a leaping leopard, whom a break to deliberate would unnecessarily slow down, with the immobility of the stone from which he leaps? Thematized thought is, and ought to be seen as, the servant, not the master, of the live body. It has its place, but there is no need to cherish mind at the expense of that on which it rests.

*I hold no rights to these beautiful photos. I hope the rights-holders will take no offence at my putting them here.

§ Technology

imagesTechnology inevitably produces a rift between the bodied subject and its milieu. This occurs even in a situation so basic as when one is digging a ditch with a pickaxe. Here, however, as opposed to the application of “high” technology, the impact still vibrates through the sensing body, making it tremble profusely. Conneciton is not yet lost..

Old Demons Rear their Ugly Heads: Some Reflections on Thoughts from Hsiung and Stallwood

chains (no claim of rights to the photo)The Animalist Movement is undergoing some changes these days. A sense of freshness ought to fill the air, then. Instead, we witness the standard and ever-saddening erosion of some of the best of our ideas and a consequent free fall back onto the rusty old tracks of our past mistakes. When the movement’s creatives come out and speak, throwing up something of a “state of the union” piece each, the time is ripe to peek behind the curtains of recurrent misunderstandings and misconceptions.

In a recent exchange, Wayne Hsiung, of DxE, and Kim Stallwood, a long-standing activist in the UK and elsewhere, trade in some of their thoughts about what’s right and wrong with the Movement, and where they think it should go. Their pieces are short (1, 2) and there’s no need to recount their arguments here. I suggest a quick reading of both texts before proceeding with mine.

*  *  *

Animalism, even though still in a stage of infancy, is perhaps the most powerful device for diagnosing the wrongs of civilization, and these are to be found pretty much wherever one looks. The Animalist Platform, sufficiently developed, could give off an immediate warning signal in face of each of the author’s unchecked assumptions. That the alarm doesn’t go off suggests that both author’s understanding of animalism is far from adequately thorough, and perhaps also that they are are content resting with old presuppositions. Both undermine their own attempts at turning things around for the other animals in their own way. Both ultimately subscribe, though not altogether senselessly, of course, to different myths from an increasingly discredited but still plentiful storehouse of modernity.

The most blatant and at the same time subtle assumption shared by Hsiung and Stallwood is that Animalism has nothing essential to do with us, with these increasingly fragmented and one-dimensional beings we’re turning into, having soaked up the waters of capitalist currents for a few centuries. Animalism, it would seem, has nothing to offer us, the clumsy, cunning bipeds. Ethically we may be misguided, we are to understand, but existentially and amongst ourselves we are doing just fine, save for some temporary problems, and some tinkering with the system as it stands will suffice to make the anthropos a fulfilled animal. In a weaker version of the same, civilizational problems may be real, but Animalism is a separate affair that can be instated under conditions the current order of things—with institutions such as those that have engulfed us for the past few centuries untouched, with bureaucratic logic proliferating, with technology infusing every nook and cranny of our lives, with our animal sensorium underdeveloped and decaying, with the deficit of encounter, and so on.

Ridiculous. We’re not the most tortured and oppressed animal the earth has ever seen. And Hsiung and others are making an obvious point when they say that veganism (and presumably Animalism) is not about making the world more comfy and cozy for the privileged vegan. This is an obvious point, and no one would openly debate it. And our forefathers made sure that the other animals, forced to carry the manifestations of their burdens on their backs, got it worse than we would. But we are possibly the most confused, fragmented, regimented, and alienated of all the creatures this planet has ever bred, our existential wounds constantly opened and never allowed to heal and scar. Without going into much detail—much of this is still insufficiently known, perhaps even unfelt—the modern anthropos is a creature that trusts the number, letter, and image at the cost of her bodily unity; that is severely confused and at odds with the naturalness of her death and finitude; who flees embeddedness in direct encounter with her world through endless distractions that make a fundamentally broken reality to still get a pass. Without even these cursory and general observations, namely that something is quintessentially missing, gone awry, in modern humanity, armed though it is with endless excuses and naive though it is in awaiting a better future to arrive from tired old formulae, we have amputated half of what Animalism has to teach us and buried it, allowing our neauseatingly superficial societies to fester. While no world would be perfect for a finite and frail creature such as ourselves, we are no less than fucked if nothing essential and vital changes in the mid-run about how human societies the world over are organized and run. Without this side of animal liberation, we can perceive but half the puzzle, while the other half, fragmented, eats away at our petrified flesh.

*  *  *

My problems with Hsiung—representative of DxE as a more recent tendency in Animalism, stressing direct participation in disturbing the normal flow of animal exploitation—are smaller than with Stallwood’s liberal approach. A classical modern influence, faith in parliamentery means of changing something more than superficial in manifestations of oppression is and should be long gone, dead. Even political liberals/center-leftists like Gary Francione are now well aware that social movement and tendency formation much precedes its codification in law. The law, he says frankly, “doesn’t lead. It follows.” We on the far left no a bit more about this, perhaps, having tried, won, and lost many a revolution, the impact and echoes of which can still resonate beneath parliamentary chatter. We know, then, that parliamentary politics have served through much of the last two centuries not to promote, but to cunningly curb, tame, and overturn progressive proposals for social reorganization and the pressures exerted from below. It was used as a bribe system to pay off those of us who would collaborate with reactionary elements instead of unabashedly combating them. Meanwhile, throughout this charade, the modern, capitalist world-system has matured and colonized the entire globe, with nobody free of its destabilizing influence. To believe in parliamentary politics now, to invest major reserves of energy and talent in attempts to get in to the narrow circles of elite politicians, is to forget that the clock which modernity started is ticking. Moreover, to advocate legal, parliament-driven change as significant, perhaps even primary, is to conflate the popular mainstream with new and old elites.

This is not to say that some changes cannot be voted it. But they first need to find footing in society, and here personal involvement—a healthy animalist development in a world in which the status quo depends on our lives being mediated and disconnected from their immediate environments—is a prerequisite. And some change, like the final abolishing of capitalist relations and the whole frameworkd of capitalist production, distribution, and consumption, can’t be voted in at all. It is parliaments themselves that are manifestations of capitalist relations as these have developed in the European context and beyond. They are devices used to minimize direct involvement of the people, now reconfigured and renamed as “citizenry,” in the affairs which influence them but over which they now have no say beyond a ballot performance. And then we wonder why most of us are so apathetic. We have given up our power, which many of our radical ancestors throughout history fought to gain and exercise. It is only once it landed in the hands of state functionaries—armies, police, and so on—that we became beggars for protection. And the most protection we need exactly from them. And, as usual in such cases, who will guard the guards?

The way—the serious way—to proceed is by delegitimizing further the already crippled institutional products of liberalism, whose primary historical function has been to provide an interface between fragile but rebellious populations and the unabashed, uncompromising accumulation of capital. The successes of LGBT campaigns for legal protection, which Stallwood mentions, change none of this, except maybe that exploitation of our bodies and lives under capitalism, now flourishing more evidently in the global South than in the stagnant landscapes of Britain or the US, has become a right anyone can demand. No more discrimination, at least not according to the law—everyone can unashamedly invite exploitation and fragmentation upon himself, and become fully plugged into the system’s devastating operation for all animals.

*  *  *

But there are problems with Hsiung’s framing of things as well. These, though seemingly minor, can have serious consequences if DxE turns out to be here to stay, and even more so in that they are so clearly ghosts of a past never outlived. Importantly, they pertain more to the spirit in which Hsiung speaks than to the explicit content—more to the how than to the why. This spirit, effectively shared with Stallwood’s advocacy of parliamentarism, is one of scientist managerialism. We are to believe the promise modernity that positive (positivist) expert knowledge benefits humanity or its segments by allowing for analysis, prediction, and control of reality. We are to believe life can really be managed. This conviction has been applied by countless governments, agencies, institutes, and oppositional organizations since at least the 19th century. But the application of no formula, however, has been without its backfire effect, itself inherently unpredictable. And application of scientific formulae in cliometrics, for instance, most notably in Time on the Cross (by Fogel and Engerman), a historical-statistical analysis of antebellum American slavery, has brought about results that were quickly discredited as arbitrary. The pattern recurs throughout social and environmental studies. The inherently interdependent elements of no plan or analysis can account for unknown variables, and these find their way into every arbitrary delineation of reality. Endless statistical diagrams and tables, cooked up to prove a point and having no real connection with experiences and lives involved in the subject of study, will necessarily be of limited, secondary use. No adept political strategist would rely on them, even in a world as fragmented and pervaded by positivist thought as ours. Movement-building and effecting social change will remain more an art than a science, and it couldn’t be otherwise for a being such as us—one still not reduced to the automatism of a machine.

*  *  *

Both Stallwood and Hsiung are to be congratulated for their different and considerable spans of involvement with issues of animal protection and liberation. We certainly more and stronger activists—an uncontroversial assertion. And it wouldn’t hurt to have more Hsiungs and Stallwoods among us. But the simple fact is that we also need deeper critiques than have hitherto been deployed, critiques deep enough to probe into the increasingly unlivable conditions of our own alienation; deep enough to show that not only other animals are estranged from a world of meaning and fulfillment; to make clear how the subtle and silent suffering to which even the privileged among us are subjected is inherently entangled with the existence of cages everywhere; we need critiques that may help pave a way forward for all of us that draws on our true opportunities and limitations.

Dialectic for a Happy Marriage: Socialism and Animalism

401558_158610407584697_48842662_nMajor alliances of social tendencies and their associated intellectual currents are not unprecedented. In a 1978 interview for a popular British television program, Men of Ideas,[1] Herbert Marcuse was questioned about his attempts at a reconciliation of Freudian and Marxist thought. Issuing a challenge to Marcuse, interviewer Brian Magee proposed that “these are two entirely different kinds of explanation of the same set of phenomena. How can you possibly marry the two into a single theory?” Marcuse replied immediately, “I think they can easily be married and it may well be a very happy marriage.” My hope in writing this essay is that the same will one day soon be said and repeated frequently about the nascent relationship between Marxist/socialist and animalist theory.

Despite growing joint presence in specialist literature, the coming together of species and class is a fresh affair. The space where animalism meets the socialist tradition promises to explode with a range of insights heretofore all but impossible. This space is, however, still difficult to define. If we attempt to effect a mechanical juxtaposition of animalist perspectives with socialist ones, we are going to inflame antagonism between the two traditions, and the conflicts between them will freeze in unproductive tension. Rather, perhaps the task of those of us interested in issues of species and class ought to be to illuminate how the two have long been interpenetrated in social practice, and not only economically and politically, but philosophically as well. In other words, we ought to demonstrate how, like Marcuse’s Freud and Marx, they are “two extremely different interpretations of two different levels of the same whole, the same totality.”[2] The difficult relationship of species and class deserves sustained attention.

Some poignant radical critiques have been issued of animal protectionism as a liberal phenomenon—for instance, that it fails to appreciate the resilience of capitalism in profiting from ever new, purportedly milder (and really more lucrative) forms of animal exploitation; that consumerist, demand-based responses have no power to effectively oppose oppression, and instead may actually help capitalists reorient their activity onto more profitable lines; that veganism, a major weapon of animal protectionism in the last couple of decades, does not in itself constitute or lead to serious political practice, and instead becomes the go-to answer to the movement’s current tactical impasse; and finally, that serious, organized, collective activism is a prerequisite for liberation.

But the problem vis-à-vis liberal protectionism is above all that we are scarcely aware of what is supposed to take its place. “Animalism” is still up for grabs, having yet to settle into an established meaning. Now that it has arisen, we may well ask what animalism should stand for unless we are again to settle for something mediocre. Nobody except the profiteers of the status quo really needs new names for the same things. But since animalism is not simply a surface makeover of protectionism in its known versions, what is it supposed to denote and what could it become as one of the spouses in the socialist-animalist marriage? If there is radical potential to what now emerges as animalism, what does it consist in? The answers to these questions might be clarified in attempting to show not only what is wrong with mainstream liberal protectionism, but also what has been lacking—and painfully so—in the historico-philosophical distortions of animality in the broad socialist tradition. As has already begun to happen, socialism needs to be carefully critiqued from an animalist perspective. This may be more easily achievable now than before.

Socialism isn’t what it used to be. With minor exceptions of Cuba or Venezuela, it has been practically disincarnated from the state forms which it assumed in the twentieth century, and reverted from being a full-blown practical experiment to the status of doctrine and ethos, present merely in disjointed fragments in the struggles against exploitation currently scattered across the globe. Pushed back into the defensive, socialism has all but imploded. This is not all for the worst, though, for it has facilitated renewed reflection on the fundamentals of socialist theory, including investigations into the ground of its metaphysical assumptions. A retreat from radical practice to radical philosophy is a clear sign of weakness, but it can equally well be said that prior socialist practice has been lacking as well, and that its deficiencies are not wholly conjectural (pressure from the capitalist world) but also deep-rooted.

Animalism is nothing if not a radical critique of the oppression of animality in sentient creatures as such, regardless of species, ranging from bodily manipulation, confinement, and torture, to the instillment of stupefying habits that serve structures of domination at the expense of all-around creaturely well-being. As such, animalism would seem compatible with the socialist ethos of justice, equality, and solidarity. In fact, socialist theory and practice, based in historical materialism and the naturalism it entails, may significantly reinforce the emerging animalist discourse with a sense of faithfulness to the material-somatic dimensions of life under capitalism. With socialism, unlike with liberal-idealist contortions, we get fairly close to what is real, ontologically, and become equipped with a better sense of how to go about changing/accommodating to things in practice. In other words, we advance towards both what things are and what is to be done. Animalism and socialism are both revolutionary: in a divided world, they would so remake the present as to make freedom finally practicable beyond the narrow confines of privilege. Perhaps this is why the mainstream is so terrified of both.

But animalism is also possibly the greatest challenge to the persistent anthropocentrist overtones of historical socialism, evident in its programs, pamphlets, and manifestos alike. The challenge is not only to look into the factors whereby the lives of other animals are broken and drained, and not just to emancipate labor from the chains of capitalism. It is to allow for a full-blown, disalienated animality to flourish. It is to enable us to be good animals, animals around whom other creatures can be free and feel unafraid. This is the only real socialism, the only socialism worth having.

Marxism implores us not to lose sight of the exploitative economic dynamic that tears at the fabric of everyday life in our ruptured societies and derails the noblest of our intentions. Capitalist relations, sedimented into pervasive inequalities within and between our various communities, distort not just the balance of our checking accounts, but the whole of how we relate to the world. An animalism worthy of the name will say that capitalism, like its historical predecessors in slave and feudal societies, mutilates our relation to the sensuous bases of our animal life in spontaneity, conviviality, and connection. This critique, still insufficiently developed in emerging animalist circles, has been unappreciated, even altogether unnoticed, by Marxists, who have been all too eager to frame the anthropic animal within the worker/capitalist dichotomy.

Classical Marxism has preciously stressed the centrality of bodily nature and materiality of life. Neo-Marxism, most notably in the work of the Frankfurt School, came to pay appropriate attention to how capitalism, and modernity more broadly, hijacked the living individual and made her serve the interests of the productive apparatus. Then, since about the late 1980s, ecosocialism has brought out the neglected ecological aspects of capitalist expansion and pointed out how it makes live miserable for the vast majority of human beings. The animal, however, still lies waiting. Above all, the passive/receptive aspects of our somatic constitution, including the vital needs to inhabit a place, to dwell, to tune in to the rhythms of the surrounding ecologies, to share the land with other animal beings—the basics of what philosopher Ralph Acampora has called “bodily animacy”—have all been underplayed in the Marxist emphasis on transformative human activity, i.e., labor. Inheriting a modern orientation, socialism has held human productive potential in high esteem and, more often than not, erred in wishing to free labor instead of the animals (anthropic or not) that performed it. Its deeper critical insights, like those into the necessity of disalienation, have overwhelmingly gone ignored. As predicted by Marx, the growth of capitalism stimulated the growth of the working class which however failed to ripen into the vaunted class-for-itself. Not long after, on the tidal wave of two World Wars, the proletariat dissolved into union-worker privilege and unskilled worker poverty in the global North, soon to be resuscitated wholesale in the South. The alleged sole bearer of revolution is still in tatters. Meanwhile, the cult of labor has gone unchallenged throughout, except by minor opposition on the periphery of the far left.[3]

Gaining momentum in the mid-20th century, imperatives of consumption were configured as an extension of toil, turning the right to the satisfaction of needs into a quasi-religious obligation. Those who could afford to consume at levels indicated by advertising were made to feel compelled to do so. The rest was made to look and envy them, and labor to one day reach the same “standard of life.” Ridiculous, is it? It is happening. These trends, clearly visible to the Marxist eye, made for an unceasing flurry of activity. The Marxist, however, could criticize the structure of society only from the standpoint of the unrealized potential of its labor power. Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that the overthrow of capitalism would entail a restitution of the aspects of our being that have nothing to do with toil, and yet do not require a world in which scarcity is altogether eliminated: the playful, free, and yet undervalued aspects of anthropic animality. If the prospects of their recuperation are not vouchsafed, the whole rationale of revolution is put into question; the world-system to follow in the wake of capitalism may well then emerge as another monstrosity. The transition to a post-capitalist form of life presupposes a sensuous revitalization of the anthropos, now pushed and prodded and instrumentalized in countless scores alongside the other animal victims of capitalism.

The touchy subject of socialist productivism can be approached from various angles. Most importantly, in light of the Marxist focus on formal economic categories (labor, profit, capital, surplus, etc.), it must be stressed that productivism pertains far beyond charts and graphs, to the very marrow of our animal everyday lives. As more and more of our simplest and most basic activities are embraced and fenced in by the market, animalism becomes indispensable not only for those literally caged, killed, and exterminated, but to all of us, even children of privilege; without exception, we’re all being turned into automatons. Market-concocted norms of efficiency spill over beyond profit-oriented activities to infuse every moment between sleep and waking life, extending across entire lifespans of unsuspecting individuals. Capitalism exploits not only our ability to labor but our very animal nature in its entirety and with all of its limitations, orienting us towards narrow fields of interest in what immediately surrounds us.

In a sane society, to be a true animal would be a blessing. Now, to the extent in which is possible, it puts one at risk, making one a clueless, superficially cheerful participant in a deadly game in which tomorrow is unhesitatingly wagered for quick and easy excitement. We are entitled, by virtue of our frail natures and the corresponding harshness of the world, to simple pleasures and joys. We deserve to be able to live in and for the moment. It is only with the maturation of capitalism that these primal entitlements are turned against us and sucked dry for all their monetary (exchange) value. Only with late capitalism do we become crippled this way.

Self-determination is a major theme in the metaphysics of Marxist thought. This in itself cannot be condemned given the origins of modern socialist experiments in currents of the French Revolution and in subsequent historical moments of political emancipation. But the Marxist drive towards self-determination errs in that it posits a freedom that is unbridled by constraints and in practice frequently understood as the severance of the human from all its painful contexts, the contexts which it shares with the other bodies of the earth and which alone infuse its life with meaning. Marxism is not the originator of this trend. But it has been an avid follower and promoter of abolishing limits on behalf of a humanity of the future, a communist association of free producers. Because in a world of perfect clarity and no limits we disintegrate into meaninglessness, our freedom devoid of content, our lives emptied of relationship, this trend is nothing if not rotten. And yet it has characterized the modern project as such, and socialists have been its last conscious advocates.[4]

Luckily, we don’t have to build alliances from scratch. They are already there, inchoate. Our task, no less difficult for that, is to bring out and articulate the tendencies and contradictions that animate the life of society, and to simultaneously follow and guide them to a desirable maturation. How to do that without asserting a self-determination of an orthodox-Marxist sort is the million dollar question. Marcuse was right to point out the need for a major overhaul of Marxist thought at a time when capitalism was getting more entrenched in our social tissues than Marx could have predicted.[5] In hindsight, Marcuse’s injection of Freudian insights concerning the instinctual basis of social life and its repression by civilization, and capitalist civilization in particular, was a welcome step.

But it is precisely because it was insufficient that animalism must retrace the history of Marx and Freud’s theoretical marriage and pick up where Marcuse left off. For our present purposes, the insufficiency of the Freudian corrective was at least threefold: first, despite Marcuse’s early ecological insights, it failed to help him take into account the ubiquitous, relentless suffering of countless scores of nonhuman animals exploited unto death as part of the normal functioning of 20th-century capitalism. In this department, in spite of growing opposition from animalists and other animal advocates, little has changed, except for the worse; second, according to an old criticism from John Dewey, Freud’s emphasis on the psychological, despite helpful biological overtones, may have the effect of propping up a Cartesian tradition of psychic phenomena (imagination etc.) at the expense of their bodily basis[6]—definitely no favor to an animalism that would have “man” brought down back to the earth and the body; finally, Freudianism, pessimistic though it was, failed to effectively curtail Marcuse’s faith in progress, epitomized in his rationalist orientation and compromise with productivism. The latter, Marcuse believed, would finally allow us the freedom from the so-called realm of necessity, which he thought was worth even the price of having ourselves “plugged into the automated production system.”[7] The productivist dream has plagued socialism in most of its modern developments. Even if what Marcuse had in mind had little to do with its actual Soviet or Western variations, like Marx, he fastened on to “the technological chances of modern industrial age,”[8] a faith that to this day can’t help but be disappointed when the real costs of technological rampage are considered. But there would exist no vast technoscientific infrastructures, stretched as they are across both the world and our manufactured desires, were it not for modern rationalism which has stubbornly infused culture despite its constant disillusionment with the backlash of managerial approaches to life. Members of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse among them, fought tooth and nail to save reason from instrumentalization. But they effectively subscribed to some of the same assumptions that have animated the “dialectic of enlightenment” for aeons, perhaps ever since Plato’s early evacuation of the Real from the body and the earth: they sought “salvation in the path of knowledge”[9] which could be universalized into standards of needs and desires and so on. Marcuse himself has been described as “a neorationalist and even a gnostic.”[10]

On all these counts, the animalism I would like to see take hold among us could bring to the table a significant corrective. First, the ongoing global holocausts that devour animals of all species day in and day out assume for it a central importance. Chances are screams will no longer go unheard. Second, animalism is open and candid about the bodily nature of even the most rarefied of our dreams, not to mention the psychological phenomena which Freud effectively evacuated into a mental realm. It remains faithful to the body as a nexus of subjectivity, and not just a biological entity, that is, without reducing it to a collection of parts and bundle of reflexes. Third, animalism can and ought to illuminate the rationalist-productivist tendencies in socialist thought that keep it aligned with modernity’s devaluation of the earth and its many inhabitants.

Productivism wears many masks, and while it is easy to oppose the Soviet experiments of turning back major rivers away from the sea, or the current fossil fuel craze, it is much more difficult to pinpoint its increasingly more elusive incarnations. We live in an age where terms like “eco-friendly,” “green,” and “cruelty-free” are bandied about without end. And yet our cities grow ever larger, jungles of the Amazon keep being logged, polar ice caps keep melting, deserts keep expanding, innovation in energy use produces savings which free up capital to circulate ever faster across the globe in search of new sites of exploitation, the Antarctic is being devoured as a new resource base, the remaining pristine oases are commodified and access to them is packaged and sold to those who can afford it, previous inhabitants getting pushed off the land, and so on. So-called “green capitalism” is now peddled worldwide, though it changes essentially nothing either in how the earth is pillaged or in how our own lives—even those of the privileged—are being impoverished with each passing generation. Without restorative animalist input, socialism—green or not—won’t be much meaningfully different.

It does not help us to keep playing to the rationalist tune. Animalism has what it takes to deepen the existentialist critique of Marxist/socialist rationalism[11] and remind us that we much more than thinkers—that thinking ought to serve the non-rational basis of our being instead of supplanting it in favor of neater calculation. To critique reason need not mean advocating for irrationality its place to, nor rejecting lucidity and carefully weighed judgement. It ought to mean, rather, striving to reground them in a context of sound common sense that would take stock of every ounce of our living flesh, and away from self-referential systems of arbitrary signs. Building on the work of its incisive predecessors in critical theory, the animalist critique of rationalism is to get us to see that there are limits to control that reason itself, no matter how far extended through institutionalization in language, method, and measurement, cannot grasp.

We’re partaking in a desperate affair. And as usual, we’re already late. If a livable world awaits us around one of future’s corners, it is a world in which animality flourishes through diverse modes of expression and actualization; a world in which socialism and animalism have played off of one another in a practical dialectic, opening avenues of possible freedom and empathy; a world in which these two poles of the dialectic are happily married. To get there is hard work, but at least we are on our way.



[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AO65LwhnMNI.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See, for instance, Bob Black, The Abolition of Work and Other Essays. Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics Unlimited, 1986.

[4] Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991, 262-268.

[5] See Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955 [1974]) and One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London and New York, Routledge, 1964 [2002]) for reference.

[6] See Bruce Wilshire, The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000, 123.

[7] Jacob Klapwijk, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Critical Theory and the Messianic Light. Translated by C.L. and P.M. Yallop. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010 [1976], 31.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 36, n. 3.

[10] Zuidema cited in J. Klapwijk, Dialectic…, 36, n. 3.

[11] For an analysis and critique of rationalism in Marxist thought see James Miller, History and Human Existence—From Marx to Merleau-Ponty. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.

§ Consciousness and Critique

gramsciIn 1916, with hopes for the success of the Italian workers’ councils still high, revolutionary Antonio Gramsci wrote that “man is above all else mind, consciousness—that is, he is a product of history, not of nature.” As if the two were not abstractions from a deeper unity! He then added that “there is no other way of explaining why socialism has not come into existence already.” But isn’t it precisely because “man’s” intelligence is an expression of an existential field wholly shared with the rest of nature, and because “man” is wholly embedded in it with his body, desires, mood and emotion, that we can even talk of him/her wanting anything like socialism?; that we can talk of them, in other words, of striving for a social and natural milieu conducive to their individual and collective well-being?; that we can speak of them struggling for the good life? If “man” was not embedded in the thick of reality before it is split into nature and history, why would we even care? If we didn’t  encounter the world through ceaseless rapport, exchange, and co-emergence, how could mind or consciousness even arise? How could they arise if not as a response to that encounter ? Consciousness comes fairly late in the order of things, ultimately inseparable from nature, and may not be the crowning achievement it is usually taken to be among us socialists. In fact, it might not be more than a moment in the process of life, resistance, and reconciliation. Rather than insist on its primacy, it is more adequate to view it as derivative of the body’s encounter with its surround; and to say that it’s because we encounter the world as nature-embedded animate beings that we can can perceive, suffer, assess, and criticize the reality around us that, in its contemporary configurations, is unacceptable to us. And it is through bodily insertion into the flesh of nature that we reinvigorate ourselves in our struggles.