Monday, January 15, 2007

The ends of obedience.

The servitude of the 'intellectual class' is a theme of media critics that is only partially misleading. I guess some of the force of the point is lost because it is often expressed in ultra-left discourse, in which intellectuals are said to form part of a paternalistic 'coordinator class' (a chimera), and in which media, education and culture more generally are correctly credited with eliciting irrational obedience to authority, but without due attention to how the capitalist work-process, and one's life-experience as determined by class, ingrains habits of subservience (or otherwise).

But let me digress for a bit. I was reading this morning about fascism and particularly the Nazi holocaust, and the usual, inescapable questions come up about the availability of tens of thousands of people for such barbarism, and the passivity and tolerance of many more. The complaint from opponents of the marxist interpretation, which takes capitalism and its imperialist forms as a starting point, is both that we are too specific and too general: that we retreat from broader questions about human nature to the specificities of social formations, and that we obscure the singularity of the Nazi holocaust in our extensive contextualisations, in which we remind people of the horrors of colonial genocides, slavery, imperialist domination, racial hierarchies etc.

About a decade ago, Geras made a similar complaint, and tried to supplement what he represented as the reductive tendencies of historical materialism with considerations of an ethical order, of human psychology, ultimately of something he prefers to call human nature. For, the argument goes, any description of the Nazi holocaust has to describe a degeneration of the human character with aspects for which there is no specifically marxist category. These include the sense of elation and exaltation at exerting merciless power over others. But they also include the specificities of antisemitic hatred, and a thesis that the Nazis were driven in part by a subconscious recognition of "the desirability of the ethical demands embodied in the Jewish tradition". Geras goes on to criticise the "energetic contextualisation" of the Nazi holocaust by people like Ernest Nolte, but goes on to add that the position of many marxists, Ernest Mandel in particular, is structurally similar: he adds that the moral significance is different and that Mandel is animated by "a socialist and in its way Jewish universalism that would not risk belittling the sufferings of others by dwelling too emphatically on the tragedy of the Jews." Further, Trotsky is credited with having been able to detect what was likely to happen to European Jews not only on account of his understanding of capitalism, but also on account of his experience of the pogroms and their maniacal excess. Finally, Geras adds: "A Jewish socialist ought to be able to find some special corner of his or her heart for the tragedy of the Jewish people. A universalist ethic shorn of any special concern for the sufferings of one’s own would be the less persuasive for such carelessness."

I hardly think it needs stating what I would find problematic in all that, but then Geras' shift to a kind of national as well as ethnic identification is not really the topic here. All that I would say about it is that everything that is wrong with this has metastasized in the years since, so that you eventually find Geras along with people like Shalom Lappin condemning Jews for Justice for Palestinians in the most bilious terms for "unbounded ignorance of Jewish sources", accusing them of "Jewish sycophancy", and directing them to "one of Hillel's central precepts, recorded in Perkei Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers): Do not separate yourself from the community." This was for having condemned Israel's barbaric assault on Lebanon. Combined and uneven theoretical development being what it is, Geras still identifies himself as a socialist. To comment too extensively on the shortcomings of this, political, ethical and psychological, would be superfluous: it is a straightforward ethno-nationalist command to shut up about atrocities being committed in the name of "the community". The appeal to particularist universalism has become an appeal to universal particularism: everyone to their own flag, and don't separate yourself from the community. Like all nationalisms, it demands loyalty and obedience.

The intellectual class, which could loosely be said to include those who write columns for a living, would rarely need to be impressed with such an appeal. For instance, I don't think there was a single Israeli media commentator and only a tiny, tiny cluster of dissident professors who actually opposed on principle the recent invasion of Lebanon, and only slightly more who opposed it on any grounds whatsoever. Something similar was true of the UK and US when the invasion of Kosovo was launched, and other examples aren't hard to come by.

This can't be a surprise. Professionals are susceptible to the same pressures that other employees are: if you wish to get ahead, you put the company's interests first, and where appropriate you internalise the ideology of your employers (which could be nothing more sophisticated than insisting on being 'keen', 'committed' and a 'team player', ie willing to exploit yourself and others as thoroughly as possible, with as little direct instruction as possible). Indeed, if you had no ideological commitments other than a vague overt humanitarianism underwritten by vicious indifference, that would usually be ideal. (In this vein, I can't help but notice that those who ostentatiously collect for charities in workplaces are often the ones with the most ductile morality, and also most easily offended when I tell them that no, actually, I don't need a sticker to inform the world that I am a Good Person). Any contrary propensities are liable to ensure that you do not ascend, since you'll be perceived as a potential pain in the arse, and what's more you're likely to be one. And by contrary propensities, I mean everything from conspicuous awkwardness, an unwillingness to assimilate oneself to capitalist etiquette, the willingness to give offense for humane purposes, to the tendency toward direct conflict with one's managers. As Erich Fromm puts it, "the 'adjusted' person" has made herself into "a commodity, with nothing stable or definite" except for the willingness and need to please, and the "readiness to change roles".

Why should it be different with the intellectual class? Granted, their labour is especially ideological, and requires a certain degree of reflection which could produce unhelpful outbursts. But since it is a relatively privileged occupation, it usually isn't difficult to select for timidity (which often paradoxically manifests itself as extreme stridency). Further, given the rewards that accrue - that is, given the class position that one attains - one's experience is more likely to tend one to the belief that the system is benevolent, and getting better everyday. Thanks in part to this, it is possible for people well within the normal psychological range not only to bear the knowledge of massive atrocities, but also to applaud those responsible for them. Further, given positions of responsibility, it is also possible for them to collaborate in them. Simply because this behaviour does not require the shedding of one's civilised integument, because it does not require one to relish the death of another human being (although one can do that, as Hitchens continually insists), because it can involve the most exacting moral calculations and internal unrest, because it can involve conviction, doesn't make it less obedient, and less deadly.

However, if it is important to contextualise obedience against the background of one's position in capitalism and the work-process, there is also the matter of the condition of dissent and the forms of solidarity that exist more broadly within the society. It isn't an accident that the most rebellious intelligentsia can be found where there are strong traditions of socialist and working class activism, and at times when there has been the strongest public dissent. By contrast, they have tended to their most despicable, crawling, servile output during periods of defeat for the working class. That's why I say it's only a partially misleading picture: lacking political independence, they can sometimes be shaken out of their complacency by popular unrest.