Sunday, January 28, 2007

Marcuse's plea for intolerance.

I came across something interesting while reading up a bit on the correspondence between Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, the famous correspondence over the Vietnam War and that over the German students movement. Adorno had moved sharply to the right, having embraced Zionism (calling Nasser the "fascist chieftain"), and was supporting the United States in Vietnam. It is a logical step in a way since, if you think that a bourgeois nationalist like Nasser can be construed as a fascist enemy, the Viet Cong could seem insupportably worse. Further, although he had by no means become a reactionary, his critique of capitalism was blunted by his conviction that it had acquired the capacity to liquidate the revolutionary subject. The alternative to capitalist democracy was, then, probably something worse. He grew increasingly hostile to the student movement before his death in 1969, seeing in some of its more adventurist elements, those who disrupted his lectures with puerile stunts, the seed of a new totalitarianism ("China on the Rhine"). Even if Adorno was criticised unfairly, it is hard not to prefer the student movement which characterised the Frankfurt School as ‘critical in theory, conformist in practice’.

Marcuse was also sympathetic to Zionism (although there are hints in various placed that he became more critical after the mid-1960s), and he was no longer convinced of the inevitability of capitalist crisis and thus of the revolutionary role of the working class. In his defense, capitalism did not look particularly crisis-prone at the time: rather, the threat appeared to be an all-encompassing administrative society with rising wealth underpinning a deeply conservative consensus, at least in the United States, with intolerable barbarism at the expansive margins of the system. But he was in no way reconciled to capitalism, looking to the emerging civil rights, antiwar, feminist and student movements, as well as Third World insurgencies, to act as catalysts for an attack on the core of the system. Given that the conservative critique of these movements (smugly described by Nixon as the 'moral majority') often took aim at what was described as their "intolerance", which encompasses everything from noisome extravagance, to the shouting down of authority figures, to sit-ins, blockades, and finally armed insurrection, Marcuse took on the problematic of what he called Repressive Tolerance. I don't think Zizek acknowledged a debt to Marcuse in his 'Leninist Plea for Intolerance', one of his better pieces, but it's hard to see how doesn't owe it.

Marcuse argues that "the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed". Tolerance is a "partisan goal", whose method is intolerance of "policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery". Putting up with the irrationalities of capitalist production (he names 'planned obsolescence', of which Microsoft is a notable exponent), "moronization" through propaganda, the recruitment of young men for barbarism and so on is "the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives". In a society in which democratic forms have been largely hollowed out, "even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game". Participating in the 'democratic process' - letter-writing, peaceful protest - under such circumstances can strengthen social repression by testifying to its democratic, representative nature. In fact, "freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude", since "the conditions of tolerance are 'loaded'". They are determined by the existing class structure and by the existence of legalised violence by the state. Over forty years on, and the role of 'tolerance' as a conservative nostrum has far from vanished.

Resourcefully, Marcuse calls upon the liberal tradition itself when legitimising intolerance, particularly of those who would not be disposed to reciprocate (for example, the far right), or of conditions that are actively harmful to liberty. Further, he shows that oppressed minorities are not obliged to seek the permission of society as a whole, to accomodate themselves to and tolerate something that is intolerable. Most interesting, I think, is the riposte to moralistic pacifism: "[T]o refrain from violence in the face of vastly superior violence is one thing, to renounce a priori violence against violence, on ethical or psychological grounds (because it may antagonize sympathizers) is another. Non-violence is normally not only preached to but exacted from the weak - it is a necessity rather than a virtue, and normally it does not seriously harm the case of the strong." Toleration in this sense involves agreeing to be coerced. I think of Iraq here: it was expected that they would tolerate being occupied, that if they weren't grateful, they would at least not put up any meaningful resistance. Given what the occupation entailed, the expected commitment to non-violence on the part of Iraqis would simply have been capitulation to the stronger force. Marcuse, while not celebrating the use of violence, insists on historicising the significance of violence, particularly on the difference between revolutionary and reactionary violence; between the violence of the oppressed and that of their oppressors. And he also makes short work of the claim that capitalist democracy is in itself the antithesis of dictatorship (and is therefore legitimate in its violent repression of what can only be a totalitarian challenge): "The only authentic alternative and negation of dictatorship (with respect to this question) would be a society in which 'the people' have become autonomous individuals, freed from the repressive requirements of a struggle for existence in the interest of domination, and as such human beings choosing their government and determining their life. Such a society does not yet exist anywhere."

Marcuse introduces important qualifications. While critiquing the strategies of accomodation to the system, he notes that "these liberties remain a precondition for the restoration of their original oppositional function": he critiques the society, but does not devalue the limited forms of democracy permitted. There is a problem, however, with the explicit focus on oppressed minorities, whose predicament and status as minorities precisely demands intolerance of the society; and also on students, the radicalised minority which sometimes out of frustration produced impotent violent acting out against the system, as per the adventurist antics of the Weathermen. The opposition to tactics in which the 'rules of the game' are formally assented to is certainly preferrable to liberal piety, but perhaps also implicit here is his doubt about the insurrectionary possibilities of the working class. As he explains in his correspondence with Adorno over the German SDS, Marcuse understands the ultra-left outbursts of some of the students, since the existing state of affairs is increasingly, almost physically, unbearable (and he rightly points out that between angry students and the state, he is with the students). Yet a focus on working class politics would involve the recognition that breaking the 'rules of the game' can potentially be as demobilising and inadequate as dogmatically adhering to them. There is no substitute for the organised power of the working class. As Lukacs points out in History and Class Consciousness, the revolutionary attitude to legality is purely tactical: we recognise it as a material force, but beyond that it has no mystique for us. We neither cleave to it remorselessly nor seek to confront it out of bravado when we have not the strength to do so. Formally accepting 'the rules of the game' can be the right thing to do and the more revolutionary thing to do.

Anyway, here's a documentary about Marcuse, his support for the radical movements of the 1960s, and his clash with Governor Ronald Reagan. It features some students of his, including Angela Davis: