- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Habermas & the utopian vision

Posted by: bill on April 12, 1999 at 19:05:12:

In Reply to: Habermas continued, McSpotlight permitting posted by Samuel Day Fassbinder on April 11, 1999 at 17:57:52:

: As I said here, ideology is a derivative phenomenon of the lifeworld experiences of the people it possesses. We might use this understanding of ideology to understand not only the communities of the rich and powerful, but also divisions within these communities as based on something more than strategy. Red Deathy argues here that:


A good Gramscian would of course note that their (the ruling classes') ideology would change depending upon immediate interests, and would tend to reflect the aims of the ones with most power (specifically their priority is always to remain in power, a drive for mega profits would come wghen they feel secure in their power, etc.). Dickens was writing at a time when teh Reactionary feudalists, and many capitalists noted teh destruictive tendancies of laissez faire, and thus dreamed up Paternalism, leter to be expressed as Disraelis 'On-Nation'Toryism' which ahs dominated here for well over a century now.

: But there's more to distinguish Dickens' ideology, laced as it was with sympathy for the poor (read HARD TIMES or A CHRISTMAS CAROL or George Orwell's famous essay on Dickens) from the most prominent ruling class ideologies of today.

: Today, there are plenty of critiques of the vast gulf between rich and poor that has been created in today's economy, circulating especially on the Net: read the writings of Jeremy Seabrook, for instance, or Michael Parenti, or Michael Brenner's economic analysis in the New Left Review, issue #229 (may/june 1998), or the various critiques of labor practices in the low-wage countries such as Vietnam. But very little of this stuff makes it to the mainstream media at least in the US, and none of it receives any credence in mainstream American politics, since both dominant Democratic and Republican parties believe in neo-liberal quick fixes to economic problems, quick fixes that allow politicians to conduct photo-opportunities without really doing anything about the living conditions of vast numbers of destitute people in America today.

: The difference between Dickens' time and ours is something that can't merely be explained by a discussion of ruling class economic and political formations. What's happened is that Dickens was operating under a "Whiggish version of history" that we've lost today. As Jurgen Habermas points out in a 1984 essay ("The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies," pp. 48-70 of The New Conservatism (Cambridge MA, USA: MIT Press, 1989)), the horizon formed by the "utopia of social labor" has disappeared, and that the utopian element of the lifeworld has dried up between Dickens' time and ours. The result is a general tendency of the Left to despair, accompanied by a triumphalist version of ruling-class ideology shared by the communities of the rich and powerful (the most current manifestation of which are the bombings of Yugoslavia, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan etc., the domination of Russia by Thatcherists, the Netanyahu regime in Israel, the persistence of IMF policy despite obvious failures etc.).

: Habermas' solution to this problem is something worth noting; we must re-ignite the discussion of utopia among the people themselves:


What can be outlined normatively are the necessary but general conditions for the communicative practice of everyday life and for a procedure of discursive will-formation that would put participants themselves in a position to realize concrete possibilities for a better and less threatened life, on their own initiative and in accordance with their own needs. From Hegel through Carl Schmitt down to our day, a critique of utopia that has issued dire warnings against Jacobinism has been wrong in denouncing the supposedly unavoidable marriage of utopia and terror (Thus Gee is wrong in denouncing those of us who dream of something better - SDF). Nevertheless, it is utopian in the negative sense to confuse a highly developed communicative infrastructure of possible forms of life with a specific totality, in the singular, representing the successful life.


Nice quote from Habermas. (Got to try to grasp this guy!)

I don't think the importance of a utopian vision can be underestimated. For myself, it was not the critical analysis of the capitalist economics by Marx that first moved me in the direction of socialism, but the inhumanity of a system that degraded, alienated, and impoverished vast segments of a population. The prospect of a world without class divisions, a world less inspired by the concept of "profit" and more inspired by the creation of conditions Designed to foster the creative potential of every individual ie. "the human project", this was inspiring.

Recognizing that while some of Marx's claims may be less relevant today - (crises inevitability, "base-superstructure model", formation of a revolutionary proletariat - coupled with an underestimation of the power culture plays in manipulating values) there still remain many of the ideals of "the revolution" - namely true democracy, emancipation of a wage class and social justice.

In today's world, Habermas's emphasis on "communicative rationality" implies a social action around activities such as consensus building rather than the "natural" heirarchical foundations endemic to capitalist culture. This process itself (it seems to me) requires utopian vision.

But there are utopias and utopias. The slide from the scientific vision of the enlightenment to the nearly dystopic vision of modern technocracy is nearly complete. (Here Marx is little help as his faith in scientific "progress" has led to a situation where, as Thoreau would observe, Things are Really in the saddle, and Really ride mankind and technology controls more and more of our daily living experience.

And what of Capitalism's own Utopia? Well judging by what some of the Laissez-Faire, Anarcho-Capitalists put up for us - try this one. It's hard to envision a more disturbing portrayal of a future.

I would hope that the future utopian vision will have widened its social theory to include universals not simply regarding the various forms of domination of man by man, but the environment as well, recognizing that humanity is integrally imbedded within the entire bio-region (namely earth).

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