Capitalism, (Eco)Socialism and the Enlightenment.

The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant?

There has been much heat in recent debate in the left-blogosphere about the correct socialist stance towards contemporary Islam. Much of this involves some leftists staking their all on a defence of ‘the enlightenment’ – the eighteenth century bourgeoise liberal movement of science, reason, universalism and human rights. Now, unfairly for Islam, this enlightenment is often counterpoised with it. However, anyone with an interest in the longue durée of history will find that in many ways, Islamic civilisation formed the roots of the enlightenment. A thousand years ago Islamic societies appear as the bastions of science, maths, technology, reason and religious tolerance – when compared to a backward and mediaeval Europe. But this is not our question here. Rather, it is this. As Marxists, are we simply the inheritors of the enlightenment? And how do these questions look now, after the dawn of modern ecological consciousness?

Not that I want to mix my Marx with too much Weber and go all Frankfurt School, but the mid twentieth century philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer had a point when they wrote in the 1940’s, – after the enlistment of science and reason by the Nazi holocaust, that:

“The Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant”.

(Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944).

nuclear mushroom cloud

The fully enlightened earth ... ?

Some campaigners are comfortable wearing their late eighteenth century intellectual armour of simple enlightenment universalism. That bright and  dazzling set of ideas pretended to be the view from nowhere, a simple discovery of universal laws of nature, (of which the laws of society were a naturalised subset). Yet we can also see that despite this universalism and scientific detachment, it was also the located view of a wealthy elite of western gentlemen.

Capital and enlightenment emerged entangled together. The enlightenment enabled the rising bourgeoisie to challenge the ideological power of feudalism – the Christian Church – and supplant (or supplement) it with its own scientific worldview. But early capitalism also relied on the African slave system and colonial plunder. Thus simultaneously with the enlightenment, with its ‘universal rites of man’ arose the ideology of scientific, biological racism. This was assembled to justify slave labour as ‘beyond the universal rights of man’, as somehow ‘subhuman’. All the great science and reason of  the enlightenment and after became assembled into these doctrines of ‘scientific racism’. It was bright and brazen enlightenment that constructed its singular and darker ‘other’ out of the irreducible multiplicity of the worlds beyond it.

At the same time, patriachy and its gender regimes were being remade along the rationalistic and scientific lines suited to the epoch of capitalist modernity. Hence the witch-burning, and an important stage in the etymological history of the word ‘faggot’.  ‘Science and reason’ were not always deployed ‘progressively’ around relations of sexual, gender and racial oppression, one of the reasons why we have a history of  LGBT and womens movement challenges to oppressions enacted by the scientifico-medical establishment.

And what of the experiences of those being forced to become the first industrial working class in the first mills and factories in these Islands? Was this some cheery process where the masses celebrated the march of the progress of science, reason and industrialisation? Who, then are the mythical figures like Captain Swing and Ned Ludd,  whose names rallied the the people in great riots to break the machines?! When we praise the enlightenment, do we not also remember how this was experienced as a loss, rather than as progress for the new working class? How it was an experience of being dragged backwards, deeper into poverty and exploitation, but with added pollution. Hence it was not until nearly a century of labour movement organsing before the working class began to get even a small slice of this ‘enlightenment’ and ‘progress’, that their labour had made.

And from todays standpoint, after the holocaust, hiroshima, the nuclear arms race, ecological destruction and climate change – how are we to view the enlightenment? Does capitalist modernity appear anymore progressive to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, being evicted from the burning forests than it did to the luddite worker, forced into the mills by the enclosures?

The question of the relationship between enlightenment and socialism becomes therefore inseparable from that of : “Is capitalism progress over feudalism’? For Marx, capitalism was only progressive in that it laid the basis for socialism. It was one-sidedly progressive. Alienated labour means that every step towards progress under capital means further enslavement by our own production. Therefore Science, enlightenment, rationalisation, modernity all have a double edge. Marx articulated this dialectical ambivalence  most clearly when writing about the domination and transformation of india by the British bourgeoisie:

“All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and people through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?

….When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control… then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain”.

Karl Marx, The Future Results of British Rule in India, 1853.

Thus we want a future that is progress beyond capitalism, rather than regress to barbarism, or a romanticisation of pre-capitalist forms. This future is made possible by capitalism, but never realised by it. So what does this have to do not only at the level of the capitalist mode of production, but its episteme, its scientific world view of reason and enlightenment?

I have sketched out a few well worn critiques of the  enlightenment from the left (there are plenty of others from the right). This does not meant I want to advocate that we abandon the enlightenment in favour of some kind of postmodern cultural relativism. Instead I want to argue for reclaiming the enlightenment, and relocating it away from the instrumental peaks of state and corporate power, where reason is the slave to the production of capitalist chaos. Enlightenment and modernity must be rendered separable from their capitalist makers. The bourgeoisie only invoke their univeralisms to mask the particularity of their class rule. But the global working class, the end result of capitalist globalisation, must begin to assert its own rationality.

So can we can relocate the enlightenment, reclaim it from the bourgeoisie, and declare that the only progressive class today is the global working class? Instead of masking the particularity of bourgeois  rule with a false universalism, a pretend view from nowhere, we can turn to what Marx saw as the genuinely universal class. This makes the new enlightenment a view from somewhere, embedded in social relationships, not a cartesian pure consciousness. Thus an enlightenment transplanted to a rising working class might be a very transformed and different thing. Reason might move from its purely instrumental mode ( with its cartesian subject /object dichotomies) to what? A more intersubjective and communicative reason a la Habermas? Or would we find a different direction for science, and a different relationship with the natural world beyond the human? Specualtive nonsense, maybe, as a postcapitalist episteme inevitably remains occluded to us.

But back down to earth. Of course, comrades like Peter Tatchell have a point about standing with the declaration of Universal human rights. The working class movements globally can claim this as our own, and take it further than the bourgeoisie. And our project is indeed all about seizing the historic achievements of the bourgeoisie, and taking them further. Lets agree that socialism is indeed about reaching for something better and beyond capitalist modernity, – not falling for something worse.

This is therefore a question deeply connected to the traditional socialist project of seizing control of the forces of production hitherto developed within capitalism. (And these productive forces include scientific knowledge, as well as machinery, etc). But after that seizure, true socialism was never really about simply running the old machine as before. Rather it was about how we begin to transform it, away from the needs of capital and towards the needs of humanity and the planet, until it becomes something different altogether.

When capitalist modernity was born, it was met with two main political currents – liberalism and conservatism. You could either be capitalisms liberal cheerleader, or its reactionary critic. Then along came the working class and Marxism. Thus a third option came into being, of an alternative modernity – socialism. With the temporary eclipse of socialism and the working class in recent years it seems we were thrust backwards. Politics has been about capitals liberal cheerleaders or reactionary critics again. And amongst the reactionary anti-capitalists we can place both political Islamicists and deep green ecologists.

Ecosocialism is the rebirth of Marx’s project for our times. It poses anew the question of an alternative modernity, of an ecological enlightenment. But this enlightenment is of a different class, and a different time from Voltaires. And it will provide a different standpoint from those whose socialism has degenerated into secular liberalism, as well as from reactionary fundamentalisms.


1 Comment

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One response to “Capitalism, (Eco)Socialism and the Enlightenment.

  1. Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of “Green” environmentalism, deep ecology, eco-feminism, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, “dumpster diving,” “buying organic,” “locavorism,” etc.). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms.

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