Monday, June 17, 2019

Frankfurt School on Religion cont'd

More than a month has gone by since my preliminary post on the subject.

My principal concern then was "What is criticism good for?" Another way of asking the question is to ask how far did the Frankfurt School get from Enlightenment rationality? Drastically simplified, the Frankfurt School worried that Enlightenment rationality reduced rationality to functionality and tended, as a consequence, to be exploitative. If politics, for example, is about what works then how is that different from controlling people?

That's a fine and understandable point. However, the thing about Enlightenment rationality is that it tends to focus on what is measurable. That is to say, it connects criticism with consistent results. Criticism, on the other hand, focuses on the internal logic of what is criticized. From that perspective, it would seem to follow that because an existing practice has internal tensions it must be possible to create a new one that is better. I'm not sure that is true.

What I propose to do in this post is to look at an approach to irrationality, to systemic bias, in Marx and map it onto the concepts of ideal validity and empirical validity that Habermas identifies in Weber. Why I am doing this will, I hope become clear as I go along.

In Marx’s account of ideology we find a very profound analysis of the problems of systemic bias. Indeed, I would argue that Marx clearly identified a problem that many others have failed to recognize. The problem is that irrationality, and bias is a form of irrationality, cannot be overcome by rationality. I can overcome error by being careful in my reasoning or submitting it to others to criticize as I am doing now. But we can’t overcome systemic bias that way. Marx famously states the problem in the Theses on Feuerbach with the question, “Who will teach the teachers?” If we are all subject to a systemic bias, then the teacher is every  bit as much biased as the student. And what applies to the classroom will apply equally to individual psychology. There is no stance I can take that will allow me to criticize my own beliefs. There is no meta-language that won’t also be subject to the same system bias.

If we live then in a world where our political, moral and, most importantly for this course, religious language is merely ideology that conceals the real material nature of human relationships, how can there be a genuine revolution? The question was raised last class, wouldn’t any revolution reflect only the biased views of the people leading the revolution? And that was Marx’s critique of the English, American and French revolutions. These were bourgeois revolutions and succeeded only in replacing a distorted ideology that favoured the aristocracy with a distorted ideology that favoured the bourgeoisie.

Why would a communist revolution be any different? The answer to that, for Marx, was that capitalism put the proletariat into a special situation. That their condition was so alienating that they were in a  position to see matters clearly. Not so clearly, and this is vital, not so clearly that they could conceive of a new system that could replace capitalism. Rather, they might come to be in a position where they could see that they shared interests as a class and then, as a class, they might foment revolution and following the revolution, create the conditions that would make it possible to construct a new social order. Not construct the order immediately, but merely create the conditions where it would finally be possible to see clearly, to see without systemic bias and, therefore, construct a just society. I’ll come back to this.

This is sometimes described as a conditional prediction. Marx would be guilty of determinism if he had said revolution were inevitable. But, the argument goes, he did not. Much as I might say that this paper will catch fire if if is raised to a certain temperature in the presence of oxygen, Marx outlined a series of conditions under which revolution might follow. Roughly there were three: 1) that capitalism would be subject to continued crises, 2) that the proletariat would become poorer in absolute terms and finally, 3) that the proletariat would develop class consciousness, that is begin to think of themselves as a class with shared interests rather than as an aggregate of individuals who just happened to earn their livings by selling their labour. For some left socialists in 1920s Germany, it looked like the first two conditions had been met but the third wasn’t. At their peak the left socialist parties didn’t quite get fifteen percent of the vote. And that was at their peak.

Marx writes about a "revolutionary ideology". How does that work given the limits to rationality he has recognized? What I’d like to suggest is that it fits under the category of ideal validity that Habermas finds in Weber but that it is limited in a  way that is not the case for Habermas/Weber. That limitation is that, for Marx, those who would seek to encourage revolution, or to encourage class consciousness in the proletariat, cannot point at any post-revolution social justice for system bias will only reproduce sublimated forms of the current moral ideology, that is to say another religion in the same sense that Feuerbach criticized the Christian Holy Family as a magnification and projection of actual families into the heavens thus setting up a standard that real families cannot meet and, because their own value is taken from them and projected into this sphere, impoverishing actual families. (I'm a Catholic Christian but I acknowledge that there is something profoundly correct about Feuerbach's critique.)

A revolutionary ideology, therefore, could only highlight contradictions within the existing bourgeois ideology.

What, then, would correspond to empirical validity? There is something in Marx but it’s an anticipatory validity. The proletariat cannot see what is beyond the veil. Their special clarity regards what is wrong with the current ideology. As I mentioned above, the new order cannot follow directly from the revolution. There has to be an intervening stage called the dictatorship of the proletariat where that class, pursuing its own interests zealously and without regard for anything but its own self-interest as a class will create the conditions where a new social order could be constructed that would be free from distortion by ideology.

Now, there are two big points to make here. The first, as I noted above, is that this empirical validity is only anticipated. And that is quite a jump, to say that because we can point out tensions, contradictions and injustices, even brutal injustices, in the current system that there must be an alternative that does not suffer from these shortcomings. That is a religious claim, not an empirical one. We hear it often enough, I think every progressive politician has said at some that, “there must be a better way!” But there is no reason that follows. Not empirically. If, like Simone Weil and Raymond Aron, we are going to suggest that Marxism the opiate of the intellectuals, this is where we will aim our artillery. There is something mystical, religious even about this promise. It is a view not unlike what we find in the First letter of John:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
As I read him, Habermas sees more than this strictly negative role for ideal validation in the rationalization of society. He is working towards a notion of rationality that can create the conditions for a legitimate social order and not just a distorted ideology. As a consequence, his view of religion will also change for religion, even an illusory religion has a role to play on the side of ideal validation. This opens the possibilities for religion that simply do not exist in Marx.

A final remark 

As I understand them, both Adorno and Marcuse denied that the objective conditions for revolution existed in the 1920s and they certainly didn’t think they existed in 1968. Therefore, for them, what needed to explained was not why the proletariat had failed to do what it was supposed to do. What needed to be explained was why the socialists of the 1920s and the students of 1968 falsely came to believe that revolutions possible when to quote Marcuse, it was not only no a revolutionary situation, it was not even a pre-revolutionary situation.

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