The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
Karl Marx, “Theses on Ludwig Feuerbach” (1845), Thesis 11, Marx Engels Selected Works,(MESW), Volume I, p. 15; these words are also engraved upon his grave.
Cassandra: Already I prophesied to my countrymen all their disasters… Ever since that fault I could persuade no one of aught.
The Odd Alliance of Postmodernism and Communist Thought
One of the most curious developments in the recent times is how “leftist” thought became a strange marriage between postmodern thinking, with its skepticism about science, logic, reason and categories, and communistic thought on capital, power relations, classes, etc.
A simple reflection should make evident that the two streams of thought are fundamentally contradictory. To discuss this is very broad brushstrokes, if there is any concept central to communistic thinking, it is that of classes, the division between workers and capitalist, or between the rich and the poor, the oppressors in power versus the powerless oppressed, etc. In short, there needs to be a very clear, bright, sharp and well defined line between the classes.
But how is this need to be able to clearly and distinctly identify the classes, the rich-poor divide, the oppressor and oppressed, compatible with postmodernism whereby every boundary is nebulous, every identity is blurred or a “construct”, every categorisation arbitrary and every border ever shifting and in flux? You cannot have a “class warfare” if you cannot identify who’s “in” a class and who’s “out” of a class, you cannot have an “oppressor-oppressed” narrative if you cannot clearly demarcate the class of “oppressors” and the class of the “oppressed”.
If all identities are nebulous, all boundaries are blurred, then you can’t really group people into “classes”, and you can’t define who’s the oppressor and who’s the oppressed. With a plurality of equally valid narratives, from one point of view, A oppresses B, and from another telling, B oppresses A. The entire scheme collapses into incoherence.
Who’s My Neighbour?
Even without the benefit of the postmodern alliance with communism, we can already tell that there are problems with the “vagueness” of the concepts of communist theories. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is confronted with an immediately identifying need before him, he does not know for example if the man who was waylaid by robbers was actually rich or poor, but only that he was dying and needed help.
The problem is that communist concepts does not permit of such a simple or easy identification of “who is my neighbour”. There are essentially two problems with the use and application of communist concepts.
- It is not obvious who exactly are the “rich” and the “poor”, which is evident in the way in which Marxists distinguish between the “proletariat” and the “lumpenproletariat”. The concept of social and economic “classes” does not actually have an applicable empirical meaning or operational definition.
- More importantly, empirically the members of these classes, even if you somehow manage to come up with a concrete enough formula, are constantly moving in and out of the classes. Corporations rise and fall, people become rich and poor, boom and bust happens to both corporations and people. Given the buzz and rapidity in which people and corporations constantly shift about the classes, the task of “fixing” them into a class becomes an extremely, and some might say impossibly hopeless, enterprise.
On Facebook I witnessed a rather entertaining discussion as to whether Phil Robertson is a “lumpenproletariat”. According to his account, when he was younger he used to be “white trash” working on farms with black workers, etc. But now he is a successful businessman and a millionaire. A corporation may appear rich, but its may actually turn out to be a worthless bubble, a politician may appear to be wielding power, but maybe that’s because he’s backed by some corporate interest, or maybe a corporation may appear to be in power, but actually they are being managed from behind the scenes by government agents.
There is a historical example from the Radish the Spanish Civil War where the anarchist National Confederation of Labour seized the factories and turn them over to workers… at first. Citing Bryan Caplan, he goes on to explain,
Practical experience gradually revealed a basic truth of economics for which theoretical reflection would have sufficed: if the workers take over a factory, they will run it to benefit themselves. A worker-run firm is essentially identical to a capitalist firm in which the workers also happen to be the stockholders. Once they came to this realization, however dimly, the Spanish Anarchists had to either embrace capitalism as the corollary of worker control, or else denounce worker control as the corollary of capitalism. For the most part, they chose the latter course.
What happens when the workers themselves becomes the owners? Are they the oppressor? The capitalists? Or what?
If I may propose a hypothesis why communist theories and concepts fail to possess solidity or coherence. The reason I believe is that communistic thought treat concepts which are posteriori empirical concepts as a priori rational concepts. What is “property”? What defines the “employer” and the “employee”? There has never been and there will never be a universally applicable a priori conception of property or master-servant relation, each relation and concept is particularly instantiation in a plurality of contexts which does not permit of a universal systematisation. If I mortgage my house, is it “truly” my property? If I am guaranteed a rent upon a piece of property for a hundred years, do I own it? How about if I purchase my house on a loan, is it mine? Or the bank’s? There are laws which governs and defines the employer-employee relation, in exactly the same way that there were laws governing who slaves where to be treated and the limits and extent of the master’s power over the slave. We can even see this in Plato’s Euthyphro where Euthyphro was going to have his father persecuted for killing a slave. Human reality is not so nicely structured for the benefit of academic systemisation but its concepts shifts in accordance to the particulars of every human society, individual and circumstance.
Systems and the Devil
Given the messy complexity of human reality, this is why it is usual for most leftist and communist thinkers to speak of “systems” or “conditions” rather than actual empirically identifiable entities. It is always helpful to gesture vaguely at “Wall Street” without needing to identify which company, which individual, which person, etc. It is not usual to simply identify this CEO or that Director or this Manager as the “powerful oppressor”, but rather to speak generally and abstractly about “those in power”, “the rich”, “power classes” or “oppressive systems”. Particular empirical companies and individuals can rise and fall, but yet somehow the “oppressive systems” or the “rich class” remains behind to crush the poor and the powerless, etc.
There is in fact a very apt analogy between this conception of “systems” and “classes” and the theological concept of the “devil”. Like the devil, you cannot empirically identify such “systems” or “classes”. You can see the signs of its possession upon people, but you cannot see the devil himself. You can to kill the individual, but the devil will simply find someone else to possess. Likewise you can attempt to destroy or bring down a certain company or individual, but these “oppressive systems” will simply find some other company or individual to possess and do its nefarious work of oppressing the poor and powerless. Like the Spirit, “you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” You see its signs, but not the thing itself, and you cannot know where it comes from and where it goes. Yet both “systems” and the “devil” possesses agency, they do things, they make things happen, although you cannot see them, they are constantly on the move, shifting between different individuals and corporations, hiding here and then hiding there.
There is another curious analogy between the communist idea of “classes” and “systems” and the Church of England. A minister of the Church of England is bringing a claim against the Diocese of Worchester regarding his unfair dismissal. There is a legal question now before the Employment Appeals Tribunal as to whether or not a minister of the Church of England was an “employee” or merely an “office-holder”. I am not really so much interested in the actual details of this case but a rather curious remark made by the judge,
Despite its central position in society as the established Church, the Church of England has no legal personality. It can neither sue nor be sued. The piecemeal approach of legislation over the years has resulted in the title “Church of England”, denoting an amalgam of an infinite number of bodies with no clear picture as to how the various parts interact with each other.
Thus, I have to be clear that I am not doing a Thatcher “there is no such thing as society”. There are of course rich people and poor people. There are people and corporations with power and those without, and there do exist groups and classes. Clearly, after all, the Church of England does exist (despite the claims of the Roman Catholics!).
But communistic theory does not merely inform us as to the existence of classes, the rich and the poor and the existence of power, that would hardly be an interesting claim. It also claims to be able to explain their relations by using the concepts like labour, property, capital, etc. But herein lies the problem. Like the “Church of England”, the power classes, oppressive systems, etc, denotes “an amalgam of an infinite number of bodies with no clear picture as to how the various parts interact with each other”. Remember, corporations and individuals do rise and fall, become rich and poor, acquire and lose power. This occurs with such whizzing rapidly over an almost infinite number of permutations and interactions that it is virtually impossible to keep up.
If one cannot identify where these systems, classes and powers that be are, then like the Church of England, they “can neither sue nor be sued”. How can you “speak truth to power” when you cannot locate the ears to speak? How can you attempt to bring down these powers and systems when you cannot find them? No sooner is one person or organisation brought down than does the
devil power class raise another. It is not a legal “person”, possessing of empirical agency, and thereby subject to the moral critique and sanction. In a Star Trek game I played a long time ago, the Romulan side whose warships can cloak had an interesting slogan which went something like, “If knowledge is power, then to be unknown is to be invincible”. If you cannot know or identify where these power classes are, you cannot act against them, they become as invulnerable as the devil.
A Genealogy of Communism and Two Conceptions of Science: Systematic and Operational
Far be it from someone who actually does believe that there do exist devils to sneer at academics who seem to believe in one, however, the problem is that communism does not seek merely to formulate interesting theories about social and economic relations for our serene philosophical contemplation. As Marx himself puts it, the point is to change the world.
However, given the empirical and operational difficulties of applying communistic theories to the world, one is not entirely certain as to how to go about changing the world with one’s theories which are virtually impossibly hard to operate. It would be useful here to take a slight detour from our discussion on communism itself and discuss the general development of the sciences.
It is hardly surprising that communist thought merged out of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, with its confidence in the ability to understand, organise and ultimately, hath dominion over the world. The predictive power of the hard sciences, particularly that of Newtonian physics, gave zest to the idea that we can apply the same methods and understanding to the human reality and the societies as well. Just as the predictive capacity of Newtonian physics lead to applications and advancements in technology and engineering, granting the West greater control and power over the world, likewise, it was believed, the same “scientific methods” of the hard sciences would lead to a likewise predictive success and power for economics and the social sciences, and also lead to applications and abilities to organise societies and communities.
We need here to be a little more careful about our definition of “science” before approaching the question as to whether or not Marxism can be considered a “science”.
There are basically two tradition of science which can be traced to their philosophical backgrounds, the Anglophone “Empiricism” versus that of the Continental European “rationalism”. While the European conception of “science” is more “systematic” as an “organised body of knowledge” in some vague general sense (which can therefore include what many in the Anglophone world consider to be the “humanities”, e.g. anthropology, psychology, history, economics, etc), but the Anglophone world considers “science” in the much more “pragmatic” operational sense of being capable of “empirical application” or predictions.
What I would argue is that a lot of the rhetorical force and authority behind science comes, not from the Continental European conception of science as an “organised body of knowledge”, but from the Anglophone operational empiricism. Most of the “authority” of the sciences comes not from the methodology by which the conclusions are arrived (except in the case of mathematics whereby from the deduction comes the proof), but from the fact that you can “replicate” directly to us the consequences of the theorems and formulas in experiments and engineering, etc. It is this “immediacy”, the replicability and applicability of the hard sciences, which gives it its normative and authoritative force. This is Newton’s key secret when he declared in his Principia,
I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction.
Thus, Newton deals only with the phenomena, the empirical realities, he makes inferences from them and by induction makes them general, and by these general inductions, makes predictions. But what he does not do is to attempt to peer past the phenomena to get to some underlying “reasons”, “conditions”, “systems” or demons hiding behind the phenomenon.
According to some Marxist scholars, it seems that Marx did conceive of his system as a predictive science and Marx certainly did use his theories to make predictions about his revolution, etc. Most of the Enlightenment thinkers of this time was precisely riding upon the successes of the hard sciences and technology, confident that their theories would give them the same power as the physical sciences, making a sort of clumsily association between the hard sciences and their own social sciences. The crisis of course is when his predictions did not quite come to past nor his theories work out the way he expected.
Why Marxist Theory is Useless
There is a way to account for this failure. The predictive capacity of science depends upon our ability to isolate the variables. This is why science requires a controlled environment to perform experiments. Even in cases where it is impossible to control the environment, e.g. astronomy and celestial mechanics, the phenomenon in question must be simple enough for us to neglect the other factors at play to make predictions about the orbit of the planets.
I do not want to simply make general references to “human complexity” to make my case for why Marxism ultimately failed. Instead, we can consider this from a computational point of view of processing data. In mathematics and computing, we speak of the number of steps or iterations which an algorithms takes to arrive at a solution. For example, say, you want to determine whether any integers between 1 and 10000 possess a certain property. One, you can check each number individually to see if each one has the property, in mathematics this is called a solution by “brute force”. But this is horrendously inefficient, and in making a 10000 calculations, mistakes maybe made and we are no more certain of our results. Alternatively, you can formulate a general formula or theory which can group entire collections of numbers together and eliminate them at one shot. For example, if you can prove that all even integers do not possess the property and all odd integers do not as well, then you have your solution without needing to check every single integer. Thus, a 100000 steps has been reduced to a mere two steps. Thus, the algorithm or solution must be simpler than the phenomenon in question. Naturally we seek for algorithms which are efficient and take fewer steps and iterations. For example to find the determinant of a matrix, certain shortcuts or clever algorithms can reduce a computation which can take an entire human lifetime on our best computers to a mere minute.
Thus considering from this point of view, we can consider the operational sciences as attempts to formulate, not theories but algorithms to find solutions. Both Aristotle and Newton after all observed that planets moved and objects fall, but one had a “simpler” theory which required less steps and propositions to derive at the solution to both.
We do not require that Marxism produce exact results in the same way that the physical sciences do. In fact, in many parts of engineering and the physical sciences, we have no way to “solve the formula” to find exact solutions, we must be content with numerical methods and approximations “sufficiently close” to the exact solution for the purposes of engineering or scientific predictions. However, what we do require is that the concepts and theories of Marxism to be sufficiently “simple” and rigorous to be able to generate usable and operational results.
Therein lies the problem of Marxism, the concepts are operationally vacuous and algorithmically inefficient.
Operationally Vacuous: Only in rare moments in human history does one get to “control” literally every variable in a society, and a society has to be sufficient “isolated” from the rest for such grand social engineering to works. There is good reason why Nazism stood for “National Socialists”, etc. The fascists, correctly in my opinion, knew that to bring about a just economic order, national political control, and most importantly, isolation of the economy and community from external forces is necessary. But in an “open borders” political order, economic chaos would reign as every factor and forces, and most importantly, capital, would flow in and out of a nation rendering economic order and justice impossible. You must simplify a society before you can manage it, just as you must simplify an environment before you can perform an experiment.
Algorithmically Inefficient: Furthermore, in addition to the problems of controlling the variables, the concepts and theories of Marxism are too vague, clumsy and ham-fisted to make a surgical operation possible. Every phenomenon or occurrence requires at least hundreds and hundreds of pages of communist analysis to make sense of. Just look at the vastness, complexity and plurality of communist literature. Communist prediction, when it is precise, is wrong, and when it is right, is vague. Say you want to find a number of a certain property between one and one million. A formula which can immediately identify one straight away will of course be the best, but in the absence of such accuracy, a formula which can find it within the neighbourhood of ten integers would be helpful as well: “there is one between 50 and 60”. But a formula which says, “It is between 200,000 and a million” is virtually useless, and if you need another hundred thousand calculations to arrive at the solution, it is horrendously algorithmically inefficient. When the formula or theory itself is as complex as the phenomena which it is supposed to analyse, then it is simply pointless.
How can you change the world when before you embark on any action, or change, you require an army of academics crunching numbers and analyze through tons and tons of data, not forgetting endless “discourse” and consultations and engagements? For a Patriot Missile to intercept an incoming missile attack, it must make calculations in real time, and although it need not be an instant, but it must be “sufficiently in time” to catch the incoming missile before it hits us. But if for every social and human phenomena and problem, you require such an astronomical amount of data processing, time and resources to manage the society and determine the solution, then the very amount of resources needed would change the human phenomenon itself. Thus, the classic case of the Soviet Communist themselves becoming the new power class of experts to “process” their communistic theories and apply it their country. This is why the early Marxists, instead of dealing with the plethora of social and human complexity, simply wanted to restart “on a blank slate” and called for revolutions eliminating the whole thing in an apocalyptic inferno and restarting anew for the implementation of their abstract theories in a “blank slate”, this is simply because their theories are too algorithmically inefficient to handle the complexity of actual real societies and rather than overload their systems and theories with too much data, they simply eliminated the whole thing instead. It is on par solving the problem of divorce by eliminating marriage, or the problem of suffering by killing the sufferer.
Contrary to the fantasies of academics, knowledge costs resources in terms of time and processing power. Thus, it is not so much as to whether communism is “true” or “false” but whether it is efficient or inefficient in its capacity to make predictions and analysis about society for us to manage it. As I said before, of course there are socio-economic classes, there are rich and poor people, there are people with power and those without. This is not an interesting observation. But what we want are theories, formulas and efficient algorithms to change and manage these, and communism has so far not provided it.
The key problem of communist theory is therefore that first, there are only rare occasions when it can be applied wholesale, and secondly, the algorithm complexity of communist theory itself, along with its vagueness, renders it too computationally inefficient for operational use in managing and changing society, needing too much resources and time to implement.
Communism as a Humanistic Discipline.
Therefore in a curious shift, since communism is no longer a science in the proper Anglophone sense of the word, operationally useful and applicable, Marxism now has become a sort of humanistic discipline. It still claims the label of “science”, but in the Continental European sense of an “organised body of knowledge'”, not one which can change society nor is capable of applications.
This is why in place of predictions or applications, we speak of “consensus” in the social sciences and leftist thought. Anglophone science on the other hand is not based on consensus but prediction and deduction. If you cannot formulate an experiment to make predictions or make mathematical deductions, it is not science. Science is essentially operationalistic, prediction and deduction of predicable consequences.
But the idea of “scientific consensus” is simply ludicrous. Truth is not decided by a democratic vote, and the idea of “scientific consensus” acquires its rhetorical force from the European “classical” view of a community of philosopher kings whose somehow elite and academic minds along with arcane methods (or magical thinking rather) gives them estoeric insights into truth and reality, etc. But such insights of course are essentially operationally idle.
It is one thing to know that the devil exists, it is another thing to find him, and quite another thing to exorcise him. But when all your theory does is to propose that he exists and give us a crude picture, but without the means to scry for him and exorcise him, what good are your theories? Perhaps this accounts for the genocidal and apocalyptic nature of many a leftist thinkers, who in their despair at being unable to locate the devil, rather have a global incineration instead, to burn down an entire building just to kill one person.
I am not someone to despise the humanities of course, I still do like history and philosophy, etc. But if communism is an art, then it partakes of all the difficulties, complexities and ambiguities which plagues any subject of the arts, instead of being a store of “scientific” truths.
The Change the World… or Not: The Cassandra Problem
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a prophetess who was cursed by Apollo to never be believed. There is a sort of analogy between Cassandra and the Communist. The Marxist maybe “right” about their power relations or class warfare or whatever, however their theories, far from being able to change the world, has virtually no influence upon it at all. Their “truth” claims to power are useless, they are never believed, and when believed, are helpless against the “powers” which they rail against.
This is of course the essentially tragic turn of Marxist thought, born out of the blazing confidence of the advances of the Enlightenment and the hard sciences, now dwindled into impotent railing against demons and devils who hide from their theories. It is an interesting question indeed the appeal of communist and leftist thought long after they have lost all their potency and operational power.
No doubt Marx would roll in his grave to know this, but Marxism has become once more a philosophical consolation. It is “ideological” giving an explanation and interpretative total worldview for the realities of the human condition, poverty, oppression, suffering, inequalities, etc. Just as Christians blame the devil for the world’s ills, the Marxist blames equally invisible classes, powers and the rich for all their problems. But possessing this knowledge does not help at all, for it is operationally vacuous, like Cassandra, they are prophets who are helpless to prevent the inevitable disaster. What is left to them is a serene philosophical consolation.
It is of course an interesting question why people find consolation in blame. The attribution of agency, whether to volcanoes, thunderstorms, psychosis (in the form of demonic possession), seems to be cathartic. Likewise is attributing agency and blame to abstract “systems”, “classes”, “the rich”, the “powerful”, which we’ve already established does not refer to actual people or empirical organisations who are sufficiently “legal persons”, but the concepts “behind” the empirical phenomenon. By blaming them, we incorporate them into the “moral universe”, we humanise them, we give them ears to ears for us to rail at, and consciences for us to accuse, and thereby make them humanly bearable.
Although of course, I think this is simply a superstitious sort of consolation, but then again, I believe in God, and the existence of angels and demons, who am I to say?
I guess an account is required as to why did I bother with this essay in the first place. I guess I bother so that I don’t have to bother. Much energy is wasted learning, thinking and discussing about many a political and economic conditions when the knowing and the learning of such stuff is quite useless anyway. In a way, this is my “consolation”, I know that I can do nothing, and knowing about all these Marxist stuff is likewise pointless. I am neither a politician nor someone in possession of sufficient resources to understand human society and reality in any depth to make a different. This is my apology for not caring at all. I don’t see the point, or the consolation, in learning about such things. Just like how I’ve long decided that Singapore is going down in flames and have ceased to care about immigration or Singaporean national identity.
I guess this is my excuse to be bury my head in mathematics, physics and esoteric philosophy and be blissfully fascinated with differential geometry and not bother with things I can’t do anything about.
Interestingly, even leftist academics are largely coming to the same conclusion as we can see in this article Zizek’s own lament, and with that, I leave you with this own words,
The enthusiasm of the Arab Spring is mired in compromises and religious fundamentalism; Occupy is losing momentum to such an extent that the police cleansing of New York’s Zuccotti Park even seemed like a blessing in disguise. It’s the same story around the world: Nepal’s Maoists seem outmaneuvered by the reactionary royalist forces; Venezuela’s “Bolivarian” experiment is regressing further and further into caudillo-run populism; and even the most hopeful sign, Greece’s anti-austerity movement, has lost energy after the electoral defeat of the leftist Syriza party… For all that crises shatter people out of their complacency and make them question the fundamentals of their lives, the first spontaneous reaction is not revolution but panic, which leads to a return to basics: food and shelter. The core premises of the ruling ideology are not put into doubt. They are even more violently asserted…
The main victim of the ongoing crisis is thus not capitalism, which appears to be evolving into an even more pervasive and pernicious form, but democracy — not to mention the left, whose inability to offer a viable global alternative has again been rendered visible to all. It was the left that was effectively caught with its pants down. It is almost as if this crisis were staged to demonstrate that the only solution to a failure of capitalism is more capitalism.