The politics of reality

When we make a distinction between what is real and what is not real, we distinguish between those experiences which we intend to take seriously and the experiences we intend to ignore.

Three Worlds
by Maurits Escher

A parent tells their child that the monster from their nightmare is not real so that the child can let go of that experience. Scientists decide whether the phenomena indicated by their test results are not real in order to decide whether to include them in or leave them out of further investigation. By saying that God is not real, atheists ignore or invalidate the experience of faith, and by insisting on the reality of God, theists affirm the validity of that that experience.

Deep conflicts arise when groups of people disagree about the validity of whole categories of experience.  These disagreements go beyond abstract conceptualizations to concrete lived experience: they express radically differing ways of relating to the universe, to other people, to oneself.  People don’t just have different ideas about what ‘is real’; they live out, in practice, different ways of being human.

This presents an obstacle for any social movement that aspires to include the majority or totality of human beings, including radical socialism.  The global working class finds itself divided, not only by identifications like nationality or religious creed, but by what Nelson Goodman calls “ways of worldmaking”.  Will theists, for instance, actually give up their theism as ‘false consciousness’? Will practitioners of Indigenous spiritualities give up their sacred relationships to land, to ancestors, to visions, in order to embrace historical materialism? Will the privileged middle classes of the “developed” world, absorbed in bourgeois ideology, accept en masse that the desires and fears which have animated their entire lives are nothing more than illusions?  I doubt it.

For this reason among others, as a radical socialist I find irrealist relativism appealing. I think we can distinguish between the abstract and the concrete, the exigent and the ephemeral, the actual and the fictive, without essentializing these distinctions into the real and the not-real. Letting go of that essentialism could defuse conflicts that only distract from the task of making revolutionary change.

15 thoughts on “The politics of reality

  1. “Occupy” came pretty close to doing this. They refused, at the outset, to produce a unitary manifesto or an analysis, and instead asked each individual to produce his own “narrative”. It seemed a textbook application of the anti-essentialist critique of “the grand narrative” (esp. Marx)- and it paid off in spades, giving the effort a breadth of inclusiveness that was about as wide as it could possibly be given the insurmountable limiting-case of the Left-Right divide.

    That’s all well and good for a one-off happening- but what’s a sustained and serious revolutionary enterprise based on the very “grand narrative” rejected by the likes of OWS supposed to do.

    Marx held, and quite reasonably, that the various forms of consciousness are an expression of social conditions (I would say, more precisely a dimension or component attribute of social conditions, but anyways). This means that the movement doesn’t get to pick and choose its own consciousness. Rather, the revolutionary class-consciousness is what transforms the working class into a movement (“class-for-itself”)- and you have to take the class-consciousness you *actually get* out of the revolutionary conjuncture, i.e. the one that organically emerges therewith, even if it’s not the one you *want*.

    Thus the most plausible role for the intellectucal in this process is in the capacity of Gramsci’s “organic intellectual”, who formally explicates and gives voice to a relatively inarticulate practice, in much the same way that a common-law jurist seeks to abstract legal norms from what the courts do.

    The spontaneous working-class consciousness as we find it can be irreligious (if urban) or religious (if rural); in either case, it is vehemently realist and despises academic theory of any sort. It is also much more socially conservative and/or tribalist than the average urban and hipster intellectual would like. The upshot: let’s just say that the blue-collar guys I know- even those on the Left- don’t think much of relativism, and in principle at least would be in favour of a realist answer to irrealist relativism by way of a smart crack on the head with a liquor bottle.

    There is no good sociological reason to think that this mode of consciousness is any different in the rest of the world, and many good reasons to think that it isn’t, especially to the extent that Marx was right. And it can only be dismissed as “false consciousness” by that sort of intellectual who, infamously, treats anything he doesn’t happen to agree with as so much mental pathology to be cured via the therapeutic of political correctness, in the strict original sense of the term. This spontaneous consciousness is already “authentic”; it awaits formal actualization, not radical anatomical reshaping on the Procrustean bed.

    Taking Gramsci seriously would entail recognizing that “common sense” is not infinitely plastic, and that the Hegelian aufhebung of “common sense” to “good sense” has to proceed on sound positive knowledge of the nature of common sense, above all its internal limits of possible variation. The task of the organic intellectual is to judiciously induce “common sense” to reject its own reactionary elements on its own terms. An example would be rejecting cultural racism as unpatriotic, a foreign French notion opposed to traditional Anglo-Saxon values of individual liberty and the work ethic.

    Relativism and irrealism are thus best understood as specialized tools and not a unifying mobilizational umbrella, i.e. they facilitate the critical bracketing that is the pre-condition of subjective understanding of the various forms of consciousness. The revolutionary who runs focus groups and carefully studies the results is more likely to succeed than one who worries about epistemology too much.


    • I get the sense that you’re feeling a little exasperated by this conversation. Your post has moments of rhetorical violence and dismissiveness that I haven’t noticed in your previous posts.

      Or are you channeling the ethos of Gramscian Marxists as you perceive it? If so I think you’ve done an excellent job. I agree entirely with your synopsis of the implications of the Marx-Gramsci trajectory.

      Sidebar: one element that jumps out at me in this account is the theme of self-denial, starting with your third paragraph. The movement intellectual doesn’t get to pick and choose the movement’s consciousness, but must work with what is available, even if that isn’t the one she or he wants, and (in the penultimate paragraph) that intellectual can influence the working class only in the manner of a courtier influencing the king, making a submissive appeal to one set of the workers’ prejudices in opposition to another. One thread I find at work in Marxian theory is the question of how a specifically middle-class intellectual is supposed to function as a political leader of (or strategist for) a working-class movement.

      To whit: I recognize that most blue-collar and agricultural workers, indeed most people around the world, are realists and that irrealist relativism is not going to function as an effective rallying call. I don’t claim that this is some kind of ‘false consciousness’; I recognize it as entirely authentic for those who inhabit it. But it is not authentic for *me*. It would be false indeed for me to adopt realism simply because doing so would help me claim the mantle of revolutionary leadership. My consciousness is just as much a product of history as anyone else’s, and the problem I have before me is how best to act in the historical conjuncture in which I find myself.

      So, to go back to the practical point: Occupy got an organizational gain from eschewing any unified platform. I’m not sure how relativist this is, per se; it seems more subjectivist. Potentially there is an essentialism at work there about the subject. But in any case there is a certain organizational practice that aimed at maximal inclusiveness, explicitly at the expense of unity of message. An attempt to minimize the exclusion of epistemic difference. And, as you say, it paid off in spades, but also entailed certain very sharp limitations as far as the movement’s momentum and coherence over the medium term were concerned.

      This interests me, precisley this kind of problem. In organizing we encounter all sorts of trade-offs like this: unity, coherence, impactfulness gained through discipline at the expense of inclusiveness, bottom-up democracy, egalitarianism within the movement, or vice-versa. I am convinced it has to be possible to do better than this; it has to be possible to supercede these kinds of trade-offs, specifically by making egalitarian, bottom-up, inclusive practices more coherent and effective. And in the course of figuring out how this is to be done, which is a practical problem or a cluster of practical problems, there are some tasks that are genuinely intellectual, tasks to which scientific inquiry can make a contribution.But not science as it currently is constituted, as the authoritative arbiter-from-on-high of all truth and all reality. A more humble science, pragmatic, agnostic about everything beyond its own particular domain, a science that understands itself not as the grand empire of the mind but as one way of knowing among others, unique like all others in the specific contribution it has to make.


  2. “I get the sense that you’re feeling a little exasperated by this conversation. Your post has moments of rhetorical violence and dismissiveness that I haven’t noticed in your previous posts.”

    Please be patient with my lame literary and rhetorical pretensions. I originally only intended to ask, and in my self-avowedly eccentric and arm-flailing way, how you reconcile freely-willed philosophical choices with the inexorable exigencies of politics- especially from the point of view of the Marxist hypothesis.

    To which you’ve given a truly splendid answer by way of *principle*. The answer, in turn- like any really good answer- raises another question, one which goes far beyond any mere relativist-realist debate: just how do the men of principle, of whatever sort, deal with politics, considered as the “art of the possible”?

    (N.B. the question isn’t rhetorical. It’s serious, and dead serious at that).


  3. “I am convinced it has to be possible to do better than this; it has to be possible to supercede these kinds of trade-offs, specifically by making egalitarian, bottom-up, inclusive practices more coherent and effective”

    Compare the self-avowed Machiavellism of Saul Alinsky, who sought to facilitate egalitarian, bottom up, and inclusive politics by making available, to the little guy who has no idea how to fight city hall, every greasy move and dirty trick that every urban machine politician knew and was using already, and that he learned through years of manoeuvring through urban political machinery. The (explicitly intentional) result was a veritable instruction manual on how to lie, cheat, manipulate, exploit loopholes and oppportunities, etc. in politics- written with the hope that local communities of whatever sort could use that knowledge so as to seize local instruments of government.

    Alinsky was very elusive when it came to stating his political preferences, but they seem to have been politically quasi-anarchist and economically socialist- not far removed, if at all, from your position (e.g. Alinsky was a big proponent of difference, and long before post-modernism entered the American academy).

    Would it be off-base to say the gold standard you’re shooting for is a *counter-Machiavellism* that would make a radically egalitarian politics more rational and ethical, or alternately making them more rational and ethical by making them more inclusive and egalitarian?

    Finally, could you provide any actual or hypothetical example of how, say, you might have prosecuted the likes of Occupy, or, for that matter, the Tea Parties differently in light of your project?


    • Machiavelli is an interesting figure. If one reads only The Prince of course one sees the amoral ruthlessness that his name has become a metonym for, but the Discourses give a more complex account of politics in which unethical means are used to achieve ethical ends.

      My own view is that, when it comes to the task of building an egalitarian society, as opposed to redistributing power in an elitist society, the distinction between ends and means breaks down at least partly. For instance, my interpretation of the history of Marxist-Leninism in Russia is that an elite party seizing control of state power cannot foster effective communism because its available means subvert its (putative) ends. I buy into the idea that a successful revolutionary movement will have to prefigure its ends in its means, if not totally then at least to a substantial degree.

      (However this is not the same thing as fetishizing particular means, e.g. ‘nonviolence’, and adhering to them across all situations regardless of their consequences.)

      I’m not sure I understand what you have in mind by “prosecuting” Occupy or the Tea Party. I’m pretty sympathetic to Occupy, both in its aims and means. My main criticism of it, and this pretty much the standard Left criticism, is that it didn’t seem to translate into an enduring social movement. I’m curious how that could have been achieved, but I don’t berate them for it any more than I castigate medical researchers for not having cured cancer yet. I see the translation of this kind of radically egalitarian and inclusive direct action into an effective socialist praxis as more or less the great unsolved practical and theoretical question of the moment.

      The Tea Party, on the other hand, I have very little sympathy for. But I don’t understand them, so I’m not in a position to critique.


    • I should expand on what I mean by ‘fetishizing particular means’.

      Take for example, telling the truth (or, say, telling to truth to the best of one’s own knowledge, to be more precise). We can view this telling-the-truth as a kind of social practice. We can then question the value of this practice. An individualist might say, telling the truth is good when it benefits me and bad when it costs me. In contrast, a relational thinker might say that telling the truth is good because and to the extent that it helps construct the kinds of relationships we want: relationships of mutual trust and goodwill, for example; that this process might require a *habitual* disposition towards truth-telling; and that such a habitual disposition might be pragmatically justified by the overall relational context it helps construct despite the occasional losses to personal advantage that it entails. This is a bit schematic, but the point is that truth-telling becomes a general value, but always in relation to a concrete social context and to particular relational-processual goals.

      If we then proceeded to forget the relational-processual motive for truth-telling and treat it as something good ‘in itself’, i.e. to treat the value of truth-telling as having no social origin, then we would have fetishized (in the sense Marx uses when talking about the fetishism of commodities) the norm of truth-telling. That is, we would have taken a normative rule that has a social origin and treated it as if it has no social origin, in the process giving godlike power over human actions to a thing that is actually a human creation.

      It’s important to note that fetishized norms aren’t false, per se, and fetishization isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It becomes a problem when norms conflict and cannot be reconciled on their own terms. In those situations, it becomes advantageous to unpack the process of social construction that went into the reification of those norms, i.e. to de-fetishize them. This can enable us to more effectively pursue the values that we have in the present.


  4. Thanks. Here is how I would have prosecuted Occupy (from the comfort and safety of armchair and pipe, that is).

    Populism, Sartre should have said, is the inescapable philosophy of our time. This was certainly not lost on Occupy: “we are the 99%”, etc. But at least 50% of this putative 99% was lost at the start out of the Left-right divide. Had the movement actually been capable of inducing sustained social upheaval, then, it would not have been by way of popular *revolution*, but fratricidal *civil war*.

    Thus there is an urgent need for the intervention of some form of practical relativism, in the very modest form of subjective understanding. The Right, too, is populist. It believes that communities can and should police themselves; it doesn’t like elites any better than the average OWS militant; and, while it looks favorably on the pursuit of wealth, it frowns on corporate welfare/crony capitalism, and in any case aren’t comfortable with the effects of wealth inasmuch as they assume the form of decadence.

    This isn’t to say that populists of the Left and Right are identical, or that they should merge their programmes together the way e.g. the agrarian Progressives did in the 20th. c. just yet. The thing to do right now is to look for some common ground.

    OWS pointedly refused to ground itself in a Marxist analysis. They were right to do it; indeed, they shouldn’t have styled themselves in terms of economics at all. This is as true from the point of view of Marxist analysis as from any other. OWS was not a general labour strike; there was no reason for it to define its ends in terms of class interests; and, since it was evidently quite prosperous in demographic composition, it damaged its own credibility for trying to do so.

    A Marxist hard-line would dismiss OWS as mere moral criticism. So what if it is. The general revolution envisioned by Marx isn’t going to happen any time soon (all Marxist analysis agrees that the capitalist State since FDR has, for the time being, mastered the art of sublimating acute economic crisis into “permanent crisis”). The thing to do in the present situation is to lay down some moral infrastructure for future projects, since that’s all anybody *can* do.

    I shall say that OWS should have constituted itself as a *spiritual* and not a directly economic populism. Its own twin themes of refusal and resistance, after all, historically find their genealogy in the Anabaptists and Savonarola, respectively.

    With this distinction in mind, I would have internally differentiated the movement into two mutually-exclusive tiers of activism with two streams of activists. It could plausibly have been re-branded from “occupy” to something like “refuse/resist”

    “Refuse” would have corresponded to the camp-out and had the same goal, namely to show out for the possibility of a spontaneously self-ordering community. The difference would be that it would have been *strictly peaceful*. Occupy suffered greatly in that it did not not do enough to differentiate its participants and stream them into appropriate forms of activism. Everybody showed up in one mass, and of course some of them starting rioting in the streets, vandalizing local businesses, etc. as though by design to poison the average person with fear and loathing towards the whole thing- a terrible idea for any populist movement.

    A right disposition would be to stream those looking for direct action into the “resist” tier. These actions would be modeled on the “bonfire of the vanities”, targeting various upper-class pursuits and pleasures for disruption: opulent elite nightclubs and cocktail parties, high-end boutiques, etc.

    These efforts would be met with resounding public applause. The barrier between Left and Right would finally be broached, and in a win-win manner, since each side could recognize their own priorities in the bonfire of the vanities (for the Left, the socio-economic causes of luxury; for the Right, the moral effects). And the “refuse” stream would interest the heirs of Adam Smith and Hayek as much as those of Proudhon.


    • There are parts of this I find very exciting, beginning with the observation that “Had the movement actually been capable of inducing sustained social upheaval, then, it would not have been by way of popular *revolution*, but fratricidal *civil war*”.

      More to follow.


    • I promised to reply to this in more detail … I’ve been very busy writing a book chapter to meet a deadline, so even my more detailed reply will be brief. But:

      One thing I like about your notion of a spiritual movement that seeks to include both left and right is the rejection of the concept of false consciousness. I’ve never liked that concept; from the first I heard of it it smacked of elitism, the arrogance of an intellectual who decides that they themselves has true consciousness but someone else has false consciousness. But also it’s too easy a way of dismissing (excluding from consideration) the views of those who don’t sign on to one’s own political agenda. When half of the working class supports conservative politicians and when only a tiny fraction of the working class is prepared to support the idea of abolishing private capital, it seems self-marginalizing to dismiss those views as the products of false consciousness or to treat those who hold them as enemies. I can understand the exigencies that prompt this response but as someone not immediately subject to those exigencies I feel convinced it has to be possible to do better.

      So, can one mobilize a political movement against class privilege that transcends the left-right divide? I like that idea very much. Although I wonder if replacing economics with spirituality would work. My naive thought is that they *are* economic issues (but of course, as soon as one makes an essentializing statement like this, there is an opportunity for deeper insight through relativization). Still, it seems to me that one of the accomplishments of OWS might have been to popularize a kind of class analysis, however limited (but there I’m thinking like an idealist, treating the dissemination of a concept as an end in itself).

      I’m just thinking out loud. My big question is: how could one discuss the issues in question without framing them in terms of economics?


  5. “My big question is: how could one discuss the issues in question without framing them in terms of economics?”

    They needn’t be framed as non-economic in a theoretically absolute sense, but rather framed in a way that would go beyond nickel-and-dime economism. The reason is that, given the way modern bourgeois culture works, middle-class student-types come across in a much more plausible light in the role of fresh-faced idealists in remonstrance against venality, corruption, and hypocrisy than they do when pretending to be some sort of class vanguard. In the latter role, they invite being derided and even loathed as so many spoiled bourgeois brats and posers. In the former role, they can only only be dismissed as naifs who “don’t understand how the real world works”- which condescending sneer is also and at once a *confession of guilt*, or at least an acknowledgement that there’s something undeniably wrong with the world as it is.

    On the other hand, I think things may be too far gone for a united popular front of the sort I’ve been talking about. Everything is too compartmentalized and adversarial these days. On paper, in societies founded by and for the natural class enemies of aristocracy, and who as a corollary were strict moralists to boot, it should be easy to the point of effortless to foment consensus outrage at class privilege inasmuch as it assumes the form of luxuriant decadence. In practice, right now we could expect endless and unresolvable arguments over just what counts as decadence. The Left will say e.g. McMansions, the Right, hook-up culture; both of those things would have appeared equally vicious to the old-school, morally-unspecialized American or Canadian, but today somebody can be counted on to jump to the defense of one or the other (and, in the case of Libertarians, both). Oh well…

    On the other hand, public corruption still seems to elicit genuine consensus opprobrium. Maybe there’s an opening there.


    • Noting that McMansions and hook-up culture appear equally vicious to Left and Right respectively seems to put a finger on something important.

      I understand the term ‘vice’ as designating some kind of deviation from an idealized normative image of human conduct. When one commits vice one violates one’s own relationship to God, or to human nature, or some other universal absolute. In this sense vice is wrong irrespective of whether it harms anyone else. Maybe this is my Protestant upbringing speaking, but I interpret virtue and vice as essentially individualized concepts.

      In this sense I can understand hook-up culture as objectionable to social conservatives. If one takes a conservative view of human sexuality, promiscuity harms those who practice it. But even then I can’t see how hook-up culture could harm anyone who doesn’t choose to participate in it (except inasmuch as nonparticipation leads to social exclusion; but any subculture can have this effect).

      Whereas the ability of a class of petty capitalists to buy McMansions is obtained directly through the appropriation of wealth from workers, i.e. it’s an expression of privilege that is necessarily obtained by harming others. To someone whose analysis is informed by Marxism, the McMansion is objectionable not in itself but because it is paid for with money taken from exploited workers. In itself it is just a building, but in the context of actually existing capitalism it is an expression of class domination.

      So there seems to be a disagreement not only on the content of what constitutes morally offensive manifestations of privilege, but of criteria for deciding what is morally objectionable. How could we commensurate these differing moral calculi?


  6. “How could we commensurate these differing moral calculi?”

    Given the post-modern condition, and its associated adversarial culture in which somebody’s always ready to argue for or against just about anything, it seems doubtful that we can.

    But blatant public corruption persists as a consensus wrong, as an exception to the postmodern rule; if there’s an argument for bribery and graft, I haven’t heard it. There may exist potential for a genuine mass movement on this single issue.

    But then again, one imagines things would quickly degenerate into argument over the definition of corruption, with everybody trying to gerrymander the definition in a way consistent with their own pet causes and agendas. (An image of a predictable and terribly banal Left-Right contest is already forming in my mind as I type). At the street level, this would probably result in outright fist-fights, making an unintentional farce of the idea of popular unity, and sparing satirists the bother of having to make something up.

    Oh well- maybe today the idea of a united People writ large can be no more than a mere romantic image. Civil society’s own cult of freedom of conscience and diversity of opinion has ironically incapacitated it against the advancing frontiers of State power, in whose face it can do nothing but argue. The totalitarian State (which, in its mature form, is certainly a capitalist State) is no longer our destiny; we have already arrived there.

    Perhaps the true critical task of this century is to figure out practical ways to put a cap on the amount of damage this beast can do, as opposed to looking forward to a day when the People will unite and abolish it.


    • Perhaps. But I’m not prepared to give up just yet. 🙂

      It’s interesting that you locate the problem in the intractable agonism of civil society. I’ve heard Marxists make essentially the same complaint. I share that frustration. But I tell myself: it’s a poor workman who blames his tools. If the circumstances at hand do not fit one’s strategic vision, then one needs to revise the strategic vision. To me this is good work for a theorist.


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