A Schopenhauerian anti-capitalism
I would like to welcome Dr. Rosa Salome to the UfSO after successfully annoying our readers with her reactionary, non-Marxist reflections on capitalism. This is an unabashed act of nepotism and non-democratic decision making on my part, as I seem to be the only person writing on this blog at the moment (I’m waiting to be told off, if not sacked – culled you might call it – at some point soon). So I have recruited some new friends from the midlands region to mix things up a bit on here, to try to get past the one-sidedness of left pseudo-academic discourse on the blogosphere and perhaps encourage some useful dialogue (dialectic). To this end, I have also created the new reactionary division of the UfSO, just so readers are aware when we are being radical and when we are not. It can get confusing sometimes.
Prof. G Riddle
Before Nietzsche there was Schopenhauer. He was a pessimist. This means roughly that he believed there was no purpose intrinsic to human life, or life in general. He was a true materialist, basing his pessimism on the scientific studies of his time, of animals and humans as biological organisms, which pass through cycles of birth and death as species, not as individuals. The individual is just an illusion, and the human “will” is just our experience of the irrational and intrinsic flow of biological life.
Our actions are dictated by our desires, which are ultimately physical: sex, food and survival. Schopenhauer was writing before Darwin, nevertheless, it is useful to think of the ‘world as will’ as something like the evolutionary explanation of the purpose of life. The natural world evolves over massive spans of time, human beings just one minor aberration in an otherwise a-moral history. Life is a biological fact, and the individual just an illusion created by consciousness. And the worst part of it is that these desires can never be satisfied; they are always transitory. We satisfy the sexual urge, then we desire it again. We eat, and then we are hungry. We survive, and then are faced with another set of dangers. This is just the mechanism of life, the way that nature reproduces itself through living beings, and we are no more advanced in this respect than any other creature.
Modern capitalism. We can see capitalism as the social system that fits this reality. We are “desiring machines”, to steal a catchy phrase from Deleuze and Guattari. We are constantly seeking to connect our desires to flows of satisfaction. Capitalism as consumerism allows us to do this. We have come to understand that satisfaction is transitory, and have based an entire social system of production on this fact. We have now accelerated this vicious circle of desire to ever more advanced speeds of production-consumption, desire-satisfaction-desire. We have learned how to sell food, sex and survival. We have learned even better how to consume these basic human needs at insatiable levels of greed and gluttony.
The problem is, of course, that this circle of desire and momentary satisfaction does not lead to happiness. In a way, happiness is beside the point. Capitalism is the social expression of human biology. Capitalism as a philosophy has faced up to the meaninglessness of human existence and embraced it as a way of life. It is a social system without religion, myth and idealism. But it also has no intention of alleviating suffering, or fighting the negative traits of human kind. Again, these are just biological facts of evolutionary success, why should it? To take away violence, envy, competition, nepotism, etc, would be to destroy the very mechanics of human progress, as a species. Capitalism is only the most honest of social systems. It doesn’t deny the totality of the human condition like idealist philosophies do. Imposing abstract ideas of what human beings should be like, as opposed to what they are like, has lead to many horrific atrocities in the last century alone.
Yet, according to Schopenhauer, there is another way. There is an aspect to being human that gives us a brief respite from this endless trap of desire-satisfaction-desire. This is aesthetic contemplation. Yes, this is where philosophy sounds at its most out-of-date and reactionary, but maybe we can suspend our contemporary arrogance and imagine a more genuine meaning to this aesthetic contemplation. It is the same kind of contemplation that Kant talked about in his Critique of Judgment. Of course this is a bourgeois luxury, but wait. In moments of pure aesthetic appreciation, a bad example would be in an art gallery (we know that this is unlikely) a better one would be standing on the top of a mountain, or seeing the northern lights, something devastating, breath-taking. This moment of aesthetic appreciation brings momentary relief to incessant desire, and has this appreciation of beauty also suspends the need to consume or own the aesthetic object in question. As Kant would have said, this aesthetic appreciation is disinterested, I,e, it contains no motivation apart from appreciation itself.
It’s true that this aesthetic appreciation is as fleeting as the satisfaction of biological desires, yet Schopenhauer says we can learn to harness this mode of being, which is qualitatively different from the disappointment of satisfaction. It can be fostered, nurtured and extended. Effectively, what Schopenhauer thinks is the solution is an increasing denial of desire, eventually reaching a kind of asceticism, only indulging the bare minimum of biological needs. We can see, therefore, how much of an influence Eastern philosophy had on Schopenhauer, as this is also the Buddhist solution to the reality of suffering. Moderation, self-discipline, peace on earth.
I don’t think this is as “reactionary” as it at first seems. I think the reactionary accusation makes sense, if we think of the Tory ideology of discipline and moderation, always for the working-class, never for the bourgeoisie. The role of religion in precapitalist societies, the difference being that organised religion was always already enmeshed in corruption and power-money politics. This kind of refusal of desire always seems to justify the suffering in the world, and instead of doing something about it, we are told to accept it and find a way of coping. This acceptance is usually required by those that suffer, and this wouldn’t be reactionary if this suffering was equally distributed across society. But it isn’t. We are therefore reminded of the recent Tory post-recession propaganda that ‘we are all in this together, we must all make sacrifices’. These sacrifices are more disastrous to the already poor and hopeless than to the rich and secure.
What is my defense of Schopenhauer? If we gave up the endless cycle of desire-satisfaction-desire, or production-consumption-production, wouldn’t this undermine the efficacy of capitalism? Wouldn’t it in fact work against capitalism to the point of perhaps even destroying it? Fair enough, why should we give up our desires and pleasures when the ruling classes can enjoy what they want? But doesn’t their power in a capitalist system depend on the mass production and consumption of commodities?
Therefore a Schopenhauerian anti-capitalism would be an ethics of denial and self-discipline. We would refuse to consume, only buying what was absolutely essential. Perhaps we could even find a way to produce these essentials ourselves, through growing food, making clothes, inventing our own entertainment (sex can already be free). One immediate advantage of this would mean we could work less, even though it is hard to find decent part-time work. A long-term effect of this cult of self-discipline could be the eventual collapse of capitalism, or at least it might accelerate an already disintegrating system. Because we are all in this way of organising work and subsistence now, we cannot go back to earlier social systems. Too many people, everything and everywhere is economically co-dependent. This is the major lesson of the last recession, which sets it apart from previous ones. We watch the news and see the cancer of crisis spreading to country after country, even China. This system relies on ever increasing growth, which depends on ever increasing levels of exploitation and consumption.
One criticism I can see being leveled at this idea is that the poorest members of society, perhaps they would be referred to as the “underclass”, haven’t got the luxury of asceticism. But is this really true? Isn’t this just a socio-cultural fact, not an economic one? I mean, this kind of asceticism has been available to the poorest people across the world as part of religious devotion, i.e. Christian and Buddhist monks. Another problem will then be, what to do with our life it isn’t based around work and consumption? We would have to invent a whole new way of socialising outside of the commodity, which will require much creativity. I think we have all but forgotten how to just “be” with each other, sometimes even with our best friends and partners.
Dr. Rosa Salome,
UfSO Reactionary Division