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A Schopenhauerian anti-capitalism

January 6, 2012

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

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chocolate Sect permalink
    January 7, 2012 2:44 am

    I don’t follow this blog very closely so I’m sorry if responding too earnestly to a post from the ‘reactionary division’ is a mistake. I mean that I know it might be a bit of a pratfall but….

    I don’t think materialism and physicalism (maybe I mean functionalism? Not sure) should be confused as far as they are in the beginning of your defence. Fair enough to get a sense that Schopenhauer is kind of on the right track. I think and maybe you think that we can get a better undersatnding of human desires by constructing a materialist understanding of them. But I think there is compelling empirical evidence that any of us can draw on that suggests that it is untrue that ‘Our actions are dictated by our desires, which are ultimately physical: sex, food and survival.’

    This leaves us with a very limited definition of ‘actions’. It leaves with an idea of ‘actions’ which is in fact highly idealised. Actions are not very clear cut most of the time. When I put a paragraph space into my slightly pointless reply to a blogpost about Schopenhauer which I’m partly writing because I can’t decide whether or not a can be bothered to go out tonight — this isn’t dictated by my desire for sex certainly. Maybe this is a facetious comment. Because, OK, maybe I might not go out because, well, I might get hungry, and David is making some cheese on toast here. And paragraph-spacing is just a rather arcane development in the ‘action’ of using a language. After all, we can suspect that language is all ‘at root’ or ‘originally’ about food, sex, and survival. We need to tell the other guys in the cave to get the fire lit while we go hunter-gathering. “Grunt grunt grunt”. But we desire the more desirable cave/fire/berries. “Grunta grunti gruntae”. I’m reading this blog to learn how to survive the apocalypse of a systemic crisis of capital, find someone who’ll be growing their own food so they can tell me how to do it, so I can survive longer, and I can then have sex, and biology can continue to express itself.

    This isn’t too facetious. Linguistic expression, considered in extreme isolation, is an ‘action’. In practice, it is a practice. It develops historically, out of the diachronic and synchronic intersections of people, with their lived lives with all their real practices and desires. It is an expression of material relations, material and relation. I once accidentally said “thanks” TO a self-checkout machine in Boots after I bought a sandwich ‘from’ it. If there was an argument about whether or not saying this — out of habit — was a moment of discipline or of indiscipline, neither side could win. Maybe we should be told that habit, and tact, and a habit of tact, and pleasantries — and everything else — are all just so many helpful ways of getting fed, and getting laid when we feel up to it. I wouldn’t tend to disagree too far with this actually. But the point is that some material other than our evolutionary state — material far more complex, interesting, and potentially emancipatory(? — just sayin’) and happiness-bringing than bare-bones biology — has come into the development of our actions, and forms some big or small part of the content of these actions, and this is material that a materialist should be interested in. Perhaps it is THE material that a materialist should be interested in. After all, if evolutionary science — in Schopenhauer’s time and ours — justifies advanced capitalism, in what way does it not more or less justify primitive cave-man-ism as well, and absolutely everything in between, and probably anything and everything ever after. It does if all actions are the expression of biology (honourable exception: contemplation of beauty). Evolutionary science seems like an incredibly boring and pointless way of not explaining advanced capitalism (by itself).

    God I’ve got to stop. But anyway, listen, it might seem like I’m stuck on this whole biology thing, and that this is a pointless argument because you’re really using it as a foil to what you really believe, which is in breaking the d-s-d cycle. I guess I believe that too (if only to the extent that both desire and satisfaction are generally highly destructive and essentially demoralizing under capitalism; I don’t really believe that the possible better world beyond capital is one without desire). Anyway, the problem is, how do you break those cycles? I don’t know if asceticism is the answer. I doubt it with my gut because I tend to believe in ‘Luxury for all!’. But I doubt my gut with my brain so I don’t know what to say about that. My real point has to be that asceticism isn’t the answer just because it is the opposite of base desires. Base and innate desires aren’t the reason for the social structure of societies in 2012, nor for commodity production in those societies. Because? Actions aren’t determined by desires, or are only partly so. So, I’ve got nothing good to say about picking the opposite of acting on desires as an anti-capitalist program just because it is the opposite.

    There are several other problems with this piece. I mean, you say things like we have ‘based an entire social system of production on this fact [desires are transitory]’. I don’t know what you mean by ‘we’ exactly but it certainly can’t include those who for centuries fought bitterly to oppose the expropriation of common lands and rights — perhaps a source of permanent or continuous satisfaction, expropriation of which was necessary for capital. It’s harsh make a meal out of this, because the piece is to a degree sensitive to issues of class elsewhere. But it is a very definite problem that you identify capitalism as a system of satisfying ‘our’ needs (better than any other?), when clearly it is a system of making a meal out of some people, for the sake of capital. The bourgeois eat the meal, then go to an art gallery to help them forget about it.

    I know I know I know anyone can go to an art gallery, sure, TATE modern, even if you’re working class. It’s true but that is not what capitalism is. There isn’t capitalism-in-the-UK. That has not been feasible since the early 19th century or whenever exactly England stopped being self-sufficient in food. Capital could never be restricted to national boundaries — it would not have worked, capital needs (continual) growth to be capital. That’s why it is absurd idealism to look at the UK and consumerism and think that’s what capitalism is. Capitalism is the whole world except those parts which have yet to collapse or be bombed into capitalism. That’s what it has always been. The position of the western consumer is non-generalizable. That purported generalizability is one of many myths of the system. Freedom of labour? not if you’re unemployed since there is no common land for you. Democracy?

    Serious point. I know many people can find somewhere to grow their own food, but not THAT many. In fact hardly any. practically no-one. I’m all for suggestions of ways to undermine capitalism, as I obviously carry no candle for it, but I think it has to be more proactive, less like a retreat, or yknow like a monastery. I mean, if you’ve got a monastery, with an excellent view of a beautiful seascape, and capital has all the bulldozers and some building permits and some desperate hired labour, what do you think would happen? It’s not encouraging.

    It’s a good job I’ve forgotten everything I was going to say. It’s a shame because it was much better than anything I’ve said so far.

    The original post must have been a joke right? I feel like a fool.

    But since I got a shit job in business admin I get almost no chance to think and try and argue like this, so that;s fine. I don’t mind.

    Anyway I’m going to satisfy desire now so the joke’s on you. Or at least it’s not entirely on me. Oh it’s not on anyone, this isn’t a competition.

    • flashbank permalink*
      January 7, 2012 11:01 am

      Thanks Chocolate Sect for this comment, it has made my day so far! The post is not a joke, I’m trying to explore some non-Marxist arguments about capitalism in a vulgar way. They are vulgar because I haven’t got time to research for hours in the British library because I work full-time, and also I don’t live in London and our library is crap. I like blogging because you can bash out a rough point of view in a really polemic way, there is talk of a movement away from blogging on the left, as if it in itself is reactionary (reactionary is such an overused word). But if you work all day in a crappy office job (which I do too) how can you write critical theory? Isn’t it essential that we write somewhere, about something important?

      Kind regards,
      Dr Salome

  2. July 13, 2012 12:00 am

    Pillar of Capitalism Collapses: Read all About It:

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