Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Nietzsche Contra Confucius - (or, how to dance around Xi Jin Ping’s severed head spiked on a sharp stick!)

Nietzsche contra Confucius (or, how to dance around Xi Jin Ping’s severed head spiked on a sharp stick)

Jesus taught us to love our neighbor. Nietzsche teaches us to hate our enemies. We know whose advice to heed: we must hate our enemies with every fibre of our being, with every cell in our body, every neuron of our brain. If I could put Xi Jin Ping on a nuclear warhead, I would gladly press the switch that lights the fuse. We must hate our enemies until we have shredded every cell in their being, until we have disintegrated every neuron in their brains – because they pose a deadly threat to us, because they have dared to attempt to kill us! And whatever does not kill us makes us stronger…
The core of Western philosophy has always been the Hegelian Ver-sohn-ung (German for “reconciliation”) – the undying hope that opposites attract until they reconcile in a harmonious union. This is a concept that Lukacs inherited and then re-formulated with the notion of Totalitat. The Marxian proletariat is the cosmic identical subject-object, the historical human agency that will lead us to the pacification of existence and the end of history. Even in Heidegger, and then in the neo-Marxist Sartre of the Critique de la Raison Dialectique, Totality plays a central millenarian role (cf. Question de Methode, prefaced to the Critique).

And yet, if we take a closer look at Marx’s own theorization of human history, we see that it is underpinned by a thoroughgoing Realism that defies and perhaps refutes all notions of human historical synthesis (the Hegelian negation of the negation) and of reconciliation. In Das Kapital, Marx derides “Thucydides-Roscher” precisely because the Hegelian Roscher had sought to etherealize economic reality into cultural elements as the emanation of the Volks-geist, the national spirit, in earnest polemical opposition to the growing popularity of mathematical economic analysis centred on the social engineering of neoclassical economics (Gossen, Menger, Jevons). Later, Max Weber too will engage in this critique of the “emanationism” of Roscher’s Old German Historical School of Economics in favour of his own neo-classical leanings; but what is telling in Marx’s histrionic pass at Roscher’s political economy is his thorough misrepresentation of Thucydidean historicism. Here, Marx adopts a one-sided interpretation of Historismus, in which only the “spiritual” pole of its diametrically opposed meanings is highlighted. - Because historicism has also come to mean the opposite of the predominance of the human spirit in history apotheosized in German Classical Idealism. The opposite reading of historicism is the one that stresses the particularity of each individual historical experience – hence, history as empeiria as against telos.

There is no “end” to history – no overriding “goal”, no eschatology. In the empiricist view, we must interpret history according to concrete experience, not according to wishful ideals. - It is Tory versus Whig, in the characterization of R.G. Collingwood and R.H. Tawney. The removal of a telos in the interpretation of history opens the field to a pessimist, Schopenhauerian worldview in flagrant contrast to the linear progressive view that Nietzsche identified with Judaeo-Christianity.
This is the conundrum that Hobbes faced when deliberating upon his own universal theory seeking to draw an uninterrupted thread (deductive or inductive) from atomic physics to the nation-state and geopolitics. It is obvious why in the end the author of the Leviathan had to start from the macroscopic world of politics and trace his way back to the microscopic realm of atoms rather than the other way round – because that was the only way in which both a deductive and inductive approach was open to him. To have moved in the other direction, from atoms to nations, would have presented insuperable non sequiturs.

Where history is concerned , then, if indeed we are to focus on experience, how can we draw any “lessons”, let alone “laws” from this inductive approach? The tendency to draw “lessons” from history leads invariably to the outline of a “scientific methodology” which, in turn, soon metamorphoses into a deductive logic – precisely the vice in Cartesian philosophy that Hobbes detected and denounced. How to avoid the Logos without receding into a vision of human history (Heidegger says the “human” is superfluous; humans are the only historical beings) that is reduced to Shakespeare’s “tale of sound and fury”?

Any attempt at a “scientific” explanation of the cosmos, every theoria,  must display or exude a certain faith in a Reason that is both a formal instrument (deductive logic) and a Value (an ultimate reality or substance) that is the embodiment or the “carrier” (Trager) of human history. Again, the eschatological motif in the notion of “science” is inescapable. Yet, history is sound and fury, it is a tale of woe and destruction, “signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth). Behind the seeming “progressive tale” of Thucydidean historicism, behind the scientific “inquiry” (the etymological meaning of “history”) of Herodotean historein, there lies the unpalatable reality of human conflict and antagonism. The “lessons” of history – with the presumption that history holds teachings that can be read or deciphered for our future edification – break down inexorably when they clash against the grim truculence of the Peloponnesian Wars. This is the other side of Thucydides that neither Roscher nor Marx detected, convinced as they were that the Greek historian hunkered toward one pole of the antipodean meanings of historicism – the German Idealist pole. This is the “realism” that Hobbes knew he shared with the Greek historian whose work he translated, and that Marx could not bring himself to acknowledge because of that eschatological bent he inherited from Hegel and never truly relinquished.

There is a sense, however, in which the approaches to history of the pessimist empiricist Hobbes and the optimist rationalist Marx converged that is not confined to their shared materialism. By associating Thucydides with Roscher and deriding the latter for applying the historicist approach to political economy, Marx meant to lay emphasis on the “hard rock” of social reality that goes well beyond the passionate speeches of a Pericles and thus also the valiant ideals of Athenian democracy. Marx referred to this hard rock with the Teutonic phrase “social relations of production”, the “economic base” from which a “superstructure” of cultural and political institutions emerges and of which the latter are a purely “ideological” reflection. But when we take as much as a peek at these “social relations of production”, we find that they are firmly founded on the very pessimistic assumption of irreconcilable human and social conflict that Hobbes premised as an Euclidean axiom of human existence – his hypothesis on which any and all human conventions or contracts had to be erected -, and that he gleaned from his very thorough early reading of Thucydides. (Hobbes’s major systematic work is titled Elements in obvious reference to Euclid’s own Elements of Geometry, which he also translated.) Marx’s fateful misreading of The Peloponnesian Wars may have induced him into the failure to recognize the equally pessimistic roots of the concept of “economic base” and of “social relations of production” – the failure to recognize that Thucydides’s historicism was at bottom, from the historical side, identical with his own economic realism. “It is far more likely that the Church will renege on 38 of its 39 precepts than that it will forfeit one thirty-ninth of its tributary income!” Marx’s cynicism in this footnote to Das Kapital illustrates conclusively the realism that lies at the heart of his critique of political economy. Despite all his vaticinations about a future coming of the communist republic, Marx knew that – again, “at bottom”, in extremis, in the extreme - “man is a wolf to man”.

So, the wheel has run full circle to Hobbes’s fatidic saying, “homo homini lupus”. But what exactly is this “extreme”? It is a “necessity”, dire necessity (dira necessitas), replies Hobbes. A consensus, a convention, a social contract between humans is possible only upon the assumption of a dire necessity – only because the very existence of each individual is equally endangered by each and every other individual – because all human beings are capable in equal measure to harm or kill other humans. This violent hypothesis is the “extreme” upon which all social conventions and bonds are based. This basic violent hypothesis is the only “rational axiom”– a Euclidean axiom – on which all other superstructural political and cultural conventions are subsequently (chrono-logically) and consequently (logically) founded. Indeed, the logical and the chronological aspects of Hobbesian axiology are so intimately connected that it is hard to determine whether his state of nature or status naturae of “the war of all against all” was ever a historical reality or whether it is really an ineluctable axiomatic assumption to lay the constitutional foundations of all human civil society or status civilis.

The Hobbesian hypothesis extends, of course, to groups of individuals with what Carl Schmitt defined (in The Concept of the Political) as the true ambit of the Political  – the groupings of “friends” and “foes”. And it extends to Nations! Those abysmal fools who believe that “free trade” is the panacea for all world ills have not dealt with the Will to Power of the Chinese Dictatorship. But I should warn them that they have sorely underestimated ours!

The Marx of Das Kapital, then, is certainly a realist in spite of the German Idealist foundations of his worldview – and indeed even of his unquestionably eschatological stance in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844. This realism, embedded into the central notion of “social relations of production” from which the distinction between “economic base” and “political superstructure” is derived, allows us to draw Marx closer to what would be otherwise a most fervent foe of his – Thomas Hobbes. From Hobbes’s strictly ontogenetic postulates, Carl Schmitt proceeds to define the Political as the domain of “friend and foe” where human individuals seek to prevail over others by pooling their strength and power with allies that share common interests. The basic Hobbesian postulates that underpin Schmitt’s concept of the Political are (a) the irreconcilable self-interests of individuals and (b) the metus mortis, the fear of death at the hands of any other individual. Thus, the basis of all civil society for this early exposition of the negatives Denken (negative thought) is the axiomatic hypothesis that any and all social contracts and conventions – including the political alliance of friends against their foes - must be founded on the dire necessity to survive the bellum omnium contra omnes – the war of all against all.

For Hobbes as for Marx, then, to paraphrase and invert Lenin’s famous maxim, economics is a concentrate of politics. And, to paraphrase and invert an even more famous maxim by von Clausewitz, politics is the continuation of war by other means! Those beautiful souls ( the phrase is Weber’s) who would have us believe that free trade and world commerce and capitalist globalisation are the perfect panacea against the evils of war and nationalism (look no further than Benjamin Constant) are quite simply delusional and dangerous – for the reason that we are expounding here and that was valiantly if imperfectly theorised by Friedrich List that the underpinning of “wealth” is not “wealth” itself, however we may define it, but rather “the ability to produce wealth”. Hence, all wealth, whatever its definition and make-up, is dependent utterly and completely on the ability to control and command social resources. This is the naked Nietzschean Will to Power that the excrementious maggots of the Chinese Dictatorship exhibit and exert through every pore of their filthy Han skins: this is the Will to Power that we must vanquish and annihilate if we want our values, our culture, our interests – in short, our own Will to Power – to prevail and triumph over theirs! And triump we will! Because our values are forged with our Will to Freedom when all Asia has ever known is Slavery and Serfdom.

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