(Note (August 2000): The following article was written in 1991, and published, in a somewhat reduced form, in Against the Current in 1993. To some extent, the climate following such events as the UPS strike (Summer 1997) or more recently, Seattle (November 1999) has dispelled the extreme economic blindness that characterized the general discussion on the American left ten years ago, when Foucault, Derrida, Said and Spivak were riding high. That said, the polemic of the article against the remnants of these ideologies remains useful.)
A Rosa Luxemburg of the 21st century, studying America during the decades after 1973, will see a general fall in living standards of roughly 20% for at least 80% of the population. She will note that in 1945, the U.S. had the world’s leading industrial exports, the world’s highest level of productivity, and the world’s highest paid work force. In such a setting, lasting into the late 1950’s, she will note that one working-class income was sufficient to support, i.e. to reproduce, a family of four or even more people. She will note that, into the early 1960’s, most, but by no means all such incomes were earned by whites, and she will also note the steady growth of a northern urban black proletariat into the same period, also reproducing black working class families. By 1992, on the other hand, two or more working-class incomes were necessary for the early 1960’s level of reproduction, and more and more of the children of those black working class families, living among the ruins of America’s industry, were being pushed into the underclass. She might come across a Business Week survey (August 1991) showing that the joint income of a typical young white working class couple, both holding full-time dead-end jobs, was equal to 44%, in real terms, of the pay of one skilled worker of the same age 30 years earlier. For a working-class couple of color, the fall was even more dramatic. In the early 1950’s, our Rosa Luxemburg figure will note, the average American working-class family paid 15% of its income for housing, whereas in 1992, this figure was approaching 50%. She will therefore not be surprised to see that over the 45 years following World War II, the bulk of capitalist profits earned in the U.S. shifted radically from industry to banking and real estate. The top items among U.S. exports by 1992 were no longer primarily technology and industrial products, but agricultural goods and popular culture.
Our 21st century historian will naturally ask herself how such a dramatic change could occur so quickly, and she will easily find the answer in a vast outflow of productive investment capital, beginning in the late 1950’s, first toward Canada and Europe, then, by the mid-1960’s, increasingly toward parts of the Third World. She will see how the 35-year de-industrialization of America was the other side of the this “farming out” of mass production, the steady rise of European and above all Japanese competition, and the global revolution of “high technology” expelling living labor from the production process. Applying the earlier Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of the total social wage to this process, she will see without great difficulty that the main target of this accumulation (and dis-accumulation) was the very same well paid, highly skilled U.S. work force of the immediate postwar period. She will see the parallel to the decline of England from 1870 to 1945, except that she might note the skill with which America’s rulers, from the late 1950’s onward, finessed, cajoled and bludgeoned European, Japanese and Arab holders of ever-mounting dollar reserves to re-invest them in American government bonds and the U.S. capital market, thereby enabling the gravity of the decline to be concealed from the majority of Americans, and even from most members of the ruling elite. Re-reading Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value or her earlier namesake’s Accumulation of Capital, our historian may smirk at the imprisonment of the elite in their pitiful Keynesian and monetarist economic ideas, touting as “growth” a year-to-year increase in GNP while America’s cities filled up with closed factories, potholed streets, drug addicts, fast food chains, security guards and homeless people.
Pushing our thought experiment further, perhaps it will catch our historian’s attention that by the late 1980’s, American high school students taking international standardized exams were, in every subject, in precisely 20th place of 20 so-called “advanced industrial countries”. She may note that by the same time, over 50% of PhDs in scientific and technical subjects in American univerities were awarded to foreigners, and that what remained of American R&D thereafter depended increasingly on such foreigners remaining in the U.S. (She might smile at such an unexpected reversal of “dependency theory”.) Looking at the reproduction of the broader work force, she will not be surprised to see managers, in what skilled industrial sectors remained, wondering out loud what to do when the current, older generation of workers retired, because the high schools and colleges were no longer replacing their skills. But familiar with earlier Marxian and Luxemburgist concepts of the reproduction of labor power, and seeing how the American capitalists had been by-passing the costs of this reproduction for 35 years, none of this will surprise her.
Nor, finally, will our Rosa be surprised to learn that in the glitzy mainstream institutions of ideology, in the media, in the highly-funded research institutes, in academia, in publishing or the schools, this gutting of America’s ability to materially reproduce itself, from the late 1950’s onward, was barely mentioned, and rarely discussed with any seriousness or awareness of the gravity of the problem. Reviewing standard figures of the dominant ideologies, she will note that the John Kenneth Galbraiths and the Milton Friedmans of the 1960’s, the E.F. Shumachers and Ivan Ilyches of the 1970’s, or the “supply-siders” and “flexible specialization theorists” of the 1980’s were doing their job in keeping attention focused on phony problems and phony solutions.
Remembering the earlier Rosa Luxemburg’s pre-World War I polemic with Lenin and other revolutionaries about the meaning of the expanded material reproduction of society, our 21st century historian will eagerly turn to the radical opposition in declining American capitalism, fully expecting to find there, at last, a serious discussion of these issues and contending programmatic and strategic solutions for them. How, she will ask herself, were the “cutting questions” being posed among America’s self-styled radical milieu, inside and outside the academy, as the country sank into an economic and social crisis worse than that of the 1930’s? Surely, there, she will find the debate about the above questions carried out with the seriousness the situation demanded.
In fact, as we know, in a survey of the great majority of milieus or publications broadly associated with the left in America today (1991), activist or academic, our historian will find very little discussion of the issues above, still less any programmatic initiatives organized around them. She will find, perhaps, some brilliant literary theorist explaining that social class, the economy and– why not?–deindustrialization are essentially a “text”. Thinking perhaps that such a concept of class nonetheless arises in a search for a new basis of class unity in the new, post-1973 period of crisis and decline, she will perhaps be surprised to learn that, no, the big debate on the American left in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was about the “difference” of the “identity” of every oppressed group, with the notable exception of the working class as a whole, and that this difference was, in fact, just…difference. Reading more deeply, she will discover that the very word “reproduction” did not mean in 1992 what it meant in the writings of Marx–the ability of a social class or society to materially reproduce itself in an expanded way–but had been pre-empted by a debate over reproductive rights in the strictly biological sense, which are by no means trivial questions but which can be trivialized by isolating them from the notion of reproduction in the broader social sense. She will initally be surprised to discover the widespread belief that identities along lines of race, gender and class are not constituted in relationship to production and social reproduction but rather by the “desires” of the groups and individuals concerned. She will be even more surprised to hear proponents of the older, apparently more pedestrian view of the working class as a universal class, whose emancipatior is the necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for all emancipation, mocked as exponents of an antiquated “master discourse”.
But nothing, I think, will surprise our 21st century Rosa Luxemburg more than the discovery that, during the two decades of the pulverization of America’s work force in the process described above, the majority of the American left increasingly came to characterize many of the very processes associated with the material reproduction of society, such as industry, technology, social infrastructure, science, education, technical skills and their tranmission from one generation to the next, as well as literacy and the cultural traditions that arose inseparably from these phenomena in the earlier history of capitalism, as expressions of “white male” values and ideology. She will be even more perplexed to realize that this identification of the expanded material reproduction of society as a “white male” phenomenon took hold in the very decades when Japan and the new capitalist powers of Asia were becoming powerhouses of the capitalist world economy, and were contributing mightily tc the dismantling of the life supports of the American working class. She might note the convergence between the increasing circulation of all types of ficticious paper in the U.S. economy and the increasing preoccupation of broad segments of the American left with symbolically defined identities and with a general view of reality as “text”. She might see a parallel between the economic trend of deindustrialization and the academic fad of deconstructionism. She might conclude that the majority of the American left had been colonized by the dominant ideology and its obliviousness, over decades, to these problems. She might notice that the way in which the American left, historically confined to its ghettoes in the society and in academia, posed the very important questions of race, gender, sexual preference and class were in fact shared by very few ordinary working people, who did not experience these questions as text and who were nonetheless also preoccupied with these issues. Our Rosa Luxemburg might finally conclude that, going into the great social and economic crisis of the 1990’s essentially blind to the question of expanded material reproduction of society as a the sole framework in which to seriously pose issues of race, gender and class, the bulk of the American left was not only blinded by its own ideology, but that it was positively contributing, often stridently, to the dominant ideology of the times.
Our Rosa Luxemburg will have discovered the great debate about multi-culturalism.
Multiculturalism is in. Not inappropriately, multiculturalism means different things to different people. To the well-funded and much-trumpeted theorists of the right, the self-styled exponents of “cultural literacy”, the Allan Blooms and William Bennetts, multiculturalism is a subversive euphemism for the end of white supremacy in American education and in American society as a whole. To the pseudo-radicals of the academic intelligentsia, who have turned social class into a “text”, multiculturalism is the freeing of a “multiplicity of discourses”, a dissolution of the ostensible “phallologocentrism” of an ostensible “Western” cultural tradition. (One important clue to the sterility of the debate, as currently posed, is a startling agreement between the opposing sides on just exactly what Western culture is.) So extreme is the situation that neoconservative critics like Hilton Kramer can present themselves as defenders of the safely embalmed “high” modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century, of Joyce, Proust, or Kafka, as if men of Kramer’s sensibility did not, 70 years ago, revile such revolutionaries, and as if they would be capable of recognizing, and appreciating, a new Joyce, Proust or Kafka today. At the other end of the spectrum, while the American population as a whole falls to 49th place in comparative world literacy, the purveyors of the post-modern “French disease” continue a frenzied production of self-involved books and posh academic journals which communicate nothing so much as a basic ignorance of real history and the pathetic belief that the deconstruction of literary texts amounts to serious radical political activity.
In this article, we will not concern ourselves with the right- wing media assault on the multi-culturalists as the force primarily responsible for the palpable collapse of liberal education in the U.S. The vacuousness of such claims, coming from the political camp which has been gutting the reproduction of labor power at every level of American society for more than thirty years, has been dealt with elsewhere. We will focus rather on the claims to radicalism of the multiculturalists themselves, or of any definition of human beings in society which is essentially cultural. From such a focus, we will develop a critique of the Eurocentric conservatives and of the multiculturalists from the vantage point of an emerging WORLD culture.
It might be said without great exaggeration that the contemporary debate over culture comes down to a debate over the world historical status of ancient Greece. For an Allan Bloom and many of his ilk, all that is valid in the last 2,500 years of history is almost literally a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. For the multiculturalists, on the other hand, trapped as they are in the logic of relativism, ancient Greece must necessarily be just one “equally valid” culture among many. But, given its centrality in the classical Western canon, ancient Greece cannot be only that, but also the very source of phallologocentrism.
When one probes the terms of this debate, however, what it truly amazing is that the ostensibly anti-Eurocentric multiculturalists are, without knowing it, purveying a remarkably Eurocentric version of what the Western tradition really is.
The ultimate theoretical sources of today’s multiculturalism are two very white and very dead European males, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. For the uninitiated, the continuity between these philosophers and today’s revolutionary claims for rap music may seem arcane indeed. But they are also very telling. Even if Nietzsche and Heidegger must ultimately be rejected (and they must), one trivializes them at one’s peril. Nietzsche, writing in the latter decades of the last century, and Heidegger, whose most important work was written in the second guarter of this one, could hardly have imagined the contemporary fin de siecle in which their names would be mentioned in the same breath with 2 Live Crew, Los Lobos or the Sex Pistols. Both men were haunted by a vision of a world of crushing uniformity which they saw taking shape around them, and of which the working-class socialist movement of the last century was–for them– the culmination. They sought the origins of this levelling process in the most remote origin of the Western cultural tradition, that of archaic Greece, and above all in the pre-Socratic philosophers. What is today called “difference” with distinctly populist emphasis was, ironically, first articulated by Nietzsche as a radical aristocratic refusal of the culmination of history in a “closed system” of egalitarianism, liberalism, democracy, science and technology, or socialism, which for him were so many manifestations of a “slave morality”, the levelling wish for sameness which the “weak” foist upon the “strong”. That such an idea, one hundred years later, would become the basis for vaunting the radical “difference” of a gay black woman of the underclass did not, in all probability, occur to Nietzsche. Nietzsche looked rather to the emergence of a new elite of aesthetic lawgivers, whom he called supermen, and who would have the strength and courage to shape reality like great artists, without having to invoke debilitating universal truths valid for everyone. Nietzsche’s specific solution, which has often (and wrongly) been seen as an important source of fascism (it was a minor source of fascism), interests his contemporary partisans far less than his diagnosis, but the idea of every individual as an aestheticized “will to power”, who shapes a world with no reference to supra-individual, universal laws and with no limits except those imposed by other such wills, is the direct source of Michel Foucault’s “microphysics of power”, and indisputably foreshadows something of the contemporary reality of a Donald Trump or an Ivan Boesky, just as it foreshadows the reality of a postmodern literary theorist pursuing tenure on an Ivy League campus.
Nietzsche and Heidegger saw the origin of planetary uniformity and levelling in the very Western conception of reason, with its universal claims. They, like their postmodern followers, did not trouble themselves with analyses of material conditions, modes of production and the like. They felt that in taking on the problem at the philosophical level, they were aiming for the jugular. While socialism was the culmination of the trend they denounced, Nietzsche knew next to nothing of Marx or Marxism (although he did brilliantly intuit the bourgeois character of the German Social Democrats, long before most Marxists did). Heidegger was more familiar with Marx– above all through his student Herbert Marcuse– he but rarely treats Marx directly in his work. For both of them, Hegel was a stand-in for the kind of historical rationality which culminated in socialism. The meaning of the contemporary fashionable word “deconstruction” is a distillation of their attempt to overthrow a dialectical rationality, and what they attack in Hegel is subliminally imputed to Marx. (The occasional assertion that Marxian and de-construction theories are compatible is like saying that Marxism and monetarist economics are compatible.) Their target is a rationality for which all “otherness”, i.e. difference, is sooner or later subsumed in a higher synthesis or supercession. For Nietzsche, such a dialectic was (as it also was for Hegel), the dialectic of master and slave, but in contrast to Hegel, a dialectic which grew out of the resentment of the slave, a slave morality. For Nietzsche, the critique of the dialectic was a defense of the “difference” of the aristocratic master, the higher aesthetic lawgiver he called the Superman.
(Having said this, it is important to point out that there ARE false universals, which conceal the specific interests of class, caste, racial or gender elites within empty pretensions of all-inclusiveness. The error of the post- modern theorists of difference, however, is to conclude that because such false universals exist, no other kind COULD exist. For Nietzsche, universal values (or what the post-modernists call “master discourses”) were invented by the weak to rein in the strong; for the post-modernists, who get their Nietzsche through Foucault, such values, including Marxism, are “discourses of power” over the powerless. If the French Communist Party, or Stalinism generally, used Marxism to justify totalitarian bureaucracy, the logic goes, then all Marxism must necessarily lead to totalitarian bureaucracy. If Ronald Reagan speaks of morality, then all morality must be similar to that of Ronald Reagan. And so on.)
Heidegger carries the critique of the dialectic much farther. All of the stages of his complex evolution cannot be traced here. While deeply influenced by Nietzsche, Heidegger saw both Nietzsche and his own early phase (which was summarized in Being and Time (1927) as the culmination of the very tradition he was attempting to overthrow. Nietzsche’s solution had been to see every individual as a “will to power”, strong or weak, master or slave, and every perspective articulated by individuals as a “will to power”, an aesthetic attempt to shape a reality that had no laws separate from such wills, because such wills are all that exist. The early Heidegger had, by a complex transposition, taken up such a will to power into his conception of individual existence in Being and Time. But the experience of Nazism, which he initially saw as a revolution against Western metaphysics, convinced him that the “will to power” pointed invariably to a planetary domination of the earth by technology (again, the closed system of technique and science which was the nightmare of both Nietzsche and Heidegger), and that this impulse was latent in the Western philosophical project from Parmenides onward. (Heidegger later concluded that the Nazis had remained trapped in the general “technological’ nihilism” of the West. In his last phase, which would be decisive for Michel Foucault, Heidegger decided that the history of Being in Western culture was the history of this will to power, codified in a conception of Being as PRESENCE, reducible to a discrete image. In Western culture, in Heidegger’s interpretation, what cannot be reduced to such an image has no “Being”, but the ontological level of Being, as Heidegger conceives it, is precisely what defies such a reduction. The Western planetary project of technical mastery, in this critique, was a direct outgrowth of the pre-Socratic Greek vision of Being after Parmenides, which was, in reality, a “forgetting” of Being. The only solution, in the last phase of Heidegger’s work, was to wait for the emergence of a new sense of Being, something as fundamentally new as the Parmenidean sense had been new 2,500 years ago. Anything which did not overthrow (i.e. deconstruct) the metaphysics of presence could only be another step in a planetary “technological nihilism”.
But the post-modern cultural theory which has swept North American academia in the past two decades did not come directly from German philosophy, nor does it preoccupy itself directly with the Nietzsche-Heidegger diagnosis of the planetary dominion of technique and the metaphysics of presence. The North American current is unthinkable without the Parisian Nietzsche and Heidegger as they developed after 1945, for it was in France above all that these philosophers acquired left-wing credentials. The two major mediators of Nietzschean-Heideggerian “difference” to North American post-modern academia are Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In their work, “difference” is radically transformed. It is no longer, as with Nietzsche, the difference of the aristocratic radical against mass resentment, nor, as with Heidegger, the critique of a planetary project of the dominion of technique, of “technological nihilism”, the triumph of the Same at the heart of the metaphysics of presence. In France, “difference” became, with Foucault, differences of “desire” and, with Derrida, of “other voices”; in America, it became, in pseudo-radical guise, the ideological counterpoint to the pulverization of the social in the era of high-tech neoliberalism, the ultimate intellectual leveraged buyout.
Currents on the left which are hostile to or skeptical of French- inspired post-modernism have been at a loss to combat it because of their own disarray at many levels. The “race/gender/class” theorists sound radical enough, and few people of a traditional Marxist background are philosophically equipped to combat the theory at its roots (indeed, few of the “race/gender/class” theorists know where the roots are). Furthermore, most variants of the Marxist tradition find themselves shackled, in attacking the post-modernists, by certain assumptions held in common with them, flowing from the centrality of France and of the French Revolution in the revolutionary tradition. The cachet of the post-modernists, internationally, is the French connection, and certain assumptions, now crumbling, about the position of France in capitalist and socialist history still create a space for them in the debris. It was for this reason that the recent debate over the French Revolution, and the rise of the French revisionist school led by Francois Furet, must be seen as a broader context for the international impact of post-modernism.
At the beginning of Words and Things (1966), the book that established Michel Foucault as a major figure in France, there is a fascinating analysis of Velasquez’s painting “Las Meninas”, which contains in some sense the whole Foucaultian project. In this analysis, Foucault identifies the king as the lynchpin in the whole game of representation, which is the real subject of the painting. In all of Foucault’s early work, and above all in his innovative (but problematic) early studies of medicine and of madness, the project is the identification of Western reason with the ostensibly omniscient vantage point of the king, of representation, and of power. This project is the ultimate source of Foucault’s conception that all “representational” discourses of ostensibly universal knowledge–including Marxism–actually conceal discourses of separate power. For Foucault, any attempt at such a universal “discourse”, and by implication a universal class, which attempts to unite the different fragments of social reality, or the different oppressed groups of capitalist society, (particularly one which privileges the working class), must necessarily be a separate discourse of power, the game of representation centered on the “king”, or master discourse. When attempting to fathom the French phase of post-modernism, it must always be kept in mind that the overwhelming experience of “Marxism” in that country was the experience of the ultra-Stalinist French Communist Party (PCF), of which Foucault was briefly a member at the beginning of the 1950’s. But even more revealing than such biographical details (which are, for all phenomena emanating from the postwar French intelligentsia, real enough) is Foucault’s equation of rationality with the principle of the king, and with the French absolutist state of the 17th and 18th centuries, the state overthrown, (and then strengthened) by the French Revolution. For Foucault and the Foucaultians, there is no other reason than the reason of the “Classical Age”, that of French Enlightened absolutism. The aestheticized formalism of the French intellectual tradition, of which Foucault is a perfect product, has its ultimate roots in aristocratic Gallican Catholicism, and achieved its finished form in France’s “grand siecle”, the 17th century that witnessed the rise of Louis XIV’s prototypical enlightened absolutist state. Foucault could not be farther from the Cartesian tradition of “clarity” spawned by that state, but it is significant that for him, such rationality is the only rationality there is. Of course Foucault was perfectly aware of, and deeply indebted to, German philosophy from Kant, via Hegel and Marx, to Nietzsche and Heidegger. But German philosophy is, like French philosophy, the product of another Enlightened absolutist state, Prussia, and therefore easily unmasked as another discourse of power. The tradition that remains opaque to Foucault is the English, in the same way that the revolution which remains opaque to him (and to all the contending parties in the post-modernism debate) is the English revolution, particularly its radical currents. But the blindness of Foucault is unfortunately also the blindness of most of the Marxian tradition, including Marx, for whom the French Revolution was always of far greater importance than the English. Because of this blindess, the contemporary crackup of statism, from France to Russia, and of which Foucault is in some sense a major theoretician, leaves the bulk of the international left, which had its own problems with statism, theoretically and politically disarmed.
Before probing this assertion, it is necessary to look at the common ground between Foucault and the neo-liberal revival of the 1970’s, which at first glance could not be farther from Foucault’s predilections. It is this common ground whiic allows us to see how the post-modernists are the unwitting pseudo-radical theoreticians of the era of Reagan and Thatcher, giving a “radical” panache to the atomization of society in the new period.
As we have indicated, the ideology of “difference” began with Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s attack on the universal claims of Western, above all dialectical reason, and its drive to make the “Other” into a moment of the “same”. In France, through Foucault and Derrida, this “deconstruction” of the unitary subject of Western philosophy (culminating in Hegel’s world-historical subject, the latter often seen as a stand-in for Marx’s proletarian subject) led to a view of a “plurality of discourses”, of “multiple voices”, that were never mediated in a higher unity, understood as illusory by definition. Finally, in America, these currents became the extremely esoteric veneer of what amounts to a radical restatement of American pluralism, radical only in the radicalism of its insistence that people of various races, ethnicities, and sexual preferences in fact have nothing of importance in common with one another. In this view, in opposition to Marx, even “class” becomes just one more difference, not a unifying element whose emancipation is the sine qua non of all emancipation. (One recalls, in contrast, the assertion of the Wobbly preamble that “the working class and the employer class have nothing in common”, where the working class bears within itself the germ of a higher unity.) For Hegel and Marx, difference is CONTRADICTION, pointing to a higher synthesis; for the post-modernists, difference is irreducible difference, and a higher synthesis just a new discourse of power, a new “master narrative.” The high irony is that for Heidegger, such qualities as class, race, ethnicity and sexual preference are precisely in the fallen realm of a “metaphysics of presence”, images “beneath” which real authenticity, always totally individial, and always destroyed by such “presencing”, is discovered. The current theorists of “identity” who base themselves on such collective categories, and for whom individuality is hardly a concern, have completely inverted the source. But in such a way do ideas migrate, particularly to America.
But there is more. It is not often appreciated in the U.S. that Foucault, in France, anticipated both the media event of the “new philosophers” (Andre Glucksmann, Bernard Henri-Levi, et al.) in 1977, but also the neo-liberalism that first gained currency under Giscard d’Estaing and then became an international tidal wave in the 1980’s, fervently embraced by the “socialist” Mitterand government. What is the connection?
As indicated above, France, because of the international impact of the French Revolution (which far exceeded that of the English Revolution) always had a central position in the mythology of the Marxist left. Although the French working class, at the beginning of the 20th century, had vital revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist currents, by the post-World War II period the dominant PCF and the erratic Socialist Party, as well as the major trade unions which gravitated around them, were overwhelmingly statist. This statism merely echoed the statism of the main French economic tradition of mercantilism, which had origins in the pre-1789 ancien regime. It was a statism quite similar to 20th century versions which proliferated in welfare, socialist, communist and fascist ideologies just about everywhere, and which also had roots in the mercantilism of 17th and 18th century continental Europe. Because France had, along with England, Holland, and the United States, participated in the first wave of bourgeois revolutions prior to industrialization, it was always assumed that France was a capitalist society of roughly the same maturity, and that the bureaucratic statism of the French left was a degenerate form of a movement that pointed “beyond capitalism”.
In fact, France in 1945 was still a deeply rural society, with 50% of the population still living on the land, engaged in micro-agricultural production. Yet only since the 1970’s, when the French peasantry had sunk to 8% of the population, has it generally been appreciated that the statism of the French left, like the statism of the left everywhere, was an expression not of maturity, but of backwardness, and that the Parisian culture which fascinated leftist intellectuals throughout the world was not so much about the supercession of capitalism as the absence of full-blown capitalism.
French statism, of which French leftist statism was an important part, oversaw the rapid industrial transformation of the country from 1945 to 1975. As a result, France became a country of the type pioneered (on the continent) by Germany, in which agricultural producers also fell to less than 10% of the population. Then, as in other countries at the same threshold, the state bureaucracy became a positive hindrance to further economic development. The result was, from the mid-1970’s onward, an ideological and then programmatic wave of neo-liberal de-centralization in which the French left discovered it was no less trapped in statism than were the Gaullists. Foucault’s “de-centering” of the Hegelian subject, aimed at “Western” Marxism of the 1950’s and 1960’s and, beyond that, at Marxism generally, had carried out ideologically what Giscard and then Mitterand carried out practically, the dismantling of the French mercantilist development tradition.
The final connection was made by the “new philosophers”, who popularized Foucault in their slick paperbacks and media happenings. At the cutting edge of this development were figures such as Glucksmann and Henri-Levy, both of whom had once been ultra-Stalinist militants of France’s post-1968 Maoist movement. The appearance, in 1974, of Solzhenitzn’s Gulag Archipelago was the moment of truth with their ostensible earlier “”Marxism”. After a decade of glorifying the most elphantine totalitarian state in modern history, Mao’s China, the “new philosophers” became famous by proclaiming, in the newly receptive neo-liberal climate, that all Marxists, including those who had been combatting Stalinism fifty years before them, were of necessity totalitarians too. What they took from Foucault was the notion of the “master discourse”, the philosophy of the Hegelian or Marxist type which attempts, or purports, to unify fragmentary realities into higher, universal syntheses. Within a decade, suspicion of universalizing “master discourses” had become rife in American academia, tantalizingly parallel to Reaganism’s ideological dismantling of big statism and de-centralization of poverty and austerity to states and cities.
But nevertheless, contemporary post-modernism does remain rooted in the original problematic of Nietzsche and Heidegger, in the defence of difference. And as such it retains Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s account of Western thought, one which is paradoxically highly Eurocentric, in keeping with the highly Eurocentric view of history which supported such a view of philosophy. For Nietzsche and Heidegger were pure products of what we will call, momentarily, the Greek romance of German philosophy. The post-modernists are thus caught in the trap of presenting and “de-constructing” a curiously “Western” version of the Western “tradition”, a version which reads out of history a fundamental non-Western moment, the contribution of ancient Egypt and its further elaboration in Alexandria and in Islam.
As it is emerging in recent serious characterizations of actual Eurocentrism, such as those of Samir Amin and Martin Bernal, one of the great crimes of Western ethnocentrism since the 18th century has been the writing of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Moslem world out of its history, not merely since the Moslem conquests of the 7th century, but also in the period prior to the emergence of ancient Israel and ancient Greece, perhaps best exemplified by the occultation of the historical importance of the civilization of ancient Egypt. The merit of Bernal’s multi-volume Black Athena, whatever its other problems, has been to squarely pose the significance of ancient Egypt for the formation of the Western tradition.
The disappearance of ancient Egypt from the horizon of Western cultural origins is, historically, a relatively recent phenomenon, barely two centuries old. As Bernal and others have pointed out, the ancient Greeks themselves frankly acknowledged Egypt (whose civilization predated their own by more than two millenia) as a major source of their world. For the other pole of Western origins, ancient Israel, the sojourn in Egypt, and the exodus from the land of the pharoahs, was a founding moment of the culture. The Egyptian provinces of the Roman empire, centered on Alexandria, were the source of the last important philosophical movement of antiquity, neo-Platonism, from which the Hegelian and Marxian dialectic directly derive. Further, Alexandrian neo-Platonism grew out of an international ferment in which all manner of Near Eastern philosophies and mystery religions, as well as Buddhism, mixed with the moribund remnants of Greco-Roman classicism, and decisively marked the early history of Christianity. It was this very Alexandrian legacy which the Moslem conquests of the 7th century appropriated, and molded, by the 11th century, into the apex of Arab and Persian civilization, associated with the urban splendour of Bagdad, Damascus and Cordoba. During the same period, the knights of the court of Charlemagne were valiantly struggling to learn to write their names. When, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the works of Avicenna, Averroes, al-Ghazali, and al-Farabi were translated into Latin, the cultural heritage of antiquity, but one thoroughly tranformed by its Alexandrian and Moslem phases, passed into the then-impoverished “West”. (The contemporary multiculturalists never tell us that “Oriental” Islamic civilization also claims to derive from both Jewish
and Greek sources, and that therefore these “logocentric” legacies are not unique to the sources of the “West”, nor do they tell us that Islam spread the study of Plato and Aristotle from Morocco to Malaysia.)
When, in 15th century Italy, these Arab and Persian roots had contributed mightily to the Renaissance, ancient Egypt was again revered, through the writings of the so-called “Hermes Trismegistus”, as the ultimate source of neo-Platonic wisdom, although in a way more mystified than had been the case among the ancient Greeks. Finally, in the 17th and 18th century phase of Enlightened absolutism, “Egyptian wisdom”, ultimately of Alexandrian origin, was thoroughly entwined with the ideologies of the middle-class radical secret societies and sects, such as the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons, which played an important role in the French Revolution.
(It should be kept in mind that prior to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822, most Western Egyptophilia was of a wildly speculative nature. What is important, for this discussion, is the continuity of the myth of Egypt, whatever the reality, and the fact that “Western” tradition had no difficulty acknowledging it.) It is the highest irony that virtually every major figure in the “Western” “canon” from the 12th to the early 19th century, as defended by the actual Eurocentrists, from the French troubadours to Dante, by way of the Florentine neo-Platonists Pico and Ficino, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Spencer, Milton, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Goethe and Hegel (to focus for a moment on the philosophical and literary currents) were deeply influenced by this “Egyptian wisdom” or “Alexandrian” legacy in either its neo-Platonist or Hermeticist or Jewish mystical (Kabbalistic) form, and acknowledged it more or less as such. In actual fact, the Eurocentrists would be hard pressed to mention a major pre-Enlightenment figure who was NOT influenced by such currents. After 1800, these same traditions passed into the legacy of romanticism and later the Bohemian avant-garde, where they remained a force up to at least surrealism. Nevertheless, in spite of the increasing tendency, through the 19th century, among Western Hellenophiles, to see ancient Greece as a sui generis phenomenon, hermetically sealed from Semitic and African (Egyptian) influences, figures of no less stature than Melville, Hawthorne and Poe (to cite only American examples) still bore the markings of successive “Egyptian revivals”. )
But in the late 18th and early 19th century, an ideological shift began to eclipse the “Egyptian” tradition. This shift was the Anglo- German romance with ancient Greece, which achieved its apotheosis in Germany after 1760. The causes of this shift are complex, and cannot be dealt with here. The Anglo-French intrusion into the eastern Mediterranean after 1798 made the “Eastern question”–the struggle for the corpse of the moribund Ottoman empire–a major foreign policy question in Europe until 1918, and undoubtedly influenced the West’s desire to read the legacy of the Near East, over millennia, out of a new view of history which imagined ancient Athens arising quite in isolation from its historical environment. Bernal is undoubtedly right to see a new anti-Semitism and racism at work in this transformation. But there are many other factors as well. The final phase of the “Egyptian” tradition within the mainstream of European culture was that of Enlightened absolutism, which had been destroyed or thoroughly reformed in the era of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Once the absolutist state which contributed to the Enlightenment was shattered, secular rationality could separate from the old “Egyptian” mystique. Indeed, the new militant Enlightenment world views had no need for, and every reason to dispense with, the apparent obscurantism of Freemason ritual. This “de-canting” of Enlightenment rationality from its pre-revolutionary institutional framework pushed the “Egyptian” tradition toward the romantic and Bohemian margins of the new, ascendant bourgeois society.
The new, Anglo-German and above all German romance with ancient Greece was already a break with earlier views of Greco-Roman antiquity as they developed from the Renaissance onward. The revival of antiquity in the 15th century was first of all a revival of Roman civic culture, and the literary and historical models of 15th century Italy were above all models of Roman civic virtue and civic rhetoric. The philosophical revival of Plato, as indicated earlier, came through Arab and Byzantine sources, and arrived in the garb of Egyptian mystery religion, which only later was discovered to have nothing to do with ancient Egypt. When the rise of Enlightened absolutism modeled on the France of Louis XIV, set down a cultural hegemony extending from Paris to St. Petersburg, by way of Santo Domingo and Rio de Janeiro, the ultimate tone of this culture was again Latin, and Roman. The legacy of ancient Greece, prior to the 18th century, (when Latin was far more widely known than Greek) was always filtered through a Roman garb: it was empire, the state, law, the civic virtues of the citizen which were remembered, and not the communitarian dimension of the Athenian polis and the Greek city state. It was left to disunited, fragmented Germany, where national unification was still a distant dream, to lead the cultural revolt against the imperial mode of the Roman-Latin-French civilization of Enlightened absolutism. This revolt, and the Greek romance to which it gave rise, is associated with figures such as Herder, Winckelmann, Goethe, and later Hoelderlin and Hegel; it cannot be explained through racism and imperialism alone, but it was German Hellenophilism that buried the “Egyptian” tradition and occulted it from the historical memory of Western origins. A similar development occurred in England, out of English romanticism’s involvement with the Greek war of independence in 1823 (and therefore once again with the “Eastern question”), but figures such as Keats, Shelley and Byron had no international cultural impact on the scale of the German Hellenophiles, who were, among other things, the direct precursors of another Hellenophile, Karl Marx.
The disappearance of ancient Egypt, or the myth of ancient Egypt, from the horizon of Western cultural origins, where it held sway until the late 18th century, was the sine qua non for the constitution of a “modernist” view of Western history which, unfortunately, was until very recently uncritically accepted by the great majority of the Western left, a view which made the left susceptible to the blandishments of post-modernism. This outlook traced a certain Western history from Athens to Renaissance Florence, to the London and Paris of the Enlightenment, to the culmination of Western high bourgeois culture which ended in the successive deaths of Beethoven, Goethe and Hegel ca. 1830. This was a history written with an eye to the progress of a certain kind of classical rationality, which vaguely acknowledged the Hebrew prophets as distant precursors of that rationality (for their role as de-mystifiers). For such a sense of Western history, deeply shaped by the French view of the Enlightenment and by the French Revolution, and deeply critical of religion from a positivist point of view, nothing much had happened in the two millennia from Socrates’ Athens to the Florence of the Medici. For such a sense of history, the Alexandrian and Islamic moments sketched above, because of their religious dimension, for all intents and purposes did not exist, except possibily as transmitters, and certainly not as shaping forces in their own right. This was the legacy of the Anglo-German romance with ancient Greece, the world view in which the Near East, before, during and after Greco-Roman antiquity, dropped out of Western history. The disappearance of Alexandria and Islam was inseparable from the disappearance of ancient Egypt, as part of a general isolation of ancient Athens from its eastern Mediterranean environment, before and after its golden age.
This is the real Eurocentric view. And what do the ostensibly radical post- modern multiculturalists tell us about all this? Precisely nothing! And why? Because, through Nietzsche and Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida, THEY have swallowed the Hellenophile romance whole, except to change the plus and minus signs. They ignore the Arabic and Persian sources of the Renaissance, and thus obscure the Alexandrian and Moslem mediation, and further development, of the Greek legacy. Further, they agree with the Eurocentrists across the board that “Western” culture, like all “cultures”, is a self-contained phenomenon. Do they tell us that French Provencal poetry, from which modern Western literature begins, borrowed massively from Arab poetry, and particularly the erotic mystical poetry of Islamic Spain? Do they tell us that Dante was steeped in the work of the Andalucian Sufi Ibn Arabi? That some of the greatest Spanish writers of the 16th century siglo de oro, such as St. John of the Cross and Cervantes, drew heavily on Islamic and Jewish sources? Do they tell us about the Franciscan heretics in 16th century Mexico who attempted to build, together with the Indians, a Christian communist utopia in defiance of a hopelessly corrupt European Catholicism? Do they tell us about the belief in the Egyptian sources of Western civilization which held sway from the ancient Greeks, via the Florentine Academy, to the 18th century Freemasons? They tell us nothing of the kind, because such syncretistic cross-fertilization of cultures flies in the face of their relativistic assumption that cultures confront each other as so many hermetically sealed, and invariably distorting “texts”. So many “dead white European males” turn out to have massive debts to dead males (and in the case of Arabic poetry, females) of color! The post-modernists are so busy exposing the “canon” as a litany of racism, sexism and imperialism that they, exactly like the explicit Eurocentrists, fail to notice that some of the canon’s greatest works have roots in the very cultures they supposedly “erase”.
Edward Said’s omnipresent book Orientalism virtually founded this genre. Said tells us about how Western views of the Eastern Mediterranean world, particularly after the rise of modern imperialist rivalry (the so-called “Eastern questionl) were a distorting discourse of power, and could essentially only be that. (His discussion of Dante, for example, makes no mention of Ibn Arabi.) But Said tells us absolutely nothing about the Western “discourse” on the
Orient when the balance of forces were exactly reversed, namely from the 8th until the 13th centuries, when Islamic civilization towered over the West, culturally and militarily. As one writer put it:
“Were the Eskimos suddenly to emerge as the world’s leading artists and scholars, were factories in Greenland to outproduce those of Japan, and were invaders from the far north to conquer the United States and the Soviet Union, we would hardly be more astonished than were the Muslims two hundred years ago when they suddenly fell under West European control”. ( D. Pipes, In the Path of God, p. 97)
Centuries of Arab and then Ottoman hegemony in the Mediterranean, and their very real ability to militarily threaten the European heartland, which receded only at the end of the 17th century, had blinded Moslems to the rising world power to the north, hundreds of years after their actual ascendancy had been lost.
Said is of course not writing about “Occidentalism”, or a Moslem “discourse” on the West, and cannot be criticized for not including examples such as the statement of the Arab Ibn Sa’id, who described the Franks in the mid-llth century as
“resembling animals more than men…The cold air and cloudy skies (cause) their temperaments to become frozen and their humours to become crude; their bodies are extended, their coloring pale, and their hair too long. They lack keenness of understanding and acuteness of mind, they are dominated by ignorance and stupidity, and blindness of purpose is widespread”. (ibid. p. 81)
What is important is not to multiply quotations proving the banal point that the Moslem world at its apogee was as ethnocentric as the Europeans were at theirs; the point is rather that, in the periods of Moslem world ascendancy, Moslems thought of the inhabitants of the Christian West as barbarians inhabiting a backwater which interested them as little as the blue-painted inhabitants of Britain interested the Roman cultural elite in the 2nd century AD.
But we can criticize Said for not telling us more about “Orientalism” in the West during the period from the 8th to the 13th centuries when the cultural superiority of the Islamic world over Europe was a reality, and an acknowledged one. He does not tell us about the archbishop of Zaragoza in the 9th century who deplored the decadence of the Christian youth in his time and their enchantment by the brilliant Arabic culture emanating from southern Spain, to which.all of Europe then looked:
“They are incapable of writing a correct sentence in Latin but excel the Moslems in the knowledge of the finest grammatical and rhetorical points of Arabic. The scriptures and the writings of the Church fathers lie unread, but they rush to read and translate the latest manuscript from Cordoba.”
Said and the other analysts of Western “discourse” do not often discuss these realities, because they challenge one of their most sacrosanct assumptions, whether implicit or explicit, that of total cultural relativism. They are loathe to admit that some cultures are, in the context of world history, at certain moments more dynamic, in fact superior to others, and that Arabic culture in Moslem Spain in the 11th century towered over culture in Zaragoza or in Paris. To acknowledge this would open the way to acknowledging the unacceptable, unrelativist idea that in the 17th century, the situation had reversed itself and that some cutting edge of world historical ascendancy and superiority had passed to the West. Yet one need only look at the direction of translations to see the change, as it was understood by both sides. From the 11th to the 13th centuries, thousands of works of Arabic philosophy, science, mathematics and poetry were translated into Latin and avidly read all over Europe, while little or nothing was translated in t:he opposite direction. After the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 (the event which, long after the West had laid the foundations of world hegemony, awoke the Moslem world to the new situation), a mass of translations from French into Arabic began and continued through the 19th century.
Donald Lach begins his multi-volume Asia in the Making of Europe with the following statement:
“It has often been acknowledged that gunpowder, the printing press and the compass were essential to the ascendancy of Europe. It is less often acknowledged that none of these were European inventions.”
This reality is acknowledged neither by the Eurocentrists, nor by the relativists of of contemporary multiculturalism. To do so, once again, would be to acknowledge a world historical process larger than any single culture, and a dynamism at the level of world history in which there is cross-cultural syncretism and PROGRESS.
To look seriously at world history prior to Western ascendancy would also undermine another cherished dogma of multiculturalist relativism, namely that the global hegemony of Western culture in modern history rests exclusively on military force. For Said, the discourse of Orientalism is first and foremost a discourse of such “power”. But history shows repeatedly that military conquest is usually followed by the cultural conquest of the conqueror, that cultural hegemony has often moved in the OPPOSITE direction from military superiority. The repeated Mongol and Turkic invasions of China and the Middle East up to the 15th century, so devastating to Chinese and Moslem civilizations (and no small factor in their later vulnerability to the West), invariably led, within a couple of generations, to the integration of the Mongols and Turks into the cultures they had overrun. The Almoravid and Almohad invasions of Moslem Spain from North Africa in the 11th and 12th centuries similarly led to their integration of the invaders into the overrefined urban culture they conquered; indeed, the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun built his whole theory of universal history on this cycle of nomadic conquest and later absorption by the conquerors.
The rather singular convergence of military ascendancy and of cultural hegemony by the West, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, is one “difference”, seen in the perspective of world history, which the multiculturalists should tell us more about. To do so, all they lack, like their counterparts the Eurocentrists, is a notion of world history, and. knowledge of it.
A look at world history in a contemporary context would also lead the multiculturists to the question of the current economic and technological supremacy of Japan, which, one would think, might pose some difficulties for their assault on the ideology of “dead white European males” as the ruling ideology of our time. The indisputable fact that the world’s most dynamic capitalist zone for the past three decades has been in Asia does not trouble them in the least, since they are, among other things, profoundly bored by questions of economics and technology which cannot be connected to cultural difference. The implicit, if not explicit, agenda of the multiculturalists is to present the values associated with intensive capitalist accumulation as “white male”, so that “non-white” peoples such as the Japanese or Koreans who currently embody those values with a greater fervor than most “whites” somehow lose their difference, and certainly their interest. ‘The executives and R&D teams of the Asian firms currently pounding American and European industry with their cutting-edge products would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that their values were “white”. (It used to be the case that the association of cultural attributes with skin color was called.. .racism.) The multiculturalists document the struggles of Andean or Eritrean women against imperialism and gender oppression in every detail, but the successive strikes waves of the Korean workers, one of the most important upsurges of the past decade, is passed over in silence. Somehow when a Third World country is industrialized, is ceases to be “different”.
In this connection, to conclude, it is necessary to consider the “material conditions” in which post-modern multiculturalism has come to center stage. It is only slightly an exaggeration to say, as indicated earlier, that it emerged out of the collapse, in the West, of the model of capitalist accumulation based on the assembly line, of which the automobile, in production and consumption, was the symbol par excellence. The vision of “modernity” we have analyzed throughout had as its implicit or explicit teleology the transformation of the planet into a world of mass production workers, a transformation which France, from which the theory emerged, underwent after 1945 as few other countries. The end of this model of accumulation in the post-1973 world economic crisis dissolved the climate in which various “archaisms” could be assumed to be on the verge of extinction. This is not to offer a narrowly economic analysis of the current ideologies of multicultural identity, or to imply that there was something fundamentally healthy about the 1945-1973 model of accumulation, or to suggest that a new expansion based on a new model of accumulation would restore the old notions of modernity and rationality which were shared, at bottom, by Western capitalism, the Eastern bloc, and Third World development regimes.