From Enlightenment to Neoliberalism

Written by Jonathan Moss

Execution of Marie Antoinette on October 16

The Enlightenment brought many values to Western society, but for the sake of simplicity I will concentrate on the triad of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. These are of course abstract values and thus had dual appeal to Liberals and Radicals. In practice they became the slogan of the French Revolution which, combined with the Industrial Revolution, was a revolution of the bourgeoisie. This isn’t to say it wasn’t progressive, with capitalism easily being preferable to feudalism, and indeed being the next stop from it towards the road of socialism. So the slogan can be seen as twofold at this point, on one hand as abstract ideals and on the other as the justification for capitalism and liberalism, with the ideals providing this justification.

At this point these ideals became reified, though in a dialectical turn they still served as an abstract motto for humanistic marxists and anarchists as a goal still to be reached, with liberalism obviously failing to do so in a manner in which was anything more than superficial.

However this is where the reality of the capitalist mode of economy set in. As soon the progressive character of capitalism wore off and what remained was a dehumanising totality which was extremely oppressive to the proletariat it created. A new form of capitalism also emerged, one called neoliberalism, named after its so-called relationship to the classical liberalism of the enlightenment, in contrast to social liberalism which was seen as a socialist deviation of it. So, since Neoliberalism tacitly places itself as the heir to The Enlightenment, it seems fair to analyse it in relationship to the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

So, in a dialectical hypocrisy, neoliberalism upholds enlightenment values whilst not believing them itself, like a functionalist who preaches Christianity for the masses whilst personally holding religious belief to be idiotic. This is best demonstrated with freedom and equality. Neoliberal ideologues argue that freedom and equality are in contradiction and freedom must be prioritised over equality. This produces another interesting hypocrisy where they argue that freedom will lead to equality. So freedom and equality are in opposition, but not really, we just prefer freedom, is what they seem to say. It is obvious that “freedom” in this case  means the freedom of the bourgeoisie, the freedom for the capitalist boss to do what he will, with the proletariat being nothing but a cog. But this is only a momentary injustice, as it is argued that since capitalism is based on competition any member of the working class can start their own business. So, according to this schema freedom does in fact lead to equality, the equality of business. Even ignoring the argument that the structure of capitalism requires a surplus of workers, the argument ignores the monopoly structure of capitalism, with any small business being started likely being trampled by big conglomerates. This is not what is assumed by the enlightenment slogan, where rather freedom and equality were seen as components of the same totality, if all humans are equal- and not just equal before the market- they will have the freedom to do what they want. This of course has communistic implications and thus cannot be supported.

Fraternity is forgotten altogether, replaced by an atomistic individuality culminating in Thatcher’s maxim “there is no such thing as society”. This slogan of course when examined completely negates the enlightenment, which although based on a certain level of individualism did not reach the frankly nihilisticThatcher, and of course had a communitarian current as best exemplified by the works of Rousseau, and a humanist one shared by most. The slogan represented no abstract ideal and was a thinly veiled justification for the harsh policies Thatcher and the conservative government carried out against the poor. This goes against the radical-democratic impulse of the enlightenment where people really were seen as equal and a public sphere where debate went on and the free press was pioneered. This isn’t to romanticise it, all of this was heavily bourgeoisie and quite exclusionary towards the proletariat and women. However it does help to illustrate that an attempt at fraternity was made, and this stands heavily in contrast with the individualism of neoliberalism. Perhaps it helps to use one example of how individualism didn’t go that far even amongst the individualist side of the enlightenment, with the economist Adam Smith advocating government intervention for businesses which were not fair towards the proletariat they hired. The idea of a social contract was also prevalent, showing that people were generally keen on a way to hold society together. So, it can perhaps be debated out of the triad fraternity is most neglected, and yet in another dialectical hypocrisy it is argued that focusing solely on the individual will ultimately make a happy society, ignoring the inequalities inherent to the system.

One can debate the extent to which the enlightenment lived up to its own principles, as the enlightenment was the making of white bourgeois males subject to the many prejudices of their class, race, and sex. That’s not to say there wasn’t a working class element and a feminist element to the enlightenment, but this base had little influence in the superstructure created by enlightenment. So the point of the essay is not to completely defend the enlightenment, there have been plenty of relevant critiques of it made, coming from philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, amongst others. If the Enlightenment project is to continue it will have to do so in a reformulated form based on these critiques, otherwise it will lose its radicalism, as it currently doing. This isn’t to postulate that neoliberalism is a legitimate heir to enlightenment, but that the dialectic of enlightenment could and did lead to neoliberalism. The Enlightenment, despite being presented as a monolithic in current liberal media against another monolith, postmodernism, with the former being completely good and the latter completely bad. Despite this The Enlightenment- like postmodernism- is not a monolith and its conservative elements did lead to neoliberalism. This does not negate the basic principles of the enlightenment as demonstrated with the triad of liberty, equality, fraternity are essentially correct and though abstract, are worth fighting for, even if it means fighting against the people who ostensibly hold these principles up. These abstractions can be mediated and made concrete through the completion of the socialist project.

One can argue that it is the abstractness of the principles which led to their downfall. They served as admirable goals to fight for in order to secure a better order, but once this order was established the enlightenment and its principles were rationalised. From noble principles they are transformed into a mundane and reified reality. In the process of rationalisation they are forgotten altogether, and so contemporary political liberalism is a liberalism without the liberalism. Instead a kind of careerism becomes the norm, politics is revealed as business, having an underlying philosophy is seen as extremist, against a false pragmatism which negates itself. But true to functionalism, for the sake of the people these values are still promoted in some forms, such as media. People after all still need something to believe in and in a post-secular age God will not do entirely. So like the liberalism without liberalism we have an enlightenment without enlightenment, the values put out on display when necessary and the french revolution taught as an important epoch of humanism and liberalism, but none of it truly believed. It is reified into an almost sort of false consciousness. The most important thing taught is that under our liberal democracies you can succeed and for this to happen you need to work for it.

As I have said previously in this essay, such an idea of a democratic meritocracy is not the case. Due to the racism and sexism of the capitalist system, in conjunction of its monopoly form, most people do not succeed under it, and instead remain alienated under the means of production. However the bourgeoisie is able to pump out enough rags to riches stories in order to maintain its hegemony. The false enlightenment of neoliberalism is able to keep itself stable enough so that generally people have enough hope under it.

I’d argue though that recently this has changed, and such a change is evident based on our current political climate. Due to the amount of crises’ and the terrible state of the economy the neoliberals are no longer able to honestly promise success under enlightenment, and take a turn towards an honest but dangerous pessimism. Theoretically this should be something of a good thing, people realise the false illusions of the capitalist system and agitate for a system that can actually fulfil its promises. However, here the process of rationalisation comes in, people associate these sublimated principles with the enlightenment itself and so do not just turn against neoliberalism but the enlightenment as a whole, including its genuinely progressive values.

This has lead in turn to a resurgence in fascist ideology, as best demonstrated by the success of Donald Trump in America and the prevalence of fascist political parties in several European countries, along with the “alt-right” movement. All of these movements arose in opposition to the philosophy of neoliberalism, even as they promised people the same things neoliberalism did. Despite this fascism is an authoritarian, racist, exclusionary ideology2 thus going against at least the enlightenment progressive, egalitarian current. And whilst the promises of neoliberalism are promised, they are not promised on enlightenment values but are instead founded on the premise that western civilisation is degenerate, being attacked by feminists, communists, multiculturalists, and political correctness.

In order to fight fascism on an ideological level one of the things necessary to do is to bring the Enlightenment back in its radicalised form, to somehow unreify it, especially the slogan “liberty, equality, and fraternity” and thus separate it from neoliberal dogma. Hopefully this essay has opened possibilities of showing how this can be done and hence why, despite its problems, the project of Enlightenment is worth fighting for and Fascism seen as an anti-enlightenment ideology.

  1. No offence to nihilism, which as a philosophy is fairly interesting.
  2. As nationalism was something pioneered by the french revolution it can be argued to what extent fascism can actually trace its lineage back to enlightenment. However as we are going for a dialectic understanding of enlightenment we can say nationalism, like capitalism, was at this point genuinely progressive, and like capitalism served its purpose, thus becoming reactionary.
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Communication under Capitalism

Written by Jonathan Moss

Brick-Lane-Clifton-Cafe

Karl Marx shows in the first volume of Capital that the proletariat is economically exploited via the bourgeoisie pocketing the surplus value produced. The proletariat is quite literally robbed.

It is important to mention this because while this is the prime way in which the proletariat is robbed, it is not the only way, and not the most visible way. Capitalism robs us artistically, socially, intellectually, it steals our time, being a totality dedicated to its own reproduction. One of the other forms of robbery is our communication, the way we converse. This is what this essay will be exploring. Unfortunately most of the essay cannot be empirically verified, being based more on the author’s observations and experiences. But I trust that it will ring true amongst most readers of it.

Conversation under this epoch of capitalism is, to use one of Marx’s older ideas, alienated. Whilst is is extremely unlikely there has been such a thing as pure communication, with language always serving a practical purpose, we can still posit an abstract ideal in which communication serves a form in which communication is a form of play, employing linguistic ambiguities, delighting in joke, conversing on philosophy and love, amongst other things. The central idea is that language should mean something beyond a practical purpose. This is of course pure idealism on my part, though the closest this ideal was fulfilled was under capitalism with the public sphere, as written about by Jurgen Habermas. This demonstrates that the abstract idea demonstrated in this paragraph has the chance of being mediated and made concrete, it is no utopia. And although the idea may be critiqued as being nostalgic for the public sphere which was of course bourgeois, this is to engage in a crude mischaracterization of socialism in which the working class are glorified and the middle class vilified, despite the historical and artistic achievements of the latter. So, to return to the first sentence after our small dialectical investigation, language is alienated both on an abstract and concrete level, providing we take the public sphere as our starting point. It is estranged as a mode of conversation and rendered mundane.

Conversation under this epoch of capitalism is utilitarian and artless. This is of course a generalisation, it is still possible to converse meaningfully, but it is not encouraged and it is not the norm. In aggregate the purpose of conversation under capitalism is utilitarian, it is this that serves the totality of reproduction, with greater conversation skills creating greater critical thinking skills. This is largely the fault of the school system which, in strict accordance with the logic of capitalism, teaches nothing which doesn’t ultimately have the aim of attaining a job, and this is reflected in the way language is taught, which is as a tool and as nothing else. This prepares people in turn for alienated labour where it is important class consciousness is not attained and the proletariat’s mind remains reified. This produces a vicious dialectic in which the worker is taught enough communication skills to contribute to capitalism whilst not being taught enough to truly understand it, resulting in a situation where they are unlikely to rise above drone, and in this way keeping the bourgeoisie in charge in charge permanently. Communication as a mode of social antagonism is rendered null, and the proletariat is taught to think in the logic of capitalism, everything becomes a utility. In the end the school is nothing but a glorified PR branch.

It should be noted that this is not to suggest that the proletariat is stupid, merely that in understanding language a certain way a certain viewpoint is gained, this has no bearings on taste for art, and indeed in many cases the proletariat can speak in a manner more akin to the unalienated form suggested in the third paragraph, it is just not encouraged and is thus not as done.

In the social realm this results in what is termed “small talk” and it can be broadly suggested that small talk is the social language of capitalism. This puts social language in a dialectic with professional language in which though serving different purposes they are orientated in the same way, creating a contradiction in which language is not quite social and not quite official. It also becomes the language of unknowing dishonesty, as when someone is asked how they are they would be most unlikely to give a thorough answer reflecting the hidden intensity of the question, but instead reply with something like “good” or “fine”, and encourage further conversation, though it is often along the same lines. Amongst closer friends a larger answer may be given of course, but as language operates primarily on a casual level, with close friendships being rare, it serves as a non-question to invite non-answers and facilitate a non-conversation. This can be further termed the jargon of practicality, language fulfils a practical function as previously stated, but in being relegated to solely serve a practical function outside of the discussion of practical things the practicality of the language is negated and rendered quite false. This occurs in a world that has adopted the logic of utilitarianism and abandoned the sensuous and the sublime. This can be fought in small ways, people may meet over hobbies, and bond over those, subsequently developing closer ties. But as most hobbies reflect the mainstream and the mainstream is purposely vapid, as dictated by the culture industry, this is difficult to do as well.

This is why it can be shown that the argument that smartphones and social media are stunting conversation is based on a reified consciousness in which the real sources of stunted conversation are mystified and the thing of the smartphone is assigned blame, of course ignoring that the problems outlined thus far pre-date the smartphone. And indeed, just like it is possible to form genuine friendships under this totality, it is also possible to find genuine friendships through the smartphone and through social media. This is not to glorify social media or smartphones, it is merely to state a fact. Obviously communication over social media is subject to all the same problems as communication in the “real world”, but not because it is social media but because of the logic enforced by modern capitalism. Blaming social media for this is akin to blaming an unstable dog on the dog itself and not on the owner who is responsible for the mental state of the animal.

To make the final point of this essay,  conversation  under capitalism can be understood using a metaphor from Marxian economics, that of use value and exchange value. Communication has a meagre use value in that it conveys what is to be done under capitalism, and the exchange value arises out of the use value and shared practicality with the other workers to make the job, and as “anecdotes” in the social realm. This is a use value and exchange value rid of the dialectical contradiction of its economic formulation, with use value directly feeding into exchange value, and an existential longing must be needed to create that contradiction and get this exchange value away from the “use” of it.

About

This is a blog on aesthetics run by Jonathan Moss, which will analyse and dialectically critique society through the aesthetics it has adopted in its various strata’s and milieus. This is done from a primarily Marxist perspective, influenced by Theodor Adorno, György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Terry Eagleton, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Michel Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Guy Debord, Ernst Bloch, Karl Korsch, Don MacKeen, and Marx himself.

Some may question the point of a radical leftist having an aesthetics blog in the age of Trump and Brexit. Ignoring the coverage these things are getting in the media already by leftists and liberals, implicit in this idea is that aesthetics is unimportant and perhaps elitist, and implicit in that assumption is an undialectical mode of thinking paralysed by positivism. Our world is an aesthetic world and to critique the aesthetics of capitalism is of course to critique capitalism. The viewpoint that aesthetic critique is divorced from reality similarly ignores that a critique of aesthetics can be used dialectically to critique many facets of society, the economic realm, the political realm, the sociological realm, the philosophical realm and so on. These aspects of society cannot be understood separately, they must be comprehended dialectically as part of the totality of society.

So, the point of this blog is not to withdraw into academia but is, as Marx said, to partake in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists”.

It must be noted though that on a much more material level this blog probably wont have much or indeed any influence, so either way you slice it I’m gonna write about whatever the fuck I want.

This blog is of course dedicated to Josh Price.