From Soixante-Huit to Soixante-Neuf

Glen Newey

  • Collected Papers: Technology, War and Fascism by Herbert Marcuse, edited by Douglas Kellner
    Routledge, 278 pp, £25.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 415 13780 2
  • The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust by Norman Geras
    Verso, 181 pp, £15.00, June 1998, ISBN 1 85984 868 0

‘Statecraft’ is a word not much heard nowadays. The idea that politics could be a craft or techne, familiar to readers of Plato and Machiavelli, is well-nigh beyond superannuation. But even though there’s little bite left in the old dog, it can still bark at a full moon. Its main currency now is in conspiracy theory – or, with the recursive tic which marks this style of political analysis, conspiracy theory theory. For a peerless example, see Lyndon LaRouche Jr on Daniel Pipes’s Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes from in Executive Intelligence Review:

it is fair to say that the phenomenon within manifest human mental behaviour which corresponds to the witnessed act of defecation by the hippopotamus, is an incoherent stream of outpouring of utterly irrational rage. I shall not repeat here the uncouth popular idiom which says as much ... [Richard] Hofstadter himself acquired the dogma from such ‘Frankfurt School’ followers of avowed arch-conspirator Georg Lukacs and the sometime OSS and CIA agent, sometime Communist, and active conspirator Herbert Marcuse, who used to begin his lectures with the singsong ‘There are no conspiracies in history.’ The ‘authoritarian personality’ dogma of such Frankfurt School existentialists as Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt, is derived from the same axiomatic assumptions as Marcuse’s and Hofstadter’s ban on ‘conspiracy theories’. Since the name of Marcuse connotes the cases of Karl Korsch, the Communist Party’s Angela Davis, and the origins of the Weathermen, LSD and terrorism band, the reference to Hofstadter is liberally preferred today.

Enough material there for a whole case-history. Notwithstanding the title of Paul Alexander Juutilainen’s recent film docubiog about Marcuse, Herbert the Hippopotamus, the slack-sphinctered pachyderm in LaRouche’s first sentence refers not to Marcuse, late consort of Korsch, Davis and the Weathermen, nor even to Lyndon Jr’s own unstanchable logorrhoea, but to Pipes’s harping on US politics’ ‘paranoid style’, the subject of a well-known essay by Richard Hofstadter a generation ago. LaRouche’s brushwork splashes from the faux-judicious (‘I shall not repeat here the uncouth popular idiom’) via the gimcrack ‘Third Wave’ soothsayer Alvin Toffler, to the dumping-grounds of the Zambezi. Thence it works its way round to Herbert Marcuse and his fellow Frankfurters, of whom Hannah Arendt wasn’t one, and very few of whom, furthermore, were even briefly laid low by the contemporary grand mal of Existentialism (in a review written with Adorno’s blessing, though not collected in Technology, War and Fascism, Marcuse panned Being and Nothingness for elevating the parochial condition of absurdity into a once-for-all ontology). LaRouche impales Pipes himself on the barb that ‘conspiracism’ instances the very phenomenon it claims to debunk. It would be uncharitable to ignore the contribution made to LaRouche’s diatribe by honest psychosis. But a handy spin-off from it and other essays in conspiracism is the smoke-screening of such (as it were) bona fide complots as arms for hostages, the secret bombing of Cambodia, or the entente between IT&T, George Bush’s CIA and the Chilean military, which sprang that latter-day Demosthenes Augusto Pinochet Ugarte into office.

As LaRouche rightly notes, Marcuse had done the state some service, and he knew it. In the circumstances it is hardly surprising that his extended career in US intelligence, including a sojourn during the early Forties at the CIA-prototype Office of Strategic Services before he moved over to the State Department, doesn’t nudge LaRouche towards the inference that Sixties Santa Monica, far from being a sunset home for washed up radicals, offered a forward base for CIA infiltration of the counter-culture (the charge duly crops up, though, in an anonymous article in Progressive Labor from February 1969, entitled ‘Marcuse: Cop-out or Cop?’).

Though Marcuse pointed out in a later pow-wow with Habermas that, in common with Franz Neumann, H. Stuart Hughes and Walter Langer, he was but an understrapper in the war against German Fascism, he stayed on through the A-bomb tests on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the flash-freeze phase of the Cold War and into the Korean War. Technology, War and Fascism assembles a few Marcusan parerga from these years of service. Douglas Kellner has edited some Nachlass jottings from the Forties, and promises that, at annual intervals, further collections from the archives will be published, which will show the ‘persisting importance of Marcuse’s thought as we prepare’, so it seems, ‘for the next millennium’. I’m preparing, Douglas, I’m preparing. Some of the paper-trail included here is mainly of biographical interest, such as Marcuse’s brisk exchange of letters after the war with Heidegger, whose replies are also reproduced. In a letter of 20 January 1948, the glutinous old Nazi, whose exercises in blame-dodging show up far more grossly than in the Ott or Safranski biographies, writes that Marcuse’s wholly uncontroversial remarks about ‘a regime that has killed millions of Jews’ level ‘charges of dubious validity’. Ready to hand also is that trusty apologist’s standby, the ‘moral equivalence’ of the postbellum Soviet treatment of Germans in the eastern territories, voiced again recently in James Bacque’s Crimes and Mercies. How high the seas of humbug swell.

Like Madagascar, the ‘Frankfurt’ School – at least in its first incarnation – was a toponymic anomaly. Marcuse barely had time to check out of the luggage reclaim in Frankfurt after submitting his Habilitation to Horkheimer and Adorno before prudence dictated that the School decamp to the US. Some of the main lines of argument in One-Dimensional Man (1964) are already apparent in Some Social Implications of Modern Technology (1941), written during Marcuse’s career as a US intelligence and State Department operative (Marcuse later advised that it was necessary to ‘subtract’ the Forties from his output). Much of the material here is about winning the war against Germany, and what to do once it was won. The working atmosphere must have been pretty choice, with boiled heads from the US military industrial complex in improbable cahoots with the exiled, often Jewish, remnant of prewar Middle European Marxism. At the State Department Marcuse toiled to block the Punic-style plan of Churchill and Henry Morgenthau to agrarianise a vanquished Fatherland. The ‘de-Nazification’ programme finally implemented was an altogether more piecemeal affair than the Allied ultras had envisaged. Rudi Dutschke and the Baader-Meinhof gang arose from a Germany which Marcuse himself had helped to create, and which attained in the peerless Spiessbürger Helmut Kohl its pinguid apotheosis. If the now moribund Bonn Republic has been about anything, it has been techno-Prometheanism. Vorsprung durch Technik, as they artlessly say in the car ads.

This casts a slightly bleary retrospective light on the Marcusan critique of Nazism’s technophilia. In The New German Mentality, commissioned in 1942 to identify fruitful areas of Allied ‘counter-propaganda’ against the German population, he quotes a New York Times article of 15 March 1942, based on a German soldier’s diary reporting business as usual on the Eastern Front: ‘I’m surprised it didn’t affect me more to see a woman hanged. It even entertained me. Spent birthday digging up bodies and smashing in their faces. My sweetheart will say “Yes!” when she hears how I hanged a Russian today.’

Ah, the burdens of life as a Ja-sager. This is, to be sure, the sort of thing which gives modernity a bad name. It’s a commonplace that the Third Reich tried to reduce the ‘solution’ of the ‘Jewish problem’ to one of technical implementation. We learn as much from that peerless technocrat Hans Frank, in an article on ‘Technik des Staates’ in the 1941 volume of Zeitschrift der Akademie für Deutsches Recht – an organ whose very name, in context, offers a deathless essay in the sardonic. The tie that binds SS Russian Front vets with the likes of Jim Garrison, or for that matter Erich von Däniken, is a belief in technical feasibility, and this provides one of the volume’s staple concerns. It may not be stretching terms too far to label the interest which in each case is engaged an aesthetic one. In The New German Mentality Marcuse wrote that Nazism ‘mobilises the mythological layer of the human mind, which constituted the vast reservoir of the German protest against Christian civilisation’. Ressentiment on this scale demands an object. The will whose triumph is bodied forth in Leni Riefenstahl’s camp classic found its pretext in the Versailles indemnities and the ‘stab in the back’ myth, but its real cause in the idea that the will itself could be subject to constraint. By contrast with the main argument of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Nazi power-play did not will technocratic control as means to end, but willed will itself as end. The plasticity of Kant’s pure practical reason and ragion di stato in the face of will makes them closer kin than either the prophet of Perpetual Peace or practitioners of Realpolitik care to acknowledge – whether will manifests itself as reverence for the law, or as selfless viciousness, malice for malice’s sake.

This begins to boggle the academic distinction between instrumental and non-instrumental reason. That politics is, or can be, the object of a technical fix is as clear an expression of a ‘disinterested’ aesthetic attitude as could be hoped for, though this is rather obscured by glossing political action merely as the gauging of efficient means to ends. As Charles Taylor (the Canadian politician and philosopher, not the Liberian gunslinger) has pointed out, dousing the Vietnamese population in Agent Orange is only prima facie comprehensible as the upshot of a cost/benefit util-tot. It is better seen expressively, as a symbolic pecs-flex, a genuinely gratuitous act. Pace LaRouche, the real ‘existentialist’ honchos on the boardwalk aren’t Adorno or Arendt, but Robert McNamara and the Kilgorean figure of William Westmoreland.

This volume bears little sign of the bourgeois deviationism to which Marcuse fell prey in the Forties, though it may be coming in one of the promised sequels. These were, after all, the years when Marcuse excogitated Eros and Civilisation, published in 1955; the book proposed auto-objectification as liberation. Perhaps because of his wife’s early death or his own decline into the vale of years, Marcuse’s erotomania reached fairly extreme forms, as in his commendation of coprophilia and the ‘polymorphous perverse’ against the mooted tyranny of the genitals. Even some erstwhile disciples, not to mention the School’s glum high priests, Adorno and Horkheimer, found it hard to believe that political emancipation demanded a schmooze with a jobbie. This sparked an unseemly spat between Marcuse and the Frankfurt psychoanalytical theorist Erich Fromm over orifices. Nonetheless, Eros and Civilisation enjoyed a vibrant afterlife in the ideological ferment of the Sixties, as soixante-huit segued into soixante-neuf. Marcuse’s move in this direction is in some measure prefigured here, in the ‘The State and Individual under National Socialism’. This concerns the Kraft durch Freude organisation, Nazism’s Butlins, with its premium on the alfresco life and romping around in the buff or, as Marcuse puts it, ‘compulsory enjoyment of open air’ (see, in this regard, much degenerate Nazi art, including some of the more turgid sequences from Riefenstahl’s Olympia). In the long perspective of Marcuse’s Sixties writings, it’s hard not to hear an echo of the Sadean credo that liberation lay in running the gamut of navel, nasal and armpit sex, and hard to disagree with the Dialectic’s verdict that Enlightenment reason – the matching of efficient means to rational ends – found in the One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom not its antidote, but its twin.

Marcuse is at pains to stress that Nazism’s technophilia – witnessed in the Autobahn programme, the holiday Stalag Prora, Peenemünde and Speer’s Germania – was not inconsistent with its primitivism and does not license us to reject technology as such. Underlying a lot of his musings is the hallmark Frankfurt question: what form should a philosophical engagement with modernity take? A demand that any such engagement should meet is that it can explain itself as a historically conditioned but intelligible artefact (which can also offer an opportunity for ideological critique). Even with this none-too-stringent condition, some responses can be dismissed out of hand. Among them is that reactive technophobia which makes itself manifest in Wicca-worship, and the yodelling gamut of New Age gramarye. It’s no shock to find modern-day chlorophyll politics prefigured in the political programme of that alp-loving, Lederhosen-loined lentil-head, Adolf Hitler. Marcuse is fairly sensible about all this, arguing (again, adversus Nazism’s corn-dolly cultishness and eco-toss) that ‘all programmes of an anti-technological character, all propaganda for an anti-industrial revolution, serve only those who regard human needs as a by-product of the utilisation of technics.’ Here, as perhaps throughout his career, Marcuse found himself torn between Frankfurt’s endemic miserabilism and what in Esthétique du Mal Wallace Stevens called the ‘passion for yes that had never been broken’.

This has to prevail against the modish view of technology as behemoth. As Norman Stone once wrote of Speer, ‘beyond a certain level, technical matters cannot be separated from morality.’ The latter’s claims remain importunate. A good deal of academic effort is devoted to trying to argue people (philanderers, satanists, non-Kantians – in sum, the delinquent ‘sturdy beggars’ of the discipline) into morality, as if its failings were akin to misdeclining fero, or failing to make the trip across some other pons asinorum. The primordial scenario is, of course, that of the didact lumbered with a zed-grade charge who keeps making a pig’s ear of his ablatives. Most of the time, at least in anal-phil discussions, the project of showing that morality is ‘out there’ has been thought tantamount to proving that it is immemorially grand. But is not the other alternative also possible? That morality is around, or as they say, part of the furniture of the world, in the full MFI plush divan and plastic bathroom-suite sense, but impresses, like Catch 22’s Major Major, only by its unimpressiveness. Morality sticks – to adapt an idiom which my late grandmother was apt to use in her dotage, after leaving her teeth in another rock bun – to the world like shit to a blanket. With how glad a heart the reader greets this disclosure is no doubt a personal thing, or if you will a ‘lifestyle choice’. The same goes for the debate about whether morality is ‘categorical’ or not – where it’s been assumed that the fact that morality ‘applies’ categorically is itself a reason for acting morally.

Fellow fly-bottlers devote surprising volumes of energy to bringing the usual suspects to book. The targets of these sorties are known to Interpol as louche sentimentalists, non-cognitivists or, at the very least, the eternal lawless trainbands – always fair game for this mode of philosophising – of those who couldn’t give a toss. The worry is that if these reprobates are right about morality, mere sentiment – or still worse, mere apathy – is loosed on the world. So the set-to between realism and anti-realism – about in what sense, if any, morality is part of the world – gets confused with the wrangle over how, or indeed whether, morality can get us off the chaise-longue. The enduring hope is that it can. Nietzsche put it best when he talked of Spinoza, the saturnine Amsterdam lens-grinder and notorious pantheist (for which, read – at least for Spinoza’s contemporaries – atheist), as being smitten with ‘a God-ache’. The local vicar down my way, a once cheerfully godless bank manager who first bothered his cancer’s Maker after being cured – by the happy conjunction of divine happenstance and orchidectomy – of testicle cancer, prefers to call it the ‘God-space’, no doubt a giveaway reference to his ridgel predicament. The pages of our moral philosophers are still stalked by a truant deity.

In his latest work, as in Solidarity in the Conversation of Mankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty (1995), Norman Geras is much concerned with the Holocaust. In the earlier book, his target was Rorty’s East Coast moral particularism: his insistence that charity begins (and, as that always means, ends) at home – the ripples of sympathy growing weaker and weaker as they move outwards from self to tax-adviser to hamster to wife to fellow Americans and remaining mammals – was, according to Geras, refuted by the motives driving gentiles to rescue Jews from liquidation. Rescuer testimony suggested, contrary to Rorty, that shared humanity was the prime motivation for rescuers, at any rate in Denmark. It is undeniable, as Geras says, that the Holocaust hasn’t bulked large in recent political philosophy, though it plays big – indeed, sounds an endless crescendo – in the wider ‘culture’. This is, in part, frank thanatolatry. Compare the end-of-century vogue for hecatomb historiography, as in the late spate of works on the First World War, let alone the tumbling mill of tomes on the big H itself. This is guilt commodification, the indulgence-sale launched when the Invisible Hand turns to pleasuring the spiritual organ. Hope of radical reform being decidedly at a discount nowadays, the sole shift remaining is to put ressentiment to work niggling away at our bygones. The old gibe about the SDP was that it offered a better yesterday. Today’s aimless moralism offers a worse yesterday, and this faute de mieux, a better tomorrow being out of bounds. What sets out as critique may become commodity fetishism, symptom rather than diagnosis.

The initial mistake is to think that there could be something which justifies morality, where justification is assumed to be independent of whether anyone is disposed to heed it. But this doesn’t get us any further along if the reason for trying to justify it to start with was that some people don’t want to take any notice of it. (What justifies justification? What could?) The error is compounded by assuming that the issue of justification has to do with supplying a motive for acting morally, whether that is effected by an appeal to our supposed interest in doing so or, less aspiringly, by a suit paid to collective or individual prudence. It’s doubtful whether anything along contractarian lines will do the job. The project is to nail the moral draft-dodger by showing that the position involves irrationality or pragmatic contradiction. In Geras’s case it comes down to a reformulation of the Golden Rule.

Here is the core idea. If you do not come to the aid of others who are under grave assault, in acute danger or crying need, you cannot reasonably expect others to come to your aid in similar emergency; you cannot consider them so obligated to you. Other people, equally, unmoved by the emergencies of others, cannot reasonably expect to be helped in deep trouble themselves, or consider others obligated to help them. I call this the contract of mutual indifference. I propose it reluctantly ...

‘Mutual indifference’ signifies that the deal proposed above is motivated not by altruism but by what is thought of as rational egoism. ‘Contract’, on the other hand, is something of a misnomer. It transpires subsequently that no special sanction is applicable for non-performance. And if it is the absence of the relevant altruistic motivations that sets the terms of the problem it is far from clear what the contract is supposed to achieve – not, presumably, just to rubber-stamp the things people would do anyway. Since what sets the problem is that life is a jungle, its solution needs to be more than a rigmarole of savages.

As often in contractarianism, the justificatory journey involves a trip up the hill and then back down again. Political theory still attempts to found the ‘obligation’ to obey the state on an original contract. The exchange usually goes something like this. To those who seek to justify the state by means of a hypothetical contract, anarchists not unreasonably point out that if de facto subjects had wanted to sign themselves up to some agreement binding them to obey the state, they would probably have done so without the stir of philosophers. The statist’s standard rejoinder, in so many words, is that if they don’t want to sign up, they ought to want to. Well, maybe, but then you may as well just say that the reason is that they ought to, and stop pretending that it is because they want to. As anarchists can fairly point out, the alternative is not obviously worse than a fictive contract based on a hypothetical desire to act on a suppositious obligation. Newton’s self-admonition – hypotheses non fingo – goes not only for the laws governing the starry firmament, but also for the moral law whose Newton Kant believed himself to be.

If Geras’s argument is that someone who prefers both not helping to helping, and being helped to not being helped, is guilty of a contradiction, it fails. After all, there’s no obvious reason why some shouldn’t gamble. Such people prefer not helping and not being helped, to helping and being helped. Even with risk-averse ‘minimax’ reasoning – that is, choosing the option in which the worst outcome is better than the worst outcome in any other option – it remains open to reject co-operation (minimax indeed requires non-co-operation in the classic one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma). Of course, they may come to a sticky end. But where’s the contradiction? As Geras himself argues, Kant’s efforts to show that a ‘contradiction’ is perpetrated by someone who refuses to acknowledge a duty of aid fail (as so often when the arch-Prussian’s mood turns hortative – the dogged homiletics against self-slaughter, wig-making and trouser-tennis in the Lectures on Ethics come to mind – Kant struggles vainly to show that the relevant maxim contradicts a ‘life force’ within us).

Geras’s approach is strangely Protestant. It sees the practical issue as a drama of generalised individual moral responsibility, as in the supposedly exhaustive tripartition of ‘victim’, ‘perpetrator’ and ‘bystander’. The point is not (even if it’s true) that the Allies could have pulled their finger out in stopping the Holocaust, a view fairly squashed by Bill Rubinstein’s recent The Myth of Rescue. There are in any case better examples of wilful inaction in the face of mass murder, the US Government’s performance during the Rwandan mass murder in 1994 – avoiding the word ‘genocide’ until mega-murder was safely done – being a case in point. At issue in both cases is how collective action is concerted successfully. This is not, of course, to deny the enduring potency of the Oval Office’s oozing Mahalingam. But even there the situation is badly under-characterised as the moral drama of one man’s reckoning with his prayer-breakfast. This at least offers fit material for the multiplexes’ Saturday-night zit-and-snog crowd, with the consolation of a choice we can understand. Hence also the muggy comforts of ‘conspiracism’.

Morality, shmorality. Modern-style public lustration encompasses the spectacle of tremulous Home Counties campesinos huddled round the shrine of the Althorp Madonna, or Hollywood divas parading at Harvard, pre-impeachment, to grease Slick Willy’s axle. The conclusion must be that morality’s demands, particularly where they are obligations of indefinite extent assigned to nobody in particular, are a good deal shallower than they appear. This is not to deny that the regnant global disorder offers ripe material for critique, when Baghdad suburbs-dwellers swallow what falls out when the President finds himself in the soup (cock-a-leekie, since you ask). That the priapic old Pinocchio should, however fleetingly, have found himself snagged on the micro-gossip of the scorps offers as passable a facsimile of justice as modern politics has to offer.