Being and Politics - a Left oriented critical review by Kim Petersen
Introduction by GA: The following is a Left oriented critical review of Being in Time by Kim Petersen (Dissident Voice). I would like to thank Kim for his eloquent approach. However, in Being in Time I obviously refrain from following the orthodox definitions of Left and Right. I actually insist that Left and Right are not what they seem to appear or represent but instead are a mirroring of the human condition: a dialectical interplay between the dream and the real (or shall we say being and becoming). Petersen writes in the end of his review, "it would be fruitful if the book erected a promising structure, rather than simply tear down structures with little left standing." This point must be addressed. While activists tend to know who is right and what is wrong, I see myself as a philosopher. My task is to refine questions rather than produce answers. I leave the domain of 'promising structures' of the Jerusalemites. I am, by far more excited by the Athenian approach, namely thinking things through. For me to teach, is to teach other to think for themselves.
Being and Politics by Kim Petersen
Gilad Atzmon has a new book just out titled Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto. The title probably is influenced from a book, Being and Time, written by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Atzmon has put forward his manifesto that attempts to synthesize various political, cultural, psychological, linguistic strands to explain why the western world finds itself in its current state of unfettered capitalism, crushed communism, the continuing Jewish occupation of and oppression in Palestine, supremacism, the West fighting Israel’s wars, and the discourse being manipulated (even within purportedly independent media).
In Being in Time, Atzmon pulls on many threads, including sexuality, psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt school, cultural Marxism, cognitive partitioning, political correctness, language, identity politics, leftism, rightism, and more.
I continue to dissent from how Atzmon characterizes the Left, which he divides into the Old and New Left. Fine, there are divisions in the Left. There are certain core principles that leftists adhere to: pro-human rights for all humans, accepting of diversity, anti-war, pro-worker, anti-exploitation, etc. But what must also be realized is that many persons may pose as Left but are not leftist in orientation. People who do not embrace core leftist principles are not leftist, they are faux-leftists. To criticize the entirety of the Left because a fifth column has undermined a segment of the Left speaks to the level of infiltration, the gullibility of certain leftists, or the fragility of social conviction among some leftists.
The Left is not a monolith, and neither is the Right a monolith. Hence any criticism leveled at the entirety of a political orientation is only valid when the entirety of a political orientation espouses an identical platform.
Atzmon considers that identity politics characterizes liberalism and progressivism. (p 8) He names, for example, LGBTQ, feminists, Latinos, Blacks, and Jews as forming exclusive political alliances. However, a major plank of the Left is solidarity as it is widely understood that to bring about some greater form of socialism the masses must unite. Ergo, strict allegiance to identity politics is contrary to leftist principles. Atzmon further notes that patriotism is secondary among leftists. Jingoistic nationalism is an enemy of the working class, and it is certainly anathema to anarchists. Therefore, insofar as patriotic sentiment prejudices one’s attachment with wider humanity, it serves to divide rather than unite peoples.
Yet rightists also engage in identity politics as Whites, militarists, religious sects, and anti-abortionists attest. In the case of the US politics, Amanda Marcotte of Salon writes, “Democrats are always accused of playing ‘identity politics.’ The reality is that Republicans do it far more.”
I wonder what exactly Atzmon means by post-politics. I assume this refers to the “fatigue” he points to in the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump, as well as the discarding of Left and Right politics.
He sees Left and Right as “now indistinguishable and irrelevant.” (p 9)
According to Atzmon, the Left is focused on “what could be” and the Right on “what is.” (p 13) Atzmon argues, “The Right does not aim to change human social reality but rather to celebrate, and even to maximize it.” (p 13)
But the Right has engineered this “social reality” through neoliberalism, imperialism, and militaristic violence, and the only ones really benefiting from this so-called maximization are the capitalist class. That the Democratic Party in the US, the Labour Party in the UK, the Liberal Party in Canada are in step with this engineering of “social reality” adduces that they are rightist parties.
“The Left,” continues Atzmon, “yearns for equality, but for the Right, the human condition is diverse and multi-layered, with equality not just tolerated but accepted as part of the human condition, a natural part of our social, spiritual and material world.” (p 13)
The imprecision of what constitutes a chunk of Atzmon’s manifesto is annoying. The Left “yearns”? This might be written in a less biased manner as a “desire.” But it is not simply a desire for an undefined “equality.” The Left calls for an equality of conditions, opportunities, and access to resources. Why not? Should an inequality of conditions, opportunities, and access to resources be accepted? Should one class of people be accorded privileges over the rest of humanity? Is this not supremacism – which Atzmon deplores? And for most of the Left – most (and for anarchists, likeliest all), respect for diversity is a valued principle. Diversity is recognized by the Right, specifically, pecuniary diversity. But American society historically has been considered a melting pot rather than a celebration of diversity.
Atzmon sets up the parameters for discussion,such that the “post-political” author can diss both Left and Right. He does not discuss in the Left-Right context as to what constitutes “the human condition” and whether the rightist perspective is indeed “a natural part of our social, spiritual and material world.” I find such a statement ahistorical. The economist Karl Polanyi presented a compelling historical perspective in his book The Great Transformation that elucidates how communitarian human society was changed.
Atzmon writes, “For the Right ideologue, it is the ‘will to survive’ and even to attain power that makes social interactions exciting.” (p 13) The sentence strikes this reader as platitudinal. There is no example or substantiation provided. Which ideologue from whatever corner of the political continuum does not have a will to survive or seek exciting interactions?
Atzmon sums up the Left-Right schism as “the tension between equality and reality.” (p 13) If one cannot accept the definitions, and if the premises are faulty, then the logical structure collapses.
One flips the page and the Left is described as dreamy, illusory, unreal, phantasmal, utopian; thus, it did not appeal to the working class. Atzmon asserts, “Social justice, equality and even revolution may really be nothing but the addictive rush of effecting change and this is perhaps why hard-core Leftist agitators often find it difficult to wake from their social fantasy. They simply refuse to admit that reality has slipped from their grasp, preferring to remain in their phantasmal universe, shielded by ghetto walls built of archaic terminology and political correctness.” (p 14-15)
Atzmon is also abusive of the Right, seeing the Right ideologue as mired in biological determinism. (p 17)
Atzmon says he wants to push past political ideology. I am unaware of his professing any political leaning, so I guess he is, in a sense, already post-political. This strikes me as illusory since in western “democracies” the corporations still pull the strings of their politicians.
Atzmon applies the noun democracy recklessly. Without defining what is a democracy, through using the word (as so many people do), he inadvertently reifies something that does not exist in any meaningful sense.
Atzmon writes darkly, “Symptomatic of the liberal democratic era was the belief that people could alter their circumstances.” (p 19) Yet contemporary politicians still play on that sentiment, witness Barack Obama in the US and Justin Trudeau in Canada whose political campaigns appealed to such a belief. Does Atzmon think people cannot alter their circumstances?
Atzmon points to how the Labour Party under Blair became a neoliberal, warmongering party. He concludes, “The difference between Left and Right had become meaningless?” (p 24) I would describe this as the Left (to the extent the Labour Party was genuinely Left) being co-opted and disappeared by the Right — a political coup.
Atzmon says the political -isms and free markets are empty. He does not specifically target anarch-ism, however. Besides mentioning anarchist professor Noam Chomsky, one supposes anarchism is too fringe for Atzmon, but also it is beyond much of the criticism he levels at the Left. And as for the notion of a “free market,” there never has been one. Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation: “The road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organized and controlled interventionism.” (p 146)
Why has the genuine Left never attained power and brought its vision to fruition? Rampant capitalism has allowed 1% to profit grotesquely relative to the 99%. The 1%-ers have the money and the power that money buys: media, corporations, resources, and government. With the government controlled by the 1%-ers that puts the state security apparatus also under their control – and paid for the 99%-ers (because the rich all too often escape paying tax) to keep them in place. The police and military is, in essence, socialism exploited to protect capitalism. The few countries that have brought about Communism (Cuba, China, USSR, Viet Nam, etc) have found themselves under incessant militaristic and economic threat from capitalists who fear the example of successful socialism. This is missing from Atzmon’s analysis.
Atzmon even proposes that socialism can also be considered greedy because “… it promises that neither you nor anyone else will possess more than I.” (p 25) Really? Where is this stated and by who? Anarchist economics does not propose such a premise.1
Political correctness (PC). What is it? Atzmon calls it “a tyrannical project. The attempted elimination of essentialism, categorization and generalization… in opposition to human nature.” (p 38) Basically, it is the avoidance of language that stigmatizes other groups. Who wants to be stigmatized? Nobody. I can agree that PC has been pushed to extremes. PC also does not distinguish between intention and denotation. Should it? I confess when younger that I, close friends, and colleagues would call each other “gay.” It was actually a term of affection we used for each other. No negative sentiments were felt toward any sexual orientations; in fact, many of us were frequently in the company of LGBTQ. But we were not PC.
Atzmon finds that self-censorship is an outcome of PC: “Initially we don’t say what we think; eventually we learn to say what we don’t think.” (p 39) Perhaps. But sometimes it is better to bite one’s tongue and say nothing. I prefer to think of PC having encouraged a more respectful discourse, but PC should be criticized when it becomes excessive. There are plenty of non-PC examples among those who affiliate with the PC crowd, such as denigrating people who demonstrate for Palestinian human rights as “anti-Semites” – probably the most abused anti-PC term. PC becomes a tool of indoctrination when not practiced with equanimity and sincerity.
Is PC a freedom of speech issue? In some cases, yes. For instance, why is it okay to label someone a “holocaust denier” when questioning the veracity of certain aspects of WWII history? No serious person denies that Jews were among those targeted by Nazis; and no serious person denies that Jews were among those people transported to and having died in concentration camps.
An inordinate focus on PC can be vexing; there are much bigger issues in the world than a focus on whether to call a female “girl” or “woman.” It seems simple enough to raise awareness of inappropriate use of language. Most people will come around to a polite request to avoid words that may offend.
Being in Time finally begins to hit its stride when focusing on manipulations to grab and maintain power. The author is unafraid to point a finger and criticize identitarian groupings that create and exploit divisions.2 The stride is bumpy though, as Atzmon discusses sexuality, LGBTQ, feminism, Left abandonment of the working class, psychoanalysis and the scientific method, Athens and Jerusalem, severe criticism of Marxism, etc. The depth and breadth of the manifesto is beyond a book review.
The scope of Being in Time even looks at a 1970’s sitcom, All in the Family, which Atzmon sees as having “succeeded in pushing the liberal agenda into every American living room.” (p 109) Atzmon calls it a “sophisticated” “cultural manipulation.” (p 110)
Atzmon sees Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as an institutional failure “embedded in progressive and liberal thought.” (p 120) Describing the ardent neoliberal Clinton or her supporters as liberal or progressive is classic mislabeling.
Atzmon is razor sharp when discussing aspects of Jewishness and what the different aspects mean for being a Jew. However, when discussing the political spectrum, political ideology, and society, his definitions too often seem contrived to support his thesis.
In the final pages of Being in Time, Atzmon speaks from deep familiarity with the subject matter: capitalism, Mammonism, and tribalism. With a closing flourish, Atzmon poignantly dares to ask, “And isn’t it correctness, pure and simple, that stops us from mentioning that the protagonist [in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brotherhood leader Emmanuel] Goldstein is, himself, Jewish?” (p 208)
In the typical human perspective, Being proceeds in a linear fashion. But from a cultural, historical, linguistic, ethical, scientific perspective Being is clearly multi-faceted and not confined to linearity. Atzmon is fully aware of this, nonetheless his Being in Time tackles myriad issues in a rather binary fashion.
There are arguments presented in the book that I diverge from, but Being in Time presents points of view that deserve contemplation and a threshing out. Over all, it is a manifesto that I find unrefined; in dire need of definitions that are substantiated, not merely asserted; and (although I believe Atzmon would state this was beyond his remit) it would be fruitful if the book erected a promising structure, rather than simply tear down structures with little left standing. Being in Time comes across as an interesting foray to understanding and twining politics, power, and ontology that deserves deeper development. A dialectical approach might be most illuminating.
Alas, politics is not yet dead.
The Dream of a better world is not yet dead either. But one day the Dream must end because the Dream must be made a Reality. That is my simplistic two-sentence manifesto.