Crisis and the Politics of Possibility

Following in the tradition of his father and Bill Clinton before him, in 2003 George W. Bush launched a ‘liberal’ war to, in the words of the agreed upon rationales; protect the ‘homeland’ from attack and remove a dangerous tyrant from office. Enlisted in selling the ‘war of liberation’ were liberal hawks who apparently believed, against considerable history, that the American military is a force of liberation and trusting feminists who believed, against considerable history, that exporting Western liberalism at the point of a gun would free women from religious patriarchy to realize themselves. Reliably, the result was grim destruction beyond the imagination of most mere mortals— the only liberation that took place was of one million Iraqis from their mortal coils.

The point isn’t retrospective finger pointing, but rather to pin down where liberal goals departed from the social mechanisms that were believed to support them? Part of the calamity generation resulted from people— American liberals, who were free to have opinions without bearing their consequences. The sympathetic frame put forward was of ‘speaking for the voiceless,’ many of whom apparently believed the American liberation myth themselves. But the more serious shortcoming was in not understanding the motivations of the political leadership, the nature of the corporations and other economic interests seeking to benefit from war and the complexity of the social relations that were destroyed. Put differently, the conception of ‘freedom’ at work left unconsidered the divergent interests; military contractors, infrastructure rebuilders and multinational oil companies, whose life-blood is economic plunder.


By the measures of their times, Pablo Picasso, the Fluxus Group, Ornette Coleman, Frida Kahlo, John Cage, Iggy Pop and Susan Brownmiller had social voices through what they did, not what they owned. Simple assertion that everyone should have a voice has little bearing on whether or not they do. In a move related to this latter point, car companies assert that owning a luxury car gives one social bearing. By 2007 this theory had minimum wage earners in California borrowing $720,000 to buy a house that screamed ‘success.’ The ‘democratization of capital’ gave voice to the voiceless until the housing bust made it evident that poor people can’t afford a voice. Many who bought into the capitalist ruse will pay for it for the rest of their lives. Original image source: vidalexus.com.

In its contemporary incarnation the question of who gets to speak, to have voice in Western societies, came to the fore in the 1960s, with deeper articulation coming in the 1970s. Emerging from the perceived failure of the French rebellion of 1968, French philosophers Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jean-Francois Lyotard used their readings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger to reject overarching (‘meta’) social explanations offered by the then moribund European left. What followed was an intellectual fashion where both adherents and critics of philosophical postmodernism proceeded from the conclusions of these philosophers without spending much time with the sources of their critique.

Paradoxically in some respects, advocating for voices for the (socially) voiceless became the received wisdom for a generation or more in academia. From a left perspective, then emergent neo-classical economics provided a link between post-modern ‘micro-narratives’ and the capitalist thesis of the day, ‘micro-production.’ Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’ intersected with crude business theory to craft externally defined ‘consumption units.’ Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are families” was put forward in the context of capitalist renaissance sold through the prospect of self-realization through ‘markets.’ The farce sold as promise was social inclusion through consumption, through what we ‘choose’ to own.


The housing boom and bust engineered by Wall Street grew out of the ‘democratization of capital’ which promised economic inclusion through borrowing to fund consumption. Predatory lending had a long history including spectacular, but for the most part localized, implosions in the years that preceded the boom / bust of the late 1990s and 2000s. Certain types of loans were known to be predatory and had repeatedly been outlawed until they reappeared and were used to target poor neighborhoods of color. The initial boom boosted house prices and created the illusion that predatory capitalism benefitted traditional ‘out’ groups. The subsequent bust dispelled this myth and the social carnage left behind persists. Original image source: redcrossggr.wordpress.com.

This is to agree with the premise that everyone who wants a social voice should have one while strongly contesting the idea that simple assertion makes it so. Furthermore, from what is necessarily conjecture based on evidence of looming environmental catastrophe, unless a very large number of people become political in the sense of defining and acting on joint interests, there seems a real possibility that no one will have a voice. In his Specters of Marx Derrida, intellectual ‘patriarch’ of philosophical post-modernism, revisited the de-politicization implicit in social ‘realization’ that assumed away political and economic context. The contingencies of race, sexual orientation and gender posed through critique of their historical and intellectual bases in social ontology were re-asserted by later thinkers as ontological fact through ‘identity.’

Put in somewhat cruder terms, what is considered personal choice in the realm of theorized rights is bourgeois fantasy outside of it. Arguing that race and gender are culturally and historically contingent places them in intellectual context without addressing their social facts. These facts include systematic differences in economic outcomes, incarceration rates and political disenfranchisement that tie to historical social relations. The question of changing these political and economic facts ties back to intellectual history through proposed solutions— in broad terms to the Thatcherite precept that personal ‘responsibility,’ the bundle of personal attributes that one ‘acquires,’ determines social outcomes versus the liberal – left argument that social problems require social solutions. The systematic nature of gender and racial disparities supports the latter interpretation of social facts.


The current debate over ‘anthropocene’ (human caused) versus more clearly attributable causes of global warming illustrates the ‘external’ nature of material social opposition. As I argued here, available evidence strongly suggests that capitalist production and Western consumption produced the CO2 emissions that are causing global warming. The ‘anthropocene’ argument implies that hunter-gatherers in Namibia are as responsible for global warming as the Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil. From a Marxian – left ‘material’ perspective continued existence is a precondition for having one’s voice heard. Evidence from the capitalist response to global warming suggests that existence is but a matter of opinion, of having the correct attitude, in that view. Original image source: zmescience.com.

Part of this philosophical conundrum can be found in Hegel’s ‘idealism,’ in the historical back-and-forth of ideas that Marx concluded lacked basis in the economic circumstances that give them experiential content. Whatever one’s ‘identity’ as determined through cloistered self-realization, people have social identities to their significant others, to the landlord, to one’s employer, to the police and to the tax man. One’s capacity to favor the self-realized self, whatever its ‘true’ genesis, over the ‘external’ selves of social life is a function of political and economic circumstance. Economic independence, the material precondition of cloistered self-realization, is a function of economic class; hence the criticism that asserting the ‘right’ to self-realization without providing the political and economic context required for it to take place is bourgeois fantasy.

But it is bourgeois fantasy that begins from a particular political perspective. To his credit, Derrida confronted the distressingly obvious intersection of neoliberalism and philosophical post-modernism through his retained understanding that the micro-narratives of Western individualism are bound together through the capitalist ‘meta’ narrative. As is made visible by capitalist ‘facts,’ a complex global architecture has been built to support this ‘external’ system of theorized individual self-realization. Capitalist theory is premised on a narrow conception of human ‘being’ as reactive ‘chooser.’ Its small-bore ‘choices’ fit the ‘micro-narrative’ as metaphor for the way in which ‘external’ social ontology is internalized as ‘identity.’ A close analog is the (engineered) social mechanics by which buying a luxury car imparts ‘success’ as externally given internalized identity.


One of the more persistently painful political chores in writing about politics is addressing the policies of President Barack Obama given the sincerely held aspirations he embodies for large numbers of people. For those who have never taken a marketing course, aspirational advertising is one of the more powerful marketing tools because it exploits the paradox of social technologies used to manipulate alleged individual decisions. Once aspirations are removed what is left are actual policies which place Mr. Obama as virtually indistinguishable from any of his recent predecessors. The charge of racism lodged against Mr. Obama’s substantive, as opposed to ad hominem, critics is in fact racist for using race as reason not to criticize Mr. Obama’s policies when criticism is warranted. Original image source: wrln.org.

The paradox is: if some notion of a ‘real’ self to be self-realized is held then material conditions that facilitate it are necessary in a world where material conditions are a function of class, race and gender. Contrariwise if, as capitalist / neoliberal theory have it, there is no ‘self’ there to be ‘internally’ realized but only an unfilled (unfillable) bundle of wants that require ‘external’ realization through market exchange then the issue is in the process of being resolved through trade agreements and the technologies of social coercion being created ‘for our own good.’ The postmodern assertion that small ‘d’ democracy provides a voice for the previously voiceless— a base premise of the post-Occupy ‘left,’ is either content-free or material conditions must be reconfigured to provide the necessary social context for it to work.

The increasingly common critique that Marxist theory is largely the opinion of White men of European descent seems in an informal sense to be descriptively accurate. But to put the question back: what, if any, are the social conditions that facilitate other views? In the classical liberal / capitalist view everyone, poor and rich alike, has the capacity for transformative change by working harder and consuming smarter— within the ‘choice’ of capitalism. In this view American history is the failure of poor and / or people of color to improve their own lots. Social outcomes may differ, hence the tendency to blame ‘absentee fathers’ or a ‘culture of dependence’ for systematic racial and gender disparities. But unless critics simply assume away social and historical context, assertions that social conditions are irrelevant to self-realization are implausible.


Western bankers have used the levers of state power like the IMF and World Bank to their own advantage for centuries. Following the initial bank bailouts in 2008 banks used national governments in the U.S. and Europe to squeeze borrowers or to shift their liabilities to those who can be made to pay. In the process entire nations like Greece and Ireland assumed private debts to benefit bankers while impoverishing the most vulnerable of ‘their’ citizens. This is but one aspect of the ‘neutral’ basis from which ‘horizontal’ political movements hope to wrest power from captured governments. Original image sources: huffingtonpost.com; foxnews.com.

The postmodern conception of the social voice appears to correspond to the interpretation of free-speech rights by big-city Mayors who establish free-speech zones a few miles away from political events. People are free to say and do (‘be’) anything they care to as long as they don’t stop traffic or reduce corporate profits. And it supports the liberal conception of a ‘marketplace of ideas’ that in theory makes all voices heard, not just those of White men of European descent. This ‘democratization’ through markets was a major selling point of the Reagan / Thatcher programs of capitalist resurgence. But as with other capitalist conceits, the marketplace belongs to those who can pay for it. From within it people have a choice between CNN, Fox News or shouting from inside free-speech zones. This latter point is what Derrida appears to have choked on when he realized what postmodernism without the originary texts had wrought.

Should this read as addressing issues resolved long ago, much of the ‘horizontal’ political theory of the ‘new’ left in the U.S. and Europe combines postmodern conceptions of the ‘self’ with capitalist / neoliberal theories of the state to conclude that well-organized oppression can be willed away. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ can be thrown together as repressive narratives, but to those who have bothered to study political and economic theory, ‘Right,’ as in an amalgam of tightly circumscribed ‘choices’ and repressive technologies. And it is existing political economy. Moreover the perception, implied or explicit, that there is ‘neutral’ ground from which liberatory politics can emerge has long history as ideology— it is anything but politically neutral. Economic democracy, a/k/a socialism, seems the more promising basis for a politics of possibility.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist.


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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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