Where Marx and Conservatives Meet: The Writings of Paul Piccone

A Review of: Confronting the Crisis: The Writings of Paul Piccone,

Gary Ulmen, ed., Telos Press: New York, 2008
ISBN: 0-914386-38-7

Is it possible to render the intricacies of Marxism, of phenomenology and of critical theory interesting, even intriguing? And could such a topic have anything to offer conservatives? If the person doing the expositing is Paul Piccone, then the answer to both questions is an unqualified “yes”.

Paul Piccone, known for being opinionated, relentless and innovative, is perhaps most celebrated as the founder of Telos, a journal that has, for forty years, attempted to create a place for continental philosophy and critical theory in the United States. Since its inception in that most auspicious of months, May 1968, the journal has covered substantial terrain, proving to be a forum for lively debate on a range of topics from the crisis of Marxism and Leninism to the failure of the Frankfurt School as an emancipatory project, from the dubious gains of affirmative action to the rise of neo-conservatism. Whatever the issue, Piccone and Telos have been a reliable source of thoughtful consideration tweaked with some well-placed barbs.

Since his death in 2004, anyone interested in the breadth of Piccone’s work was best advised to peruse back-issues of Telos itself. Recently, however, a collection of Piccone’s work ranging across the journal’s forty years has been collected in one volume by Gary Ulmen. This edition provides the familiar reader with a ready-to-hand collection of some of Piccone’s best writing, while serving as an excellent introduction for anyone new to his thought. Given the subject matter, it can be something of a challenge at first, but Piccone’s erudition and obvious enthusiasm draw the reader into what turns out to be a fascinating look at some of the most influential and engaging ideas of the past one hundred and fifty years.

The story for Piccone, and for Telos, begins with the crisis of Marxism. While many of us assume Marxist thought collapsed only recently – in 1989 – the real problems for Marxist dialectics date from the beginning of the twentieth century when what’s known as the Bernstein debate cast light on the Marxist approach to European imperialism. It was a complex issue involving dialectics and objectivity versus authentic subjectivity. In any case, it was the beginning of an identity crisis for Marxists that only got worse through the twentieth century. Ostensibly, Marxist thought, following in the footsteps of Hegel, was supposed to be concerned with restoring authentic subjectivity to the modern individual who had been objectified through the liberal, capitalist, bourgeois state. Now for some, such as Hegel, the state itself was intended as the political expression of man satisfied in his subjectivity. Marx did not entirely agree with this approach, but it was never clear from his thought exactly how the alienation of man from the contents of his life would be overcome. Various proposals were put forward since Marx’s day, some meeting with the approval of men like Lenin or Stalin, others always coming into question. Piccone is one of those who harboured lingering questions.

While this can get a bit technical, the political result of this debate played itself out in the Soviet Union and in its various successor regimes; in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, etc. Each time Marxist communism was realized in a concrete nation it tended to have the nasty effect of destroying the nation, wrecking its economy and subjecting its citizens to abject degradation and death. One could say that all the elements of civil society were subsumed in and eviscerated by its representative, the state. Such a track record is a bit problematic given that Marx’s thought was built on the notion that subjectivity should be freed from objective oppression.

But what was the source of such objective oppression? Here we come across the classical Marxist answer, but it is not only Marx’s answer, it is the very story of modernity itself. One of the best places to read this story, in what may have been Marx’s outstanding philosophic work, is On the Jewish Question. This pithy and insightful work was an analysis of the modern liberal state, especially its European version. It is a reflection on the manner by which the liberal individual, carrier of rights and instantiation of the sovereign will, departs the state of nature, enters civil society, establishes the state as its representative agent, and then lives happily ever after. Or not. The “or not” an idea first expressed by Rousseau, made the point that the liberal solution turned citizens into producers, creating a pattern of alienation that would ultimately seek to homogenize all differences, replacing homo politicus with the less noble but presumably evermore stable homo economicus.

This critique would be taken up by a series of thinkers with often radically different solutions. Some, such as the logical positivists and sociologists would despair of making any moral condemnations as regards modernity and simply seek to present its outcome as mere facts: the source of the great fact-value distinction. Max Weber plays prominently here. Others, however, would not be so sanguine. Nietzsche, followed by Heidegger, raged against the bourgeois, with its equality, banality and tourist mentality toward life and human interactions. But, as Piccone points out, this approach tended to sacrifice the emancipatory goal dear to both Hegel and Marx. As such, only great supermen ever seemed to rise above the mire of modernity. Reason, it seemed, could not justify such rebellion, but life, required it. With Heidegger it would involve only momentary revelations from the gods, and with Sartre, revolution would quickly bog down in what came to be called seriality: the common life to which we are all ultimately doomed. Not much emancipation here.

Another take on this problem came from Edmund Husserl, the great phenomenologist. Husserl, like Heidegger was unhappy with the objectivity of modernity and its penchant for reducing reality to scientific procedure. Unlike Heidegger, and very unlike the positivists and sociologists, Husserl sought to return to the pre-scientific phenomena, to make them part of the philosopher’s considerations, rather than dismiss them as mere irrationals. This was the launching point for Piccone’s reflections on Marx and twentieth century Marxism.

Piccone certainly was not a conservative; he believed in and celebrated the emancipatory direction of modern philosophy. What he rejected was the diversion of that philosophy, and especially Marxism, into just another form of objectified alienation parading as emancipation. In his view, the Soviet Union and its various communist cohorts had become just this. The communism of the twentieth century had turned into a moribund system, far worse than anything on display in the bourgeois West, and miles apart from the inspiration behind Marx’s own thought. While apologists for the Soviet system sought to silence any discontent, Piccone’s analysis led him to challenge the Marxists dogma, predicting, correctly as it turns out, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is not to suggest that Piccone simply accepted the original Marx lock, stock and barrel. He turned to Husserl and phenomenology specifically to correct some of Marx’s clear deficiencies. In this regard, Piccone was linked closely to the Frankfurt school of critical theory, which included such well-known figures as Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Marcuse and Habermas. As such, Telos became largely connected with introducing critical theory to the United States. For a period, the journal’s editorial board was populated with numerous individuals closely linked to the Habermas school of thought. But eventually, Piccone would grow critical of critical theory itself. Indeed, some of his most insightful and penetrating comments in the collection take Habermas to task for his attempts to retreat into communications theory as a compromise with liberal ideology.

Habermas is undoubtedly the most influential critical theorist in North America (especially among law professors), and is well-known as a public intellectual in Europe. But in Piccone’s assessment, Habermas has gone down the path of most critical theory. Despairing of finding a means to move beyond the homogenized and objectified world of modernity, critical theorists tended to escape into aesthetics, or, as Habermas has done, propose a compromise with modern rationality via inter-subjective communication. In short, the cold technicality of the modern liberal individual is supplemented with communication between societal groups, working towards social equality.

It all sounds quite congenial, as members of society come together in respect and equality to find their place in an inclusive social fabric. And it is all quite ridiculous. At least that’s what Piccone more or less flatly states. As many have suggested (such as Habermas’ sparring partner, Michel Foucault), Habermas’ model seems to smack of the academic conference room where “experts” in the various social science disciplines gather to compare theories and mark out paths for social inclusiveness. But in the final analysis, all that appears to happen is the further homogenization of society as academic proposals become bureaucratic doctrine.

This dynamic, whereby the deficiencies of modern liberal individualism are supposedly overcome by state intervention and bureaucratic organization, far from reasserting social connectedness, turn the individual into a simple client of the state, classified and organized according to identity. Difference and diversity are celebrated, but with the intention of rendering any substantial distinctions irrelevant. This problem, the homogenization and assimilation of all distinct social elements to a statist dependence via programs aimed at promoting equality and inclusiveness would eventually become a key concern for both Piccone and Telos, key concerns which demonstrate the common thread between Piccone and similar concerns voiced by conservatives, especially in the American context.

On a host of issues, Piccone questioned the dominant liberal line. As noted, his views on affirmative action, race and gender issues were highly critical of the bureaucratic approach taken by liberals in the United States. As with many issues, he tended to view government programs to increase access for disenfranchised elements of society through the lens of emancipatory phenomenological Marxism. In this light, Piccone saw such programs as attempts to create “artificial negativity.” In other words, and contrary to an aspect of Hegelian and Marxist dialectics, the United States, through emancipation, progressivism and the New Deal, had actually co-opted and assimilated those groups who would otherwise have acted as a negative, i.e. as the oppositional force that would trigger the machinery of the Hegelian or Marxist dialectic. As such, there was no effective negativity in the United States. Of course, we have to understand how the dialectic works in Hegel and Marx. It is not purely oppositional, because negativity itself is necessary to the continued health of the whole apparatus. Without the opposition of negativity, the entire social structure stagnates and dies. A society must continue to produce its internal opposition in order to thrive (the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed without any new synthesis to take its place is itself a huge problem for this Marxist conception of progress).

Lacking such negativity, the US set about creating it artificially. This is where affirmative action comes in, along with judicial activism. Piccone notes that two main court cases, Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, had the effect of solidifying a constituency for race and gender activism. But what were the results of this clientelism? In terms of race, it tended to create a small African-American middle class, while turning most African-Americans into effective state wards living in slum neighbourhoods. Similarly, in terms of gender, a small upper-middle class group of women came to dominate the feminist movement through its various incarnations, especially its second and third waves so dominant now in the academy. A not uncommon result was the impoverishment of numerous women, especially divorced lower-class mothers left struggling with children and the stress of making a living.

Important to note here is, in fact, the enduring underlying importance of class. While Piccone actually takes orthodox Marxism to task for continuing to rely on the old myth about the Proletariat as the fire for revolution, he does provide an important reminder regarding the relevance of class. While class conflict is often associated with Marx, he was far from the first philosopher to place class at the center of political and social life. In fact, virtually all philosophers have done so, though in ways that produce important differences. Aristotle’s entire Politics is a reflection on life in the city as an interplay primarily between the small group of wealthy citizens, often aristocrats, and the mass of the city represented by the democratic principle. In Aristotle’s account, however, both classes seek their own good, and Aristotle specifically treats each class’s claim as a “good” – he does not treat them as mere power seekers but as representatives of a partial good. It is within the city that the two goods are given a forum to speak and to meet – they hold something in common.

The great contrast to Aristotle’s class analysis is Machiavelli. For Machiavelli, the classes are actually “humors” which implies that they cannot live easily together. In fact, it is with this change in nomenclature that Machiavelli invents class warfare. According to the Florentine, the aristocratic class seeks only to maintain its power, and since power is a fluid concept for Machiavelli, aristocrats must constantly act to increase their power simply to maintain the status quo. The democratic humor, like the aristocratic, is not pursuing a good, but in the case of the masses, they seek only not to be oppressed. Here we have the first case of the option for the poor in politics. For the first time ever, a political philosopher takes sides politically. This was a decision that subsequent political philosophers, no matter how critical they may be of Machiavelli, would not question. All political philosophy since Machiavelli has been partisan, and therefore, not properly philosophic in the full sense of that word.

Of course, America has made claims to be different. Class, it has been argued, has not existed in the United States, at least not as it has in Europe. Europeans have mocked this presumption, but Piccone took the American exception seriously, which gave Telos a decidedly different view on the United States, unlike the traditional European Marxist critiques of imperialist America. In the early nineteenth century, Tocqueville had noted that what prevailed in America was democratic equality. Now certainly this was not the case for African-Americans who were obviously slaves, and American Indians, who appeared to Tocqueville as decidedly aristocratic, but overall, Americans were equal and becoming evermore so. But Tocqueville also saw the possibilities for a new social division between industrialists and workers. This division came to pass, to a point, in the later nineteenth century, but in America at least, it was blunted by progressivism prior to World War I and by the New Deal.

Now, Piccone did not question the effectiveness of the assimilation, but he did see its insidious effects in affirmative action and the clientelism surrounding race and gender. In some respects then, race and gender deflect from underlying class distinctions and actually serve as a tool of assimilation distracting from true emancipatory movements. One could suggest a similar dynamic of clientelism in Canada where aboriginal rights can serve as monetary boondoggles for tribal elders, and where multiculturalism and Human Rights Tribunals turn ethnicity into a bureaucratic category manipulated to moralistic effect by ethnic elites sporting newly printed law degrees.

Here we see the common cause between Piccone and conservatives. Conservatives generally have seen the same questionable dynamic at work in various government programs and movements that seek to render society increasingly inclusive, increasingly assimilated. Both Piccone and conservatives have seen the farce in these liberal pretensions and both have called them to task. As such, both have also been political where liberal society seeks precisely to be social and to efface the political, to eliminate or subsume those political distinctions brought to light by Aristotle and Machiavelli, Marx and Nietzsche, each in their own way. Liberal society lives with the illusion of ever-progressing equality and inclusiveness, but it does so at the cost of awareness of true political life, and political life’s two necessary companions: freedom and civilization.

Piccone seeks to remind us of this political life. His ultimate solution for resurrecting political vibrancy is populism, so despised by liberal elites, but often quite powerful, especially in the American and Canadian West. Many dismiss this possibility, but Piccone in fact had begun to develop a sophisticated analysis of the phenomenon, pointing out its salient features and its successes. Specifically, he argued for a populism within a federated structure, but one in which local powers are fairly clearly maintained by the local entities creating the federation, especially as concerns social and judicial determinations. Once again, this aspect of Piccone’s thought dovetails with a certain brand of conservatism, though not particularly well with old school Tory conservatism.

But if Piccone shares certain beliefs with conservatives he was also critical, especially of neo-conservatives who he accused of being disgruntled New Dealers who still bought into their old liberal beliefs in equality. But, recognizing the policy failings of the Great Society, turned themselves into a new political elite distrustful of former liberal visionary colleagues now morphed into bureaucratic apologists.

Today, the prospects for federalist populism remain unclear, but Piccone did point to movements such as the northern Italian Lombard League as an example of a regional group seeking to take control of local matters through a populist political initiative. In this case, it was regional political self-determination seeking to counter the failures of a national government, which brings us to a final theme in Piccone’s thought. Piccone showed great interest in the future, or future demise, of the nation-state. Given the contours of his thought, it is not surprising that he maintained a studied distaste for the nation with its objectifying bureaucracy and its moralistic social activism. At the same time, the last page of this collection suggests an uncertainty regarding the benefits to be derived from the decline of the nation. Speaking of the European Union, he notes that the EU may develop into a forum for federal populism, but the signs were unsure. In fact, Piccone comments that the EU could easily turn into nothing more than an expansive bureaucratic welfare state that has little interest in the grassroots concerns of its citizens. Given the EU’s penchant for demonizing every populist movement on the continent, Piccone’s fears appear to be justified. The most obvious expression of this can be seen in the manner in which the EU bullies national voting constituencies, either by insisting on numerous votes until the EU gets the result it wants, at which point voting ceases in perpetuity, or by cynically reworking the failed EU constitution (defeated by voters in the Netherlands and France) into the Lisbon Treaty and allowing no one to vote on it, save the Irish who then rejected it. But no matter, the bureaucratic elite of Europe will push ahead.

The irony in Europe is that Europeans generally prefer something along the lines of Piccone’s federal populism. They’ve come to appreciate the open borders and economic flexibility that increases daily in Europe, but they do not wish to give up control of social and foreign policy to Brussels or a centralized judiciary. As such, a rift grows daily between the brow-beaten citizenry of the European nations and their unresponsive political class. But this point might suggest that, in today’s Europe, it is precisely the nation, betrayed by the political class, that is the last rallying point for those who would defend political life against the encroachments of homogenization, academic and judicial elites, and bureaucratic functionalism. And this, I would argue, is due in part to the fact that the nation is not simply in the service of emancipation as conceived by Hegel or Marx, but also allows for the “putting in common” that Aristotle saw in the Greek cities. On this point, I would certainly diverge from Piccone, but on many points, this erudite author, master of phenomenology and Marxism, constant critic of liberal banality and its apologists, was a source of penetrating clarity in a sea of muddled academic and social verbosity.

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