It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.
~ Simone De Beauvoir
Science progresses by trial and error, and when it is forbidden to admit error there can be no progress.
~ Joan Robinson
The world seems so unbearably fucked. Why is that?
This is a question you can ask from many different perspectives. Maybe, like us, you’re yet another educated working-class or downwardly mobile middle-class intellectual-artist type taking a crack at meaningful creative work between gigs and day-jobs. It could be you’re looking for answers on your own, totally self-taught, because you never went to college but you retain a burning need to understand the catastrophe we’re all living through with pirated books and syllabi borrowed from grad students you met on social media. You might be an adjunct professor at a mid-sized Midwestern college, wondering whether to join the new faculty union. Perhaps it’s personal. You desperately need hormones and a surgery to become who you were always meant to be, but without health care you’re out of luck. Or you became a refugee to escape the dictatorship in your home country, only to find yourself worrying every day (despite the help of some friendly little activist group) about how to get asylum papers lest you get deported. You might work two full-time jobs to feed your kids on just one person’s wages, after your abusive partner finally left, leaving little time to actually be there for them as a parent. Or maybe you’re the kid yourself, and the opiates you once used to take the edge off have become a burden on your life you’d like to remove but lack the knowledge or the time to do so.
The point is, we can come from many radically different starting points. From there, we’ll live different lives and have different experiences. And probably, as a result, we’ll develop pretty different ideas. But at the same time, all of us live in this same fucked-up world together. And we suspect, if we all sat down to talk about it, there’s a surprising amount we’d find we’ve all started to notice.
For example: things your parents might simply expect as a matter of course are fundamentally alien to you. Having only a nine to five job is a weird thing; being paid overtime is a weird thing; being able to leave a job you don’t like to find a better one is a weird thing; having confidence in the future is a weird thing.
The world didn’t always seem so unbearable, the future so fucked. There was a time when maybe you thought things were basically okay. People told you there’d been problems in the past – poverty, racism, sexism – and they’ve basically been solved. Things are getting better and better. You believed them. (You were a kid.) But somewhere along the line there was a traumatic moment – it varies, from person to person, but for us it’s inevitable – when you realized just how deeply fucked up things really are. It might have been as simple as realizing your own family was poor – a fact which only became apparent when comparing them against others. Or it might have gone the other way around – feeling shame at your first encounter of poverty, knowing that but for dumb luck that might be your lot. Either way, a skim of the relevant literature will reveal the vast majority of people are poor, and becoming poorer; wealth is more and more unequal, racialized, and concentrated in a single generation and a tiny set of ruling-class hands within it; and the police are not on your side, they don’t protect you, instead they kill people and get away with it.
People are suffering. They go home to cities where all public spaces have been privatized. Or else they commute back to white flight suburbs that are centrally planned, public-private, and failed social engineering experiments, decaying wastelands built around the automobile and the strip mall (because of the car companies’ lobbying), standardized cookie-cutter shopping centers with identical franchise businesses (due to high storefront rents), and the exclusion of poor people of color through housing discrimination and redlining (due to the American white middle class’s nearly inexhaustible racism). And anyway one might ask “what is the use,” as Gertrude Stein once said: because “there is no there there.” These spaces can barely anymore be called places with any distinctive character and culture, “the community” has dried up, too many of the free associations which once might have made up such a community – the block clubs, the book clubs, the neighborhood historical societies, the fraternal organizations, the union halls, the pick-up sports, the outdoor gym beaches, the philosophy circles, the community theaters and concert halls, the worker’s colleges, the mutual improvement societies, the anarcho-punk squats, perhaps most famously the bowling leagues – have vanished. So is it any wonder that people start to lose all their friends at about the time they start to live on their own? That loneliness and friendlessness are only getting worse in each younger generation? That the majority of those under middle age are mentally ill? That even sex is in recession, all while disturbed and isolated men who see this as the end of all their hopes have organized into a misogynistic grievance movement that’s produced a wave of lethal terrorism?
Things are not okay. People work longer hours for lower pay at wages that haven’t matched their productivity for nearly half a century now. Some of the largest corporations employ millions of workers who are paid so little they need to go on food stamps to survive – to the point where most stamp recipients of working age are on the dole even though they have jobs. For all that, people have disabilities, chronic health problems, and people to care for; yet society rewards them with brutal cuts to disability rights, practically no public assistance in child-rearing (not to mention social norms which expect women to take it on as a second shift after their other two jobs), and arguably the least likely health care system in the developed world to provide the coverage they need at a price they can afford.
What they told you as a kid is a lie, and fewer and fewer people believe it.1We’re well aware of the limitations of our perspective when we speak about generational experience – all of us co-editors are after all Millennials, whereas the future belongs to the Zoomers. And (to generalize grossly from the recent experience of the rich capitalist countries) there are quite a few indications that Zoomers are, to put it bluntly, sick of Millennial political bullshit: the primacy of factional political identity as a kind of personal brand, the hunger to commit oneself to some pure cause, the highly public victim mentality whereby we constantly perform having been deprived of the world we were promised rather than just dealing with it. Some cultural trend writers have taken this to mean Zoomers are tending towards nihilism, hedonism, and ironic detachment (e.g. Allison P. Davis, “A Vibe Shift is Coming” in New York [16 February 2022]) similar to that which reigned in the boom years of the 90s. But in our anecdotal experience Zoomers are not ironic, at least not the same way Gen X were and such thinkpiece writers want them to be in their models. They are disillusioned and sick of the existing political ideologies, yes; but they’re also urgently motivated by a sense of social catastrophe, the near-universal intuition even among apolitical sorts that society as it currently stands is not long for this world; and so they’re looking for answers. A lot of them are searching in spiritual and religious places; some are becoming politically committed to fascism or socialism like Millennials did, though sometimes with a self-awareness about the risks (i.e., the trend towards a fear of being “cringe”); and many, many Zoomers we talk to are obsessed with climate change and the ecological crisis. Zoomer culture appears to be saturated with a sense of anxious urgency, and Zoomer humor, though often darkly ironic, is not ironically detached. Studies also show that Zoomers are just about the opposite of hedonistic; on average they seem rather sexually and financially conservative (in lifestyle, not politics) as well as gravely concerned about world issues – see e.g. “Generation Z is stressed, depressed and exam-obsessed” in The Economist (27 February 2019) and “Germany’s youth ‘have lost their sense of fun’, study finds” in The Local (24 July 2020). To make it a slogan: if Gen X were too cool to care, Zoomers know they care all too deeply. In a certain sense this essay is written for them, in a spirit of humility, to save them time by perhaps helping them to avoid our mistakes and be better than we were. The land of opportunity is one where almost half the population will go broke over an unexpected $400 bill. The multicultural nation of immigrants is one where tiki torch-wielding Nazis march in the streets of college towns shouting about Jews and “white replacement” with the approval of the president, until they’re fought off by anarchists who are subsequently deemed terrorists. The Great Recession never really ended for the working classes, and now another one has apparently started. Those under thirty have become almost blasé about the inevitability of the ecological crisis and can rattle off by heart the cascade of disasters they’ll have to live through because of it: a refugee crisis a hundred times the size of the Syrian one, vast tracts of the planet becoming suddenly uninhabitable for lack of arable land, the acidification of the oceans, the mass extinction of animal life and collapse of food chains, greater scarcity leading to resource wars, more and greater hurricanes in places they’ve never been, coastal megacities underwater. Maybe that explains why mental illness has become ubiquitous (seemingly everybody has got depression, anxiety, or an attention disorder nowadays) and whether or not to have a child is the subject of much passionate debate (not that most of us could afford it anyway).
Of course there are those of us who rebelled. For years we fought against what the policy ghouls called “the rules-based liberal international order,” which in fact was never anything more than a mafia of “multilateral” institutions and a set of ideological excuses called the Washington Consensus which the American empire used to overthrow governments it didn’t like and replace them with dictatorships. Fake democracy and unenforced civil rights for everybody, all the better to shove sweatshops for multinational corporations down everyone’s throats. Though it’s odd isn’t it – that whole William Morris thing, about fighting and losing the battle, seeing what you wanted come about anyway, only it isn’t really what you wanted at all. Liberalism has totally collapsed. Yet in its place we find not greater democracy but the signs of a possible transition out of democracy as such: fascist and nationalist governments coming to power from Ankara to Brasilia to Budapest to New Dehli to Washington. And even as young new imperial powers like state-capitalist China seize the opportunity to carve out their own (no less authoritarian) spheres of influence and control, a sick old Uncle Sam across the Pacific grows only crueler and more violent in its senility. We all know from the last century where this sort of idiocy leads. Trump’s trade war with Xi has emboldened the ever-deranged American hawks and their Chinese equivalents alike, the nationalists are all salivating and sharpening their knives at the prospect of a war once thought unthinkable, and social media fandoms across the political spectrum are lining up accordingly. Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine shows that imperialism is no longer bound by the need to justify its wars in “humanitarian” or any other words; open land grabs are back on the agenda; and if that’s the case, violent inter-imperial conflict may shortly follow. Even if there’s ultimately no war, for us at least it often seems like there’s no future. The only thing everyone seems able to agree upon is that the pleasant delusion of democratic progress has disintegrated, and the world looks like it’s going to be inherited by rulers who no longer even try to hide behind the veneer of constitutions but openly embrace despotism. Those of us who fought so hard and so long for radical democracy have been reduced to spectators looking on from the sidelines as the world burns.
Because we were put down. When we peacefully assembled in parks to demand that money be taken out of politics and to model in miniature what a more democratic society could look like, there was an eleven-city coordinated crackdown by the national security apparatus – we were beaten with batons, our tents dismantled, our lending libraries thrown into the river. When we marched and rioted over how mass incarceration and police brutality perpetually terrorize the working classes, particularly in Black and indigenous communities, we were treated like an insurgency by deployments of the National Guard. When we created ecological movements made up of alliances between settlers and indigenous peoples to demand a green transition, the protection of Native land rights, and an end to the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, we were hosed and shot at by counterintelligence contractors funded by the national security state, and the pipelines were built anyway. When we organized at the ballot box to demand the most modest kind of left-wing government, one that would inch towards at least something like a solution to our looming crises (governments which, let’s be honest, we’d likely end up protesting against too), crowdfunding enough cash to compete even with billionaires and their lackeys, canvassing and calling and being good little concerned citizens, our hopes were dashed again and again against the rigging of electoral races and the indifference of the (especially older, richer, and whiter) voting public. A young multiracial coalition of the working and middle classes demanding radical systemic change in the direction of expanding democracy exists in the US – you can see it in our recent history, growing and coming to self-consciousness and changing form – but at every instance it’s been shut out and ignored. Is it any wonder, then, that in their most recent appearance they’ve decided to burn it all down?2It has now been amply documented and proven beyond question that the three major leftist protest movements of the 2010s – Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Standing Rock NoDAPL – have all been targeted by the American state under counterterrorism provisions and programs. In the case of Occupy and NoDAPL, this led to nationwide, violent, coordinated crackdowns involving cooperation between both state and nonstate actors, federal and local law enforcement, banks and oil companies and military contractors as well as the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, that successfully destroyed avowedly peaceful movements rooted in nonviolent civil disobedience. In the case of BLM, documentation doesn’t yet exist of any coordinated crackdown, but undercover police surveillance and educational programs targeting “violent extremism” which are funded by federal counterterror dollars have both been directed towards the movement, indicating that it’s very likely been pegged with the label behind closed doors – and chillingly, the murder of many prominent working-class BLM activists has gone largely ignored by the press and uninvestigated by the cops. This, combined with the history of the Green Scare, indicates that the radical Left is, if not already labeled as a “terrorist” threat, then dangerously close to being persecuted under the same jurisprudence and with the same methods as the Muslim citizens civil libertarians have been defending since the Bush era. The line of descent of such policies from Hoover’s COINTELPRO hardly needs explaining.
Everybody knows, though few can coherently explain, that the twin and total failures of the American government in 2020 – the botched response to the coronavirus, and the confluence of circumstances leading to the Floyd Uprising – were intimately related. In both cases there is the unavoidable fact that all the factions vying for power among the ruling elite, from the neoliberals to the fascists, and all the institutions of authority in society, from the state bureaus to the multinational corporations, are utterly bereft of new ideas and have no solutions.
This, perhaps even more than the ongoing decay of material conditions, is the deep structure of the problem we face, and the twin crises of 2020 have merely unmasked what was always there beneath the veneer of professional politics. Those who rule us have created crises of a nearly unfathomable scale. They deny it, they will not apologize, they will fix nothing. And unless we somehow force them aside, we will all eat shit until the day we die. (Make no mistake, it’s the same for the crises to come: what’s the plan for climate change? For the rich, apparently, building bunkers in nuclear missile silos and dreaming of the colonization of Mars by those rich enough to transport themselves there – as if one could just burn the Earth and then leave it behind.)
For those who until recently actually believed in the system, 2020’s revelations – the apocalypse, as it were – have been particularly brutal. We imagine it must have been rather like Capgras Disorder, but for society: suddenly waking up into a world where all your old friends (the government, the corporations, the judiciary, the cops) have the same faces, but you’re convinced they’ve been replaced with malevolent imposters. Except that, like Capgras, this is a delusion. These motherfuckers have always been bastards; some of us saw it early, and by now nearly everybody else is catching up. And the crises aren’t new either: they’ve been a creeping threat for decades, especially the ecological one. On some level we all even knew this. But for so long nothing actually happened. The end of the world never came. It almost led us to doubt. Not to doubt the truth of the crises, but to doubt their reality for us, to deny that we ourselves would ever experience their true severity. But now we have had a taste. The start of this decade was a preview of what the reckoning will look like. And there is no doubt anymore that there will be more of it to come.
No New Ideas
But grim as the world is, these social and economic crises aren’t even our only problem. There is also a problem with the concepts by which we have chosen to understand that world, and the methods by which we develop those concepts. And it’s only when you move from trying merely to understand the world to trying to change it that you realize just how devastating a problem ideas can become in their own right.
Because the world is fucked and so obviously you join the socialists: because it feels right, because you want to fight back against the powerful, because at least provisionally you think they have the answers – if only because they’re the only ones who both acknowledge anything is wrong and fight on the side of democracy. You sign up with an org; you go to meetings; you pick a working group; and you set out to do the work. On a certain practical level this is inspiring enough. Maybe you find a sense of community canvassing with like-minded people to elect your friend as local dog-catcher; or, if you’re really lucky, an opportunity emerges that lets you take the fight directly to the bosses, the landlords, and the big owners through direct action or building new working-class institutions like unions and cooperatives. Often, a campaign will fail; but every time you do, you’ll find you learned something. And sometimes, if you work hard and the stars align, you might even win.
But if you’re anything like us, these little victories aren’t going to leave you satisfied. You know the sheer scale of the problems the world faces; and you sense, if only by intuition, that sometime in the next few years we will reach a critical juncture. Which means you have questions – questions you need urgently answered in order to help guide your actions and those of the movement as a whole, questions that burn hotter against your skin the longer they go unanswered. Questions like:
- Why do crashes happen? Why did the one in 2008 happen? (What the fuck is a “bubble”?) How would we know if another were coming? Could we prevent it – and should we? Is the economic crisis since 2020 caused by the same mechanisms as the crash in 2008? If not, does that imply there are multiple types of crisis capitalism could fall into? But if so, then what are they?
- What actually is “the revolution?” Is it electing a party that “implements” socialism? Is it a violent overthrow of the government? If it’s not these things, what could it be? What are the basic requirements for radical institutional change?
- How would we ever know if we ever arrived at socialism? Which specific institutions constitute capitalism, such that doing away with them produces a non-capitalist society? Which institutions, if any, exist under capitalism yet might also exist under socialism? Is socialism the only industrialized alternative to capitalism? What counts as a socialist society, and what doesn’t? Are there different kinds of socialism?
- How exactly does capitalism “intersect” with other forms of oppression or exploitation – racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, imperialism, etc.? Are these the products of capitalism, such that they couldn’t exist without it and will go away if it goes away? Or are they distinct from (maybe even older than?) capitalism, such that they could persist under socialism if not addressed on their own terms? And if the latter is true, then how exactly do social movements that develop to address these issues interact with the socialist movement (or, for that matter, the capitalist system), and what attitude or orientation should socialists adopt towards them?
- How are socialists going to initiate the green transition? How do we transform energy systems and production more generally to be sustainable? What energy sources should we replace fossil fuels with? What does sustainability even mean? Is carbon output our only performance target, or are there other ecological crises we must address alongside climate change? Do we go the route of degrowth, green developmentalism, or both in some sort of combination? Through what process would we decide such things – and who is “we”? Ditto for every other major global problem: economic stagnation, homelessness, unemployment, economic development of developing countries, international relations, etc.
- How do large corporations actually control our lives? When we say “capitalism caused this or that,” what specific mechanisms shape the world in what specific ways and who controls them? If they’re so powerful, why do companies collapse?
- Should we directly control the price of things like housing? What about food? What about health care? Will something bad happen if they’re not the “right” price? How do we even know what a “fair” price is? Is the idea that there ought to be a price for anything itself unfair in principle, or is that a mystical idea?
- What are the actual contradictions of capitalism – like, specifically – and how do you “heighten” them? If capitalism is so doomed to failure, why does it feel stronger than ever? And if it’s going to fall anyway, why should I do anything?
- How can we afford socialism? Didn’t a bunch of governments attempt some version of socialism and go bankrupt? What causes Venezuela-style inflation? Conversely, why wasn’t there Venezuela-style inflation when the US planned its economy during World War II? Now that inflation is happening to us, can we stop it? How would we have prevented it?
- How do you make sure everybody gets food and medical care under socialism? How do we organize production? How do we balance sectoral interests of different workers with the needs of society as a whole? Do workers at the vaccine plant have the right to go on strike? Doctors at hospitals? Could one group of workers become a new elite, and if so how?
- Will everyone in a socialist society be socialist? Is that even possible? If not, what does a socialist society do with the non-socialists?
- How do you handle disagreements in a socialist society? What about territorial disputes? Would there be parties?
- What would daily life be like under socialism? Where would people live? Would people have to work, or would it be voluntary? What happens if people don’t want to live in cities or work a day job? How do we plan for the future? How do we start up new enterprises or establish new population centers?
- What if we just trade in one set of bullshit for another set of bullshit? Would there just be bosses under socialism? Would it help if they were elected bosses? Or would we just end up like the Leninist countries, with their bureaucrats and secret police? Why did that happen anyway? How do we prevent that?
- Would there still be money under socialism? Can’t we just get rid of it? What would get in the way of that? Should we, or shouldn’t we, and why?
- Will everything just be the same under socialism, or would there still be different companies and different brands? Is that good or bad?
- Will people still innovate under socialism? How are people motivated without money or the promise of being somebody’s boss? If you can’t get promoted what’s the point of trying? Or, if innovation even today comes from other sources, what are those? What kind of rights would exist for artists and creators under socialism? How would we prevent censorship? Will socialist art suck, or can we find ways of making art better because its production is socialistic – and if so, how? What would that even mean? What about the same questions but for science?
And they don’t have the answers. The socialist media – magazines, podcasts, YouTube channels, and other ventures associated with the movement – will often take only superficial glances in the general direction of some of these questions, particularly as year by year they seem more interested in celebrity gossip about one another’s tweets or videos. And in person, things are little better. Some socialists will rattle off answers they learned from some book written over a hundred years ago; and though some of it sounds interesting, if you approach it with an open mind, you quickly find yourself disturbed at how little of it seems to match the events you see happening around you or even to speak to your concrete situation at all. And of course others of the socialists will scold you for even asking such things, wagging their finger as they recite the eternal line: “Trying to design these things ahead of time is utopianism. You can’t invent recipes for the kitchens of the future!”
That’s all well and good on a certain level, of course. But the trouble is that when you go tabling with your zines outside a prison or stand holding your sign on the picket line, your thoughts continue to linger on this problem. How can we oppose the existing system if we don’t know at least some of what we’d build in its place? And if nobody you talk to and nobody you read is working on these problems, as frequently appears to be the case, then how will we ever address them?3Though as a matter of fact there are people working on these problems, often in obscure corners and without much interest in the things they’re discovering from the self-appointed socialist intellectuals. Some are heterodox economists of various schools; others are working on building dual power institutions like self-managed workers and tenants unions, cooperatives, neighborhood councils, and mutual aid networks; yet others are engaged in direct action struggles around the world that bring them into direct conflict with the powers that be and generate new knowledge we could all learn from; and yet others are ordinary working people in fields like green energy, logistics, tech, medical care, and more whose knowledge of crucial industries and their biophysical requirements rarely makes it into socialist schemes for reform and revolution. Part of our mission at this magazine is to give those voices a platform, so that discussions of the socialist future are grounded in the real necessities of present action and material conditions. How would we even go about generating real answers – how would we know if we were right? Why does no one seem to care, and why do the things they seem to care about lead so often to the same old tired shouting matches, the same outdated books, the same robotic slogans – in short, the same non-answers? Why is the world we live in with each passing day ever more scary and new, even as the words we use to describe it grow ever more old?
Eventually, as part of being a socialist, you acclimate yourself to these norms of discourse. But inside you, there’s a little voice that doesn’t stop asking questions. Some part of you remains deeply unsatisfied.
This is a very common feeling amongst leftists – not lapsed ones, not people who move away from the movement, but people who stay in it and quietly suffer. We came to the socialists because they were, in some respect, our only hope. But it turns out they’re only human, like anybody else.
And that’s important to point out. It’s not that the centrists or the fascists have the answers. In fact, they suffer from much the same predilection as us. Even as our society’s problems become more urgent and unavoidable, nearly every institution and every political faction finds itself unable to generate new ideas commensurate to the novelty of our situation. We see this everywhere: on the center and the right, in the arts, in philosophy, in your state’s Democratic Party apparatus, in the government, in corporations, in media, and online. We cycle through the same stale policy debates with the same talking heads, the same culture wars with each side’s trenches fixed in place as if frozen in time, the same fixed ideas carved in stone and turned into the dogmas of ideologies that seem like ancient religions – all this, even as the world burns. There’s a general cultural inability to break out of stagnation – some people refer to it as “stuck culture” – but at the same time it feels as if we are always just on the cusp of doing so, or that we have to be, because disaster is coming if we don’t. It’s like we’ve lost the ability to develop new ways of doing things, to build things that haven’t been built before, at precisely the moment when it’s become a matter of life or death to do so.
We have a hunch about one major source of this stagnation in our ideas. But to explain it, if you’ll indulge us, we’ll need to tell you three little parables.
Parable of the Conservative
Consider that most familiar figure of American politics, the conservative. Not the committed fascist or white nationalist, mind you – the old-school, Tea Party type conservative who believes so deeply in his bones the Government Is Bad that he’s made it his central political identity.
Let’s set aside why he believes these things.4A complex set of factors involving cultural tropes, negative personal experiences, billionaire-funded talk radio and cable news propaganda, white supremacist or racist attitudes instilled by a settler-colonialist society mediated through ostensibly economic narratives about “welfare queens,” etc. We recommend Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, & Hal Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (2018); Nancy Maclean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2018); Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016); Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014); and Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008) on the subject. And let’s not get into how it’s similar or different to our attitudes towards the government.5We don’t like it very much, on the whole, for reasons we regard as more historically sound. The devil’s always in the details and no two libertarian socialists will ever give you quite the same answer, but generally we oppose what we call the state in favor of more direct-democratic forms of decision-making that place power straight into the hands of ordinary people in their workplaces and neighborhoods, which we would then like to federate in a manner that leaves as much power as is practical in the hands of the “lower” organs. Some would call this a highly democratized and decentralized state; others would call it a replacement of the state; but it is at any rate some sort of anti-authoritarian socialism, since its system of assemblies places power directly in the hands of the working class, actively working against the centralization of decision-making in the hands of capitalists or state officials; and so the useful functions of what is presently the central government (such as the welfare state) would in most libertarian socialist schemes be devolved to such bodies. A good antidote to the word games anarchists and Marxists are liable to fall into, no less than our imaginary conservative, about what precisely counts as “the state” is the social ecologist Mason Herson-Hord’s essay “Wither the State” (2019) in Harbinger No. 1. For more on our particular politics, see our editorial “Socialism With An Anarchist Squint” elsewhere in this issue. For our purposes, what matters is how he deploys this belief.
Because you see, our conservative has decided, in a rigid and dogmatic manner, that the center of all his politics ought to be that Government Is Bad. What this means is that he adopts a very curious and fixed attitude towards the word Government. On the one hand, anything that’s obviously to do with the Government – no matter how essential to his well-being or especially that of others – becomes Bad. And on the other hand if he thinks something is Bad for other reasons, he’ll likely find a way to associate it with his bugbear the Government. But in addition – and this is the most interesting tendency by far – anything he can be made to believe has to do with the Government becomes bad by association. He will judge things not on their own merits but based on the association. This is how, if you wish, you can manipulate him: to make him hate the things you hate, you just need to associate them with the magic word. Whether or not it actually has anything to do with the government is of course immaterial. This is, after all, the process by which our conservative ends up waving signs like “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” A social program he benefits from couldn’t possibly be Government; as he’d tell you himself, he knows from the news that socialized medicine is Government run amok, even though its synonym is Medicare For All.
Parable of the Socialists
Now, you may be feeling superior to our proverbial Conservative, but that would be a mistake. In fact, you’re unlikely to be very different, after your own manner. This second parable should hit closer to home for many of our readers.
Consider the socialist. People who become socialists, at any rate of a certain kind, tend to think of themselves as doing so because they’re good people. But, if you would allow us a poke at your vanity (which is also our own), this has a certain self-congratulatory element that can be summed up thus: socialism is good, because I am a socialist and I am good. That “I am good” part isn’t really up for question; so socialism, by association with us, is also good!
This is convenient, except that it also means one’s ego – one’s sense of oneself as good – is bound up with the goodness of the socialism to which one has committed. This presents a problem when confronted with the history of what avowedly state-socialist countries did in the twentieth century. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this is almost always the first big challenge that every socialist confronts upon adopting the ideology. What do you do with that history – a huge burden, an enormous trauma?6Those who disbelieve in this history should consult primary sources on the matter by dissident socialists (see Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia , Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary , Nikolai Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record , Shengwulien, Whither China?: A Radical Complaint Against the Emerging Establishment , Ngo Van, Revolution and Counterrevolution Under Colonial Rule ) and secondary sources by scholars (see Dmitri Volkogonov, Lenin: A New Biography , Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times , Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic (Fifth Edition) , Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962 ).
Well, for the purposes of this parable, let’s imagine two socialists who confront it in rather disagreeable ways – yet what’s disagreeable about them is more similar than it might at first seem.
The first socialist, knowing that socialism is good, responds to the history of the atrocities committed in socialism’s name by saying that the state socialist countries simply did nothing wrong. The histories must be bourgeois lies; more amenable histories, which can be found in bourgeois libraries but haven’t been dusted off in decades, tell a much different story (never mind that the state propaganda mills which generated these histories demonstrably lied about a million things big and small). These countries had to do what they did because they were encircled by imperialists; they were actually better to live in than capitalist countries today (despite their demonstrable tendency to lose population whenever they opened their borders); the dictatorships, purges, and genocides probably didn’t even happen; and even if they did, their victims probably had it coming. Thus, there’s no contradiction: socialism is good, and I’m a good person for being one. It’s unfortunate this comes at the cost of utterly betraying the ideal of radical democracy that socialists fought for in the first place.
The second socialist, confronted with the contradiction between their sense of their own goodness and the crimes committed in the name of their political ideology, adopts a different approach: they deny that the state socialist regimes were socialist in any sense in the first place. Now, on a certain level this is plausible: the Leninists weren’t the only socialists, after all, and many other socialists (social democrats, anarchists, etc) have created institutions that are more obviously desirable than the party-state and the secret police from a socialist point of view. But our socialist goes further than this. It’s not just that the state socialists sincerely tried but failed to build a socialist society; they were never socialists in the first place. Perhaps it’s just that they were gangsters from the get-go, opportunistically adopting the socialist label in order to justify their power-hunger. Or maybe it’s that they had the wrong theory, and if only they had understood what true socialism is from the correct intellectual perspective they wouldn’t have gone astray. Our socialist, in a fit of moralizing passion, is liable to turn every conversation into a referendum on what’s “really” socialism, citing chapter and verse of a sacred text or pushing the pet idea they came up with in an armchair. They’ll always avoid any practical questions about what we ought to do here and now; they’ll endlessly defer the implications for their perfect philosophy of the fact that sincere socialists just like them, not imposters or idiots, did the horrible things they’re opposed to. And when backed into a corner, they’ll fall back on their favorite slogan: “real socialism has never been tried!”
Both of our socialists, in this situation, are playing a very similar word game rather than talking frankly about real life. They’ve bound up their egos and their sense of their own identity with the word “socialism,” and thus spend endless time politicking about what the word means. Anything that associates socialism with something bad personally insults them; and the word game consists of constructing elaborate schemes – fake histories, philosophical systems – whereby the word socialism can be scrubbed of all faults and imperfections. In this way the word can always remain pure, and so too can their moral facade as individuals. But as a matter of fact neither socialist spends much time building socialism at all. Instead they spend most of their time arguing with each other, again and again, endlessly redefining one another’s positions out of existence, with precious little reference to anything that actually exists.
Parable of the Friends
Now consider two friends. Friendship is among the loveliest things in the world. In the course of living we stumble into one another’s lives; and mysteriously, almost miraculously, just by being around each other and talking to one another honestly and engaging in shared activities, we begin to form a bond with someone that can last years or even a whole lifetime. A friendship is more than the sum of the experiences two people hold in common. (“If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him,” the essayist Montaigne wrote of his best friend, “I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.”)7Michel de Montaigne (tr. Charles Cotton), “Of Friendship” in Essays of M. de Montaigne (1635). Readers interested in an equally beautiful – and more modern – literary account of friendship should read the Neapolitan Quartet of Elena Ferrante, a major landmark of contemporary world literature consisting of the novels My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Story of the Lost Child (2014). It’s something that emerges out of their interactions, as private jokes, little rituals, secrets confided, knowledge of one another’s struggles or traumas or inner personality, gestures of mutual care. Perhaps its purest expression, or a part that stands in for the whole, is a gift that one friend makes to another. It need not be expensive; the best gifts are often simple, and their beauty comes from the way they speak to the nature of the friend they’re given to. This gesture of the gift becomes a symbol of the bond itself.8This is very deep-seated human behavior, it turns out. In the gift economies that govern many egalitarian stateless societies, gifts are seen as a kind of debt, since they must be reciprocated in kind at some later date. Yet people will still get into these debts with one another, often right after having repaid the principal – because a debt created by a gift is a sort of implicit promise to keep the relationship going: “one day we’ll meet again, and you can repay me then.” For more on this, see Chapter 2 of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011).
But suppose that these two friends have gotten themselves wrapped up in word games of the sort that were indulged in by the Conservative and the Socialists of the previous parables. Suppose that they had a disagreement about the proper way to name something, or whether something is one thing or two things, or whether something is really the exemplar of a broader category or ought to be left out. And let’s further suppose that this isn’t just a friendly intellectual debate; that the milieu the friends find themselves in has been riven by this word game; that in fact the partisans have organized themselves into two or more factions; that the factions cannot tolerate one another’s existence; and that, finally, our two friends find themselves on different sides of this divide.
It isn’t too hard, given these conditions, to predict the rather sorry way they’re likely to act towards each other. This is precisely the sort of situation where our real human relationships become disposable. When you have identified yourself utterly with some abstract position, when you form a group identity around sharing it, when you prize membership in that group over the people or the experiences of your day-to-day life; then the world becomes all about saying the right words rather than doing right by others, then do the stakes of the more and more purely symbolic spaces we inhabit become ever higher, then do our friends become merely an instrument for showing our attachment to symbolic gestures rather than the other way around. This is when one friend betrays another, or cuts them out of their life, or refuses to share the same space with them for reasons anyone looking from outside would regard as frivolous. The mystery of their common bond and experiences – the thing that’s actually real – has been discarded; it’s the word games that sit atop the mind’s throne. When the symbols we infuse with emotion no longer represent our interpersonal emotional reality, when communication with those immediately around us breaks down, our social relationships become hollow. The lights are on, but nobody is home; a gesture remains, but the friendship is gone. And what’s worse, the result is always a debilitating fear. To have betrayed a friend this way makes you terrified the same will be done to you in turn; to have been betrayed makes you fear you’ll get burned again. And so this fear makes us close ourselves off to others, making us more adverse to real relationships, real friendships, substituting them for yet more attachment to other abstract labels and symbols and correct positions – thus perpetuating the cycle.
In such a situation our lives come to feel hollow, or even worse like outright deceptions. We begin to hold ourselves (or imagine ourselves beheld by others) to impossible standards, even as we witness the discrepancy between our idea of what life should be and our experience of it. Is it any wonder we become so friendless, so disconnected, so disjointed?
All of this suffering, for things that aren’t even real.
Our Words and Our World
In our view, what the characters in each of these parables have in common is that their words have become decoupled from their world – and this, in turn, has led to other derangements. It isn’t just that they’re under the sway of “incorrect” ideas, inasmuch as these fail to be useful for describing or acting within the world around them (though that’s certainly true). It’s also that they insist upon focusing on the words themselves rather than the world – on proving the words’ purity or correctness, on elaborating their implications, on creating and then heavily investing their ego in identities built around them – rather than inquiring into the world itself. The Conservative made his magic word into a box you could drop anything into to make it evil by association; the Socialists made their smug sense of their own moral purity dependent upon the eternal purity of their magic word, and thus diverted all their energies into useless word games in order to defend it; and one Friend betrayed another when they no longer rooted their symbolic acts in the shared experiences of friendship but rather made friendship disposable if this brutal symbolic act was necessary to retain membership in an identity group structured around such words and gestures.
Just what do we mean when we’ve been talking about words and symbols? You’ve probably surmised we’re getting at more than individual words in the dictionary. Really we’re using this as a shorthand for something bigger – the concepts, the languages, the discourses, the intellectual systems, the theories, or the models that we construct in our heads.
But just what is a concept? We think it’s important to distinguish the world from the words we use to describe it. Words, in other words, are not objective – they don’t have a separate existence outside of ourselves, the way objects seem to, because they exist in our heads. But on the other hand, neither are words subjective – not individually, anyway, because no one of us typically goes about inventing them. To take a simple example, you learned English from somebody; you didn’t invent it yourself; and in fact, no one invented English, because it’s a continual and collective invention of everyone who speaks and writes it. The same is true of every conceptual framework, scientific methodology, intellectual discourse, or philosophical system. These systems of ideas and the knowledge they generate are neither objective nor subjective but intersubjective – they are created, perpetuated, and continually transformed in the sum of all our heads. We construct them together through a cooperative process; they only exist to the extent we (or some of us) believe in them, and cease to exist the instant nobody does.
Decoupling, then, is when the words we invent intersubjectively to try to make sense of the world become sufficiently unmoored from the world they attempt to describe that they become a kind of parallel world in themselves. No longer do we pay attention to the world outside of us – to the personal experiences we bear alone, or to the experiences we share with others. Instead, our intersubjective networks of ideas become so self-referential, so wrapped up in themselves, that they supersede the immediacy of our own lives. It’s when our ideas become so dictated by their own internal logic that they become impervious to outside influence or refutation; when How It Ought To Be begins to take precedence in all cases over How It Actually Is; when we mistake our shared tools of human cognition and culture for eternal and unchanging laws of the universe.
Decoupling of this sort is, we insist, what produces the various toxic practices which have gotten us so stuck. It’s why we spend inordinate amounts of time arguing about definitions of words, rather than the substance of what is actually being discussed. It’s why we’re so quick to poison the well of any conversation when confronted with something to which we’re opposed – one iota of something we don’t like, and the whole thing becomes unlikable and must be destroyed. It’s why we are so often motivated to take action not for principled reasons but because of the way they’ll play in some social grouping built around such gestures of affirmation, whether it’s signaling our affiliations online or joining “lifestyle anarchist” scenes. It’s why, for that matter, we have developed such impoverished ideas of human motivation and behavior, and then fit the real-life people around us to their Procrustean bed. And it’s why so many of our cultural spaces and political institutions have become dominated by a carceral punishment mindset, which goes hand-in-hand with our individual self-righteousness and performance of morality.9We’re reminded of a friend one of us had in their neighborhood growing up. Like a lot of kids, they enjoyed play-fighting with plastic lightsabers. But our editor – then a plucky seven-year-old – noticed only too late that the neighborhood kid wasn’t playing the same game. He wasn’t trying to get in a whack at the other person; he was trying to hit the other lightsaber. He had seen the way they clashed and crackled in the movies, but had fundamentally misunderstood what their wielders were up to because he had no concept of a parry. And so this kid hyper-focused, to the point of obsession, with hitting the other lightsaber, leaning and thrusting and otherwise going out of his way to do so, in a manner which defeated the entire purpose of the game at hand. He had, fundamentally, missed the point. He wasn’t fun to play with anymore. So eventually, our editor just shelved their toy lightsaber for good.
When your concepts about the world no longer describe the world you live in, it’s a one-way ticket to jadedness and disappointment.
And note the emotions and sensations that are missing when decoupling happens: curiosity, learning something new, being surprised, listening to the experience of others. Which is to say, the world itself – the world outside of us – has gone missing. We become lost in word games of our own creation, and retreat into the worlds created by our words. Meanwhile, the world we actually share grows ever more distant, our plight ever more desperate. Something like this process – perhaps augmented by the new technostructure that’s governed our telecommunications systems since the rise of centralized social media – has taken place across political ideologies, philosophies, and cultural spaces. On the intellectual front, it is one of our main obstacles to generating new ideas.10 For an incisive commentary on what we have called the “word-games” that come with decoupling, see Jonathan Baskin, “On Language Games” (19 December 2021) in The Point.
But this is not how human knowledge has ever progressed. It is not how good thinking is done.
There are, of course, material reasons why we have fallen into such a mire – we’ll be discussing some of them. Even that conceded, there is no way around the need for a clearer way of thinking. Sure, the mode of production and the social totality shape the parameters within which thought can develop. But the construction of new economic and social institutions is only possible with clearer thinking than we can muster at the present, since after all we’d need to figure out what we want to build instead. No ifs, ands, or buts about it – we need to go about this concept business in a new way.
To escape these habits, we need a new kind of thinking. It would involve a break from the absolutism with which we dress up our systems of thought. It would demand that we bring different communities of thinkers together – especially those who have been left on the margins – and get them talking to each other so that we can inch closer to a shared language and a usable history. It would require constantly rethinking even what we think we already know, pluralistically exploring ideas with a healthy respect for what we don’t. Above all, it would be a loose but principled set of best practices for breaking through the stagnation of art, philosophy, culture, and science…all at once! Sounds daunting, for sure. But we have a hunch about what it might entail. And if you’ll humor us, we’d like to share it with you.
We Must Construct a New Ontology!
To explain what we mean – with apologies in advance – we’ll require just a pinch of philosophy. We promise not to get too lost in some convoluted system. When it clarifies rather than confuses, as we hope to show, philosophy can even be quite practical!
What’s an ontology, anyway?
Let’s start by defining our terms. We’re going to be discussing two broad, big-tent types of philosophy. Usually, in academic philosophy, these are described as subdisciplines of philosophy – indeed, ones that particular philosophy professors specialize in, the way an entomologist might specialize in studying some particular species of ant.11In fact, to foreshadow language we’re going to be using later on, it’s quite likely that anyone engaged in philosophically informed inquiry into the nature of the world is going to have both an epistemology and an ontology of their own. But that said, different philosophers put their emphasis on one or the other of these as primary or fundamental – as the source, as it were, of whatever knowledge is being produced – and this is precisely the distinction we’re trying to tackle. In other words, they’re not generally seen as mutually exclusive. But we’re going to argue that in fact they can be usefully understood as styles of philosophy or even movements within philosophy. They have, at least in the hands of some practitioners, a sort of polemical and partisan aspect; they are, or can be, positions or families of positions in a sort of debate about how and to what extent we understand the world. These are epistemology on the one hand and ontology on the other.
Epistemology concerns the character of our knowledge – how we know what we know. We have certain ideas, certain concepts we use to describe the world. But what does it mean to say we know something? How does thinking work as a process? Are there forces – within us, outside us – which precondition, shape, or even determine the knowledge we produce in the course of thinking? What specifically are they, and how do they work? What are the implications for our knowledge (and for truth) if such forces exist? These are the questions of epistemology.
Ontology, on the other hand, is about what exists. What is real, and what’s merely imagined? If you imagine something that doesn’t exist, does that make it real in some sense – is an idea as real as an object? If not, then how can we imagine things that don’t exist? What does it mean for something to exist or not exist anyway? And what is a thing? Where does one thing begin and another end? Is the universe one big thing, an amalgamation of many things, a process, or something else? Why are things the way they are – what is the essence that gives them their particular characteristics, and where does it reside? Is it that they have a purpose? Or is it that they combine and interact in particular ways? Or is their essence in their smallest parts? Or does essence not, well, exist? Note that all of this has to do with the world irrespective of our ideas of it. That’s what distinguishes ontology, as a general approach, from epistemology. In its classical form, this is even expressed in a rather rigid manner: ontological claims are either true or they’re not.
You may have noticed that a lot of the questions of ontology are ones that most ordinary people will tend to think are better handled by sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology. This is an astute observation – ontological thinking has its origins in a time when there wasn’t yet a distinction between science and philosophy like we have now, and in fact many of the hard sciences have their origins in the systems developed by philosophers (scientists used to be called natural philosophers).
And if you know a little more about the history of philosophy, you’ll also probably be aware that ontology is in rather ill repute nowadays. For one thing, it’s unclear anybody even in academia agrees about what exactly it means in the first place. But then there are the assessments people make anyway. On the one hand, you have people who say ontology is an outdated methodology that’s been superseded by natural science, or is at best little more than an assistant to real scientific work which helps clarify science’s concepts (usually in a manner that scientists happily ignore). On the other hand, you have other people who are actively hostile to ontology due to its political consequences. Heidegger, for example, developed a complicated ontology of Being whose political upshot was antisemitism and support for the Nazis – and not as a sorry coincidence, as scholars are increasingly realizing since the publication of his private notebooks, but as a direct consequence of his theoretical framework.12 See Gregory Fried, “The King is Dead: Heidegger’s ‘Black Notebooks’” (13 September 2014) in the Los Angeles Review of Books. And as we’ll see, there’s good reason to believe ontological thinking of a certain kind was a tool, if not a cause, of the forcible imposition of Western chauvinist worldviews upon the rest of the world via colonization. Thus you could be forgiven for believing this is one of those situations where, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.13 Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (1979)
But we would counter that, in this particular case, it’s the master who’s stolen a tool from us – one which we desperately need to grasp in order if we’re to act successfully in addressing our current social crisis. To understand why, we need to briefly trace how our notions of epistemology and ontology have evolved.
A little history of Western philosophy from ontology to epistemology…
The history of philosophy in the West up to very recently can be summed up – rather reductively, but not uselessly so – as a history of several thousand years split down the middle by a kind of phase change. This transformation began in the early modern period and consolidated itself in the nineteenth and twentieth century – across both what the professors call analytic and continental philosophy. Before the change, ontological and ethical concerns (usually closely intermingled) were predominant in philosophy; after it, philosophy transitioned more and more into being about epistemology. This had radical implications for our ways of thinking, and bears directly on the word-games and cultural stuckness in which we seem mired today.14Or as the Africana philosopher Lewis Gordon puts it, “[I]n different periods of Western civilizations the shift has gone from the good as paramount to the modern philosophical advancement of epistemology as first philosophy.” See An Introduction to Africana Philosophy (2008), pp. 10, 22-23. You can trace this process in finer detail in a good philosophical history such as Alan D. Schrift (ed.), The History of Continental Philosophy (2010), especially Volumes I-III and Volume VI. But let’s begin in the beginning, with philosophy in the ancient world.
A side note: because in those days it was common among philosophers to suppose that the fundamental nature of what exists was not anything that resided in physical objects but rather a set of intangible qualities and laws, of which physical reality was just a manifestation, ontology was often called metaphysics – the study of that which lay beyond, and underlies, the physical. It was typically a profoundly arrogant exercise. The basic idea was that if you could figure out what had to be true of metaphysical necessity, then you would understand the essential nature of the entities and objects around you, and quite possibly the very nature of the universe itself – a necessity rooted in causes that often enough went back to God, or some other primordial principle of absolute universal order. And because truth was seen to be unitary, objective, and all-encompassing, that which was not the truth had to be false, at best an error to be corrected and at worst a wicked heresy to be expunged.15Those sympathetic to the ancient and medieval metaphysicians may well say we are caricaturing their views. We direct readers to some of the primary sources – such as Aristotle’s Metaphysics (c. 300 BCE), Plotinus’s Enneads (270), Ibn Sina’s The Book of Healing (1027), and Thomas Aquinas’s On Being and Essence (c. 1252) – to make up their own minds. They might also be helped along by secondary sources on metaphysical notions of the Absolute, such as J.N. Findlay, Ascent to the Absolute: Metaphysical Papers and Lectures (1970) and Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930). Finally, Peter Adamson’s magisterial podcast The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps is an excellent guide for learning this tangled and confusing intellectual history in all its complexity, including its origins and extensions to and from the Middle East. How this kind of ontology connects to religion, state despotism, and imperialism hardly needs spelling out.
But the balance between ontology and epistemology in Western philosophy began to change in the early modern period. First, David Hume made a new distinction between the kinds of knowledge that we deduce from axioms in our heads (deductive knowledge), and the kinds of knowledge that we get from observing repeated experiences that occur under similar circumstances (inductive or empirical knowledge). The former, he argued, doesn’t really tell us much about the world’s ontological structure, and it’s just a way of organizing knowledge that we already have. Whereas it’s only the second, the knowledge that we get through empirical observation, which maybe allows us to have at least some sense of what kinds of events tend to cause other kinds of events based on what we’ve observed in the real world. And this practice of recognizing patterns is a rather tenuous business. We can’t be certain about the knowledge it produces the same way we can be certain of how 2+2=4. That equation follows with absolute certainty from how we’ve defined the rules of arithmetic. Whereas the patterns identified by empirical knowledge are basically just descriptions of what’s tended to happen under similar circumstances in the past – but what’s happened before is not, by any inherent necessity, what’s always going to happen in the future, even under the same circumstances. But alas, for Hume, empirical knowledge is in fact the only source of any new ontological knowledge. Knowledge is not and can never be certain; it’s always open to doubt given new experience.16David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).
Inspired and challenged by Hume’s observation, Immanuel Kant developed his own philosophical distinction, one which would call into question the very idea that you could do ontology at all. Because for Kant, not even Hume’s empirical observations can help us, since we never actually experience the world as it truly is. Rather, what we call experience is actually a series of sense perceptions that are being put through a pre-existing filter in our heads. This filter consists of a series of faculties we are born with – Kant calls them “categories” – which allow us to organize sense perception into a vision of the world. But that vision of the world is not the world itself. The map, as the famous saying goes, is not the territory. What we perceive as the world is really just the world after it has been filtered through our a priori categories of thought.17Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1787).
And because we, and therefore our philosophy, don’t ever get access to the world of things in themselves, this means that the fundamental question of philosophy is not an ontological question (what actually exists?) but rather an epistemological question (how it is that we think and produce knowledge?). To put it crudely: ontology concerns what exists in the world outside our heads, whereas epistemology concerns what goes on inside them, and the upshot of Kant’s work is that whenever we think we’re doing the former we’re really doing the latter.
One need not agree with Kant about his particular categories in order to absorb his basic lesson about why epistemology matters. And indeed the notion that we don’t have access to the world except through some filter that exists in our heads, and that therefore all we can truly understand is that filter and not the world, has been a dominant theme for the past 200 or so years of Western philosophy. And because imperialism imposed Western thought upon everybody else, it has become a dominant tendency in philosophy more generally.
The filter can be any one of various things.
It can be an aspect of our own psychology, such as the tendency to first wish or desire things were true and only ever reason after the fact about why they must be true, as observed by philosophical psychologists like Nietzsche.18See “On Truth and Lies in the Extra-Moral Sense” (1873), Human, All Too Human (1878), and The Gay Science (1882) by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Or the filter might be the very language we use, whether because, as for Wittgenstein, language is inextricably tied to our particular experience or way of life and the attempt to make sense of it, such that it’s only even comprehensible to the extent that life-experience is shared; or perhaps because, as Saussure and Derrida argued, language doesn’t get its meaning from the world at all, but rather from the way words are defined against each other within the internal logic of the linguistic system, yet because no one invents language and everyone must use it, the world our language creates becomes the only reality we can ever know.19Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953); Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (1913); “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1967) and “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy” (1974) by Jacques Derrida.
Or, as for Levi-Strauss and much of cultural anthropology, the filter might be the self-contained and mutually co-defining symbols and narratives of the culture we inherit, which give us our concepts and identities and thus in a very real way create the social world we live in.20Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962).
Or the filter might be the boundaries of what is thinkable to you as common sense in a society as a result of its mode of production, its class structure, and your place within it, as in Marx’s theory of ideology.21Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels (Robert C. Tucker, ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader: Second Edition (1978).
Or the filter might be the intellectual, academic, and scientific discourses used to organize knowledge into regimes of truth within institutions that are themselves shaped by dispersed, competing, and pervasive networks of power, as Foucault argues.22Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966).
Or the filter might be the various provincial prejudices, assumptions, hunches, and norms which the white male elites of early modern Europe dubbed “universal” by fiat and imposed so thoroughly upon everyone else through the process of colonization that even oppressed groups came to internalize them, as argued by postcolonial theorists like Fanon, Spivak, and Said; by theorists in the Black Radical Tradition such as Robinson, Wynter, and Patterson; as well as by feminist philosophers like Harding, Hartsock, and Nochlin.23Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth(1961) and Black Skin, White Masks (1967); Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak” (1988); Edward Said, Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism(1993); Cedric Robinson, An Anthropology of Marxism (2001); Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument” (2003); Orlando Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991); Sandra Harding, “Why Has the Sex/Gender System Become Visible Only Now?” and Nancy C.M. Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism” in Harding, et al, Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and the Philosophy of Science (1983); and Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971).
But regardless of which of these, or which combination of these, the filter may in fact be, the point is that it stands between us and the world — meaning that the efforts of much recent philosophical thought have been redirected away from the attempt to understand what exists and towards the study of the various limitations we face whenever we try to understand anything.
…and back to ontology (but, not quite the same way)
The turn towards epistemology has in many ways been beneficial. It’s the basis, for example, of the now famous concept of the social construction of entities like race, gender, and even truth itself — that is, the fact that many things we take for granted as having an existence independent of our thinking are actually in part (or for hard constructivists, nothing but) the products of our thinking, making them historically and culturally specific rather than unchanging, absolute, and universal.24For an overview of social constructivism – its supporters and its critics – see Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (1999).
But recently, a number of intellectual movements – not just in philosophy but also in critical theory and social science more broadly – have begun to develop an interest in turning back towards ontology. This trend has no single neat and tidy label; it has manifested itself in different ways in different fields. Yet we find there’s a striking throughline to why people are making the
To understand why people want to return to ontology, let’s begin by conceding the most substantive points to the partisans of epistemology. Sure, let’s say that we never actually experience the world in itself, as it really is. Whenever we think we’re talking about the world, we’re only ever really talking about our idea of the world. And therefore no matter one’s particular aspirations, one can only ever really rigorously talk about the various filters which condition and determine our many ways of thinking – to put it in philosophical lingo, the conditions of possibility of our thought – and never about the world that is being thought about.
Well, alright, then. But this raises a very important question. So what?
And we’re not being glib. You will have noticed that this tendency to become obsessed with the underlying determinants of discourse sounds rather a lot like the word games we discussed being trapped in before. That is not a coincidence. When you swallow the strongest versions of the claims laid forth by the most social-constructivist epistemological thinkers, you end up endlessly circling back upon various stories about what’s going on in our heads when we think.
But notice what’s missing here: the idea of ever actually doing anything. This style of thought, especially in its strongest forms, is very closely allied to inaction, to passive observation, to idle speculation. But suppose you actually want to do some concrete act in the world. Suppose there’s a problem that you’re looking at and you need to solve, but you don’t yet know how; suppose that you want to make a change; suppose that you want to trigger a process – a chemical process, say – that has some kind of desired end result. The instant that you actually take action in the world, a rather different point of view makes itself apparent, one that begins by ever increasing degrees to bear us back towards the realm of ontology – though not exactly in the way it existed before.
Because we would assert anyone who’s actually interested in doing something always-already has an ontology, whether they want to admit they do or not. Note that we’re not talking about the ontology of the world. Nobody has got that, and nobody ever will. The epistemologists are certainly right about that. But what you do have is an ontology: a working theory, a paradigm, a worldview, a mental model of the world. And this mental model is not simply reducible to the various ways that you can know things or the structures that condition your thoughts. It exists in your head, sure, but it pertains (at least aspirationally) to what’s outside. It’s a model of what you suspect exists, what you suspect doesn’t exist, how you suspect these things or processes can interact, and what’s liable to happen as a result of their interactions.26The way we’ve been using the word ontology has a number of analogues in recent philosophy, particularly approaches that are right at the border of social-constructivism and realism. Consider, for example, the philosopher Manuel Delanda’s attitude towards “Ontological Commitments” in his essay of the same name for the avant-garde speculative realist journal Speculations IV (2013):
Any philosophy commits itself, explicitly or implicitly, to assert the existence of the entities that it intends to describe or explain. Philosophers who deny the truth of this statement—affirming for example that specifying what kinds of entities populate their world constrains their ability to think—usually assume an implicit ontology which is, for the same reason, uncritically accepted and poorly analyzed. Hence, declaring one’s ontological commitments from the start should be standard procedure in philosophy. (p. 71)
There is, it seems, a long but rather subterranean tradition of retooling ontology away from its original metaphysical aspirations to a perfect account of the universe’s fundamental structure and towards a notion of ontologies as provisional models of real-world systems built out of experience and in a dynamic relationship to a changing evidence base, set of practices, or world. See, for example, the heterodox Marxist philosopher-scientist Alexander Bogdanov’s notion of “socio-morphisms” in The Philosophy of Living Experience (1920); the cognitive scientist Dedre Gentner’s idea of “mental models,” described in Mental Models (1983); and Isabel Stengers’s notion of “cosmopolitics” – wherein for the scientist “the choice of the model is clearly a political choice” – outlined, among other places, in her essay “Turtles All The Way Down” from Power and Invention: Situating Science (1997).
Don’t overthink this, we’re talking about very practical situations. Pick up a coffee cup in your hand: if you let it go, you’ll expect it to drop and spill all over you. Why? Because you have a model in your head of how coffee cups behave when suspended in the air and then dropped. And this model is helping you to make a prediction about what will happen if you decide to do the same to your particular coffee cup.
It’s inevitable that people develop ontologies – mental models of the world – whenever they seek to act in it. This need not be framed in the absolutist and monolithic terms with which the ancient Greek, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers so often couched their ontological ambitions. The epistemologists are absolutely correct that this was a grave error. But you can look at it another way. We are thrown into a world without having asked to be born. The moment we open our eyes, everything is new. We come packed with some instincts, it seems, but as far as the rest of it goes it’s up to us to learn. The way we learn is that we create these systems of words, pictures, symbols, concepts, discourses, models, frameworks – whatever you want to call them. Or more precisely (because, as we have seen, they’re intersubjective), we inherit some of them from the people around us, from our culture, from our society; and we construct others of them for ourselves – limited always, of course, by the parameters set by the various epistemic filters to which we’re inevitably subject.
And while the social constructivist epistemologists are absolutely correct that these models are either individually or collectively our creations – that they are produced – this does not mean the final construction is totally arbitrary. The shape our ideas take is limited by more than just the human imagination. Our ontologies aren’t just influenced by the various “filters” but also by their inevitable function as a guide to our practical activities. They are, in other words, working models of the world that we use due to the radical uncertainty under which we live in order to try to act purposefully and successfully in that world. We need them to make predictions; and they gain credibility when we are able to predict outcomes before they happen, or when an idea is reinforced by repeated observations and events that seem to be in line with it.
And this raises the possibility which many of the more vigorously epistemological ways of thinking actively try to avoid – that some ontologies are more effective than others. Not because they’re better in some moral sense, but simply because they allow us a greater scope to achieve our objectives successfully. They expand our agency by being better prediction tools and hence letting us do more.
Imagine for instance a very simple example: a practical problem that needs addressing, which insists itself upon your attention, and the kinds of ontologies one might generate in trying to deal with it.
Say that there’s a cave nearby and that, being a particularly exploratory type, you want to check it out. You’re not naive; you have a notion of some of the risks involved because you’ve explored caves before. But unfortunately you’ve never yet encountered a cave that has a potentially lethal air supply – for example, a cave that emits lethal amounts of hydrogen sulfide from underground pockets. Due to this lack of understanding you go into the cave and, alas, you suffocate. You didn’t have a model for the sort of risk that existed. In fact, it’s probably quite difficult given your experience that you would have developed it. And yet, for lack of that model, you’re dead.
Now, let’s give the scenario a slightly more interesting twist. Let’s say that you’re not the person who went into the cave, but someone who saw them go into the cave, and perhaps even witnessed their suffocation but was able to escape. We would assert this: there isn’t just one simple explanation that anyone would inevitably have come up with for what happened, why it happened, and therefore what the risks are. Given a novel situation, there will almost always be multiple possible interpretations as to the causes.
You and we both, of course, have the benefit of having invented this little thought experiment, so we have stipulated that its causes were a kind of risk that happens in some caves, but only a few, and not any others. But let’s suppose that our observer develops a general theory that the reason their companion suffocated is that the air in caves goes stale given enough time away from fresh open spaces, such that when one goes too deep into any cave, one will inevitably suffocate. Caves have bad air, this theory says, because the life-giving properties of most outside air don’t exist within the depths of the earth.
Depending on how much information and experience one has to work with, this isn’t a totally insane understanding of what happened. It’s merely an ontology which – like the ontology of our original cave diver, but in a different way – fails to completely describe the situation at hand. It’s a bit better inasmuch as it knows the risk of suffocating in a cave exists at all; but it vastly exaggerates the frequency of that risk relative to what actually tends to happen, probably out of a motivation to err on the side of safety.
Now, imagine that this ontology becomes fixed through the usual cultural and structural forces – that it becomes a taboo, say, in your society to go into caves. This isn’t just an arbitrary bit of cultural evolution no better or worse than any possible alternative; it has also significantly contracted the agency of those subject to it. Because if you’re living under that ontology, you’re never going to go into caves. And yet there may be things in caves that could be of great use to you, whether it’s resources like coal or silver or potential new observations about the world such as the existence of a particular species of bat. Meanwhile, someone who is not constrained by the limitations of your particular ontology has a certain kind of agency that you don’t – because they will go into the cave and make use of what is to be found there. And potentially they could put that agency to use, perhaps even to your disadvantage.
Ontologies in other words, expand or contract our agency – our ability to shape the world to meet our needs and desires – based on their relative ability to make predictions successfully or unsuccessfully. Because although an ontology is never and can never be the world itself, it is a working model of how the world would behave if you poked it in a certain way. Yet the world doesn’t just passively accept our poking and prodding. The world doesn’t conform to our expectations of it. The world resists! It fights back! It generates unexpected outcomes and unintended consequences. This is because – and we know, this is a bold hypothesis – there’s good reason to believe that the world exists outside our ideas of it. Which is not to say that we will ever grasp it or control it in the way that a naive scientific positivism often aspires to. The world is always more mysterious than we can imagine. It slips through our fingers when we try to grasp it. But when we don’t just accept our ontologies as reality, but rather treat them as provisional models that we use in order to make predictions – then we open ourselves up to the possibility of revising those ontologies based on a continual practical interaction with the world. We can only ever rejuvenate our ideas by grounding them in the requirements of our practical activities, which then serve as a kind of test. And it’s only by encountering something truly new, some anomalous object or curious matter that fundamentally defies our expectations, that we are forced into a decision: do we ignore it and proceed as if our ontology were still mostly trustworthy? Or do we begin to question whether a new ontology might in fact be necessary?
The best scientists have a measured and skeptical attitude towards their own ideas. Their systems of thought and methodologies are often solid and consistent, but never fixed – they’re always open to change. They stand at the edge of human knowledge, looking out at the unknown, and briefly dip their toe into the abyss; then, just as quickly, they bring it back, and look to see what happened. Usually, given enough of these excursions and if they remain honest, they find their theory has changed from the encounter. The world has pushed back against their expectations. Perhaps it’s even left their basic assumptions in tatters. But these moments of near-total self-destruction of a theory are among the most promising in science, because they’re an important sort of feedback: the world has told you something, it’s signaled that you need a totally different approach if you’re going to understand it. One might even say (to return to our own language) that decoupling can be a good thing – it means the world has surprised you, is bigger and stranger than you’d imagined – but only if you recognize and accept it when it happens, only if you have the will within yourself to radically change as a result. Paradigm shifts happen whenever luminiferous aether disappears.27If this all sounds to you like something you’ve heard from a philosopher or sociologist of science – you’d be right! A view like this like this is quite liable to emerge from reading the classics of the philosophy of science (Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Imre Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes” in The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes , Paul Feyerabend, Against Method ) or of science studies (see Bruno Latour, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts ; Sheila Jasanoff, The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers ). The specific point about how the world pushes back is inspired in part by Meillassoux’s idea of “ancestrality” in After Finitude.
Some Qualities of a New Ontology
Based on the little philosophical history we’ve given you above, we think it should now be possible to articulate the ways of thinking – or to put it in more highfalutin terms, the methods of knowledge production – that would be most conducive to escaping the impotent word games and cultural stuckness that are hegemonic all around us.
The first step is to return to ontology – to redirect our energies into sincere attempts to describe the processes and experiences of the world outside of us, rather than just endlessly recapitulating the limitations of our particular ideas of it. Whether recent theory wants to admit it or not, everybody has got an ontology because, as we’ve seen, our models of the world guide our actions within it. And that world is independent enough of our concepts that, should those become sufficiently decoupled, the world will foil our best laid plans – to potentially catastrophic results.
But at the same time, any project that attempts to generate a new ontology must also integrate into itself the rational kernel of all those social-constructivist epistemologies that have developed over the past few hundred years. No model of the world – no matter how beautifully consistent its formalisms nor how useful its predictions – is ever the world itself. And such ontologies are always inevitably constructed through a particular productive process that is shaped by all the limiting factors and structural forces that we outlined in our little potted history above, and probably others too. In this sense our mission to discover and be surprised by the world must never lose sight of the way we inevitably live and think in worlds created by our words. The insights of critical theory and epistemology should – if we’ve read the classics properly and their writers did their job – inspire in us an attitude of intellectual humility and a principle of fallibility.
As a rule, we will always get something wrong and our ontology will always one day be superseded. Not because we were incompetent, not because we failed in our mission, but because we are always and inevitably coming at the matter from a particular narrow perspective – one shaped by the structure of knowledge production, the cultural mythologies in which we were raised or trained, the histories we inherit, the languages we think in, our class, our race, our gender, our sexual desires, and all the rest of it.
Truth is not an absolute or a monolith; it may not even be something eternal. If the sum of human experience as we have received it teaches us anything, it’s that the nature of the world is far too complex for anyone to have a monopoly on the knowledge of it.
If you accept the broad strokes of how we’ve described the task that lies before us, then a few principles follow from it.
A culture of openness
First, it is not enough just to generate a new ontology. We know this will be hard for you to hear. Because those of you who have tried know just how profoundly difficult it is to invent a new language, to reframe an old problem, to escape from the shackles of received dogma, or to develop a new method or a new form. It can be enough of a task to fill up a lifetime. But from a broader point of view, society doesn’t operate in lifetimes but centuries. And neither therefore do the problems we have identified in our society, whether with regard to our knowledge or anything else.
The only thing that can prevent a culture from getting stuck is for it to remain a culture of openness. Collectively we must begin to develop methods – or maybe you could call them ways of assessing methods, meta-methods – by which not once but continually to generate new ontologies. And every new ontology must also always be a living ontology – one that is prepared not only to change in its minor aspects but to be entirely replaced. And a prerequisite for that, it seems to us, is that you the knowledge producer, you the researcher, you the thinker, never allow yourself to forget the constructedness of your own knowledge and the fallibility of your own perspective. You are not sorting the true from the false in some absolute objective sense. You are not developing knowledge that once written down in a consistent form is complete or certain or even real in the sense you’d like it to be. You are only and exclusively developing an ontology, which is to say a system of ideas and words and pictures that together form a framework or a mental model that helps you make better guesses about what’s going to happen. The heterodox economist and libertarian socialist Frederic S. Lee had an aphorism which seems like an exemplar for the right attitude: “The success of my book is not to be measured in the number of copies sold or the number of citations in journal articles, but in how quickly it gets superseded.” 28Frederic S. Lee & Tae-Hee Jo (ed.), Microeconomic Theory: A Heterodox Approach (2018), p. xiv.
And this is only the first step. Because the far more difficult stage that follows is when you must try to make predictions about the world using your model and see how the world pushes back against it. This isn’t the simple kind of empiricism that just believes in collecting the facts – because facts aren’t just collected but are generated through a process of interpretation, one shaped precisely by your preexisting mental model or theory. And thus, where and how you choose to look, or even some of the facts that are visible to you at all, depend upon the model that you’re using to make your predictions.29The technical term for this idea – that facts are not just given by the world but are produced partially through a theory-informed act of interpretation – is theory-laden facts. A good overview of these can be found in the entry “Theory and Observation in Science” (2009) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The approach we have described as our own, which tries to derive theoretical constructs as much as possible only from observable phenomena in the world, while also never forgetting that these constructs and even the facts we use to justify them are in part social constructs, is known as grounded theory. For an overview, see Barney G. Glaser & Anselm L. Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (1967).
The difficulty and complexity of this process is why even highly flawed or delusional models can last for so long in science. Not only are they guarded jealously if an academic cult has built their power base around it (more on this later); but in addition, they make themselves impervious to refutation by individual facts by simply ignoring or denying them, because the theory cannot see them. The only surefire way to beat an ontology that is out of date is to build a better mousetrap – a new ontology that makes better predictions.
But even that ontology risks becoming stuck if those who created it, or those who learned and used it, ever forget the fact that it was created, that it’s just a model that comes from a particular and fallible perspective. The culture of openness we are speaking of, which alone can continually generate new ontologies, is one in which the creators of knowledge have been socialized to understand that they are only ever creating models and that models must be superseded. This alone implants in any particular community or institution of knowledge production the possibility of a fundamental advance, because it means that the people operating within it will be receptive to it – that they will be looking for it, that they will be distrustful of those who cling too fast to what everyone already believes, that they will not be overly dismissive towards those who raise fundamental questions or radical objections.
You can, of course, choose as a knowledge producer not to do this. But you make that choice at your own peril. History has shown irrefutably that those who choose the path of dogmatism become trapped in their own ideas, as if in a hall of mirrors; while those who retain a culture of openness pass them by, through generating new forms of knowledge that expand their capacity to act purposefully and successfully in the world.
Thinking in groups, unity in difference
We are not alone in dreaming of paradigm shifts. Many aspire to utterly transform the landscape of some intellectual domain. But even many of the most ambitious and talented intellectual workers remain stubbornly in the grip of a fantasy: they admire or wish to become the solitary genius, the world-historical hero-figure, the lonely master surrounded by his books or his lab instruments (this is a decidedly male fantasy, quite often) who alone defies the orthodoxy and reconfigures our understanding, founding new disciplines and getting an -ism or two named after him.
But even when this sort of canonization happens, it’s not really how things actually work. Solitary cranks – even the best of them, like good old Marx – tend to leave their overambitious magnum opuses in an unfinished and fragmentary state, because they were tackling too big a set of topics for any one human being to finish. And usually even these figures could only do their work due to having been part of vibrant communities tackling the same problems, within which they worked out their ideas with the aid of others (friends and enemies alike, whether they’re cited or not).30The historiographical method of the leading intellectual historian Quentin Skinner and his Cambridge School, which has received much acclaim within that discipline, could be said to consist entirely of the attempt to reconstruct these social networks by following footnotes. Essentially, Skinner argues that rather than simply reading the great philosophers in their designated order on our great books syllabi in our Western Civ survey courses, as if they were all talking primarily to each other, we should read them against the pamphleteers, journalists, politicians, essayists, and philosophasters of their own day, following the names of the often forgotten contemporaries they denounce or harangue or agree with or block quote in order to reconstruct the debates out of which their own ideas and language sprang. A notion so obvious that, hilariously and of course, nobody in the field that designates itself as the ‘History of Ideas’ had really thought of it before! It turns out that when you employ this method you’ll find the great canonical thinkers in question owe much – practically everything – to these unknown discourses, so much so that we risk greatly misunderstanding them without it. See Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1969), pp. 3-53. We would also note that Skinner’s method, applied to the intellectual history of socialism, would quite likely produce scandalous results. Take our boy Marx: there’s some provisional indications that not only would he likely become decentered in the history of socialist ideas, but that many more of his ideas than people suspect would be drawn from precisely the “utopians” and “idealists” he regularly harangued. See Ian McKay, “Proudhon and Marx” (18 March 2010) on the Anarchist Writers blog(https://anarchism.pageabode.com/book/proudhon-and-marx/) and J.E. King, “Utopian or scientific? A reconsideration of the Ricardian Socialists,” History of Political Economy 15 (3) (1983): pp. 345–373.
The hard sciences have in the past seventy years or so discovered – and we hope many other disciplines this century follow – that bylines with only a single name are a sign not of authority but a certain lack of rigor. Cooperation is the norm in knowledge production and not the exception. All real fundamental insights in human knowledge develop through people working together on shared problems in groups – call them thought collectives, artistic or philosophical movements, associations, circles, or whatever you like.31Some theories of the importance of knowledge-producing collectives include Ludwik Fleck (tr. Fred Bradley & Thaddeus J. Trenn), Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1979) ; Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I (2010); and Liam Kofi Bright, Haixin Dang. & Remco Heesen, “A Role for Judgment Aggregation in Coauthoring Scientific Papers,” Erkenn 83, 231–252 (2018). For some very cool books studying specific influential groupings, check out William J. McGrath’s Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria (1974), Robert Vitalis’s White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (2017), Karl Sigmund’s Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science (2017), McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (2011), and Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (2018). This isn’t just a warm and fuzzy thought for us socialists. Such groups can often be extremely partisan or even cult-like; as we’ll see, they are often the factions that fight like vultures over the scraps of academic disciplines; and as such they can become an obstacle as much as an aid to progress. Much depends on how we organize our knowledge-producing collectives as institutions internally, and how they choose to behave towards one another.
Dogmatism is always the real basis of cult, and it begins with the rejection of the notion that one must present reasons for believing things. There may have to be initial assumptions that constitute “leaps of faith,” but even so, there’s always a difference between treating these as unquestionable versus being open about them and seeing what results from them, and how that compares and contrasts to other systems built upon other foundations, remaining open to learning from across lines of difference.
Let’s be blunt: we on the Left know pretty well what it looks like when this doesn’t exist.
We have seen how self-proclaimed socialists have fantasized about throwing women, immigrants, and queers under the bus in order to secure the votes of a largely imaginary white male working class made up of manufacturing workers in denim overalls, when in fact the quintessential working-class person according to statistics is something more like a Guatemalan single mother working in child care without papers.
We have seen how identitarians claiming to be the sole spokespeople on behalf of their list of oppressed groups can, so often, be precisely the ones that the liberal establishment uses to crush radical Black-, indigenous-, women-, and queer-led uprisings of the multiracial working class.
Every student from the global south who comes to study in one of the rich industrial countries knows the feeling of beginning to describe the struggles of their home countries, only to be talked over by white leftist college students who reframe every political question in every country in the world in terms familiar to them – or who even root for the capitalist dictatorships that imprison or kill their comrades, in the name of “anti-imperialism.”
Every trans woman knows what it’s like to be defined out of existence by the notion of gender liberation to be found in the previous generations of feminism.
And this is just what we already are beginning to understand. Even now, there are probably ways that we haven’t yet comprehended or given names to in which we fail to listen to one another’s experiences, in which we talk over and erase differences. And for what? To manufacture a fake unity, a bogus consensus made tenable only through the threat of violence. And we waste our time doing these things instead of striving towards that unachievable but nevertheless admirable universalism, towards that real rather than imagined unity which could only emerge through a constructive intersubjective dialogue between our different perspectives.
Therefore there exists the need for a space where people with different life experiences, and therefore different ontologies, can come together in dialogue and deliberation about this world we all find ourselves in. Such a space must include the voices that have been marginalized in most of our society’s discourse – working-class people, women and queer people, colonized and racialized people – not just for moralistic reasons, not just as some recompense for oppressions past, but for eminently practical purposes, because it’s necessary in order to break through to something new! The way a plan, in order to be successful, must incorporate input from every group it touches; the way the blind sages, in the old Indian parable, could only realize it was an elephant when they told each other about the body parts each of them was touching; the way any decision is only ever made best when everyone affected by it has a say in it.
Some won’t want to hear it, but it’s true: we must find a way to work with one another across lines of difference. It’s the only way we can start to build the answers we need. That’s not about going soft on capitalists or fascists; it’s about treating one another more humanely. We must create and learn to operate within interdisciplinary and pluralistic spaces where we can challenge one another – not so much antagonistically as agonistically – to work things out, to test what we believe, to sort out where we all stand. We must avoid the word-games, alienation, and hostility of debates so decoupled from practical realities that the participants merely yell past each other, and replace it with more useful, profound, and principled forms of engagement. We must ask each other: “What framework are you coming from that makes you say this?” “Am I right that these are the concepts you’re working with?” “All right, if those are your concepts, then here are mine. What do you think?” “What would have to happen in real life for either of us to be wrong?” “Is there any overlap between our ways of seeing things?” “Can we develop a shared language based on those linkages – and if so, does it hold up when we test it against the world?” By engaging one another in this constructive way and grounding our discussions in our shared world, we can begin to question the received wisdom that’s all around us – even, crucially, our own traditions and not just those of others.32A classic statement of a perspective analogous to ours from a point of view informed by the Frankfurt School is Jurgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action Volume I (1984) and Volume II (1987). Though it is standard for identitarians, Leninists, and other vested interests to profess a kind of ideological absolutism in left-wing spaces in the name of anti-oppression politics, in fact many of the most powerful arguments for this sort of pluralistic, interdisciplinary, and constructive interchange across lines of difference have been made by women, queer people, and people of color. For a postcolonial argument, see Leela Gandhi, “Epilogue: If This Were a Manifesto for Postcolonial Thinking” in Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (2019). For an argument from the Black Radical Tradition, see Alain Locke’s essays “Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace” in Approaches to World Peace (1944), pp. 609-618 and “A Functional View of Value Ultimates” (13 December I945), unpublished at Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Alain Locke Collection, Howard University. For an argument from the feminist philosophy of science, see Nancy C.M. Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism” in Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science (2004).
That’s how new ontologies develop. That’s how we can grow as thinkers and as people. And that’s how we can build the tools our social movements and our counterculture need to confront the problems of the twenty-first century – and triumph.
What it looks like in practice
Take a glance at the history of human thought and you will see that, in all its various aspects, advances have always followed something like this pattern.
Up to now, we have described at some length the way that new ontologies are necessary for cutting-edge scientific research. But something like our framework is just as true in the realm of art, if not more so. Of course there’s a commonsense way in which art never progresses like science does, because the art of the distant past never becomes quite as irrelevant as the hard science of that same ancient period. Yet in another sense – perhaps the deeper one – art too must be a kind of continual and fundamental progress. Some theories of art describe this as a succession of artistic forms, others as the evolution of artistic representation due to historical changes (in culture, in socioeconomic structure, in the production process of art itself). These theories can be usefully combined: as the world or their inner experience or both inevitably change, so too must the forms with which the artist expresses or represents or preserves them.33For good surveys of theories concerning art and literature, see Raman Selden, Peter Widdowson, & Peter Brooker, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, Fifth Edition (2005) and Cynthia Freeland, Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction (2001). Some excellent examples of formalist criticism include Viktor Shklovsky (tr. Alexandra Berlina), “Art, As Device” (1919) in Poetics Today 36:3 (September 2015) and Yuri Tynianov (tr. Ainsley Morse & Philip Redko), Permanent Evolution: Selected Essays on Literature, Theory, and Film (2019); whereas accomplished examples of the historicist approach include Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1835) and TJ Clarke’s Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999).
But practicing artists understand on some level that these armchair theories miss something fundamental: the way that artists in a very real sense create the social world that all of us live in. All too often and behind our backs, it is from works of art that our culture gets its sense of what is good, true, and beautiful; the pictures by which it looks at itself; its music and its rituals; its commonplaces and its biases; the buildings people live in and the clothes they wear and the phrases they utter day to day; even, perhaps, their ideas about love. Of course no one artist does it alone, no critic directs it, it always happens unthinkingly – but nevertheless unceasingly. And anyway what else could Shelley have meant when he called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”?34Percy Shelley, “The Defence of Poetry” (1821)
Indeed, as art over the past hundred and fifty years or so in at least some media became more autonomous or independent of the purely instrumental and decorative functions it had performed for its traditional aristocratic patrons, a certain self-consciousness grew among the artists about their ability to shape the world through their creation. More and more they became aware of how, in a modern world which had fundamentally changed, there was increasingly a need for what Nietzsche called the “transvaluation” of all the old values. Artists across the world – not only in the familiar European and US avant-gardes but in the May Fourth Movement, the Bengali and Harlem Renaissances, Négritude and later Pan-African movements, the Arab Surrealist internationals, the postwar Japanese experiments in literature and pop culture, the Latin American Boom – began to act under a compulsion to generate new and unprecedented aesthetic forms, not for its own sake, not as a mere indulgence, but because these systems and structures were necessary in order for their art to inspire new ways of seeing, new kinds of consciousness, new ideas, new feelings, and ultimately new ways of life in the culture at large. We might call this broad tendency modernism – though it extends, geographically and temporally, far beyond the paltry academic category of a period between 1914-1945 usually referred to under that name. In fact, it continues one way or another right into the most vital artistic currents of today. And it’s no coincidence that artists in modernist movements so often also join the radical political movements of their day – especially, though certainly not exclusively, those of the Left. They’re part and parcel of a single struggle over the future of society.35For a definitive account of modernism as a global and decolonial phenomenon – one whose history in the Global South begins as early and is as world-historically important as its history in the imperialist core – as well as a remarkable anthology of the modernists speaking in their own voices, see Alys Moody & Stephen Jay Ross (eds.), Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology (2020). For a proper understanding of how at least some of these modernist literary and artistic movements intersected with the developmental, national-liberation, and socialist struggles of the colonized countries, one should read this anthology alongside Pankaj Mishra’s magisterial transnational intellectual history of anti-colonial intellectuals, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (2012). For a recent revisionist history of modernist art from a libertarian socialist point of view, see Nika Dubrovsky & David Graeber, Another Art World Part I (2019), Part II (2019), and Part III (2020) in e-flux Nos. 102, 104, & 113.
And beyond the practical arts, the humanities and social sciences too have often followed paradigm shifts of a similar character. Entire fields like historiography and the sociology of knowledge sprouted up in the twentieth century to study and record this process, overwhelmingly observing patterns such as those we have highlighted. And, of course, the history of philosophy was famously proclaimed by Hegel to be a succession of thought systems which do not so much refute or replace one another as overcome the limitations of their respective time periods’ discourse by integrating what’s true and best even in competing frameworks into a higher understanding, one that encompasses them both – usually by having realized the details of how they were merely describing or embodying single frozen moments in what was really some ongoing continual process all along. The manner in which the actual overcoming takes place can be friendly or antagonistic or anything in between; it’s rarely so simple a matter as Hegel’s famous pairs of opposing principles.36Hegel first worked out his dialectical philosophy for himself in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), though the finest introduction to it for beginners is funnily enough a book he only wrote at the end of his life, the Encyclopedia Logic (1830). Unfortunately, the best edition by far of this latter important work – the 1975 Oxford University Press edition, titled Hegel’s Logic and translated by William Wallace – is quite expensive and difficult to find. But something like this vision has had an influence far beyond Hegelian philosophy itself, in systems theories and process philosophies of all sorts across the myriad realms of human knowledge. The influence of such an intuition has, if anything, increased in the last 100 years. Perhaps the reason so many are coming to believe our knowledge is a process is that the world it tries to grasp is some sort of never-ending process too.
Why it won’t come from academia
While we hope at least some of you are nodding along enthusiastically, others of you – particularly those ensconced for one reason or another on a college campus, or the virtual simulation thereof – may well have been asking yourselves a question throughout our discussion above: what about universities? Why all this talk of building up new institutions of knowledge-production, when we’ve got perfectly good ones with fat subsidies sitting right there? 37In fact, some of our more hostile readers, if they have gotten to this point, might find themselves muttering at the page with caustic disbelief – we daresay, with a hint of anger – at our apparent belief, naive and adolescent, that we can just hop around the disciplines of the human, social, and natural sciences in our haphazard way, drawing connections between the foundational intellectual problems of our society at the present moment as if anyone could even comprehend them, much less solve them; as if we weren’t grossly, hideously oversimplifying like the untrained amateurs we are; as if we were speaking off the cuff with insubstantial and passe ideas we’re passing off as novel, which we’d know if only we’d done the reading; and, in short, as if we weren’t reaching far above our station. (It’s true – we have nary a PhD between the five of us, though we have two Masters’ and a half for whatever that gets us nowadays on the academic meat market.) To these critics, we can only reply with a shrug; our view in this magazine is that the arguments and the sources speak for themselves, and readers can make up their minds about whether it’s worth listening to. Though we certainly don’t mind receiving a good correction, haranguing, or anecdote via letter – send them in!
Our blunt and simple answer is that academia, whatever its many virtues, is quite unlikely to be the place that generates the sorts of new ontologies we’re looking for.
The fundamental problem of academia as a system of knowledge production can be summed up in a formula: it is overly specialized and overly centralized.
Specialization, we are told, is an inevitable consequence of the huge profusion of knowledge that is now being generated in modernity compared to the relatively small amount that was generated beforehand, due to advances in modern science. This has resulted in a situation where specialists in particular fields rarely even know about one another’s work, much less talk to each other. Such a situation may be lamentable; we may pine for the days when people like Goethe were running around (who, legend has it, knew everything there was to know in his day across the academic disciplines); but there is no turning back the clock, and time’s arrow moves inexorably forward.38The most famous version of this argument is Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” (1922).
However, the inevitability of this state of affairs is vastly overstated, and the twisted institutional incentives that have led to it are rarely talked about within the ivory tower. Let’s examine them one by one.
First, institutionally within the university system, knowledge is divided into disciplines; within disciplines, knowledge is produced by professors; you become a professor first by being awarded a doctorate degree, then by being given provisional and highly precarious jobs which have no long-term security; only after this period are you eventually approved by a tenure committee for a tenure-track position; and this at last allows you, in turn, to train new grad students and hence the next generation of professors in the field.
Meanwhile, whether or not a department at a particular college gets the funding which allows them to hire new professors depends to a great extent upon two factors. The first is the department’s position in rankings administered by institutions such as professional associations, industry magazines, and prominent individual professors. These rankings are in turn based on the publications of the department’s professors in the field’s top journals – which is to say, whatever the people in control of the rankings deem to be the top journals. Departments high up in the rankings are pretty safe from funding cuts; those which do not rank highly tend to be first on the chopping block for administrators in a pinch. The second factor in funding is the ability to secure donations, which inevitably come with strings attached – a fact which becomes especially clear when you realize the only donors rich enough to matter for these purposes are corporations, individual capitalists, or the military-industrial complex. Thus, to a great extent, the financial ability of departments to hire professors and thus of disciplines to reproduce themselves depends either upon the ratings system on the one hand and the donor pool on the other.
The end result is an institutional structure which makes it possible to seize centralized control over knowledge production in a discipline through control over some or all of these institutions, and hence of the funding streams and certification of personnel. A sufficiently dedicated cadre of professors with a shared dogmatic methodology or ideology, for example, can – in seizing control of the tenure boards and the editorships of the top journals – essentially shape the requirements for advancement within the profession for all new grad students. Or, alternatively, a discipline may succumb to the insidious influence of external factors over disciplinary finances. Since after all many intellectual disciplines – including nearly all of the natural sciences and several of the social sciences, like Economics and Psychology – are essentially subsidized by capitalists or the state, this comes with the implicit caveat that such support be reciprocated by research that either helps these agents meet their goals or at least doesn’t obstruct them. It rarely gets so far as a boycott; even the threat that such large-scale funding sources could withdraw their support is usually enough to kick the rest of the university administration machinery into gear (regardless of what research has provoked the response) in order to bring a swift end to the work in question, usually through disciplinary methods involving the career building infrastructure mentioned above. And so, as you’ve probably surmised, these two systems can occur separately or work in tandem, with powerful interests within the state or capitalist oligarchy occasionally backing academic cults which serve their interests in one way or another, sometimes to the severe detriment of knowledge production.
In this worst case scenario any graduate student who does not strictly follow the methodologies and cite exclusively the gurus of the academic cult will not be able to produce work that is taken “seriously” enough to be published in the discipline’s respectable journals. And without these bylines it’s quite likely their career will come to an end at the crucial bottlenecks of the professorial job market and the tenure review. It’s even easy to see how given such circumstances a graduate student or young professor would actually be punished for their attempts at interdisciplinarity. If they try to integrate the methodologies and discourses of adjacent disciplines looking at similar phenomena to their home discipline – especially if the ruling academic cult or clique is hostile for political or philosophical reasons to that disciplinary neighbor – they may be scolded or even worse until they conform. Consider the case of an economist trying to leverage the insights of anthropology and sociology, for example.
All that said, of course, academic cults or powerful vested interests have only taken over some disciplines. Even then their reign can sometimes be limited to a certain period of time if it’s contested. And some disciplines are significantly freer and more pluralistic than others. However, it is easy to see how even without the worst-case scenario being true these structures create powerful incentives against the sort of path-breaking ontology-restructuring paradigm shifts that we advocate for in this essay.39Obviously, given how touchy of a subject a sociological and materialistic examination of the funding and management structures of academia would be to anybody subjected to the system, there’s been relatively little research on the subject that states things as bluntly as we have here. Nonetheless, we’re not just making it up, as evidenced by the echoes of what we’re saying in at least some critiques of academia. For example, see Peter Wolfendale, “The Systematic Problems of Contemporary Academia” (6 July 2014) on his Deontologistics blog. However, in our estimation, the best way to learn these dynamics is particular case studies of specific academic cults taking over specific disciplines. When you see them in action, you develop an intuition for their methods. Two famous cases (though it’s taboo to mention) are the completely underhanded manner in which neoclassical economics took over the discipline of economics via purges and blacklisting, and the only slightly less sordid way the analytic philosophers (after having sincerely converted many professors) maintained their hegemony in Anglo-American philosophy departments. In both cases, the faction in question coordinated extensively to shut out alternative approaches from the discipline, delegitimizing them as unrigorous and unworthy of attention even as they organized to prevent them from securing resources within the university system. For the case of economics, see Frederic S. Lee, A History of Heterodox Economics: Challenging the Mainstream in the Twentieth Century (2009); for the case of philosophy, see John Lachs, “The Future of Philosophy” in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association Vol. 78, No. 2 (Nov., 2004), pp. 5-14.
Thus, while scholars in universities have done much good work (a lot of which we’ve cited in this essay) it is unlikely that new ontologies in general will come from there. We know this because we’ve seen it, and they have not.
By now we’ve made nauseatingly clear how desperate our situation really is. We are awash in an ocean of questions, its breadth and depths unknown. To pry those depths, to chart those waters, we need tools. To discover depths one must have diving gear; to chart courses one must know how to read the stars and the currents; to traverse seas one must have a ship.
Unfortunately, we not only lack the tools we need for the job but also the culture by which we could develop them. We have gotten stuck in word-games of our own making that trap us in a cycle of delusion and petty antagonism, drawing us ever further away from the real world. Yet it is that real world – the one we share, the one which is irretrievably beyond the reach of our ideas, but which we might come asymptotically closer to understanding if we work together – that’s dying.
Our modest proposal – to create new ontologies in science, the humanities, and the arts which reframe stale questions and redefine deep problems in a manner allowing for practical solutions and successful action – is not without its challenges. We’d be the first to admit that! But there’s some cause for hope in the fact that the challenge is a very old one. Our generation is not the first to set off into the ocean of the unknown. The democratic socialist, philosopher, and economic planner Otto Neurath, for example, once compared knowledge production to repairing a ship piece by piece on the open sea until the whole ship is made up of entirely new parts, all somehow without sinking. “We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea,” he wrote, “without ever being able to dismantle it in dry dock and reconstruct it from the best components.” The image came to us independently. But then, Neurath may have been inspired by the Ship of Theseus, and this in turn was likely drawn without citation from an anecdote in Plato’s Parmenides. This coincidence – whether the result of unconscious transmission or convergent evolution – is precisely the sort of thing which assures us that humanity across time faces similar problems; that we are not alone in our struggle; and that all knowledge-production is cooperative, not only in person with our contemporaries but across the ages and continents of the world.40For more on Neurath’s little ship than you ever wanted to know, see Nancy Cartwright, Jordi Cat, Lola Fleck, & Thomas Uebel (eds.), Otto Neurath: Philosophy Between Science and Politics (1996), pp. 89-167.
We don’t have the answers ourselves to the burning questions the movements for radical democracy, economic reconstruction, and cultural renewal must answer in the twenty-first century. Nor does anybody else. But we have been inspired by the lonely work in marginalized corners that some people have already done to make progress on aspects of these questions, which deserve greater attention; we are attentive to the need for a new culture of open-minded inquiry on the Left; and we’ve developed a provisional understanding of the methods people have used in the past to create new knowledge that is both practically useful and breaks free from the dogmatism of the past.
So we want to create a space where the work of assembling these new ontologies we desperately need can finally get underway in earnest. We want to bring together curious and thoughtful people from across lines of difference – different lives, different identities, different jobs, different countries, different training, different frameworks – and get them talking to each other in a spirit of comradliness and solidarity about practical problems they share and don’t yet have under their thumb. We want to cultivate a culture of epistemic humility and intellectual integrity, where everyone is open about the ontological assumptions they’re working with, their potential limitations, and the possibility they may be superseded. And, in doing so, we want to learn how to live in communities again – because only a genuine community, unified in its differences, can construct the tools we need to tackle the most urgent problems of the century: the transition to an ecologically stable society; the sustainable development of the non-industrialized countries; the abolition of capitalism and creation of international socialist democracy; the generation of a truly global culture with decolonized world canons of literature, philosophy, art, and science; and the replacement of the nation-state with federated communities of freely associated labor and peoples across the world.
We’ll be honest with you: the interlinked crises we all face are enormous, and nobody is going to swoop down at the last minute to save us. There is no one else. The cavalry isn’t coming because it doesn’t exist. If we don’t work together to solve our problems, then probably nobody will, and we’ll have to face the consequences of that. In short – we’re all we’ve got. But potentially, with a lot of luck, we’re all we need.~