Utopian Speculation: Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown

UP TO NOW, it has been one of the principal tenets of the critical theory of society (and particularly Marxian theory) to refrain from what might be reasonably called utopian speculation.

– Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation

Emerson once remarked that Americans lived in the ‘optative mood’ – The Transcendentalist (1842):

Our American literature and spiritual history are, we confess, in the optative mood; but whoso knows these seething brains, these admirable radicals, these unsocial worshippers, these talkers who talk the sun and moon away, will believe that this heresy cannot pass away without leaving its mark.

Marcuse, a child of Marxian thought,  and native of Germany could have agreed with Emerson up to a point, but would have added only the communist dictum of Marx himself that the optative mood of communism is “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” What Marcuse did say in his Essay on Liberation is that “what is denounced as “utopian” is no longer that which has “no place” and cannot have any place in the historical universe, but rather that which is blocked from coming about by the power of the established societies.”1

So it was the repressive/oppressive regimes of both the liberal and socialist states of his era that he saw as the problem that was causing a blockage to all those creative potentials that needed to be released through utopian realization. As he put it “the question is no longer: how can the individual satisfy his own needs without hurting others, but rather: how can he satisfy his needs without hurting himself, without reproducing, through his aspirations and satisfactions, his dependence on an exploitative apparatus which, in satisfying his needs, perpetuates his servitude?” (KL 69-71) That Marcuse was correct in his diagnoses but incorrect in the treatment is old hat. He saw that we needed a new direction, and new institutions and relationships of production, ones that would express the ascent of needs and satisfactions very different from and even antagonistic to those prevalent in the exploitative societies. Yet, he based his criteria on a malformed notion of ‘instincts’ and their liberation:

Such a change would constitute the instinctual basis for freedom which the long history of class society has blocked. Freedom would become the environment of an organism which is no longer capable of adapting to the competitive performances required for well-being under domination, no longer capable of tolerating the aggressiveness, brutality, and ugliness of the established way of life.(KL 74-77).

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A Short History of the Progressive Movement

My reason for this post is simple: Nick Land an apprentice of the self-styled Sith Lord, Mencius Moldbug professes a new political creed: NeoReactionism. Moldbug describes this new political faith in negative terms: “A reactionary is not a Republican, a Democrat, or even a libertarian.  It is not even a communist, a fascist, or a monarchist.  It is something much older, stranger, and more powerful. But if you can describe it as anything, you can describe it as the pure opposite of progressivism.” (here) In a nine part open letter to his straw man mythology of progressivism (start here) one is not so much berated with non-factual evidence, as with a skewed sense of what it truly means to be a progressive. So I thought it only appropriate to provide an actual short history of the Progressive Movement. The neoreactionary is no so much fearful of progressivism as he is of social justice, reformism, and regulation. These were and are the core values of the progressive ethical stance now as they were then. At the heart of this was the protection of the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich, the abandoned and sick of the world (i.e., pretty much the same things that a man named Jesus Christ believed a couple thousand years back). And, even an atheist could affirm such wisdom, then as now, with or without the God. It was the right thing to do. To link ourselves to the poor, the weak, the oppressed and seek for them and ourselves the right to social justice and the space to live and share in the good life is at the heart of the Progressive Movement.

Luke 4:16-19:  When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

In final years of the nineteenth century a reform movement emerged that became what we now call “Progressivism”, which flourished from about 1900 to 1920, and faded away by the early 1920s, although many of its ideas and pragmatic ideology would flourish and inform our political and socio-cultural thought to this day. In U.S. national politics, its greatest achievements occurred between 1910 and 1917. In state and local politics and in private reform efforts—churches, settlement houses, campaigns to fight diseases, for example—Progressive changes began appearing in the 1890s and continued into the 1920s. In these social-justice efforts, legions of activist women, despite lacking the suffrage, were enormously effective. Most prominent in national politics were the “big four”: William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette, and Woodrow Wilson. Mayors Tom Johnson and Sam “Golden Rule” Jones in Ohio led change in their cities, as did governors Hiram Johnson of California and James Vardaman of Mississippi. Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and the rest of the crusaders (known as “muckrakers”) spearheaded what would later be called investigative journalism. Progressive educators ranged from university presidents to philosophers to sociologists. In philanthropy, Chicago’s Julius Rosenwald supported Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, while the Rockefeller Foundation poured millions into education and health in the South. The Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch, the Episcopalian W. D. P. Bliss, and the Catholic John A. Ryan led their churches toward social justice, and by 1910 every major Protestant denomination espoused what was called the Social Gospel. A major progressive-era innovation, the settlement house, combated poverty, ignorance, disease, and injustice in many cities, led outstandingly by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in Chicago, Lillian Wald and Florence Kelley in New York, and Mary Workman in Los Angeles.1

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Thomas Carlyle: Calvinist, Reactionary and Prophet

In his Institutes, John Calvin defined natural law as the “apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance, while it proves them guilty by their own testimony.” He described the purpose of natural law as “to render man inexcusable.”1

Thomas Carlyle lit his prophetic fires in the empyrean of Bacon and Locke, Hume and Bentham, and then Mills. The power of cognition, or superior intellect would drive this Titan through the Victorian Age. Yet, it was in the light of Shakespeare that he would discover his darkest precursor of this power – On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841):

For, in fact, I say the degree of vision that dwells in a man is a correct measure of the man. If called to define Shakspeare’s faculty, I should say superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all under that. What indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they were distinct, things separable; as if a man had intellect, imagination, fancy, etc., as he has hands, feet, and arms. That is a capital error. Then again, we hear of a man’s “intellectual nature,” and of his “moral nature,” as if these again were divisible, and existed apart. Necessities of language do perhaps prescribe such forms of utterance; we must speak, I am aware, in that way, if we are to speak at all. But words ought not to harden into things for us. It seems to me, our apprehension of this matter is, for the most part, radically falsified thereby. We ought to know withal, and to keep for ever in mind, that these divisions are at bottom but names; that man’s spiritual nature, the vital Force which dwells in him, is essentially one and indivisible…If I say therefore, that Shakspeare is the greatest of Intellects, I have said all concerning him. But there is more in Shakspeare’s intellect than we have yet seen. It is what I call an unconscious intellect; there is more virtue in it than he himself is aware of. Novalis beautifully remarks of him, that those Dramas of his are Products of Nature too, deep as Nature herself. I find a great truth in this saying. Shakspeare’s Art is not Artifice; the noblest worth of it is not there by plan or precontrivance. It grows-up from the deeps of Nature, through this noble sincere soul, who is a voice of Nature.

Carlyle steeped as he was in the philosophy and poetry of the English and German Idealism followed the intricate course of vitalism through such romantics as Goethe, Novalis, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He also grappled with Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. He wrote a great history of the French Revolution that is still worth reading not only for its power of rhetoric but for its deep insight into the dark contours of that age. That old liberal gnostic Harold Bloom in his Essayists and Prophets admired Carlyle for his Shakespearean temper: ”

We can learn from Carlyle also that the distinction between religious and secular writing is merely political and not critical. Critically, all writing is religious, or all writing is secular; Carlyle sees that Shakespeare has abolished the distinction, and has become the second Bible of the West.2

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