In Defense of Theorizing

Under the star of a globalized capitalism the entire earth oozes blood.  What seems so smooth, so firm, so reliable and so supportive of our wishes — the glossy, pleasurable carnival of daily life — is the crust of a barely-healed scab; our steps must be swift and light, lest blood and pus seep through the cracks.  Set aside old horrors and the suffering of those who preceded us here, the slaughter and enslavement of millions and the dirty wars and chicaneries that brought us this new golden age of prosperity and abundance.  There is plenty to indict us in the way most of our contemporaries are forced to live.

Take the computer on which I type this, for example.  I could afford it because a Chinese peasant girl was forced to leave the ruins of her village and work sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, in a walled complex of sweatshops and dormitories.  I also owe something to the slum dwellers who poison themselves breaking apart old computers and cooking up circuit boards in open pots to recover raw materials, trading their lungs and lives for the money to buy dinner.  (Only two centuries ago their ancestors were better fed and worried less about famine than any European peasant.)  I benefit from the torment of ten-year-olds in the Congo who stand all day in pools of toxic water rinsing off nuggets of copper and cobalt, children whose great-great-grandparents were farmers or hunters.  And whoever suffers or dies to keep the price of oil low has been sacrificed to ensure that shipping cheap laptops across the Pacific continues to make economic sense.

If I need tech support my call is answered by someone in India.  As he considers my problem he lights a cigarette with a match made and packed in a sulfurous hell by a child pledged to servitude to repay a debt of a few hundred rupees. His virtually unpaid labor helps keep down the cost of living in Bangalore, which reduces the pressure on wages at the call center and in turn makes it advantageous for the American computer company to outsource telephone support.  This, too, helps keep my computer cheap.

And how do I employ this device which has cost so many people their lives, their health, and their hopes?  I use it to compose a piece of theory.  No placards, no incitements, not even a bumper sticker — nothing that will rouse anyone from her armchair determined to tear down the world that creates, tolerates, and conceals such wickedness.  Just musings on the ways we construe our selves and our world, the kind of blather that these days is almost too arcane for the universities to bother with.

What use can there be in theorizing?  What end does it serve?  If it frightened the great powers of the world there would be some obvious point to the exercise, but theorizing against capitalism is like assaulting Jello.  The system puts up no resistance.  The proudest boast of the defenders of capital is that they have no theory at all and thus commit no fallacies.  Capitalism presents itself as human nature itself, the one social form that best reconciles the ultimately irreconcilable needs and desires of its members.  It proclaims no point of view. Indeed, this very lack is said to be its greatest virtue.  It is transparent.

The task we face seems well outlined in, of all things, the foundational text of Islamic fundamentalism, Sayed Qutb‘s Milestones along the Path. All I have done is substitute “capitalist modernity” for “Jahiliyyah” in this extract:

Capitalist modernity is not an abstract theory; in fact, under certain circumstances it has no theory at all.  It always takes the form of a living movement in a society which has its own leadership, its own concepts and values, and its own traditions, habits and feelings.  It is an organized society and there is a close cooperation and loyalty between its individuals, and it is always ready and alive to defend its existence consciously or unconsciously.  It crushes all elements which seem to be dangerous to its personality.

When capitalist modernity takes the form, not of a “theory” but of an active movement in this fashion, then any attempt to abolish it . . . which presents [the alternative] merely as a theory will be undesirable, rather useless.  Capitalism controls the practical world, and for its support there is a living and active organization.  In this situation, mere theoretical efforts to fight it cannot even be equal, much less superior, to it.  When the purpose is to abolish the existing system and to replace it with a new system which in its character, principles and all its general and particular aspects, is different from the controlling capitalist system, then it stands to reason that this new system should also come into the battlefield as an organized movement and a viable group.  It should come into the battlefield with a determination that its strategy, its social organization, and the relationship between its individuals should be firmer and more powerful than the existing capitalist system.

Qutb’s point is that today’s world, whether we think of it as capitalist modernity or Jahiliyyah, appears impregnable because it appears to occupy all of reality.  It can be overcome only when that claim is negated, and that negation cannot take place in theory.  It must arise from and be grounded in a living practice.

Qutb himself had no need of theory.  He was a fundamentalist Muslim, so for him the Quran contained everything needed to structure the alternative to Jahiliyyah.  Such religious mania inevitably leads to intolerable results.  In the particular case of Islam I would suggest that one reason for the failure is that the religion is far too Western to provide a real alternative to the Western tradition.  But few who pick up this text will need any convincing on this score.  The real question is not why Islam fails as an alternative but how a genuine one can come about.

And here is where theory remains necessary.  One must always know one’s enemy, and while ours is everywhere, it is concealed in plain sight.  Capitalism is transparent only in the computer-jargon sense: its workings are “Not visible, hidden;” it is “a system which functions in a manner not evident to the user.”  (This definition is from the Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing.)  As I have argued in The Fiction of a Thinkable World, it transforms experience itself.  The structures of the market shape and color many of our most personal needs and desires.  A critique that mistakes those shapes and colors for human constants can still speak powerfully to the dissatisfaction, disconnection, and emptiness that afflict so many in the wealthy fragment of the world, but anything that starts from the apparent truths of experience will sooner or later be drawn back within the world of capital where those desires and needs were formed.  The very violence of the effort required only reinforces the oldest of capitalist bromides, “You can’t change human nature.”

But of course you can; the “egalitarian revolution” that separated us from the hierarchical life of our fellow great apes was one such change, and the development of the Neolithic cities and kingdoms in a world of autonomous hunters and tribespeople another.  Aristotle thought that the nature of some people was to be enslaved, and the odds are good that many of the slaves felt the same way; acceptance of one’s lot has always been the easiest way to secure the realizable pleasures of love and parenthood.  Their ancestors, though, had experienced their nature quite differently in the freedom of the forest.

What lines of force make such changes?  This is what theorists ask.  They are detectives at the scene of the crime, seeking clues in what others find ordinary and unremarkable.  How and in what way the specific human nature of the modern world came to be, how it is maintained, and where the weak points in that process might be — these are matters of theory.  We may find ourselves unequal to the task; but that does not free us of the obligation to undertake it.  We have no other way to open up the closed world of capitalism.

Yet the task is not beyond our powers.  We are not asked to build a new world in thought, or to draw down from heaven a new Quran, a new plan of St. Gall, or a better little red book.  It is more important to understand what does not break away from the foundations of capitalism than it is to know what a world freed from those foundations would look like.  We need to make the workings of capitalism visible.  Once we do, other human possibilities begin to glimmer like midday stars during a solar eclipse.  Theory makes nothing, but without the darkness won by its blade we can see nothing but the dazzle of the everyday.

Theory’s patron saint is thus Socrates, the wisest man in Greece because he knew only that he did not know.  What follows is offered in that spirit.  My hope is that it will make the sacrifice of Chinese peasant girls and slum families and Congolese and Indian children a little more incomprehensible, the entire world a little stranger, and my readers a little less comfortable and confident walking on a pavement of bodies and blood.

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law.  He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats.  “In Defense of Theorizing” is a draft extract from his work in progress: The Truth of Myth and the Myth of Truth

Read other articles by Steinberg in MRZine: “Against Deferred Gratification” (24 July 2005); “Judge of Character” (29 July 2005); “Britain to World: Shut Up” (2 September 2005); “Padilla v Hanft: A Very Dangerous Decision” (9 September 2005); “Saving the Future” (17 September 2005); “Another of Monday’s Untold Stories: the Self-Organized ‘UFPJ Shuttle'” (28 September 2005); “No Rules, Just Right?” (22 October 2005); “The Architecture of Dreamworld: Like a Sex Machine” (31 October 2005); “The Architecture of Dreamworld 2: The Disarming Reflex” (17 November 2005); “The Architecture of Dreamworld 3: Going Postal” (28 December 2005); “Pom Poko” (17 January 2006); “Say Anything” (29 January 2006); “Great Target, Bad Aim: Robert Greenwald’s Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices (8 February 2006); “The Architecture of Dreamworld 4: What Are Dreams Made of?” (21 February 2006); “The End of Genocide” (8 May 2006); “The Next Greed Revolution” (24 May 2006)

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