Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Monday, December 10, 2007

In the long run, Russian Communism and Americanism were 'metaphysically one and the same'

In dissecting late socialism, Havel was always aware that Western liberal democracy was far from meeting the ideals of authentic community and 'living in truth' on behalf of which he and other dissidents had opposed Communism. He was faced, therefore, with the problem of combining a rejection of 'totalitarianism' with the need to offer critical insights into Western democracy. His solution was to follow Heidegger and to see in the technological hubris of capitalism, its mad dance of self-enhancing productivity, the expression of a more fundamental transcendental-ontological principle -- 'will to power', 'instrumental reason' -- equally evident in the Communist attempt to overcome capitalism.
This was the argument of Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which first engineered the fateful shift from concrete socio-political analysis to philosophico-anthropological generalization, by means of which 'instrumental reason' is no longer grounded in concrete capitalist social relations, but is instead posited as their quasi-transcendental 'foundation'. The moment that Havel endorsed Heidegger's recourse to quasi-anthropological or philosophical principle, Stalinism lost its specificity, its specific political dynamic, and turned into just another example of this principle (as exemplified by Heidegger's remark, in his Introduction to Metaphysics, that, in the long run, Russian Communism and Americanism were 'metaphysically one and the same').
Keane tries to save Havel from this predicament by emphasizing the ambiguous nature of his intellectual debt to Heidegger. Like Heidegger, Havel conceived of Communism as a thoroughly modern régime, an inflated caricature of modern life, with many tendencies shared by Western society -- for instance, technological hubris and the crushing of human individuality attendant on it. However, in contrast to Heidegger, who excluded any active resistance to the social-technological framework ('only God can save us', as he put it in an interview published after his death), Havel put faith in a challenge 'from below' -- in the independent life of 'civil society' outside the frame of State power. The 'power of powerless', he argued, resides in the self-organization of civil society that defies the 'instrumental reason' embodied in the State and the technological apparatuses of control and domination.
I find this idea of civil society doubly problematic. First, the opposition between State and civil society works against as well as for liberty and democracy. For example, in the Unites States, the Moral Majority presents itself (and is effectively organized as) the resistance of local civil society to the regulatory interventions of the liberal State -- the recent exclusion of Darwinism from the school curriculum in Kansas is in this sense exemplary. So while in the specific case of late socialism the idea of civil society refers to the opening up of a space of resistance to 'totalitarian' power, there is no essential reason why it cannot provide space for all the politico-ideological antagonisms that plagued Communism, including nationalism and opposition movements of an anti-democratic nature. There are authentic expressions of civil society -- 'civil society' designates the terrain of open struggle, the terrain in which antagonisms can articulate themselves, without any guarantee that the 'progressive' side will win.
Second, civil society, as Havel conceived it, is not, in fact, a development of Heidegger's thinking. The essence of modern technology for Heidegger was not a set of institutions, practices and ideological attitudes that can be opposed, but the very ontological horizon that determines how we can experience Being today, how reality discloses itself to us. For that reason, Heidegger would have found the concept of 'the power of the powerless' suspect, caught in the logic of the 'will to power' that it endeavours to denounce. Pp. 144-5

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