Reactionary Critique, or, Fuck Full Employment

Pope Francis recently declared that “Where there is no work, there is no dignity.” This utterance was in keeping with John Paul II’s extraordinary encyclical of 1981, “On Human Work,” a profoundly Hegelian meditation on the master/slave dialectic and the meanings of necessary labor—-I read it with great curiosity because I was then in my own Hegelian phase, and because I thought it was another sign of the “third way” that had been (re)emerging in Eastern Europe since the late 1950s.

I’m not as excited by Pope Francis as my comrades, though, because John Paul II turned out to be the intellectual thug who erased the legacy of liberation theology, and because the Church’s genuine opposition to capitalism has taken deeply reactionary forms since 1892, with the publication of Rerum Novarum. Meanwhile, I would note, communism and fascism embodied equally reactionary forms of the same intellectual opposition: as social movements, they were both anti-liberal and anti-capitalist. Not incidentally, they also glorified productive labor and denounced the parasites of monopoly or finance capital.

I’m reminded of this ugly correlation—-of the fact that the critics of capitalism often come from the right wing of the political spectrum—-by Thomas Edsall’s website column on the safety net in the New York Times, posted 12/20/2013. Here’s the bottom line of his argument, which he derives from Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute:

“The economics of survival have forced millions of men, women, and children to rely on ‘pity-charity liberal capitalism’ [transfer payments, entitlements, etc.; this is Konczal's locution]. The state has now become the resource of last resort, consigning just the people progressives would like to turn into a powerful force for reform to a condition of subjugation—-living out their lives on government subsidies like Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and now Obamacare.” (my italics)

Now, Thomas Byrne Edsall is no reactionary. He is by any political measure a progressive. And yet the implications of this argument are, to me at any rate, profoundly conservative if not downright reactionary. Notice, to begin with, how the welfare state appears exactly as it does in Paul Ryan’s dream world, as the oppressor of the poor—-a greedy bureaucracy that produces dependence. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that this paragraph was written by a Tea Party enthusiast, particularly in view of the reference to Obamacare as a “government subsidy” that will subjugate the poor, to be sure, but also create a permanent constituency for the Democrats, the party of “pity-charity liberal capitalism.”

Notice, then, that the only alternative to this benignly fascistic version of liberalism is a “bold” public policy commitment to full employment. On this Konczal and Edsall are extremely emphatic. It’s a bleak, even barren horizon they conjure.

Between work on the one hand and dependence on the other—-between having a job and being subjugated-—there is nothing to be seen or done, not from their standpoint. Quite apart from the logical inconsistency of this “alternative”—-a policy of full employment will create a class of public servants who are at least as dependent on the state’s largesse as anybody who receives Medicaid—-you have to wonder how Konczal and Edsall made their way back to the 19th century, when the either/or choice between work and dependence was a cultural commonplace because the material footings for a welfare state hadn’t yet been laid.

That is not the choice before us. And Thomas Edsall, of all people, ought to know it.

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The Smartest Dude at the Times?

Does anybody procure the New York Times for its news coverage? Nah.

For its cutting-edge coverage of the culture industry? Probably not. OK, you go looking for David Carr on Mondays, you wonder what A. O. Scott or Manohla Dargis will make of a movie you want to see, you’re pretty sure that Neil Genzlinger and Alessandra Stanley will say something interesting about the TV programs you don’t want to watch. Until Dwight Garner decided Katie Roiphe was a great writer, you’d read his book reviews all the way through, to make up for the fact that you never got past the first two paragraphs of Michiko Kakutani’s fussy pronouncements.

Still, “Arts & Leisure” is not why you subscribe.

Let’s be honest. Whether you’re holding the hard copy or noodling with the iPad, the first thing you do as a sentient, caffeine-driven being is go to the Opinion pages. But the op-eds are mostly homework, things you have to read just to feel like you know what’s happening at the middlebrow level of intellectual controversy—they’re abridged editions of essays you’d read at The Atlantic or The New Republic or The American Prospect.

In short, you can’t expect anything from the op-eds because they’re about everything. So you start at the back of the front section to see what the regular columnists are up to.

And now, among these, who’s the smartest dude—the one you turn to first and last? The one you can count on to say something that will (a) enrich or amplify what you have only surmised, (b) change the way you think, or (c) move you to inspect your premises? I don’t mean that this columnist has to bring you a weekly conversion experience. I mean that he or she is more or less than predictable. He or she makes a habit of violating your expectations—making it new from week to week.

Nominations are now open. In order of preference determined by these criteria, my choices are: Ross Douthat, Thomas Byrne Edsall, Stanly Fish, Mark Bittman, and Paul Krugman.

Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins don’t qualify because both are reaching for the title of snarkiest kid on the block, the former by imitating the alliterative idiocies of William Safire and following Leon Wieselthier’s lead on everything, the latter by alerting us to the provincialisms of state politics in what she styles as a kinder, gentler mood than the locus classicus, H. L. Mencken.

Thomas Friedman and David Brooks don’t qualify because each has charged himself with the impossible task of deciphering the future by means of personal anecdote, anthropological energy, and the current state of social science. They’ll grasp at any straw if it lets them suck a sound bite out of what their research assistants pour into their liquefied brains. Friedman will say anything that comes into his head about globalization, no matter how inane. Brooks will say anything that comes into his head. And yet you’re never surprised by what they say.

Charles Blow doesn’t qualify because he’s there to fill the shoes of Bob Thomas—to remind us that race matters. He’s brilliant on the question of public opinion (how to measure it, how to interpret it), but his columns typically function as a kind of retort to criticism, from both Left and Right, of Obama’s policies and sensibilities.

As for Nicholas Kristof, Joe Nocera, Frank Bruni, and usually at the remove of the website, Timothy Egan. Has any one of them ever written something that made you think harder, or differently? Have they articulated anything apart from liberal pieties? Nah.

OK, so why Douthat, Edsall, Fish, Bittman, Krugman, again in that order? Range of interest, depth of perception, to begin with. None of them is satisfied with the corporate liberal order as it’s presently constituted, and each is equipped to criticize it in fundamental ways, by examining the assumptions that legitimate it rather than remaining at the level of this or that policy. Bittman and Krugman are the most confined in these terms—they walk a beat, whereas the other three have slipped into plain clothes—but they, too, have become more and more radical in their criticisms of business as usual.

I’ll leave it at this for now. Let the argument begin.


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Happy Holidays

I forgot the cleaning lady was coming today, so the place was a mess when she arrived at noon. Usually I try to pick up after myself before she gets here, just to maintain some semblance of self-respect: empty beer cans, sexual devices, controlled substances, and unfinished song lyrics are stowed safely, out of sight. And yes, I do have a cleaning lady, it’s better than listening to my girlfriend lecture me on my hygienic lapses and their bacterial results—-also cheaper, if, like Marx, you count the “historical and moral element” in calculating the costs of being human.

This girlfriend wrote a whole book about such lapses, and, more to the point, why women are more determined to clean up after everybody. OK, not a whole book, but a very long chapter on Dirt, in The Female Thing (2006). Here’s what I avoid by paying the cleaning lady $40 an hour:

“Our apertures make us permeable, but we desire not to be—or only under those special circumstances, like sexual attraction or when in love, and even then the desired permeability is frequently achieved only in tragically defended and self-limiting ways. Besides which, for most of our lives, unfortunately we are not in love, meaning that the bodies of others often produce anxious aversion in lieu of desire; disgust is always right around the corner. And who hasn’t had the experience of suddenly turning that corner, after which things just aren’t the same, and those little physical traits that were once endearing suddenly seem . . . really gross. Or obscurely angering. How many marriages could have been saved by separate bathrooms?” (pp. 88-89)

My place is a one-bedroom apartment, no chance of separate bathrooms. But the bathroom does have two sinks and matching medicine cabinets; mine is full of drugs, hers is stuffed with makeup. Besides, my girlfriend doesn’t live here full-time: she’s got her own bathroom downtown. So neither of us has turned that corner on disgust, not yet.

I knew today was going to be different, I could sense it in my unfounded animus toward my friendly and competent cleaning lady. When she arrives, I want to say “Get the fuck out of here, Vickie, I have shit to do!” Instead I mutter a greeting and vow to ignore her until I write the grand end-of-year check with a big tip, when I can smile benignly and bequeath season’s greetings by spending money on cleanliness.

She starts as usual by stripping the bed, but today it’s the center of a disaster area littered with beer cans, used towels, the machine that ices my replacement knee, books I won’t bend to pick up, and the more random detritus an invalid produces in two days of isolation. It takes her much longer than usual to make the room navigable. “What this, beer cooler?” she asks of the ice machine. “Yeah, that’s a cooler, a very special one,” I say, pointing to my knee.

“What wrong with knee?”

“Ah, well, nothing now, it got replaced, it just hurts a lot. On its way to not hurting.”

Then she starts scrubbing in the galley kitchen across from my workplace, which is a barstool at the counter that officially separates the cooking from the thinking and the writing that take place here. There’s a division of labor for you. I’m always facing the Viking range, I realize, as I tap out these words. I like the angle because it reminds me that I’m here for good, in this beautiful new apartment equipped with a Subzero fridge and that Viking range and Bosch appliances (dishwasher, microwave, washer/dryer). I’m not leaving New York, ever, I know this just by looking at the stove. It’s a splendid view, and a comforting sight.

“What you do to stove,” she says, “I do nothing.” She’s been wiping and polishing the Viking range for five minutes already. “I do nothing, it stay on. I turn off, nothing.”

“What are you talking about,” I say, but I’m already alerted to the possibility of liability—-blame—-by the repetition of the nothings and the question that preceded them.

“This, see, I turn, won’t go off. Still on.”

“What’s on?”

“Oven on, burning, here,” and she points upward from her crouched position, to where the broiler’s flames are now licking the outside of the oven’s open mouth, obscenely inviting me to intervene.

I limp around the counter and tell her to get out of the way–suddenly she seems frantic, and I swear I can smell fear, but I don’t know if it’s hers or mine. By this time the fire alarm is going off, so I roll out the Miele fan about the stove and close the oven, but I realize that this last move will just heat the thing up faster. I grab a chair, sit down in front of the Viking and start playing with the knobs, moving one to another position, using an insulated glove now to turn them because the unit is so fucking hot. I ask myself, does it blow up if I don’t turn it off? I tell Vickie to open the back door.

I decide to get safe. I call 911, explaining very carefully to all respondents that this is not an emergency but may yet require the Fire Department’s attention. Meanwhile I call Viking, whose operator gives me three numbers of certified appliance repairmen, warning me however that the backup is deep this time of year. My call to the guy with the 212 area code verifies the warning: the first appointment available is on December 30.

Then the party starts. First three firemen wielding pikes and axes, wearing helmets that bang up against the Miele fan as they move the stove out from the wall and cut the gas connection. Then two guys from Con Edison who test the firemen’s handiwork and confirm the cutoff with paperwork, everybody busting the balls of the other party. And then two uniformed police officers arrive, explaining apologetically that they’re probably uninvited guests, just in the neighborhood answering a call. More balls busted all around.

The party lasts a half hour, and the whole time I’m thinking, “You gotta love this town.” Where else would a call to 911 produce seven public servants within twenty minutes? The cost of living may be high, but the benefits are higher: living here, I tell myself, is a good investment.

The doorman and the super have checked in by the time everybody clears out. But the cleaning lady remains, polishing that Viking range as if she could force it back to life with the mere friction of her vigorous motions.

“I think we can give up on that old hound,” I say, scolding myself immediately for using an idiomatic expression she won’t understand. I’m back on my stool across the counter, facing the range, wondering what she thinks she’s doing.

“Off, yes, but no clean,” she says. “I clean, before I go.”

“Don’t bother,” I say. I write her end-of-year check with a flourish. “Here’s your check, Vickie. Happy Holidays.”

She looks at the check and nods, nothing more. Still, I smile benignly as she leaves.

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Peter Beinart Stops Making Sense

I hope it’s clear that I’m a fan of Peter Beinart, particularly the writing he did for The Daily Beast. I admire his rhetorical scruples, his strict adherence to the necessary sequence of the argument at hand, and, generally speaking, I agree with the conclusions he reaches (for example, the conclusions of the piece on the emergence of a new American Left). Beinart is a Zionist, but he’s also a realist-—he understands that AIPAC is an impediment to peace, and that the recent damage done to Israel’s standing as a sovereign state is a self-inflicted wound.

So I’m surprised by his response to the American Studies Association’s resolution in favor of boycotting Israeli academic institutions. It makes no sense. I mean that as emphatically as I can: Beinart’s response amounts to non-sense. But for that reason—-precisely because the response is both ignorant of and out of proportion to the provocation—-it is instructive. The hysterical form tells us that by now, rational grounds are unavailable to even the most realistic Zionists.

To demonstrate this unfortunate proposition, I will quote Beinart at length. I begin where he dismisses the charge of anti-semitism, but begins to sound like William Bennett or Lynne Cheney rising to the defense of Western Civilization.

“But as far as I’m aware, the ASA has no record of hostility to Jews. . . . What it does have, like many other left-wing academic groups, is a record of hostility to the West. In 1998, the ASA announced that it would boycott California and Washington State for their anti-affirmative action laws (it later rescinded the boycotts).”

Well, OK, I admit these are western states. Still, how does a defense of affirmative action entail hostility to western civilization? As if it’s self-evident, Beinart moves on:

“In 2003, [the ASA] condemned the Patriot Act.” Yes, along with the ACLU and the larger Left, which were insisting on the rights inscribed in that monument to Enlightenment-—western civilization-—we call the U.S. Constitution.

“In 2005, it condemned America’s embargo of Cuba. In 2006, it condemned the war in Iraq.”

All true, and uniformly inconsequential. Where is he going with this chronology? How does Beinart interpret these innocuous acts as instances of hostility to the West as such?

“Because for the global left, imperialism is the great sin of the modern world. And only Western governments and institutions—the U.S., South Africa, the World Bank, IMF and now, Israel, can commit it” (my italics). The ASA has no double standard that allows it to conduct business as usual with, say, China, while condemning Israel for its human rights violations. No, the unitary standard that determines the recent resolution is an anti-imperialism that is always already animated by the detection of Euro-American racism:

“For institutions like the ASA, Israel’s real crime is not being a country where Jews rule non-Jews. It’s being a country where, in their view at least, whites rule non-whites.”

Hello? It is true that the vernacular rhetoric of occupation in Israel often echoes the sounds of segregation in the American South and of apartheid in South Africa. But since when did imperialism require racism as its essential ingredient? Whether it does or not, is Beinart claiming that race is the central category in deciphering the ASA resolution? Is the ASA resolution itself framed in these terms?

It goes without saying that a state that rules in the name of one race at the expense of another cannot be legitimate. In Beinart’s view, the ASA’s resolution assumes that Israel is such a racist state. Otherwise he couldn’t reach the following conclusion: “This is the fundamental problem: not that the ASA is practicing a double standard and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.”

But the ASA resolution denies no such thing. It doesn’t mention imperialism, or race, or Jews, or even a two-state solution. It emphasizes violations of academic freedom and human rights.

So, I repeat: Peter Beinart’s response to the ASA resolution is ignorant of and out of proportion to the actual provocation. It is hysterical in the clinical sense—-it treats its own inventions as a threat that comes from elsewhere, from outside. But if he’s the best Zionism can offer, the debate is already over.

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The Devil’s Anus, or, Life in Hell

“If I could get out this bed, I’d come over there and fuck you up, motherfucker, I’m a kill you, nigger, you hear me?”

This proclamation came from my roommate on Seven Garden North, Room 452, Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, 165 Fort Washington, on Wednesday, December 11, at 1:23 AM. We were separated by a curtain. Neither of us could see the other, but I could still smell the shit he had taken upon my arrival, at 3:00 PM the previous day. “Do you have some air freshener,” my girlfriend whispered to the nurse who carried the bedpan at arm’s length, as if he were a priest bearing the host. Her nostrils closed, her eyes widened as the offering passed us; she was breathing through her mouth. The nurse just nodded.

I had had a partial knee replacement at noon on Tuesday; old John had broken his hip in a fall on Sunday, and had had it replaced on Monday. By 8:00 PM, I knew his name and his entire medical history from listening to his continuous phone conversations. More specifically, I knew he was a junkie, and not just because the nurse happily announced she was delivering methadone at 4:10. I also knew he was an alcoholic because at 7:35 he told his sullen daughter that he wasn’t drunk when he fell down his own steps.

At 12:35 AM I had politely asked him to wrap up a conversation that had already lasted over an hour, mainly about how Bill Dee Bee Blazeeo locked up the black vote by trading on his wife’s race. At 12:50, I told him he had to stop talking so that I could get some sleep. At 1:10, I buzzed the nurse and when he arrived at 1:15, I said, “Look, this guy’s been on the phone since 11:15, can you tell him I need some quiet? He won’t listen to me.”

The nurse explained to old John that my position was reasonable—-so, no more phone conversations-—and that the TV would also have be turned off.

Old John said, “I been here since Sunday, he just got here, why he get this, uh, privilege, yeh, privilege? Why he get the morphine and I get this over-the-counter shit? I hear him pushin’ that button all day, what’s that about, huh?”

“Seniority doesn’t count in hospitals,” I said. “It’s your condition that matters.”

“Shut up, nigger, nobody talkin’ to you.”

“Oh for Chrissakes,” I said, “who’s writing your lines, Tarantino? David Mamet?” I was high on morphine.

The nurse diverted the patient by asking if he needed some pain medication, and then fled to fetch the meds; as soon as he was gone, at 1:23, the old man turned his full attention to me. That’s when he said, “If I could get out this bed I’d come over there and fuck you up, motherfucker, I’m a kill you, nigger, you hear me?”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I said, “you can’t move and neither can I. We’re both ‘prisoners of the system, ‘ John. My knee, your hip, these disallow our further engagement. So shut the fuck up and let me sleep.”

“I’m a kill you, motherfucker, I’m a make some phone calls—-“

“Fine, make some calls, just not tonight,” I said. “Go the fuck to sleep.” I was too tired to threaten anybody, too drugged to care about anything except myself. Old John went on for another twenty minutes or so, starting with “Now you a dead nigger, motherfucker,” then ranting creatively about my invasion of his privacy and the larger injustice of the system.

I was almost grateful because his voice overruled the screaming from down the hall, where the Orthodox women stood guard. It hadn’t stopped since I arrived.

At first I thought the screams came from a child in fear or denial, but gradually the voice became recognizable as something an adult was trying out in different registers of despair. I didn’t hear any resignation in these sounds—-instead I heard terror, disgust, and pure desire, enough of each to dissolve any solid beliefs or standing commitments. Not hers, mine. Ours. That explained the guards, anyway.

How could she scream this way all day and all night? What preternatural powers equipped this woman to make these piercing, heartbreaking sounds every ninety seconds, no matter what time of day? Did she sleep between screams? Was she physically restrained, or protesting the more effective constraints we conjure when we say “the system”?

It wasn’t noise she was projecting, it was all signal, as if she were learning to phrase a familiar song but not yet tarrying with the words themselves. And she wasn’t lamenting her own fate, she was performing on behalf of others. That’s what I took the different registers of despair to mean—-she was expressing dread she hadn’t experienced. She was playing emotional scales. She was the vessel of something everyone else had already tasted. But she wasn’t singing. She was screaming.

If I were tied to a mast, or an inmate of a 19th-century insane asylum, or in a theater on 8th Avenue watching a slasher movie, these screams would have sounded normal, even predictable. But there I was in a Columbia University hospital in Washington Heights. This was real life, as they say. At any rate it was my waking life, not “The Odyssey” or “The Snake Pit” or “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

The screaming stopped just as old John was winding down: “You hear me, nigger? I’m a bust a cap in yo ass, or my friends will.” He must be really old to be talking like that, I thought, or really stupid, or really helpless.

He turned the TV back on. And then he said “You white, what color er you?” It was 1:45 AM.

“Yeah, ” I said, “I’m really tired.”

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On Reading Harry Frankfurt


I recently presented an abridged version of the book I’m writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago and UC-Santa Barbara. The working title of the book is “Fuck Work: What Is To Be Done When Jobs Disappear.” And yes, I’m hard at work on it.

These were academic audiences, of course, so my expectation going in was that they would react in much the same way that the Jacobin crowd did when I entered the debate on work then being conducted by Peter Frase, Alex Gourevitch, and others—I figured they’d respond with exasperation and even anger. For no matter how far the academic Left has gone down the post-structuralist road, it is still attached to the ontological priority of labor in defining human nature and assessing political possibilities. To that precise extent, it is still more or less Marxist, and therefore Hegelian. Or, if you like, it is to that precise extent Protestant, because the ontological priority of labor in defining human nature is a result of the Reformation. (Pope Francis affirms the failure of the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition when he claims that “there can no dignity where there is no work.”)

The reception to my talks at UIC and UC-SB was, however, quite friendly-—if one word will do, it was more curious than querulous. And this despite the facts that the commentator in Chicago was Leon Fink, an eminent labor historian, and that my host in Santa Barbara was Nelson Lichtenstein, an equally eminent labor historian. This reception confirmed my lingering hope that the audience for the book is wider than its academic parameters. If these more or less public intellectuals were engaged rather than offended by the argument, perhaps I was tapping into currents of contemporary anxiety and expectation about work that are much broader than those revealed in debate with Gourevitch, et al.

This reception also made me rethink the book contract I had on offer from an academic press. Was I selling the argument short? Were my expectations too low because the sales of Against Thrift were so paltry and the reviews so few and so negative? When I expressed my misgivings, the editor at the press responded with great intelligence and energy, saying that he thought of the book as a generic relative of Harry Frankfurt’s best-seller, On Bullshit (2005). So I downloaded this little book and bought a hard copy of an earlier (but also quite popular) treatise of his, The Reasons of Love (2004), hoping to understand the editor’s comparison and, more important, to find the key to Frankfurt’s success as a cross-over. What was happening in these pages? What had this serious philosopher done to translate his big ideas into prose so accessible that they found an audience among those fabled “general readers”?


On Bullshit, I am unhappy to report, is itself a species of pointless pontification, the kind of bullshit that poses as knowledge of vernacular speech, and tries to transpose from the key of the colloquial to the key of the philosophical—cultural studies with the twist of an academic pedigree, you might call it. It’s a comforting report on the emptiness of post-structuralist notions of facticity, written in primer style for those already incited by journalistic reports of tenured radicals in the ivory towers of higher education. In that awful sense, it’s an erudite verification of the arguments to be found in Lynne Cheney’s hysterical, book-length retort to what she designated as the “assault on truth” mustered by Foucault’s minions in the universities. (See The World Turned Inside Out [2009], chapter 2, for my sober analysis of Cheney’s hilarious polemic, which was entitled Telling the Truth [1995], and for my brief history of higher education in the US.)

The book crosses over, in other words, because the barren simplicity of the prose-—there’s no rhythm section here, just one declarative sentence after another, as if they’re on a forced march without a drummer-—matches, and validates, the brute simplicity of the argument, which boils down to this: bullshit is more dangerous than lies because the liar knows the truth of things outside himself and chooses to misrepresent it, whereas the bullshitter pays no attention to the truth so conceived because he doesn’t believe it exists except as a dimension, or rather a projection, of himself. The liar responds to the “authority of the truth” or the “inherent nature” of reality, and so remains respectful of it; but the bullshitter acknowledges no such external standard of judgment, and must, therefore, retreat into a narcissistic regard of himself-—his sincerity—-as the measure of all things.

You might say, well, that sounds as reasonable as John Searle’s critique of Jacques Derrida and the larger set of post-structuralist claims to truth associated with deconstruction, post-modernism, and affiliated attitudes toward the status of reality. But that would be my point. Frankfurt’s little book is an “aw shucks,” avuncular version of the metaphysical realism Searle & Co. have been peddling in highbrow venues for thirty years, in a desperate rear-guard action that wrests liberal meanings from the same epistemological naivete Cheney & Co. sport as a conservative credential. That metaphysical realism is what makes On Bullshit a comforting report from the ivory tower (and no tower is more ivory than Princeton). Not to worry, Harry tells us, the tenured radicals got it wrong.

An overstatement? Read this:

“The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources [deeper, that is, than the ignorance of an electorate presumed to be composed of omnicompetent citizens], in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore rejects the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These ‘antirealist’ doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.”

Then savor the last two sentences of the book:

“Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”


But like I said, I bought a hard copy of The Reasons of Love when I downloaded On Bullshit. To read the books side-by-side is to wonder whether the same philosopher wrote them—-or to ask what happened between 2000 and 2005 to this author, this man. The indispensable premise of both books is that belief in and commitment to “other things,” to the reality and integrity of external objects (I almost said things-in-themselves), is the necessary condition of coherent being and truthful utterance.

In fact I’d say that On Bullshit reads as the attempted completion of the earlier book because it seeks to close the logical and rhetorical gap opened by The Reasons of Love. The attempt fails, and thus makes the two books practically incompatible, but I am here to say that the contradiction between them doesn’t matter very much, because the claims of the earlier book are so ingenious, so raw and audacious, that we might learn to treat On Bullshit as nothing more—-or less–than the first test of The Reasons of Love.

Frankfurt reasons like an analytic philosopher in showing us how love works on us and through us to improve us, to teach us how we should live: almost every sentence could stand alone, out of context, as a defensible proposition. Instead of treating self-love as a pitfall or a problem, however, he makes it the necessary condition of love as such—-as if primary narcissism, as Freud understood it, must remain as the source of every affective commitment, or as if the divine commandment to love your neighbor as yourself was an imperative we already know how to act on routinely, without even thinking. But here is the pivot of Frankfurt’s dialectical reversal: “A person cannot love himself except insofar as he loves other things.”

What can that mean? He won’t explain in this book, and he can’t in On Bullshit. That’s the logical and rhetorical gap I mentioned.

It’s pretty clear to anyone, even the least reflective of us, that to love anything is to value “other things,” but how is this capacity predicated on the love of your self, an entity that is not another thing? Frankfurt devotes one paragraph to the question, and doesn’t provide an answer. Self-love, he says, “is necessarily derivative from, or constructed out of, the love that people have for things that are not identical with themselves.” How so?

The answer is not to be found in this book, nor in the best-selling sequel. Again, the logical and rhetorical gap never closes. But the wonderful gift of Frankfurt’s failure is the incitement he offers to think past him, beyond him. He makes you want to complete his argument.


The paradigm of love according to Frankfurt is what binds a parent to his child (the pronouns are male throughout). It is only with reluctance that he ventures into romantic territory, where secondary, instrumental purposes like sex typically intrude on the lover’s genuine devotion to the long-term interests of the beloved. You could say this is a peculiarly straitened paradigm, but he has a point. Love necessarily involves protecting the interests of the beloved, even if they’re not your own, and often enough these interests are in conflict with the immediate gratification of either party.

As a paradigmatic parent, for example, you don’t grant your child’s every wish because you know that such indulgence will disfigure her future by making her the abject creature of her desires. As a romantic partner, you can’t grant your lover’s every wish because you know that such indulgence will disfigure your future by making you the abject servant of his desires. (Is this, then, the fulcrum of self-love?)

Love hurts, Frankfurt insists, because it’s not something you choose to do. You fall in love, as the saying goes, or you acquire an affective interest in a child by means of biological ties and genealogical commitments that are publicly acknowledged if not legally confirmed. And then love requires distance or “disinterest” in another, more complicated and fundamental sense. You have to make the interests of the beloved paramount, that goes without saying. So your identification with him must have limits—-the limits reached when you can act on the knowledge that he’s not the same person as you are.

And love matters, more than anything else. Without it, Frankfurt claims, you lack what he calls, after Aristotle, “final ends” or transcendent purposes—-goals “worth attaining for their own sake,” causes worth the sacrifice of your own life. Caring about something, anything, “unequivocally and without conditions,” is the only attitude that stands between you and boredom, the state of mind in which your interest in and attention to the world is so attenuated that you become the center of the universe: “It is not important to us only to attain our final ends. It is also important for us to have final ends. This is because without them, there is nothing important for us to do.”

The practical question remains: “But how is it that things may come to have for us a terminal value that is independent of their usefulness for pursuing further goals? In what acceptable way can our need for final ends be met?”

Only love meets this need, and it is not, by Frankfurt’s account, the love of God.


But of what is love for another mortal composed? Frankfurt claims that it has “four main conceptually necessary features.” It’s disinterested in the sense that the good of the beloved is something desired for its own sake; it’s personal in the sense that the beloved is not an interchangeable part, an instance of a type; it entails a powerful identification with the beloved but stops short of identity; and it accepts the fact that love is rarely a matter of choice.

These components of love for another are the essential elements of self-love. And vice-versa. “When a person desires to love, what he desires is that he be in a position to act with confident and settled purpose. . . . Insofar as self-love is tantamount just to a desire to love, it is simply a desire to count on having meaning in our lives.”

Still, is it so self-evident that the undeniable desire for meaning (“final purposes”) in our lives must take the form of love, so conceived? I think so, but not for the reasons on offer. And here I take leave of Harry Frankfurt by taking from him.

We desire, and we need, transcendent purposes, “final ends” as he would have it. We discover these purposes, these ends, by learning to love another person, or something other than ourselves. But we can’t love anything in this sense unless our desire can be embodied, enacted, performed-—in a word, demonstrated. Love can be unrequited, but it can never be disembodied.

So the discovery of what comes after this life—-or rather the articulation of the truths that take us beyond this life, into worlds we will never experience directly-—presupposes the unconscious acknowledgement that we’re already locked up in our frail bodies. We can imagine immortal, eternal, universal truths only insofar as we experience our own mortality.

To put it as prosaically as I can, love is a property of your embodiment—-you can’t love someone if you’re an angel or a demon—-but this grounding, and only this grounding, permits and demands the imagination of possibilities that transcend the physical or material circumstances that constitute your measurable existence as a human being.


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David Graeber cont’d.

Some readers of the blog have complained that going after David Graeber’s latest expostulation at The Baffler was like shooting fish in a barrel. They urged me to get serious and tackle his much more significant essay for the journal, “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse,” in No. 22 (2013).

So I went and read it, and thought, oh shit, I can’t deal with this without addressing his big book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (2011), and without addressing my own failings as an analyst of Occupy Wall Street. As some faithful readers may remember, I went all in for that cause. I spent a lot of time in Zuccotti Park, I went to the demonstrations and marches—even got myself beat up by a cop—I assembled (with Temma Kaplan) a teach-in at Rutgers, and, at the request of movement organizers, I gave a talk on financial history to an Occupy crowd gathered under the winter’s shadow of the Brown Brothers Harriman building, right across from Zuccotti.

But at dinner last Saturday with some old friends, I admitted that I had romanticized this cause, this movement, this moment—-and with it, my self. My girlfriend turned to me and said, “That’s the first time you’ve ever said something critical of it!” And I said, “Well, that’s because this is the first time I’ve thought it.” We were both right. I went on to say that I should have known better than to put my faith in a movement intellectually shaped by Kalle Lasn, Chris Hedges, and David Graeber. It was a painful confession anesthetized by the good vibe of the occasion.

By all accounts, including contemporary ones that I read while hanging around the park, this trio of thinkers determined the ideological arc of OWS. Lasn, I knew, was the holy fool who ran Adbusters as a war of position against advertising and consumer culture as such (I was a subscriber already, preparing to write a book in defense of the consumers Lasn excoriated). The call to occupy a space in Manhattan came, originally, from his glossy, goofy, demented magazine. Hedges was the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter emeritus for the New York Times whose hyperventilated book on the subject of troops in combat supplied the epigraph (“War is a drug”) for Kathryn Bigelow’s compelling and disgusting movie, “The Hurt Locker.” He has recently become a political evangelical whose fire-and-brimstone prose is so purple he could be mistaken for an itinerant preacher in Northhampton, Massachusetts, ca. 1742. Back then, though, just two years ago, he was less sure that the Apocalypse was Now.

And Graeber was of course the author of Debt, a huge book that proved money was the root of all evil, including capitalism as such. The book came out in May 2011, and led to the author’s participation in the local discussions inspired by Adbusters’ calls to protest on Wall Street. I didn’t read it until I used excerpts from it in a graduate class on the history of capitalism I taught at Rutgers in the Spring of 2012; but, like most people reared in an America familiar with the Gospel of Luke and Paul’s Acts of the Apostles, I knew the argument: the pursuit of money or wealth as an end in itself was the source of everything we designate as awful and eventually denominate as sinful.

To be fair to myself, Lasn’s book, Culture Jam (2009), was better than the magazine in describing how our rage against the machine could take the form of better products rather than abstention from products as such. In fact I cited it in Against Thrift (2011) as an intelligent instance of insurgent thinking about how to cure the ills of consumer culture by means of parody—-transformation by repetition, I called it. Meanwhile Hedges was loud and angry and mean-spirited, but three years after the commencement of the Great Recession (and two years after its official end), who was I to criticize the poor bastard for not knowing how to think or what to do? Nobody else did, why would I single him out? And Graeber, well, his book is an unforgiving moral treatise that is also as convincing as a slumbering woman and child. But it took me a while to understand what Debt convinced me of.

What was that? I will make this short, because a lot of people have written a lot about the book, and because what I have to say implicates me in the intellectual idiocy of its moment.

Debt couldn’t convince me that capitalism resides in its rendering of financial obligation as the essence of social relations, as against Marx’s notion that wage labor (to be specific, abstract social labor) defines this mode of production. But it did convince me that the origin story of capitalism told by Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals in terms of debt, rather than by Marx in Capital in terms of primitive accumulation, is Graeber’s special object of critique. This is the intellectual space where, for all his ostensible disagreement with both Nietzsche and Marx, his narrative intervention matters most—-where equality signifies danger, the specious equivalence conferred by monetary devices, while freedom or autonomy means the cancellation of obligation or reciprocity, in effect the absence of what 18th-century observers called civil society, where the exchange of equivalents takes place by means of money (see chaps. 1-5, esp. pp. 73-126, and for empirical elaboration, chaps. 11-12).

The libertarian/anarchist implications are plain enough in retrospect. Once Graeber’s intellectual displacement is completed, all you have are individuals—-there’s nothing left to think about, or with, not if you want to think politically about the future as if social democracy matters. The rejection, not just the absence, of programmatic thinking by OWS derives, I think, from this displacement. At the time, I applauded the absence and its intellectual antecedents as openings onto the different conception of politics and “dissent” sponsored by Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution. I’m now convinced I was wrong to do so, and I feel almost apologetic toward the liberal columnists who kept pleading for something from OWS that could be translated into the vernacular of party programs. I haven’t given up on my Gramscian ideas about a dispersal of power from state to society and the consequent rise of cultural politics, no, I’ve just decided that if Kalle Lasn, Chris Hedges, and David Graeber are your gurus, you need help—you need a broader education in the meanings of politics and revolution.

And that brings me to the Baffler piece my critics think is so much more important than the one I made fun of. It begins by asking “What is a revolution?” and ends with a programmatic statement I wish I had written: “At the moment, probably the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity. This might seem a strange thing to say—our knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to assume that the solution is for everyone to work even more, though of course, this kind of reaction is really precisely the problem—but if you consider the overall state of the world, the conclusion becomes obvious.”

He’s wrong about everything else, but he’s right about this. I’ll leave it at that for now. How David Graeber and I could reach the same political conclusion from completely different premises is the subject of another session.

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