A Portuguese version of this review may be read here.
I’m split regarding “Nature, Essence and Anarchy” (Winter Oak), recent work by anarchist comrade Paul Cudenec, available at Amazon. I wanted to read it to get to know better the arguments of a contemporary anarchist who defends the idea of “essence” – a rarity these days. And if on the one hand I don’t feel exactly comfortable talking negatively of this book solely because I do not agree with some of its ideas – and Cudenec’s writing style is as pleasant as usual – there are some things that have bothered me more deeply here. I’d like to discuss them.
The goal of the book is to present a (not only political, but holistic) philosophy to counter capitalism; one that serves, intellectually, the task of combatting it. The author posits that this philosophy must attack postmodernism, which the author deems as having a sickly effect over our intellectual system, creating a large scale “paralysis”; there is a complete conjunction between postmodern thought and capitalism. For Cudenec, the notion of a “constructed” world basically comes from capitalism: “for the constructed capitalist world, everything else has also been constructed” (p. 2):
Aware on some level of its own fundamental falsity, it defends itself by projecting that falsity on to everything else that exists, in order to level the playing field and create a theoretical realm in which its own artifice no longer stands out as aberrant, alien, toxic. It becomes impossible to accuse capitalism, in particular, of being fake if you accept its big lie that everything, in general, is fake, and that there is no such thing as truth, meaning, origin, essence and nature. (p. 2)
Hence, escaping capitalism entails rejecting the idea that reality is simply socially constructed – accepting that we are a part of nature (and that there is a real and independent nature for us to attach to) and, secondly, that we should organize ourselves, if we understand our place in nature correctly, as anarchists.
Postmodernism, however, began precisely in part because not understanding reality as socially constructed has caused many problems. As Graeber reminds us, “Stalinists and their ilk did not kill because they dreamed great dreams … but because they mistook their dreams for scientific certainties.” But it is possible to say that even though positivists and the like affirmed an understanding of reality as an objective truth, they did it by separating humanity from nature, and this Cudenec (rightly) criticizes. In this sense, Cudenec advocates not only for the consideration of an “objective reality”, but also a “real” that is beyond a certain instrumentalist humanism that has been exacerbated in recent times.
Is it so weird to admit that we are “part of nature” and that “nature is real, and not everything is socially constructed?” Of course not. But this is a truism, and the devil is in the details – with which Cudenec unfortunately does not deal. If postmodern theorists only said “there is no nature, only subjectivity,” that would also be a weak assertion. It is necessary to demonstrate, to argue – as does Derrida, for instance, in the long and tasty beating it gives Lévi-Strauss, and his whole theory around the prohibition of incest, in “Of Grammatology”. Nature is real, fine, but what is nature? Cudenec does not give us a definition. At least not one we can work with without falling into a circular logic in which it is impossible to ever be wrong. There, nature is the environment; here, is the human essence; later, it’s something else – the definition he quotes from Paracelsus is the perfect cop-out: nature would be “indeed everything that we see before our eyes: trees, minerals, animals, diseases, birth, death… But what it gives us is always something else as well: the manifestation of a ‘deeper’ reality – although for the time being we cannot define this depth more clearly.” It is ironic to paraphrase the criticism written by Sahlins to none other than Foucault, but it fits like a glove: when everything is nature, nothing is nature.
There is no nuance in this vision of postmodernism: I think it quite reasonable to say of this myriad of theoretical perspectives that it ends up collaborating with various institutions that anarchists fight; but treating it not only as an epiphenomenon of capitalism, but as a deliberate development from it, goes beyond. Postmodern theory is so aggressively equated with the state of things we live in that we can easily imagine the more well-known authors of this tradition (ha!) as being not Derrida, Deleuze or Spivak, but Bill Gates, George Soros or Rex Tillerson.
The way I value postmodernism is as a tool to review our cognitive system, to be en garde against conceptual mistakes of a deeper kind. Is it possible that many postmodern thinkers have gone too far in this revisionism? Yes, of course. They act like someone who, knowing that it is useful to check the vehicle before a big road trip, never gets to actually travel, for as soon as the mechanic is done he starts the process of checking again. As I heard my professor Ricardo Silva say once, the impossibility of absolute asepsis does not justify a surgeon operating in the sewer. There is a practical impossibility of actually considering there is not a “reality” out there with which to interact, because we calculate things pragmatically every second of our lives. Despite that, our “necessary subjectivity” forces us to admit that, deep, deep down, we could really be dreaming or living in a simulated reality: a non-falsifiable fact just puts it beyond the grasp of science, it doesn’t make it impossible. And yes, I understand this is a perfectly criticizable agnosticism as well – but even ignoring these extreme scenarios, cognitive “errors” of all kinds, practical and consequential ones, are very frequent. Personally, I consider a staunch postmodern a hundred times less worrisome than a positivist / rationalist / ‘dialectics is life’ individual who is convinced (s)he knows the truth and exactly how to get to it (it is so curious how hardcore marxists think that the fact that religious fundamentalists and Trump supporters are wrong separates them, since it is rather a common feature). If it seems obvious that neither one nor the other is desirable, the same goes for a reasonable approach to human cognition. The best thing I have ever read on the subject is Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology.
But my defense of postmodernism does not amount to this hacky attempt at holding on to the best it has to offer while ignoring its bad aspects; I also like to point out how weak the attempts at criticizing it are. Most of the times the argument is a pragmatic one – which is absolutely illegitimate from a scientific standpoint. “If everyone believes in postmodernism, then bad things are going to happen” – even if this were true (debatable), it doesn’t mean postmodernism is wrong, unfortunately. “Even Bruno Latour regrets ‘arming’ anti-scientific propagandists” – so he would rather not have contributed, then, with social sciences? Hmm. Maybe it would have been better if Darwin had not published his theory on the transformation of species, since then he wouldn’t hand out ammunition to eugenists. “The vision that there is nothing after death is too scary, therefore it must not be right” – almost literally what Cudenec states towards the end of the book.
A prolific critical viewpoint engendered by postmodern ideas is that which sees the connection between the definition of “natures” and “essences” (it doesn’t matter how benevolent and non-“naturephobic”) and the judgment of those who are “against nature”. The author mobilizes, for instance, a positive conception of liberty (I’m following Berlin’s scheme here), and there are many interesting things he says while doing it; when he advocates, for instance, that the “negativity” of an anarchist – that which is often considered bad for being associated to, say, aggressive and destructive reactions to domination and authority – is a positivity since it is related to the affirmation of some ideas and values. Or when it serves as criticism of the liberal self of a Rawls. But ultimately the problem remains: the same structure of thought, the same arguments, the same vocabulary appealing to essence has already been successfully used by groups with goals very diverse from ours – such as fascists.
The author discusses Kropotkin, who appears in the first essay politically condemning Darwin’s theory of evolution; later on, it is shown how Kropotkin’s theory of evolution based on mutual aid leads to the conclusion that “anarchism is natural – that, left to their own devices, people and other animals tend to co-operate with others for their collective benefit.” (p. 9) Today – except maybe in popular culture, which is a big issue in itself – biology takes cooperation into consideration as a very important factor of the evolutionary process. But competition, particularly that which is not necessarily a conscious phenomenon (that is, not lions violently hunting game, but not enough grass for a given population of grass-eating animals) can not be discarded. After all, what would that amount to? Would it mean that cooperation is natural, and competition is antinatural? If nature, or reality, or The Universe (with capital letters, as in the last essay), is “everything that exists”, then how is it that that which is could be in a way that it should not be? How should we categorize and understand competition? People and animals tend to cooperate – what people? What animals? In every and any situation? It is true that a lot of cases of violence among human beings are used as propaganda to advance the idea that we are “naturally bad” (and this is stupid), but the contrary is equally absurd. And dangerous, as well.
What could guarantee that we, anarchists, are right about a certain rationality regarding human nature? Introspection, Cudenec writes (in somewhat mystical terms) in “Essence and empowerment”, one of the essays. We have to look deep down into ourselves in order to find our essence. The problem, of course, is that this “look” doesn’t exist outside of a given context. Cudenec accuses postmodernism of being a silence-producing machine (since there is no essence, we can’t talk about it), but this is weird; of course we can. Postmodernism isn’t a machine that makes silence – a “sensorial deprivation” one – but rather one that produces too much noise; a “sensory overload” one. Its problem is that there is a certain stimulus to talk too much, without a focus. Exactly for investigating factors which influence the looking one might do in search of an essence, and how the results of such quest will be contingent and contextual and depending on these factors, postmodernism might make it seem like the search is useless – but it isn’t; one must only get used to the way certain non-rational criteria (such as our values) shape it. In other words, postmodernism does not impede introspection; it just warns it will never be pure.
The author seems to incorporate an intuition regarding the insufficiency of “reason and introspection” as a path to finding the human essence in the structure of the text itself, specifically in the way he cites other authors. In the first essay, for example, Cudenec is basically saying: “there is an objective reality, it is (or is part of?) nature (which is the objective reality, or is part of it – I don’t know!), and here is Paracelsus, a thinker whose ideas we should get back to, because… Well, because he agrees with me!” Cudenec does not actually argue in favor of the existence of such “objective reality” (except from the pragmatic perspective I’ve criticized above), and does not bring up Paracelsus to do that either! In fact, there is no arguing here, from any of the authors: separated by centuries, they claim many things, but not necessarily with any more propriety than their adversaries.
When Cudenec says there is indeed an “objective reality”.
Yes, I’m perfectly in peace with the idea that there is a reality we respond to – but we have to be demanding when analyzing ideas, and postmodern authors are much more effective at making their case, even when they argue the absurd that is the denial of objective reality, because they deal in depth with the immense difficulties we encounter everytime we try to say a single thing about what this reality is. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, it isn’t very impressive when someone says they’re capable of producing useful and objective knowledge on reality if they don’t back it up with tightly arranged evidence. This is something that Graeber, for instance, by using as source decades of anthropological research, does way more convincingly (even though he recognizes, in the beginning of “Fragments of an anarchist anthropology”, the dangers of an intellectual disposition of too much certainty about things).
But the fundamental issue with Cudenec’s premise is its critical framing. He wonders: how can we call capitalism fake if everything is fake and there is no more meaning, truth, nature, essence, etc? The answer is simple: we don’t have to call it fake. We can call it bad. Counterproductive. And anti-ethical. Jesse Cohn has demonstrated, in the book I mentioned above, how postmodernism is incapable of producing an ethical criticism of actuality, once it abandons this kind of parameter when it makes everything relative (and in this Cudenec is absolutely right). However, this does not strip of its merits the criticism, made by postmodern authors, of the acute risks with representation – a necessary operation in a thought concerned with the “essences” and “natures” of beings. For instance, in a very good excerpt of the book on page 14:
in a world that sees only atomised individuals creating their own subjective realities, what place is there for this collective level of human life […]? In our capitalist world of separation, any authentic communal belonging has to be destroyed so that each isolated individual has to turn to the system for their sense of identity, which is sold back to them in fake form as part of a lifelong process of exploitation based on dispossession.
This is very well said, but the general form of the argument throughout the essay doesn’t hold up. The construction of the human being as separated from and superior over the rest of nature comes at least from Descartes, and it’s precisely the kind of thing postmodernism condemns. However, in a very badly explained mixture, this separation between humanity and nature is equated to the postmodern ultra-subjectivity, as if the idea of a human being independent from and above nature was created by Lyotard in 1979. The idea of an “instrumentalist humanism” itself as recent is weird, considering that the Christian notion of the world is one in which everything was created by God to satisfy our needs. This certainly isn’t a “lapse”, something the author forgot to think about; it is a logic consequence of outright equating postmodern philosophy and contemporary capitalism.
On page 16, at the end of the essay, another good part:
If our everyday experience is of traffic jams, shopping malls and office blocks, if our minds are constantly filled with images of consumerism, domination and war, how are we to see the world as “a vast organism in which natural things harmonise and sympathise between themselves”? The answer is in our imagination. As anarchists have long understood, another world is always possible and will flourish in our collective mind long before it becomes a physical reality. We need to imagine ourselves out of the suffocating confines of industrial capitalism, leaping over all the barriers of lies that it has erected around us.
This is excellent; not only rhetorically, but also logically. Yes, our imagination is under assault – not only in the same way every imagination is always constrained by the experiences and social structures it relates to, but also as in the analysis by Graeber related to the “attack on imagination”, which is what neoliberalism basically is. And considering the world of the possible is essential: it is a realization concerning hermeneutics and anarchist aesthetics that Cohn reaches, although, curiously, it has a lot in common with the conceptual triad of “real”, “actual” and “virtual” found in Deleuze and Guattari. However, this beautiful paragraph falls into a new trap as soon as the construction of this imagination is said to happen by means of a “dream” with “authenticity”:
We need […] to allow nature to dream itself into the core of our inner being. “Freedom for Paracelsus is anything but the arbitrary will of the subject,” says Braun. “It is not defined on the basis of the subject, of the will of the subject. Instead, it’s an act of letting-be, letting nature illuminate itself in us”.
Which would be great, if only the idea of nature weren’t itself always contingent and socially constructed! It is great that Cudenec thinks of human nature this way – but this is political philosophy; and as an idea on the attitudes of human beings, it has no strength unless it is actually operating in their heads. “Nature” won’t illuminate anyone spontaneously in the direction of anarchism unless anarchists are able to successfully convince people that nature works this way – because until they do, nature will tell them (and is telling them) different things – to different people, by the way.
But we can also consider, for a moment, the pragmatic argument; even if capitalism and postmodernism can be analyzed on their own terms, as distinct, non-automatically identical phenomena, there still remains the possibility (a quite reasonable one) that it helps less than it harms. It is in this sense that Cudenec cites Orwell’s famous work 1984: since “postmodernism” (or an anticipated version of its most stereotyped version) contributes to the authoritarian government described in the dystopic fiction, in our own current dystopia it would also be harmful.
However, I believe there is a misunderstanding regarding the message of the book; maybe even an inversion of cause and consequence that prevents us from seeing postmodernism as having redeeming qualities. It is not that “postmodernism” crushes the possibility of revolt and transformation in the book: what does that, in 1984, is violence, force; power concentrated in an authority and organized in an intensely repressive hierarchical system. Cudenec treats as cause (the main character, by the end of the book, believes there is no objective reality), or even minimal condition, what should be seen as an incidental consequence (it is not by chance that this is the last part of the book).
It is not that the government wants people to stop looking at reality and start thinking about everything as relative; no. It is that it has the power to hurt them, to control the flow of information (effectively destroying them, which is part of Winston’s job) and to control resources, which helps keep and perpetuate this control. If it weren’t for all this domination, postmodern thought would have been absolutely inconvenient, since the actuality and the intentions of what the government said would be questioned.
The problem here is not postmodernism, but the deeper logic of domination – which would even use for the same goal words and concepts Cudenec adores: human nature is this or that, according to what was needed. And it doesn’t strike me as historical to say that if a certain conception of human nature is wrong it will simply not stand: having defined reality in a certain way, and finding support on some tools of control over ideas, resources and violence, a great deal of what shows up later, even the scientific kind of evidence, will be seen through a biased perspective, reinforcing that which is already believed in. That is why I add that the “postmodernism” in 1984 is incidental: O’Brien read Winston’s diary. The torture to which the main character is subjected may have been “customized” for him: when the idea of an objective reality is what anchors Winston to a shred of hope and rebellion, this is what must be destroyed. But for another detainee – one whose rebellion comes from a deep and conceptual questioning of the world that has been built around him or her – the best tactic might be to reinforce precisely the idea that there are certain fixed and immutable things, and that the government is simply promoting them, keeping its citizens safe (even if by means of “bitter medicine”) from bigger worries, the “antinatural” stuff.
In common in both cases, the State and the totalitarian control it works. But despite this reading of 1984, which I consider a tad limited, the relationship between postmodern thought and this control in at least one possible Orwellian narrative is clear, and forces us to wonder: is the biggest enemy to anarchy still a group of fixed notions about what the world is, what people are, and how everything works? Or is the certainty-dissolving postmodern trend even worse? Cudenec is sad because he believes postmodernism destroyed the certainties he likes; but the power of relativization and deconstruction serves to dissolve any other idea, including some modern ones he condemns (such as organized religions – or the State!). I still believe the power of this dissolution can be mobilized in a productive way. But the bigger strategic question Cudenec puts out through this frontal attack to some non-productive forms of this dissolution is fascinating.
There is, thus, two axis of discussion the book brings about, which are great merits of the work: not only the question as to what the biggest threat to the construction of popular autonomy is, but also to what extent our relationship with the idea of construction informs our strategy in a singular manner. The author takes issue, it seems, with “constructed” things in opposition to “natural” ones. But, if “human essence” is in fact so anarchic, why, after thousands of years on planet Earth, we find ourselves, as a species, in the situation we do? The author locks himself into a certain paradox of Godwin – if power corrupts truth, how can truth topple power? If we are to believe Cudenec, an intellectual construction corrupts human essence, but human essence can still be used to defeat this construction (… but how, if it has been corrupted? Has it been corrupted or has it not, after all?) Of course Cudenec is more “dialectic” (what is lacking in Godwin, according to German critic Bode), but in order to get out of the paradox, he would need to admit it takes more than the existence of an objective human nature, since for it to have effects on reality it needs to be effectively constructed as such, which de-legitimizes any stronger assertion on what it is independently of what we make it to be. Worse than that, by the way, is not only his proximity to the philosophical problem in Godwin, but to the pragmatic one in Marx. The more you paint human nature as gifted with an extraordinary power of permanence and identity, the less it is needed, I suppose, that we actually do anything for it to overcome the restrictions artificially imposed over it by the capital and the State.
Having said that, I wonder if I can really criticize Paul Cudenec so abrasively. After all, what is it I’m reviewing? A work of philosophy? Of political theory? Or a pamphlet? As Cohn has noted, objecting to Fish and Rorty’s ideas on textuality: how to convince anyone of anything through the recognition that it is not an absolute truth? This also reminds me, on the other hand, of what Graeber says of the value of experience and how it is much harder to theoretically convince people something is possible – it is generally more efficient to do something, showing in practice that it is possible. And showing a possibility is real does not mean a monopoly over the understanding of human nature (if Occupy Wall Street was possible, then we’re all anarchists); it proves only that a possibility regarding human nature was made real through our conscious efforts, which have been made based on ethical grounds related to our values, which in turn have been cultivated from experiences (though it is possible to go through an experience and not come out at the other end with the same set of values learned from it… Which would end up reaffirming another value, I suppose?).
It is not that reality doesn’t exist and there is not a bigger trend related to it and “human nature”, such that certain possibilities enter into effect more often. But, at least from the perspective of an academic, I want to be very careful about these assertions, and postmodern skepticism can help a little in the sense that when we do use our rationality to define and understand this nature, it is not uncommon for us to commit costly mistakes. Now I’m not saying Cudenec is making a mistake, let alone a costly one – but maybe his disinhibition, his lack of care for postmodernism, is precisely what allows him to build a powerful pamphlet, an inspiring discourse that can turn anarchist human possibilities into reality. Not the kind of thing political scientists say, but the kind of thing they study; the deeds and words of those who were bold enough to bravely defend big ideas. How am I to speak ill of such a thing?