On Holland: Ethical Concerns

During our Seattle-based meeting yesterday, I raised concerns loosely grouped into topics of ‘ethical normativity’ or ‘strategic pragmatism’ regarding Holland’s methodology (please don’t read too much into my feeble attempts at naming the topic). My concerns may well be unsophisticated, but I’m coming at the issue driven less by intellectual forces than affective ones (if you will, I’m following my heart/gut, as opposed to my brain). With that, I’ll do my best to try to re-present my thoughts in blogged form.

In the passage on war-machines, Holland, writing as a self-proclaimed ‘political philosopher’, is not interested in distinguishing between ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ war-machines. As he notes, May ’68, OWS, the tea party (to some degree), and the early Nazi movement all can be characterized as war-machines due to their “spontaneous or horizontal coordination” (2). And yet, “the form of organization or of the social dynamics of a given group says relatively little about the content of their positions or activities” (3). In the end, it is then useless (or at least a separate project) to try to judge any given war-machine as a potential bifurcation point, either in terms of the particular effects or the amplitude of the effects. This much I can live with– while I tend to be troubled by such positions that are ambivalent towards political content, when contrasted to Harvey, I can see the merits of directing “our attention to the manner in which these social groups or movements actually operate” (3).

But Holland is not just being descriptive: there is a political project at the core of his piece (at times more explicit than others), which could be deemed anti-capitalist, anti-primitive accumulation-ist, and/or radically democratic. I understand that, politically, Holland can feel more attachment to OWS than the tea party, but that he can still admire both, or even draw comparisons between, the groups’ structural organization in his work as a political philosopher. But from a pragmatic standpoint, doesn’t it make sense to more consciously draw connections between various movements, horizontally at a macro-level?

In our discussion, I raised the point that, even though OWS was not necessarily or not intentionally a ‘Leftist’ movement, it was portrayed as such in the media– perhaps as the ‘anti-tea party movement’ or simply due to the ‘political appearance’ of its participants (i.e., more bongos than American flags). But while the Occupy Movement was consciously influenced by the Arab Spring, was it not also influenced by the tea party movement? Is there any reason why an activist in the Occupy Movement would/should feel more affinity toward the Arab Spring than someone in the tea party would? If one of the insurgencies outside the U.S. over the past few years had hypothetically been characterized as ‘right-wing’, would/should ‘we’ (those who typically consider themselves Leftists) feel affinity or excitement at some level? If it’s possible to do in our intellectual life, can we separate content from structure in our daily lives as citizens, too? If a personification of the intellectual Holland were at a OWS rally and a self-proclaimed Nazi approached him, would he welcome the Nazi or shun them? On what ethical or political grounds? (I realize this is a silly hypothetical, but I did bring it up yesterday merely to raise the point that OWS was not just defined by the 99% but ostensibly had other, unstated values.)

With these questions, the discussion (or at least my mutterings) turned to the polarizing force of the American news media and our post-1960s ‘culture wars’ climate. With every movement reduced to its place along a political spectrum, shouldn’t political projects such as Holland’s be attempting to transcend these polarizing forces? Should the more Marxist-inclined writers like Holland attempt to convince non-Marxists or even Hayekians (gasp!) of the value of a slow-motion general strike? How would this alter the framing of the issue? What compromises would have to be made? The fact that Harvey and Holland, both Marxists living ostensibly in the same cultural context, represent two fundamentally disparate approaches to political action, even from one rather small political camp, would point toward the need to build “networks of equivalence” (Purcell: 2008). If a state-apologist Marxist (Harvey) and a ‘termite’ Marxist (Holland) are irreconcilable in their political ends and means, we are indeed in desperate need for a larger umbrella.

My point is by no means to characterize Holland’s approach as irrelevant or counter-productive. I am simply attempting to steer the conversation toward the pragmatic concerns of a pragmatic project. With this in mind, I wonder what happens to such ideas when they run up against others (not in ‘the marketplace’ but in ‘the public square’): What are the shared values between various movements and normative stances? What gets compromised? At what point have ideas been watered down too much that the contagion dissipates? Are recent American movements enough of a critical mass, or is there a need for outreach and coalition building?

Having now written all this outside the walls of our face-to-face reading group, part of me wants to say “you had to be there”. But in the spirit of our interstate blogosphere…any thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “On Holland: Ethical Concerns

  1. Much food for thought here.
    1) Let me say first of all that I AM concerned about distinguishing between good and bad war-machines. My main point was that there ARE bad as well as good war-machines, that constructing a war-machine isn’t in and of itself a good thing. So James is right: evaluating a war-machine is a separate project from identifying it AS a war-machine, as useful as the latter task may be in understanding how it is likely to operate and what its limitations are.
    2) That doesn’t mean, however, that I admire the tea-party or Nazi war-machines – on the contrary. We evaluate war-machines on the basis of their “content,” if you will: OWS has affinities with the Arab Spring because of shared goals and aspirations (more democracy, let’s say crudely), which are not shared by the tea-party or Nazis. So if I were to encounter Nazis at a OWS rally, I would ask them why they were there, and probably end up shunning them. But the point of the question would be to determine whether we shared core values and hence reasons for rallying, not to reflect on the shared “formal” dynamics of our respective movements.
    3) I also agree that the issue of polarization is important, and that it is complicated. I think Obama should be far MORE polarizing than he is. But I would also like social movements like OWS to be less polarizing and more inclusive. That’s what I don’t like about Harvey – but also about Hardt & Negri, coming from another side of the question: both of them reject other approaches to social change (Harvey against termites; H&N against unions), while I recommend (in the concluding chapter to my Nomad Citizenship book, for instance) being open to a range of different strategies – both/and rather than either/or. But here again, James poses an important question (to which I have no easy answer): “At what point [in the effort to be inclusive] have ideas been watered down [so] much that the contagion dissipates?” And I agree: there must be continual outreach and coalition-building.

    • Just a bit of deep-bore theory here, maybe it will help. I have always thought that D&G’s term war machine (even though it is not theirs) is really, more than anything, a way to reject Hobbes, to evoke the state of nature before the State, which is for Hobbes a state of war. And so a war machine is just any machine that tries to proceed as if the social contract never existed, as if we are living in the state of nature. Of course D&G are using ‘war’ here ironically, since they of course don’t believe that without the state we would be in a state of all-out war. So the thing a war machine is, more than anything, is a thing outside the state. James’ concern still holds though: even if something outside the state is good insofar as it is free of state domination, that does not mean its political content is good in all other respects…

      • On one thing I don’t agree: “a war machine is, more than anything, outside the state.” War machines operate inside the state they sometimes even get captured by the state. It’s not a spatial, inside/outside thing, it’s what D&G call a “formal” distinction.

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