Notes on a talk by Roy Bhaskar, with some general reflections on dialectics and musing on the person (rather a person) and the political
May 2009, SOAS, London
My main worry was that I would be ‘converted’ and that the evening would end with me saying to M what an important thinker this guy was, and how he was the way forward. Ah … I jump ahead of myself. Friday of a few weeks ago the Oxford Philosophy Society had a talk by Phil Walden on the work of Roy Bhaskar. It seemed to me, and it seemed to others, that there was summat cultic going on here. Indeed, one of the members asked about Bhaskar ‘is he charismatic?’. The evasive reply included the strange remark that ‘he wears pink socks’ (hang onto your seats folks, this is gonna be a rough ride). Bhaskar is a philosopher, who 30 years ago, published A Realist Theory of Science, which argues – against positivism and relativism – that the project of science does indeed, as plain folk like me think, give access to real structures and dynamics which exist independently of our actions as subjects. He subsequently widened his work to write what his followers (note the word) claim is a major work: Dialectics – the Pulse of Freedom (which they refer to as ‘DPF’ – more on this later). In the last few years he’s bent the knee to the wonders of the mystic East and produced work which, to my eye, is indistinguishable from the banalities of Krishnamurti, the Bhagwan, Swami Biriani, and the rest of them.
Bhaskar is the founder of a movement, or a tendency, or a current which calls itself ‘critical realism’ which as far as I can make out advances the position that we can actually come to know what the world is like, but that this is not an easy process and we can fuckup on the way. So a couple of weeks ago I went, with my good friend M, to a meeting at SOAS on ‘Dialectics’. As well as Bhaskar there was Chris Arthur, who is working on an original and possibly very profound project on the relation between the logic of Hegel and Marx’s critique of political economy.
Now I’m aware that there is a pattern whereby guys like me – fundamentalist atheist take-the-priests-down-the-cellar-and-shoot-em types – will suddenly flip over and start whirling the rosary beads or Om Mani Padme Ho Huming. So, I was a tad worried. But what happened was this:
I’d never seen the guy before, but the first thing that struck me was that this was one of the most grotesque looking persons I have ever seen. He would have been at home in a Bisexual Convention (in several ways, more later). He was enormously, grossly, fat. I’ve gone from being obese to … well, overweight; but this guy was … monstrous, bloated and blubberly. He had long, straight, jet black hair, flowing over a jowly kind of simple face. He was wearing: tiny trainers; salmon-pink socks with track suit bottoms tucked into them; a lumberjack shirt; and a dark navy-blue blazer with shiny brass buttons, of the kind worn by actors playing stereotypes of The Upper Class Twit. That was the weirdest thing of all. It flapped over his capacious bum and had those spiky lapels which you see on the suits of Prince Charley. Indeed, as will be apparent, he is just the kind of twat who finds favour with Prince Tampax. The only sense I could make of this costume was that it was constructed to give the message of: ‘I live so totally in my head and have no awareness of the material world or the mundanities of fashion that I really am unaware that I look a complete berk’.
Talking about him afterwards, M pointed out that there was something ‘girlish’ about Bhaskar’s manner. This was spot-on. It’s hard to explain, I don’t mean that there is some essence of femininity which he evinced, rather that he was acting out a parody, like a drag-queen. But on top of that, or mixed in with it there was a profound silliness of a type which is peculiar to upper-middle-class English bastards who think they are so fucking superior and clever. I find it really hard to convey this It’s to do with a facility of speech, an apparent tolerance and inclusivity, a never having had to worry about the material basis of your life, a knowing that whatever you do you will have somewhere to live and a pleasant job if you deign to do one. Most of the time I will qualify any simplistic move from material situation to ideas, but with these guys it does just work so well. However much they pay lip-service to communism, they actually have no idea as to what capitalism is. They fart on about their ‘religious experiences’ but give no credence to the experience – which by their own epistemology is equally valid – of working 8 hrs/day all your life for little more than your subsistence. And all of this was Roy Bhaskar, supposedly one of the greatest living philosophers.
He somehow reminded me of an 18th C aristo – or rather the picture of one which I have from various sources, reliable or not. He was loquacious, genial, greeted some members of the audience. He was someone who could not conceive that he could have enemies, he thinks everyone is his friend. Actually, as well as a girlish quality, there was something babyish about him: the pink socks, the frequent sucking from the teat of his water-bottle, his mock-profound ummings and aahings, his vacuuous smilings for approval, his very size. He’d be a sure winner of an adult-baby contest. But, who knows, maybe I showed him at that meeting that there are real enemies in his world, but perhaps not
His presentation switched from the (1) possibly interesting, to the (2) banal to the (3) bonkers. We were not actually told what dialectics is, other than that it is ‘the general pattern of reality’.
(1) Possibly Interesting.
Part of dialectics, he argued, is the rejection of ‘ontological monovalence’, ie the assumption of the non-existence of negation. The dialectical understanding grasps that negation is ontologically prior, in that for action to occur it has to be posited that the present state of being be negated. Negation is intrinsic to the structure of intentionally. He was quite clear that ‘Western philosophy has ignored or denied this’. The seemed to me a very strange claim, I would have thought that: it was at least implicit in Heraclitus; that at least some parts of Hegel’s Phenomenology are incomprehensible without it (esp the master-slave transition); that Marcuse makes a great deal of it; that it is also fairly major in Sartre’s ontology. Now as all these are known to Bhaskar (and I’d have thought better known than they are to me) it may be that I have missed summat.
He addressed the question as to what is the ‘rational kernel’ of the dialectic. This is a phrase used by Marx in the ‘Postface’ to the 2nd edn. of Capital Vol 1, where Marx declares (and really does no more) that the dialectic of Hegel ‘must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell’. The very fact that in this one phrase Marx used two tropes whose meanings are – at least on the surface – entirely incongruent should perhaps lead anyone to pause before making too much of this. I’m vaguely reminded of Althusser’s ruminations and ponderings over this phrase in his ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’. I’m wondering if Bhaskar will come to occupy the place in the affections and affectations of leftish philosophers once occupied by the Parisian Poseur.
Anyway … Bhaskar then suggested that a central notion in Kuhn’s theory of scientific change could be re-written in terms of ‘dialectics’. For Kuhn, the work of ‘normal science’ is what scientists do most of the time – they work within a taken-for-granted framework whose boundaries are imperceivable because its categories encompass everything; this is (at least a part of) what he means by a ‘paradigm’. When sufficient ‘anomalies’ appear within the work of normal science then a crisis develops which results in the revolutionary overthrow of one paradigm and its supplantation by another one. This notion, Bhaskar suggested, could be seen as a process whereby what is left out is taken within the framework.
In terms of history, this could be seen as the ‘dialectics of identity’ whereby women were once excluded from the polity and have subsequently been brought into it. So dialectics is a field of action whereby absences and incompletenesses generate a process which makes for greater inclusion. Now as I write this, I think that I just must have got it wrong – because this is so obviously a different notion to Kuhn’s idea of the scientific revolution. A central point about Kuhn’s notion is that there is no conceptual continuum between an old paradigm and the one which replaces it in a ‘scientific revolution’ (part of the title of his famous book). This was precisely what made such a ‘revolution’. It was just this aspect of his theory which in the late sixties was so attractive to a certain kind of dissident (see a couple of essays in the Penguin collection Counter Culture c. 1972); and so repugnant to conservative rationalists (see Lakatos’ essay in Lakatos and Musgrave (eds.) Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge). Now the extension of the suffrage to women, as to the male propertyless, was not in Kuhn’s sense a revolutionary development. Indeed, it could be argued that the process of greater political inclusivity, which Bhaskar parades as an instance of dialectics, was actually driven by a counter-revolutionary imperative: In the words of Quintin Hogg – ‘If you do not give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution’ (Paul Addison, The Road to 1945, Quartet Books, 1982, p232).
Actually, I don’t think I have got it wrong! As I will suggest later this banalisation by Bhaskar of revolution is of a piece with his conformist philosophy.
By now I was just gobsmacked by the sheer shoddiness of his argument, and could only represent what he said by copying down phrases:
agency is structured by love, creativity and intelligence … domestic labour depends on the ground state of the cosmos … the working class is contained within all of us … very few people do not do any work at all [and are, thus, at least partly working class] … the capitalist and the worker are in all human beings … the major problem for social change is that we all at loggerheads with one another … [we can overcome this by realising that] we can identify with anyone on the planet … individually and collectively we all need to do what we can to combat global warming.
He made a great deal of the pervasiveness of what ‘I will call master-slave relationships’ (quoting from his Reflections on Meta-Reality, Sage, 2002, p27). Now, of course, anyone can call anything at all anything they like. But if you are discoursing in the tradition which refers to the word or the notion of dialectics then that phrase has a very particular location, viz in the section of that name in Hegel’s Phenomenology. To then use this category to apply to absolutely any and all situations of domination is to just revel in the logical fallacy of equivocation. The effect of this absorption of the actual into the universal is to liquidate the specificity of, for example and especially, the extraction of surplus-value. It dissolves a relation which is practical and material – known to every worker who slopes off when the supervisor isn’t around – into the universal one of the struggle for recognition. It was a major part of Marx’s Grundrisse to expose this strategy operative in the discourse of Political Economy. To see this dodge return in the banal New Agery of Roy Bharmy was very depressing. In one way this is what was done in the conceptualisation of class as experience – rather than objective relation – by the sham-marxist E P Thompson; but yet this was at an infinitely higher level than the sermonising of Swami Bharmy (he actually styles himself ‘Ram Roy Bhaskar’ on the cover of some of his books !!).
(It may be worth noting that, in his discussions of the Phenomenology in the Paris MSS, Marx does not at all refer to the master-slave section. But then, when he discusses The Philosophy of Right there is no reference to the sections which you would think are the most relevant – the ‘system of need’, ie were Hegel discusses Political Economy.)
The stuff about housework as being dependent on the ‘ground-state of the cosmos’ is beyond parody (I’ll quote it again, he really did utter the words: domestic labour depends on the ground state of the cosmos – you can bet your balls that the fat cunt has never cleaned up other folks’ mess). It’s the eternal return of Nazi Heidegger’s sanctification of the work of the housewife – Adorno somewhere mockingly suggests that his next step should be to write a paen to cleaning the lavatory pan.
What seemed to me the central axis of Bharmy’s rhetoric was that if we could only learn to get along with each other, and learn to love each other, than the world would be such a better place. It was like I’d stepped into a time-warp and we would all go out to a free Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park, and rush for the latest International Times (a contemporary hippy publication). This is why he is the kind of drooling simpleton so liked by Prince Tampax: love and peace, masters and slaves together chanting Hare Krishna, recycling plastic bags, and going to workshops on communication. It was just sooo typical that as his example of political action he referred to global warming – the latest fashion of the lentilmunchers. That’s the other reason he would find himself so at home in a Bisexual Convention: where everyone agrees to agree with everyone else that it is so agreeable to agree with everyone else and everything will be tolerated and all polarities are a bad thing – and if you don’t agree then you’re out.
See my comments on the culture of bisexualism:
Anyway, I challenged Bharmy on this hegel-as-hippy stuff, reminding him that the master-slave relation was not just a metaphor or an abstract category, but a description of what had once been the centre of a civilisation extant in the lives of many people’s grandparents: the slave-owning states of the American South. Slavery was not overcome by understanding the slave-owners, or by a gradual process of greater inclusivity, or by chanting mantras or singing hymns with them. It was smashed and burnt by a terrorist campaign leading to the War of the Southern Secession, aka The Civil War. His response was to the effect that it was not the slaveowners who were the enemy of the slave, but the ‘system’ – again a weird (heimlich) echo of the rhetoric of sixties dissidents.
After the meeting he came up to me in the bar of SOAS. He genially greeted me as ‘my friendly adversary’. I told him that I was no friend of his and that he was a ‘dangerous charlatan’. Phil Walden – clearly an areselicking sycophant of the Church of Bharmy – who was with me and M, was horrified by this and worried that because he had been standing next to me Swami Bharmy might think that he assented to my ‘ludicrous’ remark. That response seemed to me and M to be a final proof that there is something deeply cultish about what is around RB.
If anyone doubts this cultishness, then read the early books and then the latest ones. Where they written by the same author? – No. Where they written by the same person? – Yes. If there were not a cult around the person; then the only response to this ‘turning’ would be that the author of the earlier ones is dead, and the later ones are written by another author of the same name, who happens to be the same person.
Just above I used ‘RB’ – one of the oddities about the culture around him is a profusion of initials for the books and for the concepts and for the guy. That is one of the things that is so reminiscent of L Ron Hubbard. The other being the narrative which they each construct of earlier insights being subsumed into later ones: Dianetics into Scientology; Critical Realism into Critical Dialectical Realism into Critical Transcendental Realism … or whatever. I really don’t care. Because Swami Bharmy’s nonsense has absolutely nothing to offer the emancipatory project. It has nothing in common with what a guy buried in Highgate Cemetery – and I don’t mean Spencer – wrote:
dialectic … is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie … it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation … it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.