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Hanzi Freinacht:

"The Old Left, from Marx to the humanist Marxists to the mainstream of Left and center-left politics, is ostensibly humanist. It is about humanity and her interests, her role in the world. The world, and politics, are seen through the lens of a taken-for-granted idea about “humanity”. Humanity and her interests are taken as an unquestioned point of departure.

The Alt-Left is based upon an anti-humanist perspective. This can mean several different things. Most importantly, it simply means that you break away from the anthropocentric worldview, i.e. that humanity is seen as the center of existence. Since Nietzsche, we have seen a line of progressive thinkers who argue that we cannot really make a rational argument that delineates humanity from the rest of existence. Foucault noted that any attempt to once and for all bolt down “a nature of man” can only be met with a philosophical laughter. In our days you have ideas such as Manuel DeLanda’s “flat ontology”, in which human realities are not seen as any “more real” than those of other living creatures or even physical objects. And you have a wider family of ideas such as “posthumanism”, in which humanity is itself viewed as a fleeting, malleable and political category – and transhumanism, in which humanity is seen as just a step on a wider range of the development of consciousness, one that will inevitably be biologically transformed by applications of technology, in effect merging with technology in various ways.

If we no longer take humanity’s primary importance for granted, it becomes impossible to argue that only human interests should be the aim of politics. This leads us to some of the developments of deep ecology, in which the biosphere is taken as the basic political unit. Perhaps more practically applicable is the thinking that involves the interests and rights of animals – from Peter Singer’s arguments in Animal Liberation, to Gary Francione’s abolitionism (seeking to “abolish” animal slavery) and developments of thinking in animal rights, such as in the critical leftwing sociologist Corey Lee Wrenn’s development of these thoughts and the psychologist Melanie Joy’s exploration of how people justify the exploitation of animals.

The next point is to view psychological development as key to reforming society. If humanity isn’t really a static category, this also means that humans can develop and change: we can become more complex thinkers, more far-sighted, begin relating to more subtle and existential aspects of life – and we can become healthier and happier. All of these things have been studied in adult development research (which reveals that people are at different stages of development), positive psychology and meditation research. The point is that the institutions of today are hardly geared towards supporting such growth; but they certainly can be. Creating the frameworks for such psychological development can be more productive than growing the economy and redistributing its spoils.

To see the inner dimensions of life and society leads us away from a materialistic worldview and towards a more holistic one. For instance, if someone becomes richer, how will they use their wealth? That depends on such things as personality, norms, emotions and relationships. Even the greatest material security and comfort can be insufficient if our ability to experience life in full is dulled. Even the fairest distribution of material goods might produce miserable lives if people’s relationships are not of sufficient quality. Cultural and psychological forces can topple governments and wreck economies. Subtle shifts in people’s values and emotional intelligence can save billions of dollars – and, in extension, millions of lives."



French Theory as Anti-Humanism

Jean-Pierre Dupuy:

“The task in which I have joined with many others, faced with reductive interpretations of scientific advance of this sort, has been to defend the values proper to the human person, or, to put it more bluntly, to defend humanism against the excesses of science and technology. Heidegger completely inverted this way of posing the problem. For him it was no longer a question of defending humanism but rather of indicting it. As for science and technology, or rather “technoscience” (an expression meant to signify that science is subordinated to the practical ambition of achieving mastery over the world through technology), far from threatening human values, they are on Heidegger’s view the most striking manifestation of them. This dual reversal is so remarkable that it deserves to be considered in some detail, even — or above all — in a reflection on the place of cybernetics in the history of ideas, for it is precisely cybernetics that found itself to be the principal object of Heidegger’s attack. In those places where Heideggerian thought has been influential, it became impossible to defend human values against the claims of science. This was particularly true in France, where structuralism — and then poststructuralism — reigned supreme over the intellectual landscape for several decades before taking refuge in the literature departments of American universities. Anchored in the thought of the three great Germanic “masters of suspicion” — Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud — against a common background of Heideggerianism, the human sciences à la française made antihumanism their watchword,5 Let us try to unravel this tangled skein. For Heidegger, metaphysics is the search for an ultimate foundation for all reality, for a “primary being” in relation to which all other beings find their place and purpose. Where traditional metaphysics (“onto-theology”) loudly celebrating exactly what humanists dread: the death of man. This unfortunate creature, or rather a certain image that man created of himself, was reproached for being “metaphysical.” With Heidegger, “metaphysics” acquired a new and quite special sense, opposite to its usual meaning. For positivists ever since Comte, the progress of science had been seen as forcing the retreat of metaphysics; for Heidegger, by contrast, technoscience represented the culmination of metaphysics. And the height of metaphysics was nothing other than cybernetics.

The connection between the mechanization of life and the mechanization of the mind is plain. Even if the Cybernetics Group snubbed biology, to the great displeasure of John von Neumann, it was of course a cybernetic metaphor that enabled molecular biology to formulate its central dogma: the genome operates like a computer program. This metaphor is surely not less false than the analogous metaphor that structures the cognitivist paradigm. The theory of biological self-organization, first opposed to the cybernetic paradigm during the Macy Conferences before later being adopted by the second cybernetics as its principal model, furnished then — and still furnishes today — decisive arguments against the legitimacy of identifying DNA with a “genetic program.” Nonetheless — and this is the crucial point — even though this identification is profoundly illegitimate from both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, its technological consequences have been considerable. Today, as a result, man may be inclined to believe that he is the master of his own genome. Never, one is tempted to say, has he been so near to realizing the Cartesian promise: he has become — or is close to becoming — the master and possessor of all of nature, up to and including himself. Must we then salute this as yet another masterpiece of metaphysical humanism?”

(This point is clearly established by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism. University of Massachusetts Press, 1990)

Where traditional metaphysics (“onto-theology”) had placed God, modern metaphysics substituted man. This is why modern metaphysics is fundamentally humanist, and humanism fundamentally metaphysical. Man is a subject endowed with consciousness and will: his features were described at the dawn of modernity in the philosophy of Descartes and Leibniz. As a conscious being, he is present and transparent to himself; as a willing being, he causes things to happen as he intends. Subjectivity, both as theoretical presence to oneself and as practical mastery over the world, occupies center stage in this scheme — whence the Cartesian promise to make man “master and possessor of nature.” In the metaphysical conception of the world, Heidegger holds, everything that exists is a slave to the purposes of man; everything becomes an object of his will, fashionable as a function of his ends and desires. The value of things depends solely on their capacity to help man realize his essence, which is to achieve mastery over being. It thus becomes clear why technoscience, and cybernetics in particular, may be said to represent the completion of metaphysics. To contemplative thought — thought that poses the question of meaning and of Being, understood as the sudden appearance of things, which escapes all attempts at grasping it — Heidegger opposes “calculating” thought. This latter type is characteristic of all forms of planning that seek to attain ends by taking circumstances into account. Technoscience, insofar as it constructs mathematical models to better establish its mastery over the causal organization of the world, knows only calculating thought. Cybernetics is precisely that which calculates — computes — in order to govern, in the nautical sense (Wiener coined the term from the Greek κυβερνητης, meaning “steersman”): it is indeed the height of metaphysics. Heidegger anticipated the objection that would be brought against him: “Because we are speaking against humanism people fear a defense of the inhuman and a glorification of barbaric brutality. For what is more logical than that for somebody who negates humanism nothing remains but the affirmation of inhumanity?” From the beginning of the 1950s — which is to say, from the end of the first cybernetics — through the 1960s and 1970s, when the second cybernetics was investigating Heidegger defended himself by attacking. Barbarism is not to be found where one usually looks for it. The true barbarians are the ones who are supposed to be humanists, who, in the name of the dignity that man accords himself, leave behind them a world devastated by technology, a desert in which no one can truly be said to dwell. “

(source ?)

Paul Mason's Critique of Marxist Anti-Humanism and Posthumanism


"There are two godfathers of modern anti-humanism in Mason’s schema: Nietzsche on the right and Althusser on the left. The links between Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ amoralism, thirties fascism and the modern far-right are clear (Mason gives a detailed and convincing account). With hierarchy assumed to be a given in social reality, the pursuit of equality becomes a form of stultifying decadence to be purged, lest the ‘last man’ come to rule over a ruin of mediocrity. How we get from Althusser to a modern left which, in Mason’s view, is uniquely ill-equipped to confront the Nietzschean inhumanity of the modern right, requires some more unpacking.

Althusser’s Marxist structuralism was explicitly anti-humanist, an attempt to defend the superiority of the Leninist party model against humanist and autonomist attacks in the era of the early New Left. This involved rejecting the ‘early’, humanist Marx and claiming the later work of Marx (Capital) as an anti-humanist enterprise. For Althusser, Marxism described history as ‘a process without a subject’ i.e. a process in which human beings participate less as conscious agents and more as the fine components in the working of a social Swiss watch. ‘If you want another word for a process without a subject,’ says Mason, ‘then “machine” would be an accurate substitute’ (176). This is the ur-claim of Clear Bright Future: that we are spiralling towards machine control by big data, AI and their billionaire proprietors, and that what this means is the loss of the 360-degree, fully rounded human being that the Left should be identifying and emancipating.

It is failing to do so, argues Mason, because the Althusserian ejection of human agency from history discredited Marxism and gave non-Marxist postmodernists like Foucault and Baudrillard license not only ‘to remove almost every other dynamic that might make sense of material reality: class, capital, laws of motion and – ultimately – the knowability of the world’ (177), but also to produce ‘an anti-theory about human beings: their selves are shattered, their agency is gone, their scientific thought is really ideology’ (177). When postmodernism fell into a cycle of deconstructive repetition in the 90s, argues Mason, posthumanism emerged as its natural successor, rooted in the same principles (Althusserian ones, in Mason’s genealogy, but we might also add Nietzschean and Heideggerian) but more outwardly forward-thinking and programmatically radical. From Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto to Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman, any sense of the human being as the centre of political agency, much less a revolutionary subject, is dissolved by what is intended to be the emancipatory fragmentation and absorption of the human (however gendered, racialized or classed) into technology and, more recently, non-human nature.

The posthumanists wanted to avoid alienation and inter-species hierarchy. The actual result, Mason argues, is that the universal human being now stands in the path of two juggernauts, the Nietzschean far-right (which relishes intra-species hierarchies) and the algorithmic control-machine, with little to say in its own defence.

Mason fears, I think rightly, that the intentional occlusion of the human being by parts of the academic left renders the rights (human and liberal) we already have suspect and those we will demand in the future philosophically baseless. ‘I want to defend the idea,’ says Mason, ‘that every one of us – the transgender activist in London, the female factory worker in Guangdong, the Kanak teenager fighting for independence on New Caledonia – has a universal quality from which inalienable human rights derive’ (198-190).

It seems remarkable, in retrospect, that a universal conception of the human being requires the kind of tentative, preliminary account that Mason offers in Clear Bright Future. Surely a left which is serious about taking power, about building the capacities of human beings acting collectively to transform society, would have a sound, materialist theory of what humans actually are? Surely we should know what makes human beings more likely to bring about communism than, say, apes or robots? It turns out we (the left) don’t. Troublingly, liberals do, in a scrappy combination of evolutionary biology, behaviourism and a quasi-religious theory of free will descended from the Christian conception of a soul which is free only because it must be judged (whence the liberal conception of the legal person). But the problem with the ‘liberal human’, aside from its well-documented degeneration into homo economicus, is that it is entirely genetic and therefore static, being the product of an evolutionary process too slow to have produced significant further changes since the dawn of man.

Mason’s alternative ‘radical humanism’ has two complementary pillars: modern science and Marxist humanism. He identifies, first, some essential differences between humans and other animals: we are lifelong learners; we develop a self-conscious identity; we teach each other to reason i.e. ‘to make conscious, reversible choices between two or more actions’ (138); we do operational logic in our heads; we not only make things but ‘imagine the thing to be made in advance and create the tools to make it’ (138); we communicate through complex verbal and written languages which we can alter at will and use to pretend and speculate, to ‘imagine how the world might be different’ (138); we live in ordered and hierarchical groups like other animals but, unlike them, we can ‘consciously change the structure of the hierarchical groups we live in, and even reject hierarchy entirely’ (138).

This list, while persuasive as to human distinctiveness, doesn’t distinguish a Marxist humanism from a liberal one. To do that, Mason appeals to the early Marx and contemporary work linking the early evolution of human beings to the production of culture and language (Tomasello). The capacities which differentiate human beings from other animals also differ, says Mason, in that they are more intensely social, reflecting the inherently social nature of human labour. Our ability to reason abstractly, speculate about different realities and communicate complex ideas through language are part of our productive toolset, and they all exist to facilitate uniquely human forms of evolutionarily adaptive sociality.

With concepts such as ‘alienation’ and ‘fetishism’, Marx was getting to heart of what makes humans beings distinctive: we make things, including meanings, for other people, literally alienating or separating off parts of ourselves to do so. Not only does this ability determine the basic mechanics of history (production of surplus expropriated by ruling classes, forces/relations of production, crisis and revolution) but it also accounts for the intensely social character of cultural forms, which are themselves uniquely human. Mason draws on Tomasello’s work to show that modern cognitive science and evolutionary anthropology confirm the humanist hypotheses of the early Marx, demonstrating that we produce languages and cultures ‘less as a way of transmitting knowledge [and] more as a way of organizing collaboration’ (215). That ability to collaborate, moreover, is our primary evolutionary advantage.

The crucial step then is to recognise, as Marx did, that ‘because culture and language are evolutionary products … to understand human nature you have to accept it has a history’ (216). This is where a radical humanism starts to differ massively from a liberal one, since for liberal humanists there is only a ‘pre-history’ of human nature, namely, the evolutionary process leading up to homo sapiens. After that, we are what we are, as defined by our evolved genetics. A Marxist humanism, by contrast, in recognising that culture and language are no less parts of ‘human nature’ than basic biological characteristics, can insist that changes in cultural and social forms must be considered changes in human nature enacted by human beings themselves. Human history, of course, is nothing but changes in cultural and social forms; we are the only animals with a history, in this sense. And since we make that history in the self-development of our own relations with each other, we are constantly making and remaking our nature (which, contra posthumanism, doesn’t cease to be human simply because it changes): ‘human nature includes both biology and history’ (216)."