Miguel Amorós: The trials of critical theory

Ah, reason, solemnity, mastering of emotions, this really dismal thing called reflection, all these privileges and splendours man has: what a price had to be paid for them! how
much blood and horror lies at the basis of all ‘good things’! . . .

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morality

We close our selection of writings by Miguel Amorós, with a reflection on critical theory, preceded by a critical introduction to Amorós own views.

This post is part of our ongoing series dedicated to the “May 68 writers” Miguel Amorós, Jaime Semprun, Eduardo Colombo, and Amedeo Bertolo.

For Miguel Amorós (and Jaime Semprun), thought, critical thought, reflects the social composition of society, or more precisely, the struggle for hegemony in class divided society.

It is with this basic idea in the background that we must read Amorós reflection on contemporary critical theory.

If the cycle of bourgeois revolutions came to an end in 1848, so too did the predominance of Hegel’s thought.  No longer concerned with anything but the accumulation of wealth, the bourgeoisie became intellectually conservative.  “[P]ost-Hegelian philosophical thought proved to be a return to the concept of a passive and featureless nature: man, morality, the State, society, were de-historicised and re-naturalised as concepts.”  The development of the proletariat would usher in a new kind of conflict, but one lacking in philosophical understanding.  “While anarchism was considered to be “the most rational and practical conception of a harmonious and free social life” (Berkman), and Marxism was seen more as a scientific theory of social evolution and a critical general sociology, with respect to philosophical principles the most outstanding thinkers of both camps did not proceed beyond a vulgar, naturalistic and scientistic materialism.”

The collapse of the russian revolution into State centred bureaucratic-administrative capitalism, the rise and military defeat of fascism, and the post-war development of managerial forms of capitalism (of the Left and the Right), signaled the final alienation of theoretical thought from revolutionary practice.  Reason succumbed to its opposite in the tragic celebration of isolated subjectivity (vitalism, phenomenology, existentialism, and the like) or in the illusory objectivity of scientism and positivism.

The French May ’68 was the high point of the “second proletarian assault on class society”, as it was defined by the Situationist International, the only collective project that grasped the revolutionary potential of the era and that called attention to the points where the lever of revolt could best be applied. The situationist critique was the most coherent and innovative critique, formulating radical demands that, given the depth of the crisis, could be posed on a massive scale. But it did not find its proletariat, except for during a few brief moments, since the quest for theoretical consciousness on the part of the working class of the 1960s did not last very long. The S.I. delivered the coup de grâce to Stalinism and laid the foundations for a truly subversive radical critique, but its triumphs would only benefit the new amorphous and submissive generations, who were reluctant to leave the capitalist refuge to endorse revolutionary projects, the pillars of a victorious class that knew how to absorb and integrate their contributions.

However, with the defeat of this “second proletarian assault”, the strategic objective of eradicating working class autonomy would be initially carried through by a project of theoretical disarmament.

Everything that revolutionary thought had helped to bring to consciousness had to be erased from the social imagination; but the old positivist Marxism was defunct. Pseudo-radical academic reflection then became the ideal instrument by which the existing order would recover the terrain of ideas by way of the recuperation of conveniently denatured critical fragments, an easy task given the fact that the conditions of intellectual degradation that prevailed in the university milieu of the time created a favorable environment for falsification.

At best, what remained was a “critical” thought that was critical only in name.  And this “… “revolutionary” phase of the ruling ideology, however, came to an end as soon as the perspective of class war vanished in the western world.”  Eulogised as postmodern, Amorós can only find terms and expressions of derision to refer to it: “weak thought”, “submissive thought”, “the French disease”.  Whatever the designation, for Amorós, the essential feature of this thought was and remains its irrationalism.

The great achievement of capitalism was precisely this: the dissolution of the connections that linked individuals with their own kind, to their neighbors and to their class, thanks to the absolute privatization of life brought about by the disintegration of the social fabric by the techno-economic colonization of everyday life. History was not the stage where a conscious humanity was recreated to liberate itself. In practice, History was annihilated in an eternal present where no one experienced being or becoming, but merely existed. Consequently, the theoretical annihilation of the subject of consciousness had to be one of the first objectives of submissive thought. It was necessary to complete the capitalist victory on the field of ideas, but not by using the usual tool of falsification, academic Marxism, but by innovating in the art of dissolving the truth in the lie and reality in the spectacle. The spiritual conditions of late capitalism—disconnection from the past, forgetting, loss of the value of experience, anomie, pseudo-identities—favored this operation by also providing it with the semblance of the prestige of a daring break with the past.

Postmodern thought has given up the concept of totality, and thus, that of truth.  It can therefore do little more than reanimate reactionary forms of relativism, thereby rendering radical thought difficult, if not impossible, and accordingly serving the interests of capital commodity fetishism and alienation.

The first major difficulty faced by radical critique is that of discovering its subject, since the communities of struggle that have arisen from contemporary conflicts are usually not strong enough or stable enough to constitute such a subject. The presence of the middle classes turns conflicts into “communities of carnival” or “make-believe communities”, in the expression of Z. Bauman, that is, masses gathered together in spectacles, without common interests but with a shared, short-term illusion, a momentary identity, that serves to provide an outlet for the tension built up in the daily routine. In this type of pseudo-community, as soon as the festive protests come to an end, everything remains the same as it was before. The most harmful effect of the protest-spectacles of the last few years, by dispersing the energy of real social conflicts in ceremonial twenty-one gun salutes, has been the aborting of the development of real combatant communities. The avalanche of gestures of dissatisfaction buries any attempt at rational communication, and that is why contemporary assemblies shun debate and revel in expressions of emotion, attracting an endless array of neurotic and mentally disturbed personalities. It is obvious that if crises are not serious enough to generate irreconcilable antagonisms and to seriously threaten the survival of a part of society, the emotional plague will always deactivate real conflicts, and postmodern fragments will contaminate all well-intentioned reflections. The immediate task of anti-developmentalist radical critique will therefore consist in denouncing the psycho-political mechanisms of control and the mesocratic mentality in which those mechanisms are rooted, but always in the name of Reason.

The sweep of Amorós critique is dramatic, but ultimately unsustainable.

A myth haunts Amorós’ critical thought: that of the revolutionary working class situated in a history of class struggle against the bourgeoisie, and opposed to the latter in the name and reality of a true universalism of freedom and equality.  But if we characterise this idea of the proletariat as a myth, it is not to put in its stead the truth.  Myths are not to be judged as true or false, but as good or bad, beautiful or ugly, and thus true for the desired effects that they produce.  The idea of the proletariat as the universal bearer of human liberation was always false, and harmful in its consequences (false because no so-called “proletarian” revolution has ever been proletarian – they have rather been anti-proletarian, i.e, anti-capitalist, and harmful because they have served to sustain and legitimate the integration (“proletarianisation”) of vast populations into capitalist social relations.

The differing subjectivities moulded and desired by capitalism have changed over time, but never was there an intrinsically revolutionary subject born of its womb.  If Amorós is quick to condemn the passivity of the contemporary global middle class, it is not entirely without warrant; but it is not because this social class is the “impotent” stand-in for a defeated “revolutionary class”, but because it is the highest expression of alienating capitalist social relations.

If “Historical subjectivities” are dubious fictions, what are we to make of the ideas of “Progress”, “History”, “Reason”?  What substantive content can be ascribed to such notions which is not biased, one-dimensional, “Eurocentric”, patriarchal?  In other words, rather than lamenting the intentional and conspiratorial loss of truth, let us recognise that whatever truth we can arrive at is always perspectival, and that what critical theory can and should aspire to is an always limited understanding of a perspective that intensifies the possibilities for autonomous and collective human creation.  Why?  Because life so lived is richer and more beautiful.

(All quotations in our introduction are from Miguel Amorós’ The rise and fall of weak thought)

At the cutting edge of the French Disease


The theoretical regression occasioned by the disappearance of the classical workers movement allowed a strange philosophy to rise to a hegemonic position, the first philosophy that was not born of the love of truth, the primordial goal of knowledge. Weak thought (or postmodern philosophy) transforms this concept of truth into a relative concept, which it derives from a mixture of conventions, practices and customs that vary over time, something that is “constructed” and therefore artificial, without any foundation. And along with the truth, every rational idea of reality, nature, ethics, language, culture, memory, etc., is subjected to the same treatment. Furthermore, various authorities of the little world of postmodernism have not hesitated to define some of these ideas as “fascist”. Finally, recuperating Nietzsche, there is no truth, only interpretation. This systematic demolition of a way of thought that was born with the Enlightenment and proclaimed the constitution of freedom, and that, by giving rise to the modern class struggle, would also lead to social critique and revolutionary ideologies, therefore possesses, for those who, rather than bathing in the clear waters of authenticity, prefer to wallow in the mud of fraudulence—college professors and students for the most part—the appearance of a radical demystification carried out by inflammatory thinkers, whose goal would seem to be none other than the liberating chaos of the most extreme individuality, the proliferation of identities and the abolition of every norm of common behavior. On the day after this deconstructionist bacchanal, nothing of any value remains, nor is there any universal concept left standing: existence, reason, justice, equality, solidarity, community, humanity, revolution, emancipation … all of them would be stigmatized as “essentialist”, that is, as abominable sins “pro natura”. On the spiritual level, however, the negative extremism of the post-philosophers displays suspicious similarities with contemporary capitalism. A radicalism on such a scale stands in stark contrast not only with the political ideas and choices of its authors, some of whom are dyed-in-the-wool academics, while others are strictly conventional types, but is perfectly in accord with the current phase of capitalist globalization, characterized by the technological colonization of life, a perpetual present, anomie and the spectacle. It is a complementary doctrine for those for whom life is easy. No one will disturb the professors of “post-truth” at their desks. And, thanks to the priority bestowed by domination upon instrumental thought, and consequently, thanks to the slight importance that dominant thought concedes to the “humanities”, various pseudo-transgressive bubbles and every kind of speculative doubletalk completely without relation to the surrounding reality have appeared, uncontested, in the universities, giving rise to a falsifying confusion in modern critical thought that enjoys an extensive noisy media accompaniment.

The postmodern praise of normative transgression corresponds to a certain degree with the disappearance of sociability in the urban conglomerations. In accordance with the new weakness in matters relating to philosophy, nothing is original, everything is constructed, and therefore everything teeters on a pedestal of clay. Political economy, classes, history, the social fabric, opinion … everything. Therefore, if there is no valid social relation, or real collective liberation, or dialectic, or definitive criterion for judgment with respect to these things—what meaning do norms, means and ends have? They arise from nothing and end in nothing. This nihilism is very much in accordance with the nihilism of the market economy, since the latter grants no importance to anything that does not have economic value. This is why it should not seem strange that the eulogy for dehumanization and chaos that is so typical of the deconstructionists goes hand in hand with apologetics for technology and its world. Weak thought, among other things, celebrates the hybridization of man with machine. Is it not the case that a mechanical nature is superior, because it is so free of constraints, to human nature, which is the slave of natural laws? The nihilism inherent in mechanistic logic reflects and responds to the abolition of history, the evaporation of authenticity, the liquidation of classes and the apologetics for narcissistic individualism; it is therefore a product of late capitalist culture, if the latter can still be called a culture, and its function is none other than the promotion of ideological adaptation to the world of the commodity as the latter descends into chaos. In relation to what exists, postmodern philosophy is a philosophy of legitimation.

This philosophical trend that was born as a reaction to the revolt of May ’68—a revolt that emerged from “the underworld of the Zeitgeist” (Debord)—was welcomed in the American universities as the very paradigm of critical profundity, and from there “French Theory” spread to all the thought laboratories of capitalist society, descending into the juvenile ghettoes in the form of a bold and radical intellectual fashion. Given its ambivalent and malleable character, the liquid syllogisms of postmodernism have found their place in the toolboxes of every variety of new-wave ideologist, both among the most chameleon-like civil society activists, as well as among the most up-to-date anarchists conversant with the new trends. And there is even a new kind of anarchism, born from the breakdown of historical bourgeois values, based on subjective affirmation, an activism without goal or plan, and total amnesia, which has in most locations replaced the old ideal, born of reason, that originated in the class struggle and forged a universal ethics and whose revolutionary achievements were deeply anchored in history. In the French Theory, or, as it may be more felicitously denominated, the “morbus gallicus” [Latin: the French Disease—historically, syphilis], whose bastard offspring is post-anarchism, historical references have no place; they merely reveal nostalgia for the past, something that is very much to the discredit of any deconstructionist. The social question is dissolved in a multitude of questions relating to identity: questions of gender, sexual preference, age, religion, race, culture, nation, species, health, diet, etc., which are the focus of debate and give rise to a peculiar political correctness that takes the form of a tortured orthography and a discourse chock-full of hollow clichés and grammatical confusion. A sampler of fluctuating identities replaces the historical subject, people, social collective or class, its absolutist affirmation obviates the critique of exploitation and alienation and, as a result, an “intersectional” interplay of oppressed minorities replaces collective resistance to established power. Liberation is thus supposed to come from a playful transgression of the rules that shackle these identities and oppress these minorities, rather than from a global “alternative” or a revolutionary project of social change that includes every demand, something that is undoubtedly considered to be totalitarian, because once new rules are “constituted”, they will lead to more power and therefore to more oppression. Libertarian communism, viewed from this perspective, is nothing but a form of dictatorship. Critical analysis and anti-capitalism itself, thanks to the suppression of the past, and therefore thanks to ignorance, give way to the interrogation of norms, the contortion of language, and an obsession with difference, multiculturalism and individualism. And this does not lead to coherence, for the category of contradiction has been abolished, along with the categories of alienation, supersession and the totality. To construct or to deconstruct, that is the only question.

It is certainly true that the proletariat did not “realize” philosophy, as Marx, Korsch and the Situationist International desired, that is, it did not proceed from its emancipatory desires to practice, and today we are paying the price for its failure to do so. It is nonetheless also true that, in the development of the class struggle, a kind of critical thought arose that situated the working class at the heart of historical reality, and which was defined as Marxist, anarchist or simply socialist. These tendencies entailed an attempt to grasp reality as precisely as possible, as a totality that unfolds in history, in order to thereby elaborate the strategies by means of which the class enemy could be defeated. It was assumed that the final victory was inscribed in history itself as a goal. The proletarian assaults on class society failed, however. And as capitalism overcame its crises, the postulates of proletarian critical thought were engulfed by contradictions, and new formulations were required. There were various attempts to satisfy this need and we do not have time to enumerate them here. All of them, however, were characterized by the clarity contributed by the perspective of the battles for liberation, but they were immersed in a context of retreat and defeat, and then gradually disconnected from practice. Reading them, however, reinforced the conviction that a free society is possible, that struggle is useful and that we must never give up, that solidarity among those who resist makes us stronger and education makes us more lucid…. The struggles waged by minorities, far from dismantling social critique, helped to enrich it. Questions of identity, far from being secondary, acquired an increasingly greater importance as capitalism penetrated everyday life and destroyed traditional structures. Aspects of exploitation were denounced that had previously hardly been noticed at all. At first, the universal and identity converged; the solutions for racial segregation, sexual discrimination, patriarchy, etc., were not conceived separately, but from the perspective of a global revolutionary transformation. No one could imagine that black racism, a society of Amazons, a gay capitalism or a vegetarian dictatorship would be something to be desired. The social revolution was the only framework within which all questions could really be posed in all of their scope and resolved. Without the social revolution, there were only elitist specialization, the sectarianism of the ghetto, activist estheticism and stereotypical militancy. This was in fact the trail that was blazed by the postmodernists.

Weak thought also exploited the goldmine of the ideological crisis by recuperating authors and ideas, but with results and conclusions that were totally at variance with their original intentions and meanings. Once the revolutionary subject was neutralized in practice, it had to be abolished in theory, so that struggles would remain isolated, marginal and incomprehensible, enveloped in a cretinizing and self-referential verbalism suitable only for insiders and specialists. This was the mission of French Theory. There was a surge of sophistical and cryptic confusion that consecrated the intellectual caste as privileged sages and as the chosen people for the crowds of their followers, mostly university students and academics. The “mal francés” [Spanish: the “French Disease”—see above] was the first irrationalist philosophy associated with a more or less well-paid administrative or bureaucratic lifestyle, and for good reason: its revision of the social critique of domination and its attack on the revolutionary idea performed magnificent services for the cause of domination. The idea of power as a ubiquitous atmospheric element that embraces everything, condemns every collective practice in favor of an ideal whose purpose is the renewal or reconstruction of this power as a kind of snake that eats its own tail. Power is not, it would seem, embodied in the State, Capital, or the Market, as it was when the proletariat was the potentially revolutionary class. Now, all of us are Power; it is everywhere and everything. The revolution is thus redefined as a decoy deployed by Power to rejuvenate itself in extreme situations, on the basis of new values and norms that are just as arbitrary as those that it had itself abandoned. The discrediting of the social revolution is very useful for real power in times of crisis, insofar as any organized subversive opposition that attempts to take shape (a social subject that tries to constitute itself) will immediately be denounced as an exclusionary power. In short, it will be denounced as an evil “narrative”, just like the class struggle. The rejection of the idea of class necessarily also takes the form of class hatred, the legacy of past domination that is operative in the post-rational imagination. Finally, all revolutionary and libertarian communist pretensions are nullified by gender fluidity, polyamory, transversalism and the vegan regimen. Once the individual problematic is resolved in this way and the common cause is definitely rejected, the way forward is then cleared for a collaborationist and participatory opposition, one that is ready to play the game and of course to vote, to occupy positions of power and to manage the prevailing order with a radically identity-oriented discourse, and, incidentally, a radically civil society-oriented discourse that is now so popular not only among the neo-leftists who have so recently become members of various government institutions, but also among the prematurely senile leftist youth who have been fully integrated into the system since their birth.

The critical horizon, a prisoner of the French Disease, is therefore horrifying, just like life in the Western urban world that is completely saturated by capitalism. It is the end of reason, the spiritual closure of a declining world where resistance to power was once possible, the evaporation of historical class consciousness, the apotheosis of relativism, the absolute triumph of fraudulence, the perfected reign of the spectacle…. You can refer to this phenomenon by whatever name you like, but it is above all the intellectual effect of the historical defeat of the proletariat during the seventies and eighties, and therefore of the disappearance of two whole generations of social combatants and of their inability to transmit their experience and knowledge to subsequent generations, which could have inoculated the latter against the postmodernist psychosis and its unintelligible jargon. There is a clear line of genealogical demarcation that more or less coincides with the appearance of the youth “milieu” or ghetto at the end of the eighties, and also with the relation of the latter to the process of gentrification of the downtown districts of the cities; and finally, one is altogether justified in positing a relation between the spread of the postmodern disease with the development of the new middle classes. The destruction of the revolutionary social movement and the catastrophe of theory are two aspects of the same disaster, and therefore of the double victory, practical and ideological, of capitalist, patriarchal and statist domination. Even so, the debacle is never total, because conflicts are proliferating at a much faster rate than identities, and the will to liberation in common is stronger than the narcissistic desire for individual success. Ten minutes of pathetic virtual fame are nothing in the storm-tossed sea of a permanent state of war. The class struggle reappears in the critique of the world of technology, in the struggle against aggressive machismo and in the defense of territory, in the community projects oriented towards going beyond capitalism and in the battles waged by small-scale farmers against industrial agriculture and the commodification of life. It is likely that in the turbo-capitalist countries these conflicts will not be susceptible to being pigeonholed as focal points of “intersectional” antagonisms, or “gender”-based issues, or other reductionist tags of identity, which are perfectly compatible with a reformist casuistry based in the “social economy”, but wherever an authentic front of mass struggle crystallizes, such trivialities will be turned against themselves and will be consumed in the flames of universality.

Outline notes for presentations on anarchism and postmodernism held on November 14, 2017 at the Centro Social Ruptura, Guadalajara (Jalisco), and on November 25 at the Biblioteca Social Reconstruir, Mexico City.

Translated in December 2017 from the original Spanish-language text provided by the author.

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1 Response to Miguel Amorós: The trials of critical theory

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