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Some Thoughts On Making a Total Critique



“Think of another concept of strength. Perhaps this is the new poetry.

Basically, what is social revolt if not a generalized game of illegal matching and divorcing of things.

—At Daggers Drawn


    The various institutions of the state and the economy are spreading their net into every corner of the globe and every moment of our existence. From the surveillance camera on the street corner to the genetically engineered soy product, from the strip mine in the West Papua jungle to the increasingly broad and far-reaching “anti-terrorist” laws, the world is becoming an interwoven network of control and exploitation coupled to an unending parade of environmental and social catastrophes that are used to justify the increase in control. For those of us who imagine and desire a world in which we, as individuals, truly determines our own existence, together with those we enjoy sharing our lives with, it is necessary to develop a critique of this world that goes to the roots of all this, a total critique of the existence that has been imposed on us.

    This is by no means an easy task. We have been taught to simply accept things as they are, and when we start to question, it is much easier to examine things piece-meal, not trying to make connections or keeping those connections on a surface level. This is easier on a number of levels. It not only does not require one to think as deeply or examine reality as closely. It also makes for a critique that is much more easily actively expressed without disturbing one’s own calm existence too greatly. If we view the killing of an unarmed person by a cop, the war against Iraq, the clear-cutting of a forest, the sweatshop in Taiwan and the emptiness of our daily lives as separate matters, we can easily conceive of them as mere aberrations. Our task then simply becomes that of pointing out the problem to the right authorities, so that they can correct the problem. Voting, petitions, litigation, appeals for legislation and public non-violent demonstrations before the symbols of the institutions responsible for taking care of these matters become the order of the day. The aim is simply to make the institutions live up to their own proclaimed ideals. But in the present reality, this reformist perspective either requires one to put on blinders so as to only see one’s own narrow issues, or to continually scurry from one isolated problem to the next, on and on in the activist rat race until one burns oneself out.

    So it is clearly necessary to go deeper, to make the connections between the various miseries and disasters that we face. It is necessary for us to learn to make the “illegal matches” that we have been trained to ignore, the connections that allow us to begin to understand the totality of our existence. This is not as simple as making blanket declarations that all of this is caused by the state, by capital, by civilization. As true as this may be, all that we have done if we do this is given a label to this totality, and labeling a thing is not the same as understanding it adequately to be able to confront and challenge it. In fact, without an adequate analysis of the nature of the state, capital or civilization, they merely function as abstractions that can distract us from the actual realities we face and may even end up become one’s role within the activist milieu, the basis for a political identity that is placed in contention with others in the ideological marketplace. This is itself enough to indicate that such critiques are not yet total.

    If one has not overcome the method of critique that this society imposes, the piecemeal critique of the parts without any conception of the whole, one’s attempts to critique the totality of our existence may take the form of quantitatively adding together a series of oppressions and/or institutions to be opposed. A prime example of this is to be found in the statements of purpose of groups such as Love and Rage, which may inform us that they oppose sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, capitalism and the state. And those who want to be more radical may add ageism, ablism, speciesism, civilization and so on. But this still is a more like a laundry list than a serious critique, a list of issues to deal with in a political framework. Deeper connections – connections that show how the ruling order can recuperate partial oppositions (anti-racism, feminism, gay liberation, even those forms of opposition to capitalism, the state and civilization that continue to operate within a political activist framework) to its own ends – can only spring from a different kind of critique.

    Even when a critique places the various oppressions under a single conceptual umbrella (e.g., the state, capital, patriarchy, civilization) in order to explain them, this critique is not necessarily a total critique. Such critiques may in fact be broad without having depth. When such critiques are partial this will become evident first of all in the inability to apply the critique concretely to one’s daily struggle against this social order. This indicates that although the critique may indeed appear to have made the necessary connections, the “illegal matches”, on the surface level, this has happened in such a realm of abstraction that it does not allow for the “illegal divorces” – the singling out of specific targets, the recognition of the physical body of the enemy – to occur.

    One of the primary reasons for this is a failure to recognize and reject reification. Reification is the ideological and social process of transforming an activity or social relationship – something we do – into a being that stands above us and acts upon us as if we were mere tools. An example of what I mean can be drawn from a particular critique that has developed in certain anti-civilization circles. (I choose this example because it so clearly expresses this failure and because my own perspective also includes a critique of civilization, thus this is part of a comradely critical discourse.) In recent writings, certain individuals in anti-civilization circles have made a critique of reason that is actually an ideological rejection of reason. Of course, their argument against reason is always reasoned (even if often poorly so). However, the fact that this critique may not be able to be fully realized in practice now (which anti-capitalist lives absolutely without money? which critic of technology lives without any products of the industrial system?) is not sufficient reason to discount it. Where the problem lies is that if this critique cannot be applied usefully precisely in the way we develop theory and critique, i.e., in the way we think (and there is no evidence that it can), then it has no practical application to our revolutionary struggle. The failure of this critique as revolutionary theory stems from the fact that it accepts the concept of reason as a thing in itself. In other words, it accepts the rationalist reification of reason and bases its rejection of reason upon this. So this critique is really a mere philosophical game, a game of words that allows the players to claim that their critique of this society is more total simply because it is broader than that of others. But a total critique requires depth; it needs to get to the bottom of things, to the roots. And at bottom reason is not a thing in itself. It is an activity we do, but one that has been reified in the form of rationalism into an ideal above us precisely because it was socially useful. But the absolute rejection reason is also a reified concept, an ideal that stands above us, since even on the level of antagonistic struggle it can only exist as a goal for a distant future. The rejection of reified reason would start with the recognition that Reason, as a thing above us, does not exist. Rather each of us reasons, and has his own reasons, and certain tools for critical thinking can help us hone our capacity to reason into a weapon we can use in our lives and struggles.

    In fact, a total critique is qualitatively different from a partial critique. All partial critiques, regardless of how extreme they may be, start from the perspective of this society. (For instance, the critique of reason described above starts from the social conception of Reason as defined by rationalism). The more extreme and broader partial critiques simply lead to an ideological rejection of major aspects of this society or even of all of it considered abstractly because this society is deemed to have failed on its own terms. Such ideological rejections offer little of practical use to the immediate struggle against this society since they are based on the same reifications through which this society seeks to justify itself. In developing a total critique, one starts from herself, from her desire to determine his existence on his own terms. This critique is thus the act – or better, the ongoing practice – of confronting this society with oneself and one’s hostility to its intrusion into one’s existence. It is from this basis that one can indeed plumb the depths of this society and begin to recognize the intertwining networks of control through which it defines every moment of our existence. This is also the practical basis from which to make those “illegal matches and divorces” – the capacity to put together and break apart in order to know how and why, when and where to attack. Since one makes this critique starting from herself and her desire, it is not merely a critique of the failures of this society, of what is worst in it; it is also a critique of its success, of what is best in it, because even if this society were to live up to all of its ideals, it would still demand the subjection of our individuality, of our uniqueness to it, “to the common good”. Furthermore, because it is an active critique, the intertwined theory and practice of our enmity against this social order, it is never a finished critique. Rather it is in continual development, honing itself as we struggles against the reality of our current existence. When one starts from himself in developing his critique of the social order, she recognizes this order as an enemy to be destroyed and seeks the weapons she and the accomplices with whom he can attack this order. And from here solidarity and revolutionary practice can develop.




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