work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Tolerance – veering off into a socialist defence of consumer culture…

09.03.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

[this post is a bit of a mess – it’s initial occasion was Emre Kongar’s article (see below) on tolerance and secularism. My reaction to it got, somehow, entangled with my plan to write a socialist defence of consumer culture…]

A distant colleague of mine is fond of saying that he will dance on the grave of tolerance. He is by no means suggesting a tyrannical regime, censorship and the like (or at least so I hope). Rather this is the claim that tolerance falls short of recognition, is something that is just granted and puts the tolerated in an inferior position – as tolerated despite being despised. In this view, tolerance is not only not enough, it is condescending and a bad substitute for lacking recognition.

I strongly disagree. Liberal tolerance as partly achieved in democratic societies is the result of a struggle for recognition. To be left alone to read, write, speak, believe, enquire, live as one pleases is a hard fought for right, an outcome of a struggle for recognition, not a condescendingly and patronisingly granted toleration. The latter was what bourgeois liberalism had in store for the Jews whom it notoriously did not consider part of the society that had just liberated itself from autocratic rule but as a foreign element. The rights that liberal and socialist democratic movements had achieved were not for them as even though many of them had participated and spearheaded these struggles, they were not seen to do so as Jews. They were expected to leave their Judaism behind. Liberals and socialists failed miserably when it came to understand antisemitism as an attack on tolerance as such and not just a withdrawal of toleration of one particular group.

Tolerance as right to be different (in religious, political, sexual, philosophical etc. terms) must be negative recognition as  ‘a posture of indifference and detachment’ (Baumann 2001: 144) I think, however, Bauman is wrong to then equate this tolerance with mere toleration. The difference is that toleration does not involve recognition at all – one of the roots of modern antisemitism lies in the fact that post Enlightenment toleration of the Jews was not based on recognition at all but on concession. As Claussen (1994: 124) argues:

‚Die Kategoriern der von Hegel formulierten Emanzipationsdialektik erweisen sich als produktiv für unseren Zusammenhang, weil sie auf die Juden nicht zutreffen. Nicht die Dialektik von Herr und Knecht herrscht hier, sondern die von Herr und Diener. Die jahrhundertealte Institution der Kammerknechtschaft im Deutschen Reich, die erst durch Napoleon beendet wird, verdeutlicht, daß die Juden als Kollektiv Schutzobjekte der Herren bleiben. Da es ihnen verwehrt war, Grundeigentum zu erwerben, galt für sie nicht die Möglichkeit, „ihre Selbständigkeit in der Dingheit zu haben.“ ‘  ‘The categories of the dialectics of emancipation as formulated by Hegel are in this context productive only insofar as they do not apply to the Jews. The age old institution of chamber serfdom in the German Empire, which was only ended by Napoleon, shows that the Jews as a group remained protégés of the lords. As they were prohibited from acquiring real estate they did not have the opportunity to have “their autonomy in thinghood”’

The key is to recognise the right to be different as such and this is enacted in the recognition of commodity ownership. I have argued that, once politically established and culturally entrenched, capitalist exchange as everyday practice provides such recognition – abstract but at the same time utterly materialistic, thingly, recognition. This recognition acknowledges not who or what one is, but that one is and that one is different, alien in the Simmelian sense of Fremdheit (which nowadays is slightly inadequately translated as alterity – Sennett 2002):

‘Freedom acknowledged in negative recognition, of course, can only be “negative freedom” as advocated by Isaiah Berlin, i.e. a freedom that is defined by the relative absence of external constraints – tolerance as indifference that could well be seen as part capitalist alienation. As Simmel pointed out, the “lack of character” of money is responsible for unprecedented freedom as much as for the psychopathologies that accompany alienation. Marx himself celebrated such “alienation” as a precondition for the self-conscious association of free individuals that is communism. With the demise of the, from an historical distance seemingly, romantic pre-capitalist communal relations the stifling “engulfment” in traditions and personal dependencies also has receded. As Gerald Cohen puts it: “Alienation is the cost of rescue from envelopment by this natural and social environment which is man’s estate before capitalism.”’ (Varul 2010)

As soon one goes positive (although it does sound so much more, well, positive…) one actually goes back from tolerance to toleration (although toleration then would become something more assertive). The recognised then is no longer legitimately different as such – alien – but a known and defined different. This automatically makes being different an object of political discourse, giving the recognising society a say over what is recognised and what is not.

So as a strategy against Islamophobia (as this is the context in which the argument is mostly heard these days) the quest for positive recognition of ethno-religious difference is a cul-de-sac. There may be something in it for Muslim communities – including particular legal arrangements such as recognition of an option for sharia law in private cases, “positive discrimination” to safeguard proportional representation in public offices and the labour market, Islamic religious holidays alongside the Christian ones – etc. But the price would be that expectations of collective loyalty would be increased, alongside public scrutiny of practices and beliefs. So there may be proper recognition of British Islam as integral part of British society – but the current attempts to question whether Islam can be properly “British” would gain a level of legitimacy that they currently do not have.

One could say that I argue from a liberal secularist point of view (which I do) and I just don’t want to see religious communities achieve more than negative recognition. As I am writing these lines, however, I am in a Muslim country which is currently governed by the Islamic equivalent of a central European Christian Democratic party: Turkey. Here it is secularism that is struggling to maintain a legitimate position – at least in Central Anatolia, one stands out if one doesn’t follow the requirements of mainstream Sunni Islam (especially during Ramadan when one is more easily identified as secularist, Christian or heterodox). Shopkeepers accept my payment for the liberal/secular newspaper Radikal or the secularist Cumhuriyet with raised eyebrows. If some of them had their way I could find positive recognition/toleration as member of a minority religion in a millet system (which for me would mean I’d have to try to pass as a Christian as there would be no millet for atheists). But under the dominance of the liberal-capitalist market – an institution that mainstream Islamists in Turkey have to come to view as liberation from the cultural hegemony of Kemalist state secularism – those shopkeepers sell me publications they could not find more disagreeable. A case of Smithonian recognition between butchers and bakers…

In one copy of Cumhuriyet I found the mirror demand for positive recognition instead of “mere” tolerance from the reverse perspective. After a lament about the way that Islamist parties and intellectuals have made their peace with secularism and democracy as something they can live with, put up with, Emre Kongar (who otherwise is a liberal secularist) concludes

“… demokrasinin ve onun onkoşulu olan laikliğin gereği birbirine tahammül etmek de değil, hoşgörü göstermek de değildir… Demokrasinin, laikliğin anlamı, herkesin birbirinin dinine, imanına, inancına, inançsızlığına, yaşam biçimine, kendisine istediği saygıyı göstermesi ve devletin de bunu hukuk araçlığıyla korumasıdır” “… what is necessary for democracy and secularism, which is a precondition for democracy, is not that one puts up with each other or shows tolerance. The meaning of democracy and secularism is that everybody shows the respect for each and everyone’s religion, faith, belief, unbelief, lifestyle that one expects for one’s own – and that the State protects this respect by legal means” Emre Kongar: “Aydınlanma” Cumhuriyet, 16th August 2011

I am deeply suspicious about this “showing respect” business. Why should it not be enough (or, indeed, preferable) to respect others as human beings regardless or even despite of their religious, political etc. identity. I feel much securer in a society where people who think I should and probably will burn in Hell have no choice but to recognise my freedom to not believe what they believe than in one where I belong to a group of people (say, “Humanists”) who are recognised and respected as integral part of a secular democratic society. The reason for this preference is that in the latter case there needs to be some reason for that recognition – i.e. the positive contributions that Humanism makes to society and why it should be thus cherished and celebrated by that society as a whole (just as other religious and ethnic communities). Not that I think such a case would be difficult to be made. But it would radically limit the scope of how far one can deviate from the positively recognised path of your community? I always felt uncomfortable with the idea of giving the entirely negative quality of being an atheist (i.e. the simple fact of not believing in a higher being) a positive gloss by calling it humanism. Not that I do not subscribe to a set of moral values – but I don’t think I need them to justify my non-belief.

The AKP government and especially the Fethullah Gülen Movement have taken some (in themselves very encouraging) steps to put an end to the discrimination that Alevis experience in Turkey. But they do so by recognising Alevis as part of the Islamic ümmet (gestures like accepting invitations to Alevi iftars during Ramadan). But what with those Alevis who do not see themselves as Muslims but as a separate and distinctive cultural identity, or highlighting the syncretistic nature of the writings of Hacı Bektaş? And what, of course, about atheists? All in all I have more trust in the fact that, as part of consumer culture, I can indulge in my secularist self-expression by buying a newspaper from a shopkeeper who resents me for it but sells it anyway than in the (nonetheless reassuring) banners proclaiming that Ramadan is the month of tolerance. The reassurance from the banners is about toleration, the selling of newspapers the shopkeeper doesn’t like is about tolerance based on recognition – a recognition based on the capitalist ethos of exchange which finds its realisation in the consumer market. And to return to my newspapers – they are consumer goods too: expressions of selfhood in thinghood.

The “reciprocal and all-sided dependence of individuals” expressed in exchange value constantly recalls the fact that one owes one’s very existence to society. In order to justify and maintain that existence one has to offer one’s services (incorporated in a product or directly as labor power) to the owners of exchange value, that is, money. As workers individuals are, as Marx put it, doubly free: free to dispose of themselves as they please, but also free of any commodities whose sale could sustain them. Most of us are forced to sell our labor power as the only commodity we can continuously dispose of. In order to live we must, in effect, serve others. In a generalized and anonymized reciprocity like that of the capitalist market society ideally we can choose who to serve, that is, we are not servants of any particular master. But we have to serve somebody in order to obtain an income that allows us to exist as free individuals outside the workplace. And even if we are in a position to choose our temporal masters (employers/clients), as owners of social wealth (money) each individual master represents the mastership of society as a whole.  (Varul 2010: 63)

The need to earn money as generalised debt – we owe our existence to society and we need to pay off that debt somehow. But in a liberal capitalist society we are not told how to do this. We are not liberated from serfdom as such, but we are no longer tied to a concrete master and our serfdom to society as a whole is sweetened by the reverse indebtedness of society to us – in the form of money as generalised bills of exchange. Graeber in a preview of his Debt: the first 5000 years brings the moral implication to the point

“The true ethos of our individualistic society may be found in this equation: We all owe an infinite debt to humanity, nature, or the cosmos (however one prefers to frame it), but no one else can possibly tell us how to pay it. All systems of established authority—religion, morality, politics, economics, the criminal-justice system—are revealed to be fraudulent ways of calculating what cannot be calculated. Freedom, then, is the ability to decide for ourselves how to pay our debts”

This of course is too good to be entirely true. If it were, there would be no point whatsoever in considering a socialist alternative. But not only is this too good to be true – it is also too good not to be an object for the much cited Aufhebung – the negation as full realisation of the concept. The freedom which is a reality for the haves and an empty promise for the have-nots in capitalist societies (even where it tends to be above what Jimmy Reid called the “freedom to starve” – and that is, ironically, mainly thanks to people like him) – this freedom is not something to be thrown away because for many it is nothing but an ideological appearance. Its realisation for all is what Marx had in mind when contrasting the division of labour that culminates in capitalism and the division of labour in communism.

‘For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.’

In essence: Marx thought about communism primarily in terms of freedom – everything else (questions of property, equality etc.) are means to this end: the generalisation and radicalisation of the freedom that under capitalism is tied to private property. (Which is why Engels, in the Prinicples of Communism answers the question “What is communism” with “Communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.”) If there is evil in alienation then it is that, as Avineri (1969: 116) put it, in capitalist society ‘ the individual by being denied his private property is denied his existence as individual’.

If the issue is liberty – and if equality is about equal freedoms – then the main issue is not immiseration and also not alienation. The question is whether freedoms are curtailed by unequal distribution of property rights even if there is some freedom of movement and expression for most. And property, material possession from clothing to newspapers, from “a room for oneself” to internet access does matter for freedom of expression. Selfhood – individual or collective, egalitarian or hierarchical, eccentric, traditional etc. – always needs to be constituted in material culture. In all societies. (Ask an anthropologist if you don’t believe me). But only in a capitalist consumer society are they to a large extent a matter of choice – hence my concern that an attack on consumerism will hit freedom and my suggestion that current consumer culture needs a functional equivalent in a socialist society if that society is to be one of free individuals.

That negative recognition and negative freedom enshrined in consumerism threatened by the inequalities that the capitalist relations of production that make consumerism possible is of course a contentious claim – neoliberal promoters of negative freedom in the tradition of Hayek reject the notion that less money means less freedom (i.e. disagree vehemently with the notion that equality of wealth is a precondition of equality of liberty). Su (2009) brings in J S Mill’s notion of liberty against this view – and I largely agree.

Although Su positions Mill against negative freedom, I think he makes it reasonably clear that Mill is far from subscribing to a notion of “positive freedom” in which more wealth means more capacities and thus more freedom.

‘In general, more wealth implies more choices to exercise the power of satisfying desires, but it does not imply more freedoms in other aspects. If Mill believed that more wealth always leads to more freedoms, exchanging liberty for affluence would not be an issue for him. In other words, in Mill’s view, there is no proportional correlation between the amount of wealth and the degree of liberty. However, for Mill, the idea of liberty cannot be completely cut off from the issue of material conditions either. Due to their physical constitutions, human beings need a minimum level of means to survive. Therefore, they should not be considered entirely free if they face the threat of the deprivation of a minimum level of subsistence.’ (Su 2009: 391)

It is easy to see why Mill is right in his rejection of a proportional relation between freedom and property. Not only is this due to the law of diminishing returns (one car means freedom of movement – a second car may increase that freedom, say, in a couple but it does not double it as the couple will often use the first car together – a third car does not increase the couple’s freedom of movement any further) – property is a social thing that can also diminish freedom (a car in a traffic jam diminishes freedom of movement below that of a pedestrian, because due to the responsibility that comes with ownership it cannot be left behind).

‘Sovereigns always see with pleasure a taste for the arts of amusement and superfluity, which do not result in the exportation of bullion, increase among their subjects. They very well know that, besides nourishing that littleness of mind which is proper to slavery, the increase of artificial wants only binds so many more chains upon the people. Alexander, wishing to keep the Ichthyophagi in a state of dependence, compelled them to give up fishing, and subsist on the customary food of all other nations.’ (Rousseau 1993: 5)

Su is, I think, mistaken to interpret the difference between Hayek’s concept of freedom and that of Mill as one in which Mill allows for some “positive freedom”.

‘If we think about the liberty of the weaker members in the same community, Mill’s principle is actually a protection of their positive liberties. In short, Mill’s principle of liberty can be interpreted from the other angle: the purpose of limiting some people’s liberty is to protect everyone’s liberty of life and body’ (Su 2009: 411) ‘Mill’s principle of liberty is a principle not just about negative liberty but also about the condition of real liberty. This assertion is based on the fact that where is no security, there is no real liberty. This also implies that in Mill’s utilitarianism, justice is for the real liberty of everyone. Therfore, justice and liberty cannot examined separately if we would like to understand Mill’s theory of liberty.’ (Su 2009: 412)

To the contrary – what Mill does is to spell out the concept of negative freedom in a way that makes it easy to see why even negative freedom is curtailed under capitalism. This is why I called him up as a witness for the threat to capitalist freedom that is posed by – capitalism.

The freedom of the less well off is a much smaller one than that of those with greater spending power. If such a negative concept of freedom implies that its only limit is the obligation of “not injuring the interests of one another; or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights”[i], then in a society with hugely unequal property rights the freedom of the poor is squeezed into what little space is left by the liberties taken by the rich. (Varul 2010: 59)

Su’s argument is limited to basic security – or at least the possibility  to make a living (and thus not that far from Nozick’s Lockean proviso) – but I think Mill provides us with more by not stepping into the trap of positive liberty. With positive liberty you have to define what freedom should be freedom-to – and thus introduce normativity that impacts on negative freedom (not in that it curtails the freedom of the wealthier but in that it prescribes and proscribes what people can do with their freedom). What Mill makes visible is that property (as the only quantitatively limited positive freedom of an individual) curtails the negative freedom of others in that it extends the sphere of one person at the cost of others. Therefore there needs to be a quantitative limit

It’s easy to see if we go back to the car: a car takes space – space that others cannot use. It is therefore reasonable to limit car use so as to protect the freedom of movement of everybody. A society in which some people have cars and others do not is unjust not only in that some people can move around more than others (as said – the life without a car may actually be more free in a number of ways). It is unjust in that some can claim space which others then cannot use, while they themselves cannot make a similar impact on the car users’ freedom of movement.

But of course these look like relatively insignificant differentials in freedom when compared to the impact that capital accumulation on a larger scale has. Although the range of products has changed since Marx wrote Value, Price and Profit – but the fact remains that a small proportion of the population determines a large proportion of demand, and this in effect means that they dictate what kind of work counts as socially necessary and what does not.

It is perfectly true that, considered as a whole, the working class spends, and must spend, its income upon necessaries. A general rise in the rate of wages would, therefore, produce a rise in the demand for, and consequently in the market prices of necessaries. The capitalists who produce these necessaries would be compensated for the risen wages by the rising market prices of their commodities. But how with the other capitalists who do not produce necessaries? And you must not fancy them a small body. If you consider that two-thirds of the national produce are consumed by one-fifth of the population — a member of the House of Commons stated it recently to be but one-seventh of the population — you will understand what an immense proportion of the national produce must be produced in the shape of luxuries, or be exchanged for luxuries, and what an immense amount of the necessaries themselves must be wasted upon flunkeys, horses, cats, and so forth, a waste we know from experience to become always much limited with the rising prices of necessaries.

Inequality as constantly exacerbated through capital accumulation in the last consequence finds its expression in the social opportunity structure, affecting what counts as valuable in terms of work (and hence education) but exerting disproportionate influence over what counts as valuable in terms of consumption.

Finally: Does the consumerism not stand in the way of any social transformation. In order to change anything, is it not necessary to break through the fog of ideology and confusion that most people are immersed in as consumers?

When the great revolutionary future did not unfold Marxist theorists embarked on a search for what got in its way. In general the answer was pre-dialectical: the system shapes the subjects in a way that makes them incapable of transcending it. The natural thing to do, then, was to book a room in the Grand Hotel Abgrund under the management of Adorno (to be followed in this position by Baudrillard) – or to focus on the ideological superstructure (no longer a word much used – but the shift to culture, language, etc. basically is in continuation of this move by Marxists trying to work over the failure of the proletarian world revolution to occur. The idea of self-emancipation, so central to historical materialism, is quickly given up and replaced by the older idea of a vanguard educating the masses (Geras 1986:134). Althusserian overdetermination or Frankfurt School culture industry veers towards educational dictatorship, even where the authors’ ideals are clearly antiauthoritarian.

‘Two examples. The first is Althusser: for whom men are nothing more than the supports/effects of their social, political and ideological relations. But if they are nothing more than this, how can they possibly destroy and transform these relations? The answer is, as it has to be, by the power of a knowledge (Theoretical Practice) brought to them from elsewhere. The second is Marcuse: the working class integrated, manipulated, indoctrinated, its revolutionary potential contained, submitting to exploitation and oppression willingly, and failing to perceive, because unable to perceive, where its real interests lie. It is no accident that Marcuse keeps returning to the notion of “educational dictatorship”, only to reject it each time as unacceptable.’ (Geras 1986: 140f.)

While for a while educational systems and family structures competed, relatively soon a consensus emerged that the agglomerate of consumerism, culture industries and media is responsible for widespread acquiescence to capitalist injustice and for nipping any subversive movement in the bud by means of “cooptation”. A new society can only be formed out of people who have been removed from the stranglehold of consumerism – and hence a new society can only build on a successful anticonsumerist movement. In short: people need to be educated. Anti-capitalism through anti-consumerism, I would put forward, reneges on the idea of self-emancipation. Anti-consumerism – although it hardly ever describes itself in those terms – is a vanguard movement of an enlightened few trying to wake up the intoxicated masses from their addiction to consumption.

For the idea of self emancipation to work, the social order to be overcome and transformed must offer the possibility

Adorno saw where this possibility lies, but was marred by his contempt of popular culture to develop the thought further. While the ever new concepts of production are geared towards the expropriation of subjectivity and its subsumption under capital, the sphere or consumption retains the promise of transcendence.

The change of the relations of production itself depends more than ever on what befalls the “sphere of consumption,” the mere reflection-form of production and the caricature of true life: in the consciousness and unconsciousness of individuals. Only by virtue of opposition to production, as something still not totally encompassed by the social order, could human beings introduce a more humane one. If the appearance [Schein] of life were ever wholly abrogated, which the consumption-sphere itself defends with such bad reasons, then the overgrowth of absolute production will triumph.

This echoes the inversion that has been anticipated by Marx and Engels in the German Ideology

The only connection which still links them with the productive forces and with their own existence — labour — has lost all semblance of self-activity and only sustains their life by stunting it. While in the earlier periods self-activity and the production of material life were separated, in that they devolved on different persons, and while, on account of the narrowness of the individuals themselves, the production of material life was considered as a subordinate mode of self-activity, they now diverge to such an extent that altogether material life appears as the end, and what produces this material life, labour (which is now the only possible but, as we see, negative form of self-activity), as the means.

The effect of this is alienation – expressing oneself, objectifying and realising oneself in one’s product, in work is no longer possible. But this is not only a deprivation, an cause of unhappiness. It is a liberation – a separation of the person from being entirely defined by their productive role – and an opportunity as:

On the other hand, standing over against these productive forces, we have the majority of the individuals from whom these forces have been wrested away, and who, robbed thus of all real life-content, have become abstract individuals, but who are, however, only by this fact put into a position to enter into relation with one another as individuals.

In working (meaninglessly) towards the end of a (meaningful) material existence the alienated individual establishes itself as a person that can – in cooperation with other persons – turn back on the way things are organised and change them. While for Marx there was not much he could bring up in terms of concretisations of such potentials (the individualisation afforded in principle by the alienation through waged factory work had a strict quantitative limit set by the extensive working hours and low pay), today’s material life affords quite a lot of excess individuality.

Consumer culture is geared towards the construction of individuality, the free construction of subjectivity as what Luckmann called “moral biography” – and over the decades capitalist entrepreneurs have seen the market in that and catered profitably to the such needs for self-construction. The combination of digital technology, telecommunication and software for social networking is the pinnacle of this development. The “self-activity” as self-construction has shifted from labour to “material life” (consumption).

In a further twist, capitalist production tries to tap into that new resource (consumer co-production, subjectivity in the workplace) – but crucially, the curse of accumulation and inequality, and hence domination, persists. In the workplace subjectivity is consumed by capital as a productive force. But in order to do so – and in order to valorise commodities beyond the catering for material needs or traditional luxury – that productive force which is subjectivity must be let loose without too much control in the sphere of consumption.

The great contribution of dialectical materialism was to recognise that if there is to be fundamental change it is not enough that there is a society is unjust and exploitative, but also that this society has produced the possibility (“productive force”) to go beyond itself, both in the sense of an organisational capacity to break up the existing order of things and as a capacity to organise the new society. Both are best capture by the formula of “general intellect” as put forward by Marx in his Grundrisse.

I would add that while it is true that more and more production is based on an exploitation of general intellect of one form or another, this cannot explain why there now is a general intellect worth exploiting. To the contrary, it is reasonable to assume that its exploitation diminishes it. If post-Fordist enterprises make use of the resource “subjectivity” as fountain of creativity they tend to diminish that creativity by locking it into a corporate agenda, by making extensive claims on it and curtailing its reproduction in what used to be private life. As it is not a resource that is immediately paid for and thus incentivised we need to account for its growth in different terms. The answer, I think, lies in the notion of consumer culture as a source of imaginative skills. The development of an integrated personhood over and above the role sets that make personhood possible in the first place – and which Plessner saw as the hallmark of civilisation – reached new heights in the romantic consumerism. I consciously contradict the view (put forward by Paolo Virno 2004) that, quite to the contrary, the post-Fordist general intellect consists of a reduction to ‘(absent-minded) curiosity and (non-referential) idle talk’ (2004: 93) – a Heideggerian take that puts up at a standard single-minded studiousness and deep, care-ful interlocution. Both are anti-civilisational ideals whose pursuit has not only lead to most dubious political affiliations, but grossly misrepresent the role that seemingly idle talk and seemingly absent-minded curiosity have played in the development of the human spirit. Of course, Virno contrasts this with Benjamin’s much more optimistic take on curiosity, but the Heideggerian view remains dominant in the current anti-consumerist discourse. I think there is a case to be made for a more Benjaminian view. Until not so long ago the received opinion was that the unleashed subjectivity of the consumer leads to mindlessly pleasure- and excitement seeking atomised individuals. Recent events – like this one – show that it also leads to an enhanced ability to take collective action.

Avineri, Shlomo (1969): The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bauman, Zygmunt (2001): ‘The Great War of Recognition’, in: Theory, Culture & Society Vol.18, No.2-3, pp.137-150

Geras, Norman (1986): Literature of Revolution. Essays on Marxism, London: Verso

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1993): The Social Contract and Discourses, London: Everyman

Sennett, Richard (2002): ‘Cosmopolitanism and the Social Experience of Cities’, in: S. Vertovec/R. Cohen (eds): Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Simmel, Georg (1992): Soziologie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Su, Huei Chun (2009): ‘Is Social Justice for or against Liberty? The Philosophical Foundations of Mill and Hayek’s Theory of Liberty’, in: Revue of Austrian Economics, Vol.22, pp.387-414

Varul, Matthias Zick (2010): ‘Reciprocity, Recognition and Labor Value’, in: Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol.41, No.1, pp.50-72.

Virno, Paolo (2004): A Grammar of the Multitude, Los Angeles: Semiotext[e]


[i] John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government (London: J. M. Dent, 1910), 132

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