Tuesday, April 28, 2015

SFHS 2015. Part Two of Two.

Here is the promised second post on the SFHS. I’ve delayed long enough that these papers aren’t really fresh in my mind any longer, but I want to get this off my plate. Apologies for any misrepresentations! I’ll say only that these papers deserve a more thoroughgoing treatment than I’m able to give them here.   

Saturday morning, at a little after 8:30, the panel “Beyond Determinism: Rethinking the Philosophy of History and Political Economy in Postwar France” got underway. Presenters included, in order, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, Alexander Arnold, and Aner Barzilay, with comment from Michael Behrent. All three papers were excellent and, at least for me, educational. Behrent’s comment was exemplary—at least what I heard of it. Since I had to leave part way through I won’t have anything to say about it here.   

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins (hereafter: DSJ) delivered a paper on Raymond Aron entitled (I think) “Liberal Dictatorship, Aron’s Critique of Hayek’s Concept of Liberty,” drawn from his dissertation in progress on Aron. DSJ framed his project broadly as rescuing Aron from the historiographical box of ‘lonely liberal critic of Marxism.’ Aron was more than just a critic of Marxism, and engaged in a fruitful way with many different intellectuals (as it happens I posted some notes on one of DSJ’s earlier papers about Aron and Schmitt here). In particular, Aron leveled his critical fire at various forms of ideology that found material support in the United States—development theory, realist IR, etc—that made universalizing claims something like Marxism. DSJ’s goal in this particular paper is to argue against the understanding of Aron as a neo-liberal, as someone who walked the now-famous road to Mont Pelerin, who was influenced by Hayek especially after a wartime stay in London. It isn’t so, DSJ says.

DSJ develops his critique of the neo-liberal Aron first by criticizing or “mitigating” the moment of sociability, the networks, that have been pointed to in linking Aron to neo-liberalism. The heart of the paper, though, is an archival record of a talk Aron gave in 1955 at a conference in Milan (sponsored by the CCF, and in their archive). The context of this talk was Aron’s new prominence as the author of The Opium of the Intellectuals and especially the “end of ideology” thesis found in its last chapter. This is great material, and  DSJ contextualizes the debate in an exemplary way—this, really, is the paper. The point for DSJ’s larger argument is that Aron describes Hayekian liberalism as ideological in the same way as Marxism—indeed he apparently said there that “at the end of the day, what the liberalism of Hayek constitutes is inverted Marxism.” Economic inevitability ruled both vision of the future, although they pointed in different directions. Hayek would require, as in the title of the talk, a “liberal dictator” to get his system off the ground. Well, Rousseau needed his legislator, so perhaps this isn’t so unreasonable. I’d be interested, in light of this discussion, to go back and re-read Aron’s “États democratiques et états totalitaires” (June 1939).

As is sometimes the case with this sort of argument, by the end I wondered how anyone could possibly have ever thought of Aron as a neoliberal. Perhaps this was clarified in the Q&A. My guess would be that this label is as much an artifact of the polemical theater of French intellectual politics as anything else. DSJ did not spend very much time establishing the definition of neoliberalism according to which Aron would be one, and it seems to me that in fact Aron was a liberal, not a neoliberal. DSJ makes the case (I think convincingly) that a key difference between him and Hayek was that the latter never really accepted the legitimacy of democracy, while Aron did. Having spent some time reading Élie Halévy, Aron now sounds to me more and more like his student, or, conversely, as though Halévy really was Aron’s maître-penseur. The talk mentioned above was, after all, delivered on the heels of an extremely pessimistic survey of the field by Halévy. Perhaps we can say that Aron’s liberalism was, at first, anti-totalitarian, but that he learned to shed this fear as Hayek did not? In any case, a great presentation from DSJ.

Next up was Alexander Arnold, whose dissertation concerns postwar (up to 80s) French political economy, and who spoke about Rosanvallon and economic determinism. This paper was also great, the product of lots of reading of Rosanvallon. I myself make use of Rosanvallon’s work, but I read him first as a historian (the book on Guizot, for instance)—so this paper was particularly interesting for me. Essentially, Arnold reconstructs Rosanvallon’s political economy as he developed it over the course of the 1970s, in his writings as an autogestionnaire. An important climax is the critique of Marx offered in Le capitalisme utopique. I’m not certain that I’m reconstructing Arnold’s reading correctly here, but the idea seems to be that Rosanvallon believes we should read classical political economy as philosophy, not really as a description of economic reality. At its base is an utopique description of the subject, for instance. Nonetheless, Adam Smith—and here, can this really be what Rosanvallon thinks? It’s been some time since I looked at that book—allows us for the first time to philosophically grasp both the institution and the continuity of society. But this is not a description of the world. Marx, however, took the writings of liberal political economy for such a description, and his critique is principally a critique of that economic (in fact philosophical) writing, not of the real economy. “There is enormous distance between concrete society and the discourse of political economy.” Capitalism, in reality, should be understood in a minimal way, which allows for the construction of democratic—autogestionnaire—alternatives, or really reforms.  

This account of political economy, Arnold argues, or really this inattention to it, left Rosanvallon and the deuxième gauche more generally unprepared to meet the challenges of austerity that emerged in the Mitterand years. My central question here is not so much about the reconstruction of Rosanvallon—although I would be interested to see this story extended into his much deeper engagement with the French liberal tradition as the 80s wore on—but about this ‘response.’ Who has been able to meet these challenges? As far as I can tell no one really offers a really compelling account of what is to be done (at least no one who isn’t on the side of austerity). The best Marxisant analyses I’ve seen are rather grim. So what does Arnold want Rosanvallon to have done? To have occupied a more intransigent oppositional position? I’m not sure. In any case, to have avoided advocating “d’apprentissage collectif d’austérité...”

I’m leaving out here a number of things: especially Arnold’s nuanced discussion of the merits of Rosanvallon’s self-description of autogestion as ‘realist,’ and Daniel Lindberg’s criticisms of this; and then the larger framing of the paper in the history of liberalism, and adjudication between the political and the economic aspects of this. I look forward to reading more.

Finally, there was Aner Barzilay, whose talk was “Foucault and Deleuze’s Hidden Debate about Nietzsche” [paraphrase!], and whose dissertation is on Foucault’s Nietzsche. The larger project is to emphasize the continuities on the level of philosophy in Foucault’s oeuvre. This is in reaction to an over-emphasis on the late lectures and on Foucault as a theorist of something called ‘neoliberalism.’ The larger context is above all the question of the transcendental and the subject—trying to keep the two apart. Nietzsche is the most important reference for Foucault, the actuator of the whole project. Barsilay’s talk here is a reconstruction of a (largely implied) dialogue between Foucault and Deleuze, and it is built around Barzilay’s archival discovery of a 1977 note from Deleuze to Foucault discussing just these issues. The exchange and the moment are fascinating. This period, and the political break between the two philosophers, has now received a certain amount of attention. So it is remarkable and much to be appreciated that Barzilay can still bring something new to that table.

I cannot do justice to Barzilay’s talk, so I won’t try to report its details. Delicate questions regarding the nature of the transcendental, the plaisir/desire distinction, and power as Kantian schematization of the subject, were all dissected. Neither Deleuze nor Foucault is to be taken lightly, and Barzilay approaches at a level of textual involvement but also abstraction that makes summary difficult. Again, I’d like to read. 

I agree broadly that we should take Foucault’s earlier work more seriously when thinking about the later lectures. The problem of the subject—historical, transcendental, prison, etc—is indeed clearly a central one for Foucault (and the career-long circling around Kant is unsurprising). I’m less convinced by the centrality of Nietzsche for Foucault generally, but I think this is mostly because I’m skeptical that there’s much of a ‘there’—what did Nietzsche mean, really? To what extent did Foucault take what he needed to take from this corpus? The reference seems constantly to be to the Genealogy, which isn’t the same thing as Nietzsche. But, after all, the point of the larger project is presumably to argue this point. My larger concern with the paper is, I’m sure, not really justified, but here it goes. This paper is, almost, saying: ‘hey, I know you think that the late Foucault is about investigating the actual conditions in which living human beings are made to suffer, but no, in fact it’s about the far more important question of avoiding the transcendental subject!’ I suppose what I want from Barzilay is an account of how the political thought of this newly continuous philosopher-Foucault looks different, or should be appreciated differently, from the less-continuous version of Foucault against which Barzilay is arguing.

I think this is a legitimate question (despite everything) because all three of these papers were about attempts to grapple with the nature of the State. [I'd have liked, also, to hear more explicitly about the question of determinism--although perhaps the originally-planned fourth paper would have helped with this focus]. This common problem was of course clear. Barzilay mentioned, at the end of his talk—and I’ve lost track of in precisely what register, and would like to know—that to refer to the state is to bring a knife to the gunfight of modern politics. There is also Foucault’s famous remark from the lectures about cutting off the head of the State, as well as that of the King. But at issue between Aron and Hayek was interpretation of the nature of the State; and Rosanvallon’s political economy seems also to have turned on the capacity of a subject—a State? A syndicat?—to intervene in the economy. Now, this was self-consciously a panel of intellectual historians, so it is a little pedantic to call on them to be more contextual. And probably Michael Behrent did (some version of) that in his comment. Certainly his work on Foucault and the Foucaultians makes me think him likely to have done so. But how to create this context? Here the panel turns back on itself—intellectual history often does—because, I think, the central question is how we, here today, understand the changing nature of state power in the face of economic imperatives in the postwar world. This is after all the problem all the subjects discussed by the panel were interested in.

That closing is not too coherent, and not too clear, but perhaps I’ll manage to follow it up with an eventual post on essays from the no-longer-so-new Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History (2014).

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