I’m currently charting some future readings I plan to do, with some hypotheses in mind. The idea is to look at the noble lie in the Republic, to compare that with Leninist accounts of “trade union consciousness”, and bad marxist stuff on productive vs unproductive labor.
In my neophyte understanding, the sense I have of a noble lie is that it’s something one encourages others to believe because of the effects one expects that belief will have. Friends tell me that this line of thinking is present among US neoconservatives, via Leo Strauss’s influence.
Yet another permutation on the problem I have with Hardt and Negri is bound up with this – it seems to me that HN produce a story about present capacities by laying out a noble lie of prior incapacity that changes (during the passage to postfordism) into a present capacity. They may really believe this, but that’s not the point. In some ways, I think this goes on all over the place – many philosophers used an image of animals to produce an image of humans by contrast (and to sneak a political agenda in behind folks’ backs). I don’t know the history of early socialism well enough, but I’d speculate that this is one function played by the insistence on productive labor’s primacy (bound up, of course, with the production of something called productive labor and something called unproductive labor). Another function was to push forward a certain hegemonic sector and its (its representatives’) interests.
Along with this, other concepts for future research – enabling fictions and regulative ideas.
I happened to glance through a book by Richard Rorty again the other day. He has such a singular absence of political imagination, I’d forgotten about that, it made me tired and lifeless almost immediately. But his deflationary theoretical moves are poetry in motion. At one point he makes some remark (I believe in a lecture on postmodernism and politics) about how we shouldn’t be afraid to have incompatible theoretical perspectives on hand as tools, as long as they work well for us. I’m enough of a rationalist to not like the ‘incompatible’ talk – I don’t want to use a tool that rules another out, that still bothers me – but I like the basic point of not feeling a need to get all the details into one account.
Alongside Rorty, I also started the book Punching Out by Martin Glaberman. There’s a bit on how US workers in the second world war voted for a no-strike pledge in their unions, and yet at work there were a number of wildcats in direct contravention to the no-strike pledge. The important point is not only that people can change their minds, and that people can be of two minds in the sense of ambivalence, but even more so that people are capable of directly contradicting themselves and holding incompatible ideas. As much as I don’t want to do that, I do like the recognition that people can do that, and sometimes it’s better that one does (better to strike against a bad contract provision you voted for then to go along with it because you voted for it). If one doesn’t recognize that I don’t see how can avoid becoming either reductively materialist/physicalist (ideas mechanically follow social conditions/the body) or idealist/mentalist (social conditions/the body/actions follow directly from ideas and the mind – ie, thinking people are propositional machines such that the chief political goal is to inculcate certain beliefs into people so that their actions will then follow suit). Against both poles, I’ve been meaning to go back and really read Davidson, the little bit I know about his work on anomalous monism seems relevant here.
In any case, I wonder if one could say Plato recognized some of this – the noble lie wasn’t just an idea in a vacuum, it had an attendant plan for social organization which included a plan to propagate the lie, and I imagine a plan for how to handle those who didn’t believe the lie (or who didn’t act as if they believe the lie, which is effectively the same thing if viewed from the top down), similarly for the Bolsheviks.
None of this is to say that ideas etc aren’t important. They are. Especially if they’re being used as weapons (a la the noble lie of incapacity etc) – it’s important to try and parry every blow. But it’s also important to try to hit back, and I’m not sure one wants to deduce how to do that only by copying the blows that are still raining down. That is, there’s a difference between engaging defensively with the ideas and stories (and I should say, practices as well, not ideas in the abstract – I’m thinking of a remark by Staughton Lynd at the IWW Centenary, he said that the law is not a weapon for workers, at best it’s just a shield. Given the state of things, one can’t be blaimed for wanting shields like the NLRA etc, but they have to be seen for what they are and used carefully and thoughtfully) used as weapons against us, and trying to attack offensively. My aims in the research project I’ve mentioned – sloppily – here is just to try and look at some mistakes along these lines, it’s not a claim to have great ideas for new weapons.