Why Theory?

Since I published the first the Preface Against Capital: The Current Crisis and the Crisis in Theory I have realized that there is one point that I did not make fully clear. This is, perhaps, because it is so obvious to me that —despite long experience— I did not remember that it would be necessary. Why is theory necessary in the first place? Surely oppressed and exploited people know that they are oppressed and exploited, and can organize to resist …

It is a fundamental claim of this work that, under capitalism at least, this is simply not true.
First, capitalist exploitation, because it appears under the form of a voluntary exchange between two legally free individuals, is not transparent, but reveals itself only under the lens of the labor theory of value, which shows that new value is created by labor, which is capable of creating more value than it needs to reproduce itself. Capital —except under conditions of super exploitation, which are not sustainable in the long run, pays workers the value of the labor power, what they need to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families and raise children who can do more or less what they can. Capital retains the surplus, realizes it as profit and accumulates it. Generally speaking, without benefit of theory workers become aware only of superexploitation, which is in excess of what they are accustomed to, and which makes life impossible.

Second, capitalism, unlike other forms of exploitation, by forcing people to sell their labor power in order to survive, alienates us from our humanity and thus from the rational capacity possessed by all human beings, regardless of their degree of intellectual formation, to understand the authentic aims of human life, and generates, as Erich Fromm (Fromm 1941, 1943) demonstrated, authoritarian and marketing personalities which are in turn fertile ground from patriarchal and racist deformations. And the communist project is not just about resisting exploitation but also about transcending alienation and recovering and realizing our latent potential as creative, loving, and wise human beings.
Third, the need for theory is not just a function of capitalism. Indeed, one of the first ways in which formal rationality was deployed, as it emerged during the Axial Age —the time when petty commodity production first emerged— was to “deconstruct” arguments that slavery and the accumulation of wealth through trade were wrong, generally by arguing that there is nothing which is Good in itself and that morality is at best mere convention and perhaps simply a cover for the covert interests of those who make moral claims. This was the function of nihilistic ideologies such as Sophism, Legalism, and the Caravaka school. The rational dialectics developed by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as somewhat different forms of formal rationality developed in India (Buddhism, Jaina, the Upanishads) and China (Confucianism and Taoism), regrounded our capacity for moral judgment and, more broadly, argued that there is more to being human than rapacious self-interest. In this way they served as a basis for resisting these new forms of oppression, even when they are also partly deformed by it (Mansueto 2012, 2016).

Finally, we will show that exploitation and oppression emerge in the first place because of our finitude and contingency, which make it difficult to perceive higher Goods, and lead us to become mired instead in the struggle for lesser goods which, by their nature, are finite and scarce. Thus the temptation to take things which others need. Theory helps us see behind appearances to deeper levels of reality and thus to discern higher goods. Thus Plato’s insistence that leaders make the “journey of the dialectic.” Thus the focus on both dialectics and meditation in the dharmic traditions, and the “investigation of things” as well as “heart” (xin) in the Chinese tradition. Theory is not the only tool we have in this regard, nor is it sufficient —a point on which we differ with dialectical materialism. Art and music and literature all make their contribution. And because of the force of habit, we all need communities which challenge us, support us, and hold us accountable as we grow and develop spiritually. But theory is necessary for the simple reason that it is the only means by which we can decide independently what we believe it means to be human. It is entirely possible that both the fine arts and communities of accountability can take us further along our chosen way than theory ever could. And there is nothing wrong with being lured onto a way by beauty and friendship. But we must be able to decide rationally which ways we believe are right, both in general and for us. And anyone who has ever been recruited by a cult knows that beauty and friendship, or at least the appearance of beauty and friendship, which only theory can see through, can easily lure us along the wrong path.

It could be argued, to be sure, that my claims for theory are an artifact of my roots in a movement which resists specifically capitalist exploitation and alienation: the communist movement. And this is certainly true. Racism is not nearly as occult as capitalism and the fact of racist oppression is largely transparent to its objects. And the same might well be said of patriarchy and other forms of gender oppression. But the nature and aetiology of these forms of oppression is occult, or at least partially so, especially though not only because they have become bound up with capitalism, and cannot be understood in their present form without also understanding Capital.

Finally, I want to address the claim —implicit in most postructuralist discourse and widespread in anarchist and “left communist” and “libertarian socialist” circles, as well as within many identity movements— that theory is itself oppressive and simply a way of constituting the authority of a particular group —the humanistic intelligentsia generally and philosophers in particular— or even to make this group into a new ruling class. This criticism is often escalated by adding the charge that theory is white, male, and Western. Philosophically this is, in fact, simply the old Sophist argument resurrected, and over the course of this work we will rely on the larger dialectical tradition to demonstrate that it is mistake. Sociologically it is, of course, possible for any idea to advance the interests of a particular social group and we will respond in detail at various points across this work to the claim that dialectics is simply a tool of Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (Konrad and Szelenyi 1967). Briefly, it should suffice to say that while the humanistic intelligentsia has its particularistic interests and blind spots like any other social group, dialectics has not proven to to be an especially effective instrument for this group to conquer class power on its own. The communist project is and always has been about an alliance between the humanistic intelligentsia and the peasantry, the proletariat, and ultimately large parts of the petty bourgeoisie and even the bourgeoisie. And the idea that theory is somehow uniquely white, male, and Western simply cannot be sustained once we become aware of the rich theoretical traditions of the peoples of Asia and Africa and the Americas and the incisive power of feminist theory in particular.

I hope that these reflections have convinced the reader that it is not only worth the effort, but actually imperative, to press on through this work and more broadly to make the great journey of the dialectic. I look forward to continued dialog.

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