Marcuse, de Beauvoir, and Badiou: reflections on three strategies

by Sebastian Benthall

I have written in this blog about three different philosophers who articulated a vision of hope for a more free world, including in their account an understanding of the role of technology. I would like to compare these views because nuanced differences between them may be important.

First, let’s talk about Marcuse, a Frankfurt School thinker whose work was an effective expression of philosophical Marxism that catalyzed the New Left. Marcuse was, like other Frankfurt School thinkers, concerned about the role of technology in society. His proposed remedy was “the transcendent project“, which involves an attempt at advancing “the totality” through an understanding of its logic and action to transform it into something that is better, more free.

As I began to discuss here, there is a problem with this kind of Marxist aspiration for a transformation of all of society through philosophical understanding, which is this: the political and technical totality exists as it does in no small part to manage its own internal information flows. Information asymmetries and differentiation of control structures are a feature, not a bug. The convulsions caused by the Internet as it tears and repairs the social fabric have not created the conditions of unified enlightened understanding. Rather, they have exposed that given nearly boundless access to information, most people will ignore it and maintain, against all evidence to the contrary, the dignity of one who has a valid opinion.

The Internet makes a mockery of expertise, and makes no exception for the expertise necessary for the Marcusian “transcendental project”. Expertise may be replaced with the technological apparati of artificial intelligence and mass data collection, but the latter are a form of capital whose distribution is a part of the totality. If they are having their transcendent effect today, as the proponents of AI claim, this effect is in the hands of a very few. Their motivations are inscrutable. As they have their own opinions and courtiers, writing for them is futile. They are, properly speaking, a great uncertainty that shows that centralized control does not close down all options. It may be that the next defining moment in history is set by the decision of how Jeff Bezos decides to spend his wealth, and that is his decision alone. For “our” purposes–yours, my reader, and mine–this arbitrariness of power must be seen as part of the totality to be transcended, if that is possible.

It probably isn’t. And if it Really isn’t, that may be the best argument for something like the postmodern breakdown of all epistemes. There are at least two strands of postmodern thought coming from the denial of traditional knowledge and university structure. The first is the phenomenological privileging of subjective experience. This approach has the advantage of never being embarrassed by the fact that the Internet is constantly exposing us as fools. Rather, it allows us to narcissistically and uncritically indulge in whatever bubble we find ourselves in. The alternative approach is to explicitly theorize about ones finitude and the radical implications of it, to embrace a kind of realist skepticism or at least acknowledgement of the limitations of the human condition.

It’s this latter approach which was taken up by the existentialists in the mid-20th century. In particular, I keep returning to de Beauvoir as a hopeful voice that recognizes a role for science that is not totalizing, but nevertheless liberatory. De Beauvoir does not take aim, like Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, at societal transformation. Her concern is with individual transformation, which is, given the radical uncertainty of society, a far more tractable problem. Individual ethics are based in local effects, not grand political outcomes. The desirable local effects are personal liberation and liberation of those one comes in contact with. Science, and other activities, is a way of opening new possibilities, not limited to what is instrumental for control.

Such a view of incremental, local, individual empowerment and goodness seems naive in the face of pessimistic views of society’s corruptedness. Whether these be economic or sociological theories of how inequality and oppression are locked into society, and however emotionally compelling and widespread they may be in social media, it is necessary by our previous argument to remember that these views are always mere ideology, not scientific fact, because an accurate totalizing view of society is impossible given real constraints on information flow and use. Totalizing ideologies that are not rigorous in their acceptance of basic realistic points are a symptom of more complex social structure (i.e. the distribution of capitals, the reproduction of many habiti) not a definition of it.

It is consistent for a scientific attitude to deflate political ideology because this deflation is an opening of possibility against both utopian and dystopian trajectories. What’s missing is a scientific proof of this very point, comparable to a Halting Problem or Incompleteness Theorem, but for social understanding.

A last comment, comparing Badiou to de Beauvoir and Marcuse. Badiou’s theory of the Event as the moment that may be seized to effect a transformation is perhaps a synthesis of existentialist and Marxian philosophies. Badiou is still concerned with transcendence, i.e. the moment when, given one assumed structure to life or reality or psychology, one discovers an opening into a renewed life with possibilities that the old model did not allow. But (at least as far as I have read him, which is not enough) he sees the Event as something that comes from without. It cannot be predicted or anticipate within the system but is instead a kind of grace. Without breaking explicitly from professional secularism, Badiou’s work suggests that we must have faith in something outside our understanding to provide an opportunity for transcendence. This is opposed to the more muscular theories described above: Marcuse’s theory of transcendent political activism and de Beauvoir’s active individual projects are not as patient.

I am still young and strong and so prefer the existentialist position on these matters. I am politically engaged to some extent and so, as an extension of my projects of individual freedom, am in search of opportunities for political transcendence as well–a kind of Marcuse light, as politics like science is a field of contest that is reproduced as its games are played and this is its structure. But life has taught me again and again to appreciate Badiou’s point as well, which is the appreciation of the unforeseen opportunity, the scientific and political anomaly.

What does this reflection conclude?

First, it acknowledges the situatedness and fragility of expertise, which deflates grand hopes for transcendent political projects. Pessimistic ideologies that characterize the totality as beyond redemption are false; indeed it is characteristic of the totality that it is incomprehensible. This is a realistic view, and transcendence must take it seriously.

Second, it acknowledges the validity of more localized liberatory projects despite the first point.

Third, it acknowledges that the unexpected event is a feature of the totality to be embraced, contrary to pessimistic ideologies to the contrary. The latter, far from encouraging transcendence, are blinders that prevent the recognition of events.

Because realism requires that we not abandon core logical principles despite our empirical uncertainty, you may permit one more deduction. To the extent that actors in society pursue the de Beauvoiran strategy of engaging in local liberatory projects that affect others, the probability of a Badiousian event in the life of another increases. Solipsism is false, and so (to put it tritely) “random acts of kindness” do have their effect on the totality, in aggregate. In fact, there may be no more radical political agenda than this opening up of spaces of local freedom, which shrugs off the depression of pessimistic ideology and suppression of technical control. Which is not a new view at all. What is perhaps surprising is how easy it may be.