Jeffery L Nicholas
Philosophy and social theory
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
Holy Crud! Have you read or re-read “The Elements of Anti-Semitism” recently? Everything written there can be used to discuss Trump, Islama-phobia, and the national capitalism of 2017.
“Elements of Anti-Semitism” is a chapter in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. I am re-reading the DOE partly because I am using another chapter, “The Culture Industry,” in a class and partly to refresh my mind of the argument so I can draw on it for the book I’m working on, I Aim To Misbehave: Science Fiction Film and the New Values of the 21st Century. I didn’t expect to find much in “Elements,” but from the first line, I was mesmerized by how much the analysis applies today.
“Anti-Semitism today is for some a question affecting human destiny and for others a mere pretext” (137).
Switch in Anti-Islam or Islamphobia for Anti-Semitism, and you have a sentence that applies to today’s world. Racism, in this case against “Muslims,” that is against Middle-Eastern peoples, affects our human destiny—will we continue to be divided over minor differences or will we overcome difference and solve our problems together? But for many, it is also a pretext for their economic interest. This pretext works whether you are interested in controlling oil—a high priced and limited commodity on which all of your dead-labor—technology—rests and, thus, necessary for your profit-margin—or you are interested in the loss of jobs and, so, blame immigrants and refugees for what the capitalist has done to you.
“The [liberal] thesis that the Jews free of national or racial features, form a group through religious belief and tradition and nothing else… contains an image of the society in which rage would no longer reproduce itself or seek qualities on which to be discharged. But by assuming the unity of humanity t have been already realized in principle, the liberal thesis serves as an apology for the existing order” (137…138).
Race, we know today, is an alternative fact—it doesn’t exist, except socially to exclude some. So what unites the people under Trump’s—currently failed—immigration ban is a people of a particular religious belief. This point is both true and false. Like Christianity, Islam has many distinct sects. They are as divided as any Christian from another. Moreover, the current unity of those under the seven-nation ban is also an economic unity. Their countries—and thus the people there—represent economic interest opposed to the national economic interests of the US and the personal economic interests of Trump, who can almost be heard repeating the line from The Sun King, “l’etat c’est moi” (The State is I). In focusing on the ban, though, democrats and other left-wing liberals in the US (and across the world) ignore the underlying reality of the economy. The focus on religion or race detracts reinforces the status economic order—the great inequality that currently overwhelms conscience and Christianity.
Thus, we miss what Horkheimer and Adorno pointed out long ago: “Race today is the self-assertion of the bourgeois individual, integrated into the barbaric collective” (138). It justifies violence, as we see in this clip from 12 Angry Men, no less true today even if juries include “non-whites” on them. Thus, race, for the rulers, “serves as a distraction, a cheap means of corruption, a terrorist warning” (139). Trump’s ban and Trump’s wall distract from the fundamental inequality. By blaming Muslims and Mexicans, Trump points the finger away from himself and other rich bastards to people who are often worse off than the average American. In calling Mexicans rapists, killers, and drug dealers, he only repeats the line passed down from Reagan to Clinton to Bush.
What we have seen is anger and fear over the last 40 years, anger and fear that Trump was able to capitalize on, and which the Clinton-Democratic team also tried to capitalize on by labeling Trump the greatest fear. As Horkheimer and Adorno point out, this fear has roots in the denial of human rights.
“The purpose of human rights was to promise happiness even where power was lacking. Because the cheated masses are dimly aware that this promise, being universal, remains a lie as long as classes exist, it arouses their anger; they feel themselves scorned” (141).
Let’s ignore, for present purposes, the elitism here—an elitism we must resist. The main idea is that the vast majority of people recognize that class division, great inequalities of wealth, cannot exist hand in hand with freedom, which rests on human rights. A right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness opposes any strict class division. (Thanks to my colleague, Matt Guardino, for pointing out that this distinction may be exactly why Jefferson changed John Locke’s wording.) Classes mean that some will always have more life—not just a higher quality of life, but as has been shown, more life itself, as poor people die at higher rates than rich people; classes mean that some will always have more liberty—liberty to speak to the government, liberty to move about—who really among the working class can change where she leaves so easily, except at great cost to find another low-paying job (imagine what the lives and liberties of Mexicans must be like that the risk coming to the racist US!), or the liberty to leisure, or even the leisure to be free from paying taxes; classes mean that some will always have more happiness than others—and Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness is only the exception that proves the fact, as his escape from the homeless shelter left thousands behind.
What we must resist, and what drives a great many people to be anti-Islamic, is class society! “Bourgeois anti-Semitism has a specific economic purpose: to conceal domination in production” (142). In 1944, the Jew represented the thief as a scapegoat for the real thieves, the owners of the means of production, the factories and farms. “The economic injustice of the whole class is attributed to him.” In an ironic twist of fate, today’s Muslim is our Jew, as is the Mexican and the black, and the Native Americans who are dying in the cold as the resist the oil pipeline that will poison the Missouri and, with it, the Mississippi, the great river of the US. These groups represent the injustice of the capitalist class. The Muslim threatens our freedom—that is, our economic freedom, for that is the only kind of freedom in which the politicians have any interest. The Mexican (and the Indian and Chinese) threatens our jobs—which makes it all the more fantastical that free trade has causes a loss of jobs in Mexico. The black threatens prosperity with their resistance to the state form, their laziness and welfare moms who procreate for more and more handouts, and their drug dealers who reject the 9—5 for a liberty only a capitalist could imagine.
Industrialism and contemporary life allow no reflection on these issues. Anyone who questions authority—from the Dixie Chicks to Edward Snowden—is ostracized, threatened in their economic life for voicing their opinions. The Tyranny of the Majority, divorced from the state, finds its true form in economic domination. And without reflection, we become self-absorbed, none as much as the Donald himself.
“Just as, since its rise, the human species has manifested itself towards others as developmentally the highest, capable of the most terrible destruction; and just as, within humanity, the more advanced races have confronted the more primitive, the technically superior nations the more backward, so the sick individual confronts the other individual, in megalomania as in persecution mania. In both cases the subject is at the center, the world a mere occasion for its delusion” (157)
America’s exceptionalism is a megalomania unlike any other—we must impose our form of life on others, for we represent freedom. The Muslim, like the Jew before, opposes freedom and wants to dominate us. They reject our way of life; so, we must strike pre-emptively and allow no more in. Megalomania takes the form of narcissism in the Commander in Chief who thinks he can run the country with executive orders, the stakeholders be damned. If the world does not reflect back his priorities, he is free to construct alternative facts, and the news media, already a tool of capitalist production, can do nothing to prevent him, despite their own rattling of sabers. For in the end, neither Trump, nor the democrats, nor the media can risk the revelation of the great wizard behind the curtain—that profit drives their version of the truth. Alternative facts represent that truth better than any other before: all values become marketing tools; truth and facts have already serviced capital in that role. Thus, class can never be challenged because any challenge is an alternative fact. Poverty is the result, not of capital and class warfare, but of the lack of personal responsibility. (In this, the Catholic Church has been complicit since Leo XIII declared that unions could not morally strike. We can only hope that Francis might reverse centuries of institutional drives for the heart of Christianity: charity.)
Such exceptionalism, megalomania, and narcissism points to Hitler, without hyperbole. “Democratically he insists on equal rights for his delusion, because, in fact, not even truth is stringent… Thus, Hitler demands the right to practice mass murder in the name of the principle of sovereignty under international law, which tolerates any act of violence in another country” (160). The US has practiced its own form of violence in other countries in the name of capital, demanding that The Hague bring to justice any violator of human rights, except its own citizens. The exceptionalism might lie at the root of the US, for what kind of person could strike out over thousands of miles to colonize a new land and spread over it, ignoring the people who lived the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness before them?
We cannot rest in such pessimism, though. We cannot fall into the darkness that haunts the legacy of Frankfurt School critical theory. We are always capable of choosing the direction of our future. We have to diagnose the sickness that threatens to overwhelm us—the exceptionalism, racism, narcissism, megalomania—all of it, rooted in class and capital. I do not say it will be easy, that it will be possible, only that human fate rests on this challenge. We must fulfill the promise of Aristotle, to become citizens of the world—that is, people who can direct their social living—which is restated by Marx: men make their own history.
Jeffery L. Nicholas (Ph.D philosophy, University of Kentucky) is an associate professor at Providence College and an international scholar on ethics and politics. He serves as research associate for the Center for Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics at London Metropolitan University and a foreign research associate at Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá Colombia. Dr. Nicholas is co-founder of and executive secretary for the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry. He is the author of Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre's Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory (UNDP 2012), as well as numerous articles. Dr. Nicholas writes on midwifery and birth, the common good, friendship and community, practical reason, and Native American philosophy. He aims to develop a philosophy of integral humanism that synthesizes the philosophical traditions of Alasdair MacIntyre, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, and Feminist Care Ethics.