the possibility of a left stoicism?

Salvage has a new article up that is being spread over FB. The article is by Alberto Toscano and focusses on the more or less forgotten Italian Marxist Franco Fortini. To continue my burst short and dirty posts I want to look at the Toscano’s gesture at a “communism without guarantees” and link it to Stoicism’s ethics.

A caveat: I am not a political theorist. I am not a politician. I am not even an activist any more. What I am is a worker whose job it is to never look away from suffering but to plunge directly into it.

The reason I draw attention his article is because of Toscano’s championing of Fortini’s conception of an ‘ephemeral and partisan’ Marxism. This isn’t the politics of accelerationist optimism or progressivist linearity so much undermined by our nihilist and/or pessimistic age. For Fortini Marxism was above all

a politics of unevenness, of a difference, an otherness, an antagonism that couldn’t be happily resolved, of ineliminable ‘anthropological’ dimensions of human suffering, of the tragic.

I suspect that for some the appeal to difference and otherness is already far too tiresome. We have moved into an era of Marxism obsessed with a subtractive generic humanity. For most people who read this blog- whatever your perverted reasons- I suspect this idea of otherness and difference will immediately seem not to go far enough. For this second group of readers the obsession circles around non-human animals, inorganic actants, ontological machines, a Great Outside. I don’t know how much group A and group B connect.

Regardless of how we parse this nothing of difference and otherness and whether we care much about antagonism or prefer acceleration there is a core insight in this quote that is absolutely indispensable: politics can only be based on an the ineliminable anthropological dimesions of human suffering. If we still believe in the functional capacities of ethico-political thought- and it is far from certain that we really do- then this has to be the underlying reason for doing so. Appeals to expropriation and to a fully automated luxury society are meaningless if they are not based on the promise of the eradication of the multiple forms of unnecessary suffering that continues to plague us. Of course this opens the problem of negative utilitarianism, although I’ll leave all that aside for now.

It does nothing to undermine the pleasure you might take in reading the full article if I jump to the end. The article concludes with Toscano invoking the idea that

the Marxist tradition can only be a tradition of discontinuity, of wagers and unevennesses – where our greatest allies may turn out not to be on ‘our’ side – and that communism can only perdure if it is a communism without guarantees.

This is a mature approach to politics. By that I mean that it rejects the childish insistence that there be clearly defined sides. Politics is not a morality play with good guys and bad guys. The world doesn’t fall into so neatly packaged categories. It is entirely possible that in the chaotic maelstrom of an ever increasingly complex nexus of causation that we cannot absolutely identify friends and enemies on the basis of the outcomes their actions or their putative intentions with any real confidence.

The insight from accelerationism that “the enemy” has all the tools and has mastered a kind of tactical and strategic competency that the left lacks is important. The angels of a purely prefigurative politics dance on the head of pin in a haystack the size of a galaxy. Their confidence in their methods and those of their allies, as well as in radical subjects like the trans or the working class, is hilariously idealist.

The truth is we don’t know how our actions will turn out. The complexity of a situation is too vast and reduces everything we do to a kind of gamble. This isn’t true only of political action, it is also true of any action we undertake in the world. It is that persist baseline level of hope that even the most ardent pessimist could never obliterate. As Cioran said, even breathing is a betrayal of pessimism’s absolute standard of disenchantment. We act and in acting we reveal a vanishing point of hope: we “hope for the best”.

Mark Fisher recently told me he thinks of me as a kind of anarcho-communist realist. To be honest I don’t know that I can lay claim to either “anarchism” or “communism” any more. But the idea of a leftist depressive realism appeals to me. A leftism that could accept the world as it is without protest. This doesn’t mean total resignation. It means adaptation to the complexity of the situation on the model of evolutionary adaptation to a given ecological niche. Of course part of human evolutionary success is our capacity to modify these niches. We aren’t resigned and don’t just accommodate ourselves.

This kind of leftism would understand that the world is what it is and is not. The left is pretty weak and it may be that every strategy is recuperable. If the left is to do anything, if it is to increase it’s capacity to act and thereby achieve any of its desired outcomes, it has to begin from the world as it is with an eye on the world that could be. I don’t mean this in the utopian sense. Instead I mean that the maximisation of capacity for efficacious action depends upon analysing a situation and discovering the affordances that exist in that situation. I suppose this is a call for a left pragmatism. Specifically it is a call for a left pragmatism that exploits any and all machines for maximizing the capacity for efficacious and effective action. Crucial to this is the development of normative and cognitive plasticity within recognisably leftist parameters.

I’m not sure if this would accelerationist or traditional Marxism. It might not even be Marxism. Only one thing would be certain: given that it’s fundamental orientation would be the elimination of unnecessary suffering it would view any tactical action that achieved that goal as a success. This is of course spatially and temporally scalable: a local victory doesn’t prevent catastrophic climate change.
I have said this politics might not even be Marxist. This is because I don’t locate its origination in the Marxist tradition whatsoever. For me it begins at the moment when Epictetus said that wisdom consists in knowing what is and isn’t under our control. It is possible that ultimately nothing is under our control- there is no free will whatsoever. That doesn’t mean there is no agency: it doesn’t stop the fact that collectivities nonetheless express causative potency. The goal is thus simply to maximize the left’s share of influence in the causative nexus. That is, the goal is to increase what is under our control.

So how does this tally with the idea of “a communism without guarantees”? It does so through the Stoic doctrine of the reserve clause. The Stoics knew that the world was messy, complex and that much of what we think of as under our control isn’t. They were also no strangers to politics, often to highly compromised politics. Marcus was Emperor of Rome, Seneca an advisor to another emperor, Epictetus a quietistic apologist for slavery. But none of that disqualifies us from exploiting what is useful to us in their work. What follows is a highly condensed version of the Stoics’ practical philosophy.

Whether we like it or not we must act in the world. The Stoics also had to act in the world despite having a doctrine of ethical indifference towards it. Externalities were considered as lacking value. Only the cultivation of wisdom through the development of a virtuous character held any value to the Stoics. They were focussed entirely towards the interior. And yet the recognised that they had to act in the world. They also recognised that they preferred not to suffer. There was no moral judgement made against suffering and no moral judgement made in favour of luxury, they just recognised that we tend to avoid suffering and seek out pleasure. The Stoic therefore had to guard himself against ruining his virtue whilst pursuing preferred externalities. To do so he would cultivate an attitude of indifference and fatalism to whether his actions succeeded or failed without going so far as to paralyse the possibility of acting at all. It is in this context that the reserve clause is deployed.

Marcus Aurelius writes that

That which holds the mastery within us, when it is in accordance with Nature, is so disposed towards what befalls, that it can always adapt itself with ease to what is possible and granted us. For it is wedded to no definite material, but in the pursuit of its aims it works with a “reserve clause”; it converts into material for itself any obstacle that it meets with, just as fire when it gets the mastery of what is thrown upon it. (Meditations, 4.1)

“That which holds the mastery within us” is reason. The reserve clause is thus what allows reason to adapt itself to any given situation. It is the kind of tactical reason that surveys obstacles in a given situation and without protest sets about assessing their value as affordances. Thus Marcus continues

Though a man may in some sort hinder my activity, yet on my own voluntary impulses and mental attitude no fetters can be put because of the “reserve clause” and their ability to adapt to circumstances. For everything that stands in the way of its activity is adapted and transmuted by the mind into furtherance of it, and that which is a check on this action is converted into a help to it, and that which is a hindrance in our path goes but to make it easier. (Meditations, 5.20)

As contemporary materialists we may not share this libertarian optimism regarding “voluntary impulses and mental attitudes” but even so we can recognize a kind of cognitive flexibility that refuses to dwell in paralysis or in reactive protestations that amount to impossible demands that the world not be what it is. The risk of the such demands is that one comes to see the world not as it is but as one’s in-group wishes it could be. It is this kind of perceptual error that resulted in the shock that took hold of the UK left following the General Election and which the left seems so prone to.

Many Stoics seem to talk as if this reserve clause amounted to a magical spell that made them invulnerable. Their psychic fortress become impregnable, no worldly disappointment or defeat could harm them. Of course this is itself a phantasy. But such a dream of invulnerability is only born from an acute awareness of just how vulnerable we are, and of how our every action is exposed to recuperation and corruption; to being ineffectual at best, and damaging at worst. A more sober version of the reserve clause is found in Seneca’s comment that

The wise man considers both sides: he knows how great is the power of errors, how uncertain human affairs are, how many obstacles there are to the success of plans. Without committing himself, he awaits the doubtful and capricious issue of events, and weighs certainty of purpose against uncertainty of result. Here also, however, he is protected by that reserve clause, without which he decides upon nothing, and begins nothing.

In a way this is a basic therapeutic insight. Stoicism has been used as the basis for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and REBT would go on to give rise to cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT is hated by the left. I am one of many people who have written critiques of its ideological noxiousness. And yet the core political issue with CBT is how it is deployed by certain interests for certain interests. The key insight of CBT remains useful and the therapy could easily be repurposed by an eclectic leftist psychotherapy. It boils down to a cognitive re-framing that eschews the “catastrophisation” in which every failure is total, and the cognitive rigidity in which everything short of revolution is useless reformism.

This approach is not without its problems. But it attempts to be clear-sighted in undertaking a map of the present and developing the ability to respond to the present. I don’t know whether this left stoicism is a workable idea philosophically, but I think the spirit of it is workable politically. In the end my orientation is simply one of getting through the day. The ambitions of a social revolution that would usher into a concrete utopia are pleasant dreams with which to torture ourselves. I prefer to remain with Marcus:

For me, the present is constantly the matter on which rational and social virtue exercises itself.

Anything else would seem delusional. But I’m not a political philosopher or a politician or even an activist any more. What would I know about it? I work in a field that is in the end a pragmatism lacking a theory. You’re depressed? Schizophrenic? A drug addict? We’ll try some shit and see what works. You may never be cured but you’re life might finally be liveable.

2 responses to “the possibility of a left stoicism?

  1. Although there is no reason for doing any of what I’ve said in this post. I don’t have any hopes of actually influencing political strategy. I don’t even have the hopes of influencing myself into action.

  2. Pingback: dismantling the future: lunatic riffs of extinction engineering | synthetic zero·

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