Social Critique Today

An interview with Arne Johan Vetlesen,
Professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo

Photo and text: Gorana Ognjenovic

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INTERVIEWER: Why should we embrace Nietzsche’s critique? Why should we engage ourselves in social critique? Why are there less and less individuals who dare to engage in this from for criticism? Isn’t the point with the academic world to conduct social critique? Why is it that once institutions are confronted with the criticism their only reaction is repulsion? Is it the case that these institutions would rather not know about anything outside themselves?

VETLESEN: Very many things are considered to be social critique today. Both Fremskrittspartiet (Norwegian liberalist party, hostile to immigrants) and Marxists are apparently conducting the social critique. The point here is that social critique is a system critique, pointed towards social structure in which we live, especially considering the division of power and impotence. Social critique is critique of the established system of power, pointing out those who have power, how power is exercised and how power is established, maintained and coordinated. It is something the bourgeoisie should conduct all the time in relationship to the public authorities and their social power, as J├╝rgen Habermas describes it in his The structural Transformation of the Public (1961). The usual explanations for this are: indifference, apathy, impotence, etc., but the strange thing here is that social critique is conducted very little by those who have big resources and sit in power positions. There is too little social critique of conduct in this way by for example, University teachers. It is possible that we are nostalgic for times with much more activity; Universities were much more political in sixties and seventies. It is a very important answer to the question, that those who have resources and qualifications to participate actively in social debate and benefit the most from the status quo have no interest in changing the system. It is conducted in a small degree because they would feel threatened, but still not even that explains it completely.

THERE ARE TWO PROBLEMS with society today. Most people have too much money and that determines what is relevant or not and it takes too much energy. Energy is used to think what one should do with all that money. A very strong materialism is also practiced on behalf of one’s children. As result, political criticism look as something very different from what most people do, it appears hopeless to believe how it will make a difference to criticise injustice and equal division of wealth, either in Norway or globally. Naomi Klein’s book No Logo became known as soon as it came out in 2000 is a good reminder of how there is no necessary connection between the real problems on one side and what we are engaged in on the other. What Klein points out, Nike’s slave labour in Asia, is probably even worse today than what it was described in her material in the end of 1990’s. At the same time the public interest to discuss this, the limelight for this slave labour is much more intense in 2005 than what it was in 2000. One of the reasons why the globalization critical movement Attack has a little drive for the time being has a lot to do with 9/11-2001. Cynically expressed that was a ‘godsend’ to Bush and his administration. 9/11 gave a new direction to the American foreign and domestic politic. Yesterday we saw an example of how terror threats, liberal democracies fight against terror, led by Bush or Blair, misuses the breakdown to directly, by the help of the new terror laws, criminalise what we call social critique. Very soon it will be forbidden to give out handouts critical of McDonald’s franchise, in front of McDonald’s in England. That is a partial answer to the question: without much noise in public, these decisions were made after the 9/11-2001 and used by ‘the powers that be’ on national and international level to introduce decisions which paragraph after paragraph sanction the radical rights. At the same time this cannot explain why more people do not talk about the phenomenon Klein pinpoints. It is important to say that the globalization critical movement which out of its own ambition can be a good example of power critical action, social critique today, how it has been marginalised during the recent years while the problems have become worse during the last five years.

PHILOSOPHICALLY, the essence of social critique is a mismatch between concept and social reality. In Hegel’s logic, for example a concept of being or vorden on the most abstract level, or moral politically, a concept of justice, as concepts have critical and normative function. These concepts should create a contrast to reality as we see it around us and show us how these concepts as normative ideals are not fulfilled. The philosopher’s contribution to such a debate is creating concepts, for both, standards and criteria as critical tools to pinpoint the injustice, the unredeemed, the sanctioned, and the prevented within the social reality as we experience it. The philosopher’s contribution is to show how the potential for individuality, the good life or a safe community or solidarity is paralysed. In this way social critique is a discourse possible only through a negation, by pointing out that the state of affairs is not as it should be. The demand that this should be opposed, a critic that is first and foremost negative, worthless, a valuable critique would have to show a final idea of justice. This demand had always been doubtful, a problem for European philosophers, worst of all after the 1989, the fall of the wall. On one side we can say that as left oriented westerner one could criticise the existing socialism in Soviet block countries just as much as the right oriented, liberal, conservative, capitalism criticised Soviet. A lot of Marxists in these societies who argued that the DDR state was a perversion of Marx’s idea were actually much more prosecuted than those with Christian values, conservative values, or those who clearly had capitalistic values, because they were seen as subversive power in society. It was the immanent criticism of socialism that was looked upon as dangerous. In the aftermath one can conclude that the collapse, the fact that model alternative to the capitalism was important. Whether you like it or not, the collapse was of importance for the set back of the left wing in Europe because it created an ambiguous situation. On the one hand the right wing could with big plausibility claim that there is no good enough alternative to market liberal structure, the alternative we have had collapsed. On the other hand it is also possible that this actually creates a potential for a sharp critique of the existing social model, market liberalism. What became clear is that we have the problems we have now in a situation where world is determined by one single economic model. This means that since differences are only increasing, the ecological crisis is a bomb to be detonated, and problems are getting sharper instead of diminishing after 1989. Capitalism will have to answer for all this in another way today than during the Cold War and polarisation, conflict between the two existing systems of socialism and capitalism. Now there is no use in blaming it on repressive socialistic or communistic model. The capitalistic model is operative even in China even though China is communistic. This time, the problems we are pinpointing, lead back to the single social model. One could imagine that now would be the good times for social critique because of the more structural causes, the problems that are obvious today, which should be much easier to identify than in the period until the 1989. From an objective perspective this is a new kind of overview. The fact that this had not become politically potent, and that this model does not feel in any way threatened by anything, any ideological alternative, is due to the influence on the ideological level. In other words we are back to the main course in social critique, from Hegel, to Marx and up to the Frankfurt School, namely the meaning of ideology, social critique and ideology critic.

INTERVIEWER: What about the sceptics? What about those who think that for example Attack demonstrators are actually hypocrites? That those young are demonstrating while their own lifestyles, increasing consumption are so dependent on exactly the industry they are demonstrating against, like for example Nike? According to the statistics exactly those youngsters who use the most the industry in order to create one’s image, identity and what ever else? Isn’t the problem here the fact that this is about the third party? Are they just on an emotional excursion, while straight after and during the demonstrations they consciously support the evil and therefore these demonstrations really do not have any emotional backbone that can take them on the next level?

VETLESEN: I remember a photo of a demonstrator in Prague or Genoa, from one of those early demonstrations in Aftenposten (the largest serious Norwegian newspaper). It was a photo of youngster wearing Nike shoes. In Naomi Klein’s No Logo Nike is one of the worst slave drivers in Asia. The article in Aftenposten was ridiculing the activist who thinks that he is so much more conscious then others, and at the same time he wears Nike shoes, the casual clothing and he drinks Coca-cola. After a while the objections about such contradictions for which ‘well to do’ western youngsters with too much money were responsible for became a ritual. The Aftenposten article made fun of this way of participating in political demonstrations. The more subtle point besides making fun of the demonstrators was arguing that we, the rich in our part of the world, do not have the right to criticise international companies while being their best consumers. Their power is due to our consumption. So where do we move from here? How can we overcome this contradiction if you have political activists who are all the time engaged into taking consequences of these things through their own lifestyle, people who never buy Nike and never drink Cola? Ok they cannot then be accused for a contradiction, but I am still sceptical about how much can we actually win in this way. There are a few big questions here: ‘What difference does it make for those powerless and faceless’ in China who work 15 hours a day, those who are allowed only once to go to the bathroom during the entire working day? Does it make any difference if demonstrators in Oslo wear Nike shoes or if they don’t? ‘Writ large’, a collective phenomenon a collective boycott that Arundhati Roy stands for could be effective if it is collectively large enough. She argues that the only way to influence multinational companies is to stop buying their products as the only way of opposing their power, because this is the only language they understand. One shows one’s condemnation buy not buying, not supporting their industry, because one has to practice the power one has. But I think that there is something illusory about this. As long as I do not go to the MacDonald’s, or I do not buy Nike or I do not drink Coca Cola, I am not in contradiction with myself. I am as I claim in demonstration. Those are the last idealists with the good consciousness, as soul spirits that Hegel makes fun off. I would go as far as saying that when Attack people walk in Nike shoes expose themselves to the critique by for example Aftenposten, that there is a moment of truth in it. Is it so much better if they go to some other label? There is something illusory about accepting the premises such as that through the consumption and through the consumption understood as symbolic communication about individuality and identity you show who you are and which values politically and morally you stand for. That is the consume capitalist’s way, its own premise, own logic. So to think that if you only buy another label you are free from the contradiction is false. I do not think that the individual choices, from which shelf in the supermarket you pick out, has a genuine political meaning. It is illusory to think that that symbolic action has a genuine political value. There is a moment of truth in the fact that independent of the behaviour of private individuals, we as rich western citizens, participate ‘with both of our feet and up to our necks’ in the injustice which stems from the contradiction. So, what can we do? Go through the illusory actions? The answer is NO; there are other ways to go. Instead of having a very good consciousness, not buying these labels as a Norwegian consumer, one should engage oneself in the empowerment for those who really suffer. Forget about cleaning in front of your own door first. Think big. Think that those who suffer have to be enlightened, made conscious. Think for example, how can I act from my own privileged position, use my resources and my energy to do this? This is also difficult because of the paternalism accusations, but that is another debate. I think that as the situation is today, there are two tasks: 1. What can I do in my life? 2. What can we do for those who suffer the most? What can I do in my privileged existence here? I think that there are two things that have to happen in parallel, and this is not something I make up, they are dictated by reality. Those who suffer the most have to get an opportunity for improvement, from economical living standard to real rights, everything that what was taken away from them according to Naomi Klein’s analyses. In our part of the world, we have to diminish consumption and materialism. This may sound trivial, something that everyone has to realise, but it is also the opposite of the goal that our society, de facto, and government has denoted, namely the goal of continuous economic growth. Social critique has to first of all address this goal of continuous economic growth, to show the freedom we have in the epoch of individualisation, which is based on the economic premise of continuous economic growth, and point out that what we can be sure about is that if the economic growth and consumption in the West continues it will result in a collapse. The clearest fact about this collapse is ecological in character. There is almost no Rain Forest left. In 20 years there will not be Rain Forest left. The external nature gives its answer to our collective behaviour. Once the point is reached, either we like it or not, the answer will come to us in the form of ecological collapse. The ecological collapse will come parallel with eminent human forms of crash, social chaos and alienation. The argumentative prediction, saying that the judgement day prophets were mistaken, cannot be taken into consideration because never before in history did we have precedence for the current global situation. We do not have any examples in history of this global situation now. We do not have any examples in history where there were so many people on Earth whose average consumption of resources was in such strong increase. The mismatch between population, consumption, and its tendency for increase, the growth on one side and the Earth’s ecological capability on the other, was never in such collision. Therefore nobody can fetch any relevant arguments from the past.

Oslo, 10th of February 2005.