Beyond Values?

DM, at Antigram, has a new post up about the Zizek debate. It’s good; the first part of it is about Western “hedonism” and debate over enjoyment, which I’ll try to address in a post following. The second part of it is about the relationship between politics, in the practical sense, and values, whether personal or collective.

DM writes:

The struggle between the Right and the Left is an asymmetric struggle. It is not true to say that we believe different things but share common assumptions: we do not share common assumptions. And principally, we do not share the assumption that the question: “What are your values?” bears witness to any political reality whatsoever…

In the end, “values” is not a Leftist category, for the simple reason that it is not a real category. There is no actual terrain upon which values battle, as there is no real stage upon which “civilizations” clash. Rather, concrete actors, take concrete decisions, for concrete reasons. These reasons may be economic, strategic, political or psychological, but “values” simply do not enter into the equation, except ex post facto as illusory means of concealment, then perhaps disseminated as psychological black ops. As Marx and Freud, and also Nietzsche taught us, “values” are generated [and] produced by material forces….The theater of values is a theater of shadows, and true Leftists should burn it to the ground.

Conservative political thinkers do foreground shadow theaters of values when they talk about “family values,” or when they speak out to endorse a return to values. The word may have acquired a taint, as, in a recent post, I argued that the word “radical” had.

Still, the references to Nietzsche and Freud don’t make sense here, and the idea of abandoning valuation is equally perplexing. Neither Nietzsche nor Freud were really materialists. Nietzsche was fond of describing judgments of the “muscles,” but he also spiritualized matter by holding onto a notion of the will. One has only to examine the ironies of his writings on priests. The asceticism of the priest may be contemptible, and founded on hypocritical claims about renunciation, but it is still a manifestation of the will-to-power. Nietzsche was not particularly concerned with fighting oppression, in part because of his belief in a hierarchy of wills.

Freud wasn’t a materialist either. To the end of his life, he held on to the notion of the drive, finally incarnate as Eros (desire) and Thanatos (death drive).

There are two points to make here. The first is that the conjunction of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, who are the perpetual “good guys” for contemporary philosophers (though the way things are going, we’ll have to add Saint Paul), don’t fit together all that easily. Every time the three are synthesized, a different, new philosophy emerges, whether that be the Frankfurt School, the work of Jacques Derrida, the work of Michel Foucault, or something else entirely. If a new philosophy doesn’t emerge, and we’re just making them standard-bearers for the revolution, we’ve ceased to read them with any sort of attention.

The second is that materialism should never become so naturalized that we begin to take its postulates for granted. It’s true that the free market is usually defended on purely economic grounds: private enterprise, as opposed to public ownership, is supposedly the most efficient way of producing wealth. It is also defended on ethical grounds. The strong form of the claim for laissez-faire capitalism is indifference towards inequality. What a person has, he has earned, and has a right to keep.

This is not less materialist than socialism. It is less compassionate. When “reasons” are substituted for “values,” it is as though the abstract, logical operations of reason could persuade us whether someone we have never met, have never even seen, should live or die.