Sunday, April 10, 2011

I Wish Eagleton Just Kept to What He Knows

Terry Eagleton is my favorite literary critic. I'm an Eagleton wannabe in the sense that I want to learn to write about literary theory in the same beautiful and clear kind of prose that will make non-academics want to read my writing. Eagleton's After Theory and Ideology: An Introduction are bestsellers that address complex theoretical issues in a way that makes it easy for non-specialists to understand what he is talking about. Eagleton is also a brilliant public speaker who delivers lectures of pure, unadulterated genius in a way that makes you stare at the watch praying that the time would stop and let you enjoy the talk a lot longer than the scheduled 45 minutes. 

However, like many literary critics Eagleton believes that he will make a greater impact on humanity if he ventures into the field of politics. And that conviction has been the downfall of many a politicized academic. Just think of Edward Said who made himself and his entire brilliant scholarly legacy look ridiculous when he was caught on film throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in Gaza.

I always experience a deep sense of embarrassment when I read the pompous and unintelligent pronouncements on politics of otherwise extremely bright scholars. Take, for example, Eagleton's recent article in Commonweal titled "Was Marx right?" Like most of the leading thinkers of our times (Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou come to mind), Eagleton is dedicated to proving that Marxism can still be salvaged. Unlike Žižek, however, he does it in such a plodding and uninspired way that I cringe with vicarious shame when I read his articles on the subject. In a painstaking (and useless since the answer is self-evident) manner, Eagleton strives to answer the question of why nobody is willing to waste any more time on  Marxism:
From the mid-1970s onwards, the Western system underwent some vital changes. There was a shift from traditional industrial manufacture to a “postindustrial” culture of consumerism, communications, information technology, and the service industry. Small-scale, decentralized, versatile, nonhierarchical enterprises were the order of the day. Markets were deregulated, and the working-class movement was subjected to savage legal and political assault. Traditional class allegiances were weakened, while local, gender, and ethnic identities grew more insistent.
It is not surprising that, like many white rich men in their sixties, Eagleton is annoyed with those pesky women, blacks, and post-colonial subjects who dared reject his Marxist dream for the sake of fighting for their rights. He might realize that dismissing these "insistent" folks could be damaging to his cause but, like so many Marxists, he just can't help himself.

Eagleton acknowledges that many people have been put off Marxism by the revelations of the horrors that have been committed in its name. He briefly concedes that
anyone who calls himself a Marxist today must answer for Stalin’s show trials and Mao’s labor camps, as well as the brutal crackdowns in Prague and Tiananmen Square. 
However, Eagleton immediately downplays this crucial issue that has scared many a follower away from Marxism. He concocts yet another one a long line of bizarre explanations of why we need to forget about the horrible repression and genocide that were committed in the name of Marxism:
Taken overall, both Stalinism and Maoism were botched, bloody experiments that made the very idea of socialism stink in the nostrils of many of those elsewhere in the world who had most to benefit from it. Marx never imagined that socialism could be achieved in the impoverished conditions Stalin and Mao faced. Such a project requires almost as bizarre a loop in time as inventing the Internet in the Middle Ages. You cannot reorganize wealth for the benefit of all if there is precious little wealth to reorganize. You cannot abolish social classes in conditions of scarcity, since conflicts over a material surplus too meager to meet everyone’s needs will simply revive them again.
I honestly want to think that Eagleton wrote the above-quoted paragraph just to make a point. The idea that a profoundly intelligent thinker can actually believe anything this stupid is disturbing. "Reorganizing wealth" in the countries where a Marxist experiment has failed did not work not because there wasn't enough wealth to go around. It failed because no matter how much wealth you reorganize, people will remain people. In a very short while, some of the folks who received a part of this reorganized wealth will spend it, end up indigent and get into debt. Other people will make different choices and will end up with their own portion of wealth and that of their neighbors. In order at least to try to prevent this from happening, you will need an extremely powerful police state. Which is precisely where the Communist experiment led the Soviet Union. Eagleton's argument about the "poverty-stricken" Russia on the eve of the October Revolution is an outright lie. The immensely powerful Russian Empire boasted one of the highest GDPs in the world. Acknowledging this fact, however, would bring the entire edifice of his unconvincing argument down, so he falsifies the facts.

What Eagleton proposes instead of today's flawed capitalism is a system of cooperatives and resource allocation on the basis of discussions and negotiations:
On this model, resources would be allocated by negotiations between producers, consumers, environmentalists, and other relevant parties, in networks of workplace, neighborhood, and consumer councils. The broad parameters of the economy, including decisions on the overall allocation of resources, rates of growth and investment, energy, transport, and ecological policies would be set by representative assemblies at local, regional, and national levels. These general decisions about, say, allocation would then devolve downward to regional and local levels, where more detailed planning would be progressively worked out. At every stage, public debate over alternative economic plans and policies would be essential.
This statement could only have come from someone who has spent decades buried in his ivory tower and hasn't seen actual people in a very long time. We recently had a situation at my department where we needed to add a single sentence to a document. We discussed the sentence for hours and ended up not reaching a consensus and postponing the debate for later. Eagleton's system will only lead companies into a quagmire of discussions which will prevent anything from ever getting done.

As many other Marxists, Eagleton sees human beings as one-dimensional little robots with absolutely no individuality. He forgets that there are no shared interests or "social need." The only thing that exists are conflicting interests of different individuals:
 In this way, what and how we produce could be determined by social need rather than private profit. Under capitalism, we are deprived of the power to decide whether we want to produce more hospitals or more breakfast cereals. Under socialism, this freedom would be regularly exercised.
As a person who never produced any breakfast cereal or any hospitals (a qualification that I share with Eagleton), I have no idea how many of them this mysterious "we" needs. I don't want the so-called freedom of making such decisions because no single individual can have the knowledge that is necessary to make such choices for the entire society. I actually believe that "we" don't need any breakfast cereal at all because I don't eat it and think nobody else should. Just imagine how productive any discussion of "our" need for cereal will be if I am asked to be part of it.

It would be great if a brilliant literary scholar like Eagleton just kept to what he does know well and stopped embarrassing himself by unconvincing and dishonest discussions of politics. He is a person who has been served incredibly well by the capitalist system he is denouncing. He has spent his entire life in a cushy job that never required any physical effort from him. He is very wealthy. He has traveled the world extensively. The system handed him a young wife to serve his needs. This is why his fake concern for the inhabitants of the slums in Lagos, whose reality he cannot possibly know anything about, sounds just a tad hypocritical.


Rimi said...

I don't know about Zizek, but my experience with Anglo-American Marxists have taught me this: they have no idea what it is like to live under Marxist regimes gone rancid. Which I have. And you have.

I'm not condemning their intellect -- in fact I find they choose Marxism because its the most well-known alternative to the global colonialism of corporate governance. But they lack emic understanding of how Marxist regimes work.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Eagleton, stick to your blackboard!