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THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS


Here is a much-needed reply to contemporary prejudice against science, writes Michael Fitzpatrick

Standing up for reason

  • Re-enchanting Humanity: A Defence of the Human Spirit Against Anti-Humanism, Misanthropy, Mysticism and Primitivism, Murray Bookchin, Cassell, £40 hbk £13.99 pbk
  • Science and the Retreat from Reason, John Gillott and Manjit Kumar, Merlin, £18.95 hbk £10.95 pbk
At a recent social gathering of parents at my son's infant school in North London, I met somebody who has recently qualified, if that is the right word, as a druid. As I was brought up as a Catholic, I readily recognised that affinity for ritual and costume, that combination of mystical claptrap, reactionary prejudice and an air of condescension that seems common to clerics of all faiths. What I found alarming was the fact that this New Age shaman gained a generally sympathetic response from those present for his demeaning attitude towards modern civilisation, progress and science, and at least tacit approval for his retreat into a mythic cult of the pre-literate past.

As we descend into a new Dark Age of irrationality, it is a pleasure and an inspiration to turn to two newly published books which champion reason and humanity against the prevailing climate of anti-humanism, which disparages our capacity for creative intervention in nature and society.

Murray Bookchin, founder of the Institute for Social Ecology in the USA, and a veteran radical activist and writer, challenges the 'deep-seated cultural malaise' of modern society. His book is a spirited polemic against this malaise, manifested in a wide range of intellectual and political trends, from sociobiology and Gaia, through 'deep ecology' and cults of the primitive, to postmodernism and technophobia. John Gillott and Manjit Kumar, well known to readers of this magazine for their writings on a wide range of scientific themes, offer a comprehensive critique of the degraded relationship between science and modern society. They focus particularly on the interpretations of advances in nuclear physics and the current vogue for theories of chaos and complexity.

A few minutes conversation with a druid was enough to make me fully share Bookchin's horror at the 'appalling regression by a sizeable part of the public into supernatural and supranatural cults', into what he characterises as 'a throwback to mediaevalism'. It is even more alarming to recognise the pervasiveness of anti-humanistic and misanthropic trends today; as Bookchin reminds us, even in the Dark Ages a belief in the human capacity for redemption was kept alive, ironically by the Christian churches. What is most frightening today is the casual disdain for reason expressed by feminists, ecologists and postmodernist theorists, and the widespread nodding of heads such pronouncements induce.

In his devastating attack on the deep ecologists behind the US conservationist direct action group Earth First!, Bookchin denounces the elevation of privileged claims of intuition over demands for logical consistency. As he rightly insists, 'this is no trivial matter':

'It took thousands of years for humanity to begin to shake off the accumulated "intuitions" of shamans, priests, chiefs, monarchs, warriors, patriarchs, dictators and the like - all of whom claimed immense privileges for themselves and inflicted terrible horrors on their inferiors on the basis of their ''intuited wisdom". Once we remove the imperatives of rational inquiry that might challenge their behaviour and the scientific criteria of truth that might challenge their mystical claims to insight, social elites are free to use all their wiles to subjugate, exploit and kill enormous numbers of people on the basis of unsupported belief systems, irrational conventions, and purely subjective views of society and the world. '(p98)

Amen to that. Without respect for the rules of formal logic it is scarcely possible to hold a conversation or conduct everyday life.

In his critique of the vacuous primitivism that has become so popular in response to contemporary despair about the future, Bookchin provides a useful outline of the evolution of the species Homo sapiens. By contrast with the fashionable blurring of the distinctions between civilised and primitive societies, and between man and apes, Bookchin emphasises the discontinuities, elevating the influence of social over biological factors in determining what it means to be human.

Above all it is our capacity for reason that makes us human: 'To be a human animal, in effect, is to be a reasoning animal that can consciously act upon its environment, alter it, and advance beyond the passive realm of unthinking adaptation into the active realm of conscious innovation.' The history of civilisation is that of rational and creative human intervention in the natural and social world, purposefully improving the conditions of human existence.

The goal of the 'enlightened humanism' that emerged out of the economic, social and intellectual transformations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the creation of a rational society, in which we can become truly human. As Bookchin observes, the problem we face at the close of the twentieth century is that this goal remains unfulfilled. The defect of modern society is not that it suffers from too much civilisation, but that it is not civilised enough.

Rather than elevating the animal heritage of humanity, which can only result in a 'stultifying conservatism', Bookchin argues for 're-enchanting humanity'. By this he means promoting a secular view of the world in the face of mysticism and emphasising the human potential for the creation of a rational society against the ascendant irrationalism and despair.

Bookchin covers a wide range of richly-deserving targets with great polemical verve. Yet he offers only partial answers to some key questions. Though he points to the impact of hectic social changes, to popular disillusionment at the impact of technological innovation, to the increasing mystification of social reality, he falls short of a full explanation of why anti-human trends have become so influential now. Nor does he satisfactorily explain the particular forms assumed by contemporary anti-humanist prejudice, most notably the prominent place of individuals and movements once considered radical.

For insights into these and other matters we turn to Gillott and Kumar, whose focus on science (the weakest chapter in Bookchin's book) opens up an analysis which is deeper, more historical and more radical.

Science and the Retreat from Reason begins by setting the postwar upturn in popular interest in science in the wider context of the twentieth-century stagnation of capitalist society and its relationship with science. The dramatic development of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, space exploration and computer technology were all narrowly driven by the exigencies of the Cold War. Though these programmes produced some useful spin-offs, they yielded no systematic benefits to society and generated widespread fears of the dangers of nuclear war or other catastrophe, and encouraged popular suspicion towards science and scientists. The H-Bomb symbolised the divorce of science from society and illustrated the paradox of scientific advance proceeding in a narrow and restricted way, in tandem with anti-scientific prejudice.

Gillott and Kumar describe a 'vicious circle', tightening over the past century, in which the loss of confidence in the forward momentum of society leads to a loss of purpose and direction among scientists, which in turn means that scientific developments are likely to encourage insecurities and reinforce pessimism.

The authors clarify the position of science in modern society through a finely drawn contrast with its role in the 'scientific revolution' of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the great democratic revolutions of the following century. Then economic, social and intellectual developments conspired to put science at the cutting edge of social advance. The combination of a faith in the capacity of humanity to intervene constructively in nature, a belief in the distinctiveness and superiority of humanity over nature and a confidence in the perfectibility of humanity through the improvement of society provided a framework for an unprecedented upsurge of theoretical reflection and practical experimentation.

During the course of the nineteenth century, however, the growing scale of economic crises and social conflicts within the capitalist system created an increasing resonance for the anti-Enlightenment prejudices of reactionaries. The result was the gradual estrangement between science and society, culminating in what has become known as the Victorian compromise. Society was removed from the legitimate sphere of rational 'scientific' intervention, allowing conservative influences, notably religion, renewed influence. Science was allowed to continue in increasing isolation; not surprisingly mystical notions now flourished in previously highly sceptical scientific circles.

The traumas of the early twentieth century inevitably intensified the divorce of science from the project of social progress, and its adverse consequences for both science and society. In this context Gillott and Kumar provide a fascinating account of the impact of the development of modern quantum mechanics.

The theory of quantum mechanics offered a dramatic theoretical resolution of two decades of controversy surrounding the recognition of the dual character of both light and matter as comprising both wave and particle forms. This elegant mathematical theory radically subverted much of traditional physics. The key argument that followed concerned, not so much the theory itself, but its interpretation and wider significance.

The 'Copenhagen interpretation', formulated by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1927, has come to dominate the field. In his famous 'uncertainty principle', Heisenberg asserted the impossibility of simultaneously specifying both the momentum and the position of a subatomic particle to an arbitrary degree of accuracy. At first this was understood as a subjective problem arising from the limited techniques of measurement available. However, as the argument continued, the problem of indeterminacy was identified as an objective feature of reality itself. This position was codified at Copenhagen.

The consequences of this shift were enormous: it opened the way towards a subjective view of nature in which reality is regarded as something constructed by the observer. Furthermore, it meant that any attempt to discover causal connections or regular patterns of interaction among phenomena was futile. Heisenberg did not shrink from drawing wider conclusions: 'because all experiments are subject to the laws of quantum mechanics, quantum mechanics definitely shows the invalidity of causal laws.'

The indeterminism and acausality of the Copenhagen interpretation imply a contradiction to Enlightenment theory and classical science at the most fundamental level of matter. The inescapable conclusions are that it is impossible to gain a knowledge of causes and effects in the natural world in such a way as to guide human intervention. Indeed, drawn to its logical conclusion, the Copenhagen position denies the separation of human subject from nature as the object of intervention and makes all science futile.

Gillott and Kumar point out that Albert Einstein refused to endorse the Copenhagen interpretation, accusing its authors of playing 'a risky game with reality'. He insisted on the objective character of physical reality, independent of the vagaries of perception and substantiation. He also insisted on the existence of causality in the universe, independently of human consciousness. In his view quantum mechanics was a useful, but incomplete theory, requiring further elaboration, not a complete and coherent theory as promoted by Bohr and Heisenberg. Yet, despite all Einstein's efforts and attempts at experimental refutations, the Copenhagen position has remained dominant.

Why? Gillott and Kumar recognise the appeal of the mathematical formalism of quantum theory as a means of resolving the crisis in physics. They also acknowledge the thesis elaborated by Paul Forman, that the Copenhagen formula was heavily influenced by the climate of anti-rational, anti-scientific and anti-causality prejudices prevalent in Weimar Germany in the mid-1920s. But neither of these factors can explain its wider and enduring popularity. In their view, this can only be understood in the context of the overall loss of faith in progress in modern times and the pessimistic emphasis on the limits to human knowledge and control over nature. Thus one of the greatest scientific advances of the twentieth century has contributed to the degradation of science and the retreat from reason.

In explaining the forms assumed by the retreat from reason, Gillott and Kumar trace the deepening exhaustion of both the major political and intellectual traditions that trace their origins to the great division between right and left that emerged in response to the French Revolution.

Conservatives have never objected to science as technique, merely to the subversive consequences of applying reason to society. Such prejudices were forcefully expressed by anti-democratic ideologues such as Gustav LeBon in France and Oswald Spengler in Germany in the early years of this century. Discredited by the Nazis, explicitly anti-scientific irrationalism receded in the postwar period, to be replaced by a narrowly instrumental scientism.

A more dramatic shift has taken place on the radical/ liberal flank, which was historically pro-science. The retreat from reason is here identified by Gillott and Kumar in Max Weber, Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein in response to the First World War and its aftermath. The most dramatic, and ultimately most influential, abandonment of Enlightenment humanism can be found in the writings of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the late 1940s, formerly Marxists of the Frankfurt School, disoriented by the catastrophic defeats of the fascist era. The influence of these ideas can be traced through the writings of Herbert Marcuse, to the New Left of the 1960s to the Greens.

The events of the past five years - the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ending of the Cold War, the onset of the slump - have exposed the irrelevance of the politics of the past and provoked a remarkable convergence of traditional opponents. Gillott and Kumar provide an illuminating example in the ecological writings of Elmar Altvater, a veteran German radical, and Garrett Hardin, a veteran American reactionary, which share many common themes.

While Bookchin tends towards a rather ahistorical presentation of intellectual influences, Gillott and Kumar provide a balanced and historically specific account. For example, Bookchin exaggerates the importance of the reactionary philosopher Martin Heidegger's later writings for today's ecologists. In fact such anti-scientific prejudices could only gain widespread influence when they were reformulated by left wingers like Adorno and Horkheimer, or Heidegger's errant pupil Marcuse. For Bookchin, the radical disillusionment with the promise of May '68 explains all. Gillott and Kumar situate the demise of the left in the wider context of twentieth-century defeats and trace the convergence of radical despair with conservative gloom.

Both books offer a wealth of information and inspiration for the ongoing battle with the forces of darkness. Reenchanting Humanity takes a bold and libertarian stand against all forms of Green and New Age reaction. Science and the Retreat from Reason is the most substantial contribution to the Marxist critique of the role of science in capitalist society for at least half a century.
  • The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Christopher Hitchens, Verso, £7.95 pbk
'Who would be so base as to pick on a wizened old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and destitute?' Who indeed but our intrepid polemicist Christopher Hitchens, in a slender volume that follows his Channel 4 documentary attacking Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Hitchens' book is the same knockabout stuff as the documentary. Where he really excels is when he attacks the wizened old lady for counselling the acceptance of poverty and suffering. The saintly Teresa is fond of saying things like 'I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot', and, as Hitchen puts it, she promotes a cult based on suffering and subjection. Once she wrote that 'there are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love'. Pass the sick bag. Mother Teresa told the victims of the Union Carbide plant gas leak in Bhopal that they should forgive the company that poisoned them and perhaps smile a little more. 'A fortune cookie maxim of cretinous condescension', says Hitchens.

As The Missionary Position delights in pointing out Mother Teresa mixes with the obnoxious and powerful: Ron and Nancy Reagan, Papa Doc Duvalier, Bob Maxwell, Margaret Thatcher and even ER, defender of the (Anglican) faith, who looked on as her husband gave the nun a prize of £34 000 for 'the promotion of faith in the world' (I guess any faith will do).

But perhaps Mother Teresa is too easy a target. Today's missionaries are more likely to come bearing contraceptive pills than rosaries, or to give lessons in 'appropriate technology' rather than counsel outright submission to poverty. The underlying message is similar - curb your aspirations and adopt a moral agenda set in the West - but the form is different. At a 'peace' conference on the eve of the US invasion of Haiti, Hitchens declared his support for the marines boasting 'I am a socialist imperialist'. Perhaps his hostility to Mother Teresa's missionary zeal is more a difference over style than content.

David Nolan
  • Microserfs, Douglas Coupland, Flamingo £9.99 hbk
Douglas Coupland is a thirtysomething Canadian who made his name with the heavily ironic Generation X (1992). His latest fiction eschews the McJobs milieu (X-speak for fast-turnover, deeply unsatisfying employment) for the life-world of West Coast software designers, where everyone is enslaved to the consuming passion of work, work, work; hence microserfs.

Coupland's trademark is capturing the nuances of lifestyle, and his latest crop of characters is backed up with plenty of closely observed detail, to the point whereMicroserfs veers close to fictionalised journalism - a docudrama set in a world where jargon is the essence of conversation. This Nerdish argot is interspersed with commentary about the replacement of history with memory and the 'stalematedness' of infotopia, all wrapped up in apparently trivial exchanges. Some of Coupland's observations are trenchant and illuminating, but he cops out by putting them in the mouths of characters who are clearly flawed, never in the voice of the author.

Although Microserfs is ostensibly a description of a new sensibility, its flat tone, and yearning for depth, is strongly reminiscent of the seminal novel of postwar American youth, JD Salinger's Catcher in The Rye. Holden Caulfield, Salinger's protagonist, first appeared 40 years ago, but pomo Danny has a lot in common with him, including fond memories of a dear-departed sibling whose absence represents a profound sense of loss together with the loss of profundity in among the opaque superficialities of today.

Whereas Caulfield stays true to his uncertainties, Danny concludes by saying that 'what's been missing for so long isn't missing anymore'. In the final pages of the story, Danny and his peers find a state of grace by teaching his stroke-stricken mother to communicate via a keyboard and computer monitor: a spiritually uplifting ending which is so sickly it makes Love Story seem like Dirty Harry.

Andrew Calcut
  • The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution, Michael Lind, Free Press, $25 hbk
In this defence of America's cultural unity, Michael Lind, a senior editor at the right-wing magazine New Republic attacks multiculturalism as a divisive and tokenistic gesture that only benefits the country's white overclass. In reality, he argues, American culture is already national, a new melting pot that now includes Hispanics and Asians on top of the well-stewed mix of European ethnics. His hope is that there will be a new racial amalgamation.

Against the stream Lind insists that America is not in danger of 'Balkanisation', breaking up into its different nationalities, but of 'Brazilianisation', where an elite class lords it over a racially divided working class. Lind's picture of the overclass, a handful of white families who run the country from inside their fortress-like communities is perceptive. With an eye for detail he explains their passion for diets and exercise; 'fear of fat is fear of lower-middle-class vulgarity; of the animal grossness, the unselfconscious corporeality associated with "rednecks" and "hardhats" and "Bubbas" and "ethnics" and "white trash"' (p148). Lind knows that this elite has benefited from the incorporation of a black and Hispanic elite through quotas and political tokenism.

But Lind's concern for the working man is skin-deep. His phoney New Deal rhetoric is just a convenient vantage point from which to attack the Clintonite liberal yuppie elite. Despite the populist rhetoric, Lind is not against elitism as such, just the kind of elitism that leaves right wingers like him on the outside. If he is critical of the elite, it is the kind of criticism that Julian Benda or Oswald Spengler made in the twenties when they railed against the 'treason of the clerks'. Lind wants an overclass that unites America against its economic competitors and against immigration.

Paula Cerni
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 85, December 1995

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