As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, James Santucci looks at Karel Kosík’s “Our Present Crisis” from Telos 13 (Fall 1972).
Karel Kosík’s story begins with the end of a statue. In 1962, a granite statue of Stalin that had been begun in 1955 was completed only to be torn down several months later. For Kosík, the statue, “designed to last forever,” perfectly represented the provisionalism and nihilism of modern times. It laid bare the inescapable tension between living peacefully in social life and the animal brutality that occasionally became necessary. When the statue was torn down, the base was left behind. In Kosík’s time, there were plans to transform the space into a garden restaurant. The restaurant’s relationship to its past would be complicated, but plans were scrapped, which saved any Prague tourists from the awkwardness of “Would you like to see our drink menu while you contemplate what it means to live under threat of random and instantaneous erasure?”
Still, the joke is on the West. Looking east, the thought must have been “Aha! It can’t last! Watch the symbols fall!”—a triumphal thought that could only have been confirmed decades later by the physical destruction of the Berlin Wall. Socialist buildings and monuments, it turned out, weren’t like monuments in the Western world, and herein lies the joke: in 2001, it did not matter that the World Trade Center was an emblem of a mode of economic production and organization of social life. It did not become more permanent for symbolizing a society that was not yet “in decline,” as if that’s a status a society can recognize itself as having gained. If ephemerality and provisionality are the rule, having stood for thirty years instead of several months should not signal a structure’s immunity. Capitalist monuments tumble just as easily as socialist ones.
It was a reminder that the ostensible permanence of capital was no more than an illusion and that something else could take its place. The goal for any critical interpretation of social life, then, is to articulate that something else.
Capitalism has maintained its hold as the dominant ideology because it has rewarded its chosen handsomely. The lived truth of capitalism in the postwar period in the United States was one of rising standards of living, of security, and of “better living through chemistry.” This last point started as a marketing promise but became the worldview of techno-science.
For Kosík, the techno-scientistic view takes over the idea of politics. Rather than a politically managed political realm, socialism promised instead “a scientifically managed society, whose future is tied to the so-called scientific and technological revolution” (31). This view, though, perpetuates the idea of administration and manipulation of reality, rather than substitutes an idea of liberation. Kosík writes:
it is possible to judge both the uncritical belief in the omnipotence of technology and technological progress, as well as the romantic contempt for technology and the fear that technology will enslave man. Both attitudes obscure the essence of technology. The essence of technology is not machines and automatons, but technical reason, which lays out reality as a system of disposability, improvability, and reification. . . . The enslaving rule of technology over mankind does not mean a revolt of machines against man; through this technical terminology people are only realizing unclearly the danger they will face if technical reason were identified with reason in general, if technical reason were to extend its rule over human reality so far that everything non-technical, non-disposable, non-calculable, and non-manipulable were posed against it and against man as non-reason. (32)
It is possible that his last concern has already come to pass. The problem for alternative worldviews, though, is that techno-science has largely delivered on its promises. Never claiming to care about equality, the authenticity of human experience, or the integrity of human social relations, the “mind” of techno-science cannot be impeached on those counts. Techno-science doesn’t promise to avoid any of these costs, and it does continuously deliver shinier new toys. Techno-science’s appeal lives in short-term thinking. It has produced innovation, more “efficient” production, and longer lifespans. In a world in which those are techno-science’s promises and it fulfills them, criticism sounds like sour grapes.
Unfortunately, the two alternatives of the last half-century—really existing socialism and so-called Islamic fundamentalism—both fail to appeal. In the first, liberation is transmogrified into what Kosík calls “the rule of unlimited bureaucratic power” (33), in which, as Katherine Verdery described, political existence and subjectivity were tied to one’s existence in a dossier. In the other, resistance to western capitalism and the quest for a meaningful organization of social life take the form of mass murders and serial bombings seemingly without any particular target or focus. Neither of those will appeal to anyone used to the bland daily existence of capitalism, the former because of its insistence on paperwork before bland daily existence is possible, and the latter because of its distinct and horrifying lack of blandness.
While “good” alternatives are not obvious, the obvious alternatives aren’t good either. François Hollande has claimed he will tax the super rich at a 75 percent rate, but how this changes the relations of production in a way different from the particular rate at which the rich are able to extract surplus value from the working class is a mystery. Slavoj Žižek has made joke after joke inherited from the gulag and the Soviet era, but how these ignite in the worker a feeling of class solidarity and activate his “revolutionary potentialities” remains obscure. The risk of both of these kinds of resistance—one not resistance at all, the other at best dinner-party fodder in unusual company—is that they demonstrate socialism as what Kosík called a “sham alternative” (33).
The questions any socialist alternative to capitalism must ask are as follows: first, what is the program of resistance to capital? Second, what is the particularly socialist narrative of liberation in the context of this program? Modern socialism lacks an answer to either. “Our present crisis” has little to do with capitalism. Capitalism on its own has laid bare the crises and contradictions implicit in capitalism. Our present crisis has to do with reanimating the alternative discourse of liberation to fill that void. The particular form that discourse takes may vary in different societies, and the coexisting histories of secular emancipation and liberation theology suggest that the strategic options are various. Most importantly, though, those strategic options must again be brought to light and taken seriously as alternatives to the capitalist mode.
1. Katherine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and Why Did It Fail? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996).
Read the full version of Karel Kosík’s “Our Present Crisis” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.