Autonomous Agent or Petty Bourgeois Automaton?: The “Ordinary Individual” and “Critical Judgment” in the Structuralist Worldview

From the American Library Association’s “Freedom to Read Statement:”

“Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.”

Atomistic Social Ontology and You (Whatever You Are)

Recently I had a fun online exchange with an obviously very bright (albeit apparently equally ideologically convinced) Canadian librarian who argued that true library neutrality is impossible and the idea of “intellectual freedom” itself is rife with political implication because:

“You can only subscribe to the idea of a ‘free and unfettered private exploration or public discussion of ideas’ if you already subscribe to an individualist, atomistic social ontology. I.e. if you already adopt a particular commitment to a social theory. That commitment means that by saying ‘I’m not managing what you read, you are making a free and autonomous reading choice’ you are actually reinforcing the idea of individual freedom in the person you are speaking to. You are, therefore, influencing the way they approach reading material and everything else. Even the idea of a ‘personal belief system’ is a commitment based on a particular understanding of individual subjectivity and ideas. You adhere to one out of a number of different views, which means it is not a neutral orientation, but a value-laden one.

The old tried and true ”your idealist/individualist/humanist/transactional, etc. ontology is a political belief” thing! Also known as the “deport the Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyway” argument.

As a fallen-away Marxist cum liberal democrat (not the capitalized kind), I felt old, neglected neurons light up when I read that assertion, as it is a standard argument against just about anything presupposed in a “liberal” or “petty bourgeois” society, but especially notions of intellectual or creative freedom, as individual expression is presumed to be a tainted affair. You say you think violence against political opponents is barbaric? Of course you think you do! You’ve been PROGRAMMED with the boss’ self-protective prejudices, you gullible, petty bourgeois wimp!

Marxism presumes that all political endeavors, systems and social relations are related to and contaminated by economics and production and then insists that history and society progress in certain ways due to these forces which lie almost completely outside of the notice or control of individual consciousness. It insists, further, that there is no such thing as individual consciousness: you, reader, CANNOT (really) think for yourself, no matter how much you would like to. You are not thinking for yourself at this very moment. The “mind” in the lumpy brain behind the eyes scanning the words on the screen of whatever device you are reading this on is a material/physical product of capitalism, a computer enslaved by a biological operating system virally infected with class (or, perhaps, racist or sexist or otherwise bigoted) conditioning. Every calculation in such a computer is bourgeois-affirming in nature: garbage in, garbage out. Marx never fleshed this concept out fully himself—though he hints at it here and there in Capital, especially chapter 15but it is a point of faith among Marxists that has been developed throughout the 20th century up to the present day by Marxist academics in other fields, especially sociology and psychology.

Said Hungarian Marxist intellectual Gyorgy Lukacs:

“The entire human psyche is so deformed by capitalism [that] it is not possible to be human(!) in bourgeois society….The bourgeoisie possesses only the semblance of a human existence.”

Sound even a little familiar?

Soviet dissident and Orthodox Priest Alexander Schmemann wrote of this kind of thinking:

“We must understand and be horrified that all modern ideologies of a happy world and lifestyle not only substitute the person with society, but simply deny his personality entirely.”

Again, reader, to be clear: you have no genuine individual personality or concomitant ”critical judgment,” according to Marxist social theory. What you think of as your personality is completely material, resulting from the biological training of your fleshly brain and your brain is an infected organism, diseased with capitalism and all its related -isms. If you are white and middle class, for instance, you ARE racism and capitalism and exploitation mentally, socially and physically embodied from the moment of birth through no real fault of your own. If you are just about any other sort of human being, you ARE the mental, social and physical embodiment of the oppression of the proletarian class and any other colonized or exploited group you are born into. You can’t help it and you can’t stop it and you can’t transcend it in a capitalist society. You’re a fish and you can’t see the water of this  “social ontology” without a revolution in consciousness, and the water won’t change until all us fish get together and dump it out. Until then, we’re all oppressing or being oppressed every second of every day–it never stops.

The Fascism in us All

When coupled with coercive power, this insistence has proven to be every bit and beyond the human-society-threatening, reality-denying menace to humanity that the Wall Street speculators’ optimism was before the Great Crash of 1929. And coercive power is always something for which Marxists, whether slightly convinced or full-on revolutionary, are always on the lookout, because a key component of being a Marxist or even a fellow-traveler in the social sciences is the belief that every waking moment and every human interaction, however minute, especially in a capitalist society, is a political power struggle, and somebody is probably–certainly–being oppressed.  French philosopher Michel Foucault (Foucault was not himself a Marxist, but his materialist theories of ideology bear similarities to that of Marx) wrote:

The strategic adversary is…the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior.”

That is a very prescient quote, for now, 40+ years after those words were written, we are under a constant barrage of propaganda, overt and subtle, from forces that take very seriously the notion that “micro-fascism” lurks, Mr. Hyde-like, in all of us (especially white, male Dr. Jekylls). News commentator Van Jones said in 2020–commenting on that seemingly unhinged white lady who called the police on the black man walking his dog in Central Park–that “even the most liberal, well-intentioned white person has a virus in his or her brain that can be activated at an instant.” For Jones, this virus is “racism” or “white supremacy,” rather than Foucault’s “fascism,” though the American left (and the sort of librarian sympathetic to it) uses the terms more or less interchangeably. Using academic gymnastics, I suppose one could argue that one can be a fascist without being a racist (Idi Amin?)…but I can’t see how, in all fairness. Fascists need victims, and minority groups are convenient for that. But there are certainly racists who could not be called fascists without the hammering of square pegs into round holes.

The Marxist ideological genealogy of much of the so-called “social justice” content people are having presented to them on a regular basis recently is something of an open secret or, more accurately, semi-open; nobody is exactly hiding it, but I am not seeing very detailed bibliographies at the end of most of it, either, even when the terminology is quickly and easily detectable for those with the ideological and educational background needed to spot it.

Althusser and French Intellectual Marxism

In February of 2021, center-left French President Emmanuel Macron warned his nation’s citizens about the dangers of the encroachment of American “woke culture” into the French body politic. When I read this, I was immediately amused at the irony. Why irony? I’ll start with a confident quote from Ibram X. Kendi’s best-selling book How to be an Anti-Racist:

“Racism and capitalism will ultimately die together.”                 

This quote would possibly exemplify “wokeness” for the kinds of people annoyed by or afraid of it (or what they think it is). Many Americans of many ideological persuasions might assume when they read something like that that they are reading fresh, new, young, edgy American ideas about the relationship between race and capital. The news media even sometimes identify the source of so-called “critical race theory” (a bugaboo of the “anti-woke” crowd) as being African-American intellectuals (sometimes Derrick Bell is identified as the originator) working in the 1970s.[1] The erudite might throw Derrida in the mix now and then. That’s a wrong or, at least, incomplete ideological genealogy. Such a sentiment as Kendi’s is not new or American in origin at all but is actually very 1960s and very French in origin. Such an idea is, to be more specific, a core argument/belief of the Structuralist school of Marxism, a school of Marxist thought so French, in fact, that by the 1970s it was referred to as “The French School” or “Anti-Humanist School.”[2]

The “main guy” of the French School was a philosopher-sociologist named Louis Althusser. Althusser’s point with his “research” into structuralism was to “prove” or “reveal” that capitalism itself has a profound anti-solidarity effect on the working class even outside the workplace and an anti-revolutionary effect on culture and cultural institutions without any brute force being needed. In Althusser’s model, people only believe they are who they believe they are because capitalist society cheerily but determinedly manipulates them to think so in a bazillion ways daily. Americans believe they are “Americans” only because “American capitalism” has an interest in their believing that. National boundaries and identities are largely imaginary, to the Marxist. Individuals seeing themselves as ANYTHING other than their economic class  (like “white” or “black” or “superior” or “inferior” or “smart” or “dumb” and, by now, maybe even “male” or “female”) only do so because “the system” or “the structures” inform them of those identities through a process Althusser called “ideological interpellation” or “hailing.” Interpellation—a fancy word for ”being labelled by the boss class”—is said to result in and continually reinforce “false consciousness,” or the belief that the individual is anything other than a class-bound cog in a huge production machine to be exploited by either revolutionary or counter-revolutionary powers working in realms beyond the ability of the ”ordinary individual” ability to observe.

Wrote Soviet psychologist Leontiev of this (emphasis mine):

“The theory of consciousness leading to the French sociological school holds a somewhat different position. As is known, the main idea of this school refers to the psychological problem of consciousness and holds that individual consciousness is the result of the action on man of the consciousness of society under the influence of which his psyche becomes socialized and intellectualized; this socialization and intellectualization of the psyche of man is his consciousness.”–

Althusser’s ideas boil down to this:

  1. The life one lives and the beliefs one holds are largely luck, inherited through the status of one’s parents/ancestors;
  2. Identity is foisted upon the individual beginning at birth by capitalism’s peripheral and self-perpetuating offshoots: one’s class situation, education, family, nation-state, religion, race, isolated ethnic group, etc.
  3. One’s inherited identity or status, given enough Marxist analysis, is either one of oppressor or oppressed, exploited or exploiter. To Marxists, there is never a third “neutral” option. Crisis-based ideologies and their adherents have no patience with arguments for political/ideological neutrality, generally, for obvious reasons.

QUOTE: “These are the only two paths – capitalism or socialism. There is no third alternative. All hopes of a third alternative, which will guarantee the realisation of peaceful and harmonious development without class struggle, through the forms of capitalist ‘democracy’, ‘planned capitalism’, etc. are nothing but pipe dreams.”—“Bourgeois Democracy and Fascism,” from the Blog of the Stalin Society of Great Britain.

QUOTE:There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy … If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” –Ibram Kendi, How to be an Antiracist.

QUOTE: “O con noi O contro di noi!” (“Either for us or against us!”)–Benito Mussolini

QUOTE: “[In the] struggle of the proletariat, each man must choose between joining our side or the other side. Any attempt to avoid taking sides in this issue must end in fiasco.”–V.I. Lenin

QUOTE: “The nations of the world have a choice to make: they are for us or they are for the terrorists.”–GW Bush

4. Structural privilege (and its counterpart, oppression) are theoretically invisible to those who benefit or suffer from them, thus their easy existence, according to privilege educators like Tim Wise. Wise likens the race-based privilege in America (white privilege) to water and “white” people to fish: they cannot (or defensively refuse to see) the very political medium in which they exist. The “fish-water model” is pretty pervasive when discussing social ontologies, by the way.

5. The only way to counter the privilege, oppression and/or capitalist exploitation is to re-work the infrastructure and “apparatuses” of society. There is no individual way to overcome capitalist exploitation (or racism or sexism, etc.). One cannot “kindness” one’s way out of oppressor status and a person on one’s own cannot educate or enrich oneself enough to overcome one’s inherited oppressed status as long as capitalism continues. This is one reason the French school is called “anti-humanist.” No human-centered effort can undo capitalism’s malignancy; the problem is systemic and structural.

Althusser asserted that, in a Bourgeois-dominated society, the population inherits unearned favored or oppressed class status that makes their lives in a capitalist system more comfortable or more difficult in various ways. Also, as part of this theory, Structural Marxism further asserts that there are “apparatuses” in society that serve to preserve and promote anti-revolutionary opinions and thought and to convey “privilege” (or oppressed status) from one generation to another and to keep capitalism’s exploitative structures going. Althusser called these social/historical conveyor belts “Ideological State Apparatuses” or ISAs.

Some examples of ISAs: the nuclear family, churches/religious institutions, schools, the news media, art museums, etc. In Althusser’s system of thought, the public library is a prime Ideological State Apparatus and a prime target for politicizing and progressivizing. Some living librarians agree. Thus, the philosophical/ethical defense of “library neutrality” by people like me—especially people like me—is seen as actively ANTI-PROGRESS and ANTI-JUSTICE by people out to consciously use the library to change society and re-program what they see as all those petty bourgeois, racist, sexist biological computers floating in all those skulls out there.

It should be noted that Althusser’s structural approach was not universally accepted or found very satisfying or useful, even among other Marxists. Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish Communist and philosophy professor (who moderated toward democratic socialism later in life after he annoyed his Polish Communist bosses and ended up academically de-platformed in Poland), wrote a famously scathing and damaging criticism of Althusser’s work in which he analyzed:

“The whole of Althusser’s theory is made up of the following elements:

1. Common sense banalities expressed with the help of unnecessarily complicated neologisms;

2. Traditional Marxist concepts that are vague and ambiguous in Marx himself (or in Engels) and which remain, after Althusser’s explanation, exactly as vague and ambiguous as they were before;

3. Some striking historical inexactitudes.

I will argue, further, that the rules of interpretation which he proposes are self-contradictory; and, finally, that the whole construction, in spite of the verbal claims to “scientificity” is a gratuitous ideological project intended to preserve a certain traditional model of Marxism typical of Stalinist Communism…the main design of Althusser reveals and ideological or simply a religious way of thinking…”           

Here, Kolakowski doesn’t DISMISS Althusser’s work as ridiculous–he even calls it “common sense” (which much of it is)– but he accuses Althusser of doing not much more than using fancy new words for simple concepts, using unclear ideas that even Marx and Engels couldn’t clarify (without explaining them much more, if at all) and creating an ideological and quasi-religious framework of his own. In this new religion, “privilege” is cognate with the Christian doctrine of original sin: entire populations (members of the Bourgeoisie, royals/nobles or dominant racial/ethnic groups) are born into a state of social ascendancy with an implication of moral guilt (as oppressors separated by class from justice), just as Christians believe humans are born into inherited original sin as sinners separated by human nature from godliness.

Marxist Alan Sawyer wrote of this in 1972:

“This whole concept reeks of the concept of original sin. In the Christian religions all mankind is tainted with sin, for originally, in Eden, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit of knowledge against the wishes of God. In the paper, way back ‘in our very infancy, (we) pawned our revolutionary souls’ when we partook of white skin privileges. Like nuns and priests who vow celibacy and give up worldly goods (supposedly), revolutionary workers should repudiate these white skin privileges.

“’Repudiation’ attempts to impose this concept on the whole of the white section of the working class, and take the individuality of this type situation and incorporate it into the cure. Repudiation is a very individual thing; moral, like confessions to the priest. Its whole conception is individual, corresponding to the situation skilled or craft unionized white workers find themselves in. For this reason alone, it is not applicable to the ‘masses of white workers’ as the paper would have us believe. But what is even harder to fathom is: how do you do it? If workers repudiate their white skin privileges the way nuns and priests give up their worldly goods, then the revolution is indeed in bad shape.”

In a Town Hall meeting/webinar on June 3, 2020, former President Barack Obama said (emphasis mine):

“In a lot of ways, what has happened over the last several weeks is challenges and structural problems here in the United States have been thrown into high relief. They are the outcomes not just of the immediate moments in time, but they’re the result of a long history of slavery and Jim Crow and red lining and institutionalized racism that too often have been the plague, the original sin of our society.”

Original sin indeed. As opposed to Christian thought, however, no recognition or admission of guilt nor any divine mercy or baptism can extract the culpable from this state. As Alan Sawyer observes above in his critique of Ignantin’s “White Blindspot,” even many Marxists don’t think it’s really possible as long as capitalism exists. But for those who do, the culpable state of being (called “Bourgeoisisme” in 1960s France and, something like “whiteness” or “white supremacy” in 2022 USA) is inextricably tied up with the Superstructures and Infrastructures of the societies that factory owners or colonists or dominant groups like “white people” have created and benefitted from and these must be undone (“dismantled”) for “social justice” to take root. Social justice is never clearly defined, but capitalism and/or liberal democracy certainly aren’t it. Most importantly, Kolakowski stated plainly what was obvious about Althusser’s theories even when he was still alive: Structuralism wasn’t scientific and certainly not falsifiable (though it uses scientific-sounding language and pretends to be somehow measurable). The use of the word “scientificity” is key, as it implies someone seeking to fool an audience with laboratorial-sounding (but phony) language.

Intellectual honesty dictates the admission: it is simply an article of ideological faith bordering on religious conviction that person X or population Y is doing “better” or “worse” than other people or populations because of fairness-destroying structural inequality or structural privilege or oppression. No autopsy or CAT-scan can locate ”privilege” or ”oppression” in a dead person. No satellite can scan society and find exploitation’s heat signatures. No overtly political ideas can be proven with mathematical certitude, which is why people like me hold that the greatest degree of intellectual and ideological non-interference is the best possible professional stance as people work through questions of social import. This is also why, as our librarian forbears understood in the McCarthy era, the ”ordinary individual” and ”critical judgment” and ”neutrality” are all such important concepts to defend: without them we concede the argument to anti-humanists who deny individual personality and willingly negate the very foundations of the idea of intellectual freedom (and every other kind of freedom). At that point, librarians volunteer to become cultural commissars, censors and perhaps someday, informants. In the minds of those who deny the ”ordinary individual” or ”institutional neutrality,” we already are most of those things, anyway.

I would posit and warn, however, that the “unified field theory” worldview of Structuralism is now so pervasive unto ubiquitousness in the American academy and in its library schools (as it was in the French academy 40 or 50 years ago) that those who come up through it educationally can’t even comprehend that it doesn’t reflect any kind of inarguable objective reality. Right now it’s seen as ”just the way it is.” Any questioning of it is attacked as any one of a number of toxic reactionary intellectual atavisms. Again, even the notion of NEUTRALITY ITSELF–and I do mean the mere notion–is dismissed or attacked as ingrained bourgeois (or racist or sexist or ”ontologically idealist”) ideation. Any attempts to encode it or enforce it or defend it are, literally, anti-social and dangerous in the minds of progressive Structuralism’s conscious adherents and, increasingly, in younger people who–like Tim Wise’s fishy privileged white people in our racist fish tank society–know no other intellectual model of sociopolitical reality. To them, the “Freedom to Read Statement” might as well be the work of a neo-Nazi or, at least, someone who doesn’t see fascism, micro or macro, as a real problem or threat.

So…are you YOU? Or are you just a Frankenstein, cobbled together out of petty bourgeois/racist/sexist/class prejudices? The future of intellectual freedom hangs in the balance as you consider the answer.




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