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Total science: Adorno, the woke, and the IDW

I said yesterday that science is intrinsically on the left, and a commenter below asked how if this is the case contemporary Western politics is characterised by a left that is seen as “anti-science” (the woke) and a right (Intellectual Dark Web types) that is “pro-science”. Perhaps the first point to note is that both wings in this debate conceptualise themselves as “pro-science” and the implication is that to be pro-science is “good” by definition; secondarily, the answer is that we live in a left-wing context just as the parties in the Islamic Republic of Iran live in an Islamic context—you can compete relatively freely for election in Iran, but you have to endorse Shia Islam in some form to do so.

In the same way, Western political factions all subscribe to progressive liberalism to some degree—and just as Iranians squabble over whether Islam insists that women should be completely or partially veiled, so Western parties squabble over who is “truly scientific”; in this case, left and right are situational and relational—yet the metacontext is that we’re for “liberal democracy”, despite our particular squabbles, just as the Iranians are for “Shia Islam”.

So, in fact, “the woke” and “the Intellectual Dark Web” are both committed to “human equality” but they have different ways in which they conceptualise that goal and different ideas about how to reach it—they fight bitterly, just as all those Marxist grouplets fight among themselves bitterly over how to achieve “communism”; it’s the narcissism of minor differences.

The left (woke) is actually more sophisticated than the right (IDW) in this regard. There are many influences on the woke, but with regard to science Adorno is an important figure. What Adorno said, very briefly, is that it used to be thought in the Enlightenment that science and technology would destroy kings, aristocracy, and religion—reason and scientific investigation would do away with superstition, mysticism, and mythology and would bring about human emancipation.

However, Adorno observed that post-WW II techno-science had not led to the state expected by Enlightenment philosophes. It had instead led to gas chambers, barbed wire production, and mass propaganda and indoctrination—Adorno said that this constituted a “new mythology” that had destroyed human emancipation and so to “preserve reason” it was necessary to counter the mystique of reason (ideas such as, for example, race science to create a “superhuman”).

To understand this thought pattern, take this example from Marcuse: the venerable prof pointed out that every day people jump in their cars to go to work (perfectly rational decision mediated by scientific technology) and yet the aggregate from their individual rational decisions leads to a traffic jam—so to act rationally, to be an individual rational actor (as John Stuart Mill would have admired), can in fact lead to an irrational outcome overall. Hence to protect reason the left must critique reason—and similar points were made by Derrida, Foucault, and so on.

To save reason and emancipation we must critique reason—it’s why the hippies, influenced by men like Marcuse, went “back to nature” except not in a right-wing way (they wanted to escape the “new myth of reason”, perhaps on a commune or perhaps with LSD—turn the rational “instruments of oppression”, such as new consumer drugs, into means of liberation; and, in particular, the liberation of the libido or eros).

The Intellectual Dark Web types—actually typical of conservatives going back decades now—defend the old Enlightenment vision that science and reason will set us free from priests, kings, and aristocrats. If they look at an event like the holocaust they interpret it as a recrudescence of mysticism, blood-borne irrationality, and religion; they do not see the problem, per Adorno, as being that Darwinism leads to a “new myth” of scientifically actuated race purity.

Men like Jordan Peterson are typical in this regard: they hate religion and what they hate about “the woke” is that they seem to be religious or irrational—and it’s because they seem to reject technology, or reject it in part, and that’s “evil” for men like Peterson because they worship technology (it gives us lots of neat consumer goods, we don’t have to listen to priests and aristocrats anymore—we are “lords of the earth”).

It’s not actually so: “the woke” are just very thoughtful leftists who have worked out that mythology recurs and that to really pursue emancipatory politics you have to “critique the critique”. The counterpunch from the IDW is that these people are “irrational neo-religious types” who want to “drag us back to the Dark Ages”—they need to accept IQ tests, the meritocracy (an old Enlightenment idea), and so on. Actually, men like Adorno don’t reject the facts as regards those developments—though perhaps their more naïve followers do—but rather attack the myth (the implicit value system around these developments) that says “these tools will emancipate us” and augment reason.

Note that neither side is on the right in the absolute sense, it’s an internal squabble within the left about who is truly “rational” and how “human emancipation” will be achieved. The woke basically say that the IDW need to update their Enlightenment ideas as regards what “reason” is—so that they can extirpate the “unreason in reason” more thoroughly and prevent a return of “oppression”. The IDW maintains that the Enlightenment vision is basically fine and we just need to crack on in order to “save the human race”.

The genuine right stands for aristocracy, kingship, and religion—blood and soil—and is anathema to both these trends. It is true that “Adornian” politics can sometimes seem like a return to “the irrational” when it speaks about “lived experience” and so on; but actually it is a very subtle and absolute critique grounded in “emancipatory reason” designed to destroy religious and aristocratic ideas in a more total way than the heirs of the Enlightenment—when it comes to the woke, there’s definitely method in their madness.


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