[Boris Johnson:] I’ve just been to see Her Majesty the
Queen earlier on and she agreed to dissolve Parliament for an election.
[Jeremy Corbyn:] Labour’s manifesto is a manifesto for hope.
[Reporter:] Democrats face an agonising choice in 2020: who can win, who can muster enough
energy and enthusiasm to get out the vote and beat Donald Trump? Hi, my name’s Tom. Welcome back to the
channel. Now, those of you that are avid viewers will know that today’s video was
supposed to be about the Gig Economy. And, for those of you that are looking
forward to my video on that topic, rest assured that it will be on its way very,
very soon. However there was something I wanted to discuss which felt a little
more timely and thus perhaps worth bumping that video a couple of weeks for.
See, in just under a fortnight, the United Kingdom, the country in which I live, will
be holding a general election. And, in just under two months, the first votes
will be cast in the process to select the Democratic nominee for President of
the United States. There are also likely plenty of other elections which will be
taking place throughout the world in the coming months and year or so which the
anglo-american-centric media in my own country has given far less prominence to.
And all of these elections will be massively important. Now, representative
politics, political parties and elected politicians are generally something
which float around the edges of my videos. Primarily, I tend to discuss the
“politics of” various films, TV, literature and other cultural texts. Perhaps in my
various videos on Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and my video on Millennial
Socialism I came a bit closer to discussing such matters through
discussing political advertising and political discourse, but, while politics
in the broader sense of an interest in power relations is pretty much at the
core of my channel, representative politics tends to always
be “just over there”, floating around the frame but never quite coming into focus
in front of the camera. In fact, I’ve noticed a tendency, when I’m
writing these videos, for me to take political issues which are very real and
visceral and to present them in a slightly abstracted manner. Watching back
my episode of What the Theory? on neoliberalism, for instance, which is the
guiding political, economic and social
ideology of the present day, I can almost see myself taking something which
intercedes on our lives on a daily basis and presenting it as though it were solely theoretical, something which we have no power to influence, change, perhaps
overturn at all. And I think many channels which might be considered to be
in a similar genre to my own can often fall into this trap. Over the past few
years, there has been an explosion of channels on YouTube which seek to
encourage critical thinking about the world from a broadly
left-wing (or at least capitalism-skeptic) perspective. And, alongside this, an
audience for those videos has also grown. Mark Fisher might famously have written
in 2009 that it was ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of
capitalism’ but, just ten years later, this website, along with much of the real
world, is home to a number of intersecting, thriving communities which
all enthusiastically engage in foregrounding the incredible damage that
contemporary neoliberal capitalism is doing to our society and our planet on a
daily basis. Imagining society beyond neoliberalism is one thing however,
acting to change it is another. On the eve of a number of crucial electoral
exercises, then, I want to discuss a dualism that has become a mainstay of
left-leaning political thought: theory and praxis. And I want to reinforce the
notion that, as the quote from Marx with which I opened this video suggested, the
point of critically engaging with the world through theory is not just to
interpret the world, but also to use what we discover through doing so as the
basis for going out and changing it. Before we go any further, if you have any
thoughts as we go along then please don’t hesitate to drop those down below
in the comments and, if you’re new around here and this seems like your kind of
thing, then please do consider subscribing and hitting that
notifications bell so you’ll get a little buzz every time I put out
a new video. Finally, if you really like what I do here and would like to get
your hands on copies of the scripts to these videos, as well as some other perks,
then I’d be very grateful if you were to check out my Patreon page at patreon.com/tomnicholas. With that out of the way however,
let’s crack on with the video. Before we get onto the matter of upcoming
elections and slightly more contemporary issues, I want to discuss the quote from
Karl Marx that I opened this video with for just one moment longer. It
appears in his 1845 text Theses on Feuerbach which is a critique of the
philosophical writings of one of Marx’s contemporaries; some of whose work he
liked, some of whose work he was less keen on. This particular sentence, however,
is aimed slightly more broadly at philosophy in general. As Lev Churbanov
has written, there are two key sentiments which Marx is trying to express here. The
first is that ‘we must understand the world in order to change it, instead of
interpreting it one way or another in order to reconcile ourselves with what
exists’. See, Marx thought that previous philosophers had accepted too much about
the world as given and unchangeable. In seeking to understand the human
condition, they did so in a manner which often did little more than describe the
human condition under capitalism, without any thought as to how a world governed
by different economic and social relations might give way to a different
way of being. As Churbanov continues, however, this aspect of Marx’s argument
is ‘organically connected with […] another thought. The world cannot be changed
merely by changing our notions of it, by theoretically criticizing what exists; it
must be understood, and then, proceeding from this, transformed by effective
action’. In the present day, I would argue that first tendency to
simply “reconcile ourselves with what exists” is far less prevalent. Throughout
academic texts and in popular discourse, partly due to Marx’s interventions, we
are far more attuned to engaging with the world in a manner that recognizes
that the vast majority of human activity is structured by capitalism and that
life would be very different outside of it. In fact, a great deal of scholarship
and many contributions to popular discourse might as well simply end with
the conclusion “because capitalism”. Nevertheless, the second part of Marx’s
argument, that critically thinking about the world is only the first step and, to
some extent, is only worthwhile if it is a precursor to some kind of action to
change that which one has identified as wrong often seems to me to get lost a little.
The manner in which critical thinking about society from, again, an at
least capitalism-sceptic perspective has become an increasingly more mainstream
pursuit in recent years is nowhere more in evidence than on this website.
Hundreds upon hundreds of channels exist releasing hours upon hours of content
every day which seeks to foreground the injustices and inequities in
contemporary society. We could speculate for years on why this has come about. Is
it a consequence of the internet making it relatively easier to disseminate and
access such content and circumvent the litany of gatekeepers which might have
stood in one’s way had one try to broadcast or access the same content
through more traditional channels? Is it a consequence of the increasing
proportion of people in the Global North who have attended university or
college and thus perhaps have a greater appetite for “higher-level” thinking? Or is
it the consequence of capitalism entering a particularly absurd age in
which its flaws seem ever more apparent? Perhaps. Perhaps it’s a result of all of
these things intersecting or something else altogether. I think what’s more
interesting than trying to explain why such content seems to be experiencing
something of a moment of popularity, however, is unpacking
exactly what this stuff does and what it doesn’t tend to do. One thing that
fascinates me about the present abundance of politically-engaged content
being created for this website (and for others, but this one in particular) is the
manner in which it tends to revolve around popular culture, particularly
American film and television culture. And, in many ways, this is one of its greatest
strengths. Critical and political thinking as it appears in academia can
often seem foreboding and obscure. Discussing politics and philosophy with
reference to Breaking Bad, BoJack Horseman, Black Mirror or Game of
Thrones, by contrast, takes ideas which might
otherwise seem esoteric or dull and presents them in a manner which is
highly engaging. If I have to learn about Louis Althusser’s concept of Ideological
State Apparatus then I’ll choose the video that explains it with reference to
Recess than I will the dense academic textbook every time.
Likewise, when I sit down to write an episode of my own What the Theory? series,
I inevitably look for popular films and TV shows that I can explain an
idea through because, as well as knowing that it will likely make it more
engaging for the viewer, it will be more fun to write too. And, to their credit, a
great number of video essays on this website which discuss the “politics or
philosophy of” films, TV shows, books etc, follow a trend in academic and popular
thinking arguably set in motion by the British cultural theorists Raymond
Williams and later Stuart Hall in which those texts are very much considered as
products of the society in which they were created and thus highly revealing
of the issues facing the real world. Again, many might as well end with the
conclusion “because capitalism”. Nevertheless, while this tendency to
discuss politics with reference to cultural texts might introduce some
viewers (maybe many viewers) to ideas that they never would have had the
slightest intention of engaging with otherwise, I think it worth highlighting
that this approach can have some drawbacks. Firstly, films and other
cultural texts often present too clean an object of study. I know the reason I’ve
previously turned to Harry Potter to discuss class, Get Out to discuss race
and Borat to discuss post-modernism is because those films all foreground one
particular power dynamic or phenomenon present in society. Yet the real world is
far more complex. As Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality
reminds us, the various power dynamics of class, gender, race etc which exist within
our society regularly overlap and contest each other in highly complex ways.
I would suggest that the primary downside to this tendency to discuss
politics with reference to cultural texts, however, is that it potentially
fosters a scenario in which we become used to discussing such matters in a
manner one step removed from the real world. It has the potential to make
critically thinking about the world through the lenses of class, gender, race
or whatever else little more than a game. Indeed, in their 2015 book Social Class
in the 21st Century, Mike Savage et al. suggest that proudly
displaying one’s ability to unpack film, TV and whatever else through a feminist,
Marxist or other standpoint has increasingly come to operate as a kind
of “emerging cultural capital”. See, as I’ve explored in my episode of What the Theory?
on class, the model of social class which dominated academic scholarship for much
of the late 20th century argued that economic capital was only one factor in
determining one’s class. Equally as important, so the argument goes, is social
capital (in short, who one associates with socially, what contacts and connections
one has access to) and something called cultural capital. Now, in this previous
model, developed largely by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, cultural
capital referred to the kinds of cultural forms one engaged with and had
knowledge of. The idea was that having the ability to discuss
opera or classical music at length was often weaponized as a manner of
distinguishing who, in any given scenario, was upper- and middle-class and who was
working-class. Savage et al.’s argument is that this tendency for certain class
groups to engage with certain cultural forms has become less prominent and less
important in recent years. Instead, they argue, in the present day, what kinds of
culture one engages with or has a knowledge of has come to be less
important than how one engages with them. Proudly showing off that one has the
ability to critique Captain Marvel’s surface-level feminism or whatever else can
thus be a way of displaying but one is far superior to those working-class
idiots who just thought the fight scenes were cool. And this is just one way in
which political discourse as it exists on this website and elsewhere online
often seems trapped in a kind of straitjacket of theory in which
critically thinking about the world is considered to be an end in and of itself.
Having undertaken one’s analysis of Frozen and, though perhaps sceptical of
its material operations as a Disney film, having highlighted the manner in which
its celebration of women’s agency reveals the persistent presence of the
male gaze elsewhere in human storytelling, there is the tendency to
sit back, content in the knowledge that one has seen through the ideological
distortions of the world around us. Job done, right? But, again, while interpreting the world and revealing those ideological
distortions is certainly a highly productive endeavor, the whole point of
doing so is that it allows us to see what needs to change about the world
around us. The job, therefore, is not done, in reality, it’s just started. All of this
brings us on to the longstanding concept in left-wing thought of a dualism
between theory and praxis. And these terms have their roots in classical
Greek philosophy in which figures from Xenophanes
to Aristotle considered there to be three basic ways of living one’s life.
“Theoria” referred to the contemplative life of thinking about the world through
philosophy or science. “Poiesis” referred to the productive life, in the sense of
producing things. “Praxis”, on the other hand, referred to the political life in
which a citizen might spend their time in the assembly trying to change society
in some way or another. Unsurprisingly, these philosophers all felt that it was
the contemplative life that was the most superior. Whether producing necessities
such as food or luxury goods, poiesis was generally viewed as merely a means to an
end. Praxis was viewed as merely the
management of human affairs. It was the philosophical life, theoria,
unstained by the grubbiness of either production or politics that was the life
truly well lived. In some regards, we might see Marx as having subverted this
hierarchy. As we’ve seen in that quote that I’ve returned to a number of times
throughout this video, for Marx there was simply no point in committing time to
thinking critically about the world if you weren’t willing to then put your
efforts into changing that which you’ve identified as wrong with it. Yet, as
Richard Bernstein has written, it is worth recognizing that Marx ‘was not a
mindless activist’ nor did he ever ‘call for uninformed action. He was—to the end
of his life—ruthless in his criticism of those who were ready to man the
barricades without a proper comprehension or
theoretical understanding of the dynamics of what was taking place’. There
has remained, then, throughout history, a consistent debate over what should be
regarded as most important, critically thinking about the world or acting to
change it, and what the relationship between these two modes of being should
be. The dualism of theory and praxis has most notably been examined in recent
times by the German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt.
In her 1958 book The Human Condition, she rails against both the Greek
philosophers’ preference for ‘contemplation over activity of any kind’
and also more contemporary trends in science, philosophy and political thought
towards ‘introspection’. Yet, in arguing that philosophers and, by extension, all
of us, should seek not the ‘Vita Contemplativa’ (contemplative life) but the
Vita Activa (active life), she does not denigrate critical thinking or the broad
act of contemplation entirely. Instead, she suggests that we should seek
‘contemplation in a living body’. Arendt reconciles theory and praxis as
intrinsically interdependent. It is impossible to know the world without
acting within it nor is it possible to meaningfully act within it without
having contemplated the consequences that one’s actions might have. What does
all of this mean for us in 2019 however? Well, my feeling is that the rise of rich
and highly insightful political content online has done much to encourage deep
contemplation of the world around us, particularly with regard to the
functioning of neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps less emphasis, however, has been
put on how that contemplation might inform how we act within the world.
Perhaps I’m simply not quite online enough to have been privy to it, but
there seems to have been less of an emphasis on how the discoveries that
such videos and blog posts etc etc enable us to make about the world
around us and about ourselves might inform our actions both online and off of it.
So, unlike some of my other videos, perhaps, this video is not one which
seeks to persuade anyone to agree with something they don’t already think. It’s
more an attempt to encourage those who are already on board with the idea that
contemporary neoliberalism is highly damaging to our society and planet to
think about the ways in which, if you’re not already, you might be able to work
towards changing that somewhat. Some actions which you might take to
do so might be tiny and hyperlocal. We can all, for instance, examine our
potential to internalize neoliberal values through viewing our friends, peers
and co-workers as competition rather than collaborators. Others might decide to
donate to causes which they feel passionate about or to volunteer time for a scheme
which helps marginalized groups in their local community. As I mentioned at the
beginning of this video, however, in the UK, US and likely elsewhere we are also
currently in the lead up to some pretty vital elections. The stakes with regard to
representative democracy in the current moment are high. Never in my lifetime have
the differences between the Labour and Conservative parties in the UK and (at
least some of) the Democratic and Republican parties in the US been so
clear. In fact, the whole world is presently at a bit of a turning point
where we either begin to tackle rife inequality and the climate
emergency or continue to let the scales tip ever in favour of those who would
hoard wealth and prepare for ecological disaster through developing armor-plated
electric trucks. So, this is a broad suggestion that, if you enjoy the kind of
critically-engaged content that’s currently experiencing something of a
moment on this website, that you ensure that that theory finds an outlet in
praxis and, firstly, that you vote. Now, I didn’t quite get this video done in time
for you to still be able to register to vote if you live in the UK but, if you’re
elsewhere in the world and have elections coming up and are able to do
so, then make sure you’re registered and, if you’re in the US and want to
influence who gets the Democratic nomination for President of the United
States, I think in some states and counties you also need to register as a
Democrat. So, my first suggestion would be that you register to vote and pop the
date of any election you are able to participate in in your diary. Secondly,
though the conditions of contemporary neoliberalism generally leave us with
little spare time and energy, I would remind you that another way in which you
can ensure that your contemplation of the world finds an outlet in praxis is by getting involved in whichever campaign it is which most
aligns with your personal vision of the world in whatever way that you are able
to do so. Generally, left-wing political parties and campaigns have far less
money than those on the right and, thus, rely on people-power, telephone and
doorstep conversations, to convince voters, find out where the support is and
remind those voters to go out and vote on polling day. It’s generally a lot of
fun and, even when speaking with people that you don’t necessarily agree with or
agree on everything with, you get to have some fantastic conversations while
contributing to meaningful change in the world. Furthermore, through having those
conversations, through engaging in this praxis, you learn more about the
dynamics of the world and how people experience it and that has a feedback
loop which comes right back to theory. So, to conclude. The increasing presence on
this website and across the internet of videos and other forms of content which
encourage a critical engagement with the world is massively exciting. Personally,
it makes me feel a great deal of hope for the world that people are so
enthusiastic about engaging with the world in this way. Nevertheless, as Marx,
as Arendt, as so many others remind us, engaging theoretically with the world in
this way is only really the first step. Because, while interpreting the world is
vital, the point is to change it. Thank you very much for watching this video, I
hope you’ve enjoyed it and perhaps it’s given you some food for thought.
Thanks as ever to Ash, to J Fraser Cartwright, to Michael V Brown and to
armyofme for signing up to the top tier of my Patreon. If you would like to
join them in supporting what I do here then you can find my Patreon page at
patreon.com/tomnicholas. Other than that, liking or sharing this
video with others who might find it interesting or insightful in some way is
much appreciated. Thanks so much for watching once again and have a great
week!