After Hegel’s dialectics and the ‘end of history’ there was actually a rather formidable epilogue by Marx and Engels whose ideology spanned continents and often assumed a totalitarian form in practice. Is dialectics now finally exhausted, or is there still plenty more in the tank? Is it still exerting influence, going undetected, this time beneath the academic radar, right under our very noses? And if so, who is it serving?
The modern dialectical view
Modern dialectics characterises the process whereby the unsustainable contradictions that arise within phenomena or circumstances are reconciled when an opposing influence inevitably negates an original position; but rather than leaving nothingness, a third outcome supersedes the secondary position (negating the negation) yet still bears some trace of them both. This triadic process—conveniently summarised as thesis, antithesis and synthesis—was instrumental in demonstrating the underlying dynamics of natural, psychological and social phenomena, most notably by Hegel in the nineteenth century: ‘Dialectic is here understood in the grasping of opposites in their unity.’(Hegel, Science of Logic.)
Hegel examined the contradictions inherent within limited modes of thought and systematically explained the transition, through key dialectical moments, from the consciousness of mere presence to increasingly sophisticated forms of self-consciousness whose ultimate expression is the realisation of ‘absolute knowledge’ or complete freedom from finite modes of thought.
But before deliverance to this rarefied conceptual plane, the darker evolutionary phases of the master/slave dynamic must be experienced: the hypothetical encounter between one self-consciousness and another provokes a life or death struggle as each tries to assert itself as the ultimate reality and compel the other to recognise the fact. Hegel considers the aftermath of such an engagement when one such consciousness yields through fear of staking his life on the outcome: ‘They stand as two opposed forms or modes of consciousness. The one is independent, and its essential nature is to be for itself; the other is dependent, and its essence is life or existence for another. The former is the Master, or Lord, the latter the Bondsman [slave].’ (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit).
This relationship, according to Hegel, conceals a certain advantage for the slave over the master by way of an opportunity to attain greater independence of mind, if not body, and freedom of thought by having to repress their own desire in order to fashion the objects of the world exclusively in service of the master’s needs. The slave’s consciousness of themself as independent is grounded in their creative capacity, whereas the master is habitually dependent on the slave to mediate the objects into consumable form for his enjoyment. However, his fundamental need for recognition is not fulfilled vis-à-vis the slave, whose status for him is no more than an animate object, and little more satisfactory than interacting with the mirror on the wall. The slave cultivates a stoicism and withdrawal from worldly affairs and an indifference to worldly things, unlike the master who remains steadfastly trapped in dependency.
An imperfectly superimposed example could perhaps be drawn from the movie 'Spartacus', especially the taut dialogue between Crassus the Emperor and the fictional wife of Spartacus—Varinia the slave. But because of inherent contradictions and defections still present within the stoic’s abstract notion of freedom, and further dialectical movement, a religious-like disposition evolves into one that is more orientated toward reason.
Hegel’s schematic interpretation of the morphosis of phenomena (phenomenology) is teleological. There is a higher purpose, a lofty goal (telos), latent even in the primitive interactions of mind/spirit.
The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. The ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes these stages moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and constitutes thereby the life of the whole. (Hegel, Preface, Phenomenology of Spirit).
Later on, Marx and Engels upended Hegel’s all-encompassing system of thought (idealism) by applying the dialectical view exclusively to the material realm (materialism).
"My dialectic method," says Marx, "is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, ... the process of thinking which, under the name of 'the Idea,' he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos (creator) of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of 'the Idea.' With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought." (Marx, Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I of Capital.)
Engels stated three fundamental laws of materialist dialectics extrapolated from his understanding of Hegel’s Science of Logic:
The law of the unity and conflict of opposites (sometimes referred to as ‘the interpenetration of opposites’).
The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes.
The law of the negation of the negation
Nothing within nature is static, nothing has impenetrable boundaries and therefore even opposites remain mutually exclusive only for so long. The contradictions within the material realm that initiate change when quantity reaches a critical point and abruptly alters the quality of a substance—water boiling to steam is an obvious example—were also applicable to history and contemporary society (albeit notoriously unpredictably). A very crude application of this principle would suggest that the conditions imposed upon the peasants in an oppressive feudal system would eventually reach a degree that revolt was inevitable and, at least temporarily, shatter the status quo. The materialist dialectical interpretation of history as opposed to more traditional historical narratives was primarily concerned with the productive forces of any epoch rather than personalities as such. In that sense, and in its emphasis on changing conditions, rather than providing a series of selected snapshots of history, dialectical materialism claims to have offered something more analogous to footage.
The stubborn master
In an age where the most serious thinkers were meant to present a methodical, highly disciplined account of their musings, Nietzsche’s dazzling polemic and quotable prose steadily amassed a legion of admirers and sympathisers after his death. The optimism of the teleological tradition was met with acid cynicism from Nietzsche who poured scorn and pejoratives on what he considered hubris. Before his complete mental and physical collapse, the legacy of his entire intellectual efforts convened in one stark revelation: ‘Wherever I found a living thing, there found I Will to Power; and even in the will of the servant found I the will to be master’. (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.)
From a staunchly Lutheran family, Nietzsche turned against Christianity as he matured as a thinker and mercilessly attacked the religious temperament and its ethical values which he felt were founded upon the basest human failings: weakness, guilt, cowardliness, envy and so on. He argued, often bitterly, that the religious ethic is a slave morality and their exponents are sickly, etiolated, thoroughly contemptable specimens having forfeited something vital within themselves. Furthermore, their self-imposed tyranny—which they would see extended to others as far as possible—is a breeding ground for falseness and hypocrisy.
In a tour through the many finer and coarser moralities which have hitherto prevailed or still prevail on the earth, I found certain traits recurring regularly together, and connected with one another, until finally two primary types revealed themselves to me, and a radical distinction was brought to light. There is MASTER-MORALITY and SLAVE-MORALITY,--I would at once add, however, that in all higher and mixed civilizations, there are also attempts at the reconciliation of the two moralities, but one finds still oftener the confusion and mutual misunderstanding of them, indeed sometimes their close juxtaposition--even in the same man, within one soul …. The noble type of man separates from himself the beings in whom the opposite of this exalted, proud disposition displays itself …. The cowardly, the timid, the insignificant, and those thinking merely of narrow utility are despised; moreover, also, the distrustful, with their constrained glances, the self-abasing, the dog-like kind of men who let themselves be abused, the mendicant flatterers, and above all the liars:--it is a fundamental belief of all aristocrats that the common people are untruthful. (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.)
After the Second World War there was an understandably deepening crisis of faith in positive teleology, religious dogma, altruistic motivation and in philosophical pretensions to disclosing ‘the truth’. Cynicism had by now grown very deep roots.
Imagine what would happen if a masterful power reasserted its influence by subverting dialectics and manufacturing its own teleology, i.e. for its own particular ends. What shape would it take?
David Icke may have elicited more laughter over the years than Monty Python: ‘They’re laughing at you; they’re not laughing with you,’ explained one avuncular British chat show host in a notorious interview. The concept of shape-shifting interlopers with way too much reptilian DNA posing as well-known humanoids in order to influence public life will always be a stretch for some, but after shedding a shiny turquoise shell suit and the dreamy afterglow of his Damascene epiphany, Icke stayed true to a mission whose research into epochal events such as 9/11 yielded an academic theory of sorts with an uncomfortably familiar dialectical component—The Totalitarian Tiptoe.
The Totalitarian Tiptoe theory is unsettling because it is a simple but sinister twist on the dialectical worldview which appears to contradict the emancipatory theme of both Hegel and Marx/Engels: its teleology is to create the conditions from which totalitarianism can come into being.
Whereas conventional dialectics follows the evolutionary movement of a multiplicity of individual wills as they coalesce into identifiable categories and contribute to recognisable changes, the Totalitarian Tiptoe describes how rudimentary dialectical principles can be appropriated in order to keep the majority subservient to the interests of a shadowy elite. Like conventional dialectics it follows a threefold process but in accordance with the formula problem-reaction-solution: firstly, a problem is contrived, a crisis, calculated to provoke a predictable reaction amongst the general populace. Once the crisis has gripped popular consciousness and aroused a response amenable to the interests of the elite (the reaction), a solution is presented that serves a totalitarian agenda. But it isn’t a solution per se; it only presents itself as a solution. In fact the solution on offer is quite the opposite, if by solution we infer it to mean something that will put an end to this and these kinds of future crises. But from this pseudo-solution yet more crises emerge that trigger more reactions and a demand for further pseudo-solutions, and so on. Moreover, the proposed solution/solutions are actively debated in the public sphere which inevitably involves extreme proposals at each end of the spectrum and everything in between. Some kind of compromise is made and enacted after the perfunctory ‘democratic’ process is seen to be observed. Within the settlement are proposals which ususally reverse the gains made in the sphere of civil liberties by incremental steps that lead to totalitarianism.
In the case of 9/11, for example, a crisis occurred that was not necessarily coordinated to the nth degree by shady machinations, but the contributory factors that made such a complex and dramatic event possible were already in place as a result of previous policies masquerading as solutions to previous ‘problems’. It could be that intelligence of a potential strike was conveniently ignored and not acted upon, thereby allowing a terrorist attack to manifest of such magnitude, of almost biblical proportions, that great capital could be made from the inevitable public outrage. Or it could merely have been opportunistically utilised. Nevertheless, some of the ‘solutions’ to that particular event involved not only the aggressive control over the resources of Iraq, whose government had little tangible involvement on the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, but also saw the passing of the Patriot Act and the detention of suspects without trial in the concentration camps of Guantanamo, Cuba.
In the summer of 2002 ... I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend—but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were ‘‘in what we call the reality-based community,’’ which he defined as people who ‘‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible ... reality.’’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’’ he continued. ‘‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” (Ron Suskind, ‘Without a Doubt’, New York Times Magazine, Oct. 17, 2004.)
The modus operandi of the Totalitarian Tiptoe is to gradually acclimatise the collective consciousness by sneaky dialectical methods to the goal of totalitarianism. Within this system the populace are held captive in the master/slave phase of development through the complex manipulation of fear. But the master is not seen to be master; the master is invisible and the slave is unaware of their slavery. Moreover, the system is reinforced by the manufactured consensus so that dissent is often met with general ridicule and hostility such that each slave behaves like a funktionshäftling, keeping the others in line.