Why we need metaphysics and transcendence The history of the radical Left in general and Marxism in particular is one characterised by a failure to appeal to any significant degree to those most in need of its message. The German philosopher Ernst Bloch, writing through most of the twentieth century, was painfully aware that even when capitalism is on its knees and the perceived injustices it inflicts on the greater number of people in society are most evident, it is the parties of the Right rather than Left that enjoy most popular support. Bloch observed this occurring in interwar Europe with horrific consequences for humanity. In 2013, the world is once again convulsed by economic catastrophe, this time caused by the financial incompetence and greed of Thatcherism and its various more recent reincarnations (such as Blairism and the Conservatism of David Cameron). The truths that Marx uncovered over 150 years ago regarding the inequities and intrinsic contradictions of capitalism are once again on the agenda for social scientists, economists and philosophers. His observation that there is an irresolvable tension between the need for capitalism to drive down wages in order to maximise profit and the crisis of overproduction that results from taking money out of consumers’ pockets is supremely relevant to any serious analysis of the circumstances that led us to the financial meltdown of 2008. The neo-liberal solution to the crisis of the 1970s was to usher in the era of debt and credit capitalism. If ordinary consumers by the end of the decade could no longer afford to bask in the utopia of consumption (which had always been an illusion anyway) because their salaries could not stretch far enough, neo-liberals and neo-conservatives offered the salvation of easily available credit. The legacies of Reagan, Thatcher and Blair are today clear for all to see – a capitalist world economy on life support with millions thrown into the most horrendous states of poverty and hopelessness. This is the reality when economic decisions are made to massively expand the intrinsically unstable financial sector at the expense of the traditional industries that are the lifeblood of ordinary working people. Marx was also correct when he demolished the arguments of those who insisted that capitalism was built on the foundations of liberty, fraternity and equality. In the era of welfare for bankers, one cannot help but feel a mixture of

derision and indignation when one encounters the ludicrous pronouncements of neo-liberalism’s contemporary exponents that “we are all in this together” and are somehow part of a “big society”.1 When the fabric of entire communities is rent asunder and the most vulnerable in society are attacked in the name of austerity, it is increasingly difficult to believe in capitalism’s fairness. When we witness levels of welfare skyrocket in the aftermath of the financial crisis – but for bankers, rather than those who need and deserve it and who were blameless for the crisis in the first place – it makes a mockery of the neo-liberal principles of a non-interventionist state. Marx was right that there is no such thing as “the minimal state”2 under capitalism. Its decision to “withdraw” from the economy is a political one, as much as its decision to intervene in order to prop up the elite, in whose interests it always has and always will serve. One would have thought and hoped that in 2013, just as Bloch hoped when he wrote Heritage of Our Times in the early 1930s, that the Left could not fail to benefit from capitalism’s economic, as well as moral, implosion. But now, as then, a depressing pattern is repeating itself. It is not the parties of the Left that are the beneficiaries of neo-liberalism’s demise, but rather the parties of the Right and extreme Right. In continental Europe, the Far Right is again on the rise. Within the “Euro Zone”, the countries suffering most from elite-driven austerity are suffering the additional and incalculable ignominy of the poison of Fascism. Witness the rise of the Golden Dawn in Greece. And outside the Euro Zone, the picture is also rather depressing. In the United Kingdom (UK), the racist British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) and xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are reaping the rewards of the failure of the British establishment to learn from its catastrophic mistakes over the past forty or so years. Bloch would be depressed, but considering the miserable history of the radical Left in the post-war period, he would surely not be surprised. There have been notable exceptions to this trend of disappointment. The radical Left played its part in the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) and welfare state. But in terms of posing a serious challenge to the structures of political and economic power, it is largely a history of failure and lethargy. Marxism is sadly worthy of special criticism in this regard. Even during the best of times for the Left, it has been, at best, a peripheral force. Its devastatingly powerful attack on the weaknesses of capitalism deserves to be heard by the people most in need of liberation from the latter’s most ravaging effects. But these are precisely the people most indifferent to its message. The fact that during the worst economic crisis in the history of world capitalism, political parties in the UK who pledged allegiance to Marxism remain an electoral irrelevance is a dreadful indictment on this movement. The track record of Marxist parties in the rest of the Western world is hardly much more encouraging. There are many possible reasons for this, but surely one of the most prescient is the legacy of what Bloch called the ‘cold stream’ (Bloch 1995: 1369) in whose icy waters Marxism has predominantly swam, as we will discuss in Chapter 6. As Bloch tells us in The Principle of Hope ([1959] 1995), Marxism consists of cold

stream and ‘warm stream’ (Bloch 1995: 1369) components. The former focuses on the painstaking and sober analysis of concrete reality while the latter embraces some of humankind’s most sublime imaginings of utopia which is intended to inspire and sustain revolutionary enthusiasm. Any successful revolution ‘is realized by the consciousness, the will, the passion, the imagination, of tens of millions of people’ (Bloch 1995: 1369). Any Marxism that chooses to swim only in the cooler waters neglects the human desire for meaning, depth and transcendence and instead prides itself on a clinical scientism that posits that all forms of human existence are exhausted by the working of natural laws, which can be scientifically understood. This type of Marxism has historically defended a kind of radical secularism that has sought to disparage and sideline the richest expressions of the search for depth meaning – utopia and religion. As I will argue, there are limits to how much Marx and Engels themselves can be held responsible for this. I point out that historical materialism is not necessarily a cold house for those who reject scientism and instead insist that human existence is not reducible to the operation of causal laws and principles. But that Marx and Engels represent progress beyond the clinical scientism and spiritually dead agenda of radical secularism is to damn them with faint praise. I argue that Marx and Engels have at least something in common with the likes of Rawls, Durkheim and Gauchet in this regard, if in little else – an attempt to identify the rational and social utility of utopia and transcendence once its metaphysical credibility has been shattered by the pitiless march of scientific epistemology. To credit Marx and Engels with this vision of utopia and post-secularism – and there are plenty of commentators to whom even this minor concession would be anathema – is an important contribution to addressing at least one of the causes of Marxism’s political and electoral deficit. But I feel that this is not enough to immerse it in the warm stream that it so desperately needs. There is a need for metaReality and transcendence. This is why I believe that the philosophers that I explore in this book, who are either card-carrying Hegelians/postHegelians or who, I argue, have more than a little in common with Hegelian ideas – especially Roy Bhaskar, as well as Bloch (and there are others) – are such important thinkers. They explore the spiritual sources of the ethical content of the Left’s thinking that has historically been expressed using the language of narrow secularism and even scientism. I have argued that, in doing so, both take us beyond historical materialism, but this may say more about the deficiencies of this system of thought than their own logic. The three key concepts I wish to explore in this book – post-secularism, utopia and realism – are huge presences in the Hegelian and post-Hegelian thinkers I shall be considering. That is the reason why I think these philosophers have such important things to contribute to contemporary discussions of all three concepts. The purpose of this introduction is to acquaint the reader in a (hopefully) painless way to all three. As post-secularism and realism are explored in some detail in later chapters, I will keep my discussion of them here brief. As there is no equivalent chapter on utopia, my introduction to it will be rather more detailed.