Another ponderable from ‘Debt’

September 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

“Within human economies, motives are assumed to be complex. When a lord gives a gift to a retainer, there is no reason to doubt that it is inspired by a genuine desire to benefit that retainer, even if it is also a strategic move designed to ensure loyalty, and an act of magnificence meant to remind everyone else that he is great and the retainer small. There is no sense of contradiction here. Similarly, gifts between equals are usually fraught with many layers of love, envy, pride, spite, communal solidarity, or any of a dozen other things. Speculating on such matters is a major form of daily entertainment. What’s missing, though, is any sense that the most selfish (‘self-interested’) motive is necessarily the real one: those speculating on hidden motives are just as likely to assume that someone is secretly trying to help a friend or harm an enemy as to acquire some advantage for him- or herself. Neither is any of this likely to have changed much in the rise of early credit markets, where the value of an IOU was as much dependent on assessments of its issuer’s character as on his disposable income, and motives of love, envy, pride, etc. could never be completely set aside.

Cash transactions between strangers were different, and all the more so when trading is set against a background of war and emerges from disposing loot and provisioning soldiers; when one often had best not ask where the objects traded came from, and where no one is much interested in forming ongoing personal relationships anyway. Here, transactions really do become simply a figuring-out of how many of X will go for how many of Y, of calculating proportions, estimating quality, and trying to get the best deal for oneself. The result, during the Axial Age, was a new way of thinking about human motivation, a radical simplification of motives that made it possible to begin speaking of concepts like ‘profit’ and ‘advantage’ — and imagining that this is what people are really pursuing, in every aspect of existence, as if the violence of war or the impersonality of the marketplace has simply allowed them to drop the pretense that they ever cared about anything else. It was this, in turn, that allowed human life to seem like it could be reduced to a matter of means-to-end calculation, and hence something that could be examined using the same means that one used to study the attraction and repulsion of celestial bodies. If the underlying assumption very much resembles those of contemporary economists, it’s no coincidence — but with the difference that, in an age when money, markets, states, and military affairs were all intrinsically connected, money was needed to pay armies to capture slaves to mine gold to produce money; when ‘cutthroat competition’ often did involve the literal cutting of throats, it never occurred to anyone to imagine that selfish ends could be pursued by peaceful means. Certainly, this picture of humanity does begin to appear, with startling consistency, across Eurasia, wherever we also see coinage and philosophy appear.

The Confucian ideal of ren, of humane benevolence, was basically just a more complete inversion of profit-seeking calculation than Mo Di’s universal love; the main difference was that the Confucians added a certain aversion to calculation itself, preferring what might almost be called an art of decency. Taoists were later to take this even further with their embrace of intuition and spontaneity. All were so many attempts to provide a mirror image of market logic. Still, a mirror image is, ultimately, just that: the same thing, only backwards. Before long we end up with an endless maze of paired opposites — egoism versus altruism, profit versus charity, materialism versus idealism, calculation versus spontaneity — none of which could ever have been imagined except by someone starting out from pure, calculating, self-interested market transactions.”

— David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (238-9)


Debt, Speculation, Apocalypse

September 9, 2011 § 2 Comments

Immanuel Wallerstein likes to point out that the French Revolution introduced several profoundly new ideas in politics — ideas which, fifty years before the revolution, the vast majority of educated Europeans would have written off as crazy, but which, fifty years afterward, just about anyone felt they had to at least pretend they thought were true. The first is that social change is inevitable and desirable: that the natural direction of history is for civilization to gradually improve. The second is that the appropriate agent to manage such change is the government. The third is that the government gains its legitimacy from an entity called “the people.” It’s easy to see how the very idea of a national debt — a promise of continual future improvement (at the very least, five percent annual improvement) made by government to people — might itself have played a role in inspiring such a revolutionary new perspective. Yet at the same time, when one looks at what men like Mirabeau, Voltaire, Diderot, Siéyes — the philosophes who first proposed the notion of what we now call “civilization” — were actually arguing about in the years immediately leading up to the revolution, it was even more about the danger of apocalyptic catastrophe, of the prospect of civilization as they knew it being destroyed by default and economic collapse.

Part of the problem was the obvious one: the national debt is, first, born of war; second, it is not owed to all the people equally, but above all to capitalists — and in France at that time, “capitalist” meant, specifically, “those who held pieces of the national debt.” The more democratically inclined felt that the entire situation was opprobrious. “The modern theory of the perpetuation of debt,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, around this same time, “has drenched the earth with blood, and crushed its inhabitants under burdens ever accumulating.” Most Enlightenment thinkers feared that it promised even worse. Intrinsic to the new, “modern” notion of impersonal debt, after all, was the possibility of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy, at that time, was indeed something of a personal apocalypse: it meant prison, the dissiolution of one’s estate; for the least fortunate, it meant torture, starvation, and death. What national bankruptcy would mean, at that point in history, nobody knew. There were simply no precedents. Yet as nations fought greater and bloodier wars, and their debts escalated geometrically, default began to appear unavoidable. Abbe Sieyès first put forward his great scheme for representative government, for instance, primarily as a way of reforming the national finances, to fend off the inevitable catastrophe. And when it happened, what would it look like? Would the money become worthless? Would military regimes seize power, regiems across Europe be likewise forced to default and fall like dominos, plunging the continent into endless barbarism, darkness, and war? Many were already anticipating the prospect of the Terror long before the revolution itself.

It’s a strange story because we are used to thinking of the Enlightenment as the dawn of a unique phase of human optimism, borne on assumptions that the advance of science and human knowledge would inevitably make life wiser, safer, and better for everyone — a naïve faith said to have peaked in the Fabian socialism of the 1890s, only to be annihilated in the trenches of World War I. In fact, even the Victorians were haunted by the dangers of degradation and decline. Most of all, Victorians shared the near-universal assumption that capitalism itself would not be around forever. Insurrection seemed imminent. Many Victorian capitalists operated under the sincere belief that they might, at any moment, find themselves hanging from trees. In Chicago, for instance, a friend once took me on a drive down a beautiful old street, full of mansions from the 1870s: the reason, he explained, that it looked like that, was that most of Chicago’s rich industrialists of the time were so convinced that the revolution was imminent that they collectively relocated along the road that led to the nearest military base. Almost none of the great theorists of capitalism, from anywhere on the political spectrum, from Marx to Weber, to Schumpeter, to von Mises, felt that capitalism was likely to be around for more than another generation or two at the most.

One could go further: the moment that the fear of imminent social revolution no longer seemed plausible, by the end of World War II, we were immediately presented with the specter of nuclear holocaust. Then, when that no longer seemed plausible, we discovered global warming. This is not to say that these threats were not, and are not, real. Yet it does seem strange that capitalism feels the constant need to imagine, or to actually manufacture, the means of its own imminent extinction. It’s in dramatic contrast to the behavior of the leaders of socialist regimes, from Cuba to Albania, who, when they came to power, immediately began acting as if their system would be around forever — ironically enough, considering they in fact turned out to be something of an historical blip.

Perhaps the reason is because what was true in 1710 is still true. Presented with the prospect of its own eternity, capitalism — or anyway, financial capitalism — simply explodes. Because if there’s no end to it, there’s absolutely no reason not to generate credit — that is, future money, indefinitely. Recent events would certainly seem to confirm this. The period leading up to 2008 was one in which many began to believe that capitalism really was going to be around forever; at the very least, no one seemed any longer to be able to imagine an alternative. The immediate effect was a series of increasingly reckless bubbles that brought the whole apparatus crashing down.

— David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (359-60)

Man Hunt

September 3, 2011 § 11 Comments

Fritz Lang’s 1941 film Man Hunt (based on a novel with just as unintentionally homoerotic a title, Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household, which I haven’t read) is structured around an interesting conceit: just before WWII, a thrillseeking British aristocrat (Alan Thorndike, played by the Canadian Walter Pigeon) is caught aiming a rifle at Hitler in what he claims was a “sport stalking,” basically throwing the fish back in. He’s then constantly pursued for the rest of the movie by the Gestapo in order to get him to sign a confession that he both a) really intended to kill Hitler and b) did it with the full knowledge of the British government, creating a pretext for war. Why Germany would want to go to war with Britain in 1938 is anyone’s guess, but that’s beside the point. By the end of the film, Gestapo agent Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, the great English Nazi), before getting an arrow in the neck, has convinced Thorndike that he unconsciously desired Hitler’s death but fails to get him to subordinate that desire to a nation state. Since we’ve seen Thorndike’s own aristo father imply that England would gladly give him up for dead to appease the Führer, it’s easy to understand why.

But the resistance to nationalism goes deeper. Thorndike is an individualist, a free spirit, able to treat his social class — that most typically English of classes, landed gentry — as merely a source of income. I don’t know the circumstances behind the casting choices, but it’s entirely fitting that the lead actor be a Canadian with no interest in sounding English, the love interest, a working-class Londoner, played by an American (Joan Bennett — hearing Jersey attempt Cockney is quite an experience), and the heavy an Englishman with fluent German. Having heard Sanders do a decent enough German accent in other films, I can only assume that Lang told him to drop it for this role, and anyway the incongruities are backed up by the plot: the name Quive-Smith is an odd hybrid that doesn’t seem to have much to do with German, he is suspiciously described at one point as “too perfectly English”; Thorndike’s accent is (weakly) explained by the amount of time he spends “at his house in Canada,” etc. All of which adds an extra layer of irony to the following bit of dialogue between them. I’ll include the whole scene as it’s the only one I could find on YouTube; the part I transcribed occurs around 4:30:

Quive-Smith: “Your conversation fascinates me, Thorndike. But this softness in your nature with regard to the ultimate purpose of firearms betrays the weakness, the decadence, not only of yourself but of your entire race. Yes, you’re symbolic of the English race.

Thorndike: “I’m beginning to think that you’re symbolic of yours!”

The film’s amusing habit of highlighting the distance between the actors, the characters, and the national cultures they’re supposed to represent foregrounds the instability of any connection between signifier and state-fiction, and the absurdity of insisting on them. That this absurdity is linked to war is the film’s moral argument. Which can be a bit hard to reconcile with the fact that its one utopian projection is inextricable from violence. We’re told that Thorndike is an apolitical pacifist. This claim is undercut early on — after squeezing an empty trigger on Hitler, we see him put a bullet into the chamber and aim the rifle again before he’s caught — but it is not exactly refuted. In the end he confesses to wanting to carry out the assassination, not for England but for “humanity,” a concept that, like his pacifism, he derives from his enlarged sense of self, his abhorrence of anyone else trying to “play God.” If only he had figured this out straightaway, he could have saved the world. And indeed the film ends with him joining the military, solely in order to go rogue as soon as he’s behind enemy lines and “fulfill his destiny” by killing Hitler all by himself.

To get any idea of how this might have played at the time of the film’s release, months before the U.S. entered the war, we’d have to imagine Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming propaganda movie about killing Bin Laden coming out a few months after 9/11. But that wouldn’t be right either, because Man Hunt was an American studio film, adapted from an English novel published before the war, directed by a Austrian Jewish refugee, set in England from just before the invasion of Poland to just after the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, and released shortly thereafter. It was enough to cause problems with American censors who saw it as anti-German — the US was of course still neutral. Man Hunt is the only anti-nationalist war propaganda movie I can think of without lasers, dragons, or zombies, made in the name of an international alliance that had not yet become the Allies (so the Bigelow analogy would only work if the movie was made in China, set in New York, and directed by an Arab Jew). In Thorndike, frontier toughness (he’s a hunter who kills Quive-Smith with a makeshift bow and arrow), gentlemanly charm, and pacifistic morality come together under the banner of upright Anglo-American individualism, to create a fantasy that 60 years later has all but become NATO foreign policy. Post-Bin Laden, we’re living in Man Hunt‘s utopia.

But what if we resist the interpretation the film guides us toward, that of the lone badass driven by universal principles to stop wars, indifferent to the state that underwrites his adventures? To seize instead on that initial, almost anarchistic moment where Thornhill takes aim, shoots nothing, and packs up to go home, and read it against the teleology of the plot and his ‘unconscious’ utopian motives? It would be the nihilistic choice, true, the abandonment of all thought of a better world, but it would embrace everything great about the movie: its lightness, its sense of playful irony, the analogy it draws between serious ethical principles and the rules of a game — and a different kind of power, power as the mockery of power, seriousness as the mockery of seriousness.

Totality and Exhaustion

September 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

A few notes on two writers for whom the all-encompassing totality of the capitalist system is aligned with the exhaustion of culture, and how that problem is to be dealt with: Don DeLillo and Fredric Jameson.

Cosmopolis isn’t among Don DeLillo’s best for the same reason that it is the most useful for comprehending his work as a whole: it condenses all/most of the ‘standard’ DeLillo concerns into a slim précis that can be read (as I did) over the course of a plane ride. Eric Packer, its currency trading protagonist, is the kind of vapid, amoral übermensch in love with abstraction capitalist society encourages, a postmodernist par excellence. He is stalked by an assassin  as confused about his identity as was Lee Harvey Oswald in the earlier Libra. The chief difference between he and Packer is not ideological (the character’s anticapitalism is pretty swiftly revealed to be a hypocritical front), rather that it actually occurs to him to be troubled by his own vagueness. To reach the same point of personal reflection, Packer has to embark on an ironized voyage of self-discovery (he’s ostensibly out to get a haircut) which leads to the loss of his fortune as well as a great deal of emotional and physical pain and suffering. Self-dissolution figures as the only possible ‘solution’ to the problems of intense abstraction and meaninglessness, after his belief in an underlying order to the digital world of high finance he inhabits is proven false: he miscalculates the rise of the yen. Kinski, his ‘theorist,’ a Baudrillard parody and chief representative of this initial conviction, claims the anticapitalist rioters they encounter are merely effects of the market. Packer agrees with her until the spectacle of one such protester setting himself on fire: “What did this change? Everything, he thought. Kinski had been wrong. The market was not total. It could not claim this man or assimilate his act. Not such starkness and horror.” In DeLillo, suffering and impending death take on quasi-religious significance, delivering a shock that has the potential to shift the protagonist out of abstract capitalist consciousness toward awareness of self, a kind of negative enlightenment:

“But his pain interfered with his immortality. It was crucial to his distinctiveness, too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn’t think, to computer emulation. The things that made him who he was could hardly be identified much less converted to data, the things that lived and milled in his body, everywhere, random, riotous, billions of trillions, in the neurons and peptides, the throbbing temple vein, in the veer of his libidinous intellect. So much come and gone, this is who he was, the lost taste of milk licked from his mother’s breast, the stuff he sneezes when he sneezes, this is him, and how a person becomes the reflection he sses in a dusty window when he walks by. He’d come to know himself, untranslatably, through his pain.”

It’s entirely the point that these details are so non-specific, such conventional markers of humanity. As evidence for his singular, irreducible reality, they could be anything; he simply has to recognize them as such, against those who might (for confused ideological reasons, the result of a weak self) wish to negate his being: assassins, terrorists, rioters, etc., and against the “cybercapitalist” technoculture that treats all selves as interchangeable bits of data. Defying them all is the self of the novel, the self shorn of all qualities, just the proprietary, organizing center for stories.

DeLillo is one of a long line of secular mystics in American literature. He uses fiction to give history’s contingent and meaningless events a mythic structure, a sense of totality that is not reducible to knowledge. The clunkiness of Cosmopolis‘s narrative movement (it’s closer to an outline than a novel, making it the perfect choice of DeLillo’s novels for the film adaptation it is about to receive) exposes the limitations of the overall approach. Is catastrophe, however vicarious and mediated by technology and irony, really the only serious response to existential dissatisfactions, are those dissatisfactions so universal as to deserve elevating over more immediate antagonisms, and is the attempt to do so in the name of the contemplative subject of the Angl0-European novel dissociable from whiteness, maleness, detachment, elitism? But depicting with such force the hysterical core of ‘late capitalist’ white male consciousness in terminal decline is one of DeLillo’s triumphs as a novelist, and maybe it’s too much to ask that he do something else.

I like to think of him as The Novel’s answer to Fredric Jameson (I’m referring to the novel more as a cultural institution than a type of text, supposed to be preserving or defending the legitimacy of something or other), though without providing the pedagogy and “cognitive mapping” that Jameson ultimately asks for. Jameson is interested in totality as an existential bond between knowledge, emotion, and action, and for him narrative can by and large no longer provide this. His theme, like Adorno’s, is the failure of culture to be what it’s supposed to have been at various points over the last 200 years: the sole remaining hope for achieved totality after the failures of religion, nationalism, (positive) ideology. Because “our imaginations are hostages to our own mode of production,” then “at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment…and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively” (xii, Archaeologies of the Future). This is a valorization of criticism over its objects, of consciousness of failure over the failed attempt. Theory is necessary to excavate the submerged ‘utopian’ kernel in cultural product, and so theory takes the place of the novel. But today cultural criticism at all levels of sophistication is just as passé as any other cultural product. In the wake of thousands of scholarly articles and millions of blog posts about TV shows and their relationship to capitalism, one can detect a nostalgia for the period of so-called high theory, the sense that Baudrillard’s simulacra is a more exciting, more vital, more interesting vision of reality than anything possible today. The fashionably jaded don’t long for a period of greater authenticity — we don’t believe in it, assuming anyone ever did — but times when the lies were, or at least felt more interesting (maybe you had to be there). Here Jameson and DeLillo run into basically the same problems. It’s not about fiction vs. theory – they’re just another dialectical pair. The important split they both take for granted is between thought and action – that one can be meaningfully judged independently of the other, that one can compensate for the failure of the other. Recognizing this, one starts to understand the desperation of the desire for closure, the extraction of a closed world, however doomed and miserable, from ceaseless outward movement, any inevitable remainder to be referred to from afar as a sign of exhaustion. The world claimed by totality can only be comprehended, never known. Grasp of the whole presupposes a certain divine ignorance.

Poulantzas on the “Petty Bourgeoisie”

August 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Petty bourgeois” is a confusing term that comes up a lot, both because it’s a good insult and because it’s important to any class-based understanding of capitalism, more so the closer one gets to the present. In Fascism and Dictatorship (1970), Nicos Poulantzas defines the petty bourgeoisie as an intermediate “subclass” wedged between the bourgeoisie and the working class, the only two real classes in capitalism. The point of the analysis is to understand the rise of fascism (synthesizing his understanding of German and Italian history), a regime the petty bourgeoisie is often accused of bringing about. In the interests of length and time, I’m only going to excerpt and summarize, censoring my objections. With one exception, the ugliness of the language, which really is exhausting and demoralizing in the manner of all the best/worst Althusserian Marxist theory and makes politics seem unthinkable on that basis alone. Sorry. But I do think it’s worth slogging through.

“Marx and Engels emphasized the tendency for the petty bourgeoisie to be undermined and eleiminated in a capitalist formation: Lenin described it as a ‘transitional class’. When the capitalist mode of production becomes dominant and generalized, a minority of its members are integrated into the bourgeoisie, in a variety of ways, while the great mass are ‘proletarianized.'” (238)

This description of the subclass’s basic fears and motivations most directly applies to the “traditional” petty bourgeoisie, which is composed out of small-scale production and small-scale ownership. Today its members are called ‘small business owners,’ although in Poulantzas’s formulation they by definition employ few or no wage workers.

He then adds another type: the ‘new’ petty bourgeoise, a.k.a. “non-productive salaried employees” whose tasks are supplementary to the circulation and realization of surplus value: “salaried employees in commerce, banking, insurance, sales departments, advertising, etc., as well as ‘service’ employees,” along with “civil servants.” Traditional and salaried petty bourgeois occupy different economic positions. However:

“What makes it possible for the two groups to be considered as part of the same class, the ‘petty bourgeoisie’, is that their different economic positions generally have the same effects at the political and ideological level. The relevant criteria for explaining this identity of effects at these levels are, in the first case, small-scale production and above all the small-scale ownership involved in it, and in the second case, exploitation experienced in the ‘juridical’ form of ‘salary’, and not directly in production.” (239-40).

Petty bourgeois ideology constantly shifts due to the ungroundedness of the class itself. There are, however, a few recurring elements, common to both the ‘new’ salaried petty bourgeoisie and the more traditional kind. Most are pretty obvious and revolve around ‘meritocratic’ themes. Less intuitively, Poulantzas argues the petty bourgeoisie share a kind of naive anticapitalism:

Status-quo anti-capitalism. Effective exploitation is hidden here, because it is experienced mainly in the form of the salary. This group therefore aspires to ‘social justice’, through State redistribution of income. They make declarations against ‘big money’, mainly in the form of demands about taxation. There is an ‘egalitarian’ aspect to the demand for equalization of ‘income’, and often parliamentary cretinism comes in too. They fear proletarianization, but above all they fear a revolutionary transformation of society, because of the insecurity they experience through their salaried position. They fear an upheaval which could affect the earnings of non-productive employees, and they often fail to take into account the mechanisms of production, and the exploitative role of ownership of the means of production. One expression of this is the particular corporatist forms assumed by the trade-union struggle of this group (242)

Some conclusions vis-à-vis political organization and electoral politics:

…they are neither part of the bourgeosie nor of the working class, the two basic classes whose political interests are totally irreconcilable. This means that in the field of class struggle, the different groups making up the petty bourgeoisie can have no long-term political interests ‘of their own’. This criterion, together with their isolation and their ideological similarity, generally produces the following common effects at the political level:

(a) It is very difficult for them to organize politically into a specific party of their own.

(b) They are often organized politically directly through other apparatuses of the State, which these groups see as their own political representative. The petty bourgeoisie often constitutes a supporting class for the State. Its alliance with the bourgeoisie is not direct, but mediated through support for the State forms which the petty bourgeoisie sees as opposed to the bourgeoisie’s interests and in agreement with its own.

(c) These common ideological and political effects apply primarily in what we may call ‘normal’ circumstances. Because of their electoralist illusions, the two component petty-bourgeois groups are often in effect the ‘peaceful’ pillars of the ‘democratic republican order’. But the community of effects also functions in the case of crises, as the two groups revolt in quite similar ways against the existing order.

(d) Both groups share a politically unstable nature. It is they who ‘swing’ most often, either to the side of the bourgeoisie or to that of the working class, according to the conjuncture, since they are polarized around these two classes.

Dangerously for Poulantzas, the petty bourgeoisie as an intermediate class can strongly influence working class ideology, and in periods of crisis (pre-fascist Italy and Germany), its penetration supersedes that of the bourgeoisie:

The most revealing phenomenon is not so much the direct influence of bourgeois ideology on the working class, expressed in trade unionism and reformism, as the influence of petty-bourgeois ideology.

In fact, bourgeois ideology was itself in crisis during the rise of fascism. This was what allowed petty-bourgeois ideology to spread in the social formation, and to penetrate the working class much more thoroughly than could an uncontested dominant ideology. The petty bourgeoisie was itself going through a deep crisis. In this context, the ideology of the ‘enraged petty bourgeoisie,’ as Engels put it, took quite specific forms: forms in which it penetrated into the working class more easily than before, as the working class was itself in ideological crisis. To clarify these ideas, I would suggest that the ‘anti-capitalist’ aspect always inherent in petty-bourgeois ideology is strengthened and becomes relatively more important in this situation where the petty bourgeoisie is in revolt. This is how such ideology gains entry into the working class.

The influence of petty-bourgeois ideology on the working class takes specific forms, adapted to the ‘actual conditions,’ that is the ‘lived experience’ (le vécu), of the working class. Certain of these forms were particularly strong in the working class during the rise of fascism:

(a) Anarchism, in the form specific to the working class: especially as anarcho-syndicalism (akin to revolutionary syndicalism), which combines contempt for organization and political objectives with ignorance, under the pretext of the ‘lived experience’ of factory life, of the role of the mechanisms of political oppression, of the State, in the maintenance of the capitalist system;

(b) Spontaneism, i.e. contempt for organization, and the abstract cult of direct and ‘spontaneous’ action, no matter where or how — the expression par excellence of petty-bourgeois ‘individualism’;

(c) ‘Putschist jacquerie’, which rejects Marxist-Leninist ideology and mass political struggle: together with spontaneism and anarchism, it is based on a totally abstract cult of the exemplary ‘violence’ of ‘active minorities’, which is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the rebel petty bourgeoisie, and of ‘petty-bourgeois jacquerie’ (145).

And finally, the role played by the petty bourgeoisie in the rise of fascism, in rough sequence:

The petty bourgeoisie, the ‘intermediate’ class, is always affected by a major crisis involving the basic forces of the capitalist social formation. As a general rule, the crisis of the ruling classes affects the petty bourgeoisie directly. Before stabilization and during the first period of open crisis between the bourgeoisie and the working class, a large part of the petty bourgeoisie clearly swings over to the side of the working class. Without being able to trace a clear line of demarcation between the two fractions of the petty bourgeoisie, we can say that this is mainly the case with the salaried employees. In the face of working-class defeat, and the lack of a specific communist policy of alliance with the petty bourgeoisie, this situation changes, but only by steps. After its open swing to the working-class side, this part of the petty bourgeoisie seems to stick to social democracy during the stabilization step. Subsequently it becomes disillusioned with social democracy, which fails to defend its interests. Turning away from social democracy, the petty bourgeoisie as a whole finds itself faced, at the beginning of the rise of fascism, with that instability and lack of hegemony among the dominant classes and fractions which characterizes the bourgeois parties’ crisis of representation. These parties, while they are directly tied to the class interests of the power bloc, are at the same time the ‘representatives’ of the petty bourgeoisie, because of its inability to form its own party.

The bourgeois parties split away from their own classes and fractions in the power bloc. This directly affects their representational tie to the petty bourgeoisie itself, which understands that from now on such parties are no more than parliamentary cliques. The loss of these parties’ real influence on the political scene, which they obtained as a result of their ties with fractions and classes other than the petty bourgeoisie, leads the petty bourgeoisie for its part to turn away from them. The way is therefore open to the fascist parties. (248-9)


August 2, 2011 § 7 Comments

The Populist revolt — the most elaborate example of mass insurgency we have in American history — provides an abundance of evidence that can be applied in answering this question. The sequential process of democratic movement-building will be seen to involve four stages: (1) the creation of an autonomous institution where new interpretations can materialize that run counter to those of prevailing authority — a development which, for the sake of simplicity, we may describe as “the movement forming”; (2) the creation of a tactical means to attract masses of people — “the movement recruiting”; (3) the achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis — “the movement educating”; and (4) the creation of an institutional means whereby the new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way — “the movement politicized.”

Within this broad framework, it seems helpful to specify certain subsidiary components. Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level of personal political self-respect. They are not resigned; they are not intimidated. To put it another way, they are not culturally organized to conform to established hierarchical forms. Their sense of autonomy permits them to dare to try to change things by seeking to influence others. The subsequent stages of recruitment and of internal economic and political education (steps two, three, and four) turn on the ability of the democratic organizers to develop widespread methods of internal communication within the mass movement. Such democratic facilities provide the only way the movement can defend itself to its own adherents in the face of the adverse interpretations certain to emanate from the received culture. If the movement is able to achieve this level of internal communication and democracy, and the ranks accordingly grow in numbers and in political consciousness, a new plateau of social possibility comes within reach of all participants. In intellectual terms, the generating force of this new mass mode of behavior may be rather simply described as “a new way of looking at things.” It constitutes a new and heretofore unsanctioned mass folkway of autonomy. In psychological terms, its appearance reflects the development within the movement of a new kind of collective self-confidence. “Individual self-respect” and “collective self-confidence” constitute, then, the cultural building blocks of mass democratic politics. Their development permits people to conceive of the idea of acting in self-generated democratic ways — as distinct from passively participating in various hierarchical modes bequeathed by the received culture. In this study of Populism, I have given a name to this plateau of cooperative and democratic conduct. I have called it “the movement culture.” Once attained, it opens up new vistas of social possibility, vistas that are less clouded by inherited assumptions. I suggest that all significant mass democratic movements in human history have generated this autonomous capacity. Indeed, had they not done so, one cannot visualize how they could have developed into significant mass democratic movements.

Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (1978)

Just a bit of common sense, perhaps, and from a historian whose views on the present are not the most clear-eyed, but worth remembering when considering political ‘alternatives’ at a time when the mainstream seems to have no other content than denying their existence.

Countless alternatives have been offered, of course, to the USA’s long string of disasters over the past decade — from Afghanistan to Katrina to TARP right down to this debt ceiling farce. In spite of the seriousness of their content — plans for bank nationalization, single-payer health care, economic stimulus, green infrastructure development plans, financial reform, demilitarized borders, troop drawdown, torture bans, etc. — they’re almost never discussed on their practical merits. Instead they’re dismissed for being ‘not politically possible,’ ‘unrealistic,’ and for that reason, ‘unserious.’ That’s because the apologists, and let’s just concentrate on the outwardly sympathetic ones for now, aren’t asking for alternatives, exactly. They want An Alternative. That is, they want an alternative center of power, something that could force Real Change through our Broken Institutions. This center doesn’t already exist, so with a few little noises of protest, the critics submit to what they say they hate, over and over again, until they learn to take pride in their prostration, otherwise known as ‘professionalism.’ When a careerist like Yglesias says he wants An Alternative to save him from his bean counting ways, he is smirkingly asking for someone else to pay his bills and invite him to Washington dinners. No offers are forthcoming, so back to exegesis.

This is the time to cite Chris Hedges’s “phantom left,” his observation, not made often enough, that the fantasy of a communist shadow nation just waiting to take power is as useful for liberals as it is for conservatives. Its degree of actual existence depends on its intended use — even the ‘desire’ for a Global Communist Superstate can serve as an alibi in the right hands. At its worst, ‘calling for’ a united left can be a way of undermining actual attempts to build one — pitting class politics against identity politics is a case in point. At another extreme it can lead to messianism.

This specious desire is for an already-constructed Outside of political conflict, equally present in Obama’s fantasy of reasoned, “bipartisan” centrism and Badiou-via-Zizek’s calls for revolutionary terror mathematically derived from the prophetic lineage of Robespierre and Mao. A secular outside is just the acknowledgement of many outsides, gaps in structure to be more precise, which are simultaneously points of agency. Refusing to realize this and assuming politicians are ‘forced’ to do the things they do is part of the same logic that absolves us from responsibility – we too start to think of ourselves as ‘forced’ to ‘be realistic’ about what we’re willing to demand from them, as if we were literal rather than metaphorical cogs in a machine. I hate to call what I’m trying to outline here ‘micropolitics’ because of all the baggage, but since we aren’t in a moment of powerful oppositional parties, what ‘the left’ means depends a great deal on what individuals who identify as ‘left’ do. There’s no need to be ‘against’ potential third parties, but the movement’s strength is not currently centralized enough to insist on them. There are, however, many autonomous institutions, many struggles, that need stronger connections (a piece of evidence often cited to justify this claim is the attendance of the last U.S. Social Forum and the relative lack of media attention) . The condition for realizing them is not a super-state or the dream of one, but commitment to politics outside the veal pen, outside mainstream terms of debate and independent of official power.

It hasn’t proved very reliable, but sometimes ‘serious people’ choose to risk their careers and official legitimacy by taking the many alternative ideas and organizations more seriously. For whom would it be a victory if Elizabeth Warren became a Senator? Should it be considered a loss for the left that Cenk Uygur was pushed out of MSNBC? These aren’t particularly consequential examples, but that’s the point: the political, media, corporate, and financial classes are not going to be the basis of anyone’s revolution. There are many theoretical and historical arguments for why, but a good shorthand is simply that the desire of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois — aka the “middle class” and “business class” — to retain and reproduce their privileges, while often sympathetic and sometimes linked to working class struggles (in, for example, the politics of access to higher education), is just not fundamental enough in a world system flimsily upheld by deep, multiple layers of oppression, violence, and ecological devastation. All that said, the halls of official power are open to (occasional, local, partial) dissent, and the most important rule for initiating it can perhaps be put like this: changing things from inside a system only works if non-rhetorical ties to its outside are maintained. As the state, the corporate media, even the university become more insular, as they isolate themselves ever further from their constituents, they may simply have to be abandoned — not as targets, of public pressure, criticism, and demands, but as subjects of identification and of investment of time and energy. Some are closer to this point than others.

[Note: this is a good documentary on the current sorry state of institutional left-liberal politics, and this on Gramsci (which I linked to in the comments to the last post) is some good forward thinking.]

So I end up with my own defense of “opting out.” Enough evaluating the appropriate distribution of praise and blame to Democrats, enough treating them like protagonists. Enough hoping for transcendence.

Somewhat whimsically, I’ll end with this piece of historical reflection from professional weirdo Alan Moore. Not very ambitious, but it almost seems that way in the political dark age we’re living through:

This is why I split from the comics industry. The way it had handled The Black Dossier certainly propelled me into other directions away from comics, to the point where the League is my only expression in the comics field and is likely to remain to so for the foreseeable future. When that happened, the nearest we got to supportive comments from the rest of the industry was along the lines of useful advice like, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” I’m not expecting the writers and artists of the industry to go out and struggle with Galactus, should he turn up suddenly and threaten to eat the world. Of course I’m not. I’m just asking them to show a little bit of ordinary human courage. I think that if they had done that, then the industry would probably not be in the state that it is.

Getting out the game…

July 25, 2011 § 20 Comments

The mood of despair among left-liberals has proceeded in a nearly unbroken stretch since Obama’s election. I’m not going to get into why — external reasons are easily found, and anyone reading this probably has their favorites. Instead, I’m going to address liberal disgust. which prompted some reflection on political engagement in our moment.

A Swarthmore history professor speaks out in favor of gardening:

In short, my political aspirations at this point could be summed up pretty well by Jon Stewart’s plea to just chill the fuck out, America, take the temperature down. Do reasonable things. Appreciate the genuinely tough questions in life and politics for what they are, and appreciate the different answers that people come up with to those questions. I think there is, if not a “moral majority”, a decent majority, a mellowable majority, who pretty much also just want life to be good enough.

I haven’t read this person’s scholarship, but it looks valuable and interesting. That doesn’t make this sort of thing any easier to stomach. As I see it, there are three ways to read (let’s call it) “Stewartism.” One is as a mainstream politics of civility, in which case it assumes a false equivalence between left and right, as if they were partners in a refereed debate. In reality, the American right makes ridiculous, extreme demands, which the White House and senior Democrats use to shift the center rightward, while progressives sort of mill about on the outskirts, wondering how many more surrenders will earn them the right to participate as equals in this stimulating legislative process. Stewartism could also be an activism in favor of universalizing the balanced life. The author says as much in a comment:

1) an extremely active ethos, not a passive one, because it comprehensively disagrees with extremely powerful and prevalent frameworks present in consumer capitalism, social hierarchy, and the American political system. If you insist that you don’t need to be top dog, that having a basic level of comfort is sufficient, that a vision of social relations that is exclusively built around competition is unnecessary, and so on, you’re very much dissenting from dominant ideology.

As other commenters point out, this version ends up self-refuting. Be as Zen as you want; dissent is not chill, even if it advocates for Chill Utopia. Otherwise one may as well be actively sitting on your couch reading blogs while keeping your thoughts to yourself, and calling that a break with the capitalist system. When defending left-wing ideas from dominant institutions, trying less hard is a funny way of fighting back, however beneficial it might be for personal wellbeing. I’ve made comments on this blog in favor of a greater sense of reciprocity and self-awareness when leftists criticize each other, or when not facing comprehensive disagreement. But against serious, ruthless, organized opposition, there’s no space for playing nice. The third way of reading Stewartism is as the exact liberal counterpart to the Tea Party, reactionary in the classical sense:  a defense of a state of affairs that is no longer tenable and was always unjust. Basically back when being born into the middle class meant you were entitled to a professional career without ruining your life. Far from the self-evident, commonsensical maturity he imagines, mellow decency presupposes that your life already is “good enough” in material terms, your dissatisfaction all in your head. It shouldn’t take a huge feat of self-awareness to realize that the “insane levels of meritocratic pressure” in the “sociocultural world of professionals” exists because it’s necessary to get and (unless you have tenure) stay there.


2) I think this is not just a kind of bourgeois “I got mine, fuck the workers”: I think satisficing is a concept that can be a powerful way to think about self and community all the way up and down the social hierarchy, and create social connections across class and hierarchical boundaries.

Where I see this as an opt-out is at two points: first, in terms of a kind of sociocultural libertarianism (something that Russell knows is a pretty consistent vision of mine) in which I’d suggest that satisficing requires a much broader range of accepting divergent individual, familial and community preferences in cultural and social practice than many on the left seem prepared to accept and second, that many of the long-standing details and particulars that fuel left-liberal conflicts are themselves fueled by maximizing, that various political fractions don’t set goals like, “less discrimination” or “more income equality” but instead have extremely specific political objectives that become fetishistic over time and make everything less or different seem horribly insufficient. This is just an extension of seeing satisficing as an active political project: applying it TO politics means that you’ve got to learn to embrace a much broader range of outcomes as basically ok, and be much more general about drawing the line between basically ok and basically not at all acceptable.

“Satisficing” is borrowed from decision theory, specifically the work of Herbert Simon, who also came up with the idea of the “attention economy.” Both are mechanistic theories that quantify the scarcity of some vital resource — effort and attention, respectively — by associating it with time, so that it can be understood and managed rationally to better achieve an organization’s goals. They’re aids to production, of commodities, policy, or whatever. The self-helpy appropriation of “satisficing” used above means nearly the opposite: it is based on optimizing consumption as the metaphysical relation between human and world (or man as consumer of experiences), for which it assumes the ideal end is “happiness,” a kind of etherized contentment. Always looking for the best toothpaste results in less happiness, working long hours while neglecting your family results in less happiness, so these things are bad. And thus an efficiency maximization strategy is converted into a moral homily.

I get the sense that what looks like a political application is actually just the author’s attempt to deal with emotional fatigue caused by his Twitter and RSS feeds. That is, if your relation to politics is mostly one of consumption — as it is for most functional citizens in advanced capitalist democracies — you have no direct experience to convince yourself that politics, regardless of class position, is anything more than an endless barrage of trivialities dressed up as significant events. If you’re in the professional, ‘media-savvy’ class, you might think they all require your immediate response to avert disaster. Every meme is an opportunity for self-branding, where your status as a liberal, closet Marxist, ironic Marxist, feminist, libertarian socialist, or what have you hangs in the balance (if you’re lucky enough to have any sort of white collar profession, especially if it’s in media, then your work life probably reflects this as well). Mainstream politics looks the same way on this side of the computer screen, and that’s how it’s usually interpreted. That’s why no matter what Glenn Greenwald says, no matter what he actually does with his power, Obama will always read as liberal or ‘supposed-to-be-liberal’ because that’s his brand (and you voted for it). If you deny his right to his identity then you forfeit your own, and whatever scraps of ‘insider’ status you think you possess.

The desire to abstain from all this bullshit is perfectly understandable. But it comes from a weak understanding of praxis. No need for anything grandiose, simply a grasp of actually existing politics as fundamentally practical, for that reason open to agency. The theatrical ‘dysfunction’ over the budget is undoubtedly ‘real’ — Democrats and Republicans really don’t agree  — but their conflict, especially as mediated by Obama, is the product of a coherent class politics. It can’t be reduced to a procedural or psychological failing, Keynesians are not going to win, and if the Republican far right does manage to default the economy, that will be the result of a calculated risk on the part of their designated opposition ( discussions of the ‘policy-politics divide’ going on in some circles betray how remedial the understanding of these facts are).

Despairing rather than resigned, Stewartians follow neoliberal ‘realists’ in excusing themselves based on the lack of an outside. An outside to ‘capitalism,’ ‘corrupt institutions,’ or just ‘political reality,’ with the assumption that freedom from these constraints is the precondition for any transformative politics — for Real Change. But such radically external realms are nowhere to be found, so, no politics. The Stewartians seem to feel forced into the compromises they say they hate so much, rather than just encouraged and rewarded for conformity. They respond with irony and “satisficing.” Because after all, no one will pay Matthew Yglesias or his readers to quit their jobs (or just change their minds) and take the risk of building an independent left bloc, therefore their personal preference for the left does not present a ‘serious alternative.’ It’s either technocratic nitpicking or throwing up one’s hands and writing monographs on liberation theology. Consensus!

The obvious question, then: is there a secular, non-identitarian outside?

To be continued.

Hollycaust Now

July 10, 2011 § 29 Comments

…in two recent films: Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Shutter Island (2010). Tons of spoilers follow.

Tarantino’s Basterds fantasizes a revenge movie solution to the Holocaust and to the war itself (or the European Front at least), carried out by Jews and led by Americans, in particular a hillbilly with Apache ancestry who keeps reminding everyone of that ancestry, such as by teaching his team of Jewish-American terrorist/guerillas bits of ‘Apache’ warrior culture, like scalping. It acknowledges a certain relativizing argument that would make Americans/Jews ‘just as bad’ or at least complicit with Nazi violence (by superimposing the extreme violence of modern U.S.-backed Zionism on the relative paucity of organized Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, highlighting the role of Nazi collaborators with the Allies and resulting dirty deals ‘we’ were forced to make with Absolute Evil, showing Americans doing bad things to people – though nothing as bad as what we do now) only to refute them. Not with historical fact, but by erasing or foreclosing those facts with a myth. A specifically American myth of retributive violence in its most ‘populist,’ gender- and race- libertarian narrative form – ’70s ‘exploitation’ cinema. Tarantino transplants that aesthetic from the civil rights, black power, and 2nd wave feminist milieu from which it grew (and which it often opposed in complicated ways) to a struggle it never directly addressed – the Nazi genocide of European Jews (‘Nazisploitation’ focuses on torture, rape, and kinky sadism rather than revenge). Set in 1941, the story – the assassination of the German High Command in a movie theater – is timed to head off the most deadly period of the Holocaust and most acknowledged Allied atrocities. it also re-emphasizes American victory in the propaganda war between Goebbels’s Ufa and ‘Jewish’ Hollywood. It’s a revenge fantasy directed at rehabilitating the historical memory of today’s oppressors (the U.S. and Israel) instead of empowering today’s oppressed (as left-ish ’70s exploitation film was). More on IB as meta-propaganda at my old blog. A well-made opposing argument that takes the film’s moral relativism between Nazi, American G.I., Jew, and audience to be its final word is here.

Shutter Island draws on older, ’50s pulp genre (Lewton and Hitchcock, and their ’70s paranoid revival in films like The Wicker Man), filtered through some combination of Lynchian unease and videogame-like narrative pacing, to frame a look back at the Holocaust that fixates on a little-known atrocity on the American side – the Dachau massacre. Leonardo DiCaprio’s ambiguous protagonist is obsessed with guilt for his participation in this ambiguous crime, repeated on the personal, domestic level in his murder of his mentally unstable wife for drowning their children. The guilt for both is over excessive vengeance inflicted on the victimizer, which is itself a response to guilt for failing to save the victim. This dual sense of moral transgression and unheroic failure haunts the postwar American dream, which the film suggests is a product of its repression. Family life, which was supposed to reward The Greatest Generation for its participation in The Good War is rendered impossible, a site for the repetition of battlefield trauma (DiCaprio’s comeback career seems to be based on playing America’s lost innocence – see Catch Me If You Can, Revolutionary Road, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, Body of Lies). That much is also in the novel. More intriguingly, Scorsese’s Shutter Island reinterprets genre-inflected paranoia in film of the ’50s-’70s as the result of whitewashing WWII, what became America’s Heroic Age, fountainhead of the 20th century American Dream. Postwar horror, SF, and thriller traditions start to read as so many allegories dramatizing the struggle to remember this painful truth — that American innocence was not simply ‘lost’ in Vietnam, but was illegitimately extracted from the wreckage of postwar Europe. At the same time, the liberalism of that era, represented by Ben Kingsley’s tough-love psychotherapist, is itself refuted – Kingsley leads DiCaprio to remember the truth about himself and give up his film noir delusions in order to save him from being lobotomized, only to have the latter fake insanity, effectively choosing brain death over forgiveness. “Is it better to live as a monster or die a good man?” he asks, having already chosen his answer: when it comes to real American history, judgment precludes rehabilitation.

These films represent two ways of making contemporary, disillusioned America responsible for the Holocaust, and by extension, responsible for its (beleaguered) status as world superpower. We can restate the comparison in the form of a question: does Gothic/psychological horror or ’70s exploitation provide the most convincing narrative means for rewriting history as the domain of American agency? SI depicts psychological repression resulting from the impossible desire to take responsibility for events that undermine agency (neither Leo’s killing of Nazi prisoners nor his murder of his wife are strictly his fault, but for him they have to be, and that’s why he goes crazy). IB rejoices in the movies’ power to heal historical wounds by creating an alternate myth-history more appropriate to current propaganda needs (America/Israel are righteous because they’re willing to be bad for obvious reasons). But for both, guilt and the transmutation of guilt into potency, the Holocaust is a tragedy too significant to have had nothing to do with the U.S.A. — it is no less than the source of America(and Israel)’s moral authority, one of the most hilariously flimsy arguments in human history.

It should be mentioned that IB is vastly more exciting as a film than SI. The latter’s attempts to emulate Lynch are about as effective as Spielberg’s attempt to channel Kubrick in AI, and its frequent ridiculousness isn’t leavened by the thrill of affirmation. Its denouement is instead enervating (to an extent only achievable by disillusioned liberalism + Scorsese’s Catholic guilt), and we then have to call the film hard to take seriously instead of praising it for its daring. Tarantino, on the other hand, hasn’t made a better film. IB is just as ridiculous, but is able to make regression look and feel revolutionary, perhaps the special genius of these remedial times.

Endnote to ‘Privileged Guilt’

June 23, 2011 § 15 Comments

This seems to be the conclusion to the last post:

Privilege cannot be shed, and therefore guilt is an incoherent response. I mean the kind of privilege that’s actually pernicious from a left perspective, which is not simply superiority or advantage, as it tends to be caricatured. Intelligent, cultured, upper-middle-class white men are not being called out for being intelligent, cultured, or even upper-middle-class — dull-witted, undereducated, working class white men still benefit from being white and male. If they get called out, it is (or should be) because their words and actions deny or ignore the role that their whiteness, maleness, and middle-classness have played in the acquisition of material advantages that may or may not result in intelligence, competence, good looks, or any other ideal quality. That is, when they actively justify their privilege with what is unjustifiable. So it is a critique of behavior. And yet the critique is still unavoidably directed at who they are, because the value of existence is not distinct from the position one occupies in the world and what one does with it, neither of which are wholly subject to individual will. Privilege tends to conceal from its beneficiaries an existential truth that everyone else is forced to recognize over and over again. Shame at being white, male, or bourgeois isn’t any more justified than shame at being black, female, or working class, the latter three of course having their own troubled histories.

(as an aside, the corollary to this point is that identity-based pride is no less compensatory than guilt — everything depends on what they transition to; I would argue they aren’t necessary conditions for anything)

What I’m calling ‘privileged guilt’ is not only ethically incoherent, it is central to a practice, the establishment of hierarchical distinctions within privileged identities: the ‘enlightened liberal,’ the ‘radical leftist,’ the ‘race traitor,’ in contrast to the ‘ignorant racist,’ ‘falsely conscious liberal imperialist,’ ‘consumer whore,’ ‘animalistic frat boy,’ etc. All of which reaffirm the idealist distinctions leftists should be trying to undo, and narrow the scope of political importance to (surprise!) the privileged group. In this context, guilt, along with its compulsive displays of ‘awareness’ and ‘sympathy,’ is just another form of conspicuous consumption.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness” is a good place to start thinking more about this:

“…whiteness studies should involve at least a double turn: to turn towards whiteness is to turn towards and away from those bodies who have been afforded agency and mobility by such privilege. In other words, the task for white subjects would be to stay implicated in what they critique, but in turning towards their role and responsibility in these histories of racism, as histories of this present, to turn away from themselves, and towards others.”

A turn to historical responsibility that doesn’t culminate in the self is as good a definition of activism and a repudiation of privileged guilt as I’ve seen.

And this at guerilla mama medicine, an example of what I like to think of as “left anti-political correctness”: (sent to me by Avanworden):

i guess what i am saying is that in my experience if white folks want to be respectful of poc or understand where they are coming from–they dont need a workshop.  there are centuries of writing from poc that they can dive into.  there are plenty of poc in their neighborhoods and community organizations.  when white folks are ready to be anti-racist, when they are ready to turn from facing the center, to facing the margins, and stand with us.  we will be here.

they dont need to be converted or preached to.

they dont need to learn the right words to use.  or the right theory.

we dont need more of that.

and it is harmful to them to give them a bunch of new theory and rhetoric while they are still angling to get as close to the center as possible.  to get to the top of the caterpillar pile.

and antiracism theory will just be used as another means, another tactic for them to reach their goal.

This argument implies something that can serve as an example of how whiteness is not only complicated for white people. If the turn away from superficial ‘correctness’ is to be taken seriously, it would require a reciprocal effort from nonwhites, not only to move away from ‘education’ as a solution, but also critical attitudes that assume educated speech as a norm. And that is not in the power of anti-racist whites to ask. Whites can’t honestly be expected to move on from a constant fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ if the ‘right thing’ retains normative force, that is, if privileged guilt is the dominant form of white antiracism. ‘Suck it up’ or ‘deal with it’ just encourage martyrdom, claiming that forceful ‘calling out’ of either aspirational or experienced white allies is done out of ‘love’ (a defense I read somewhere) is condescending. Of course words matter — outside narrow liberal and activist circles racist rhetoric is all too common and operates precisely by disavowal. But that is also why the demands of solidarity are sometimes in conflict with the demands of critique.

Privileged Guilt

June 16, 2011 § 17 Comments

Or, the shame of having what everyone else is supposed to want.

A while ago, Student Activism, along with others, highlighted the problems white people trying to be good creates for activism:

Jill hit the nail on the head when she said that the struggle to be — and to be seen as — “one of the good ones” can be a distraction from the real work of the activist. When you find stuff that needs doing, figure out how to help, and get to work on helping, that’s activism. Checking your privilege isn’t activism. It’s a part (and an ongoing part) of the process, but it’s not an end in itself.

The idea that identity should be entirely determined by the exercise of individual liberty is a product of liberalism, which is raced white, gendered male, classed in the middle, and is probably straight. A person who benefits from a privileged, flexible identity (whiteness, maleness, bourgeoisness, heterosexuality) is more free to think and act independently of obligation to any collective identity, whether that be out of ignorance or antagonism. Liberty in this sense is a form of power over others who are so obliged. Since these identities are the means of securing that freedom/power, when they lose their ‘symbolic efficacy’ they cultivate reaction in the subjects ‘supposed to be.’ Those who are ‘objectively’ white, men, bourgeois, are forced to see the collective nature of their identities (the ‘culture(s)’ through which one can ‘transcend’ ordinary social life) and to try to define them, to justify their ‘right’ to realize their privilege, and can eventually become a sort of semi- or full-on- fascist mishmash (the belated invention of ‘white culture’ by white supremacist groups; the tea party, etc.). They are forced to actively identify with privileges that they used to simply assume.

Enter the ‘good ones’: by engaging in self-criticism, some identified as privileged try to distinguish themselves from their various fascistic mirrors, which translates into either a) a spurious sense of even greater autonomy and freedom than all the ‘successful’ white/bourgeois/male/heterosexual/able-bodied/etc. unaware of their critical intellects. They see their own privilege as a form of constraint or compulsion from which they want to escape. This is the post-68 form of the “beautiful soul.” Or, b) involvement in struggles for equality on behalf of those whose identities are used to oppress them. That is, they identify through critique with non-whites, non-males, etc.

Pretty much everyone is skeptical of attempts to identify with the non-privileged. Sometimes they take extraordinarily crass and self-defeating forms. Other times they’re just condescending or ridiculous. Or at least they’re usually seen that way. Linda Martín Alcoff criticizes the ideal put forward for antiracist whites in the book/journal Race Traitor here:

“The major problem with Race Traitor‘s proposal, however, is that, in one important sense, whites cannot disavow whiteness. One’s appearance of being white will still operate to confer privilege in numerous and significant ways, and to avow treason does not render whites ineligible for these privileges, even if they work hard to avoid them.”

As has long been obvious to anti-assimilationists, all attempts at re-identification are doomed to failure: a white man can’t become a black woman; a straight woman can have sex with women but can’t have grown up gay, just like a black man can’t become a white man; in short the outsider can’t ever become an insider, not because the identity is formally exclusive but because the situation the identity defines is really different and inaccessible. The problem with seeing identity politics in purely discursive terms is that every identity political act is then reducible to either reclamation (black pride) or calling-out (white guilt); feminism and SlutWalk become interchangeable.

As Alcoff defines it, identity is an existential fact, “a site from which one must engage in the process of meaning-making and thus from which one is open to the world.” For a white person to take an oppositional stance to their whiteness is a real (albeit always incomplete) loss of privilege and a real sacrifice of any hope that one’s political and moral convictions and desires can someday coincide with that given identity. A white man can exoticize himself as a ‘race traitor’ or ‘gender traitor’ but this kind of quixotic heroism is always unconvincing and carries the risk of avant-gardism, where the white man who has supposedly divorced himself from his privileged identity has a more holistic perspective on the problems of others than they themselves do. ‘Hybridity’ as a counter-ideal to whiteness doesn’t work either, since no one is better at incorporating difference than white men. Nor does trying to distinguish between who a person is and what they do. To call someone out for ignoring their privilege (because that’s how you take advantage of it) can’t not be a personal attack, no matter how many times one says “there are no racist people, only racist actions.” A person just is a collection of actions, performances, and physical characteristics over which no individual can have complete control. After declaring war on all privileged forms of universalism, the most pride one can take in a privileged identity is moral superiority over his/her false consciousness-ridden counterparts (white people critiquing whiteness, men disowning masculinity, etc.), which is just one more thing to feel guilty about. Self-flagellating martyrdom seems to be the only publicly appropriate response to one’s privilege. Not the best cure for delusions of grandeur.

No one really has a solution to this problem, the only one white men suffer from the most. I’ve tried to figure out why for a long time, and the best I can come up with is that anti-privilege is almost always defined to imply hope for an ideal world in which everyone becomes white. White guilt is basically feeling bad because white people exclude everyone else from being white, just like male guilt is feeling bad because men exclude everyone else from being a man. By ‘white man’ I’m referring to the liberal ideal of self-determination, the freedom (and responsibility) to determine who one is in the world without being reducible to any collectively determined identity. In The Racial Contract, Charles Mills argues that the social contract foundational to classical liberal theory is predicated on a society of white men, and therefore their superiority and dominance over nonwhites (and women, as usual): “The terms of the Racial Contract mean that nonwhite subpersonhood is enshrined simultaneously with white personhood.” He nevertheless thinks it’s possible to separate the ideal from its history of oppression. He just assumes this can be done, which isn’t so bad in itself — most things worth doing involve a voluntarist leap of faith — but it depends on the liberal individual not being racist or patriarchal in formal terms. That is, Mills accepts the ideal’s basic assertion about itself even as he subjects it to historical critique. Even collective self-determination, the project of a universalist community of difference, at some point or other depends on erasing history (a.k.a. ‘revolution’). Though of course Mills does not, one can then justify criticisms of feminism, anti-racism, and working-class politics for being too particularist, not universal, positive, queer, or hybridized enough to found a true left-wing mass movement. In the context of liberal ideology, Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations were quite truthful: “It is possible to live almost without memory, indeed to live happily, as the animals show us; but without forgetting, it is utterly impossible to live at all.”

What if we assume instead that identity is a basic fact of social existence, and that the freedom of self-determination is an essentially oppressive form of privilege? Under Alcoff’s definition of identity as a collective response to a real situation, the only way to be really free in liberal terms is to be Superman — to fall out of the sky, the last member of an alien race with godlike powers. And even he, to some extent at least, is American.

This would not mean acquiescing to racial, gender, class, or other forms of hierarchy. It would, however, mean not treating them as commensurable. Fighting them shouldn’t require the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity as either rhetorical justification or theoretical framework: they are distinct problems with different, finite limits. The concept ‘privilege’ without precise contextualization is too broad to be very useful for much more than guilt-mongering ressentiment (tallness, intelligence, gregariousness, or being really good at soccer aren’t things anyone should want to dismantle, despite the inequality they breed). The value of a person to these struggles should simply be their participation, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class — discussion of whether a white person can ever ‘really’ be anti-racist should be considered academic in the pejorative sense. In practice, however, benefitting from racism through being white or capitalism through being bourgeois indeed do constitute barriers to joining in their overthrow, not least in the form of interested ignorance. And at the same time, assuming self-worth is a basic human need like food or pleasure, it seems near-impossible for anyone to base theirs entirely on (what their peer groups arbitrarily define as) ‘actions’ in place of identity, if only because the worth of most actions is less stable than that of most identities. Even heterosexual white cis-male currency speculators with Men’s Health physiques need to feel morally good about who they are, and who they are includes the groups they identify with. And yet the whole idea that a sanitized revision of whiteness or maleness or capitalism (or anything) could just somehow be invented seems insulting to everyone, like old people diapers, ‘smart’ superhero movies, or Will Smith. Most anti-capitalists accept that dismantling capitalism is impossible without expropriating the expropriators — there’s no reason to think getting rid of racism and patriarchy should be painless, either.

As I’ve said, there is no solution to this dilemma. Just three things I think are worth remembering. One is that a problem without a solution is a tragedy, even (especially) if one’s position in the world makes it hard to be sympathetic. White people can’t magically fix themselves. Two, despite all the annoying baggage, white dissident subversion of white supremacy is just as necessary as black, brown, yellow, or red resistance. Finally, it is both vital and difficult to counter this society’s dominant ideals without restating them in a different language. And all that means the tragic, guilty side of whiteness, along with its cousins lurking inside the other major forms of oppressive, institutionalized privilege, belongs to everyone.