Sunday, August 17, 2008

And it's one, two, three...

...what are we fighting for? My sparring partner and friend Peter threw down the gauntlet over at
Daimnation thus:

I still have a hard time understanding who [Dr.Dawg] is fighting for most of the time. Indigenous peoples, sexual minorities and anyone in trouble with the police are constants, and we get occasional cameo appearances from "boutique" oppressed like the Roma and the obese underclass in America, but beyond that I'm usually at a loss. Certainly not the working class writ large or rural poor, who they increasingly tend to sniff at as yahoos. John Steinbeck's okies would be dismissed today as creationist fruitcakes in abusive and dysfunctional families and would probably [be] the subject of books by preppie east coast journalists entitled: "What's the Matter with the Joads?".

OK, I'll pick up that manky old glove. Peter's framed an oddly-phrased, provocative question, loaded almost to the point of collapse. I propose to ramble and be gratuitously incomplete in my answer. But first, more questions.

Criticism and Self-Criticism

I came to Jean Baudrillard's bold critique of "classical" leftism (there's an oxymoron for you) after I had begun writing up some notes for this article. From a critical perspective, I'd say we were largely in agreement.

On the subject of Watergate, Baudrillard made some still-pertinent observations:

The denunciation of scandal is always an homage to the law. And Watergate in particular succeeded in imposing the idea that Watergate
was a scandal--in this sense it was a prodigious operation of intoxication. A large dose of political morality reinjected on a world scale....[C]apital, immoral and without scruples, can only function behind a moral superstructure, and whoever revives this public morality (through indignation, denunciation, etc.) works spontaneously for the order of capital.


All that capital asks of us is to receive it as rational
or to combat it in the name of rationality, to receive it as moral or to combat it in the name of morality. Because these are the same, which can be thought of in another way: formerly one worked to dissimulate scandal--today one works to conceal that there is none.

Watergate is not a scandal, that is what must be said at all costs, because it is what everyone is busy concealing, this dissimulation masking a strengthening of morality, of a moral panic as one approaches the primitive (mise en) scène of capital: its instantaneous cruelty, its incomprehensible ferocity, its fundamental immorality--that is what is scandalous, unacceptable to the system of moral and economic equivalence that is the axiom of leftist thought, from the theories of the Enlightenment up to Communism. One imputes this thinking to the contract of capital, but it doesn't give a damn--it is a monstrous, unprincipled enterprise, nothing more. It is "enlightened" thought that seeks to control it by imposing rules on it. And all the recrimination that replaces revolutionary thought today comes back to incriminate capital for not following the rules of the game. "Power is unjust, its justice is a class justice, capital exploits us, etc., etc."--as if capital were linked by a contract to the society it rules. It is the Left that holds out the mirror of equivalence to capital hoping that it will comply, comply with this phantasmagoria of the social contract and fulfil its obligations to the whole of society (by the same token, no need for revolution: it suffices that capital accommodate itself to the rational formula of exchange).

Capital, in fact, was never linked by a contract to the society that it dominates. It is a sorcery of social relations, it is a challenge to society, and it must be responded to as such.

I feel scolded. :)

So, is there anything left of Leftism, then, other than an compulsive oppositional moralism that reinforces the very system we seek to replace? Has our praxis been reduced, after the collapse of the Soviet project, to a mere set of Pavlovian responses where cues like "America" and "corporate" set our mouths a-watering and our voices a-quivering with indignation? Do we share an ideology any longer? Do we need one? Who is "we," anyway?

I risk here merely repeating, in interrogative form, the caricatures beloved by our enemies, conservative and liberal alike. Take Terry Glavin, for example. (Please.) He inveighs ceaselessly against the groupuscules and their splintered craziness, as though they pose a hazard to anyone but themselves. Aha! he says, discovering yet another three-person cult, or a stupid sign carried amongst hundreds during a peace demonstration. Gotcha! he says, finding a couple of folks of bizarre and colourful provenance who are raving conspiracy-theorists and anti-Semites.

While he and others of his "muscular liberal" cast squeak with an indignation that rivals our own, most of us on the Left find ourselves bewildered. We don't do line politics any more. We don't join groups of ten and pretend to be a proletarian vanguard. That's kid stuff. It's boring and it's dated and it leads nowhere at all. (Not that we disengage entirely. A few of us authored a letter to New Socialist once, excoriating a commentator who urged us to make common cause with Islamic fundamentalists. We noted that the latter would be quick to turn their guns on us once they got through with Amerikkka. But I was doing this simply out of nostalgia, I'll freely admit, even if I insisted on removing the obligatory references to Lenin as the price of my signature.)

There is, however, method in Glavin's madness, as there is in mine. In the absence of foundations, teleology, blueprints and anything resembling an ideological road map, we wander about asking What Is To Be Done? and Who Whom? and What Up? (a pamphlet I'm presently working on). We know our enemies, or think we do, but we're not nearly so good at knowing our friends.

Some who identify with the Left want to head back down the road a spell, to the comforting old land of universal (read: European) values. If you can force your way through the intensely sleep-inducing and incoherent Euston "Manifesto," you'll get the flavour. Ahistorical, oblivious to material conditions, power relations and everyday political realities, it is an intensely moral document. In its paragraphs straw men do cartwheels before being hunted down by proper Eustonians armed with torches. The latter decry "cultural relativism" without knowing what it is. They worship the United States, claiming to be critical but never articulating a critique of any depth or coherence. But they also outline positions and stances that any Leftist could rightly claim as his or her own: an alternative version of globalization, for example, concern about the environment, human rights.

Indeed, this mish-mash of liberal apologetics is mirrored by our own mish-mash of socialist apologetics, although we are neither pretentious nor confident enough these days to produce a manifesto. We know what the goal is, kind of, but what are we doing to achieve it?

Let's admit it: the way forward is anything but clear. Even the word "forward" seems oddly dated now. Do we have anything left in our arsenal except self-deceptive "resistance" and critique?

Left at the post

Here's a liberal critique of the (post-)Left. It's worth a read, if only to encounter a full-blown political pathology in all of its purulent glory, although the large quantities of mouldy straw are giving me hay fever:

Post-left thought is an exercise in ressentiment unhinged from politics in the Aristotelian sense of politike, or the 'art of the common life.' These are its key elements.

1. Inverted Exceptionalism. Take the old 'exceptionalist' idea and flip it. America is unique among nations – just not uniquely good, that's all. The horrid US, with its crude consumer culture, unparalleled racism, and war-mongering politicians, is to blame for everything.

2. Post-Zionism. Ditto the above for Israel. One is the tool of the other in the US-Israel relationship, though it's not clear which is which. For Walt and Mearsheimer, Israel manipulates the US. For Chomsky, it's the reverse. In any event, Israel's right to exist is put in question (at best).

3. Third Worldism. The wretched of the earth ('multitudes,' whatever) are not just unlucky but morally superior to the earth's beneficiaries. Empowered by powerlessness to take the place of the proletariat in conventional Marxist doxology, the Third World Other can do no wrong. It's all 'resistance' whatever it is, up to and including terrorism. In this salvation myth, any two-bit despot – from Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hasan Nasrallah, even Osama bin Laden – can be seen to represent a salutary rebuke to American Capital and The West. So the millenarian imagination persists, after 'the end of history'.

4. Cultural Revolution. It's Manichean also. Because of #1 and #2, a complete transformation of consciousness is needed to wipe away all the micro-corruptions of US-led capitalism, and replace these with more salutary (revolutionary) habits of mind (to be discovered thanks in part to #3). Eventually, everything 'bourgeois', 'white' and 'male' will have to go. For now it can all be 'deconstructed'. Stir in to this 'methodology' heavy doses of Sixties-style antinomianism and Seventies-style New Ageism, and you have a heady cocktail: the mind slips its moorings.

5. Totalitarian Ideology. Ah, but moorings are so very reassuring when one finds oneself adrift! In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt outlined the closed-world world-view of the totalizing mind and its self-serving auto-validating procedures. She was talking then about Stalinism and Nazism, but it works for the post-left too (if that sounds like a harsh comparison, see #6 below). For inside the cramped and airless theoretical space of the post-left one finds that (a) every question receives an exhaustive total explanation, situating the smallest detail of an argument within a vast theodicy with no outside and little room for ambiguity or surprise. Nothing escapes and no light gets in, while (b) such explanations are independent of and resistant to experience. The post-left's is an entirely 'a priori' structure of thought. And this inclusive, arbitrary narrative without a referent is also (c) ultra-consistent. Why not, when you're making it up as you go along? Not only does everything fit that gets in, and nothing gets in that doesn't fit, but the results are always the same: the same demons, the same victims. And finally (d) we find the ascription of collective guilt to 'enemies'. The condemned in the post-left scheme of things will be judged not according to what they do or say or think but what they are. The post-left, in short, offers its followers a tidy picture of a messy world, suitable for lazy and credulous minds.

6. Islamism. With #1-5, the nascent post-left prepared the way for the embrace of radical Islamism after 9/11 as a form of 'resistance', indigenous to the Third World (#3), aimed at a guilty US (#1) and Israel (#2), striking a blow for 'difference' (#4), that simply had to be good in some way (#5). And it was this final element, I suggest, that catalyzed the other ingredients to produce the post-left proper.

In fact, following Baudrillard, I venture to observe that this is a critique of something that doesn't exist, a simulated critique, therefore, and one that feeds upon itself. One could cut the self-righteous moralizing here with a knife, if the knife were sharp enough.

Where does one start to counter this nonsense? The old "mosquito in a nudist camp" image comes to mind. The US is to blame for everything? Israel's right to exist is put in question at best? The "Third World Other" can do no wrong?
Sixties-style antinomianism and Seventies-style New Ageism? [E]very question receives an exhaustive total explanation? [E]mbrace of radical Islamism? And, somehow, on top of all that, ultra-consistent. Good grief. Who, us?

Quick, Eustonians! Lend me a torch! Where on earth does the author spend his time these days, other than in the foul rag-and-bone shop of an evidently hermetically-sealed mind? I can't remember when I last saw such a staggeringly silly pastiche of stereotypes and clichés, none of which remotely applies to any leftist I know. Even where the author draws close to a point here and there, he is overtaken, indeed bowled over, by his own hyperbole.

And what do I find saddest in this dreary assortment of slanders? Precisely this: that at a time when we on the Left have abandoned grand narratives and are questioning everything, including our own classical presuppositions and analyses, people like this author, with an almost incandescent smugness, aren't listening or don't care. Instead, they look for the old reassuring caricatures, throwing in Islamism to allow them to define us not only as wrong but also as the enemy--and then they accuse us of being "Manichean?" The sheer effrontery takes my breath away.

Just a suggestion: ignore the handful of self-caricaturing nostalgists still producing cultish newspapers (supplemented these days with websites) and doggedly pushing their line politics. No one I know hangs out with them. They number in the dozens. They are no more relevant than the shape-shifting lizard conspiracy people. There's more to the grand Leftist carnival than a few clowns. Talk to us.

Who are "we" and what are "we" up to?

We're not always sure who "we" are.

We want an alternative future. An inconceivably radical democracy, practised every day by ordinary people, informal, matter-of-fact. A transformation of social relations. A new environmentalism: not, "our relationship with the environment," but, "the environment." Gender, class and race in the dustbin of our varied histories. New carnivals. Peace.

We don't have a clue how to build it. But we refuse to accept that we live at the end of history. For now, we're talking: about making a new history, one in the future, not in the past. And we're the only ones who are.


Uh-uh. I'm not falling into that trap. Reader comments welcome.

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