Why does the Left keep getting defeated?

Beginning in the late 1970s, capitalist elites began a deliberate, carefully planned attack on essentially every institution that provided a material basis for leftist organization and loyalties. That attack was hugely successful, in large part because most of those institutions had largely devolved into self-serving bureaucracies bent on preserving their own privileges with no eye toward a greater struggle.

At the same time, the Soviet Union entered into a crisis of leadership, revealing that it had been unable to reproduce the conditions for its continued political viability in the “native Soviet” generation that had never known a pre-Revolutionary state of affairs. When a member of this generation (Gorbachev) did finally take control after the last halfway plausible candidate from the gerontocracy had died, it began a sequence of political events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and marked the end of international Communism as a major global force.

Hence within the space of a little over a decade, both the domestic material base for leftist organizing and the external threat motivating some compromise with leftist demands had been rendered effectively moot. This allowed the forces of reaction to accumulate unprecedented military and monetary resources to press their agenda — a trend that only gets worse with each passing year. Even when the capitalist elites were at their weakest, in 2008, they were still able to bounce back and reestablish the trend in their favor, and surely that’s because they had such a huge head start.

In my mind, all of these material factors are much more pertinent than identity politics or rhetorical strategy. Indeed, it seems to me that antagonizing broadly left-wing groups that are organized around particular identities, as many white leftist intellectuals apparently feel duty-bound to do, is the surest way to exacerbate an already terrible situation by alienating groups that are actually able to put “boots on the ground,” if you will.

It’s not about persuasion or arguments, but about trust and loyalty — and if black communities, for instance, don’t trust the white male leftist intellectual elite, then maybe that’s not proof that black people are divisive in their insistence on identity politics, but rather that the white males themselves are the divisive party, squandering what should be a natural alliance on the left in favor of their abstract preference for supposedly more “universal” causes.

I know this may be hard to process, given that white males are trained from birth to regard themselves as the direct embodiment of the universal, untainted by mere particularities. How could we be the divisive ones, given that we are immediate unity itself, the telos to which everyone should aspire? Yet I can’t deny my own experience from the milieu of academic theology: all “identitarian” theologies are in a rich and productive dialogue across groups and with “mainstream” white male theology as well. If a white man is willing to take all of them seriously, they’re more than happy to be in dialogue with him as well (trust me, I’ve tried this and it works). It is strangely the “anti-identitarian” white males, disdainful as they are of the pollution of mere particularity, who are walled off into their own little ghetto, boldly pronouncing their “universal truths” to an audience of basically no one.

And it’s unclear why anyone should give a fuck what the self-appointed white male representatives of leftist universality have to say, given that it was the institutions they built that proved so useless in the face of the neoliberal onslaught. The white-male-first (oh, I’m sorry, class-to-the-rigorous-exclusion-of-any-other-identity-first) strategy has failed, definitively. The left is thrown back onto the part-of-no-part, the unassimilables, the ones the system structurally cannot buy off. Hard as this teaching is for us poor, long-suffering leftist white men, James Cone’s demand that we become “ontologically black” may be more immediately practical than the abstract assertion of a class-first, class-only strategy. For example.

Harshing on Das Man

The two main passages on das Man (the “they”) in the first division of Being and Time (sections 27 and 34-38) present us with a jarring shift in tone. Though Heidegger repeatedly emphasizes that he’s not making any kind of evaluative judgment, it’s hard not to walk away from those passages believing that living in the “they” really, really sucks. A couple of my students emphasized that Heidegger does say that Being-with is an irreducible aspect of Dasein’s Being and even wanted to put a positive spin on it — for instance, isn’t it kind of cool that we can use “idle talk” as a way of expressing our simple desire to hang out with each other? Yet if Heidegger wanted to emphasize the good side of the “they,” he would have had to write these sections very differently.

One could chalk this up to Heidegger’s personal conservatism and distrust of bourgeois mass culture, etc., but I think there may be a reason internal to his project. He says over and over that his goal is not to carry out anything like a philosophical anthropology, but to cut straight to the question of the meaning of Being as such. His path requires him to start in everydayness, and everydayness does give him a lot of interesting and useful ontological clues (which he shows in the awkwardly placed sections in chapter 6 on reality and truth) — so that one might think look at that evidence along with his critiques of scientific reductionism and conclude that he was simply favoring everyday know-how over fancy book-learning. And so he has to highlight the aspects of everydayness that militate against any authentic disclosure of truth and enforce a kind of unreflective utilitarianism coupled with conformism for its own sake.

“Privilege” and the rhetoric of austerity

In an individualistic culture, it can be difficult to get people to recognize structural inequality without making them feel as though they are being accused of personal wrongdoing. Privilege discourse is one of the most widespread methods for bridging that gap. It does this by pointing out the ways that certain people’s everyday experience is not natural, but is undergirded by a social structure that benefits some and hurts others. These goals are laudable, if limited, because making people aware of a problem is of course only the first step. It’s also been pointed out that certain privileged people view privilege discourse as a new form of political correctness, a way of policing their speech — so that they respond to this attempt to break out of the cycle of personal accusation as though it were a personal accusation.

For me, though, the biggest problem is that little word “privilege.” Why should precisely that be the key term? A privilege is something extra — and from a very young age, I knew that when something was referred to as a privilege, I was in danger of losing it. How does that make sense, for instance, with something like being free from fear of police harrassment? Undoubtedly, that is part of my privilege as a white, straight, cis, well-dressed man. But when it is called a “privilege,” my initial thought is that it is something unjustified that should be taken away — i.e., we should all have to be stopped and frisked. Something similar came up in my post about how I had some degree of autonomy and dignity in my work — do we really want to say that that’s a “privilege”? In both cases, aren’t we dealing with something more like a right that’s been denied to a great many people?

There are admittedly some cases where those implications of the term “privilege” very precisely describe the phenomenon in question. No one should be able to assume that their experience is the norm for everyone. No one should be taken more seriously simply because they belong to a particular demographic group. Yet there is no way to limit the term to those cases, and even here, perhaps a meme along the lines of “yet another oblivious white dude” would be more helpful.

More alarming to me, though, is the way that the term “privilege” plays into the rhetoric of austerity. We’ve all seen the dynamic at work, for instance when people talk about how teachers have summers off and a good retirement plan, etc. The response is always to say, “That’s unfair, that should be taken away” — never “my job should be like that too!” Deprivation is taken as the baseline assumption, and anything above that is an unfair imposition. There’s no hope that my situation will get better, and my only source of satisfaction is to tear others down. The language of privilege resonates a bit too closely with this embittered hopelessness, fits in a little too neatly with the ideology of permanent austerity.

And so, privileged though I may be, I propose that we move beyond privilege discourse and find a rhetoric of hope and aspiration to replace this rhetoric of zero-sum despair.

Is Game of Thrones “pure ideology”? (Spoiler alert: Yes)

Voyou recently pinpointed one of the peculiarities of Game of Thrones:

Part of the problem here is the audience judging the characters by contemporary liberal-democratic norms, but the more serious problem is that, although, as fans like to remind us, the show is set in a pre-modern world of violence, hierarchy and pervasive gender inequality, all the characters have the mores of contemporary bourgeois liberals. Apparently it’s easier to imagine the pre-history of modern social structures than to imagine the non-existence of modern liberal norms. This could perhaps be explained by the show being a bit stupid, but maybe this is a kind of ideology critique I haven’t yet quite grasped. Ideology, after all, is a pervasive set of practical beliefs which misrecognise underlying social structures, but usually we would think that this misrecognition is at some level itself explicable in terms of social structures. In Game of Thrones, though, there is an all-encompasing set of beliefs which is at no point compatible with the lived experience of the people who hold these beliefs: it is, that is to say, pure ideology.

I agree with this analysis, and for me it opens out onto the broader question of where the “fantasy” in the fantasy genre lies. It’s always struck me as strange that the genre known as “fantasy” is always some kind of medieval setting — yes, there’s magic, etc., but how does the rigid patriarchal structure, the militarism, the treatment of all women as property, etc., fit into this “fantasy”? Perhaps the fantasy genre gives us our fantasy of a tradition or more “natural” order of things, when men were men and so forth, while allowing us to disavow it insofar as all the characters always see right through it (in the style of a Zizekian cynical subject). In this regard, it’s interesting that the family that has suffered most in the show is the Starks, who basically do appear to believe in the “official” ideology, and that Joffrey is so hatable precisely because he immediately buys into that ideology as well — he embodies Lacan’s insane king who believes that he really is king.

I don’t know if the show counts as ideology critique, but it’s an interesting variation on the sociopath fantasy — we have dozens of characters who hold themselves at a distance from social forces in order to instrumentalize them, but instead of this being in conflict with good liberal values, good liberal values are precisely what enables the sociopathic pattern.

Review of Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat

Toward the end of Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture, he deploys a C.S. Lewis quote that is probably familiar to many of us:

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

Writing specifically of the U.K., but presumably thinking of Americans as well, Poole writes: “We all live in that country now.” As a skeptic of what Poole calls “foodism,” I found his absolutely exhaustive skewering of food culture enjoyable — his debunking of the exaggerated claims of “organic” food, his bemusement at “molecular gastronomy,” and everything in between. He catches every detail, including the fact that certain food sensitivies can be “fashionable” (woe to the foodist who is glucose-tolerant!).

Naturally, this book has sparked some defensiveness in the foodist community — even The Girlfriend, an avid cook, felt she was under attack when I initially described the book’s premise to her. What I find interesting about the book, though, is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of pure yuppie-bating that you see in something like Stuff White People Like (nor, though this goes without saying for those familiar with Poole’s work, does it take the Palinesque route of fetishizing fast food and store-bought cookies).

Now Poole admittedly doesn’t have a program for truly authetic eating, because his book finally isn’t about eating, any more than the foodist trend is. It’s about class structure, about ideology (including a nod to Zizek’s “superego injunction to enjoy” on the final page), about a society that has reached “the apotheosis and dead end of individualistic consumerism.” It’s about a massive, multi-faceted cultural trend that commands us to devote as much time and attention to consumption as possible — and then to congratulate ourselves for our achievement and look down on those who fail to attain our high level.

That is to say, it isn’t about silly individuals who are doing pretentious things and should stop before they embarrass themselves further, but about a society whose demands are increasingly dehumanizing and sinister. And it makes this case while nonetheless being thoroughly entertaining. In short: highly recommended.

A tale of two reviews

In recent weeks, I’ve come to feel more and more that reading mainstream liberal publications like the New York Times or New York Review of Books may be actively making me stupider. A kind of breaking point came when I read the NYT review of the new Brigham Young biography and then, a week later, the L.A. Review of Books review. In the latter, I learned of interesting experiments with anti-capitalist economic relations in early Mormonism. In the former, I learned that the reviewer felt that the author was too even-handed — specifically, that he didn’t make it sufficiently clear how gross and weird polygamy is.

Posted in ideology, Mormonism. Comments Off

Runaway train, never coming back

In Jameson’s Late Marxism: Adorno, or The Persistence of the Dialectic, one reads the following:

But we must initially separate the figuration of the terms base and superstructure—only the initial shape of the problem—from the type of efficacy or causal law it is supposed to imply. Überbau and Basis, for example, which so often suggest to people a house and its foundations, seem in fact to have been railroad terminology and to have designated the rolling stock and the rails respectively, something which suddenly jolts us into a rather different picture of ideology and its effects. (pg. 46)

It certainly does! Why had I never heard this before?


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