Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is

15 11 2010

We’re fucked.

That was my response to Jtt.’s question of how to think through this present historical moment. Jtt., of course, is a ‘dogmatic Marxist!’ [said with downward chopping arm motion] while I am merely marxish. Regardless of our differences, however, we share a, ah, certain skepticism with regard to the consequences of a capitalism unfettered by any convincing and practical critique.

Who is there? we asked ourselves. Zizek? Please. The man has the intellectual chops and global scope, but he’s rather too impressed with his own cleverness, a cleverness which substitutes for actual imagination. Habermas has aired himself out into abstraction, and the [post-]Marxists such as Laclau, Mouffe, and Eagleton have either turned inward or narrowed their vision. Their works are still worth reading, but hardly inspiring to the non-theorist.

What happened to critical theory? Marx wrote at a time of great intellectual ferment, following hard on the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and mixing it up with contemporaries such as Proudhon (‘property is theft’) and Feuerbach. And not only did he inspire 20th century theorists and revolutionaries, he laid out a critique to which even non-Marxist felt compelled to respond.

And now? Well now we get, as Nicholas Carr points out, critics of the current modes of communications economics squeaking that they’re ‘not communists!‘ Nope, instead of rigorous historical analysis, we get cotton-candy encomiums to ‘quadrants’ of innovation or the glib giddiness of ‘free‘.

I could point to a certain enervation on the part of capitalist theory as well, but as I am not a capitalist, I leave it to those folks to figure themselves out. I will at least note that there is some stirring in the small pots of ‘behavioral economics’ which take note of how people actually make (or don’t make, as it were) economic decisions, but however welcome is this dose of reality in the sclerotic delusions of the freshwater economists, it is, still, small.

And we leftist and leftish and pink and red folk? Christ. Completely out of it.

Our problem is twofold. One is the collapse of anything like a communist world. There’s Cuba and then there’s. . . Cuba. China is authoritarian capitalist, and North Korea a cultic autarky; Chavez in Venezuela fashions himself a modern-day Bolivar, but his brand of charismatic strong-state leadership is more populist than socialist, and while there are so-called revolutionary leaders in a number of African countries, the politics and economics in these countries instead simply revolve around a party or a personality.

What about Vietnam and Laos, you say? What about ’em?

No, I am sorry to say, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rule of Communist parties across Eastern Europe not only mirrors but in fact reveals the poverty of socialist thought today. I am not at all sorry that the USSR and its client states—almost all brutal regimes—have collapsed, but that they have done so means that capitalist theorists no longer see the need for a vigorous defense of capitalism per se and, as such, content themselves with such matters as quantitative easing and currency manipulation.

More crucially, those of us on the left are left to grapple with the failure of both the ruling and the rule and of communist regimes. Communism was supposed to liberate people and instead it imprisoned them, and no amount of weasling about Stalinist or even Bolshevik distortions can get us around the plain fact that communism failed.

The second piece involves the shattering of a unified epistemological field. Nietzsche began poking his fingers into the cracks of modern liberal thought in the 19th century, but not until the cataclysms of the two world wars and the Cold War confrontations in which the end of everything became possible did the optimism of knowledge shrink back into silence. Dare to know! Kant had exhorted; but now we are thrown back to the Baconian knowledge is power—with the slogan rewritten as threat.

The hermeneutics of suspicion have infected us all, and we who seek liberation distrust liberation movements. What is the downside; there is always a downside.

Bereft of confrontation and confidence, we marxishts have gone into hiding. Oh, we may be able to pull out the old man as a way of seeing into today’s historical conditions, but no longer can we say that there is anything better beyond this—and to those who do say so we can only say, with contempt, Prove it.

I have been as guilty of this as anyone, running away from sustained engagement in this historical-political moment and content to lob water-bombs of derision at the likes of those who squeak that they are not communists or intone on the verities of free.

Marx is dead and the revolution will not be televised. Mouthing revolutionary slogans or whitewashing the past in what-ifs is no substitute for thinking, for thinking down through the failures of communism and down into the successes of capitalism and through the fragments of the-truth-will-set-you-free.

Only then—perhaps—can we say if there is anything better.