Author: john mcgowan

Moten and Harney, The Undercommons

The political/literary theory reading group to which I belong (and which meets once a year) read Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons this year and we were privileged to have Fred Moten join us for our discussion.

When I read the book in early June, my reaction was that it was anarchist gobblygook.  I was somewhat mollified by the interview with M&H that comprises the last 1/3 of the book and which presented a much more palatable (at least to me) vision of what they were up to.  The conversation with Moten himself was even more to my taste; the style of the book is deliberately associative, more a riff, or an improvisation, than a formal argument—in large part because M&H hate “formality” as tyrannical and are very much against any notion of the avant-garde or critique or any other pretension to having a truth or a knowledge to deliver.  They want to inspire, to provoke, to set things in motion, to put things into flight (shades of Deleuze), and to celebrate (create? perform?) incompleteness.

M&H have any number of things they want to reject/refuse.  But the two big ones are politics and individuation.  Politics is pernicious precisely because it insists on the formation of subjects, of individuals, who then step forward to ask for recognition, to make claims on the basis of rights, to articulate interests that must be taken into account, and to grab/claim a share of goods.  The very act of subject formation, of individuation, sets in motion a credit/debt accounting, a parceling out of responsibility, and of owing that M&H want to get out from under.  So they are with the various leftists I have been discussing these past few months in seeing the making of political demands only as a trap that legitimizes the powers and institutions to which the demands are addressed.  Moten told us that he rejected everything that Arendt designated as politics.

Yet . . . M&H also accept that the current order of things is rotten to the core.  Modernity is constituted by anti-blackness, by the exclusion of the black subject even as that black body’s labor is extracted from it.  Blacks are “conscripts of modernity”—and it would be a terrible mistake for them to see their goal (political or otherwise) as admission to the condition of the rights-bearing modern subject.  “You have denied us a place in modernity even as we are the condition of its emergence and persistence.  Don’t delude yourselves that what we want is what you have.  We want something utterly different.”

What is that utterly different thing?  Here is where is gets both inspiring and weird.  Moten fully admitted to a romanticism of “black sociality.”  There is nothing wrong with us (blacks).  We are already doing what we want to do, being who we want to be, in the fullness of black sociality (which also goes by the name of the “undercommons.”)  M&H aspire to a fundamental affirmation; black life is not about lack or deprivation; black life, instead, is a rich set of practices and entanglements that were created “in the hold” of modernity, out of a need to live otherwise.  The basic message:  “We are here.  You can’t get rid of us (as much as you might want to).  And we won’t be placated by the crumbs you think to push our way.  But we have our own world, the one we have created in your despite, and we just want to live in that world, as untroubled by you as possible.”

An odd kind of quietism.  Just leave us alone.  We don’t want to partake of your madness.  We ask nothing of you; just stop bothering us.  Yet—Moten also said “anti-blackness” is what is going to kill me, just as it killed my father and my grandfather, and it will kill my children.  Because whites can’t just leave blacks alone since modernity is dependent on the exploitation of blacks.  Moten also said that anti-blackness will kill everyone—even (maybe especially Donald Trump) because modernity is poison.  But that description of a murderous modernity makes the affirmation of a quietist sociality harder to stomach.  Living in the interstices (Ellison’s invisible man)  is a completely understandable strategy.  But it is surely a second best.  Is there no hope, no politics, that can address modernity’s crimes and mis-steps?

Of course, the whole thing is also premised on the notion that modernity is an unmitigated disaster.  Moten, as Nick Bromell pointed out, is a radically undialectical thinker.  There is no interplay between individuation (form) and the play of differences (the Deleuzian flux), just as there is no interplay between politics (public work toward justice) and sociality (informal, unstructured being together), or between modernity and its other(s).  Just condemnation of politics, individuation and modernity—and an attempt to build a world elsewhere, apart.  Modernity and individuation and politics are madness pure and simple; they thrust us into ways of living that are actually prolonged flirtations with death—ending in a full embrace of death.

That Moten is now reading the medieval mystics comes as no surprise. The longing for an elsewhere is deeply attractive when articulated so poetically by someone like Moten.  Especially when the claim is that the elsewhere is always already here—hidden in plain sight, embodied in moments of being together, of conversation and collaboration that are taken as ends (joys) in themselves, not aimed to the production of anything (be it status or a commodity or knowledge).  On some level, it just seems right to say that life is best lived in the company of others and unproductively.  And it is great to have M&H break ties with “leftist anti-humanism” and straight-forwardly take “life” as their lodestar, that which they aim to serve and foster.  But if the powers that thwart life, that worship and impose death, are so big, then to escape seems highly unlikely—and a privilege few will be able to access.

It increasingly comes to seem to me that the Nietzschean problematic of “affirmation” is everywhere.  How can we affirm “life,” instead of constantly looking for ways to escape it, or transform it, or control it, or to put it into the service of something else.  Why if life so hard to love?

Rom Coles

I have been traveling, so not posting.  But I have also been talking some with Rom Coles via email–as he responded to my post some time back on his book, Visionary Pragmatism.  Rom is a human of unbelievable energy, having written a number of interesting books of political theory (in fact, “visionary” is the best word to describe his books), while also carrying on a more than full life as a community organizer/political activist.  In particular, he is deeply committed to and engaged in democracy on the ground.  So here is his description of what he is currently up to in Sydney, Australia, as he works to catalyze community responses to climate change and to the economic devastations of neoliberalism.  Everything in quotes is by Rom.

“Thanks for those sharp reflections in your blogpost.   I think I agree with basically everything there – including, for sure, the need to work with/in the Democratic Party in order to pull it left in the context of winner takes all election system.  Especially when the only alternative is the Green ‘party’ which is a party in name only – or worse, a parody of a party.  I also really liked some of your other posts, including the Merlefest one.   For all its limitations, I have found Merlefest to be a pretty heterogeneous space of conviviality (yes, all white, but also these festivals tend to be the only places where conservative southerners, hippies, professionals, etc., gather and share at least some overlapping enjoyments…).  But then, I’m biased as I just love bluegrass and especially new grass and bluegrass-jazz-classical-blues fusions!  We go to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival most summers and love it – though it is much less diverse.


The one thing I’m interested in opening further than you may want, perhaps?, is a lot more institutional change in higher ed that is supportive of engaged modes of research and pedagogy.  I ‘get’ the critique of that – perhaps most famously from Wendy Brown, and also many others – and I love reading, teaching and writing about great books as much as anyone.  But I also think that we are in the last decade (if that) for generating major change to avert complete planetary collapse, widespread neofascism emerging in quite a few spots, etc, and that there is still comparatively a lot of freedom in these spaces we inhabit – though the boxes are shrinking rapidly for sure.


In Sydney, I’m working more on an inter-institutional level right now, helping to catalyse an engaged research and pedagogy movement that so far has drawn scholars from 8 institutions of higher ed in the city.  We are working with Sydney Alliance, which is an umbrella organisation of 45+ organisations – ranging from a variety of faith traditions, unions, nonprofits and so forth.  We’re cooking up a pretty ambitious ‘pilot’ collaboration around climate justice in migrant communities in western Sydney.  The aim is to pull all sorts of capacities together to cultivate green energy, participatory democratic cultures that collaborate across lines not crossed so far (in this case Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese, Indians, Middle Easterners, white progressives, and more), perhaps (still in discussion stage) generating new community-based economic models/platforms, etc.  We’re also strategising to ‘flip’ those parliamentary seats, which are pivotal to Aussie politics – sort of like how if you flipped several states in the Southeastern US you would flip the country – pulling the plug on the ’Southern Strategy’ that has held sway for half a century now!


At the same time, something that is very exciting about it is that we are organizing this through the National Tertiary Education Union, so at one and the same time building an inter institutional identity as scholars and a locus of power to intervene on educational issues at the state and national level, and also really trying to shift what the union is, so that it not merely a wage-contracts negotiating unit (important as that is) but also a union that is a locus of voice and organizing power around the craft of research and teaching and how universities are structured.  This is super important in AU right now because the form neoliberalization is taking is to abolish departments – leaving faculty as mass anti-associational ‘lumpen’ and creating yet another administrative layer on top that dictates downward.  Anyhow, all this is to say we’re up to some interesting stuff, I think.”

The Third Thing

Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty (Norton, 2011) is consistently interesting, intermittently insightful, and frequently annoying.  I wanted to say “infuriating” in that last spot, but that is way too strong.

To get over the annoying bit first: Nelson is very fond of quoting some writer or other, and then saying “I mostly agree” before launching into her reasons for not fully agreeing.  Not only is this a tic, but it also often just comes across as the attempt to believe two contradictory things at once.  Which, in fact, is often just what she does want.  On the one hand, she tends toward a fairly stringent aestheticism.  Hardly surprising if your topic is cruelty in art.  It’s important to stress that cruelty in art is not cruelty in life.  Child abuse in life is morally reprehensible; no nuances there.  But child abuse in Lolita is something else again.  Yet (there is always that “yet” in Nelson), she also wants to say that art gives us some insight into non-aesthetic human behavior.  Cruelty in art is not totally separable from cruelty in life.

So what is the relation?  At this point she goes into waffling so deft it can seem illuminating.  Francis Bacon haunts this text.  It seems pretty clear that Nelson doesn’t “like” Bacon’s paintings—and she certainly doesn’t like Bacon as a person.  But she keeps returning to look at the paintings as if another look will get her to some settled account (one that satisfies her) about what those paintings do.  Bacon turns living flesh into “things,” stripping them of all subjectivity in order to render them as objects.  In this way, he replicates what Simone Weil (in her famous essay on the Iliad) says is the effect of “force”: it turns what it touches into a thing, brute material acted upon.

“Artists such as Plath and Bacon aimed to access ‘the brutality of fact’ without providing any narrative to house it, and yet also without courting abstraction.  This is an intriguing aim, albeit one bound to produce not only formal but also political difficulties” (239).  There you have it; art is not just about itself; it also has some relation to “the political.”

Specifically, the political difficulty is fatalism, which breeds a passive acquiescence in the “brute fact.”

“For many would argue [notice Nelson’s sly distancing of the thought she is about to utter] that art which aims to extinguish the story behind suffering and focus on the suffering itself partakes in a different, more insidious cruelty—that of depoliticization, of stripping cruelties from their contexts so that they seem pitiable, sensational, or inevitable, rather than contingent, avoidable, or explicable. . . . ‘The most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show him, every day, that there can be no change,’ says filmmaker Wim Wenders.  For the most part, I agree. [The Nelson hedge at play.] And if one suggests that the thing that cannot change is the very thing that is causing suffering, the indoctrination can be all the more toxic.  Such forms of expression can seemingly act as an accomplice, even if unwittingly, to this cynicism, which turns its back on the hard work of ferreting out the reasons why a particular cruelty has occurred, who is responsible for it, who gains from it, and who suffers” (239).

Nelson then narrates going to a Bacon retrospective and having the experience of “finding I wasn’t in the mood to look at Bacon’s paintings any longer” (240).  But the suggestion lingers that this mood might pass, and she will find herself able (even desiring?) to look at his paintings some other time in the future.

What’s annoying (OK, infuriating) in a book written so persistently in the first person, is that Nelson never tries to describe this mood or, more globally, the impact of the Bacon paintings on her as spectator.  In fact, the book is full of brilliant statements about what this or that artist is doing in his or her work, but whenever it comes to describing the viewer’s response, Nelson invariably turns subjectivist: each audience member’s mileage will vary.  She is fond of reporting on the unexpected responses of her students to works she had experienced differently.  But she never tangles with the question of the legitimacy of her responses—or to the question of how faithful to those responses she should be.

In short, why should she look at Bacon’s paintings at all.  To be even more blatant (and philistine?) about it: what do Bacon’s paintings contribute to the world?  Is the world a better place because they exist?  That’s crass, I know.  But surely art doesn’t get a free pass just be announcing itself to be art.  Why should it not have to justify its existence in the same way that everything else does? And aren’t we bowing to the tyranny of received institutional authority when we think we ought to (some kind of imperative is at work here) look at Bacon’s paintings.  It is very hard for me to imagine any kind of purely aesthetic argument (art for art’s sake) for the value of Bacon’s paintings.  There must be something they are thought to deliver (in the way of insight or feeling/emotion) that underwrites claims to their greatness.  So what is that something?  Showing us that humans can turn subjects into objects, that living bodies are vulnerable to mutilation, that some people take pleasure in mutilating?  Are those things we did not know, that we need Bacon to tell us?  And what are to do with such knowledge?

I am tempted to follow Brecht here; having walked through a Bacon retrospective, just what is it I walk away with, and toward what ends will I direct the knowledge and/or feeling I have gained/experienced in viewing the paintings?  My complaint is that Nelson short circuits the discussion—much as she says that Bacon’s paintings short circuit “context” and “story.”  Bacon’s paintings become themselves a “brute fact,” hanging there on prestigious museum walls, echoing the “brutal facts” the paintings depict.

Do I want Bacon explained away by some back story about his psychological depravity?  No, not at all.  What I want is some story, some context, that makes his paintings do something besides shock and disgust.  Because I don’t see the value in shock (Nelson can be very witty about the avant-garde’s endless repetition of its stock moves) and I don’t see what more than that Bacon’s paintings aim for.  I am not a good art critic—and writers like Berger, T. J. Clark and Nelson at her best often make me see things I didn’t see for myself.  I want someone to do that for me regarding Bacon before I am willing to grant either his importance or his genius.

But I didn’t come here today to talk of Bacon.  I actually want to write about Nelson’s intriguing attempt to bridge the art/life divide, to finesse their being two separate things even as they sustain some sort of relation to one another.  Nelson’s idea is that the artistic object is a “third thing” that exists between people—and through which they relate.  She is partly influenced by Arendt’s notion of the “in-between,” of the distance, the space, that exists between people—and which enables their connection.  Intimacy collapses the in-between and thus overwhelms individuality, tending toward a collapse of selves into one another.  Here’s Nelson’s version of art’s functioning to establish the “in-between.”

“Rather than lambast that which mediates as our enemy, each [of a group of writers Nelson admires] makes a concerted effort to reclaim the value of the ‘third term.’  ‘In the logic of emancipation,’ Ranciere writes, ‘there is always a third thing—a book or some other piece of writing—alien to both [teacher and student] and to which they can refer to verify in common what the pupil has seen, what she says about it and what she thinks about it.’ The emancipatory value of the third thing, as Ranciere sees it, lies in the act that no one can own it; no one can own its meaning.  Its function is to mediate, but not in the sense of imitating or representing a reality from which spectators are barred.  Here, ‘the mediate’ relates people to each other, with relation signifying the process of being brought together and given a measure of space from each other at the same time” (46).

This seems to me a lovely and very productive way to think about art, one that preserves at one and the same time art’s separation from “life” and art’s contribution to that same life.  Nelson returns to this notion of the “third thing” several times in her book—and ends by invoking it one last time.

“A paradox is more than the coexistence of opposing propositions or impulses.  It signals the possibility—and sometimes the arrival—of a third term into a situation that otherwise appeared to consist of but two opposing forces.  Roland Barthes elaborates the third term—which he calls the Neutral—with the utmost beauty and intelligence in his 1977-78 lectures titled The Neutral. . . . For, as Barthes suggests, insofar as certain third terms—however volatile or disturbing—baffle the repressive forces of reduction, generality, and dogmatism, they deserve to be called sweetness.” [The last sentence of Nelson’s book] (269).

Note that “certain” third terms can do this job.  But Nelson’s book never attends to how specific works play this function—or, crucially, to how different works perform it differently.  What happens when Bacon is our third thing instead of Matisse?  That a book on the art of cruelty ends with the word “sweetness” suggests that even cruel art can be sweet if it opens a pathway out of dogmatism.  But Nelson never does the work of showing us how this all goes down.  Place Bacon between us—dear reader and me, the writer—and what Happens?  I don’t know (can I admit to not really wanting to know?).  I certainly would love to hear Nelson’s account of what happens, an account that avoids the “generality” she says that third terms help us overcome.  I want, in other words, this notion of the third term “cashed out” (to invoke that much maligned phrase from William James).

Because I do, in fact, find the idea of art as a stimulus to, even a producer of, relations deeply appealing.  It makes the aesthetic a “space of appearances,” an intersubjective zone of discovery, where what is discovered is my identity, your identity, and our identity—a discovery unavailable without the catalyst of the work.  “Identity” is not a great word here, but I use it in hommage to Arendt’s notion of the ways in which we create/discover ourselves through interactions with others. That art works may have some special way of provoking those interactions seems right to me—and places art works in relation to “the world” (again, using that term in an Arendtian fashion) in evocative ways.

I am not on firm ground here.  I am working from a set of intuitions and prejudices.  I certainly do not want to take the position that the cruel art work (or any art work) must have “redeeming value.”  In fact, I want to jettison the notion of “redemption” (in all forms and in all applications of the term).  But shorn of the idea of redemption, I still want to think (as specifically as possible) about what an art work does.  So thinking of the art work as catalyzing human relationships seems promising to me.  What kinds of relations do cruel works foster?  How do they move audiences to new places?  My claim is that all art works do something; they are operators on their viewers.  So let’s figure out what they are doing.

Meaningful and Meaningless

I am currently reading Terry Eagleton’s Radical Sacrifice (Yale UP, 2018), which is a typical Eagleton book: breezy, opinionated, easy going down.  Eagleton always gives me things to chew on.  Yes, his late religious turn is annoying.  So far, this book is built around the perverse effort to convince us that the crucifixion is not comic (i.e. leading to the happy ending of the resurrection), but the aufgeheben of sacrifice because it demonstrates how sacrifice leads to nothing.  A quixotic enterprise.

But I want to think about something rather different here.  Eagleton gives us his version of the idea that life is so precious, so valuable, exactly because we know it is temporary.  Death, in other words, gives life value.  Maggie Nelson quotes Elaine Scarry a few times in her (Nelson’s) book on the art of cruelty as saying that beauty calls forth our urge to protect it, to act justly toward it, precisely because the beautiful is so fragile, so vulnerable, so transitory.  Nelson retorts that those same qualities can also incite cruelty and violence.  The beautiful thing can enrage us in its helplessness, its forlorn fragility.  Something in us wants to throw a brick through that beautiful plate glass window.

Can the same thing be said of life (i.e. that its fragility can call forth aggression)?  I am not sure; my thought today is a bit tangential to that idea.  Death, I think, is utterly meaningless.  A simple, but total, void.  It is very hard to process the idea that at death consciousness simply ceases; that there is nothingness beyond that door.  It is not a passage into something else.  It is just a complete and utter end.  All darkness.  In many ways, this fact is unthinkable.  We are so used to consciousness, to processing our experiences, that the very idea of no experience and no consciousness is a void so complete that we cannot comprehend it.  Various artists—those addicted to the sublime—can even find this void seductive.  But more usual is to refuse to believe it.  It is a truism that it is very hard to believe in one’s death.  But I go further: it is very hard to believe in death at all.

Even though, at the same time, we process the death of others with remarkable casualness.  Very, very few ever consider not carrying on themselves when a loved one dies.  Certainly that thought doesn’t arise when a spouse dies.  It is more likely to be the response to one’s child’s death.  Even then, adding my death to my child’s is not very common.  In short, death is both unthinkable and something we live through with relative aplomb.  We move on—as the saying goes.

The meaninglessness of death heightens, clarifies, the meaningfulness of life.  So that life is not just precious and valuable, but also replete with meaning.  It is, in some ways, a task we are handed with life: make sure this life is meaningful, work at making it meaningful.  But, in other ways, life is condemned to meaning, as Merleau-Ponty put it.  We can’t avoid telling stories about it, examining it, imputing significance to its various incidents.  That the void of death will be as blank as the void before birth is always hovering there as an incitement to meaning.

But—and here is the scary thought—if the value of life is heightened, highlighted, by the nothingness of death, then the value of life is perhaps best demonstrated by the embrace of death.  I don’t quite know how to make that logic lucid.  It’s a statement I want to flesh out, but don’t know quite how to do so at this moment.

Here’s a cousin of that thought that is easier to explain.  Since life is so valuable and its value disappears with death, then the most potent way humans have to dramatize the value of something else (i.e. something that is not life, but which a self also insists is valuable) is to lay down one’s life for that other thing.  This is the power of martyrdom.  Freedom (to take one example) is so valuable, that I will trade my life for it—even though, of course, my dead self cannot enjoy the freedom I have sacrificed my life for.  I guess we can reverse the formula: an unfree life is not valuable, is not worth living.

Why this thought is scary is because it traps humans into what comes to seem an inescapable game of chicken.  You claim something is valuable?  Then prove it.  Lay down your life for it.  Not a game that anyone can win.  It just creates devastation, meaninglessness, death all around it.  They create a desert and call it noble belief that some things are so valuable, so sacred, that they are worth dying for.  The problem is that life is the ultimate standard of value—and so humans are pushed to place it on the table as their wager in disputes over what is valuable.  You are not really serious, the logic goes, until you put your life on the line.  And other humans are all too ready to take that life when it is wagered in that way.

A final, different, thought: it is also always shocking for one of my sensibilities, one to whom my own life and the lives of those around me feel utterly precious, to witness the casualness with which others give up their lives.  Soldiers come first to mind, but there are also the ranks of the reckless, the thoughtless, who put themselves in danger’s way.  Either they are suffering from a delusion of invulnerability (usually the explanation offered for the foolhardy behavior of males between the ages of 14 and 24) or (what I suspect is more usually the case) they have never believed their lives are worth much.  Nothing in their world has introduced or reinforced that idea.  To forfeit one’s life heedlessly is an indictment of the world that has not bred into your bone the belief that one’s life matters, that it is significant, that its unfolding and its continuance is full of meaning.

Yet another perspective on these themes: sacrifice functions as a way to make the meaningless (death) meaningful.  Since the sacrifice aims to extract something of value from death, to make death something that provides “a return,” it can be seen as an attempt to bring death into a narrative that confers meaning upon it.  Thus, sacrifice not only enacts a control over death (i.e. that humans, through their social order and its institutions get to decide the time, place and manner of death in stark contrast to the usual fact that death is visited upon us from without), but the death also bears fruit, has a purpose, is not the stark and simple end of life, but a contributor to life.

More radically—or perhaps it is more phantasmagorically—sacrifice can be seen as the dissolution of identity, of self, required to pass into a new, transformed (presumably better or more desirable) self.  This is the logic of baptism—a feigned death by drowning—taken literally.  The stale status quo must be put to death in order to clear the stage for the appearance of the new.  Violence as a midwife, as a creator.  The trouble, of course, is that this seems a Pyrrhic victory.  Unless the death is not literal, but some kind of staged representation (thus the dramatic art of tragedy), the dead person is not around to enjoy his or her new identity/reality.  In short, such thinking is way too close for my tastes to the oft-heard notion that a good war is just what this decadent society needs to “cleanse” it of its ills.  This idea is no more attractive when it takes a left-wing form (imagining the end of capitalism through a violent revolution) than it is in its right-wing variants.

In sum: the attempt to make death meaningful may prove much, much worse than an acceptance of its full meaninglessness.  Making it meaningful stands as a sore temptation to inflict it or embrace it—in order to secure the meanings one claims it can contain and, even, unlock.  Better it seems to me to maintain that life is the locus of value and death the dissolution of that value—and thus to shun death until it proves itself unavoidable.  Anything that encourages humans to aid death in its work should be viewed with suspicion.


From Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (Norton, 2011):

‘[Sister Helen] Prejean’s logic rests on the hope that shame, guilt, and even simple embarrassment are still operative principles in American cultural and political life—and that such principles can fairly trump the forces of desensitization and self-justification.  Such a presumption is sorely challenged by the seeming unembarrassability of the military, the government, corporate CEOs, and others repetitively caught in monstrous acts of irresponsibility and malfeasance.  This unembarassability has proved difficult to contend with, as it has had a literally stunning effect on the citizenry.  They ought to be ashamed of themselves! we cry over and over again, to no avail.  But they are not ashamed, and they are not going to become so” (32).

I don’t have much to say to this statement—beyond noting how completely it echoes my own experience and sentiments.  The administration at my university is just about completely non-accountable at this point.  Which made me think that “public shaming” (as I tried to do in the newspaper editorials I wrote about their actions) was the only recourse left.  But they have proved immune to shaming, might even take it as proof that they are doing their “tough jobs” of protecting the university’s interests.

It does not make me feel a sap.  I realize more and more that a certain self-image of integrity is central to my own serenity.  Of course, complacency about one’s self is an ever-present danger.  Pharaseeism afflicts us all.  But I do abide by the rule of “never say no to a student.”  Whatever they ask for, they shall receive—just as the same all-inclusive indulgence is extended to my children.  I have no right, given my job and my salary, to turn students down.  And abiding by that rule is one way I maintain my self-respect.

So the question about the shameless is: where does their self-respect reside?  Where is the line they would not cross, the action they would not permit themselves?  I have always liked what I call “Kant’s rule of publicity”: basically Kant argues in one of his political essays that any action is morally dubious if the agent of that action would prefer it being kept a secret.  We reveal our awareness of an action’s non-morality when we strive to keep it unknown.  (Yes, there is the tradition of keeping benevolent actions a secret—a tradition mostly honored in the breach these days by our publicity-seeking philanthropists—but the existence of this sub-set of good actions needn’t detract from Kant’s larger point.)  The attempt to keep things secret is an acknowledgement of shame and guilt.  But it does seem Nelson is right: when malfeasance is “outed” these days, the impulse is to brave it out, to never show the weakness of admitting guilt or manifesting shame.

And there is the even more gob-smacking pride in offensive behavior, as politicians compete to see who can most vociferously endorse torture and taking food stamps away from the hungry, and CEOs boast about how far they can drive down wages and take away benefits for their workers.  Oh, brave new world!

National Socialism versus Social Democracy versus National Capitalism

Sheri Berman’s The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (Cambridge UP, 2006) has been sitting on my shelf a long time, but I only just got around to reading it, partly in response to John Quiggin’s recent declaration that he has given up on the term “social democracy.”  My discussion of that decision is here  and here.

One virtue of Berman’s book is that it shows how both Mussolini and Hitler were socialists—that is, both the fascists and the Nazis established strict governmental control over the economy (“the primacy of politics” over economics in Berman’s phrase).  In particular, the fascists and the Nazis developed full employment programs that used public works as a last resort for the unemployed, created or enhanced social welfare and insurance programs, and established firm state control over capital flows and investment.  The enthusiasm for Mussolini, in particular, that many (not just clowns like Ezra Pound) expressed in the late 1920s and early 1930s becomes much more understandable when reading Berman’s account of his regime’s fairly successful attack on the poverty and inequality capitalism wrought in post-World War I Italy.  Of course, the fascists and the Nazis did not dismantle capitalism entirely; in particular, they did not threaten private ownership.  But they did sharply curtail the autonomy of property; the Faustian bargain made by the capitalists was that they would accept a lesser level of profit and massive government interference in what and how they produced things in return for “order” and for a guarantee that property would not be confiscated or nationalized.  But, especially, by the standards of our own dark times, Mussolini’s and even Hitler’s economic policies look “progressive.”  For starters, their policies were Keynesian, depending on large public expenditure to provide employment and to jump start a depression economy back to something like prosperity.

Of course, much of that Keynesian spending was on the means for war.  Both regimes can look like giant potlatches—building up vast stores of military hardware in order to destroy them all in an orgy of destruction.  And the regimes had the same attitude toward citizens as they did toward tanks: they are expendable; plenty more where they came from.

The point, naturally, is not to praise Mussolini or Hitler.  The Nazis, in particular, dismantled liberal democracy in incredibly short order.  All other parties were outlawed by six months after Hitler’s becoming Chancellor.  And the left-wing economics were yoked to right-wing nationalism, to the mythos of the fatherland and of “blood.”  Violence was baked in from the start, as Walter Benjamin told the world in 1936.  The only possible end game was war—and that was explicit, a feature not a bug.

But Berman’s work led me to a rather different dark thought.  What does it mean to say that the only successful assaults on capitalism in the 20th century were accompanied by the destruction of democracy?  We might be able to dismiss Lenin and Stalin’s madness quickly by saying that the economics were impossible even apart from political crimes.  But what happens if we say that Mussolini’s Italy came pretty close to achieving an economic realm that most social democrats can recognize as their aspiration?  In short: can we get to social democratic heaven if we hold resolutely to the democratic part?  Does democracy—the rule of law, elections, legislative bodies, civil liberties along with property rights—afford capitalists too many tools for withstanding any and all attempts to gain political control over capitalist practices?  The impatience with liberal democracy everywhere evident in the 1930s reflected the inability of democracies to act quickly and decisively.  The post-2008 actions of the EU, especially, with its ongoing (even now, ten years later) constant kicking of the can down the road, appear to confirm the claim that democracies find it hard to act.  (The exception, always noted, is the US response to World War II; slow to get going, the historians say, but what a behemoth once roused; but it took a war for the US to end its depression, with precisely the kinds of Keynesian spending and government intervention into the economy that even the New Deal could never install.)

So here’s the horrible thought: only a non-democratic regime, one that steps on the “rights” of property owners and the many ways that the rich can control elections and elected officials, will be able to break the stranglehold that capitalism has on modern political communities.  Capitalism both strives to escape political (democratic) accountability wherever possible—and uses all the intricacies of democratic procedures to its advantage in holding off change.  Well-intentioned liberals and leftists, who play by the rules, are played by the business barons.  We are getting a demonstration of that dynamic now.  We had the corruption free, good governance folks who were the Obama administration; the absolute epitome of high-minded liberals.  And now we are seeing the kinds of ethics that prevail among the pocket-lining hacks of the right, who could care less if the agencies they preside over actually function.

It has become clear—if it wasn’t in the past—that the Milton Friedman insistence that capitalism and democracy went hand-in-hand is simply wrong.  Capitalism hates democracy, as the US support of right-wing dictators throughout the world should have made clear.  But the more worrying thought is that democracy does not pose an existential threat to capitalism, just an annoyance, a low-grade fever, that capitalism has learned how to keep under control.  Capitalism can tolerate low-grade democracy, just as it can tolerate gay marriage, antagonistic art works, and academic freedom, confident in its ability to not let such things get out of hand.  True, the right is always hysterically claiming that chaos is nigh—if not already here.  But such fulminations on Fox don’t register in the corporate boardrooms, not the ways that tax and regulation evasion strategies do.

In short: for social democracy to work, the left has to get the democracy part in order first.  This is Berman’s “primacy of politics.”  Without a very firm democratic mandate, establishing the economic policies of social democracy would seem a non-starter.  But there are so many structural obstacles to establishing that mandate that stand in the way—even if the needed majority existed.  (Thus, something like gun control offers an object lesson in all the ways majority opinion can be thwarted in the scheloric American political system.)  With the democratic hill so high to climb, hope for the economic transformation wanes.  We know what needs doing: higher taxes, public housing, fully funded public education and public transit, universal health coverage, etc. etc.  But the ability of our political system to deliver any of these things is very doubtful.

And (again it is very odd to say this) the fascists and Nazis look good in comparison to the current political landscape.  They mobilized nationalism to authorize the state’s taking control of the economy—and molded that economy in ways that, to a fairly large extent, benefited the majority.  (Another horrible thought: you can only mobilize people by providing them with an enemy to fear and hate; the Carl Schmidt notion.  So you couldn’t really form the democratic majority that would take control over capitalism unless you identified a “class enemy” or a “non-national” enemy.  Someone has to be “not us” and a legitimate target of rage and mistreatment.  You can only benefit the majority by persecuting the minority.)

But how do the fascists and Nazis look good?  Because at least they were using the poison of nationalism and the powers of the state to rein in capitalism.  Today’s right wing aims to serve capitalism, not control it.  They mobilize the state to augment capitalism’s power.  National capitalism instead of national socialism.  Singapore, China, the UK, and the US.  Different degrees of assaults of civil liberties; different degrees of direct state subsidies to corporations.  But the same basic model based on the same nationalistic principle: the nation’s glory resides in its wealth, along with the fraudulent promise that the prosperity at the top will generate (trickle down) prosperity for those below them.  Perversely, this vocabulary of national greatness is accompanied by a dismantling of all public services or any notion of public goods.  Capitalism will provide all that is needed; market failures do not exist, just as externalities are not admitted.  The state exists to smooth capitalism’s path—and to beat the nationalistic drum.

I understand that these dark musings are the voice of despair speaking.  Our world has become so cruel, the hypocrisies of the right so all encompassing, and the use of democracy’s trappings to forestall any change in a leftist direction so pervasive, that fears such as those expressed here seem inevitable.  It is simply not clear that our political system can deliver the changes needed.  Its inability to do something as simple as ban assault weapons feeds that fear.  There’s plenty of overt oppression—from mass incarceration to the unfreedoms experienced everyday at the workplace by most employees—just as there is plenty of overt corruption (all those politicians on the billionaire’s dole).  But there is also the general grinding of the gears in the Circumlocution Office, which keeps enthralled, obsessed people like me (there are so many of us!) reading the newspaper every day to monitor the drip, drip, drip, as if something this time, against all our prior experience, is going to come of it.  But nothing ever does come of it—and some days it seems that that perpetual inaction is precisely the point.

What Kind of Institutions Does the Left Need?

I have put this off long enough.  I have lots of backlogged thoughts about things I am reading, but need to forego those to write the promised post about institutions.

I have gotten some help from Rom Coles’s Visionary Pragmatism (Duke UP, 2016).  Rom, for six years at Northern Arizona University, led a complex operation that paired students and faculty with off-campus groups in what were called Action Research Teams (ART).  The idea was to get university folks involved in collaborating with local groups to 1) acquire the knowledge needed to develop action agendas on topics of local concern and 2) actually begin to put those agendas into practice.

Rom is eloquent on the need to combine “visionary” aspirations and spectacular, energy-raising one-off events (demonstrations, teach-ins, even civil disobedience) with the “pragmatic” quotidian work (lots of meetings and talk, the securing of money and other resources) that is the daily grind of democracy in action.  The work is sometimes directed toward government—pressuring it to act—but more often a question of taking matters into the group’s own hands, building organizations that can address local concerns about the environment, cultural preservation, literacy, a living wage, elderly care etc.

For any reader of Tocqueville or John Dewey, this is not surprising stuff. Democracy is vibrant, a lived reality, when citizens take power into their own hands, when they feel entitled to do things for themselves, and when they organize themselves to both decide what needs to be done and to do the things they decide should be done.  Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations” and Dewey’s “associated democracy.”  The goal could be said to be attainment of that “public happiness” that Arendt extols as the best thing about politics.

As I approach retirement, my aspiration is to find such a voluntary association, one that is effectively doing good work in relation to an issue that I care about.  But can I also register my impatience with meetings, with long and fairly fruitless, airings of pet grievances and crotchets?  I admire (perhaps above all) Rom’s patience, his willingness to put in the time to hammer out, in a large group, an action plan.  I want to join a group that is already acting and that puts its pedal to the medal.  I have no patience at all to fretting over the details.

Which makes me sometimes wonder if, temperamentally, I am a democrat at all.

But let’s put that aside for the moment.  Rom’s model leverages the resources of the university (even a relatively poor state university like Northern Arizona is resource-rich compared to the surrounding community)—with its resources counted in manpower (all those students), time (the ability to devote attention to research and to meetings), and knowledge (experts who know stuff and a culture that encourages learning stuff) as well as (even more than) money.  The university, in other words, is an already constituted institution and Rom is very attuned to the ways it can be put to use to advance a democratic agenda even as neoliberal forces are working to turn the university into a servant of its social vision.

Already existing institutions (the state is another prime example) are, then, sites of contestation.  Precisely because such institutions have power and resources, it is important to attempt to turn them toward the issues the left wants to address, to the transformations the left wishes to enact. Others, with different agendas, will also be trying to capture the institution, to turn it toward advancing their vision.

So Rom offers one model: the locally focused model that favors face-to-face interactions (meetings), deliberation in common, and action in concert.  It is only in these small-scale instances that people can experience democracy in action and overcome the alienation from politics engendered by the TV spectacle of electoral campaigns that culminate in the terribly abstract act of voting and the installation of unresponsive, distant legislative bodies.

To abandon the national, long-distance politics of elections is, however, a disaster.  So we are brought back to “the party,” that problematic institution that is the bane of modern politics and yet, apparently, absolutely necessary to any effective access to national power.  That parties are a disaster was the strong conviction of the American Founders, but there adoption of the British “first past the post” election model made parties inevitable.  Add the Leninist vision of the party as whipping the benighted masses into action—and any democrat wants to run for the hills.

Yet . . . the party, like the university, is an already constituted institution that the left abandons only at its own peril.  Because the numbers of voters on either side of the left/right divide is so even in the US, I think it is folly of the highest order for leftists to abandon the Democratic party for more leftist alternatives–be those alternatives a “third party” or an independent candidacy for president.  (I guess, as a rule of thumb, I can safely say that I will not support a non-Democratic candidate for president until he or she runs at the top of a full slate of candidates.  In other words, give me a robust and fully formed party of the left because you get my vote.)  In the meantime, I honor those leftists trying to capture the Democratic party, to drag it to the left in ways that mirror how conservatives have (already) captured the Republican party.

Does sticking with the Democrats entail a whole series of distasteful compromises?  Yes.  That’s why a conflicted loyalty to that party needs to be combined with political action apart from electoral politics if one is to avoid becoming completely disheartened.

The favored alternative on the left to electoral politics, apparently, is a “movement,” which aspires to national scale but to action (citizens in the street) as opposed to the passivity of voting and watching C-Span.  What Rom helpfully shows us is that the movement need not be concerned solely or primarily on influencing the national agenda/program, but can act to change things on the local level.  It is one of the great paradoxes of American politics that we (especially the left) are obsessed with a national politics that we have very little chance of influencing, while we neglect all the local possibilities for transformation.  It’s as if we are either 1) waiting for a permission (that will never arrive) to act or 2) think of ourselves as hiring a set of servants (the politicians) to do the work for us (despite ample evidence that those politicians are never going to be up to the job).

The conclusion: the left needs to build institutions (organizations; call them what you will) where people want to dwell, where they want to spend time, because of the pleasures the interactions (and association) with these other people bring, and because of a sense of actually getting something done.  Meaning-full, purposive, effective action.  That’s the ticket.  All the quotidian banality of democracy is bearable (maybe even much more than bearable) if there is something to show for it—and one of the tings to show is comradeship.  Everyone knows (it is a great cliché) that soldiers and team-mates “bond” and that the pleasures of bondage (pun intended) are intense.  People keep coming back for more, even to strenuous and dangerous work, if cathected to a collective effort.

To adopt neoliberal speak for a moment, to maintain that cathexis requires “benchmarks,” or, to use the current humanities piety, a “story” (a narrative arc).  There must be a plan that lays out various steps on a path, and a narrative momentum that carries people along a story of getting somewhere.  This is what Occupy lacked.  It was the same damn thing one day after another—and so, of course, it petered out.  Saturday afternoon demonstrations share that fault.  They don’t go anywhere; they don’t have a next step.  (This was Brecht’s worry about the theater.)

There is no lack of problems to address out there.  The beauty of Rom’s model is that it gathers people to identify the problems—and then challenges them to think of ways to alleviate/eliminate the problem.  Don’t just sit there; do something!  And it turns out that there are all kinds of things “we” can do—and that some of our fellows citizens are going to prove, once their input is solicited, incredibly creative when it comes to devising action plans.

So the institutions I think the left needs are the ones that can sustain a group of people over the long haul enactment of an action plan.  It can be a small-scale local institution/organization or a large-scale national campaign for gun control, against the sexual harassment of women, or against the police violence directed at people of color.  The key is to move beyond “protest,” beyond the public airing of grievances, to action that aims at righting the identified wrong.

Such organizations exist.  Belonging to and contributing to them takes time.  They are a challenge to what Adrienne Rich called “checkbook activism”—placating one’s conscience by sending money to various leftist causes.  Such organizations, I am more and more convinced, are the only site of real social change.  Even highly publicized campaigns like “me too” and “black lives matter”—for all their rhetorical power—seem inadequate to me.  They are great occasions for self-righteous finger pointing, but do nothing to change the on-the-ground conditions that enable sexual and racial violence.  With the flood of words that is now the public sphere—cable TV, the internet, advertisements, tweets and the rest—I have a hard time believing in the efficacy of words.  Strange no doubt to have a literary guy say that, but I can’t help believing that 90% of Americans are now like me: inured to the endless palaver, letting it all wash over them without making much of a dent.  The effort so many people are so desperately making to grab—for just this day’s news cycle—the public’s attention does not seem to me worth the effort.  It leads to nothing—and nothing comes of nothing.  So I want a left that begins to turn its back on the media circus, on getting the message out, and devotes its attention instead to doing things.