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From James Joyce to Howdy Doody: Deconstruction and deindustrialization after 1968

Loren Goldner was an angry island of Marxian critique surrounded in the 1980s and 1990s by a sea of poststructuralist and postcolonial hogshit. Even ostensibly Marxist parties like the ISO internalized a lot of the relativist garbage of this period, however much they might claim to reject it. I think Goldner is a bit unfair in lumping the Frankfurt School in with all the other stuff he discusses in this essay, but in terms of its reception by the Anglophone academy he has a point. One might quibble with Goldner’s characterization of this or that thinker, or some of his generalizations, but this is deliberate and calculated for polemical effect.

This essay was originally published in 2001, and can be read over at his website. I’ve taken the liberty of correcting the various misspellings that appear in it, and added first names of authors who might otherwise seem a bit obscure. You should also check out his essay on “The Universality of Marx” reposted by Comin Situ a few months back, an incisive critique of Edward Said and Samir Amin.

Foucault Deleuze Sartre

Deconstruction and deindustrialization
Ontological “difference” and the neoliberal war on the social

Loren Goldner
Break Their Haughty Power
January 21, 2001

Ars sine scientia nihil. — Jean Mignot
[Art without knowledge is nothing]

It was 1971. We were in our early twenties and we were mad. After the seeming prelude to apocalypse we had just lived through, who, at the time, would have believed that we were at the beginning of three decades (and counting) in which, in the U.S. at least, mass movements would all but disappear from the streets? Even today, the evanescence of the world-wide mood of 1968 seems slightly incredible. The funk of 1971 turned Wordsworth on his head: “Terrible in that sunset to be alive, but to be young was hell itself.”

The “sixties,” in their positive impulse, were over. In the U.S., the mass movement in the streets of 1965 to 1969 was quickly turning comatose. The ultra-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party captured SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), but captured only a corpse made up only of its own rapidly-dwindling members. The stock market crashed, Penn Central went bankrupt, and the financial markets seized up in a general liquidity crisis (it would not be the last). Not many people of the 1960s New Left paid much attention to these economic developments at the time, and fewer still understood that they signaled the end of the postwar boom. But a sense of the end of something was in the air. The December 1969 Altamont concert of the Rolling Stones had turned ugly, as the Hell’s Angels guarding the bandstand had beaten a young black man to death with pool cues. The Chicago police murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton in his sleep. Charles Manson’s collective had earlier murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and other partygoers in the Hollywood hills, leaving a fork in Tate’s stomach, and the Weathermen made the fork into a symbol of struggle at their next conference. Some Weathermen, in turn, blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village penthouse, though Bernadine Dohrn and the others would continue to plant more bombs and to put out their demented manifestos for some time afterward. The postal workers struck militantly and the government sent the National Guard — futilely — to deliver the mail before caving to the strike. Nixon and the U.S. military invaded Cambodia; the Teamsters wildcatted in Cleveland and elsewhere; the National Guard unit which had confronted the Teamsters went on to Kent State with little sleep and killed four anti-war students. A national student strike followed, but it was (significantly) taken over in many places, for the first time in years, by left-liberals who tried to turn its energy to liberal Democratic politics for the fall 1970 elections. Huey Newton, head of the Black Panther Party (BPP), was released from jail in summer 1970, announcing at the ensuing press conference his intention to “lead the struggle of the people to a victorious conclusion,” apparently unaware (after serving 2½ years on manslaughter charges for killing an Oakland cop) that the “struggle of the people” in the U.S. was, for the foreseeable future, folding up the tent. The sleaze and rot of the end of the sixties were not a pretty sight: Tim Leary, the former P.T. Barnum of LSD, held prisoner by the breakaway Eldridge Cleaver faction of the BPP in Algiers; the burnt-out meth freaks scrounging spare change; the grim determination, in dour New Left milieus, to “smash” everything bourgeois.

More diffusely but with more of a future, at least in the professional middle classes, the “new social movements” were gathering momentum: women rejected their second-class roles everywhere in society, including in the 1960s New Left; gays rode the momentum of the 1969 Stonewall riots; an important minority of blacks and Latinos moved into the middle class through affirmative action programs, the Club of Rome report on Limits to Growth and the Rockefeller-backed Zero Population Growth gave the ecology and environmental movements (and more diffusely, a good part of society) the Malthusian agenda they have never really shaken off.

The following essays were written over more than two decades, yet they form a continuous whole, even if it is one that only fully emerged over time. They were written “against the grain” of much of the ideology of the past fifty years, above all in its left and far left guises, that might be summarized with the term “middle-class radicalism.” While much of middle-class radicalism may have seemed, over the course of the 20th century, to overlap with the Marxian project of communism, they are as ultimately opposed as Max Stirner and Mikhail Bakunin on one hand and Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg on the other. One might use the Hegelian term “negation of the negation” to describe the former and the Feuerbachian term “self-subsisting positive” to describe the latter. The “fault line” between one and the other is precisely Marx’s relocation of the “creative act of transformation” within man’s relationship to nature, what the “Theses on Feuerbach” call sinnliche umwälzende Tätigkeit or “sensuous transformative activity.” The fault line is moreover between Hegel’s view of nature as the realm of “repetition,” as “boring,” and Marx’s view of human history, and man’s history in the transformation of nature, as the transformation of the laws of nature themselves in his critique of Malthus’ theory of population. In the latter view, nature and natural laws themselves become historical. “An animal only produces its own nature,” Marx wrote in 1844, “but humanity reproduces all of nature.” An animal is a tool; a human being uses tools. Hegel epitomized the “state civil servant” view of history, with his idea that the Prussian monarch and his bureaucrats performed universal labor, whereas Marx precisely transposes the idea of universal labor, i.e. creativity, to man’s sensuous activity within nature, an extension of natural history. This “universal labor” of course exists only fragmentarily and abstractly within capitalism, scattered among the different parts of the (productive) working class, and some parts of the scientific and technical strata. But these fragments, along with others from intellectual and cultural life, are indispensable future parts of a future activity “as all-sided in its production as in its consumption” which Marx, in the Grundrisse, sees as the supersession of the capitalist work/ leisure antinomy in communism.

Following in the same vein, one might just as succinctly counterpose middle-class radicalism and Marxian socialism as follows: middle-class radicalism conceives of freedom as “transgression,” as the breaking of laws, the “refusal of all constraints,” as the Situationist International put it more than thirty years ago, whereas the Marxian project of communism conceives of freedom as the practical solution of a problematic which evolved theoretically from Spinoza and Leibniz to Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach as the transformation of laws, up to and including the physical laws of the universe, man’s unique “Promethean” capacity. More than 150 years ago, Marx, in his critique of the middle-class radicalism of the Young Hegelians, said that for Bauer, Hess, and Stirner the science, technology, and human history of practical activity in nature was only “mass, mere mass,” to use the jargon of the day. For most of the Western left, far left, and ultraleft which emerged from the 1960s, these phenomena are shown the door with the updated (and essentially Weberian) Frankfurt School mantra “domination, mere domination.” For the middle-class radical, “negation of the negation” view, the problems are “hierarchy,” “authority,” “domination,” and “power”; for the Marxian communist view, the problems are the project of the abolition of value, commodity production, wage labor, and the proletariat (the latter being the commodity form of labor power within capitalism). From these latter the “negation of the negation” problematic is entirely recast, reformed and superseded, and its heavy overlay of bourgeois ideology — freedom conceived without the transformation of necessity — discarded.

What is truly appalling today in large swaths of the left and far-left in the West is the willful illiteracy in the critique of political economy. Perhaps even more appalling, and closely related, is the willful illiteracy, boredom and hostility where science and nature are concerned. It is certainly true that the “critique of political economy” can sometimes be almost as boring as political economy itself, better known today under its still more ideologically contemporary name of “economics.” We recall Marx writing to Engels (in 1857!) saying that he hoped to have done with the “economic shit” within a year or two. I myself have studied “economic questions” for years, and have also spent years in recovery from the novocained, ashes-in-the mouth feeling brought on by excessive exposure to the “dismal science” — or even to its critique.

But this is something rather different than a certain mood of the past thirty-five years, a mood whose culmination to date is the postmodern, “cultural studies” scene that has filled up bookstores with its nihilist punning, its “white males never did anything but rape, pillage, and loot” theory of history, and its ignorant “everything and everyone is tainted” projections onto everything and everyone in some potted notion of the Western “tradition.” This is the world view of demoralized upper middle-class people ensconced in fashionable universities, largely ignorant of the real history of the failure (to date) of the communist project for a higher organization of society, assuming that the historical and intellectual backwater engulfing them is the final product of human history.

All this can be critiqued and rejected on its own terms. It goes hand-in-hand with an ever-lingering “mood” which asserts that there was never anything historically progressive about capitalism, a mood so pervasive that it does not even bother to argue the case, since it rejects out of hand the idea of progress — linear, non-linear, or otherwise — and therefore the question is foreclosed before it even comes up. Once the idea of an organization of society superior to capitalism is repudiated, capitalism itself appears to the postmodernists as unproblematic, just as it is to the rest of bourgeois ideology. While some postmodernists might stop short (though God knows why) of one French Heideggerian’s call to “bring the inhuman into the commons” [donner droit de cit(c) a l’inhumain], their underlying world outlook easily moves toward the same repudiation of the tired word “humanism.” This counterposition surfaced in the 1987-1988 Heidegger and De Man controversies in such formulations as “Is Nazism a Humanism?” [Le Nazisme est-il un Humanisme?] The argument was as follows. Humanism was the Western metaphysic of the “subject,” culminating in Hegel and reshaped by Marx. Trapped in and constituted by the metaphysics of “presence,” the reduction of everything to a “representation” (image), humanism was the ideology of the subjection — the PoMos would of course write (subject)ion — of the entire earth to “representation,” in what Heidegger called the worldwide domination of “technological nihilism.” Nietzsche had already arrived at important anticipations of this analysis. For a certain, “post-1945” (!) Heidegger, Nazism had culminated this drive to “technological nihilism.” (When he was a Nazi, up to 1945, Heidegger had gamely argued that liberal capitalism was the culmination of “technological nihilism.”) The French Heideggerians thus argued that Nazism was a humanism in its drive to complete Western “technological nihilism,” and that the apparently Nazi Heidegger, by attempting to “deconstruct” humanism, was thereby “subverting” Nazism. Meanwhile, of course, the opponents of Nazism, of whatever political stripe, were trapped in “humanism” and therefore trapped on Nazism’s terrain, similarly facilitating the worldwide victory of “technological nihilism.” One could presumably count an old humanist such as Luxemburg (had she not been murdered in 1919 by proto-Nazis, abetted by Social Democrats) as someone else confusedly trapped in “technological nihilism,” having died a bit too early to appreciate Heidegger as the real opponent of Nazism.

It is important, in passing, to try to reconstruct the mood of deep decompression throughout the advanced capitalist world, ca. 1972, to understand how things came to their current state.

One fundamental shift that has been almost totally forgotten today is the disappearance of the climate associated, for better or for worse, with the word “existentialism” that reigned from the early 1940s to ca. 1965. This mood was articulated in the works of authors who have for the most part faded away: Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Feodor Dostoevsky, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Miguel de Unamuno, Jacques Maritain. (Why only Nietzsche and Heidegger are still widely read today, out of all these figures, will become clear in a moment.) “Existentialism” seemed, in those years, to overlap, or be on a continuum with various contemporary “avant-gardes” of the 1945-1965 period, including the American beats, the British “Angry Young Men,” Paris Latin Quarter cellar night clubs, bebop, and free jazz, serial music, the films of directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, the theater of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Eugène Ionesco. The popularized watchwords of “existentialism” were despair, Angst, death, despair, nausea, absurdity, meaninglessness, alienation. The future of the planet, everywhere, seemed to be high modernist technocracy, materialized in the austere architecture of the international style that had triumphed in the 1930s and in the giant industrial and infrastructural projects that littered the “socialist” bloc or the Third World (steel mills, dams, entire cities like Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia or his equally sinister French Communist Party headquarters in Paris), and buttressed by the economic myth of the “affluent society,” “built-in stabilizers,” and depression-proof state-guided economic policies. Existentialism caught the self-indulgent climate of the middle classes in the West which took this trend as a bedrock permanent assumption, and expressed the attitude of the embattled, lonely individual, for whom collective action either did not exist or smelled too strongly of 1930s Stalinist pop-frontism.

Symptomatic of political thought outside the mainstream, in those years, (when people of the “existentialist” persuasion on occasion turned their thoughts, fleetingly, to politics) was the debate over whether the dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World best captured the future.

The second half of the 1960s basically swept away this mood, but in confusing and conflicting ways. The worldwide middle-class New Left definitely had an “existentialist” dimension to it. There was everywhere the feeling that the cultural revolt of the previous twenty to twenty-five years (beginning, at least in the U.S., in the early forties with figures such as Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs) somehow ineffably blended into the mass movements in the streets after 1965. (“We dug the first hole for today’s underground,” as one aging beat put in 1971. “Modernism in the streets” was Daniel Bell’s phrase.) 20,000 individuals wandered around open-air warrens of perpetual adolescence such as Berkeley, California, each imagining him- or herself to be Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. All of this continued up to its paroxysm ca. 1969 to the constitution of the army of “100,000 Villons,” as the crotchety Saul Bellow called it.

By 1971, it was clear that this whole culture of the previous thirty years was fading away. In New Left bastions such as Berkeley, people who only a year or two before had wanted to be “professional revolutionaries” were now scrambling to be just “professionals”: lawyers, doctors, academics, but of course in “an entirely new way.”

It was into this social and cultural climate of decompression of middle-class radicalism that the “new Nietzsche” and the “late Heidegger,” followed hard by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, introduced a whole new turn, as epochal as anything of the previous three decades, laying the foundation for what would become “postmodernism” (we had also not yet heard words like “yuppie” or “gentrification”). This “new Nietzsche” and “late Heidegger” emerged from almost all the other “existentialist” dross of the 1945-1970 period with a tremendous future before them. Forgotten were the existentialist watchwords and individual problematics of despair, Angst, and dread, so obviously superseded in the euphoria of the return of the revolution in 1968. And because the 1973 oil crisis and the 1973-1975 world recession had not yet happened (putting paid to all the economic myths of the previous three decades, from the liberals’ “affluent society” to the Situationists’ “cybernetic welfare state”) this emergence took place when it appeared to many that the battle was still against “technocracy,” “consumer terror,” or the “administered world.” Chaos, or its threat, had not yet become the ruling ideology; it was rather still the specter of horizons of cement, Le Corbusier’s béton brut, and treeless vistas of high-rise apartments and office buildings, bumper-to-bumper freeway commutes, the quiet omnipresent hum of electronic devices, deep monotony and boredom that haunted middle-class imaginations. We were not “remembering” the futures of Lebanon, Somalia, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, ex-Yugoslavia, the South Bronx or south central Los Angeles, but rather the endless pallid chalky sun and wispy clouds of the Mallarméan sky opening into an eternal empty future, the “entropology” that Claude Lévi-Strauss evoked at the end of Tristes Tropiques.

This Mallarméan sky tempted some people to look back, through the eyes of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s interpretations of the pre-Socratics, to archaic Greece, to where it seemed ἀλήθεια [disclosedness] had begun its devolution into veritas [verity or truth], where Sein [Being] had devolved into das Seiende [entity], when “Western metaphysics,” with Parmenides and Zeno, had “interpreted” Being as “presence,” as representation, and had begun its career of world conquest as the Geschick [“destiny” or “sense of reality”] of the West. None of us, then, had ever given a thought to ancient Egypt, or ancient Israel, or to Iran, or Islamic Spain as important sources of our world; we lived in the era of the “reign of technique,” and little prior to a potted, positivistic interpretation of the scientific revolution and a Voltairean view of the eighteenth century seemed of any real importance; if we ever thought about the Renaissance and Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, it was only as respective proto-rationalist moments of secular “pagan revival” and Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. We looked to ancient Greece and its philosophy — the fall into the interpretation of Being as “presence” and the origins of metaphysics — mainly as a distant precursor of the technocratic, administered world. Civilizations such as the Iranian, the Indian, the Chinese, not to mention the worlds of Africa, Polynesia or the Amerindians, barely existed for us; it was so obvious that they had all but succumbed, like ourselves, before the endless pallid sun at the meridian of modernity, in the world where (as Raoul Vaneigem put it) “the guarantee of not dying of hunger was exchanged for the guarantee of dying of boredom.”

Those years, 1971-1972-1973, were eerie. It seemed that all the revolts of the previous three decades had faded away with remarkable speed, leaving behind only the “new social movements” of women, blacks, Latinos, gays, and ecologists, mainly battling their way into the mainstream. Decompression: all the dark underside, all the “repressed,” all the “illicit” of the previously-cloistered milieus of cultural opposition of the earlier period had surfaced violently to become licit and explicit. “Underground” was the belabored, much-overused word of the day, but these were finding their place in the dominant order. Long before Francis Fukuyama made him into a fad, we were delving into Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of the Philosophy of Hegel, which seemed to echo our sense of being at the end of something, if not exactly the “end of history.”

In this atmosphere, some turned to Foucault, whose idea of épistème in The Order of Things seemed lifted from Heidegger’s notion of Geschick, the “destiny” or “sense of reality” beneath all consciousness or action of a culture that occasionally disappeared as mysteriously as it came. (That Geschick for the West was the metaphysics of “presence,” or Being reduced to “representation.”) It was a widespread feeling at the time, popularized above all in Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions, that indeed historical epochs were underpinned by deep, unspoken, shared assumptions. Kuhn called them paradigms. The succession from one to the other could not be called “progress” toward any kind of “truth” outside such paradigms, however, and certainly could not be linked to anything like capitalist accumulation. The post-1960s funk was giving way, willy-nilly, to the “postmodern” belief that one could know only “signifiers,” and perhaps to the belief that there were only signifiers; few recognized then (as few recognize today) that such ideas were the night thoughts of capital in the same years, as it accelerated its mutation into its increasingly fictive form, seemingly detached from any relationship to production or reproduction.

The war cry was the “overthrow of metaphysics,” as metaphysics had begun after Heraclitus. We were taken aback and intrigued by the fact that the two opposed views of Hegel and Heidegger took off from the same Heraclitean fragment. So totally did elements of the “realization of metaphysics” and the “overthrow of metaphysics” resemble each other and yet were as ships passing in the night.

For Nietzsche, “metaphysics” was the Platonic world of ideas that fused with Judeo-Christian universality in late antiquity, the “lie on life” erected “above” “reality,” from which life was to be judged, and found lacking. “Better logic than life” was the view inherited from Parmenides and Zeno, and attacked by Nietzsche in his early work Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, and this view of a supra-temporal, supra-spatial “concept” hovering over “life” remained a constant of his indictment of “Western nihilism” throughout. The Western tradition was “nihilist” because this “concept,” this supratemporal supraspatial vantage point was precisely “nothing,” empty, a diabolically clever manifestation of weak-willed resentment contrived to pull the “strong” down to the level of the “weak,” that later became the philosophy of Christian monotheism.

Heidegger took over this problematic and carried it much further. In his early period (Being and Time, 1927) he began where the late Nietzsche left off, and with the problematic of the Nietzschean Superman, the individual shaping his own reality through an aestheticized will-to-power constrained only by the limits set by other such wills. (Heidegger, however, developed an entirely different language for this analysis, deeply marked by Kierkegaard, Husserlian phenomenology and pre-1914 Lebensphilosophie.)But in his own later period, he decided that both Nietzsche as well as his own early work had concluded Western metaphysics, culminating in a planetary will-to-power to transform all reality into “presence,” an image, a representation, as embodied in science and technology.

Heidegger, like Foucault after him, was aiming his critique directly at dialectical thought, against the reason that tends to absorb the other into itself, that understands all “otherness” as alienation. Or as Marx said, quoting the ancient playwright Terence, “nothing human is alien to me.” Against this kind of rationality, Heidegger tried to erect the wall of Differenz, difference that was not dialectically mediated or superseded by any historical process, but just… difference.

In those years 1971-1972-1973, this vision was made to appeal. As we attempted to understand the abstract cellophane in which capitalism was wrapping all sensuous reality, to see this terrible abstraction originating in the pre-Socratics was all too intriguing. Of course we knew too that this grew out of the abstraction of the commodity, though we paid less attention to Marxist analyses by Maurice Cornforth, Alfred Sohn-Rethel showing the pre-Socratics in exactly that context.

But did anyone ever notice that Friedrich Nietzsche emerged in the 1870s simultaneously with neo-classical economics? Did anyone ever see him in relationship to the intensive phase of capitalist accumulation which, in the U.S. and in Germany, first took shape in that decade?

The emergence of neo-classical economics (William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, Léon Walras) replaced production with consumption and individual “preferences” as the bourgeois perspective on “economics” (as the replacement for political economy came to be called). (Contemporaries of the Austrian school, a decade or two later, explicitly called this the “subjectification” of economics). Everyone knows that this shift involved the burial of the pre-Marxist labor theory of value as it had culminated in Ricardo and the Ricardian socialists of the 1840s. Most commentary has focused on the link between post-1870s “economics” as a response to the appearance of the socialist workers’ movement out of the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune; in the new climate, it was necessary to scrap nearly two centuries of successively sharp attempts to show that labor was the source of all wealth. But less attention has been devoted to the shift in world accumulation from producer goods to consumer goods, closely tied to the world agrarian market and the post-1873 world agrarian depression. This is the reality that produced Nietzsche, and later Heidegger. Nietzsche’s bracketing of truth, the idea that “truth” was an aesthetic creation imposed on chaos by the Superman’s will-to-power, was the extreme abstract “high” theorization of the beginning of the era in which world accumulation began, above all in England (still the center of the system at that time and for many decades to come), to include an important fictive-rentier dimension, and thus seemed to similarly bracket any concrete relation to production and reproduction.

But there is more: Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s profoundly anti-dialectical stance, aimed against Hegel but rebounding onto Marx, is a direct attack on Marx’s theory of labor power.

The appearance of the communist movement in 1848 — the June days in Paris, the Manifesto — “cut history in two,” just as Nietzsche himself claimed to do a few decades later. As theorized by Marx, the appearance of communism posed in practice the realization and supersession of all previously existing philosophy, political economy and culture. Communism said in effect: all previous cultural forms were expressions of what society (i.e. human powers) could not do; they were compensations and consolations for the fact that social progress proceeded at the expense of the individual. The distance between Napoleon I and Napoleon III as portrayed in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire is precisely this distance between the two periods. All bourgeois culture after 1850, consciously or not, was a response to the challenge posed by communism, an attempt to maintain the isolated individual viewpoint in which it was increasingly clear what society could do, in which social progress no longer needed to proceed at the expense of the individual but, on the contrary, the individual could at last appropriate social powers as his/her own.

Because Marx’s theory of labor power was exactly the relocation of Hegel’s world spirit in the “individuality as all-sided in its production as in its consumption” (Grundrisse). It was a theory of self-reflexive global praxis [sinnliche umwälzende Tätigkeit], a theory of activity in which the object was simultaneously the actor. Communist man “would fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon and write critical criticism in the evening,” that is he would be not any specific predicate but a relationship to a series of specific predicates, and as such a relationship to himself, and “the multiplication of human powers is its own end.” This is the social realization of Nicholas of Cusa’s actual infinity, and it is against this relationship that relates itself to itself [sich-selbst-verhaltendes-Verhältnis] that all bourgeois thought, led by Nietzsche and Heidegger, semi-consciously or consciously, was directed. And it is this attack on creative labor power which the terribly radical postmodernists take over lock, stock, and barrel. It may be a stretch to see Nietzsche’s and above all Heidegger’s attempt to found an irreducible, anti-dialectical difference (Derrida later called it différance) as the theoretical anticipation of the flexible small firm, segmented marketing and niche consumption, and “post-Fordist” methods of production (though it is exactly right to see them in relationship to post-1870 neo-classical economics). The ineffable sense of hostility to “bigness,” in the form of “bureaucracy,” “master narratives” of history, large-scale production, and social services, i.e. everything that was the hallmark, in bureaucratic form, of the Social Democratic, Stalinist and Third World statist regimes of the first three decades after World War II, hardly needed such esoterica, particularly in the U.S. But it is no exaggeration whatever to say that these theories swept the world, beginning in the early 1970s, as part of a general war on the social at every level, which was the capitalist response to the 1968 upsurge and its aftermath. And behind the all-too-facile attacks on “master narratives” and “bureaucracy,” the capitalists and their ideologues — the theoreticians of “difference” — were after the real game of the unitary working-class “subject” which had seriously frightened them from 1968 to 1973. The pulverization of anything that might be construed as a “general interest,” the breaking up of the big “worker fortresses” of Detroit, Manchester, Billancourt, and Turin, the staggering reversal throughout the West, after 1968, of earlier postwar trends toward greater income equality, the “identity politics” of various groups asserting they have nothing in common with anyone else, the seemingly limitless ability of capital to attack, outsource and downsize without encountering any “contradiction” undermining it, all create the climate for the postmodern derision of such “foundationalism,” for their “eternity of bad jokes,” while hope for a higher organization of society beyond capitalism seems to fade away by the day.

This was the social and ideological world of the radicalized middle-classes in the early 1970s. What was ending then and there was the world-historical career of negation, theorized for modern history by Hegel’s civil servant philosophy, the civil servant with no relationship to the transformation of nature.

Negation had ultimately begun with the Greeks in the point- line- plane- cube cosmology derived from the “division of nature” consummated by Zeno and Parmenides’ metaphysic of the infinitesimal, the idea of infinity as an asymptotic advance in either space or time to a goal that was never reached, as in Zeno’s paradoxes. Henceforth, for the Western conception of nature, the “infinite” was conceived as an “infinitesimal” in both space (the point) and time (the instant), which in the early modern period materialized itself in Newton’s physics and was generalized from there to a whole “ontology” in virtually all areas of science and culture. This moment was the social and epistemological beginning of the “dead nature” that seemed everywhere dominant in the 1950s and 1960s. Nature was linear, as the lines of high modernist technocracy and its architecture were linear.

But from the epoch of bourgeois revolutions, in England, America, and above all in France, Western culture was invaded for the first time by a consciousness of history as a dimension of realization, as ultimately theorized in the work of G.F.W. Hegel. Western thought, including Western thought about nature, was “invaded” by time. For the first time it was realized that the reality of specific people in society was defined not by some static supratemporal ideal of Man but by what they had the potential to become as social classes, their historical trajectory. That, and that alone, is the meaning of Hegel’s assertion that the “real is rational,” however much the formulation, in a totally reductionist interpretation, has been used or understood as an apology for this or that status quo.

It is more difficult today, after more than three decades of ecologism and environmentalism, to remember to what extent modern culture from the seventeenth and eighteenth century bourgeois revolutions to the 1960s evolved with the increasing bracketing of “dead nature.” The Hegel renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s, so essential for New Left Marxism (in combination with the decanting of many of Marx’s previously unknown writings, both from the 1840s and up to his writings on the Russian commune and the Ethnological Notebooks) was perhaps the culmination of this trend. Yet hard behind the Hegel renaissance in Marxism was the recovery (elaborated by Ernst Bloch, Leszek Kołakowski and others) of the more general neo-Platonic sources of the Marxian dialectic, in Plotinus, Erigena, Eckhart, Cusa, Bruno, and Boehme; of the natura naturans view of nature of the same tradition, and side by side with that, the idea of actual infinity first articulated by Cusa and Bruno, and passing through Spinoza and Leibniz into Hegel and Marx. The latter two are components of an entirely different conception of nature and science. And yet it was exactly of the latter two, and of such an alternative conception of nature and science, that the New Left (along with the rest of society) was utterly ignorant in the 1960s.

Such ignorance was possible and sustained by the reified view of history inherited from the 18th century Enlightenment, which created a potted retrospective in which this entire lineage, deeply entwined with religion and mysticism, was largely invisible, or at best a series of secondary tributaries, making possible the view of metaphysics against which Nietzsche and Heidegger took over the field.

The Heidegger vs. Hegel counterposition could only emerge in a world that looked with positivist lenses right through the period 1450-1650 of the scientific revolution culminating in Newton, and the “rebirth of paganism” that led to the Enlightenment, a world that paid no attention to Plotinus, Erigena, Nicholas of Cusa, Bruno, Kepler, Boehme, Leibniz, Spinoza on the questions of “actual infinity” and natura naturans. Heidegger was only possible against a tradition oblivious to these realities. Almost no one except Bloch, Kołakowski, and a few others recognized that Marx had transposed that tradition to a materialist view of society and nature. Only a few recognize it, even today.

For the culture of the 1960s — and “postmodernism” and “cultural studies” today still live off of the 1960s, or more specifically off the defeat of the 1960s — cannot be understood without a recognition of how truncated its historical sense was. It was not merely “Eurocentric.” With all the inverted patriotism and cheerleading for the Vietcong, Guevarist guerrillas, and Mao’s China, it was “Eurocentric” in a very special way. Moreover, it was blind to everything in the history of the West itself which did not lead to the technocratic, scientistic “managed” world it presumed to inhabit. Like the reign of Urizen that Blake warned against, modernist culture assumed the infâme trinity of Locke, Newton, and Voltaire to be the unquestioned (if often unrecognized) founders of its world. It accepted that sixteenth-seventeenth century separation of Geist and Natur that did not exist for a Bruno or a Kepler; it lived off it. It did not “see” except as antiquarianism the astrology, alchemy, Kabbalah, and Neo-Platonism of the Renaissance; it did not “see” the multiple editions of the works of the German mystic Jacob Boehme published at the height of the English Revolution of the 1640s. Revolutions, scientific or political, were secular, anti-religious affairs, and so the “meaningful past” was strictly secular and anti-religious as well.

The critique of the Enlightenment implicit or explicit in the Bloch-Kołakowski et al. recovery of the neo-Platonic sources of the Marxian dialectic (as some of the following essays argue) has nothing to do with most of the stupid criticisms of the Enlightenment today promulgated by ignorant academics for whom history began with the post-1968 translations of the Frankfurt School and Foucault. It rather critiques the triumph of the Newton-Locke-Voltaire world view from the vantage point of the “road not taken,” represented by the Cusa-Bruno-Kepler-Boehme-Spinoza-Leibniz stream of “actual infinity” and “natura naturans,” and pointing to a unitary science.

Instead of the development of this “stream,” which posits a unitary theory encompassing both society and nature (“we know only one science, the science of history” as Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology) we have today legions of people with a smattering of knowledge turning out reams of books filled with buzz words that could be (and have been) produced by a computer program, and could be (and are) picked up in peer-group shop talk in a few months at the nearest humanities program or academic conference. Everyone these people don’t like is trapped in a “gaze”; everyone “constitutes” their “identity” by “discourse”; to the fuddy-duddy “master narratives” that talk about such indelicate subjects as world accumulation these people counterpose pastiche and bricolage, the very idea of being in any way systematic smacking of “totalitarianism”; it is blithely assumed that everyone except heterosexual white males now and for all time have been “subversives” (one wonders why we are still living under capitalism); Joyce scholars give way to Howdy Doody scholars, who of course look askance on “privileging” any particular kind of “writing”; the American population that spends an average of six hours a day watching television and three hours a day at shopping malls is thereby “resisting” and “subverting” consumer culture; a crippling relativism makes it somehow “imperial” to criticize public beheadings in Saudi Arabia or cliterodectomy practiced on five-year old girls in the Sudan (isn’t that an authoritarian imposition of standards from outside?). The French Revolution was an attempt to reimpose control over women, or was a theatric “ritual” invented by the nineteenth century, and thus did in fact not occur; for Baudrillard, the Gulf War did not occur either; we don’t know if the genocide of the Jews took place because we have only different “narratives” about it (and everything is of course only a narrative, and none are definitive). At international conferences Moslem and Hindu fundamentalist women brush off criticism of their retrogressionist movements with quotations from Foucault and Derrida; popular science programs in Third World countries are savaged as “imperialist” with similar quotations. The postmodernist relativists thought out their views with Western imperialism in mind, and don’t have much too say when confronted by barbaric atavisms from “subaltern” cultures, whose first victims are those trapped in this or that parochial group by the very anti-universalism for which the postmodernists led the charge.

5 thoughts on “From James Joyce to Howdy Doody: Deconstruction and deindustrialization after 1968

  1. This “critique” or perhaps lament, remains entirely trapped within the confines of petty-bourgeois intellectualism. Middle class intellectual ‘youth’–even once grown old–will not, were not ever be nor have been the motor force of history.
    5 years after 1971 South Vietnam surrendered to the North and the US, Eight years after 1971 the Sandinistas overthrew Somoza, twenty years later the Apartheid regime in South Africa was overthrown. History and class struggle only came to an end in the self- referential mirrored room of the ’68 ers.

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