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

Loren Goldner
Queequeg Press
January 2001

Art without know­ledge is noth­ing.
[Ars sine sci­en­tia ni­hil.

— Jean Mignot

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. Continue reading

The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014

Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha

We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)

The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)

The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?


Preliminary remarks

Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

Three models of “resistance” — Introduction


Image: Elena Feliciano, Resistance

A glance at the way “resistance” has been theorized over time — in both political and extra-political contexts — might help illuminate the Left’s changing sense of its own subjective agency during the last sesquicentenary. Three models may serve as an index to its shifting historical aspirations, and capture its oscillating feelings of hopefulness and helplessness at the prospect of their attainment. Before embarking upon this exposition, however, a few facts regarding its political usages should be particularly borne in mind:

First, as Stephen Duncombe pointed out a few years ago, the concept of “resistance” is in a way inherently conservative.[1] It indicates the ability of something to maintain itself — i.e., to conserve or preserve its present state of existence — against outside influences that would otherwise change it. Resistance signifies not only defiance but also intransigence. As the editors of Upping the Anti put it a couple years back, “resistance” automatically assumes a “defensive posture.”[2] It thus appears to be politically ambivalent: it depends on what is being conserved and what is being resisted.

Secondly, “resistance” as a property can belong to any number of things, whether conscious or unconscious. The world, or nature, can “resist” our conscious attempts to transform it. Likewise society, or second nature, can prove similarly recalcitrant. Either way, this “resistance” tends to be unconscious (always in the case of the first, and usually in the case of the second). With nature, the conditions that obtain at any given moment appear objective and material. With society, by contrast, the conditions that obtain at this or that historical juncture appear quasi-objective and ideological.[3] The situation can be reversed, however. Insofar as society and the world operate unconsciously to transform the general conditions of existence, groups and individuals can consciously choose to resist these processes. Continue reading