Saturday, January 25, 2014

Notes on the Coming Progressive Kristallnacht

A progressive Kristallnacht is coming. That’s the earnest warning issued by Tom Perkins—venture capitalist and historical parallelist extraordinarie—in a letter to the Wall Street Journal. In Perkins’ world, Occupy was a dress rehearsal for fascism, and at any minute dreadlocked smelly stormtroopers are going to get all smashy-smashy on the property of today’s “Jews”—that is, on the property of what Perkins calls, following Occupy’s rhetoric, the “1%”. We could say so many things: about the anti-Semitic conflation of being wealthy with being Jewish as a means of coding being against the rich as being against Jews; about how Tom is so distanced from his Bay Area locality—or is just generally an unimaginative bloke—that he didn’t think to mobilize the fact that anarchists have smashed windows aplenty in his surrounds, but instead hears the jangling of shattering glass in the public reaction to Google buses; about the impoverished imaginaries of the world’s elite, who need to deck themselves out in the borrowed garments of histories past so as to steel themselves against the impossibility of their having a future; about the fact that WSJ editorial standards seem so minimal that, shucks, all of us might as well dust off old poems written in high school and submit them for the journal’s august consideration. (Direct action: overload the WSJ editorial mailbox with re-writings of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”!!!!!)

But what if we said that Perkins, in some bizarre way, is right?

Mightn’t there by a creeping tendency within liberal progressivism—whatever that is—toward something like fascism? I live in Chicago, where an authoritarian state buoying itself on a fictive liberal populism is part of the political ordinary, but this emergent articulation is evident elsewhere in the wacky world of liberal letters. Consider Sean Wilentz’s recent nonsense, which basically encouraged us to defend the state’s agglomeration of massive surveillance powers as a requirement for defending the thin slivers of the welfare state that remain. (In the interests of asserting the epistemological soundness of Marxist futurology, I’ll note that I argued that this was going to be the liberal response last June.) But it’s not just the statist turn—or, if not turn, the statist standing-in-place—of liberal publics that comes to mind as I think through the articulation of liberalism and fascism. As venture capitalist and social theorist Tom Perkins insists, Occupy was and is in some sense functional for what we might think of, however loosely, as fascism.

My thinking on this got started with a tweet from a pal:

And she’s right. Most of us intuited this Septembers ago. I mean, come on, who of us were able to chant “We are the 99%!” without bile rising in the throat? Who of us didn’t find the obsession with finance capital, Wall Street, and what bonuses rich morons receive to miss the point? We could ignore all this when the occupations existed, when the positivity of the social world we were forming overwhelmed the problematic negativity of the imaginary that got most of us on the streets in the first place. But what work does the ideological negation of the “1%” do when there is not a positive, material, social force behind this negation, a force for which negation is simply a derived effect of world-building?

Let’s say that the politico-cultural life of fascism consists in the articulation of a populism for which the negation of a fabulated class enemy functions as a means of obfuscating its internal unmooring from the materiality of a class that would give it actual consistency.  It is only this fabulation that coheres the set of the “99%” nowadays. Indeed, occupations were so crucial to Occupy because without them—without the forms of association, socialization, and politicization they enabled—we actually need the “1%” to make us a thing. Lacking the material positivity of class formation that Marx and Engels called “association,” we ground our non-class first in imaginary acts of negation (the “1%”) and then, creepingly, more and more and more, we attempt to positivize this negation through a turn toward the state, by finding in the state a source of transcendence that will cohere us in and out of our incoherence, even when this transcendence sucks. Think Wilentz.  

Association is hard. That is the entire point of Marx and Engel’s political work. But it’s an end in itself, an end whose material positivity exceeds the politics of negation we get trapped in when we structure our political imaginaries through the party, the state, capital, and so on. In the well-known words of the young Marx:

When communist workmen gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time they acquire a new need—the need for society—and what appears as a means has become an end. The practical development can be most strikingly observed in the gatherings of French socialist workers. Smoking, eating and drinking, etc., are no longer means of creating links between people. Company, association, conversation, which in its turn has society as its goal, is enough for them.

For Marx, the desire for tools with which to negate the transcendent rule of capital (“instruction, propaganda, etc.”) converts into a plane of immanent sociality where, quite simply, the workers couldn’t give a fuck about party, state, or capital—they’re drinking, conversing, associating. It’s at this level of sociality that Marx pegs his hopes for the future. And us too, I think. Most of the demos, marches, and protests Occupy put together had as their aim some negation of the capitalist given, but most of us stuck around for one another. I was always more trilled that we were shouting together than shouting at anything. And just think of the nonsense chants, how they expose a pure sociality that is indifferent to the world that is supposed to be its addressee.

So, let’s say this: Occupy began as a movement intending the control, regulation, or (in radical cases) the dismantling of capital, but its radical core consisted in the structured intuition that all it needed was to intend itself and materially maintain this intention in time. Communism is that thing where you actually don’t give a fuck about the rich, and you realize this world to the extent that you retrain your attention from the pornography of power toward associating—and maintaining association—with others. It’s hard, sure: yelling at a bank is way easier than sincerely working through a general assembly. So is yelling to the state to protect us from the depredations of finance bros. But the real movement of communism is a movement away from the state and capital and toward one another.

I don’t really like engaging with or replicating the overburdened symbolics of fascism, but what Perkins gives us in his hyperbolic invocation of the Reich is a distorted measure of our failure to materialize ourselves without recourse to a social poetics of negation or through the transcendent recoding of the state. The trick, I guess I’m saying, is to start building a world in which I encounter you without first having to negate the words of a finance bro, a world in which I simply ignore the hilarious screeds of a class walking on stilts because we’re elsewhere, doing other things. This isn’t to ignore the work of negativity that necessarily inheres within any anarchist/communist movement: the capitalist state doesn’t let us abandon it so easily. The point, rather, is that we will only be able to contend against this state to the extent that we don’t care about it, that we materialize the positivity of our sociality in such an overwhelming fashion that negating state violence is a (necessary) afterthought. Movements that begin in ideological negation wind up materially negated: when the militarized thugs of the proto-fascist state broke up occupation after occupation, how many 99%ers felt so positively attached to the world they helped make that they stuck around to defend it? Indeed, the conditions of possibility for Perkins’ future fascism are identical to the conditions of possibility for Occupy’s historical defeat: our failure to materialize our social positivity. Negating “the 1%” can become an alibi for fascism when the only object materializing the negative will of “99%” is the state; “the 99%” is nothing when it fabulates its existence through the negation of the “1%”. What remains to us, then, as we navigate these troubled seas, as we try tacking between the Scylla of capital and the Charybdis of statism, is the work of association. Drinking smoking conversing. Working reading arguing. 


Ross Wolfe said...

You've been attending Moishe Postone's lectures, haven't you?

Anonymous said...

Quite interesting - reminds me at moments of Zizek's critique of Ernesto Laclau's populist reason.

Anonymous said...

"Let’s say that the politico-cultural life of fascism consists in the articulation of a populism for which the negation of a fabulated class enemy functions as a means of obfuscating its internal unmooring from the materiality of a class that would give it actual consistency." Let's. Or, alternatively, let's try to find a way to say whatever this might mean in a form approximating spoken English.

Anonymous said...

This isn't a joke.

You are a sad man.

Chris Taylor said...

Oh, the essay to be written on anglophone leftists and their capacity to forget the utterly tortured, necessarily tortured, and/but absolutely illuminating theoretical idiom of those Germans on whose shoulders we stand. Most left writing that doesn't strain sense and syntax is either a) journalism or b) leaves from the notebooks of would-be managers of socialized capital. So, enjoy your social-democratic good common sense and technocratic communicatively-rational prose and I'll keep, like, trying to think new thoughts in new ways, k?

Anonymous said...

When Robert Reich came to the University to screen his tepid social fascist movie and have his soul searched by liberal hero David Axelrod, I saw a leader of a major Chicagoland progressive (and self-styled "radical") organization convulsively Nazi saluting the former Secretary of Labor out of enthusiasm. So there's that.