Sunday, 5 October 2008

'We Hold What We Have'

7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming.
2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 (New King James Version)

Owen's provocative post on the State neatly triangulates two recent texts I've been reading. The first is Timonthy Brennan's admittedly batty Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right (2006). First, it's never wise to repeatedly chide the historical errors of others while committing a series of such errors yourself. Second, the book, supposedly coming from a left/Marxist viewpoint overblows the power of theory in a highly idealist manner; supposedly "cultural scholars" are responsible for the collapse of social democratic alternatives and the rise of the New Right (hmmm). That said Brennan's argument for the eclipse of social democracy during a rightward "turn" dated 1975-1980 makes sense (for the US and UK in particular). Also, which links to Owen's point, his argument for a general fixation on "liberation attached to statelessness" and an "anarchist sublime" in contemporary theory hits home. The point has been made before of course, and forms of what I once used to call "Deleuzian Thatcherism" are well-known. Here libertarian discourses cross between left and right. Something that has always struck me is the failure of UK cultural commentators to grasp that there can be such a thing as right libertarianism - hence their "surprise" (which may of course be feigned) at figures like P J O'Rourke or Camille Paglia. In more provocative vein I thought William Burroughs might better fit in that lineage than the usual attempts to position him on the anarchist / libertarian left. (If you see his letters to Alan Ginsberg about his trying to start a dope farm you certainly get a sense of the "get the government of my back" attitude, coupled to an unpleasant racism about Mexican workers (debate the possible use of irony at this point)).

Brennan argues for the convergence of theory's anti-statism (anarchist or leftist) with the anti-statism of neo-liberalism: the "anarcho-liberalism" synthesis. The position is a gross simplification but it captures something of the mood of the dependance of anarcho-libertarian positions on the state which they opposed. I have some sympathy for this position of dependance: it forms the "conscience of the revolution" argument, and why should we pretend social democracy wasn't highly vulnerable to libertarian critique - especially in its paternalist / labourist forms? (Considering the focus on the NHS we might consider it's record on mental health for example. This is not a matter of full-blown Langian anti-psychiatry, a position I don't hold, but problems here (then and now) indicate problems). Of course when the attack came from the right then this is where disorientation sets in, either outflanking the left and re-hegemonising its critique or revealing the rightward drift of such critiques. A similar problem, to my mind, afficts punk / post-punk critiques of social democracy. This is why Brennan can claim an overlapping or fusion of right and left positions that view "the state as an arena of innate corruption to which no claims of redress can or should be made."

But then the qualified defence of gains made through social democracy was, to me, part of the libertarian communist point - although admittedly one often lost. Hence the expansion of the domain of "use values" as against exchange value in "free" healthcare, or the need to make continuing demands to increase the "dole" or regularise it as a citizen's income. In an ironic reversal, despite Brennan's lambasting of Hardt and Negri's Empire as "theoretical Americana" we could argue that the "modesty" of its closing set of demands (also subject to critique by Marxists & anarchists) could be regarded as a defence of the gains of social democracy?

The second text is Fredric Jameson's "Lenin and Revisionism" (in Lenin Reloaded). His position, we could argue, is more impeccably Marxist than Brennan's valorisation of social democracy; but here is where problems emerge. Jameson provides a neat diagnosis of the present that confirms the kind of point made by Owen:

“in a period whose political atmosphere is largely anarchistic (in the technical sense of the term), it is unpleasant to think about organization, let alone institutions. This is indeed at least one of the reasons for the success of the market idea: it promises social order without institutions, claiming not to be one itself.” (61)

Again, we are on the ground of the "calculation debate" and the question of the "withering away of the state" posed by capitalist libertarians. Jameson also suggests the running together of anarchism as (anti-)political project with this kind of thinking. In particular he rejects the substitution of questions of the economic for questions of power: “The rhetoric of power, then, in whatever form, is always to be considered a fundamental form of revisionism.” (66)

What then should be done? Jameson's tricky position is precisely one of social democracy as katechon: “Today, …, the most urgent task seems to me the defense of the welfare state and of those regulations and entitlements that have been characterized as barriers to a completely free marker and its prosperities.” (69) Paolo Virno (in Multitude: Between Innovation and Exodus), reclaiming this figure from Schmitt and conservative state-theorists, points out its essential ambiguity: "By impeding the triumph of the Antichrist, katechon impedes, at the same time, the redemption to be accomplised by the Messiah." Therefore, the defence of social democracy as katechon would appear to run against Marxist eschatology. It restrains the "mystery of lawlessness" that is capital unleashed; or, even better, in the King James version, the "mystery of iniquity". In doing so, however, it "delays the end of the world" (Virno); that is the revolution.

Jameson's solution is elegant: “We must support social democracy because its inevitable failure constitutes the basic lesson, the fundamental pedagogy, of a genuine Left.” (69) The difficulty is its cynicism; social democracy is defended in light of the hope of its eventual failure as the contemporary "lesser evil". Perhaps this is a coherent stance, but in light of its use of social democracy as "way-station" it becomes vulnerable to accusations of cynical manipulation.

I, as usual, don't have the answers. My "position", such as it is, would certainly not be classically anarchist although I think it is still left-libertarian. Which is to say, "we hold what we have" in regards to social democracy, especially in a time of weakness. I've never been attracted to a "politics of the worst", whether Marxist or anarchist (pending specification of if things get worse then where are the forces coming from to establish a new mode of equitable life). Instead it's a matter of building on those gains already made in times of "strength". Virno's re-coding of the multitude as katechon attempts a more directly anti-Statist position, while rejecting the tendency of anti-Statist thinking to posit human nature as fundamentally good (and so then "repressed" or "captured" by the "evil" of the State). Although Virno doesn't much flesh it out his position seems to imply an organisational politics of the multitude precisely qua katechon. This politics his figures as exodus, a politics which I view sceptically precisely because we are back into the "lines of flight" from the State and power.

I would like to hold to Virno's position, but I don't yet feel I can see the lineaments of a politics of exodus in action (successfully). What are the institutions / demands / forces of the multitude? Therefore, unsatisfactory as it no doubt is, my argument falls into the risk of cynicism I detected with Jameson: a "false friend" to social democracy ("yeh I like you", while all the time waiting for something better to come along). It's trivial perhaps to point out the relatively abstract nature of such points in the absence of a sense of agencies to perform this politics at the necessary mass level. Perhaps, however, my own attempt to think through negation is partly aimed at a double-position: engagement coupled to (destructive) attack. Doubtful as I am this constitutes a solution, it may at least try for avoiding either "distance from the State" arguments that lack traction on State forms / State violence, or affirmative positions that risk endorsing "things as they are" (fast becoming my favourite phrase - I really must read Caleb Williams...).


Daniel said...

Hi, nice to see this blog and this post in particular-- terrifically smart stuff.

I think TB's book is brilliant actually-- so I'm wondering why you think it "batty" and what the gross "historical errors" are? Your post on it -- aside from these two shots -- is actually really positive about his analysis of "theory" and the anti-state and frequently anti-democratic or conservative work it does.

Can you say more? Why batty or wrong? I'm honestly curious and open to your critique of course.

I would agree that the connection between this type of post/libertarian theory and the rise of the right could be better developed. I do think they are linked and thought this well before Tim's book came out.

I'm not sure we can point to a casual relationship here however-- and I dont read WOP as making that causal claim actually. He posits the shared historical terrain and points to a homology between the two anti-state and anti-intellectual tendencies. I think the argument is also that they share and help co-produce a certain intellectual=political culture. I think such an argument or contextualization is very sound and damning. As a humanities prof myself who came up through this same historical moment it makes much sense. Now it gets exported across the world and dominates HK for example.

Also the book's work on cold war relations to this is excellent and provocative and I think the arguments around cultures of belief and "organizational thinking" are remarkably apt and useful.

cheers, D

Benjamin said...

First thank you Daniel, and I should say 'batty' is meant semi-affectionately but indicates what are, to me, certain eccentricities in tone. Also, I'm afraid I did not read it under the best conditions, but between preparing classes and the usual trials of work.

I am positive about the book actually, but concerned about some of the detail and what at time feels a rather scattergun approach. Perhaps this is partly the fact that the book is a collection of essays. I'm also not entirely sure about the exceptions to the rule - usually Gramscian (I have my suspicions of Gramsci - probably best summarised by Perry Anderson's fine article 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci' in the NLR).

On historical errors (and relying on memory) I think identifying Bakhtin unequivocally as socialist is a little tricky considering the lengthy debate about the religious influence on his work. Also, I thought the chapter on Negri really didn't get a feel for the precise position of Negri's work in relation to the PCI/ workerism / autonomy. I understand Brennan's recourse to Gramsci, but it seems to me he doesn't engage enough with the uses Gramsci was put to by the PCI and workerist's responses to that.

It's more a question of understanding, but I found the chapter on Rushdie suggestive but hard to pin down. Unfortunately I also personally have little time for Rushdie's fiction although I do like his collection 'Imaginary Homelands' - his most social democratic moment.

I'm also not much keen on books where grad students / postgrads are taken to task as exemplars of problems, but that's a personal thing.

Perhaps I overstated the link, but if not causal it felt like a very strong correlation. Perhaps the issue here is partly to do with differences in the implantation and culture of theory between the US and the UK. On the one hand in the UK theory came through the social democratic moment and was often explicitly left in articulation. On the other hand it was often said left thinkers who embraced a strange mixture of the libertarian and (right) social democracy. Here it appears to me there is more continuity, of an admittedly odd sort.

Sorry this is a little vague, but hopefully I'll get the chance to return to Brennan.