Saturday, 19 November 2011

Our Friends in the North: Alex Niven's Folk Opposition

Alex Niven's Folk Opposition is a provocative, timely, and moving work. Provocative due to its unabashed endorsement and affirmation of 'folk' or regional identity against callous neoliberalism, timely due to the recent 'resonance' of populism in the US and elsewhere, and moving because if its recourse to sentiment and collectivity in an attempt to articulate  a new politics. As he puts it in his preface:
Even without taking into account the vast inequalities that exist on a global scale, it is clear that we are living in an age of profound anti-egalitarianism and loneliness. In our own country [the UK], there is an underworld of suffering lurking beneath a surface-world of consumerist fantasy and lifestyle myths. The essential assertion of the following essay is that the best way to counteract this climate of negativity and radical privacy is through a socialism that is founded in the extraordinary potential of the ordinary, the populist, the community level, the everyday, a socialism that derives its identity from the belief that we are better off in teams than we are as isolated individuals.  

It also resonates oddly for me because while Alex Niven valorises the oppositional potentialities in North-East England, notably in the pairing of T. Dan Smith's problematic civic modernism and Basil Bunting's regional poetic modernism, I come from the 'negative' region - Essex. From Thatcherite shock-troopers to TOWIE, Essex is often tracked as the 'dark heart' of neoliberalism, coupled to the useful ability to condescend and project this onto a 'working class'/Eastend community (and creating a remarkable imaginary geography of 'Essex' in the process). Certainly Niven does not invoke this stereotype and it is one that could easily be disputed, but it offers a strange displaced place (now I live here), to reflect on critical regionalism.
The problem that this book responds to, I think, is the one described by Theorie Communiste as the 'end of programmatism', that is the collapse, under the twin pressures of capitalist attack and workers' refusal, on the 'mediating' functions that affirmed workers' identity: unions, state-socialism, social democracy and the 'Fordist compact'.  While TC regard this 'cycle' of the affirmation of the proletariat as passed and now replaced by new forms of struggle that 'jump' to the immediacy of abolishing proletarian identity, Niven argues that we can re-affirm and reconstruct this 'affirmative' resistance through new populist articulations that draw on the remains and remnants of programmatism.

The appeal of this argument, including to myself, is that it seems to avoid the potential risk of merely ratifying defeat as the ground of new forms of struggle, and of the linked danger of simply dismissing the 'limits' of past forms of struggle. It also has the benefit of trying to work through the relation of the empirical working class to the idea of the proletariat (or other political form of left agency), while avoiding condescension and hostility to that actually-existing working class (a danger in certain forms of ultra-leftism pointed out by Alberto Toscano). Hence its relation to Owen Jones' Chavs, as both struggle against the toxic and vile discourse of hostility to working class people that permeates British society.

Its obvious difficulty is that these 'remnants' seem insufficient to galvanise a new politics, and might fall into the problematic forms of populism that Niven is careful to recognise and try to distinguish his work from. Also, TC-style arguments imply, correctly I think, that the narrowed past forms of class identity cannot respond or reply to the dispersion and mutation of 'proletarian' identity (or anti-identity). This could also be linked to the difficulties in characterising an 'elite', and the often-discussed problems of populism leading to political simplification.

At a more local level I would also note that although the book analyses how Folk music, in the form on 'nu-folk', could be used to legitimate neo-liberalism there is less on the 'uses' of Folk music as oppositional resource. Although I myself only recently encountered this, and I'm no expert at all in Folk, we could consider the career of Hamish Henderson (described by Patrick Wright in the LRB - unfortunately in a subscribers only article). Communist militant, folk musician, and articulator of an explicitly Gramscian politics of the national-popular, this suggests precedents (and the problems they encountered) that could have been considered by Niven (or, as this is an essay, might be considered in a longer work).
In fact, this opens a more problematic history for this kind of articulation, vectored from Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn to Billy Bragg's The Progressive Patriot, via the Left's attempt to wrest nationalism from Thatcherism in the work of Tom Nairn and others. This envy of the 'motivational power' of patriotism/nationalism (similar arguments exist around religious radicalism) is obviously risky, as the reclamation can lead easily to the 'affirmation' of national belonging and exclusivity, even if cast in terms of 'better' values. Niven's critical regionalism is, I think, very alive to this risk (largely through valorising a 'working-class modernism' that is both internationalist and regional), and as the case of Hamish Henderson demonstrates it is not impossible to combine defence of certian regional values and identities with communism (or left politics), without falling into nostalgia or exclusion.

We could also raise the question of the 'monumental positivity' of the English working-class pointed out by Perry Anderson in 1964, countering Hoggart and others. Again, the reflection on the relation of positivity to negativity in the formation and destruction of class identity might involve more consideration of the complex relation between these terms. In fact, the rush to negation might need to be reconsidered within and against and the dissolutive effects of capital, as much as the rush to affirmation.

Niven is careful in his attempt to avoid these traps, even if the discussion of alternative bases of 'affirmation' is (necessarily) fragmentary and tentative. That said, I think this book is essential to a debate and to thinking about the forms of socialism that are too-often immediately considered 'out-of-date' and, as Carl semi-mischieveously noted, form a counter-proposition to 'accelerationist' forms of thinking (left or right) which declare farewell to an idea that they often never had much time for.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Strategic Melancholia: an Ultra-Left Disorder?

Presented at ‘Spaces of Capital, Moments of Struggle’, Historical Materialism Eighth Annual Conference (10-13 November 2011)

There is an existent literature on communist melancholia that takes as its focus the ‘working through’, or grieving, of the loss of ‘actually-existing socialism’ (as it used to be called) post-1989 – often summarised as ‘Ostalgie’. What concerns me here are not the pathologies, or promises, of this process, but rather the fate of the ultra-left, for whom there is little or nothing to mourn at all in the ending of what they usually prefer to see as a ‘state-capitalist’ detour. By ultra-left, an admittedly unsatisfactory designation, I am broadly referring to those traditions that Lenin notoriously condemned as ‘infantile disorders’, but in particular to the critical articulations of these currents in the 1960s and 1970s that tried to develop a non-Statist and often non-party form of communism that could remedy the failings of the existing worker-identified forms of socialism or communism. While these traditions might find little to mourn in the demise of the ‘communist bloc’, European social democracy, and various other instantiations of so-called socialism, they too have their own forms of mourning and melancholia. These metaphorical ‘disorders’ afflict the ultra-left in terms of its own nostalgia for non-capitalist forms of life – notably for the forms of the artistic and political avant-garde, certain ways of life (what we might call, borrowing from Badiou, ‘proletarian aristocratism’), and past forms of radical struggle.

Crucial to this sense of melancholia is an analysis of the tendency of capitalism to a ‘totalitarian’ dominance. In fact, this is implicit in the analysis of actually-existing socialism as an instance of ‘detour’, or capitalist cunning of reason, that operates as a form of ‘primitive’ or original capitalist accumulation. The interpretation of capitalism as the dominant horizon implies the collapse of competing power blocs for a less differentiated conception of a strongly singular process of capitalist dominance. This tendency is often vectored through Marx’s analysis of real subsumption, often taken as a periodising hypothesis, which implies the subsumption of labour and life to the internal benefit of capitalism itself. It can also be linked to the analysis of real abstraction, which implies the attenuation and hollowing-out of all forms of life under the impact of the commodity form.

To take a canonical instance of this kind of analysis, one indebted to Debord and Lukács, we could consider Fredric Jameson’s statement from his ‘Postmodernism’ essay (this from the version auspiciously published in 1984):

Examples could be multiplied and are familiar I should imagine: on the explicitly ultra-left we have Debord’s concept of the ‘integrated spectacle’ (on which more below), and Jacques Camatte’s notion of Capital as ‘Community’; beyond that, we could include Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘totally-administered world’, Marcuse’s ‘one-dimensional society’ and, at the extreme, Baudrillard’s deliberately hyperbolic ‘extermination of the real’.
This purer capitalism of our own time thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way: one is tempted to speak in this connection of a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious.

The tension faced by ultra-left theorisations lies between this analysis of the horizontal and vertical dominance of capital and their hopes for the recomposition of revolutionary forces ‘within and against’ the forms of capital and its ‘licensed’ opposition. It is easily possible to see how this tension might collapse into ‘full-blown’ melancholia, in which the receding possibilities of escape from capitalism leave us with the melancholic contemplation of what we have lost. In fact, it is exactly this position that Jacques Rancière identifies as ‘left-wing melancholy’, which implies that we are ‘absorbed into the belly of the beast’ through recuperation of our every act of resistance. What I want to dispute is Rancière’s sweeping dismissal of such critiques as inevitably condemned to this paralysing form of melancholia.

Strategic Melancholia
What I want to suggest here is that there is a possibility for inhabiting strategic melancholia as an imperative, rather than as a state to which we are condemned. To articulate this admittedly unlikely seeming possibility I first want to turn to Walter Benjamin’s remarks on melancholia in his The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1926). Obviously Benjamin attracted and attracts charges of melancholia and pessimism, but rather than add to that litany I am more interested in his rehabilitation of a baroque thinking of mourning and melancholia, vectored through the figures of the intriguer, courtier and tyrant. This vectoring already suggests a strategic dimension to this supposed pathology, and the possibility of a political reading of these states.

Benjamin’s remarks on mourning and melancholia are enigmatic certainly, but also suggestive. He writes that: ‘Mourning is the state of mind in which feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask, and derives an enigmatic satisfaction in contemplating it.’ In a typically baroque and Benjaminian paradox we see that the ‘revival’ of the world takes the form of the mask. This contemplative relation suggests the haut distance associated with high power-politics of the court, and the usual tropes of politics as game or theatrical spectacle. Here ‘engagement’ takes the form of analytic distance. Benjamin goes on to suggest that: ‘For all the wisdom of the melancholic is subject to the nether world; it is secured by immersion in the life of creaturely things, and it hears nothing of the voice of revelation.’ Again, we can see a dialectical doubling of immersion and withdrawal – immersion in the ‘creaturely’ (and here one could embark on an Agambenian reading) secularised in the withdrawal from any revelation.

There is, in this dialectics of mourning and melancholy (which are not distinguished along the lines Freud had made famous ), a politics that works on and with the feelings of detachment and disgust with the ‘empty world’. Benjamin notes that: ‘Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in contemplation, in order to redeem them.’ Now, knowledge is prioritised over the worldly and action (what we could call the ‘Hamlet-complex’), but this self-absorbed and disabused stance transforms contemplation into the act of ‘embrace’ and the promised of redemption. We could recall here Benjamin and Adorno’s later reflections on the transit through the ‘dead’ or hostile bourgeois ‘object-world’, as the site of intervention and resistance. The melancholic moves away, detaches themselves from the world, in the usual clichés of distancing and abandonment, but is also in the world, immersed in the destructive element of dead objects and creaturely life.
In both instances, and we could say dialectically, these extremes take the measure of pathology: too far from the world or too immersed in it, which might echo the fate of the ultra-left between the micrological sect and sudden world-historical instantiation. And yet, against prophets of the happy medium, dialectical thought proceeds by extremes. Hence the strategy of melancholia at once takes the distance that treats the world as a series of masks, as subject to knowledge, and immerses itself in the embrace of dead objects and creaturely things for the possibility of redemption. Benjamin recasts the usual antinomies of theory and practice, probed at length by Lukács, into a new sharpened contradiction.

The Case of Debord
I want to briefly explicate this possibility through the work of Guy Debord, who has regularly been charged with pessimism and poetic melancholia, not least for his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988). His articulation of the ‘integrated spectacle’ in that work combines the worst features of the ‘diffuse’ spectacle of market societies (archetypally the USA) and the ‘concentrated spectacle’ (state socialism, in particular the USSR), in the Italian misery of market plus manipulation (one not ended today). It seems to leave no way out. Debord concluded: ‘When the spectacle was concentrated, the greater part of surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse, a small part; today, no part.’ Debord would add, in his Panegyric, ‘One cannot go into exile in a unified world.’

This exemplary instance of the description of capitalist totalitarianism is also paired with Debord’s aristocratic nostalgia and melancholic recall of what has passed away due to the horizontal and vertical penetration of capitalism into the totality of the life-world. In Panegryic Debord, who would commit suicide due to the effects of an alcohol-related illness, states:

The majority of wines, almost all spirits, and every one of the beers whose memory I have evoked here have today completely lost their tastes – first on the world market and then locally – with the progress of industry as well as the disappearance or economic re-education of the social classes that had long remained independent of large industrial production, and so too of the various regulations that now prohibit virtually anything that is not industrially produced. The bottles, so that they can still be sold, have faithfully retained their labels; this attention to detail provides the assurance that one can photograph them as they used to be, not drink them.

He concludes: ‘Never in a drunkard’s memory would one have fathomed that drinks could disappear before the drinker.’

We could multiply instances of this melancholy nostalgia, from laments on the destruction of the Paris of his youth, to the sardonic reflections from his film In girum imus nocte et consimimur igni (1978) on the misery of the food and the lifestyles of the servants of the spectacle, who are even reduced to the state of filling their own cars with petrol. More seriously, Debord’s representation of the actions of the Situationist International through images of the charge of the light brigade or Custer’s last stand, suggest an ethics of heroic failure, in which doomed avant-gardes pass away in the waters of time. Debord’s final conclusion, in Comments, seems to echo Jameson’s:

Beyond a legacy of old books and old buildings, still of some significance but destined to continual reduction and, moreover, increasingly highlighted and classified to suit the spectacle’s requirements, there remains nothing, in culture or in nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the means and interests of modern industry.
And yet, Debord puts an audacious spin on this embrace of defeat. Taking up Marx’s riposte to Proudhon that history advances by the ‘bad side’ Debord argues, in In Girum, that the negativity of the project of the Lettrists and Situationists, his two groups, went so far as provoking spectacular society to produce itself as the negative image of their utopias. This ‘immersion’ in negativity consumes the consumers, sapping and eroding their own forms of domination and satisfaction from within. We might add, in baroque style, turning the empty world into the very masks that it offered as sources of pseudo-satisfaction.

Debord himself was notably obsessed with the baroque, and especially with the arts of conspiracy and the strategic conception of politics. The difficulty, which is obvious, is that although he might have conceived of his project as a negativity sapping forms from within without the revival of non-Leninist revolutionary politics the result could simply be a worsening ‘bad new’. Debord, at least, refused the possibility of revelling in this capitalist nihilism, but the alternative – melancholic contemplation – seems to result in auto-dissolution and self-satisfaction.

The Experience of Defeat
What we can see in Debord’s work is the replication of the tension of the ultra-left position: between the risk of a slide into ‘full-blown’ melancholia, in which the only hope lies in the utter misery of capitalist ‘life’ that would lead to desperate revolt, and a strategic melancholia that might offer critical reflection on the experiences of defeat and the possibilities of recomposition. The tension lies between the analysis of capital as totalitarian dominance and the possibility of a strategic analysis of the actualities or rationalities that might be reworked from it. The difficulty here lies in the concept of strategy itself, which can easily be remain at the level of manipulation and even voluntarism if not actually connected to the terrain of capitalism. Hence, we could contemplate the fate of certain ultra-left formulations, like that of Jacques Camatte’s, which tend towards a stand-off between a totalitarian capitalism and the last remaining traces of ‘human community’. Such an analysis converges with primitivist and anti-civilisation positions, as the better we trace the mechanisms of dominance the more they extend themselves, even into the past, leaving a desperate melancholia which traces the ‘fall’ further and further back into the past (the Neolithic agricultural revolution, the origin of language itself, etc.)
Strategic melancholia, then, is not precisely a ‘position’ one can stably inhabit. It can fall into this melancholic contemplation of capitalist despotism and recall of the few remaining traces of non-capitalist life. The other risk is the overestimation of strategic possibility that celebrates each new instance of revolt as the sign of coming revolution. The difficulty lies in maintaining a strategic distance and engagement that can take the measure of capitalist domination, can recognise the misery of the ‘bad new’, and articulate strategic points of disruption or attack. This, we might say, is a problem we all face. The merit, I want to suggest, of ‘strategic melancholia’ lies in its ability to grasp the effects of capital without false consolation. The difficulty lies in not falling into cynicism, despair, or false elation.