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May 07, 2012

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Sadbillionaire

Excellent post. One takeaway, perhaps non-obvious, is that, in 2012, liberalism remains a problem. And not just a problem in the sense of a dilemma that remains to be solved, but a structural issue, a paradox that threatens new social movements because it leaves them vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy or the Hegelian "beautiful soul" syndrome about which Zizek writes.

Lasn's comments reveal, perhaps more starkly than any others I have seen, the strange shift that has taken place in the relationship between the activist/movement left, and parliamentary liberalism. It seems to me that, for decades--with the birth of the New Left and African American, women's, and gay and lesbian liberation movements-- liberals have relied on the energy and enthusiasm of grassroots and rank-and-file activists, in order to solve the motivation crisis that naturally follows from the transformation of political parties into machines for the management of populations by experts and technocrats.

Even while contributing to the immiseration of their left constituencies, then, institutions like the Democratic Party have been highly parasitic on activist energies (apotheosized in the mobilization of affect in the run-up to the 2008 election). Disdainful and dismissive of "anachronistic" militants, liberalism has, for decades, in fact fed off them as key sources of energy and popular legitimation. While activists have usually been (correctly) cynical about the sincerity of liberalism, and its capacity to effect meaningful change, I think it is fair to say that we are currently at a moment wherein suspicion of, and hatred for, all things liberal is more profound than ever. And at the same time, (gulp), the current movement's demands are overwhelmingly liberal.

Now, it seems, the historical tendency described above is reversed: or at very least, our perspective has shifted. It is now techno-utopian Ideologues like Lasn (and, dare we say, no small number of anarchists) who are quite clearly parasitic on liberalism, even as they disdain its old-fashionedness and mock its fetishes for, say, planning and redistribution. But what they are talking about, in real terms, is old-fashioned liberal regulation of banking, Tobin taxes or variations thereof, interventions against excessive consumerism, green labeling, etc.

The wish to prefigure a new state, or smash the current one, seems to coexist with the desire for the fortification of the New Deal apparatus and nostalgia for Cold War capitalism (why do we talk so much about the decline of Bretton Woods, and what else might Lasn mean by "casino capitalism" if not the "bad" capitalism that replaced the "good" one?). These simultaneous and contradictory desires seem to lurk at the center of our current left ideological formation. Why, and what does this mean?

The larger Occupy movement has been fueled, undeniably, by the steady augmentation of desire to protect, at very least, baseline levels of liberal commitments to public education and the state university system, some version of Wagner Act-era collective bargaining rights, and health care/pensions/welfare. Even the Alex Jones-inspired libertarians whose livestreams I watch (and whose efforts I commend) seem to believe in this agenda. (That's pretty weird, in and of itself). And, as you point out, Lasn and his ilk draw from the same imaginary resources of neoliberalism, in their taste for "horizontality," and striking levels of gullibility regarding the promises of new social media technologies.

And they are saying all of this from the comfort of my own place of birth, Canada. Lasn seems to me to be a paradigmatically Canadian thinker in several respects: he clearly falls into the tradition of glib media analysts like Marshall McLuhan; he has an overweening obsession with American popular culture and the political stupidity of the American public, a la so many Canadian comedians; and he insults the politics of both Old and New Lefts (it is unclear to me if he uses these terms in their accepted periodizing function), largely, I would wager, because like me and my Canadian friends when I lived in the Great White North, he has come to think of universal healthcare, the absence of outrageously overpriced private universities, and the persistence of a strong social-democratic political tradition as ho-hum, mundane, maybe in their own way stultifying and oppressive. I understand such sentiments, although as an adult, they now seem to me childish and ahistorical--but the point is that if this is indeed Lasn's basic orientation, the current movement might want to look elsewhere for guidance, inspiration, and "tactical" (whatever the heck that means) intelligence.

Because I am a Marxist and a class-struggle kind of person, I feel a bit weird about the way I've laid out the radical-liberal relation here. After all, I should just make fun of liberalism, right? Mostly, that's what I do. But if we are invoking, for example, the spirit of the Haymarket martyrs, or of Marx and Mao, or of Deleuze and Tronti to fight (however secretly) for the New Deal state and Cold War capitalism, we should be honest about it. If the achievements of the liberal state stemmed from the pressure to the powerful on the part of social movements (and as such constitute, as Ernest Mandel argued, concrete proletarian victories), then we should talk about that, too.

And we should be aware that in the context of a Federalist system and a very racist country, the question of the politics of the state has its own unique valences. (Is it impolite to mention how Occupy continues to maintain a weird, and it seems to me, quite strained relationship to anti-racist politics?) The Black radical tradition (for example, in Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America, maybe the most radically Marxist, and in its own way, autonomist work of history ever written in the US) has always maintained that the failure of Reconstruction was caused by the WITHDRAWAL of Federal troops from the South. If smashing (or less final attacks on) the federal state leads to the empowerment of the several states, the result, it seems to me, is always the amplification, rather than diminution of, domestic fascism. So much of the history of popular resistance, in the US, has been the push to make liberalism overcome its own inherent flaws--arrogance, gradualism, faith in normal science, legalism, coldness--in order to fulfill the promise of liberal policymaking. But we have told the story, and continue to tell the story, in a very different way. That's why, I think, the revelation of so much evidence of bad faith in Lasn's interview, vis-a-vis liberalism and the "radicalism" of the future is so telling. And maybe useful to reflect upon, as the Left continues to think through the current crisis.

Jodi

This is really brilliant -- completely interesting. I don't have a response right away--I need to think about it.

This part is particularly insightful (the real core of the insight):

While activists have usually been (correctly) cynical about the sincerity of liberalism, and its capacity to effect meaningful change, I think it is fair to say that we are currently at a moment wherein suspicion of, and hatred for, all things liberal is more profound than ever. And at the same time, (gulp), the current movement's demands are overwhelmingly liberal.

"Now, it seems, the historical tendency described above is reversed: or at very least, our perspective has shifted. It is now techno-utopian Ideologues like Lasn (and, dare we say, no small number of anarchists) who are quite clearly parasitic on liberalism, even as they disdain its old-fashionedness and mock its fetishes for, say, planning and redistribution. But what they are talking about, in real terms, is old-fashioned liberal regulation of banking, Tobin taxes or variations thereof, interventions against excessive consumerism, green labeling, etc.

The wish to prefigure a new state, or smash the current one, seems to coexist with the desire for the fortification of the New Deal apparatus and nostalgia for Cold War capitalism (why do we talk so much about the decline of Bretton Woods, and what else might Lasn mean by "casino capitalism" if not the "bad" capitalism that replaced the "good" one?). These simultaneous and contradictory desires seem to lurk at the center of our current left ideological formation. Why, and what does this mean?"

Jodi

eek--I should have placed quotation marks about your first paragraph--somehow placed the open quote at the wrong place

Sadbillionaire

Thank you for your kind words. I am a huge fan of your writing and this site.

Just got an #Occupy tweet, from an Occupy tweeter with a constructivist clenched-fist avatar, calling for a Tobin tax in the same syntax one would expect to see a call for the abolition of prisons or factory occupations. Of course, the world would be better with Tobin taxes. But, ideologically speaking, these are weird times.

The Mathmos

"This kind of class warfare idea", christ! The man is with one of the foremost counter-cultural magazine in North America, and still he can't shake off the Fox News?

Next, he'll be telling occupiers to disregard race relations for fear of "this racism idea", or something.

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