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The Radical Middle

And the Two-Stroke Engine of the Modern—

Related Posts: Toward an Experimental Politics of Nonviolence, The Giver of Fearlessness

We’re disappointed with our world as it is, with life as it is. This misery is easier to bear when there’s someone or something to blame. Hope returns when we imagine that little fix that could be made, after which purity would arrive (either from the remembered past or from the imagined future). All then, we believe, would be good. But of course, there are those people who stand in the way…and against them we direct the purest hatred. When it comes to those who rob us of the purity that is ours by right, our anger knows no bounds. Fascism lives right there, in that anger, and no where else. Whether we’re on the right or the left, it would be good to recognize that, and act accordingly.

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I love the kids I teach every week, and they are deeply disaffected by American politics. Who can blame them? American democracy has been hollowed out by fifty years of class warfare from above, in which the shell game of neoliberalism—the idea that dismantling federal programs designed to help the poor, de-regulating markets, and making international trade deals would create a “rising tide to lift all boats”—has given rise instead to a second Gilded Age in which the majority of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the top 1 per cent. The spectacle of bankers making off with multi-million dollar bonuses in the aftermath of the 2008 crash—privatizing profits while making losses the problem of the public— announced the return of monopoly capital in all its lurid dysfunction. In keeping with the experimental, non-violent mode of activism advocated in Toward an Experimental Politics of Nonviolence, Part 1 of this post, what is to be done?

It is important, first, to remember how we got here. The dog-whistle racism that began as soon as the ink was dry on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been the central tactic of this long campaign. After 50 years America’s racist whites have finally woken up to the fact that they’ve been lied to by the right wing elite, and they’re now embracing in Trump the biggest bigot ever to run for public office. The Right has created a slow motion Weimar Republic-level economic collapse of the working and middle classes, and triangulating Democrats from Clinton through Obama who have joined in this effort deserve to be condemned. But here is the dynamic: the right uses race to entrain middle and working class white Americans to vote for a neoliberal (Reaganomics) agenda that undermines the interests of middle and working class Americans. The right blames blacks (and now Latinos) for the fact that neoliberal policies have hurt white Americans. Democrats, desperate to be relevant and wanting to soften the assault on their constituents, play ball and embrace watered-down versions of neoliberal policies. They begin to lose the activist left, so they are ever more dependent on the same class of financiers who have always been the heart and soul of the Republican party. Rinse and repeat…and after five decades you get Trump.

To the radical left the difference between the two parties is simply a difference in style; but to me the difference between the radical left and those they oppose is also simply a difference in style—revolution or accommodation, Rousseu or Hobbes—this is the two-stroke engine of Western modernity. The hatred of the poor expressed by wealthy oligarchs, and the hatred of the rich expressed by radicals likewise has begun to sound the same to me. Both are rooted in a very Western brand of certainty. Feeling certain about what is true, we direct all hatred against what is false. This itself, as Nietzsche pointed out, is the very core of our very Western malady. The world must burn because I cannot live without certainty, and without the Salvationist narratives that grow from certainty. Which is to say I am unable to confront my own violence.

In the 19th century it was common to believe natural laws were being decoded in a way that would eventually allow humanity some degree of control over our collective fate. The Marxist concept of ideology as “false truth” for example, posits a universal truth against which the ideological can be seen for what it is. Post Darwin, post-Einstein, post-Heisenberg, not to mention post-Freud, we understand how uncertainty and non-linearity are dialed into the material heart of things, and we have grown suspicious of deterministic scientism and the grand, Salvationist stories about History with a capital H. To Foucault the rationalism of Marx is simply “the effects of a power which the West since Medieval times has attributed to science and has reserved for those engaged in scientific discourse’ (Foucault Reader, 85).” Even science has left this over-determined, reductive model behind, and yet Marx’s 19th century scientism continues to infuse left wing discourse with false necessity, authoritarian certitudes and an intolerance for dissent.

Those on the left who resist updating Marxist critique reduce it to a catechism whose sole practical value resides in the realm of personal style and radical chic. The forces of hierarchy, of course, absolutely love it when we are captivated by issues of personal style, because such preoccupations render us politically inert. This is why Roberto Unger is correct when he describes Marx as a partial critique—the critique shares crucial presuppositions with the system of Western liberal thought it is attempting to deconstruct. And yet, to enter the arena of serious critique without genuflecting at the altar of 1917 requires a suit of rhetorical armor. In the aversive energies swirling in left-wing circles, cherished self-images are being defended, and subjective territory is being claimed. Nothing cuts like Marxist-Leninist dogma with its air of certitude and its contempt for the erroneous, the violence it projects against what it perceives as false. The killing fields of Cambodia reside in that violence, which is nothing but an expression of what Nietzsche called ressentiment.

The cost of this tendency toward violence—rhetorical and actual—to the progressive cause has been immeasurable. Unable to let go of the “false necessity” Unger mentions, some portion of the left has become Alex-Jonesified, chasing its own shadows in a twilight world of conspiracy-mania and quasi-authoritarian hysteria, all serving to justify ones own gifts for hatred and rhetorical violence. False necessity collapses into psychosis. Another portion of the left has fallen prey to the kind of elitist habits of thought vanguard Leninists share with Straussian neoconservatives—pernicious doctrines of hidden knowledge, certainties too stark for regular consumption, dark necessities that can only be grasped by particularly strong constitutions—by Masters, really. You can see how these lines of thought—Alex Jones and Leo Strauss—both begin to cascade towards fascism.

Our actual world—the real—is inherently non-conceptual, and so our conceptual models never entirely fit. Over time their deviation from reality always grows more pronounced, and this is a particular problem when violence has been deployed in defense of a conceptual apparatus. Beginning in pure rhetoric, the violence gives rise to a kind of self-amplifying feedback loop where all experience gets drawn in by the monstrous and totalizing conceptual apparatus. And once this rhetorical violence spills over into actual bloodshed the jig is really up—sealed by blood, the only way back from dogma now entails an increasingly painful reckoning with the suffering one has caused. Meanwhile the ratchet of guilt pulls us steadily in the direction of self-exonerating amplifications of the original violence. This is why from 1789 onward revolution, through its violence, is historically simply the means by which modernity extends its reach. Our refusal to accept the non-conceptual nature of direct experience registers as a commitment to violence, and this commitment resides at the heart of Western culture.

At a time when the ice caps are thawing and rising seas threaten to inundate vast regions, Western modernity is a threat to the species and it must be dismantled. The tightrope we walk now, as a community, is how to embrace the challenges of fundamentally revising social and political structures that are themselves infused with violence (e.g. neoliberalism) without becoming infected, in our resistence, by the underlying disease of violence. There are ways to do it, I believe, but it is a sobering challenge. The wisdom traditions of non-Western cultures must be tapped for ways to shuck the fundamental commitment to violence mentioned above.

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Way back, but not too long ago, we did not view mind and body as separate. To Aristotle, psyche or soul consisted of both life and mind, “the soul is to the body as vision is to the eye” (Thompson, 226). But even by the time of Aristotle the rubric of the universal and the particular had been established as the basis of philosophy, a field governed by the immutable laws of noncontradiction. Descartes, famously, is another crucial threshold in this self-amplifying, self-propagating split, positing the idea that consciousness is a feature of the immaterial mind, while life is linked to the machinic, animal body. Death, mortality, aging – all of what human beings fear can now be attributed to the disavowed material body. While this conviction seems bizarre if stated directly, it remains a conviction is so deep in us as to seem like common sense. The body—labor—periodically rebels against its abjection, but the rebellion always takes place within the split, and re-inscribes its basic terms, which are rooted deeply in habits of mind that commit us to violence. Here again we encounter the seeds of Rousseau and Hobbes, the revolutionary script and the liberal script, the two stroke engine of the modern that, not surprisingly, always delivers more of the modern.

You can see this opposition play out in the discourse of anti-black racism in America that is front and center of the current election. The essence of American anti-black racism is to turn blacks into a source of pure labor to be exploited at will: pure body devoid of subjectivity or mind. The extremity of that violence and its persistence points us toward where true change might be possible, a fact noted by Isabelle Stengers in her book on Capitalist Sorcery. The yearning for justice summoned by Martin Luther King and fashioned by him into an irresistible force was deeply affective rather than cognitive, but this is precisely what recommends it as a model for us today. A similar split is found in the binary oppositions of capital and money, sovereign and marketplace. Too much government? Too much market? Either choice leads you to the same destination—a marketplace defined in a certain way (to maximize profit, say), delivering a certain kind of benefit and a certain mode of governance.

A different mode arrives through another tradition of thought, one that includes Foucault and is rooted not only in Marx, but also in Nietzsche and Spinoza. Nietzsche was famously anti-democratic but his insights into the affect he called ressentiment is crucial to understanding how issues of identity undermine progressive discourse, shunting transformative energies into the alienating project of capital. The issue is the concept of unity. For Nietzsche we are fundamentally first and foremost a multiplicity composed of raw and the direct experience, and our ideas about unity arrive from outside in the form of the Other. Sitting here I am first Dionysus, a wide shifting field of experience, vivid, multiple, forever emergent, pregnant with capacity. I look out and I see you sitting there, appearing so unique and singular, so specific, so unified and clearly defined in you single face and your single body. And, reflected in your eyes, I see the phantasm of a similar me. The spirit of Apollo enters into me as this unrealizable ego-ideal. Now in me there are two gods—what I actually am, and what I think I ought to be—winding around each other, and in my confusion, the power of the symbolic finds its foothold. The only way we can reconcile these two very different modes of being is through the brutal application of an eliminative or negative emotion – and ressentiment or “jealous hatred” pops up as the most reliable candidate. What are we jealous of? The apparent unity of the Other.

For the most part progressive politics (Marx included) has flowed through Hegel’s idealism, in which the operation of negative dialectics drives everything toward more refined unity. It is the dismal myth of progress all over again, and it undermines “progressive” politics by drawing our energies within the event horizon of ressentiment. A left progressive movement rooted in Nietzsche—in multiplicity and affect—rather than Hegel would be something to reckon with. Fortunately, this project is well underway, in the tradition that flows through Foucault to Deleuze and Guattari, and from there into the radical feminism of neo-materialism and posthumanism. The call for a self-deconstructive politics is no different than a call for an integration of Nietzsche with contemporary political thought. It is also a tapping of the roots of democratic thought, which reside in paradox.

This is an election between what Freud called “civilization and its discontents.” It cannot be construed as a false choice—compared with the barbarity of the Third Reich and the killing fields, civilization is meaningfully better—but neither choice will resolve the lack, the suffering, the dysfunction we so desperately seek relief from. This relief can never, in fact, be found within a purely political frame—it is a function of our symbolically (language and money) mediated separation from direct experience, and it can only be resolved through the steady effort to deconstruct that separation. Total critique begins at home, in how we define ourselves as separate and apart, clearly defined, continuous in time and distinct from all others.

The mystical traditions of all the world’s religions all contain similar critiques of the separate self. For me the perspectives dharma—and particularly of the Mahayana Buddhist traditions—are the strongest (and indeed, these traditions impacted the West from the Pre-Socratic period onward, but that is a topic for a different post.) Co-opted in certain contexts by corporate influences, or reduced to the frivolity of lifestyle consumerism, the dharma still provides the most powerful tools to deconstruct the Western malady, a total rather than a partial critique.

Rebellion against the death force of the symbolically-constructed, systemic self is the ground of any real revolution; if you are not deeply engaged in that inner struggle you are in no way rebelling against the status quo, and in fact, through your anger or your resignation or your competitive fervor, you are collaborating and co-creating it. Unger’s experimental politics needs to be understood in the context of this kind of embodied, extended, and embedded view of consciousness. Our convictions about “deep structural imperatives” buried within the cultural ground is a hangover from the origins of the modern in the French Revolution. We on the left need urgently to let all that go because it is no longer sheds valuable light on what we encounter in the social arena.

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Comments

  1. Katie Turner says:

    Thanks, Guy, for your important thoughts. The distinctions you make here are complex but crucial. I especially connected to your assertion “Total critique begins at home, in how we define ourselves as separate and apart, clearly defined, continuous in time and distinct from all others.”

    My question is, if critique requires a critical distance that makes clear the need for critique in the first place, how can that distance be created for/by those who see no need to separate from cemented ideologies and demagogues? Who in fact live in fear of that separation? I don’t intend this as a question for you to answer alone, but is one to consider if eloquent and educated calls to action such as yours are to do have the furthest possible reach.

  2. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Katie, thanks for the response. You’ve identified the salient issue. I can’t pretend to know the answer. I do have the sense that a certain stability is required for people to feel safe enough to make that shift, which is part of why violence is such an obstacle.

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