Zizek Revolution

Why hasn’t the Left been able to counter the rise of right-wing populism these last few years? Slavoj Zizek makes an excellent start at answering that question (video clip below, h/t to my friend, Balazs Zsido). I would only quibble a bit, as I believe he may tend to overstate his case at times and leave a little something out at times.  When he says that every populist movement is caused by a failure of the Left, I think it would be more accurate to say that a failure of the Left is one of the things implicated in the rise of right-wing populism. There are probably multiple causes in each case, but in each case, one could also ask how the Left failed to put forth a viable alternative. I’m with him about 90% on that one, as historical analysis.

Turning from historical analysis to the current crossroads, I agree with him 100% that the Left is failing to produce a viable alternative today. The “old” Left of protecting universal health care and worker rights established post-WWII is a good thing but not enough to get us across the new horizons today. I agree with him there, although I might emphasize more than he does that the freedoms and socialized elements of Western democracies are the best thing going right now. Some of the rage against capitalism and the West needs to be thoughtfully reconsidered, as simply taking down the Western democracies revolution-style right now may well result in more oppressive structures — a turn for the worse. When I look at existing models of governance outside of the West – Russia or China, Iran and the Middle East, North and Central Africa – the freedoms of the West’s liberal democracies look relatively good. Simply knocking down the West would leave a vacuum for the other power brokers of the world, who do not seem to promise more enlightened governance. Even within the West, the “identity politics” branch of the Left (at least in the U.S.) seems all too eager to replace the West with their own oppressive and demographically determined structures. Be careful what you wish for. Things could actually be a lot worse than they are.

Am I then an “apologist for capitalism,” as some of my leftist friends might say? Not at all. Capitalism is approaching its limit. The age wherein human fulfillment is defined by how many resources you can hoard, wherein the primary relationship between people and resources is one of private ownership – this age will end, whether dystopically or utopically. The writing is on the wall in the form of ecological collapse and worldwide economic disparities that are increasingly visible with globalization. But beware the negative possibility. Just knocking down the West and leaving the field to, shall we say, less liberal and less democratic forms, may not yield the answer young Western radicals seek.

Like Zizek, I don’t have a specific answer for today’s Western leftists, but I do have a framework for answers. My framework is simply this: We need to think of the next stage not as a revolution against the West but as a revolution within the West.  We do need to move into the (post-materialist, post-capitalist) 21st century, but capitalism and liberal democracy are the matrix from which new forms will spring. Every age begins as a new birth but carries the seeds of its own destruction in the form of its own contradictions. When those contradictions reach a critical mass, the shell starts to crack. As the shell of capitalism starts to crack in the face of ecological and economic imperatives, the idea is not to crush everything but to bring forth the hidden seed that has been nurtured and throw away the husk. In particular, we need to keep the freedoms of liberal democracy intact while pushing hard and mindfully on the transformation into a post-capitalist economy that leaves no group stranded.

So yes, we need to move into a post-capitalist, post-materialist 21st century, where for example green technologies can be deployed based on what is possible, not on what is profitable. Following Zizek, I might say that we need a new Left to articulate a transformational vision for our age. Something may come of the Alt-Left, if its presently amorphous and contradictory energies coagulate around the best it has to offer. Then again, I’m not sure this radical vision will come from the Left at all. It may be that the last true radicals were in the 1960s.  Since then, Left and Right may both have become too damaged, too entrenched, to make the next turn. So be it. If the new radical vision comes from outside of today’s Left-Right spectrum, that is fine with me.

Zizek video clip

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Bakunin’s Anarchy

Review of Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, 1873

Statism and Anarchy offers a collectivist anarchy, an anti-capitalist communal vision that emerges within the Marxist/socialist orbit but against Marx’s reliance on a statist transitional period. Bakunin sees an “anarchist social revolution” as “an elemental force sweeping away all obstacles. Later, from the depths of the popular soul, there will spontaneously emerge new creative forms of social life.” This sounds a little like the 1960s Age of Aquarius, but Bakunin remains, like Marx, economics-centric and reliant on violent upheaval over pacifist incrementalism. He is still in the age of homo economicus, per my fine previous blog on the topic.

The attacks on Marx’s “statist” phase for its inherent contradictions ring true. The so called proletarian elite, “the Communist party, meaning Mr. Marx and his friends,” will be just like old elite statists. This is well-argued, borne out by history, and most coolly captured by The Who in the 1969 song, “We Don’t Get Fooled Again.”

But Bakunin seems to have his own contradictions to wrestle with. Unlike the Marxists on one side or capitalists on the other, Bakunin does not want to “thrust upon our own or any other people any scheme of social organization.” And yet he needs some kind of general superstructure. He even admits that “the principal evil which paralyzes the Russian people, and has up till now made a general uprising impossible, is the closed rural community, its isolation and disunity.” On the one hand, he seems in principle committed to total local autonomy, and yet without some larger superstructure, the local unit gets wiped out, as Bakunin himself complains in regard to experimental pacifist communes like New Icaria. As much as he reviles any stage of statist superstructure, it’s not clear to me that he has figured out a way around it, at least during some revolutionary transition phase, and then in perpetuity if his collectivist anarchy is not global and thereby free from external threats.

Now, 150 years after Marx and Bakunin, it might also seem like overthrowing a government is easy compared to dismantling the powerful multinational formations of capitalism. Autonomous anarchist collectives sound great, but how can they overcome these gigantic formations of wealth and power without aggregating themselves into something like a statist block with enough concentrated power to rattle those formations? The hippies perhaps struggled with this and lost. But might the grass-roots collectivist anarchy of the hippies, refueled by the decentralized energies of social media, come back again with greater force next time? May the Age of Aquarius be still rising?


Good anarchy and bad

Bad anarchy is like life in the state of nature described by 17th-century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes: “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Good anarchy is the Age of Aquarius vision of the flower children, who were fed up with the convention-bound thinking that had brought us the world of war, machines, and straightjacket moralities. “Rules and regulations, who needs them?” sang hippie icon, Graham Nash, in 1970, with bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young.

The risk, presaged by The Beatles (“Revolution,” 1968) and The Who (“We Don’t Get Fooled Again,” 1971), is that you might expect one kind of anarchy but you can’t be sure you won’t get the other.

(For my academic friends, thus Bakunin’s charge against Marx redoubles back upon Bakunin.)

Russell Brand and Me

Dear Russell,

I meant what I said in my recent kudo review of Revolution. If you’ll permit a near-certain misuse of a UK idiom, balls up to your social vision, politics, and witty delivery. I agree with you that late capitalism is nearing its end, as the exponential growth of consumption upon which it depends is now hitting its ecological limits. I’d like to play devil’s advocate though, if only to diversity our intellectual resources for the coming paradigm shift. I’ll start with your pet peeve, voting. I hate to bring up the voting thing, since it really is a small part of your overall vision, and the media has magnified it as if it were your core point and not just a corollary, but I can’t help it. It’s an interesting nugget. I understand your rationale for not voting – Establishment “democracies,” which serve only their corporate masters, are rapidly destroying social and ecological equilibrium, and voting only gives them the mass “buy-in” they need to extend their program of annihilating planetary resources to serve the 1%. Good point, but I can think of three pressures pushing me the opposite way, toward voting.

  • Long-term/short-term goals. In my favorite slave autobiography, that of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah’s first move after gaining his freedom is to go into a plantation venture with one of his former masters, on the condition that he be assigned the task of picking slaves from the slave ships. Although his long-term goal was abolition, his short-term goal was to guarantee that some of these unfortunates – and especially his own countrymen – would be treated well. Perhaps I too would not want my long-term vision, remarkably like yours, to scuttle my short-term goals. I’m not as confident as you that the past six years under Obama are no different than they would have been under another George W. Bush. I think that lives are being affected presently and that something is to be gained short term. And I’m not willing to sacrifice that for a still far-from-certain mirage of revolution. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condemn your position. I think you should hold to your position and I to mine. We have to acknowledge – even celebrate – our differences openly, knowing that in the big picture we’re all on this ride together.
  • Maybe I’m just older than you, which makes me (for better or for worse) more patient. You note that the revolution must begin subjectively, as a revolution in human sensibility. I agree and am perhaps even more concerned than you that if the objective forces of revolution get ahead of the subjective changes, we are in danger of a hijacking by less than idealistic factions (something The Beatles and The Who sang of during our archival hippie revolution). I believe it is this fear – that the objective forces of revolution outstrip the inner revolution – that caused Gandhi to go on a fast and call off the non-cooperation movement when his own supporters responded to violence with violence in the Chauri Chaura incident.
  • Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, argues that if we opt out, the big corporations and lobbyists will not, which means their influence will be even more unfettered, creating damage that even the Russell Revolution might not be able to reverse. I’m torn because I see your point, Russell, but Robert Reich’s position does give me pause before I forego voting.

I suppose I should be forthright and lay my vision of what may come past the next horizon line against yours for comparison/contrast. OK, since you asked, I will do so in a forthcoming piece. Like your vision, mine combines Age of Aquarius thinking with a little extra anarchy, so watch for the manifesto on this exciting and newly minted socio-political order, Aquarianarchy.

Your post-nationalist countryman,


Morrison’s Women

A sculptor friend, Thomas Morrison, privately commented on my “Led Zeppelin and Dr Freud”, lamenting the puritanical repression of the id, and my response led me to the following critique of his own exhibit, “The Art of Woman” (currently free and open daily at the old St. Vincent’s Orphanage at 1507 Magazine St in New Orleans).

In my appended comment to the Zeppelin blog, I noted that in the healthy sonic universe, as in the healthy psyche, the id, ego, and superego work symbiotically. With Morrison’s sculptures, we’re moored in a cultural universe rather than a sonic one. I appreciate the power that the id brings to that cultural universe, and I am no fan of puritanical repression; I am, however, thankful for some element of cultural superego, some formation that can harness the id’s primal, amoral drives to higher ideals and aspirations.

In the Zeppelin blog, I didn’t get into the policing function of the superego, but it is apparent in the Beatles’s “Revolution,” which is a check against revolutionary forces (like the Weather Underground) that could potentially become violent and counterproductive. This aligns “Revolution” with the Who’s “We Don’t Get Fooled Again,” which overlays the same cautionary tale upon the cultural revolution of the 60s.

Morrison’s exhibit, a collection of cast bronze female nudes from Greek mythology, draws more from the Jungian model’s collective unconscious, which doesn’t correspond neatly to the Freudian schema. The collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche which houses the three Freudian zones, but if we extrapolate Freud to the cultural level, I’d say that classical mythology is a collision of the cultural id with the cultural superego, as untamed cosmic forces intersect with cultural ideals. E.g., Andromeda is buffeted by gigantic forces beyond human comprehension, but Perseus steps in as a kind of superego figure who imposes moral order upon the otherwise chaotic power of the id. Andromeda is the ego here, subjected to the inscrutable powers of the cosmic id, but saved by the moralizing power of the superego. It is a role played often by women in classical mythology – so much so that we might say that the ego is a feminized function in classical myth.

Morrison’s sculpture captures Andromeda, the ego, at the moment of her subjection. His Penelope, on the other hand, is a more integrated figure. Her stoic gaze (more striking live and up close than it appears in this image) shows her to be quite aware of her subjection to forces beyond her control, but in her posture she is herself heroic, impervious to all advances. She contains within herself, within her own moral compass, the heroic counterpoint to those entropic forces. Unlike his Andromeda, Morrison’s Penelope is casted as a freestanding human figure, self-contained, self-referential, enacting within herself the collision of the id and superego. Whereas the sculpted environment of Andromeda emphasizes the external limits of the female form depicted, the gesture toward environment in Penelope – the hermit crab at her feet – does not interrupt the freestanding contours of the figure. To be sure, it “grounds” her, showing perhaps the thrownness of the ego into a particular terrestrial time and space, yet she stands, beside, above, separate. The “hermit” crab may show the thrownness of the ego, but also implies by its very nature the isolated integrity of the individual.

So if Morrison’s Andromeda gains its affective power by what is missing – Perseus – and by focusing our attention on the dramatic context, his Penelope gains affective power from her self-possession, with all attention on the gaze and subjectivity of the freestanding body at hand. The secret, and perhaps subversive, power of Morrison’s Penelope is that she needs no Odysseus to complete her heroic journey.