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By Lauren Langman
The progressive social movements of 2011, followed by the rise of Left parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, can be best understood as what Herbert Marcuse called the Great Refusal: rejections and contestations of domination reflecting a variety of grievances stemming from the multiple legitimation crises of contemporary capitalism. As Jürgen Habermas argued, the multiple legitimation crises of the capitalist system migrate to lifeworld, the realms of subjectivity and motivation that evoke strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, and indignation that dispose social mobilizations. What is especially evident as a goal of these movements is the quest for dignity as rooted in an emancipatory, philosophical, anthropological critique of alienation, domination, and suffering pioneered by the Frankfurt School—quite cogently argued in Marcuse’s analysis of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. But grievances and emotions do not lead to sustained social movements; there must be recruitment, organizing and organization building, leadership, strategy, tactics, and vision. The Frankfurt School’s critique of domination can be complemented by Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony in which “organic intellectuals” understand how the system operates (with due attention to the salience of the cultural barriers to change), while also proffering counterhegemonic narratives, organizing subalterns, and initiating “wars of position.” A critical perspective on contemporary social movements provides a politically informed critique with visions of utopian possibility in which membership in democratic, egalitarian, identity-granting/recognizing communities of meaning allows for, indeed fosters, community, agency, creative self-realization, and the dignity of all.
I. Ideology, Hegemony, and Domination
Why do the vast majority of people “willingly assent” to the domination by the few, despite vast economic inequalities, growing hardships, and the thwarting of the self? This has long been one of the central questions for the Frankfurt School’s critique of ideology and character structure in which authority becomes embedded within the self, making possible uncritical acceptance and conformity. These insights provide the rich understanding of the conditions of our age, especially of those that enable (or thwart) emancipatory social movements.
The grievances that result from the contradictions and adversities of neoliberal capitalism need to be articulated by intellectually informed, radical activists. Quite independently of the Frankfurt School, a parallel line of analysis and critique was developed by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist theoretician and organizer who conceptualized “hegemony” as the ideological control of culture, which produces the “willing assent” to the domination of the “historic bloc” (the capitalists) and through which the “naturalization” of the historically arbitrary is presented as normal, natural, and in the best interests of all. For Gramsci, the critique of hegemony and the development of counterhegemonic ideologies and organizational practices are the tasks of “organic intellectuals” who understand the role of culture in sustaining domination. They understand the ways in which the dominant culture thwarts political and social change, which in turn necessitates a cultural rebellion, mediated through the “wars of position” in which counterhegemonic discourses would overcome cultural barriers and the “normality” of social existing arrangements in order to achieve social transformation. One of the major tactics for such organization is so-called “popular education,” which enables people to understand how ruling class privileges are based on the exploitation of the masses. Gramsci’s analysis complements the Frankfurt School’s critiques, while his experiences as an activist provide insights and tools to envision and, indeed, make possible an alternative kind of society.
A. Critical Theory
1. The Psychological Foundations of Politics
The Frankfurt School brought psychoanalysis into the critique of domination. From Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, they subsequently developed a political psychology in which authoritarianism, an aspect of character acquired in childhood, made possible the embrace of conservative, indeed reactionary politics. The understanding of the superego as internalized authority, showed that people would passionately submit to “powerful,” authoritative leaders in order to gain their love and assuage feelings of anxiety, loneliness, powerlessness, and meaninglessness. Thus, authoritarians are psychologically disposed to embrace the elite’s political agendas that stress toughness, determination, and power. Authoritarianism is typically coupled with a sadomasochistic need to dominate, denigrate, and feel contempt toward the weak and the helpless, and authoritarians typically project aggression toward the out-groups (paranoia).
The early Frankfurt School studies of authoritarianism showed how these authoritarian character structures resonated with fascist propaganda and ideology. In a number of books, papers and empirical studies of working-class Germans, and a large postwar study of Americans, authoritarianism was shown to be highly correlated with the conservative to reactionary political positions that glorified authority, denigrated subordinates, and projected anger and aggression toward the out-groups, especially racial minorities and Jews. Authoritarians are thus generally patriarchal, homophobic, and racist, in addition to being highly conventional, conformist, and maintaining a rigid, black–white, either–or, cognitive stance. The enduring significance of these studies can be seen in the contemporary work of Robert Altemeyer. We might also note that, in many ways, these studies of authoritarianism anticipated some of the recent approaches in cognitive psychology and emotion research.
Nevertheless, while being a crucial aspect of political beliefs and actions, authoritarianism is only a part of the story of the internalization of various ideologies. Following what has been said, it is absolutely essential to underline the fact that people’s political beliefs are not shaped by rational considerations, logic, or evidence. Rather, the character structure and the patterning of various needs and desires shape the ways in which people perceive the world, evaluate events, and choose actions. For Gramsci, the ideological control of culture shaped the production of ideology to produce the “willing assent” to domination. But, without a theory of psychodynamics, he could not explain the motivation of people to assent to their own subordination. In 1930, Freud provides the first hint, claiming that the values, norms and laws of society that demand sexual repression and obedience to social dictates, are mediated through the identification with parents, and become sedimented within the superego. People subsequently develop identities that have been ideologically crafted, but not under the circumstances of their own choosing. The identities of prior generations, shaped by earlier authority relationships, weigh down upon the individual to colonize his/her consciousness and desires in the way that the values of the ruling classes/hegemonic blocs become internalized as essential parts of the individual’s identity and values. That this is not a rational process is also made evident by the studies of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism mentioned above.
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Black Panther liberation school, a main instrument of counter-hegemony.
[Full document available as PDF download HERE]
By Amil K.
Revolutionary Initiative / Canada
Sept 10, 2013 – The main concern of the prison notebooks is the development of “the philosophy of praxis”1 with the aim of rejuvenating communist strategy in light of the failures and setbacks in Gramsci’s period. However fragmentary the passages of the notebooks are, they compose a totalizing system of thought in which a major focal point is the question of strategy. While there is so much more to the prison notebooks in terms of Gramsci’s intellectual contributions than questions of class war and strategy – hence, the Gramsci being a treasure trove for liberal academics – many of the notes point back to what Gramsci calls the war of position. But this concept can only be appreciated by unpacking some of the conceptual apparatus built up around it throughout the prison notebooks, which includes concepts such as the historical bloc; the ‘analysis of situations’; hegemony; Gramsci’s concept of philosophy and the organic intellectual; his distinct notion of the Party;and finally, his explanation of civil society.
Understanding the Historical Bloc
One of the core concepts of Gramsci’s prison notebooks is the ‘historical bloc’. While the term is only scarcely mentioned in the prison notebooks, given the concept’s role in framing much of Gramsci’s conceptual apparatus it can be argued that Gramsci’s prison notebooks are a long-running elaboration of the concept. There is no section dedicated to the historical bloc, only a couple short passages:
Concept of ‘historical bloc’, i.e. unity between nature and spirit (structure and superstructure) unity of opposites and of distincts (137).
Structures and superstructures form an ‘historical bloc’. That is to say the complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the reflection of the ensemble of the social relations of production (366).
If I may take the liberty to flesh this out somewhat, in light of my reading of the prison notebooks, the historical bloc is the organic but contradictory unity between the dominant and subaltern social groups in a given historical period, the relations of which are historically emergent and need to be understood as such in order to understand the nature of the relations among these social groups in the present. Whereas ‘nature’ here is considered relatively fixed and generally changes only over much longer periods, the ‘Spirit’ is the contradictory unity between structural and super-structural elements in a bloc of time. On the one hand, the concept of the historical bloc is a rather orthodox reformulation of Marx’s historical materialism, a principle thesis of which Gramsci paraphrases at certain points throughout the prison notebooks: “1. That no social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which have developed within it still find room for further forward movement; that a society does not set itself tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated” (106).
On the other hand, Gramsci’s elaboration of the architecture of the historic bloc (without actually referencing the term) throughout the prison notebooks reveals an awareness of the incredibly dynamic and ever-shifting character of the relationships among the “discordant…ensemble of the social relations of production” (366). The acute awareness of the dynamism at play amongst various levels of relations of force is a feature of Gramsci’s thinking that makes his analyses of history so penetrating and his overall method of historical and political analysis such a force of rejuvenation for “the philosophy of praxis” and the communist movement. Of particular importance for Gramsci, and for any communist movement, is a comprehensive study of the oppressed and exploited classes within their own historical bloc.
In his note “History of the Subaltern Classes: Methodological Criteria”, Gramsci provides a schema for what such a historical reconnaissance actually consists of when it comes to the “subaltern classes.” Whereas the historical unity of the ruling classes is realized in the State (and therefore its historical development can be traced through the development of the State as well),
The subaltern classes, by definition, are not unified and cannot unite until they are able to become a “State”: their history, therefore, is intertwined with that of civil society, and thereby with the history of States and groups of States. Hence it is necessary to study: 1. The objective formation of subaltern social groups, by developments and transformations occurring in the sphere of economic production; their quantitative diffusion and their origins in pre-existing social groups, whose mentality, ideology, and aims they conserve for a time; 2. their active or passive affiliation to the dominant social formation, their attempts to influence the programmes of these formations in order to press claims of their own… 3. the birth of new parties of the dominant groups, intended to conserve the assent of the subaltern groups and to maintain control over them; 4. the formations which the subaltern groups themselves produce, in order to press claims of a limited and partial character; 5. those new formations which assert the autonomy of the subaltern groups, but within the old framework; 6. those formations which assert the integral autonomy (52).
This schematic outline for studying the subaltern is a major component for understanding the historical bloc. This method of historical analysis is the means by which a communist formation ultimately determines whether or not a favourable situation exists for the subaltern social groups to accumulate revolutionary forces and whether the situation is favourable to them becoming the ruling class at a given conjuncture of history; in other words, the essence of this historiographical method reduces to the question of whether the situation is favourable for revolution in the present historical bloc.
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By CJ Polychroniou,
Truthout | Interview – 08 June 2014
Henry A. Giroux (Screengrab via Disposable Life / Vimeo)"The commanding institutions of society in many countries, including the United States, are now in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the financial elite and right-wing bigots whose strangulating control over politics renders democracy corrupt and dysfunctional," says Henry A. Giroux.
To read more articles by C. J. Polychroniou, Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.
C. J. Polychroniou, for Truthout: It is widely believed that the advanced liberal societies are suffering a crisis of democracy, a view you share wholeheartedly, although the empirical research, with its positivist bias, tends to be more cautious. In what ways is there less democracy today in places like the United States than there was, say, 20 or 30 years ago?
Henry A. Giroux: What we have seen in the United States and a number of other countries since the 1970s is the emergence of a savage form of free market fundamentalism, often called neoliberalism, in which there is not only a deep distrust of public values, public goods and public institutions but the embrace of a market ideology that accelerates the power of the financial elite and big business while gutting those formative cultures and institutions necessary for a democracy to survive.
The commanding institutions of society in many countries, including the United States, are now in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the financial elite and right-wing bigots whose strangulating control over politics renders democracy corrupt and dysfunctional. Of course, what is unique about the United States is that the social contract and social wage are subject to a powerful assault by the right-wing politicians and anti-public intellectuals from both political parties. Those public spheres and institutions that support social provisions, the public good and keep public value alive are under sustained attack. Such attacks have not only produced a range of policies that have expanded the misery, suffering and hardships of millions of people, but have also put into place a growing culture of cruelty in which those who suffer the misfortunes of poverty, unemployment, low skill jobs, homelessness and other social problems are the object of both humiliation and scorn.
Neoliberal societies, in general, are in a state of war – a war waged by the financial and political elite against youth, low-income groups, the elderly, poor minorities of color, the unemployed, immigrants and others now considered disposable. Liberty and freedom are now reduced to fodder for inane commercials or empty slogans used to equate capitalism with democracy. At the same time, liberty and civil rights are being dismantled while state violence and institutional racism is now spreading throughout the culture like wildfire, especially with regards to police harassment of young black and brown youth. A persistent racism can also be seen in the attack on voting rights laws, the mass incarceration of African-American males, and the overt racism that has become prominent among right-wing Republicans and Tea Party types, most of which is aimed at President Obama.
At the same time, women’s reproductive rights are under assault and there is an ongoing attack on immigrants. Education at all levels is being defunded and defined as a site of training rather than as a site of critical thought, dialogue and critical pedagogy. In addition, democracy has withered under the emergence of a national security and permanent warfare state. This is evident not only in endless wars abroad, but also in the passing of a series of laws such as the Patriot Act, the Military Commission Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and many others laws that shred due process and give the executive branch the right to hold prisoners indefinitely without charge or a trial, authorize a presidential kill list and conduct warrantless wiretaps. Of course, both [former President George W.] Bush and Obama claimed the right to kill any citizens considered to be a terrorist or who have come to the aid of terrorism. In addition, targeted assassinations are now carried out by drones that are more and more killing innocent children, adults and bystanders.
Another index of America’s slide into barbarism and authoritarianism is the rise of the racial punishing state with its school-to prison pipeline, criminalization of a range of social problems, a massive incarceration system, militarization of local police forces and its use of ongoing state violence against youthful dissenters. The prison has now become the model for a type of punishment creep that has impacted upon public schools where young children are arrested for violating something as trivial as doodling on a desk or violating a dress code. Under the dictates of the punishing state, incarceration has become the default solution for every social problem, regardless of how minor it may be. Discordant interactions between teacher and student, however petty, are not treated as a criminal offense. The long arm of punishment creep is also evident in a number of social services where poor people are put under constant surveillance and punished for minor infractions. It is also manifest in the militarization of everyday life with its endless celebration of military, police and religious institutions, all of which are held in high esteem by the American public, in spite of their undeniably authoritarian nature.
As Edward Snowden made clear, the hidden registers of authoritarianism have come to light in a trove of exposed NSA documents which affirm that the US has become a national security-surveillance state illegally gathering massive amounts of information from diverse sources on citizens who are not guilty of any crimes. To justify such lawlessness, the American public is told that the rendering moot of civil liberties is justified in the name of security and defense against potential terrorists and other threats. In reality, what is being defended is the security of the state and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the controlling political and corporate elites.
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By Kyle Chayka
Pacific Standard, May 28, 2014
“To the disappointment of my friends … I seem to have become a Marxist public intellectual,” begins the introduction of the novelist (and erstwhile Marxist public intellectual) Benjamin Kunkel’s new book, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis. The short collection of essays introduces readers to a clutch of writers, economists, and philosophers who are pioneering what Kunkel sees as the next generation of Marxism, a rejuvenated wave of political thought focused on providing an alternative to the ideology of neoliberalism and the “going capitalist crisis,” which, to Kunkel’s eyes as well as those of a number of other observers, is a visible failure that will only fail harder in the future.
“Most of my youth went by during the end of history,” Kunkel continues, referencing Francis Fukuyama’s 1990s formulation that Western liberal democracy constituted a final step toward a peaceful, level world without conflict (spoiler: It didn’t). That end of history, Kunkel writes, “has itself now come to an end.” He structures his depiction of this post-non-apocalyptic purgatory around two decisive events: 9/11 and the financial crisis. The former knocked Western hegemony off the seemingly inexorable victory that Fukuyama prophesied while the latter underlined the global economy’s ballooning inequality, prompting new social movements like Occupy and disenfranchising the young generation, of which Kunkel is both a leader and a chronicler (see his gently mocking portrayal in New York magazine for a depiction of that role). “It will probably be decisive that capitalism has forfeited the allegiance of many people who are today under thirty,” he writes.
While unemployment remains in the double digits, corporations sit on trillions of dollars in cash, Kunkel explains. This run-up in both capital and labor is the “present crisis” of the book’s title—the problem is that while capitalism creates an ongoing expansion of the two, the world is increasingly unable to turn the capital factors and labor into profit at the same rate that it used to, like a factory with a broken-down assembly line. Income from capital is reproducing faster than income from profit, breeding inequality. So what should be done to solve this problem?
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Karl Marx: The Revolutionary as Educator
Springer, New York, 2013. 85pp., £44.99
Reviewed by Patrick Ainley
This book meets a need illustrated by a recent poster advertising a meeting for students at the London University Institute of Education that asked ‘Who was Karl Marx?’
Such is the repetitive diet of Foucauldianism, augmented by the latest academic fashion for Deleuze and Guattari, that even postgraduate students of education are unaware that Marx was, as this book begins by asserting, ‘an important educational thinker’.
Although Marx wrote before the modern state school system was established, Small states ‘He is the greatest theorist of the society that gave rise to schools as we know them – and this is the society we still live in’ (1). As he adds, Marx wrote for people who needed to find out what was wrong with the society they lived in, and how to change it for the better, and so he was also an educator. More importantly, ‘Marx is an educator for us. He challenges us to develop our capacity to think critically about our own society’ (2). This is the seminal Marx presented in this book.
Robin Small, a philosopher of education at Auckland University who has previously written Marx and Education (Ashgate, 2005), is well qualified to introduce new readers to Marx’s revolutionary education in the concise form intended by Springer’s series on ‘Key Thinkers in Education’, edited by Paul Gibbs, in which each chapter is separately downloadable, although the overall price – in virtual form or hard covers – is exorbitant. Hopefully, however, the book will make its way into libraries, because it is an introduction to Marx’s life as well as to his thought. So Small begins with Marx’s own education at the Trier Gymnasium, quoting Marx’s prize-winning essay `Thoughts of a Youth on Choosing a Vocation’, which insists ‘worth can be assured only by a profession in which we are not servile tools, but in which we act independently in our own sphere’ (5). Then, in Bonn and Berlin Universities, Small introduces the ideas of Bauer, Feuerbach and Stirner, which influenced Dr Marx before ‘the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy’ (quoted 9) in the form of ‘Marx as Journalist’.
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Frances Fox Piven at at a national teach-in at Judson Memorial Church in New York in 2011. (© Pat Arnow)
By Mark Engler and Paul Engler
Waging Nonviolence, May 7, 2014
Social movements can be fast, and they can be slow.
Mostly, the work of social change is a slow process. It involves patiently building movement institutions, cultivating leadership, organizing campaigns and leveraging power to secure small gains. If you want to see your efforts produce results, it helps to have a long-term commitment.
And yet, sometimes things move more quickly. Every once in a while we see outbreaks of mass protest, periods of peak activity when the accepted rules of political affairs seem to be suspended. As one sociologist writes, these are extraordinary moments when ordinary people “rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” The impact of these uprisings can be profound. “The drama of such events, combined with the disorder that results, propels new issues to the center of political debate” and drives forward reforms as panicked “political leaders try to restore order.”
These are the words of Frances Fox Piven, the 81-year-old Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. As co-author, with Richard Cloward, of the classic 1977 treatise, Poor People’s Movements, Piven has made landmark contributions to the study of how people who lack both financial resources and influence in conventional politics can nevertheless create momentous revolts. Few scholars have done as much to describe how widespread disruptive action can change history, and few have offered more provocative suggestions about the times when movements — instead of crawling forward with incremental demands — can break into full sprint.
In recent years, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring have created renewed interest in such moments of unusual activity. These uprisings have spawned discussion about how activists might provoke and guide other periods of intensive unrest, and also how these mobilizations can complement longer-term organizing. Those coming out of traditions of strategic nonviolence and “civil resistance,” in particular, can find striking parallels between their methods for sparking insurgency and Piven’s theory of disruptive power.
Zuccotti Park is now quiet. The small, sanitized plaza in lower Manhattan has long since returned to being a place where a few employees in the financial district take their lunch. But when it was the home of the founding Occupy encampment, Poor People’s Movements was one of the most fitting titles to be found on the shelves of its free library. And for those interested in refilling America’s public plazas with defiant citizens, the book continues to offer insights difficult to find elsewhere in the literature on social movements.
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Youth rebellion in the ‘banlieues’ of Paris
Interview by Filippo Del Lucchese and Jason Smith
FILIPPO DEL LUCCHESE and JASON SMITH: We would like to begin by asking you to clarify the relation between philosophy and politics. What do you mean when you speak, for example, of a militant philosophy?
ALAIN BADIOU: Since its beginnings, philosophy’s relationship to the political has been fundamental. It’s not something invented by modernity. Plato’s central work is called The Republic, and it is entirely devoted to questions of the city or polis. This link has remained fundamental throughout the history of philosophy. But I think there are two basic ways of structuring this relationship.
The first way assigns philosophy the responsibility for finding a foundation for the political. Philosophy is called upon to reconstruct the political on the basis of this foundation. This current argues that it is possible to locate, for every politics, an ethical norm and that philosophy should first have the task of reconstructing or naming this norm and then of judging the relation between this norm and the multiplicity of political practices. In this sense, then, what opens the relation between philosophy and politics is the idea of a foundation as well as an ethical conception of the political. But there is a second orientation that is completely different. This current maintains that in a certain sense politics is primary and that the political exists without, before, and differently from philosophy. The political would be what I call a condition of philosophy. In this case, the relation between philosophy and politics would be, in a certain sense, retroactive. That is, it would be a relation in which philosophy would situate itself within political conflicts in order to clarify them. Today, in the extremely obscure situation that is the general system of contemporary politics, philosophy can attempt to clarify the situation without having any pretense to creating it. Philosophy has as its condition and horizon the concrete situation of different political practices, and it will try, within these conditions, to find instruments of clarification, legitimation, and so on. This current takes seriously the idea that politics is itself an autonomy of thought, that it is a collective practice with an intelligence all its own.
It is quite clear that today the question is particularly difficult because we are no longer in a situation in which there is a clear distinction between two opposed political orientations—as was the case in the twentieth century. Not everyone agreed on what the exact nature of these opposed politics was, but everyone agreed there was an opposition between a classical democratic bourgeois politics and another, revolutionary, option. Among the revolutionaries, we debated spiritedly and even violently what, exactly, the true way was but not the existence itself of this global opposition. Today there is no agreement concerning the existence of a fundamental opposition of this sort, and as a result the link between philosophy and politics has become more complex and more obscure. But, fundamentally, it’s the same task. Philosophy tries to clarify what I call the multiple situation of concrete politics and to legitimate the choices made in this space.
DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: So you see your own philosophical interventions as taking place within this new situation that you describe as “more complex and more obscure” than the classical confrontation between two opposed political orientations?
BADIOU: Definitely. As a result, I see my philosophy as an inheritor of the great contestatory movements of the sixties. In fact, my philosophy emerged out of these movements. It is a philosophy of commitment, of engagement, with a certain fidelity to Sartre, if you like, or to Marxism.
What counts is that the intellectual is engaged in politics and commits to or takes the side of the people and the workers. I move in that tradition. My philosophy tries to keep alive, as best it can (it is not always easy), the idea that there is a real alternative to the dominant politics and that we are not obliged to rally around the consensus that ultimately consists in the unity of global capitalism and the representative, democratic state. I would say, then, that I work under the condition of the situation of political actuality, with the goal of keeping alive, philosophically, the idea of the possibility or opening of a politics I would call a politics of emancipation—but that could also be called a radical or revolutionary politics, terms that today are debatable but that represent all the same a possibility other than the dominant one.
DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: You mention Sartre in this context where the name Althusser might have been expected. What is your relation to the Althusserian tradition?
BADIOU: The Althusserian tradition is extremely important, and I’ve devoted several texts to Althusser. If I mention Sartre it is simply because my philosophical youth was Sartrean before my encounter with Althusser. I think the Althusserian current was a particularly important one because it gave a new life and force to the link between philosophy and politics and in a less idealist mode—that is, a relation that no longer passed through the form of consciousness. In Sartre, of course, we still find the classical model of the intellectual understood primarily in terms of consciousness—an intellectual must make contact with the struggle and the workers’ organizations, be they the unions or the communist parties. Althusser’s greatness is found in the fact that he proposed a new schema in which the relation between philosophy and politics no longer passed through the psychology of the form of consciousness as it still did with Sartre. Althusser begins with the conviction that philosophy intervenes in the intellectual space of politics. When he proposes the formula “philosophy is the organization of class struggle in theory,” what does he mean? That class struggle exists and that philosophy certainly didn’t invent it. It exists and cuts across intellectual choices. Within the struggle between these choices, philosophy has a special role. It is to intervene and therefore to name, norm, classify, and finally choose in the field of intellectual or theoretical class struggle. Sartre and Althusser are very different, even opposed. But you can reconcile them on one point, namely, that philosophy is nothing if it is not linked to political commitment.
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By Ramon Glazov
Oct 28, 2013 - The easy narrative about Adbusters, accepted by its friends and enemies alike, is that it’s, at heart, an anarchist project. To those wishing it well, the magazine is one of the cornerstones of the Left, a wellspring of anti-authoritarian tools meant to revive progressive activism and shake things up for the greater good. For curmudgeonly detractors, “culture jamming” is little more than a powerless rehash of old Yippie protest tactics. Yet anarchism, nearly everyone assumes, is either the best or the worst part of Adbusters.
But those explanations miss a much weirder side of the magazine’s underlying politics.
This March, Adbusters jumped into what ought to seem like a marriage made in hell. It ran a glowing article  on Beppe Grillo – Italy’s scruffier answer to America’s Truther champion Alex Jones – calling him “nuanced, fresh, bold, and committed as a politician,” with “a performance artist edge” and “anti-austerity ideas… [C]ountries around the world, from Greece to the US, can look to [him] for inspiration.” Grillo, the piece gushed, was “planting the seed of a renewed – accountable, fresh, rational, responsible, energized – left, that we can hope germinates worldwide.”
Completely unmentioned was the real reason Grillo is so controversial in Italy: his blog is full of anti-vaccination and 9/11 conspiracy claims, pseudoscientific cancer cures and chemtrail -like theories about Italian incinerator-smoke. And, as Giovanni Tiso noted  in July, Grillo’s “5-Star Movement” also has an incredibly creepy backer: Gianroberto Casaleggio, “an online marketing expert whose only known past political sympathies lay with the right-wing separatist Northern League.” Casaleggio has also written kooky manifestoes about re-organizing society through virtual reality technology, with mandatory Internet citizenship and an online world government.
Adbusters could have stopped flirting with Grillo at that point, but it didn’t. Another Grillo puff-piece appeared in its May/June issue. Then the magazine’s outgoing editor-in-chief, Micah White (acknowledged by theNation as “the creator of the #occupywallstreet meme”) recently went solo to form his own “boutique activism consultancy,” promising clients a “discrete service” in “Social Movement Creation.” Two weeks ago, in a YouTube video, White proposed that the next step “after the defeat of Occupy” should be to import Grillo’s 5-Star Movement to the US in time for the 2014 mid-term elections:
After the defeat of Occupy, I don’t believe that there is any choice other than trying to grab power by means of an election victory … This is how I see the future: we could bring the 5-Star Movement to America and have the 5-Star Movement winning elections in Italy and in America, thereby forming an international party, not only with the 5-Star Movement, but with other parties as well.
The day after Adbusters ran its first pro-Grillo article, Der Spiegel compared Grillo’s tone – and sweeping plans to restructure Italy’s parliamentary system – to Mussolini’s rhetoric. Ten days before that, a 5-Star Movement MP, Roberta Lombardi, faced a media scandal  after writing a blog post praising early fascism for its “very high regard for the state and protection of the family.”
Most progressives might reconsider their glowing assessment of a party as “the seed for a renewed left” when its leaders peddle absurd conspiracy theories and praise fascists. No such signs from Adbusters or White.
But Grillo may be more than a random ally for the gang at Culture Jammers HQ.
Just where did Adbusters get its defining philosophy? Why was it always so obsessed with ads and consumerism, while hardly focusing on class dynamics until the financial crisis?
In 1989, Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn claimed to have had an epiphany in a supermarket and started a movement to fight branding and advertisement. This wasn’t to be a repeat of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book! -style anarchism, with roots in Proudhon’s famous “property is theft” dictum. Culture jammers weren’t acting to communalize most products, but to “uncool” them by taking on those products’ ads, with their own slickly-produced spoofs.
To them, the brand names bearing the coolness were more important than what the branded products did. It wasn’t drinking itself that their anti-Absolut vodka ads seemed to target, but glamorous logo-brands – as if smokers and alcoholics were hooked solely on label prestige.
The earliest Adbusters website on the Wayback Machine reads like a tamer, more Canadian, version of Alex Jones’ operation. Greeting you on the intro page is a Marshall McLuhan quote about “guerrilla information war.” Above its table of contents is the All Seeing Eye engraving from US currency.
“There’s a war on for your mind!” is the current InfoWars tagline. Not too far from the early Adbusters (the “Journal of the Mental Environment”) which promised to “take on the archetypal mind polluters – Marlboro, Budweiser, Benetton, Coke, McDonalds, Calvin Klein – and beat them at their own game.”
Oddly for a site now considered left-wing, Adbusters 1.0. was cheesily evasive about its political position, claiming to be “neither left nor right, but straight ahead.”
There’s good reason to be suspicious of anyone who pulls that “neither left nor right” line. Though Alex Jones’ InfoWars may not have been directly based on early-days Adbusters, the two were undeniably similar in sentiment. Both take a hostile view to mass media and widely-available consumer products, pushing readers towards an ascetic alternative lifestyle that insulates them from “The System” and its toxic worldliness.
And, as luck would have it, both are also the merchants of the (rarer, more expensive) alternative products needed to live this lifestyle. Alex Jones expounds the virtues of food-hoarding and drives Truthers to amass his survival packs, anti-fluoride filters, and nascent iodine drops; Adbusters flogs Blackspot shoes, Corporate America protest flags, and overpriced culture-jamming kits to “create new ambiences and psychic possibilities.”
With Lasn as its guru, culture jamming became popular among activists in the 1990s. Behind all those “subvertisements” lay one big assumption: regular sheeple were so brainwashed by consumerism that they couldn’t even snicker at rose-petally tampon ads without an enlightened jammer to spell everything out for them. Every adbuster got to feel like Morpheus, unplugging Sleepers from the Matrix with the Red Pill of Situationism.
This view of society wasn’t Marxist, left-liberal, or anarchist, so much as Don Draperist: “We are the cool-makers and the cool-breakers,” Kalle Lasn told an audience of advertising “creatives” in 2006. “More than any other profession, I think that we have the power to change the world.”
Lasn might claim not to believe in leaders, but he believes in elites: marketing professionals with a higher calling, responsible for shepherding public consciousness to save humanity from brands, from themselves.
And by exaggerating the mass media’s ability to zombify the public, jammers could imagine that they, too, had Svengali-like powers over ordinary proles. For all the “tools” Adbusters offered to sway public consciousness – stencilling, stickering, page defacement, supermarket trolley sabotage – there was never much emphasis on social skills, on persuading people with politics instead of bombarding them with theater or treating them like hackable machines.
More than anything, what sets culture jammers apart from social anarchism and weds them to the Grillo camp of quacks is a unifying emphasis on a theory called “mental environmentalism.” Mental environmentalism, Micah White explains, is “the core idea behind Adbusters, the essential critique that motivates our struggle against consumer society.”
For Adbusters, concern over the flow of information goes beyond the desire to protect democratic transparency, freedom of speech or the public’s access to the airwaves. Although these are worthwhile causes, Adbusters instead situates the battle of the mind at the center of its political agenda. Fighting to counter pro-consumerist advertising is done not as a means to an end, but as the end in itself. This shift in emphasis is a crucial element of mental environmentalism.
Mental environmentalism is an emergent movement that in the coming years will be recognized as the fundamental social struggle of our era. It is both a unifying struggle – among mental environmentalists there are everything from conservative Mormons to far-left anarchists – and a struggle that finally, concretely explains the cause of the diversity of ills that threaten us.
To escape the mental chains, and finally pull off the glorious emancipatory revolution the left has so long hoped for, we must become meme warriors who, through the use of culture jamming, spark a wave of epiphanies that shatter the consumerist worldview.
“The end in itself.” For culture jammers, posters and billboards don’t justrepresent exploitation, they are the tyranny (“the cause of the diversity of ills that threaten us”), and fighting them trumps all the progressive causes of their would-be allies.
That “neither left nor right” thing? It wasn’t just posturing. Not only is White equally willing to work with “far-left anarchists” and “conservative Mormons” but his mentor Lasn once hoped to guide Occupy into a merger with the Tea Party , producing a “hybrid party” that would transcend America’s “rigid left-right divide.”
White’s explanation of how mental pollution works sinks even deeper into conspiracy babble. Sounding a bit like a Scientologist, he tells us that humanity’s biggest problems are due to something called “infotoxins” which enter us through “commercial messaging”:
If a key insight of environmentalism was that external reality, nature, could be polluted by industrial toxins, the key insight of mental environmentalism is that internal reality, our minds, can be polluted by infotoxins. Mental environmentalism draws a connection between the pollution of our minds by commercial messaging and the social, environmental, financial and ethical catastrophes that loom before humanity. Mental environmentalists argue that a whole range of phenomenon from the BP oil spill to the emergence of crony-democracy to the mass extinction of animals to the significant increase in mental illnesses are directly caused by the three thousand advertisements that assault our minds each day. And rather than treat the symptoms, by rushing to scrub the oil-soaked beaches or passing watered-down environmental protection legislation, mental environmentalists target the root cause: the advertising industry that fuels consumerism.
Instead of blaming mental illness rates on obvious culprits – workplace stress, problems at home, school bullying, bad genes, changes to DSM criteria – the “mental environmentalists” at Adbusters pin it all on subliminal infotoxins polluting our precious bodily fluids. How do they prove it? About as well as you can prove rock albums are demon-infested or that 70-million-year-old thetans cause influenza. White has decided that “external” environmentalism just doesn’t go deep enough – only “mental environmentalists,” with their meme wars, are fighting the “root cause.”
Lasn’s “mental environment” writings are just as L. Ron Hubbard-ish as White’s. (His epiphanies spawned the concept, after all.) In 2006, hesuggested to the Guardian  that advertising may be the cause of “mood disorders, anxiety attacks and depressions.” Four years later, he co-wrote an article with White repeating the same claims , along with new fears that TV was poisoning us with too many sensual images of “pouty lips, pert breasts [and] buns of steel”:
Growing up in a violent, erotically-charged media environment alters our psyches at a bedrock level. … And the constant flow of commercially scripted, violence-laced, pseudo-sex makes us more voyeuristic, insatiable and aggressive. Then, somewhere along the line, nothing – not even rape, torture, genocide, or war porn – shocks us anymore.
The commercial media are to the mental environment what factories are to the physical environment. A factory dumps pollution into the water or air because that’s the most efficient way to produce plastic or wood pulp or steel. A TV station or website pollutes the cultural environment because that’s the most efficient way to produce audiences. It pays to pollute. The psychic fallout is just the cost of putting on the show.
If “mental environmentalism” had a true ally in American political thought, it would be Allan Bloom, with his Platonist neocon fretting about Sony Walkmans and MTV reducing life to cultural impoverishment, a “nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.” You can’t as easily picture Lasn agreeing with the “Anonymous” brand of anarchism or its “Information wants to be free!” maxims: whenever volume comes up in these mental environment articles, more infomation is apparently worse.
White made this explicit in a July blog post, “Toxic Culture: A Unified Theory of Mental Pollution,” writing:
How do we fight back against the incessant flow of logos, brands, slogans and jingles that submerge our streets, invade our homes and flicker on our screens? We could wage a counteroffensive at the level of content: attacking individual advertisements when they cross the decency line and become deceptive, violent or overly sexual. But this approach is like using napkins to clean up an oil spill. It fails to confront the true danger of advertising … is not in its individual messages but in the damage done to our mental ecology by the sheer volume of its flood.
White has even theorized a much earlier spiritual forefather for Adbustersthan Kalle Lasn: Emile Zola , “who wrote what may be the first mental environmentalist short story, Death by Advertising, in 1866” and offered “a deeper look at advertising’s role in inducing a consumerist mindset” with his later novel, Au Bonheur Des Dames. Yes, Zola the social reformer who devoted his career to chronicling the fecund depravity and bestial desires of the underclasses. The guy who wrote a twenty-novel cycle promoting determinist psychology and Second Empire theories about hereditary animal passions of the colonized. Au Bonheur Des Dames is a cautionary tale about the nervous excitation big department stores can wreak on women’s fragile senses.
White hopes to take some morals from Zola’s shorter fiction:
Like junk food can make us obese, junk thoughts and advertisements can make us moronic. …We are, in a literal way, poisoned each time we see an advertisement and that is the essential danger of a consumer society based upon advertising.
Zola glimpsed a hundred and forty years ago…that advertising has poisoned our minds and corrupted our culture. As we march toward collapse, the question remains whether we will go passively toward our death and remembered only as a foolish civilization killed by advertising, or whether there remains within us a spark of clarity from which a mental environment movement may catch flame.
Advertising, to culture jammers, is virtually the same kind of universal scapegoat psychiatry became for Scientologists: an insidious, corrupting Demiurge responsible for all evils. But you’ll rarely find paranoia without self-importance. The grander vision, for Lasn, White, and their associates, is a world where marketers have the power to save humanity or destroy it with their “carefully-crafted imagery.” Instead of “clearing” the planet with Hubbard’s E-meter auditing, they hope Zen subvertisments, Buy Nothing Days, and strange hybrid political parties will be the answer.
Given the focus of their psychosis, it can often seem like culture jammers have the same concerns as anarchists and socialists: saving the environment, fighting capitalist exploitation, building a popular movement. But if they hate some of the things leftists also hate, it’s for the wrong reasons – and worse, their solutions are quack ones.
So don’t be surprised by White’s new alliance with Grillo, or Lasn’s dashed hopes for a merger with the Tea Party: Adbusters was never on our side.
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By Carl Wilson
Last month the electro-psychedelic band MGMT released a video for its “Cool Song No. 2.” It features Michael K. Williams of The Wire as a killer-dealer-lover-healer figure stalking a landscape of vegetation, narcotics labs, rituals, and Caucasians. “What you find shocking, they find amusing,” the singer drones in Syd Barrett-via-Spiritualized mode. The video is loaded with signposts of cool, first among them Williams, who played maybe the coolest TV character of the past decade as the gay Baltimore-drug-world stickup man Omar Little. But would you consider “Cool Song No. 2” genuinely cool, or is it trying too hard? (Is that why it’s called “No. 2”?)
The very question is cruel, of course, and competitive. You can praise the Brooklyn band’s surreal imagination, or you can call it a dull, derivative outfit renting out another artist’s aura to camouflage that it has none of its own. It depends which answer you think makes you cooler.
If that sounds cynical, cynicism is difficult to avoid when the subject of cool arises now. Self-conscious indie rockers are easy targets, vulnerable to charges of recycling half-century-old postures that arguably were purloined from African-American culture in the first place. But what is cool in 2013, and why are we still using this term for what scholar Peter Stearns pegged as “a twentieth-century emotional style”? Often credited to sax player Lester Young in the 1940s, the coinage was in general circulation by the mid-1950s, with Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool and West Side Story’s finger-snapping gang credo “Cool.” You’d be unlikely to use other decades-old slang—groovy or rad or fly—to endorse any current cultural object, at least with a straight face, but somehow cool remains evergreen.
The standard bearers, however, have changed. Once the rebellious stuff of artists, bohemians, outlaws, and (some) movie stars, coolness is now as likely to be attributed to the latest smartphone or app or the lucre they produce: The iconic statement on the matter has to be Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker saying to Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” That is, provided you earn it before you’re 30—the tech age has also brought on an extreme-youth cult, epitomized by fashion blogger and Rookie magazine editor Tavi Gevinson, who is a tad less cool now at 17 than she was when she emerged at age 11. What would William S. Burroughs have had to say about that? (Maybe “Just Do It!”)
Cool has come a long way, literally. In a 1973 essay called “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” art historian Robert Farris Thompson traced the concept to the West African Yoruba idea of itutu—a quality of character denoting composure in the face of danger, as well as playfulness, humor, generosity, and conciliation. It was carried to America with slavery and became a code through which to conceal rage and cope with brutality with dignity; it went on to inform the emotional textures of blues, jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and more, then percolated into the mainstream.
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The Hotel El-Djazair, formerly known as the Hotel Saint-George, is an oasis of calm in the tense city of Algiers. A labyrinth of paved pathways winds through beds of hibiscus, cactuses and roses, shaded by palm and banana trees. In the lobby, bellhops in white tunics and red fezzes escort guests past Persian carpets and walls inlaid with mosaics. Beneath the opulence, violence lurks. During the week I was there, diplomats descended on the El-Djazair to repatriate the bodies of dozens of hostages killed in a shootout at a Sahara natural-gas plant between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Algerian Army.
Violence was in the air as well in January 1956, when the celebrated writer Albert Camus checked into the Hotel Saint-George. The struggle against French colonialism was escalating, with civilians becoming the primary victims. Camus was a pied-noir—a term meaning “black foot,” perhaps derived from the coal-stained feet of Mediterranean sailors, or the black boots of French soldiers, and used to refer to the one million colonists of European origin living in Algeria during French rule. He had returned after 14 years in France to try to stop his homeland from sliding deeper into war. It was a perilous mission. Right-wing French settlers plotted to assassinate him. Algerian revolutionaries watched over him without his knowledge.
The Casablanca-style intrigue—freedom fighters, spies and an exotic North African setting—seemed appropriate. Camus, after all, was often thought of as a literary Humphrey Bogart—dashing, irresistible to women, a coolly heroic figure in a dangerous world.
Camus is regarded as a giant of French literature, but it was his North African birthplace that most shaped his life and his art. In a 1936 essay, composed during a bout of homesickness in Prague, he wrote of pining for “my own town on the shores of the Mediterranean…the summer evenings that I love so much, so gentle in the green light and full of young and beautiful women.” Camus set his two most famous works, the novels The Stranger and The Plague, in Algeria, and his perception of existence, a joyful sensuality combined with a recognition of man’s loneliness in an indifferent universe, was formed here.
In 1957, Anders Österling, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, acknowledged the importance of Camus’ Algerian upbringing when he presented him with the Nobel Prize in Literature, a towering achievement, won when he was only 43. Österling attributed Camus’ view of the world in part to a “Mediterranean fatalism whose origin is the certainty that the sunny splendor of the world is only a fugitive moment bound to be blotted out by the shades.”
Camus is “the single reason people outside Algeria know about this country,” says Yazid Ait Mahieddine, a documentary filmmaker and Camus expert in Algiers, as we sit beneath a photograph of the writer in the El- Djazair bar, alongside images of other celebrities who have passed through here, from Dwight Eisenhower to Simone de Beauvoir. “He is our only ambassador.”