Freddie DeBoer asks me if I think socialism is an alternative to capitalism, or is merely an ameliorative bandage that repairs the devastation wrought by capitalism. He also insists on a “coherent definition” of socialism, presumably to sort out the real deal from the pretenders, like Sanders. As Sanders fans, Bhaskar Sunkara and Connor Kilpatrick agree from a distance, suggesting that socialism must represent a break from capitalism. Timothy Burke and Carl Dyke claim that trying to define socialism is a fool’s errand because it distracts us from the political and intellectual tasks at hand.

Let me respond by announcing what capitalism is not. It’s not reducible to markets, to private property, to profit motives. These have been with us since at least the 5th century B.C. As Max Weber noted, greed isn’t specific to capitalism; in fact, he showed, capitalism couldn’t develop unless its proponents limited the scope of the commodity form, by limiting the time available for the exploitation of labor. And as Karl Marx pointed out, the convergence of modern corporations and modern credit in the late 19th century produced what he called a “socialized” mode of production—indeed it “abolished private property within the bounds of capitalist production itself.” (see vol 3 of Capital, chs 27-32)

That’s so 19th century, Michael Berube would say. And he’s right, the 20th century isn’t teeming with big thinkers who could grasp the ambiguities of a “mixed economy.” But his invocation of Stuart Hall (and Raymond Williams) does point us in the right direction, toward the study of social formations as against modes of production—or rather, the study of how different modes of production co-exist and interpenetrate. “The area of a culture,” Williams once said, “is usually proportionate to the area of a language rather than a class.” Just so with socialism—it’s not the exclusive property of “the” working class, not any more than capitalism is sustained only by the allegiance of capitalists.

In these terms, socialism is not necessarily a movement dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism, although of course it can be, and has been. It’s more broadly and consequentially a matter of everyday social relations of production, whereby what Marx called “the historical and moral element” in the calculation of the value of labor power (wages) comes to contain, and finally to determine, the value of all things. It doesn’t mean the end of work, of markets, or of profits, it means the redefinition of all three.

That doesn’t sound as robust and radical as I would like, because I don’t think of socialism so much as a break from capitalism as a culmination, a continuation that is also a creation of something brand new—an organic product of capitalism, in the same sense that capitalism was rooted in and yet broke up the soil that was feudalism. Because it is this organic creation, we don’t notice its manifestations, or can’t put them into words, just as the inhabitants of Elizabethan England didn’t, or couldn’t, until very late in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, on the eve of revolution itself. Shakespeare had to invent new words to convey the enormity, and the intimacy, of the social changes he lived. So do we.

OK, Freddie says socialism means the “end of markets.” To me, that’s like saying socialism means the end of democracy. Why? Two instances, or episodes. And notice I’m talking history here, not theory, except as the labor theory of value becomes the device—the language—people needed to explain what was happening to and in the material circumstances of their lives, as they created as well as experienced those circumstances.

First, the creation of a market in labor. According to every sentient being except Werner Sombart and his progeny, who can’t distinguish between slavery and capitalism, this is the detonating event in the development of modernity: the commodification of labor power. Consult them all, from Smith and Ferguson to Hobbes and Locke, from Marx and Weber and Polanyi to Macpherson and Lindblom. Same result.

The creation of a market in labor permits a labor theory of value. It permits, meanwhile, two remarkably opposed and yet conjoined phenomena. On the one hand, a workable, practical notion of equality. On the other, a workable, practical method of exploitation that is not slavery. The market in labor is the groundwork, in this sense, of universal democracy, because you can’t have democracy without a fundamental belief in and commitment to equality.   Marx said as much, many times. It is also, and by the same criteria, the groundwork of local tyranny, because the workplace under capitalism is arranged according to ownership rather than control of the means of production.

Our choice is not, then, between a market in labor and the end of markets, but how to manage a transition that is already underway. Ownership and control have long since parted ways—capitalists have become superfluous beings because of the corporation, as Marx and I have argued (!)—so the question is not how to expropriate private property, but how to turn the managers of existing corporations into public servants, on salary, in other words how to control the means of production, not own them. Moreover, the market in labor has long since decayed, to the point where information is free—the “producers” of “content” cannot be compensated for their labor, whether they’re musicians, journalists, or adjunct professors. The end of capitalism is upon us.

The banking system is a good example of what I mean. We, us taxpayers, already own it, through the FDIC, TARP, etc. The question is how to control it. Now if you say, well, you’re only talking about regulation, you’re right, because the property in question has already been socialized.

Second, the intellectual continuum of Eastern Europe, from Oscar Lange and Michal Kalecki in the 1920s and 30s to Wladzmiericz Brus and Radoslav Selucky in the 1960s and 70s. These great theorists showed that political pluralism, and thus the possibility of democracy, resides in and flows from markets—Brus went so far, in 1961, as to say that a larger dose of commodity fetishism was good for socialism—because we have no other mechanism by which to register the preferences of individuals (and their associations) in their everyday lives. The ballot was an exceptional moment, they suggested, and in any case it was compromised by the lack of choice in the remainder of existence.

These pro-market, Marxist, and socialist theorists were, not incidentally, in sometimes fierce argument with Friedrich von Hayek and his heirs, who believed that markets were inviolable because they distributed information, and thus undergirded freedom, in uncontrollable ways.

A humble but coherent definition of socialism, according to these antecedents, would amount to this. It’s a way of taking the principle of political obligation that guides modernity—I will abide by this law because I have participated in its making through my elected representatives—and turning it into an imperative that governs all other spheres of life, even unto the most mundane moments, like the workplace and the household. It’s a way of insisting that the sovereignty of the people—not the state, the parliament, the executive, the cabinet, whatever—is an inviolable axiom. It’s a way of claiming, accordingly, that markets are indispensable means to the end of democratically decided social goals.

It’s a way of saying that capitalism is the necessary but woefully insufficient condition of social democracy. There you go.

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Chapo Trap House Take 2

I was chastened by complaints about my first report on Chapo Trap House, Episode 123, featuring Clio Chang on the politics of a UBI. So I just listened to it twice more, and took copious notes as if I were an undergraduate all over again.   I regret calling the cast a bunch of “smug, silly assholes.” They deserve better—like, say, “ignorant and yet arrogant little shits who don’t understand anything about the topic at hand.”

Fans of the show made two complaints about my original report. First, I indulged in name-calling (bozos, clowns, assholes, etc.). I have already addressed that complaint. Second, and much more important, they claimed I missed the nuance in the conversation, the distinction between a left and a right-wing rendition of a UBI.

But, having witnessed this circle jerk three times, I can confidently state that there is not an ounce of nuance here. These people are in the room to congratulate themselves for not being fooled by the “seductive” qualities of a UBI. They’re here to assure us that they won’t get fooled again, and neither should you.   Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Sure, the first 10 minutes (est.) of the podcast is regulated by ridicule of Mark Zuckerberg, who left Alaska thinking that its oil dividend resembled a UBI. The nervous laughter in this segment comes from three bits, two of them offered by Amber, whose accent—always the interrogative uptick in the penultimate syllable—makes the fear of Silicon Valley seem like a family romance.

“How can we keep them [employees, poor people] safe and functioning without giving them any power,” she asks, as her opening gambit.   She means that a UBI is just a way of papering over inequality, producing bread and circuses for modern times. A little later she says it’s a way of “taking the onus off employers,” who won’t have to pay a living wage if everybody’s on the dole.

The third bit comes from the normally quiet narrative center of the show, who exclaims, in conversation with Chang, that a UBI “creates a floor just so you can get rid of the ceiling!” In other words, it doesn’t address income inequality, and in fact it unleashes the entrepreneurs. Capitalism is validated by a UBI!

Notice that these early remarks already frame a UBI as a ruling-class scam. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We won’t be fooled again, oh no. Notice, too, that these critiques aren’t offered in the third person (“so and so says that”)–no, they come from the heart, from the Left as it is convened in this studio.

From here it’s all downhill. The “end” (goal) of a UBI is amelioration, not the creation of a more equitable society. “Cash welfare” is a problem because it can be defunded. “Rent-seekers” will immediately adjust to higher incomes, so price inflation will follow (this from the guy who bellows from what sounds like backstage). The costs of being poor—distance from a real grocery store, for example, forces you to shop for basics at the bodega—are such that a UBI can’t come near to reducing them.

It finally comes down to this, again from the quiet narrative center: a UBI is “inherently not antagonistic to capitalism itself.” Maybe a job guarantee is the way to go. Or, better yet, let’s “decommodify” the necessities, issue food stamps to everyone, for everything. Make everything free. “I love the Soviet model,” Amber exclaims, and she ain’t being ironic. These people are playing at being Stalinists, just like Harrison Fluss over at Jacobin.  Or, to switch metaphorical gears, it’s as if the peasants infiltrated Marie Antoinette’s cottage and found it comfortable.

So, on the evidence of this podcast, I can safely say that a UBI appears to the Chapo crew as Hillary Clinton appeared to the sectarian Left, not as a means to ameliorative ends but as political anathema, to be ridiculed, despised, and avoided.   Of course the cast begins by protecting its fans—by making fun of Zuckerberg, by saying you can’t trust Silicon Valley—but it quickly moves to speak for itself. In the end, the very idea of a UBI is a joke.

What these ignorant yet arrogant little shits can’t fathom is the simple fact that the detachment of income from work, no matter what its social or intellectual provenance, means the decompositon of capitalism, because you can’t have capitalism without a labor market that correlates effort and reward in a legible and legitimate manner. Socialism resides in that decomposition—why not embrace and enlarge upon it, even in the fragmentary form of a UBI?

But the moral of this story is larger. The Chapo crew are satirists who produce, as a matter of course, pure cynicism. Not mere irony, the “critical distance” we all need and use when we experience conflicting desires or points of view. Irony leads us into the world because it divides us between these possibilities, makes us want to test them. Cynicism via satire protects us from the world by teaching us how to abstain from its conflicts.

But that is a way of saying that cynicism via satire protects us from politics as such.   Is that we want, just now?


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Hegel on Bastille Day

I missed Bastille Day. I favor Independence Day because I think the American Revolution was a far more radical and consequential revolution than its French successor. I know, this isn’t the consensus among the comrades, who tend, like Lenin, to think of the Jacobins as their role models, and to treat the Founders as near reactionaries. But then I also think that Hegel was a more radical thinker than Marx.

So imagine my belated surprise as I read Harrison Fluss’s tribute to Hegel, published on Bastille Day in Jacobin, of all places. Here’s a guy who insists that Hegel’s sympathy and identification with the French Revolution never wavered, not even under the pressure of Metternich’s ubiquitous thumb. Here’s a guy who enlists Hegel to defend the Terror installed by Robespierre, and who, in doing so, invents a notion of “rational tyranny” which bears a striking resemblance to Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat. Here’s a guy with his head up his ass.

Who could make this shit up? Fluss reminds me of the right-Hegelians who read The Philosophy of Right as a rationale for the Prussian state—you know, because the state is the apotheosis of the people, it has legitimate grounds, on that basis alone, to exercise its power as against the people. (The American Revolution was an explicit repudiation of this logic). But Fluss claims left-Hegelian credentials by citing Bruno Bauer and, of course, Marx. What’s next? Howard Roark, the missing Jacobin?

These are the most egregious passages:

Once the people are defended against counterrevolution, and the necessary — but progressive — tyrant institutes an education process for the people, his existence is replaced by the rule of law. “Through obedience (to the rational will), the law itself is no longer an alien force, but rather the known universal will.”

People may find tyranny abhorrent or morally repugnant, but the actual reason tyranny is overthrown is not because it is evil, but because it is no longer necessary for the development of human freedom. According to Hegel, Robespierre fell not because he was evil, but “because necessity had left him, and thus he was overthrown by force.” In a rather enigmatic passage, Hegel claims that “the necessary (the fall of tyranny) happens — but every portion of necessity is usually allotted only to individuals. The one is accuser and defender, the other a judge, the third a hangman but all are necessary.”

In the defense of a rational tyranny, it is important to notice the emancipatory telos Hegel ascribes to it. Its exercise is meant to be temporary, helping to sustain and protect progressive forces and tendencies. Hence, the stark opposition between dictatorship and freedom dissolves, as the former helps to foster the latter.

The necessary but progressive tyrant, that’s a nice touch. Who are we talking about, Harrison? Stalin? Mao? Castro?

No matter that Hegel spent a philosophical lifetime arguing against exactly this kind of twaddle, wherein all cows are black because night has fallen and the moon is down. No matter that the form and content of The Phenomenology and The Philosophy of Right converge on the insight that if our ethical principles do not reside in and flow from our historical circumstances, we must repudiate the past and enter a state of nature where anything is possible—including the “maximum of terror.” No matter that Hegel’s interpretation of the French Revolution armed him against that very political impasse by showing that this either/or choice was rooted in Kant’s Copernican Revolution, in the Enlightenment itself.

Here’s my alternative reading of Hegel in the spiritual daylight of the present.

What can we get out of reading Hegel? To be more specific, what is the nature of Hegel’s intellectual innovation—how does he break with the received tradition but not repudiate it? Or put it this way: why does the most rigorously post-structuralist theorist of our time (Judith Butler) still think in the Hegelian terms she draws from The Phenomenology, even as she appropriates the work of precisely those thinkers who led the revolt against the so-called meta-narratives of Hegel, Marx, and Freud? Those figures would be Derrida and Foucault, and maybe Deleuze.

(1) The unprecedented method of explaining how and what we can know about the world. This new method has two aspects. First, Hegel never starts from first principles, and never argues by allegory alone. Instead, in view of Kant’s Copernican Revolution, he assumes that there is no body of fact independent of the knower, and that acknowledgment of this truth leads either to metaphysics or mere opinion—incommensurability—in deciding between rival accounts of the same phenomenon, unless the knower annuls and preserves these rival accounts by explaining why they once made sense but can no longer address the very questions they have raised, then showing how his or her account makes better sense by answering those questions. The better account contains its rivals in both the inclusive and the exclusive senses of that word.

So unlike Kant, Hegel’s method is historical rather than epistemological. The question is not, how do I know what I know, as if that “I” is already given as a transcendental ego—as if you can posit a knower whose orientation to the world is immutable—but rather, what have we said we have known about ourselves and the world, when did we say it, and why did we say it then? Notice that, in these terms, the work of knowing is a social property produced by the “discipline of culture.”

Second, and this may be the same thing, Hegel always turns toward the practical activity or intellectual itinerary determined by desires (in the Philosophy of Right, these appear as “needs,” in the Philosophy of History as “passions”) to illustrate his method, his concerns, and his findings. His claim that “self-consciousness is desire in general,” or that the self just is desire, may be taken as provisional acknowledgment of Hume’s notion that the self is a “bundle of sensations” produced by encounter with external stimuli. But of course Hegel doesn’t leave it at that. Sensuous engagement with the world—living, eating, struggling with others, working—is, by his account, what permits and requires progress toward the spiritual daylight of self-recognizance as secured, or promised, by the mutuality of recognition.

Work is the deferral of desire, the sublimation of and abstraction from immediate bodily urges or sensations; and so it leads us beyond the particular circumstance of our bodies, toward a consciousness, an apprehension, in both senses, of externality (objects and others) which changes the meaning and significance of externality as such. Work is not merely allegory, as we can see in Hegel’s treatment of it in the Philosophy of Right and The Philosophy of History. But even if we confine ourselves to The Phenomenology itself, it becomes the explanation—the history—of how laboring, dependent subjects can experience freedom in the form of an ascetic slave morality, then a stoic skepticism and finally an “unhappy consciousness,” all of which displace subjectivity to an inner life or an afterlife. To repeat, the method is historical, not epistemological.

(2) The usable present. Hegel was a member of the generation that invented the modern secular university as a nation-building device. This generation thought of it as a way of articulating a culture—not a religion—that would create the citizens of a unitary, sovereign state from the raw materials of different classes, regions, and peoples. In such a setting, the humanities were not the “core curriculum” of the university; instead, they constituted the university as such. The research program, accordingly, was scholarship that demonstrated the cultural continuity of ancient Greece and modern Europe. Reputable scholars, particularly but not only philosophers, showed that each modern, civilized nation stood at a different remove, or at a different angle, from the Athenian origin, but that each had developed a unique identity in the form of a national literature—a canon—by appropriating that origin.

Living up to the standards set by the polis and the citizen thus became the intellectual agenda of university scholars, philosophers or not. How to recover the unforced simplicity, spontaneity, clarity, perhaps even the virtue, of the classical epoch, they asked, and from that standpoint to criticize the corruptions of modern, commercial society? (Cf. Marx’s rueful remarks on this project at the end of the “Introduction” to the Grundrisse.) Hegel, probably the only person on the European continent who read Greek and Latin as well as German, French, and English, refused these standards as the measurement of modern intellectual achievement, with full knowledge and appreciation of what the classical epoch had accomplished.

It was something of a scandal, this refusal, especially as it appeared quite explicitly in the Philosophy of Right, because it announced that the “modern time” was not to be assessed by ancient criteria. “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help,” Hegel explained in introducing The Philosophy of History: “It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present. Looked at in this light, nothing can be shallower than the oft-repeated appeal to Greek and Roman examples during the French Revolution.”

Here again there are two aspects of Hegel’s break with the received tradition that are worth our attention. On the one hand, he displaced the polis and installed civil society as the site on which the universality of ethical life—the possibility of virtue—would be established and experienced by bourgeois individuals pursuing their interests rather than strenuous citizens exercising their political power. The scene of self-discovery and self-determination was now society, not the state. And yet absent the state and the family, the internal articulation of civil society as such would surely be stunted. (PR, par. 182-98.)

On the other hand, in sailing into the uncharted waters of civil society and mapping its new forms of labor—the lawful abjection of the slave, the “moving life of the dead” in the factories, the poverty of those dispossessed by Speenhamland—Hegel broke with the ancient tradition that defined socially necessary labor as the occupation of the unfree. This is the tradition that still exalts poeisis, in effect artisanal labor, as the proper work of being human, through which the metabolic exchange with nature is mediated by tools, not machines, and is experienced from start to finish as an instance of ownership, mixing one’s labor with one’s property in a transparent relation of subject and object. (This is the tradition that the young Marx of 1842-44 invokes in criticizing Hegel, and the tradition that Hannah Arendt resurrects in The Human Condition [1958].) That word, poeisis, which meant “composition” to the ancients, is not incidentally the root of the word poetry. My rudimentary etymology might explain why contemporary intellectuals are among the most ardent defenders of the work ethic.

How did Hegel make this break, and why have so few noticed it, especially in view of the fact that Marx appropriated it, indeed used it to negotiate his approach to Smith and Ricardo in reinventing the labor theory of value? The “how” is on view in the purloined letter of the master-slave dialectic, where the bondsman’s dependence and servile labor do not erase but rather create the self-consciousness of freedom (“man as man is free”); in paragraphs 67 and 80 of The Philosophy of Right, where Hegel comes right out and makes the counter-intuitive case for the proletarian as a free man, and does so in the first person (“Single products of my particular physical and mental skill and of my power to act I can alienate to someone else and I can give him the use of my abilities for a restricted period, because, on the strength of this restriction, my abilities acquire an external relation to the totality and universality of my being. By alienating the whole of my time, as crystallized in my work, and everything I produced, I would be making into another’s property the substance of my being . . . .”); and more ambiguously in The Philosophy of History, where industry, crafts, and trades “have their moral validity recognized” under the rubric of Reformation.

The “why” question is more difficult. It might be a function of the commonplace that Hegel is just another German idealist. It’s more likely that the romance of poeisis has a stronger grip on intellectuals now than it did in the immediate aftermath of the Hegelian departure, due to the recent revival of communitarian political theory and to the concurrent valorization of artisanal or entrepreneurial models of self-determination. In any event, the place to begin in answering the question is Manfred Riedel’s Between Tradition and Revolution (trans. 1984).

(3) The recuperation of inherited dualisms, or “binaries” as we now say (or “dichotomy” as Richard Dien Winfield translates Joachim Ritter). Hegel refuses the either/or choice between materialism and idealism—British empiricism, say, as against German idealism—or between romanticism and positivism, or between radicalism and conservatism, or between historical circumstances and ethical principles. He doesn’t inaugurate the Continental tradition that, far from ignoring the Scottish Enlightenment and its Anglo-American progeny, takes them as its proper point of departure; Kant did that by granting Hume his claims and proceeding to demonstrate that experience construed as periodic sensation couldn’t explain the reality of ideas or categories or imperatives that were themselves experienced as exceeding and organizing any particular circumstance or sensation.

But Hegel does something more. He acknowledges that both Hume and Kant are correct and goes from there, on the assumption that “the false is no longer false as a moment of the true.” The “no longer” here is crucial because it discloses the historical logic of the philosophical claim. Instead of insisting on an either/or choice between Kant and Hume, Hegel grants the partial truth of each side as it might be conceived and preserved as a necessary stage in the temporal development of the whole truth—it’s not rejected or ignored, in other words, it’s treated as a particular historical moment that can be grasped, in retrospect, as adequate to its time.

But not adequate to the “modern time,” when these choices no longer exhausted the possibilities of the Present, not, at least, according to Hegel.   The extant renditions of subjectivity rendered it as either the discontinuous function of external stimuli—one damn thing after another—or as the always antecedent continuum provided by a “transcendental ego.” Neither could capture the actual experience of modern subjectivity, which was transacted in time and in space, as a developmental sequence, not as mere externality, whether material or mental.

Or put it this way. The “empty subjectivity” sponsored by both German idealism and British empiricism was a late stage, perhaps the last gasp, of the “unhappy consciousness” that followed from the “positivity” of Christianity, the Oedipus of the world religions. It was now to be superseded by a new stage of consciousness that would not repress and mutilate these origins but rather treat them as usable pasts, because it could.

Human intentionality had always saturated every thing in view, but now it could lower its sights, as it were, and find itself at home in the world as well as in the inner life and the afterlife—not in release and abstention from the world, or as it is in heaven, where freedom is known as ignorance or abolition of all particular circumstance. No, human intentionality had now become legible in the most mundane purposes and events, in the most particular of circumstances, in the disposition of property and the execution of contracts, for example, not merely in the cruel disport of the gods. The truths of philosophy and religion were now available for inspection in the here and now. Their new legibility made the “modern time” the standard by which to judge antiquity, as against romantic and republican standards but, by the same token, they were subject to empirical tests, not invocations of faith or first principles, now that freedom had found its home in the world.

(4) The standpoint of modern political economy. It’s probably impossible to over-emphasize this dimension of Hegel’s “cash value” in the Present, our own time, although Butler and her subjects seem indifferent to it.

Marx recapitulated Hegel’s itinerary here—he didn’t turn the idealist philosopher on his head, he took exactly the same measures in treating inherited epistemological problems as social questions, to be answered by reference to history and the conduct of contemporary politics, not metaphysics. Both thinkers accordingly grasped social labor as the groundwork of the revolutionary claim articulated in the notion of the “rights of man” (or, what is the same thing, “all men are created equal”)—each understood that profound social and cultural changes determined by the creation of a market in labor had permitted the new theory of value embedded in the seminal works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Those changes could be summarized by saying that until the “modern time” dating from the end of the 18th century, it was implausible to believe that man as such is free and entitled, thereby, to the rights of man as such; before then, it was a matter of faith and feeling, as Hegel explained in praising Luther in the Preface to the Philosophy of Right.

Hegel and Marx understood, in other words, that a belief in equality could not and did not take root until “the repudiation of work no longer earned the reputation of sanctity.” (PH, 423) Only when necessary labor no longer carried the stigmata of dependence, servitude, and slavery, only after the Reformation made it the human condition by assigning it the transcendent meanings once reserved for Reason, only as different kinds of work could be translated through the idiom of money as comparable units of time, only then would a labor theory of value make sense. And only then would the rights of man as such seem plausible.

Marx said as much in volume I of Capital:

“There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded on slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities.” (Kerr ed., 1906, p. 69)

(This passage must be read in the context provided by Marx’s remarkably compressed periodization of capitalism [at p. 189 n. 1]: “The capitalist epoch is therefore characterised by this, that labour-power takes in the eyes of the labourer himself the form of a commodity which is his property; his labour consequently becomes wage labour. On the other hand, it is only from this moment that the produce of labour universally becomes a commodity.”)

Hegel and Marx arrived at the same point by taking the same route: from philosophy to political economy. Hegel, the “German Idealist,” got there first. We’re still catching up to him.

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Angela Nagle v. Judith Butler

Angela Nagle is an old person’s idea of a young person, or rather, and more to the point, she’s an old leftist’s idea of what a young leftist should be—a sworn enemy of identity politics, a dedicated partisan of class struggle. Her new book, Kill All Normies (Zero Press: 2017), is a brilliant, sobering exploration of what happened to American politics in cyberspace, just in the last twelve years. It’s a must-read because it demonstrates how the Alt-Right—which drove the Trump campaign and still determines the intellectual horizons of the White House—is animated by a misogyny that runs so deep that its spectacular, pornographic qualities require the new illiteracy of the Internet. And vice versa.

Let me translate that statement, just so you don’t get her wrong. Me, either. In nauseating detail, Nagle documents the anti-feminist, anti-female, woman-hating sensibility that organizes and unifies the Alt-Right—always remember, this is the only thing its various elements agree on. For them “anti-PC” means misogyny, pure and simple, from Jared Taylor and Kevin B. MacDonald, who are semi-respectable shitheads, on toward the scum that crawl through 4 chan /b/, where their language is always running parallel, below grade as it were, to the brutish tweets of Roosh V and POTUS. (See chapters 1-2, and 6)

Nagle also suggests, intentionally or not, that the absolute, anonymous freedoms of the Internet solicit and eventually exact this pornographic extremity of utterance. The form and the content go together. So you could come away from reading this book thinking that free speech is dangerous.

I didn’t. But there’s a statement from early in the book that might make you wonder where the author is headed with the argument. At any rate it made me ask three questions. Is this just another indictment of the well-meaning but befuddled cultural studies crowd and their post-structuralist enablers—you know the type, the ones who saw progress, liberation, and transgression in watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and who meanwhile mistook language, texts, mere words, for material reality? Does praise for Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax wait for the reader on the other side of this polemic? And if so, why are we stuck back there, twenty fucking years ago, when boneheads like Sokal were taken seriously?

Short anwers: yes, yes, and . . . well, give me a minute.

Here’s that early statement. “Writers like Manuel Castells and numerous commentators in the Wired magazine milieu told us of the coming of a networked society, in which old hierarchical models of business and culture would be replaced by the wisdom of crowds, the swarm, the hive mind, citizen journalism and user-generated content. They got their wish, but it’s not quite the utopian vision they were hoping for.”

But how to take this veiled admonition? Am I supposed to remember that the Arab Spring announced the revolutionary force of the “networked society,”and then utterly failed, with restoration and reaction throughout the region? Am I supposed to feel bad because I fell for the original line? Am I supposed to recall every insane and insulting Amazon review of my recent book? Am I supposed to punish myself because I couldn’t see that if the unwashed and the uneducated and the unhinged took over cyberspace, as they inevitably would, the result would be Steve Bannon in the White House? To all of the above, a resounding “yes” is the answer Angel Nagle gives on my behalf, and yours.

But I’ve got some counter-questions. Isn’t the “networked society” a literary upheaval comparable to the one that exploded in the late-18th and 19th centuries, through which the unwashed and the uneducated learned to represent themselves, then taught their supposed betters how to end monarchies and create democracies—how to make revolutions, in other words? And weren’t the results just as uneven? The French Revolution was a disaster that led by way of The Terror to the Bourbon Restoration, something like what recently happened in Egypt, no? And surely we agree that its reiterations would soon become farcical? But the American Revolution fared much better, yes?

There’s another statement at the close of the book that I find even more annoying because it wears the tired mien of an old leftist who’s seen it all—it’s so grimly smug that it makes me want to become a troll and bother my friends at Facebook.   Except that, not to worry, I have no skills. Here, after making fun of Whitney Phillips and Gabriella Coleman, who once thought that the misogynist, pornographic 4 chan world was a sign of “counter-hegemonic” possibility—and just before dismissing the Birmingham School, the alma mater of cultural studies—the author reminds us of her earlier concern:

“It was the utterly empty idea of countercultural transgression that created the void into which anything can flow as long as it is contemptuous of mainstream values and tastes. This is what allowed a culture that has now been exposed in all its horror to be romanticized by progressives as a counter-hegemonic force. The truth I think it reveals is that both rightist chan culture and ultra-PC academic culture understood the countercultural dog whistle of disdain for everything mainstream.”

That’s from Chapter 7. Now, in Chapter 1, and in passing thereafter, Nagle compares the left-wing Tumblr to the online scene of the Alt-Right, suggesting that its puritanical excesses are the broken mirror image of the 4 chan world—or at least that these opposite idioms derive from the same intellectual moment, the first decade of the 21st century: “The particular incarnations of the online left and right that exist today are undoubtedly a product of this strange period of ultra puritanism.”

Thus, the argument goes, both the Tumblr-type leftists who hold the campus hostage by way of Title IX and the misogynist morons who hold the White House hostage by way of alt-right expertise are victims of the same epistemological error. They mistake transgression for politics, and this, of course, is just another pointless way of giving priority to the (subjective) assertion of identities rather than to the (objective) representation of material interests.  Calling Thomas Frank. What was the matter with Kansas, again?

Nagle isn’t lacking for authorities to cite along these lines, all of them urging us toward the intellectual barricades where class makes a difference—that is, where cultural or identity politics are already known as distractions from the real thing, and where authenticity, not performativity, is the licensed product you can use in legitimate argument. Walter Benn Michaels, Adolph Reed, Connor Kilpatrick, Liza Featherstone, Todd Gitlin, now there’s an A-list of class-conscious public intellectuals for you, people who know that all this theorizing fuss about race and gender is so much evasion of the material realities (read: the sources of power) that prevail under capitalism.

Still, where’s Doug Henwood? Surely he belongs on this list. But then so do the late Richard Rorty and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., proud liberals who made exactly the same argument against identity politics that Nagle now offers as the alternative to the cultural/academic Left and the benighted Alt-Right. There’s some irony for you—old-fashioned, New Deal liberals are the templates of current dissent from the extremes of Left and Right. The “vital center,” as Schlesinger called the political mainstream he wanted, now returns from the dead, courtesy of people who advertise themselves as radicals.

The bad guys, according to Nagle, the theorists appropriated by both the PC Tumblr Left and the ugly Alt-Right, are Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot, Debord, Bakhtin—and Butler. Yes, Judith Butler appears on this stage as she did in the 1990s, in the aftermath of Gender Trouble (1990), as the exemplar of a “post-modernist” feminism unmoored from the Enlightenment, attached only to the Nietzschean axiom that subjectivity is a product of action, a fleeting moment created by performance, not—as assumed in bourgeois (liberal) political theory and practice—a prior substance or a permanent substrate of human being. Nancy Fraser and Seyla Benhabib, for example, indicted Butler on these grounds in 1993. Nagle has unconsciously reproduced their indictment, with the presumed blessings of Michaels, Reed, Kilpatrick, Featherstone, Gitlin, Henwood, Rorty, and Schlesinger, Jr.

Here is how Butler appears as the problem; the second passage, it is worth noting, comes right after Nagle celebrates Alan Sokal for making fun of the post-structuralists over at Social Text:

“Although one could trace various threads to a multitude of different online and offline points of origin, Tumblr was one of the most important platforms for the emergence of a whole political and aesthetic sensibility, developing its own vocabulary and style—very much the reverse mirror image of rightist 4 chan in this way. . . . By 1990, Judith Butler had taken [Simone de Beauvoir] several steps further, or perhaps more literally, in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, in which she argued that the coherence of the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality were entirely culturally constructed. . . . By the earl 2010s, Tumblr had put Butler’s theory into practice and created an entire subcultural language, set of slogans, and style to go with it. . . . It was the subcultural digital expression of the fruition of Judith Butler’s ideas.” (p. 70)

“Today, we are still having much the same culture war. If one had to pick a single thinker whose ideas have most shaped the Tumblr left, it would undoubtedly be Judith Butler [,] and those on the left who remain critics of that identiy-oriented cultural left are still the kind of people who would align more closely with Gitlin and [Barbara] Ehrenreich.” (p. 84)

Well, yeah. But how come we’re still stuck in these debates on the Left? It’s not a philosophical problem, a matter of fixed metaphysical approaches—as in materialism vs. idealism—although many participants in the debate would insist that it is. No, I think it’s a lower-order intellectual item that is nonetheless more significant. I don’t know how to put it except to say that the Left has done no better than the Right in coming to terms with the revolutionary implications of modern feminism, the kind sponsored by Judith Butler. The Right treats them as poisonous red pills, the Left as indigestible fragments of an imaginary meal. Either way, they remain unassimilable.

I can’t speak for the Right. But, to switch metaphors, I think the “materialist” Left, as Nagle represents it here, still can’t see why identity politics—feminism, to be sure, but also black nationalism and movements organized around sexualities—are inevitable moments in the decomposition of capitalism, as the decline of socially necessary labor and the extrication of the “human element” from goods production proceeds, and accordingly permits the articulation of a subject position that is not over-determined by a place in an occupational hierarchy, that is, by class standing.

The “materialist” Left still can’t see that we have passed beyond the realm of necessity, even under capitalism, and that labor no longer defines us as human beings or political agents. And so it insists on class consciousness as the preface, and on class struggle as the crucible, of meaningful anti-capitalist politics. And so it also treats feminism of the kind Judith Butler sponsors as a diversion from the Left’s essential agenda, which, according to Michaels, et al., is supposed to turn on economic inequality—on redistribution, not recognition.

To my mind, this either/or choice is not only unnecessary, it’s destructive, because it keeps us locked up in debates that are pointless, except as a way of demonstrating left-wing credentials. Angela Nagle wants us to make that choice, but her book frees us from its terms.


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“Flaked”: Trouble in Paradise

Hi, my name is Jim, and I’m an alcoholic. For real. I spent a year in the rooms, in AA, and it did me a world of good. But I’m not here to confess, I’m here to explain why—because of that bizarre experience—I might understand “Flaked,” the brilliant Netflix series about four men who live a charmed life in Venice, California, better than you do.

I’m not bragging. Who wants to hit bottom, climb out of a shithole? Well, maybe all of us do, because most of the stories we remember, or take for granted, are about recovery from that slough of despond: we work those steps, we climb Jacob’s ladder, and we hope for the best, even if we’re not in a program. We can do without resurrection—it’s all zombies out there now, anyway—but we can’t seem to dispense with redemption.

Here’s the setup. Four guys in Venice, California, are trying, desperately, to answer some simple but satanic questions. Here I am in Paradise—I don’t have to work for a living or answer to any authority except the stoned landlord and the AA meeting, but I’m a disgusting mess. What is the name I put on the address of the cause of this, unless it’s just me, which seems just wrong—but seriously, can it be me?

What if Heaven, call it Venice, is a convection oven of conformity, where nobody except the waitresses work? What if I have to get out of here, by which I mean the neighborhood that is my self? What if I need a purpose that exceeds Venice, a reason to live that overflows Paradise?

And then it gets complicated.  Do I need something to do–you know, like a real job–or someone to love?  Now this is a midlife crisis.

Three of the four guys are—what?—“recovering alcoholics,” as we call ourselves, dutiful attendants at AA meetings. Chip, the leading man (Will Arnett), owns a stool store: he’s a carpenter, an artisan, but he’s less authentic than the rest, which is to say he’s the most accomplished liar of them all. Dennis, his best friend (David Sullivan), who lets Chip live rent-free in the guest house attached to some inherited real estate, is a sommelier who can’t bear what he does, which is to taste and serve alcohol.

George (Robert Wisdom), the large black man, is the reality check—think Chef from South Park or Bunny Colvin of “The Wire.” He’s the cop who keeps an eye on these fools, but it’s not as if he knows any better than they do, even though he’s good at abiding by the rules AA offers them: his daughter won’t speak to him, not even when Dennis starts “dating” her and puts in a good word for the old man. Unlike his AA friends, he does have a job—but he spends all of his uniformed time either looking for Dennis or looking after Chip.

Cooler (George Basil), their cheerful, truly hairy friend, doesn’t seem to need George’s attention. He’s the ultimate stoner, living out of a Winnebago he’s decorated as if it were a motorized Christmas tree—until season 2, he’s our d’Artagnan, the guy who does nothing except bear excellent witness to the misdeeds of the three Musketeers. And then, like his 17th-century forbear, he becomes the man his heroes want to be.

The women in this place all look alike, as if the casting director had never left southern California: they’re blonde, slim, leggy, and bear lips large enough that, when puckered, they might be mistaken for peaches. The exception is George’s daughter, Rosa, an African-American, but she makes up for that by being a fitness trainer who hates alcoholics like her father (and Dennis, who has to hide this dimension of his identity). Maybe Cara the wannabe Goth musician is, too, but she’s a marginal figure, a placeholder for the real thing—a love interest that can hold a jobless, feckless man’s attention.  She, too, has memorable lips.

Tilly (Heather Graham) is Chip’s ex-wife, almost, since they haven’t officially divorced; she’s a star on a cable TV series. London (Ruth Kearney) is the new girl in town; she clearly has a thing for Chip even though Dennis gets there first. Alex is the single Mom who happens to be in the rooms with the guys.

Now, London is there to open up Chip’s back story. It turns out that she’s the sister of the young man Chip killed while driving drunk—this is why he has no driver’s license and rides his vintage bike down the back alleys of Venice—and she’s come to town to find him, to decipher him, to punish him. They fall in love, of course.  And, of course, it turns out that Chip wasn’t the driver that day. It was Tilly, but Chip took the fall because, well, because she was on the verge of stardom. But the stigma has served him well. The chicks really dig the guy with the dark and dangerous past.

So, what’s happening in Venice? Not much, except what gets ground between two great social forces—Alcoholics Anonymous and Real Estate.  On the one hand there is the local brotherhood of the rooms, and on the other there is the trans-national appetite of developers who will own you if you let them. Jerry, who actually resembles the sainted Garcia, evicts Chip and then stakes Dennis to his own wine store, and then gives the homeless Chip the keys to a fixer-upper, down to the studs. There’s no place like home. Jerry already owns them all.

Topher, the out-of-town Silicon Valley type, is more subtle. He promises to invest in Chip’s stool business, but he wants his client to pimp out the new girl, London, and when Chip can’t go through with this transaction, business estrangement follows, like when that loan you were counting on doesn’t get approved. And yet Chip holds up his end of the economic bargain—he tells the city council that the hotel Topher wants to build will amplify the funky Venice vibe. Everyone but Dennis and George is surprised by Chip’s apostasy. As old friends and AA vets, they know he’s lying, just hoping to keep his store by shilling for Topher.

And that’s the thing about this place, our time. It’s liars all the way down as well as up. AA now stands in for civil society, and I do mean civil. It’s a lovely place because the only work available there is the labor of love, learning to be your brother’s keeper. But it’s a lonely place for the same reason. The first rule of AA is anonymity—no last names—and, as you might imagine, it produces pretty good stories. But the second inviolable rule of the rooms—no cross talk—forecloses politics by prohibiting discussion and disagreement: you cannot respond to anyone except to repeat what he or she said. So, repetition becomes compulsion. That’s why you will hear the same story from the same person every fucking day if you’re in the rooms for real.

This is the trouble with Paradise. There’s no way out except to settle in, settle down, get a wife and a house and a family. So Chip keeps going to meetings, but he keeps on drinking, and he keeps on lying to Dennis and George about it until he can’t. When Dennis learns from Tilly herself that the primal scene of vehicular manslaughter is a lie, Chip has no identity left. Except the next story he tells. That, I suppose, would be Season 3.

Only Cooler, our d’Artagnan, the achingly authentic stoner, seems to know what he wants. By the end of the second season, he has acquired a wife (Alex), a daughter, and a beautiful house. Meanwhile Dennis comes home one night to find Rosa waiting for him—all is forgiven because he’s fallen off the wagon! She has even started talking to her Dad. And Chip? Well, London finally knows he didn’t kill her brother. But will that bring the lovers back together, to reside in the conjugal bliss afforded by Jerry’s fixer-upper?

Probably. Repeat after me: location, location, location.

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Bring Out Your Dead

Don’t hold it against me [laughter], but yeah, I work for the Department of Defense, where my job is to bring out your dead. Somebody put it that way. I investigate the cases of missing persons and unidentified remains from World War II, in France and Belgium. The official designation of the office is DPMAA, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

We’re still fighting the war in Vietnam, you know what I mean? There’s only 1400 guys unaccounted for in Vietnam, and I got 73,000 on my list from the “good war.” But the only reason we get funding is because that black flag still flies, I swear. [laughter]

My job is to track what’s left of them down, and then I visit the families. Yeah, I know, it sounds creepy, but to me, it’s satisfying. I like to think I’m putting ghosts to rest.

No, no, it’s not “closure,” I don’t even know what that means, the families I talk to, this is once I got the remains verified, they’re mostly mystified. By now they’re already geezers, anyway—they treat me like a visitor from the past, which I am. Another ghost. That’s all right, I hope they see right through me. The uniformed guys deliver the folded flag.

I wasn’t this specialized until two years ago, before then I’d go to Burma, say, by way of the lab in Honolulu, looking for the remains of soldiers, Marines, sailors, and pilots, airmen they call them. With the right forensic evidence, I’d dig them up, do the DNA test, close the case.

Now it’s just France and Belgium, which is not so bad because you can’t run out of bodies. World War I, World War II, everybody died in that place. You’re always walking on dead people there.

The forensic labs are in Hawaii and in Omaha, Nebraska, the Offutt Air Force Base, in a building within a building, acres of test tubes. CSI kind of thing, you know? “Close reading,” they call it, but they’re looking at tissue, or bones, not words. Still, I like to think I’m making sentences out of these scraps—they give me a chance to make my case, see it through.

Yeah, so I do a lot of research before I make the case to my bosses, when I ask for travel clearance and liaison overseas. Think about it, how do you get a backhoe at this place, at this time? In France? [laughter] It’s like writing a memo in any office, I guess, but here I’m pleading a dead man’s case, and he’s dead for 70 years. I have to be able to say, OK, the orders say he was flying a mission over this terrain, this village, this place, on his way to wherever, and then he disappeared between here and there. Or he was a foot soldier, he must have died somewhere between here and there because his company made it to there, you see what I mean?

Well, that’s the interesting thing. How did these guys disappear? We have their names, and we know they’re gone. That’s about it. We have to tell their stories, make them convincing, before we can go over and dig ‘em up. It’s like writing a biography of a great man, except he’s not. All you got is the enlistment info, date of birth, place of birth, immediate family—and his assignment, what battalion, what company, what platoon.

You begin by tracking the movement of his unit. Yeah, we got the records for that, you can’t believe the detail we got. It’s all in cardboard boxes. Nothing digitized yet. Maybe some day. But you can follow him day by day once you have the file. It’s like you’re alongside him, and you want to say, “Don’t go there, friend.” You’re not going to die, but he is, and you know it before he does. But here we are 70 years later, not exactly before he dies, poor bastard. You see what I mean? [laughter] The times get mixed up.

Yes, of course, there are cases that stick with me. Sometimes I feel like the guy who runs a funeral home, or the poor slob who writes the obituaries. I’m always in the company of the dead, on paper or in person. But then I was trained as a historian, that’s how I got this job, and what does a historian do? He brings out the dead. He brings them to life.

OK, one case does stick with me. A young man from Waterloo, Iowa, a great basketball player I gather, enlisted in 1942, Army. Made the crossing at Normandy, Omaha Beach. Most of his company died on the sand. He joined another outfit, Company C, they’d also been “decimated,” I hate that word because it sounds like termites are slowly eating you away. Death came quickly where Jacob went. Jacob

Williams was his given name. People died wherever he went.

I followed him through Company C, 3rd Army—that was Patton’s gig—6th Armored Division, 2nd Battalion. He disappears somewhere between Caen and Reims, and so does all of Company C. There were local skirmishes, sure, but it’s clear sailing for the 3rd Army until December, 1944, Battle of the Bulge and all that. Why did they leave the 3rd Army, take that detour?

These guys were off the reservation. They went south, I mean literally, toward the Mediterranean—all of Company C, and I’m pretty sure Jacob talked them into it. Why do I think that? Well, I studied him, tried to get to know him, you know what I mean? In his letters home, he talked about becoming a preacher, and it was pretty much fire and brimstone, marching into Hell, meeting the Devil face to face, that kind of thing. Sin was all around, Sodom and Gomorrah, on and on. He felt great evil wherever he went.

He was a dangerous man. I’ve read all those letters home, and letters from his brothers, his brothers in arms, too. Most of the letters mention him, they say, we’re headed somewhere because Jacob says we have to. That’s amazing, that he would have that kind of power over his fellow grunts. Where was the lieutenant, the sergeants? I kept asking myself that question. Jacob was preaching something, and everybody fell for it, the officers and the NCOs too.

What was the mission? Good question. I have asked it myself. Did Jacob lead Company C into Hell?

You might say that. Hell, I’ve said it. 60 miles southwest of Reims, that’s a three-day march off the course of the 3rd Army, Company C engaged the enemy, in a little village between Avallon and Dijon. We never even figured out a name for the place. It disappeared, and I think it did because, well, because Company C engaged somebody there.

Was it the enemy? Was it the Devil himself? Jacob Williams knew, I’m not sure anybody else did. The battle started on Friday, July 28, and it was over on Sunday, July 30, 1944.

The magnetic resonance imaging we have of these bodies—we can do it from the air—makes this tiny village look a huge battlefield, or maybe a cemetery. Bodies are everywhere, Germans soldiers, French peasants, Jacob and his men—in the streets, in the fields. We’re talking over 300 dead people in the middle of nowhere. We found one of ours buried in the mayor’s wine cellar, for God’s sake. Who was fighting who? And for what?

No doubt that Jacob was out in front of this. But why? Where were they headed? Was this village their destination? That’s the thing, you get to know these people, but you never know why they died when they did, what brought them to this place.

That soldier in the wine cellar. One of his buddies wrote a letter home about Company C’s wino. The guy was always diving into wine cellars, “inspecting the local wares,” he called it. He’d break off the neck and find a glass, drink all night if he could. Totally unreliable by day, but everybody loved him—he was their mascot, I guess. Thing is, the bullet that killed him came from an American carbine, an M-1.  Not an officer’s pistol, not a German rifle. Who killed that guy?

And here’s the other thing, this is what worries me, keeps me up at night sometimes. Friendly fire killed almost all of the Americans who died in that place. Jacob killed himself, for God’s sake, I’m sure of that. The back of his head was blown off. Who else? And why?

In Waterloo, I asked Jacob’s mother what she would like to do with the remains.

“Of what?” she said.

Sure, I can tell you about other cases. How about my first case? It was a fighter pilot who went down in eastern France. He was flying a P-47, with that huge Pratt-Whitney engine out in front, .50 caliber machine gun underneath, not like the P-38 Lightning, two engines on the wings. Soon as you disable the P-47, as soon as it loses power, it dives, the weight of that engine makes it vertical, and when it hits ground it goes twelve feet deep. At least.

The effect of that collision is ugly. [laughter] Your head flies off, maybe your arms, too. The locals retrieved the torso, buried it at the edge of the field he’d crashed, and used the propeller as a kind of cross.

By the time I got there, this is five years ago, it was just a field, no propeller. But we found .50 caliber bullet casings, bits of plexiglass. We actually found the pilot’s head in the field, so we took his skull, hoping to check the dentures, verify that he was this guy from Brooklyn we’d been tracking.

We identified him by those teeth. They were really bad, lots of fillings. It turns out he had been flying Spitfires for the RAF before we got into the war. Sure, I can tell you that. His name was Eugene Rabinowitz.

Like my grandfather, this young man became a squadron leader during World War II, flying missions from England over Germany, piloting B-26s. He’s the guy who lines up the target and delivers the package. He watches what happens, because he needs to verify it, write it up. What was Eugene doing in that P-47? Why had he decided to go solo? Who let him do it? You can see that my questions can’t be answered.

When he was really old, my grandfather talked about all the damage he’d done by dropping bombs. I wouldn’t say he had regrets, it was more like he was trying to balance the books, you know what I mean? Sort of like what I do.

One day, maybe a month before he died, he gave me the flight log he kept, a record of all the missions he flew. I looked through it, just mystified, but I’m pretty sure that was the start of my career as an archive rat. I kept trying to make sense of it. I still am. I still have it.

The entries for February 14-15, 1945, always intrigued me, even when I was a kid, because instead of his usual short report—here’s the mission, flight path, time and delivery, return to base—you see two whole paragraphs. But you can’t read them, they’re scribbled and stained.   Except for the word “Dresden.” On those runs, he was aiming his bombs at the railroad yards outside of Dresden. He didn’t create the firestorm, I decided. I cross-checked his flight log against the official version, and he was there, but it was the RAF that incinerated the city.

I guess I want to forgive him. And he doesn’t even need it. Not from me.

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Fuck Tragedy, or, Comedians All!

Laughter is subversive. That’s why I want to get over the morbid, to move beyond the tragic, and to argue that comedy is what we need in addressing His Anus, the asshole who now occupies the White House. We have to learn to laugh at him. I understand that the tragic sensibility is the costume of the serious academic or intellectual, and I want to wear it—woe is fucking me–but I’ll be goddamned if that hairshirt fits. I just can’t bear it.

Herewith, then, a primer on comedy. Not to worry, this is self-help in the most literal sense–I write to instruct and improve myself. If you feel better having read what follows, and please remember that I don’t yet know what follows, good for you. Maybe good for me, too. I’m making this shit up as I go along.

Alexander Herzen, the crazy Russian sort-of anarchist once said: “Only equals may laugh.” He meant at, and with, each other. We all laugh at our bosses and our superiors, the ones who can give the orders, but only behind their backs. We all know what would happen if we laughed in their faces: “Do you think this is funny?” Then we’d get fired, demoted, reprimanded, or court-martialed, depending on our station.

Herzen knew that laughter is the solvent of social hierarchies, and that silence, civility, reverence, and lofty purposes sustain them.

Another crazy Russian, Mikhail Bakhtin (a.k.a. V.N. Volshinov), a 20th-century linguist without limits, wrote a whole history of this corrosive laughter by way of his book on Rabelais, the 16th-century author of Gargantua and Pantegruel, a novel that makes “South Park” seem Victorian. It contains these liturgically inspired lines, which I memorized when I was in junior high school:

“Squirt hard, fart hard, turd in us:/Thy bung has flung its dung on us.”

Bakhtin is honored among serious academics and intellectuals for his treatment of the carnival, the strenuous but still occasional holidays of late medieval Europe, as compensation and reversion—as ratification of existing social hierarchies: today we party, tomorrow we go back to bowing and scraping because that’s real life. Same old servant of power shit, right? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Serious intellectuals want to know that the carnival is a sham—they need to know that they must lose, because if they won, they couldn’t have been serious to begin with.

I keep reading Bakhtin precisely because I’m not a serious intellectual: fuck that tragic sense of life, I want to win this thing, I want to take power away from the dickheads and the rednecks and the CEOS—I mean, let’s kick their asses. Also, I admit, because Bakhtin was writing utopian literary history under the most suffocating intellectual conditions, in the USSR of the mid-20th century. He couldn’t be any more serious than I am. Here’s a sample from Rabelais and His World (1965, trans. 1968):

“This [the city, the marketplace, where a social consciousness of historical time flourishes because one experiences other bodies of different ages, races, social classes] is why festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts.

“Medieval laughter, when it triumphed over the fear inspired by the mystery of the world and by power, boldly unveiled the truth about both. It resisted praise, flattery, hypocrisy. This laughing truth, expressed in curses and abusive words, degraded power.”


In these terms, comedy is not merely more fun than tragedy, it’s more useful if you want to speak truth to power—if you want to get political in the here and now rather than wait on a better world to come. Berthold Brecht, a deadly serious playwright, explained that proposition as a kind of paradox when contemplating the ridiculous spectacle of Adolf Hitler:

“The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter. . . . If the ruling classes permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history. That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook and that what he does has great consequences does not add to his stature. One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.”

Hello? How’s that? Kenneth Burke, the American literary critic, translator, historian, and bon vivant, a man who wrote about comedy and tragedy at the same moment, in the 1930s—and in exactly the same way as Brecht—explained the matter as a forensic problem. Tragedy, he wrote in 1937, “deals in crime,’ so it proliferates at moments of sharp and deeply felt change: “any incipient trend will first be felt as crime by reason of its conflict with established values.”

Burke argued that comedy transcended tragedy because it, too, “warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity.” Comedy depicts people as mistaken, not vicious. “When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy.” Comedy “requires the maximum of forensic complexity,” and so it refuses the deus ex machina that often regulates tragedy. “Comedy deals with man in society,” as Burke put it, “tragedy with the cosmic man.”

The originary gangster movies of the early 1930s, and their gradual displacement (in time, in space, in words) by westerns in the grand cinematic style pioneered by John Ford, demonstrate Burke’s point. John Wayne/Ringo in “Stagecoach (1939) is no less beyond the law than James Cagney/Tommy in “Public Enemy” (1932). Both of these self-made men are behind their bureaucratic, white-collar, rule-bound times, as any unruly individual will be under the regime of corporate capitalism. But “Stagecoach” is a comedy, and “Public Enemy” is, like “Scarface” (1931) and “Little Caesar” (1930), a tragedy.

So Bakhtin, Brecht, and Burke were making quite similar arguments at the same time, during the greatest crisis of western civilization since the 17th century—not just a Great Depression, not merely the triumph of fascism, but also a European civil war that turned the entire continent into a charnel house, from Spain to Siberia. Yes, they said, this is serious business, but enough already with the tragic sensibility that protects us from the storm by assuming that it must end badly for us leftists. They were exhorting their comrades, telling them to liberate themselves.


I think that’s why Bakhtin lets the social force of laughter disappear into the interiority of each individual just two pages after explaining its public effects (as above): “Laughter is essentially not an external but an interior form of truth. . . . Laughter liberates not only from external censorship but first of all from the great interior censor; it liberates from the fear that developed in man during thousands of years: fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power.”

I know that’s why G. W. F. Hegel was a stand-up comedian. Seriously. Bear with me as I explain—just a few more paragraphs!

Hegel invented the category of the “unhappy consciousness” in trying to explain the passage beyond the integrated character of the ancient citizen, who was somehow at home in his world.  Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity served as both metaphors and historical instances of this passage—the secular chapters in the same story were Skepticism and Stoicism.  What they all shared, according to Hegel, was an inability, or rather an unwillingness, to read or inscribe their truths in the world as it actually existed. They shared a tragic sensibility.

Release or abstention from the corruptions of this world was, then, the path to salvation or enlightenment, because the world had become the impediment to—never the condition of—truth as such.  So the unhappy consciousness typically produced a “beautiful soul,” the man who would be in but not of this world, the man who couldn’t recognize his own implication in its corruptions. He’s the man who wouldn’t know a comic spectacle even if he were a cast member, and Hegel put it pretty much this way in 1807.

Now comedy, defined either as the happy stupidity of humor—can you believe this shit?—or more broadly, as the narrative form that refuses to let things end at the stage of tragedy, is the place where we decide to get ugly and acknowledge that no one is exempt from the corruptions of this world: no more beautiful souls, comedians say, whether they’re writing plays and novels, or doing stand-up, or making fun of FOX News.

You can’t abstain from sin, evil, or power, they insist, so you might as well know that there’s no sanctuary.  Comedians always have to produce ironic detachment from shitty circumstances because they begin there, in the world, in the same place the audience comes from.

Of course Hegel knew that a strictly tragic sense of life could issue from the disturbing idea that “the world is ruled by the Devil,” as Martin Luther, his chosen antecedent, explained the situation.  After all, once you acknowledge the universal reification and corruption of your time, intellectual resignation from it, and thus practical acquiescence to it, become perfectly rational: skepticism, stoicism, even cynicism and nihilism, then become the obvious retort to what we call faith, hope, or optimism.  In this sense, the “beautiful soul” isn’t a merely romantic conceit—every generation or so, it becomes a left-wing political imperative.  Ask Chris Hedges.

But Hegel, like Bakhtin, Brecht, and Burke, knew that comedy contains tragedy, and by doing so it gives us good reasons to have faith in each other and hope for our futures.  As Hayden White puts it in Metahistory: “Comedy is the form which reflection takes after it has assimilated the truths of Tragedy to itself.”

Hegel himself was more circumspect in The Phenomenology, and, I would suggest, more devious. The “unhappy consciousness”—skepticism, stoicism, early Christianity, etc.—was the form of self-certainty that could appear, in history and in philosophy, when the slave understood that the master was a dimension of his own personality rather than an external figure with absolute power over him, and, accordingly, when the master understood that he had already bought the slave’s knowledge of the world.

At that historical and philosophical moment, however, each was able to realize only an “inner freedom,” an empty subjectivity that lacked material validation: “Self-consciousness which reaches its fulfillment in the figure of unhappy consciousness is only the torment of the spirit struggling to rise again to an objective state but failing to reach it.”  Or again: “It lives in dread of staining the radiance of its inner being by action and existence.”

But comedy as a narrative form works exactly this way, by taking the outward oppositions of tragedy—over here the hero (good), over there the villain (bad), these shall meet ere long and die appropriate deaths, probably at each other’s hands—and making them inward, by making them discordant dimensions of every character in sight. That’s what Bakhtin was getting at when he said that laughter is an “interior form of truth.”

Where once we witnessed master and slave, we now experience and recognize ourselves.  No more beautiful souls, because no one can rise above or stand apart from the administered inferno that is “the modern time.”  Everyone is always already beyond good and evil, because everyone, having been created equal, just is good and evil.

Hegel explained in the Aesthetics that, like History itself, all dramatic action expresses the “one-sided aspect” of each character, actor, people or nation: “And this is so whether as in tragedy, they are opposed to such in hostility, or, as in comedy, they are displayed within these characters themselves, without further mediation, as a condition of resolution” (my italics).

Because the comprehension of the entire situation is unavailable to any character—and this is especially true of the great tragic heroes—passion, error, irony, and conflict are the regulative principles of both dramatic action and History itself.  But comedy gets beyond tragedy by treating these as matters of folly, evidence of our common experience, rather than evidence of concerted evil imposed on us from elsewhere by Fate, by the Gods, or by the corporate powers that be.

Toward the end of The Phenomenology, the Bildungsroman of self-consciousness, Hegel got pretty excited about the prospects of his comedic rendition of the human condition, even unto “the modern time,” which he dated from the 18th century.  Hereafter, he thought, we didn’t have to be the disport of the Gods, the willing victims of Fate, the mute objects of History made by great men.  The “comic spectacle” on offer here was “the return of everything universal into certainty of self,” he announced, “a certainty which, in consequence, is [the] complete loss of fear of everything strange and alien, and [the] complete loss of substantial reality on the part of what is alien and external.”

He concluded:  “Such certainty is a state of spiritual good health and of self-abandonment thereto, on the part of consciousness, in a way that, outside this kind of comedy, is not to be found elsewhere.”

I’m with Rabelais, Bakhtin, Brecht, Burke, and Hegel. Fuck tragedy and its non-heroic residue. His Anus doesn’t yet know that he’s the leading man in a comic spectacle. Let’s make sure that he finds out.


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