Heir Apparent to Thomas Friedman

Timothy Egan clearly sees himself as the rightful heir to Thomas Friedman, who is willing to say anything, no matter how inane or offensive, as long as it guarantees him air time and column inches. Three weeks ago, Egan claimed that sports are the most progressive force of our time, no matter that Muhammad Ali was barred from boxing in his prime for daring to oppose the Vietnam War from the standpoint of his solidarity with the Nation of Islam, or that the last bastions of homophobia are the two most popular professional leagues.

Two weeks ago, he claimed that “commencement bigots” had hijacked freedom of speech and diversity of opinion. His primary case in point was Condoleeza Rice, who, as George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, heedlessly promoted a needless invasion of Iraq and earnestly defended torture—-not just any kind, but waterboarding—-as the necessary corollary of a larger “war on terror.” According to Egan, she stepped down from her $35,000 gig at the Rutgers commencement because the “forces of intolerance” had silenced her. No matter that she declined the invitation because a grass-roots movement led by former undergraduates (most prominently, Larry Ladutke, a former student of mine), then taken up by a faculty petition, insisted that she had the right to express her opinion, and the opportunity to be honored and compensated as an exemplar of education, but not at the expense of and by the Rutgers community, faculty and students included, without its consent.

Here is how Egan addressed these issues, among them torture, in his column on “commencement bigots”:

“She canceled after a small knot of protesters pressured the university. It’s no contest who showed more class. Near as I can tell, the forces of intolerance objected to her role in the Iraq war. O.K. And by shutting her down the point is . . . what?

“The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush—two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States—was clearly a debacle. Contemporary assessments were not kind, and history will be brutal. But if every speaker has to pass a test for benign mediocrity and politically correct sensitivity, commencement stages will be home to nothing but milquetoasts. You want torture? Try listening to the Stanford speech of 2009, when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.”

In her official capacities as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, Rice advocated waterboarding in the name of an unjust war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. What’s the big deal? You want to know what torture is? Never mind Guantanamo, go directly to a Stanford commencement, where, exposed to the California sun, they make you listen to a Supreme Court justice drone on about the rule of law as it regulates the behavior of nations at war.

And now today, Timothy Egan berates Americans for digging “a serous national memory hole.” They’re ignorant of their own past, and so they keep saying stupid things. It’s not just the 18 year-olds who lack a “firm grasp of our nation’s history.” No, “look at the top”: “Opinion leaders, corporate titans, politicians, media personalities, and educators-—dunce caps for all.”

Tom Perkins, Ken Langone, for example, who’ve been “comparing the plight of our country’s very rich to the objects of Hitler’s wrath.” And Sarah Palin, who has “recently declared that torture is as American as Sunday school”! OMG, what were they thinking? Rich people aren’t persecuted as Jews were in the Germany of the Third Reich, also, c’mon, the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and did I mention that torture is a violation of human rights and international law?

Do I have to spell this out? Today Timothy Egan accuses Americans of lacking exactly what he does—-historical consciousness, a sense of the past and its weight. “One doesn’t expect Palin to know that the Eighth Amendment prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ or that torture is banned by international treaties signed by the United States. But is it too much to ask for her to realize that Imperial Japan, our enemy in World War II, was prosecuted for waterboarding?”

No, it’s not too much to ask of her. How about you, Tim? As a student or faculty member at Rutgers, how would you feel if the Board of Governors announced that it was giving an honorary degree to Sarah Palin, plus an honorarium for her commencement address? Would you join a small knot of protesters, or just chalk it up to fair and balanced free speech?

Timothy Egan is so incapable of thinking historically about his own ideas, let alone his own country, that he approached two of the worst historians on the planet for explanations of the lack he attributes to the rest of us, and was happy with their dumb answers.

“I asked a couple of the nation’s premier time travelers, the filmmaker Ken Burns and his frequent writing partner Dayton Duncan, why so many Americans can’t even place the Civil War in the right half-century, or think we fought alongside the Germans in World War II.”

Burns thinks the problem is a lack of “civics” in the school curriculum, which he compares to the “operating system” for citizenry: if only we grasped it, we’d “know how government is constructed” and appreciate its design. As if I’d be a better driver if I understood internal combustion or a better blogger if I could write code. Duncan goes for the profoundly tautological: “Americans [have] tended to be ‘ahistorical’” because they “choose to forget the context of our past.” Like Egan, and like most professional historians, he mistakes his own intellectual affliction for a cultural epidemic.

Egan begins and ends with slavery and the Civil War, as I suppose he must. He complains that according to a Pew Study of 2011, “nearly half of Americans think the main cause of the Civil War was a dispute over federal authority—-not slavery.” He laments the fact that “the South was allowed to promote the inaccurate narrative of ‘the Lost Cause’-—[it was] all about states’ rights and Northern aggression.”

No matter that for a century Americans were taught that slavery was a secondary issue in the coming, the conduct, and the conclusion of the Civil War, by teachers, by statesmen, by progressive historians like Charles and Mary Beard. No matter that William H. Dunning of Columbia meanwhile supervised dozens of PhD dissertations that proved Reconstruction was no less a tragedy than the Civil War itself, because the cause of racial equality was never more than a childish dream. No matter that the Dunning School ruled the journals and the presses—and the movies—until the 1950s.

I survey my students in the 100-level survey class, asking them what they think was the proximate cause of the Civil War. They split according to what they’ve been taught in high school, states’ rights here, slavery there. Why not?

Here’s a longer look at the question of History Standards.


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Marty and Me

Martin J. Sklar (b. 1935), one of the great historians of the 20th century, died last week in Harrisburg, PA. Here is something I wrote about him back in 2012 but refrained from publishing until now. I was trying then to guarantee that his intellectual legacy wouldn’t be reduced to his late rantings about the Obama administration. Now I’m just hoping.


The first time we stopped talking for ten years—this was the winter of 1979—I figured I’d never see the man again. His parting shot was “You’ve always been locked in an Oedipal struggle with me, Livingston.” My response was, “What else is new, you’re my teacher, Marty, what does a student do except try to kill off his figurative father? But I really don’t want to fuck your wife, and my mother is dead.” I was nowhere near sober when I said it. Neither was he when he heard it. (Among other things, we were disagreeing about how I had replaced him as the editorial writer at In These Times: he thought I was breaking his one-man strike against the publisher, I thought I was doing good.)

But I knew this old mole would haunt me. Altogether we haven’t spoken for at least twenty years of a forty-year acquaintance; that’s half of the time since we met. No matter. He’s always there, in my head, an ancient superego—-I almost said spirit-—with unlimited access to every waking dream I write. His name is Martin J. Sklar. I have elsewhere said that he’s the most original and profound thinker I’ve ever encountered, in print or in person, and by now this roster runs from Aristotle to Zizek.

But I write this preemptive memorial because Sklar has recently published an e-book called Letters on Obama (From the Left), a document that could disfigure his intellectual legacy, as a late codicil to a will can obliterate its original intent. I write in sorrow—-I feel like I’ve been disowned all over again—-but also in the hope of restoring, or at any rate clarifying, this legacy.

The Letters are, in fact epistolary—they are dated documents sent to unnamed friends (with the exception of Ronald Radosh) and to avowedly right-wing pundits, celebrities, and lawyers, among them Norman Podhoretz and John Yoo. There is also the inevitable letter to President Obama, telling him what must be done to save the economy and the nation. The tattered, hasty, digressive quality of the letters make the book seem urgent, suggesting that the first person form of address must matter to readers. But in fact its urgency derives from Sklar’s performance as a voice in the wilderness-—he believes that his warnings about the totalitarian and fascist implications of the “Obama regime” have been ignored, and that all his previous thinking has led him to this crossroads.


I met him in 1971 because I was getting involved, as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University, in the social-democratic successor to SDS and the wider Left called New American Movement. He and James Weinstein (also John Judis, Nick Rabkin, and others affiliated with Socialist Revolution, a new journal out of San Francisco) were the intellectual heavyweights of this moment. I was introduced to the mix by my mentor Marvin Rosen, a young faculty member of the History department at NIU. Like everybody else on the scene, he had been thoroughly radicalized by his glancing experience of the cultural revolution made by the New Left, and had been galvanized by Sklar’s arrival in DeKalb, Illinois-—Marty had taken a job as an assistant professor at NIU in 1970, with a mere M.A. from Wisconsin but ecstatic endorsements from William Appleman Williams, Eugene D. Genovese, Hayden White, and Christopher Lasch, not to mention Howard Beale and Fred Harvey Harrington or the backing of old friends like Carl Parrini, another Wisconsin alumnus, in Northern’s department of History.

With New American Movement, Marty and Jimmy, et al., were trying to put political-institutional flesh on the intellectual skeleton they had assembled first at Studies on the Left, the Madison-based journal, founded in 1960, which they moved to New York in 1963; then in the “seminars” they convened in 1968 along with Genovese, Williams, Lasch, and Gar Alperovitz; and then again at SR. NAM was a vital organism until 1975. We held the organization’s annual meeting at the NIU Student Center in the summer of 1974-—the summer of Nixon’s resignation!—-when my (then) wife was elected to the National Interim Council because she was a non-white female who also happened to be smart, funny, and deeply committed to the cause. Then it bled out, neatly punctured by the old intellectual vampires of the New Left, flowing quickly toward variations on the laughable themes of “workplace organizing” and Marxist-Leninist purity.

The intellectual skeleton Sklar and Weinstein had assembled wasn’t very complicated, but it was incredibly controversial on the Left of that moment. Its spine was made of these vertebrae: socialism wasn’t a foreign import, Marxism was already the mainstream of intellectual discourse (see: the humanities, NYRB, TNR), mere radicalism was insufficient to the task of revolution, electoral politics would be essential to the success of the Left, liberalism wasn’t the antithesis of anything important, and all of American history—-every goddamn speck of it—-was a potentially usable past, right down to constitutional jurisprudence and ruling-class consciousness. SR became the display case for these fragile bones until Jimmy and Marty revealed their next project, the new Iskra, which they called In These Times. Take a cursory look at SR ca. 1973-1977, and you’ll find a lot of articles, letters, and manifestoes by members of the DeKalb chapter of NAM, by myself among others.

Sklar left NIU in 1976 to write editorials for ITT, once again hoping to make a difference on the Left, and for the Left, construed as a real movement reaching beyond the campus. The History department had voted overwhelmingly in favor of his tenure even though he lacked a PhD and had expressed no interest in getting one. (He could have through the University of Rochester, where he was ABD, but he told me later that he suffered through the 70s from writer’s block; it didn’t show in the brilliant editorials he wrote for ITT). Carl Parrini and I had collaborated on a ten-page letter endorsing tenure for Marty, noting the various uses to which his unpublished work had been put by established scholars and lesser mortals without proper acknowledgment (for example, an undergraduate paper written for Merrill Jensen on Alexander Hamilton and manufacturing). Al Young had written an even longer letter to the same effect.

But we all knew he was gone, and some of us followed him—-one of the benefits of graduate school at NIU was the opportunity to participate in the discussion and articulation of ITT’s founding principles.

In that last year at Northern, Sklar taught a year-long reading/research seminar called “The Corporate Reorganization of American Society, 1896-1914.” The syllabus ran more than 50 pages—every week was densely packed with a dozen readings from the period and more contemporary takes on this so-called Progressive Era. It was an event. I couldn’t stand it. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot, and you could say that my dissertation book of 1986 on the Fed was one result of that seminar; you could say the same about his book of 1988. But as I told Marty in December of 1976, then again that winter day in 1979, I dropped the course after the first semester because I believed he was teaching us what to think, not how—-I was sure that everybody in the class, myself included, approached each reading with one question in mind: what does Sklar want us to make of this?


Most people have one big idea in their lives, and they pursue it more or less relentlessly, albeit unconsciously. I don’t mean that Isaiah Berlin was right about hedgehogs and foxes. I mean instead that most of us don’t change our minds often enough to have a new idea, or even a fresh insight, so we’re pretty much destined to be hedgehogs, always rooting in the first intellectual territory we claimed.

Martin J. Sklar is different, but he’s not a fox as Berlin would classify this intellectual species. No, Marty has had at least four big ideas in his eight decades on this earth. I’ll list them, and let them sink in: (1) corporate liberalism, ca. 1900-present; (2) the disaccumulation of capital, ca. 1919-present; (3) post-imperialism as a dimension of American/Open Door diplomacy, ca. 1900-present; (4) the mix of capitalism and socialism in the development of the US, ca. 1900-present.

Sklar coined the term “corporate liberalism” in his seminal essay on Woodrow Wilson, first published in Studies on the Left 1 (1960): 7-47. Over the next ten years, the term—the concept—entered the lexicon of the New Left, in both its activist and its academic guises, to the point where SDS manifestoes (“America and the New Order” [1963]) and scholarly monographs (including Weinstein’s own Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State [1968]) routinely deployed it. (Jeffrey Lustig’s eponymous book of 1986 remains a mystery to me because it contains no mention of Sklar and no trace of the larger “oral tradition” that sustained both intellectual and political interest in the concept after 1960—where did he think this idea came from?—but then he was a political scientist.) In subsequent decades, the concept also became a point of contention for social/labor historians who mistook it for a claim that corporate liberals were omniscient rulers from the capitalist class, and who, accordingly, disputed its explanatory scope in the name of working-class agency and insurgency. By the 1980s, however, diplomatic historians up against old-school Wisconsin revisionism, particularly Melvyn Leffler and Michael Hogan, had started using “corporatism” to characterize the Cold War alliance forged between internationalist businessmen, politicians, scholars, and State Department policy- makers, having somehow forgotten that this concept carried the anti-liberal connotations of syndicalism, statism, and fascism.

Sklar tried to correct everyone in The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (1988), the book that issued from his Rochester PhD dissertation of 1982, which was supervised by his old friend Gene Genovese. (Sklar left ITT in 1979, in a dispute with Weinstein over control of the editorial pages, quit smoking, then reanimated his academic career by returning to the legal history of anti-trust which had preoccupied him in the 1960s.) In this now neglected book, he stressed that corporate liberalism was (a) the cross-class social movement that created corporate capitalism by accommodating small business, absorbing—not annihilating—Populism, and addressing socialism; and (b) the cross-class ideology that preserved and renewed the two core liberal principles of American politics, viz, the supremacy of society over the state (the sovereignty of the people) and the priority of individual identity over any functional, occupational, or ethnic group. In short: it wasn’t a ruling-class conspiracy, and it wasn’t corporatism.

Sklar clearly failed to convince anyone, most notably himself, that the distinction he made between corporatism and corporate liberalism was worth maintaining—-for he now denounces what he calls the “Obama regime,” the center-left coalition that obviously upholds Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “positive government,” as a totalitarian band of gangsters and fascists bent on merging the Party and the State, thus erasing the difference between state and society. I am not making this up, but don’t take my word for it: see Letters on Obama, Part I.

What Sklar hasn’t learned from his own close study of American politics is that the difference between the American and, say, the German response to the catastrophe of the Great Depression was the liberal inheritance that insisted on the priority of the individual and the supremacy of society over that state. The expiration of the NIRA in 1935 signifies the end of FDR’s experiment with state-centered syndicalist planning, and the end of American flirtation with fascism. The closest we have since come to a quasi-fascist reprise occurred when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney claimed the powers of a “unitary executive” under cover of a “war on terror”: the Party and the State of War did then merge, but only briefly and tentatively, in the moral darkness of Guantanamo. Note that the military, normally the armature of fascist dictatorship, fought back against the violations of liberal principle proposed and enacted by the Bush administration. So did Republicans in the Senate.

To suggest, as Sklar now does in the Letters, that Obama and his apparatchiki are fascists, that the ferociously anti-statist opinions of Tea Party Republicans represent the last stand of our liberal inheritance, or that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney represent a robust left wing of the political spectrum, is to repudiate what he has so painstakingly taught us. It is to sacrifice historical judgment on the altar of political purpose—-exactly what he has always said he can’t abide.

I have no objection, mind you, to redrawing the ideological map that locates Left and Right. As Sklar’s student, acquaintance, and part-time translator, I’ve long been urging us to relinquish the ideas that have petrified our thinking on this very difference, particularly the idea that liberals, radicals, and conservatives have nothing in common (cf. Corey Robin on the reactionary mind as radicalism in reverse). But his recent Letters ignore, invert, and distort these categories. It’s one thing to put them in motion, keep them in question. It’s quite another to render them meaningless.

If you want to revisit the arguments of the 1988 book, which seem quaintly dignified in view of the Letters, you can read my review for In These Times-—“It was worth waiting twenty years for,” Weinstein said when he asked me to review it—-or see my “How to Succeed in Business History Without Really Trying” Business & Economic History 2nd series (1992). Or go to the book itself, but make sure you memorize pp. 6-9, 29-35, 362, and 436-37 before deciding where you stand.


Long before the book, while a PhD student and SDS leader at the University of Rochester, Sklar had invented the notion of disaccumulation: see his “On the Proletarian Revolution and the End of Political-Economic Society,” Radical America (May-June 1969): 1-41, reprinted in The United States as a Developing Country (1992). It’s not an easy read. Suffice it here to say that Sklar used Marx’s theory of accumulation to show that in the second and third decades of the 20th century, output and productivity began to increase without additional inputs of either capital or labor—-for the first time in human history. In other words, growth proceeded as the function of a declining volume of net private investment, on the one hand, and a technologically driven extrication of living labor from goods production, on the other.

The implications of these trends are momentous. To begin with, the labor theory of value becomes moot, as “socially necessary labor” recedes and workers become mere watchmen and regulators in a production process in which they were once the main characters. The capital-labor relation that created class conflict and consciousness recedes accordingly, changing social relations (including consciousness) to the same extent. Any intelligible relation between the production of value through work and the receipt of income is obscured at best. And consumer expenditures no longer represent a constraint on economic growth because their proportional reduction of saving and investment no longer matters—again, growth proceeds as a function of declining net investment.

A half century ago, Roy Harrod and Evsey Domar translated John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory (1936) into a theory of growth, which is, by definition, a theory of crisis as well. The result, the “Harrod-Domar model,” is still part of the macroeconomics curriculum, probably because it draws so heavily on the Marxist sources and tangents of the Keynesian Revolution, including Michal Kalecki and the Soviet planning debates of the 1920s. You might say that John Judis and I are the Harrod and Domar of Sklar’s concept of disaccumulation; for we have tried, over the years, to translate it into a theory of growth and crisis. The results are not yet part of any curriculum I know of, but you can sample John’s efforts at The New Republic as recently as 2013 and mine in Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution (1994) or Against Thrift (2011).

In view of the trends specific to disaccumulation, the worst possible fiscal policy is to reduce taxes on corporate or business profits, in the hope that higher profits will induce more private investment, thus more jobs, higher productivity, and increased per capita incomes. This policy will always and inevitably produce bubbles, because once disaccumulation commences, profits become more or less superfluous—-they aren’t required to drive growth via investment, so they flow toward speculative markets, as in the 1920s, and as in the long boom-bust cycle following the Reagan Revolution, ca. 1983-2009, when transfers of income shares from labor to capital made not just for inequality but for economic crisis, or rather produced crisis by enhancing inequality.

To suggest, as Sklar now does in the Letters, that a tax-cutting, pro-business fiscal policy must be the cause of the (liberal) Left is to ignore the economic history of the 20th century illuminated by his own theory of capital disaccumulation-—and to consign the majority of Americans, not just the young and the old, to a future in which penury becomes normal and business cycles become unmanageable. The last time I spoke to Marty (on the phone in 2003), we argued angrily about the probable effects of the Bush tax cuts. I said another bubble, another crash, he said solid growth. If we may judge from the Letters on Obama, not even the Great Recession has changed his mind, despite the fact that it was a phenomenon made predictable and preventable by his own intellectual efforts of 40-plus years ago.


Sklar’s brother Richard, a political scientist at UCLA (now emeritus), is credited with the concept of “post-imperialism,” which he introduced in 1976. Richard developed the concept as a way of sketching a de-centered, post-colonial, trans-national order managed, but not dominated, by a corporate bourgeoisie without borders—-think Hardt & Negri’s Empire (1999) minus Spinoza and you’ve got a grip on the argument. Richard was interested mainly in what a post-imperialist order would mean for the new nations of Africa and, by analogy, the developing countries of Asia. His brother saw a bigger picture.

Marty had already made original contributions to the revisionist cause with his M.A. Thesis on Wilson and the China consortium. William Appleman Williams said as much in the 2nd (1962) edition of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), when he cited Sklar’s analysis of John Hay’s third installment of the Open Door notes (see also Ivan Dee’s essay in Lloyd Gardner, ed. Redefining the Past [1984], a festschrift in honor of Williams, as well as Gardner’s introduction).

The key to that analysis, in the thesis of 1960 and after, was the significance Hay accorded to investment in defining “a fair field and no favor” as the goal of an Open Door world. To my knowledge, Sklar and Parrini are the only revisionists from the Wisconsin school convened by Harrington and Williams who have understood and emphasized this dimension of modern American imperialism, as theory and in practice. Scholars from other disciplines, particularly economics (Bill Warren, Jeffrey Frieden), have also understood it, but none so thoroughly, and none, save perhaps Hardt & Negri, have grasped its post-imperialist implications. (Long story short: Hobson and Hilferding notwithstanding, once investment rather than trade drives imperial goals, the “transfer of technology” becomes the material means of hegemony, and this transfer must reduce the quotient of exploitation in the relation between imperial powers and host nations.)

In a short published piece of 1999, Sklar examined those implications, suggesting that as early as 1900, US policy-makers were designing and implementing, to the extent American power permitted, the post-imperialist world order they called the Open Door. In doing so, he was both preserving and transcending what Williams had wrought in Tragedy, and what his brother had written in 1976. He wasn’t the first to go beyond Williams or to broaden the chronological scope of “post-imperialism”—-Keith Haynes did that—-but he was the first to recast modern American diplomacy as an intellectual continuum animated by the quest for a world in which imperialism was a relic of barbarism.

You will laugh out loud at this proposition, and reach for Noam Chomsky or Andrew Bacevich when your diaphragm has returned to normal. I still think Sklar was right, and that this big idea of his needs elaboration. The trouble is, he doesn’t.

Since 2001, he has instead been railing against “the Islamists” and their threat to western civilization in the clinically hysterical rhetorical mode made familiar by Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, and Dick Cheney: those terrorists might as well be Nazis, therefore we need to take the fight to them as we did in the 1940s when confronted with a comparable existential threat! And as we did in (the farce of) 2003. The Letters accordingly depict the inevitable military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq as appeasement of the enemy, and indeed cast Obama as a stealthy infiltrator—-as someone trying to tilt the world in favor of the Islamo-fsacists. The alternative to such appeasement, according to Sklar, is more boots on the ground in the Middle East, permanently, and more power to a president willing to rely on John Yoo’s tortured rendition of the Constitution. Again, I am not making this up: see for yourself in the Letters, Parts 2 and 3.

Sklar has, in this sense, repressed and mutilated the intellectual legacy offered him by the policy-makers he studied, by Williams, and again by his own brother: he has disowned himself. For if they taught us anything, and if the catastrophe called the 20th century has any lessons still worth learning, it is that military superiority means nothing in the long run-—maybe even in the short run, from the Gulf of Tonkin, say, to the Tet Offensive—-and that the expansion of executive power inevitably means the decay of democracy.


Sklar denies that his concept of “the mix”—-the interpenetration of capitalism and socialism in the development of the US in the 20th century—-has any genealogical roots in the postwar notion of a “mixed economy” (a notion that had social-intellectual sources in the idea of a “post-industrial society,” which was, however, a form of resistance to the idea of totalitarianism). He might have a point. His definitions of socialism and capitalism are deeply informed by historical consciousness and evidence rather than moral categories and imperatives. Still, I wish he had acknowledged some of these bourgeois roots, as I wish he had acknowledged them in developing the concept of disaccumulation.

But there is no doubt that “the mix” as Sklar presents it makes us think differently about the relation between capitalism and socialism. If you take him seriously, you can’t believe that these are the terms of an either/or choice, or stages of a necessarily linear historical progression. You have to start looking for socialism in places you wouldn’t expect to find it because you begin to understand that it has no predictable political valence—-it can be democratic, it can be despotic, it can be both—-and that it can never simply replace capitalism.

In analyzing the causes of the Great Recession, Sklar suggests that the socialist components of “the mix”—-Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, among others-—were as culpable as the capitalist components. Here again he might have a point, if only he made it. Instead, he writes as if the necessary regulatory corrections contained in Dodd-Frank are at best onerous and at worst evidence of the Obama regime’s quest for statist command of the market. And once again a tax-cutting, pro-business policy becomes the cure for everything that ails us.

One of the crucial moves that Sklar made in explaining “the mix” was to claim that socialism and statism aren’t identical, or, to put the same proposition another way, that socialism resides in and flows from markets, commodities, and price systems—in and from what we typically associate exclusively with capitalism. Regulation of the market in the name of social goals is of course a result of public policy enforced by state power and judicial rulings, but it’s also the result of price systems managed, modulated, and changed by non-governmental organizations such as trade unions, interest groups, and consumer boycotts.

I would like to take Sklar as seriously as I have in the past, but he has now decided that every policy proposed by the Obama regime enlarges the regulatory role of the state, and thus distorts “the mix” between public and private enterprise-—as I suppose any fascist regime would do. He has chosen to ignore the vast and still mounting evidence that shows the president is perfectly willing, indeed eager, to accredit and subsidize private enterprise in seeking both economic recovery and long-term growth.


I would go to court to challenge this spastic codicil, these Letters on Obama, if there were such a place to register my disapproval and disagreement. But there’s no such place, and if there were, how would my standing be measured? I’m not Martin J. Sklar’s heir apparent any more than Ronald Radosh or John Yoo is.

No, I write to restore your memory, not mine—-I don’t want you to let this late deviation determine your approach to the rest of what the man has given us. I’m not asking you to overlook it, as if you need to forgive him for a “senior moment.” I’m asking you to ignore it altogether.

As I have elsewhere argued, Gene Genovese’s political odyssey makes sense—-he could never locate a source of redemption or renewal in the actually existing social relations of his time, so he posited a world elsewhere that was the intellectual’s equivalent of religious faith. Marty Sklar was, until recently, too Hegelian for that—-socialism was immediately practical and eminently plausible, he insisted, or it was pie in the sky. As both Hegel and Marx taught us, either we assume the ethical principles we live by are at least faintly legible in the historical circumstances we live with, or we become utopians (radicals or reactionaries) seeking escape from the world as it is.

In a tragic parody of Genovese, Sklar has turned himself into another reactionary utopian, desperate to find a principle of hope in a world elsewhere. He’s able to register the political decadence of actually existing socialism—-but he locates it “domestically,” unlike Genovese and every other leftist, in the “fascist” denouement of the New Left carried out by the “Obama regime,” rather than in the “deviations” of a Stalinist Soviet Union or in the more recent vandalization of socialism in the People’s Republic. Meanwhile Sklar is unable to recognize the atrocities generated daily by actually existing capitalism: these are somehow figments of the Left’s deluded imagination. As a result, he has no historical grounding for his arguments except the epoch of Civil War and Reconstruction, where, as you might imagine, Obama is cast as Tilden, not Lincoln.

So “the mix” still has a verifiable, empirical significance for Sklar, but the intellectual balance the concept once gave him are gone. When socialism becomes fascism, capitalism looks like the moral high ground. No wonder he now searches for validation on the Right by writing fan letters to Podhoretz and Yoo—-where else can he turn?

Martin J. Sklar was one of the great historians of the 20th century. For much of that century, he was also a faithful servant of the Left at its very best. He tried to change its course, to make it a self-consciously mainstream movement rather than a marginal collection of individuals devoted to dissent—-which is to say defined by faith in another world which would appear after capitalism, after exploitation, after this life in these times. In 1957, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, he founded the Socialist Club in Madison with that mainstream possibility in mind; it was soon the most popular student organization on campus. With the same possibility in mind, he founded Studies on the Left, Socialist Revolution, and In These Times. In this sense, he, too, was a man of faith. He believed in what was evident yet unknown, and acted upon it. He conveyed, no, he lived, the conviction of things unseen.


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True Detective

I was wrong about this show, and I’m glad to admit it. My confession follows, as written over the last six days.


I’m as intrigued as anyone by HBO’s “True Detective,” to begin with by the performances, or rather by the actors. My question going in was, What did these gifted, dedicated men find in these scripts that was so compelling? I can’t yet answer this question—-but see below—-I suppose because the clunky metaphysics of Rust Cohle’s monologues make me laugh, just when I’m supposed to be paying serious attention. But then maybe it isn’t a laughing matter-—maybe it ain’t metaphysics.

So my question is, are the performances given narrative edges by the sultry, languid, oppressive, and thus seductive atmosphere of the endless swamp that seems not just to surround but to saturate every move of these characters, showing up symptomatically as the worry beads of sweat? Do I want to watch this series because it’s so damn gorgeous, drawing me nearer to Rust and Marty with every aerial or long shot of the bayou? Do I watch because I’m desperate for them to break out of those rooms where their memories have been tested by, then confined to, the legal fictions that bound them as badge-wielding law men?

Hell, yes, to all of the above.

The narrative pace is leisurely, in keeping with the temperature, the humidity, the sea level of the place: everyone and everything is slowly sinking under the weight of some previous mistake, some external mass, whether it’s original sin or the return of the repressed river. Meanwhile, the smaller details of the performances, which are conveyed more immediately by the antithetical physical presences of the partners—-one slim, still, almost whispering, the other bulky, restless, always blustering—-are etched on the huge vegetative background of this location, where they register more materially than in those police procedural rooms. But it’s as if the visual and the verbal dimensions of the story occupy different time zones, or rather the competing cosmic spaces of Cohle’s alcohol-soaked, science-fictional confessions.

I report on these possibly eccentric responses to “True Detective” as a result of Ross Douthat’s NYT blog post, which led me to Andy Greenwald’s mostly snarky but very smart and suggestive reading of the series at the Grantland website, dated January 8, 2014. Here is how Greenwald summarizes his complaint:

“’True Detective’ is in desperate need of [someone] to reflect and maybe modulate the darkness its posters brag about. Someone to provide even a fleeting glimpse of real life. It wouldn’t even necessarily need to be a woman—although that would certainly help, as the few onscreen women who aren’t wearing antlers or grinding on poles are given little to do but get angry or aroused. . . . It would just need to be something genuine and relatable that could float to the show’s dank, oily surface: a joke, a heartfelt desire, a decision not made on either end of a loaded gun. Because despite what recent television trends would have us believe, darkness isn’t a stand-in for depth or maturity. Without light to balance it, darkness is incapable of revealing any profound truths. On its own, darkness merely obscures.”

It’s a brilliant passage because for all its glitter and flourish-—I’ll always remember “a decision not made on either end of a loaded gun”—-it leads us back to the text we’re trying to understand, “True Detective,” and asks us read it more closely. Still, it led me elsewhere, back to another text altogether, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953).


Let me explain. This term I’m teaching a brand new undergraduate course on historiography. The two required “textbooks” in the class are Karl Lowith, Meaning in History (1949) and Hayden White, The Content of the Form (1987), which, for all their differences, treat the religious, chiliastic, eschatological sources of modern historical consciousness with the seriousness they deserve. Last Friday I taught Lowith’s chapter 9, on Augustine, alongside Auerbach’s chapter 3, “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” where the fresh, realistic voice of The Confessions first emerges to challenge the somber, elevated, classical style of ancient historians like Tacitus and Ammianus Marcellinus. These historians clung to the conventions that allotted different rhetorical registers to the well-born and the lowly—-according to these conventions, the technique of realistic imitation was fit only for the comic depiction of servants or slaves-—but they described the world of late antiquity with a new sensory awareness and intensity.

Ammianus was a former commander of a Roman Legion who wrote in the mid-to-late fourth century A.D., as a contemporary of Augustine. But they were worlds apart, even though they knew the same Rome.

In volume 15 of his histories, Ammianus writes of a Roman mob and the arrest of its ringleader with the distant aplomb of his predecessor Tacitus, in a proudly stoic manner that contrasts the seething, mindless mass led by Peter Valvomeres against the steely, virtuous resolve of Leontius, the prefect who accuses him: “sitting in his carriage, with an imposing confidence, he gazed with piercing eyes into the faces of the packed crowd raging all about like serpents.”

In The Confessions, Augustine writes of the same seething mass, but transposes the contest between bloodlust and virtuous repose to a conflict within the same man, his friend Alypius, an avowed Stoic who, when finally exposed to the spectacle of the gladiatorial amphitheater, can’t resist: “directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness.”

As Auerbach then explains in Augustinian rhythms, “And it is not merely a random Alypius whose pride, nay whose inmost being, is thus crushed; it is the entire rational individualistic culture of classical antiquity: Plato and Aristotle, the Stoa and Epicurus. A burning lust has swept them away, in one powerful assault.”

Ammianus, the good soldier, clings to that rational individualistic culture, but his hold on it is slipping fast, because the pitiless gaze of his imperial eyes—-the elevated style of classical antiquity—-can’t make sense of the ending that is already upon him: with these narrative formulae in hand, he can describe decadence, deformity, cruelty, idiocy, and treachery in great detail, but he can’t respond to these gruesome circumstances with anything more creative than resignation. That is why Auerbach characterizes this historical moment as a rhetorical crisis:

“From the end of the first century of the Imperial Age something sultry and oppressive appears, a darkening of the atmosphere of life. It is unmistakable in Seneca, and the somber tone of Tacitus’ historical writing has often been noted. But here in Ammianus we find that the process has reached the stage of magical and sensory dehumanization.”

The brutally realistic depiction of a similar darkening is what has reanimated television in our time, from “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” to “Breaking Bad” and now “True Detective.” The “difficult men” at the heart of these series are, like Ammianus, stoic observers and resolute narrators—-and yes, practitioners—-of spastic violence drained of public or political purpose. Thanks to Andy Greenwald, I could begin to think of these shows as instances of late imperial romance, as John McClure has characterized the genre in novels (think Robert Stone), as doomed attempts to make sense of ubiquitous and yet random violence. Here, then, is the pivotal passage in Mimesis that Greenwald drove me back to:

“Ammianus’ world is very often a caricature of the normal human environment in which we live; very often it is like a bad dream. This is not simply because horrible things happen in it—-treason, torture, persecution, denunciations: such things are prevalent in almost all times and places . . . . What makes Amminanus’ world so oppressive is the lack of any sort of counterbalance. For if it is true that man is capable of everything horrible, it is also true that the horrible always engenders counterforces and that in most epochs of atrocious occurrences the great vital forces of the human soul reveal themselves: love and sacrifice, heroism in the service of conviction, and the ceaseless search for possibilities of a purer existence. Nothing of the sort is to be found in Ammianus. Striking only in the sensory, resigned and as it were paralyzed despite its stubborn rhetorical passion, his manner of writing history nowhere displays anything redeeming, nowhere anything that points to a better future, nowhere a figure or an act about which stirs the refreshing atmosphere of a greater freedom, a greater humanity.” [my italics]

That’s the fundamental difference between Ammianus and Augustine, who witnessed the same decline of the same Roman Empire. The new atmosphere conjured in The Confessions both presupposed and predicted a profound change of moral climate—-something redeeming, something waiting on a distant horizon of nonetheless urgent expectation. That’s not the difference between Cohle and Hart, the stoic and the cynic, at least to begin with, nor the difference between Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland (“The Wire”), and it’s not the difference between Walter White and Jesse Pinker (“Breaking Bad”), either.


In any case, it’s the possibility of a change in moral climate-—I don’t know how else to put it—-that Andy Greenwald asks us to consider when he states: “Without light to balance it, darkness is incapable of revealing any profound truths. On its own, darkness merely obscures.” I have enlisted Auerbach to emphasize Greenwald’s point, and to amplify my own complaint about “True Detective,” but we’re addressing rhetorical worlds separated by seventeen centuries. What is the point of this juxtaposition?

As it turns out, we’re actually addressing the same rhetorical world. Auerbach is explaining the intellectual darkness that fell on late imperial Rome, and suggesting that Augustine’s unlikely alternative carried the day. Greenwald is explaining the darkness that has fallen on late imperial America, and pleading for an Augustinian alternative. Both are claiming that the received tradition—-the narrative convention of the time—-represses and mutilates such an alternative.

In these terms, Rust Cohle is the stand-in for the unhappy consciousness of late imperial America. He’s the Ammianus Marcellinus for our time—-the stoic who knows only darkness because he has suffered the loss of a child, then seen too much depravity as an undercover narc, yet is willing to soldier on. But he’s also a stand-in for H. P. Lovecraft, the sci-fi writer whose stubborn rhetorical passion was the creation of insanely profuse psycho-topographic landscapes which invariably translate the interiors of his characters into exteriors, or rather read the former as the latter.

Rust speaks Lovecraft, as Michael M. Hughes has shown in a wonderfully detailed analysis of Episodes 2 and 3. (http://io9.com/the-one-literary-reference-you-must-know-to-appreciate-1523076497) When Cohle reads aloud to Marty from the murdered Dora Lange’s journal, he is quoting Dora’s citation of Robert Chambers, whose 1895 collection of short stories called The King in Yellow was practically copied into later short fictions by H. P. Lovecraft. “I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow,” Dora has written in crayon, “moving through the forest.”

Indeed Lovecraft’s “cosmic despair” is precisely what Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and writer of the series, has told the Wall Street Journal he wants to express in his story. Lovecraft himself explained such despair this way: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable outer, unknown forces . . . a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

For Lovecraft, this suspension or defeat of natural laws led only inward and backward, toward the bad dreams of his childhood, which he always insisted were his primary literary antecedent, or—-as in Poe, another antecedent—-toward the madness of characters who couldn’t bear the weight of any past. Either way, the outer world, in all its increasingly unnatural malignance, would be left intact. Reporting on or retreating from this world was the only conceivable response—-it could not be redeemed, in words or deeds. Here darkness falls, over and over.

So Greenwald and I were right, up to this point. Ammianus had returned to haunt the bayou via the tortured soul of Rust Cohle, always the stoic witness to what would never change. His rhetorical paralysis is on display in those droning, sophomoric monologues, lifted directly by Pizzolatto from Lovecraft’s delirious cosmogony. The sodden, sunken, rotten landscape of “True Detective,” where every creature or object is another sign of both decay and danger, this bayou is a febrile projection worthy of Lovecraft at his worst, and of Ammianus at his best. It’s where Rust’s cosmic despair-—his unhappy consciousness, his unbending stoicism—-gets written as the brittle alternative to death and/or chaos. It’s what I came to watch, anyway.


But only up to a point. The last episode is a powerful retort to Greenwald’s complaint, and mine, and, as such, it departs decisively from its rhetorical origins in “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad,” and, equally important, from the science fiction peddled by Lovecraft. With extraordinary production design and cinematography, the last episode revisits Lovecraft’s profuse subterranean grottoes, where the story typically ends with the revelation—-not the solution-—of long-buried crimes. But suddenly it breaks out of the narrative conventions those cable precedents, and previous episodes of “True Detective,” and Lovecraft himself, had perfected.

Just when we think the reunited partners are both as good as dead, an Augustinian alternative erupts from the grotesque psycho-topography of post-Katrina America. Darkness recedes as the bright arc of a flare bends toward the portal of the ancient rotunda where the original sinner, the man with the scars, has always tortured and slain his helpless victims-—where Rust and Marty, having killed that man, now wait helplessly for rescue, that is, redemption.

Hart the skeptic and the cynic has led us to this place. He’s the man who, once upon a time, responded to every provocation with the kind of sharp physical gestures that bordered on violence, and sometimes spilled over. Now his thickened body moves slowly, painfully, deliberately, at the pace his partner used to set. He finds the key that unlocks the case by comparing shades of green paint in case file photographs-—by looking at old pictures.

In the final scene, Marty gently leads us toward another place, the place we’re supposed to be, in the here and now, but now armed with hope. He does so by changing the subject, or, if you like, the narrative key. Rust wants to talk about the ineffable “substance” he entered on the verge of death, where he could feel his daughter’s love. Marty lets him say his ontological piece, as always, and then reminds him of Alaska, where the boy Rust used to make up stories while watching the stars. He’s trying to bring that boy back to life, back to this life.

“It’s just one story,” Rust says, “The oldest.”

“What’s that?”

“Light versus dark.”

Then we know Marty is bringing us back to this life, not some other-worldly aftermath, because he looks up, toward heaven, but he refuses its rewards, he says,

“Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

“Yeah,” Rust says, “you’re right about that.”

That’s where the cable precedents, and previous episodes, would have ended. That’s where I thought this was ending. Darkness falls, over and over. There is no alternative to stoic resignation in view of the grotesque realities that constitute our time.

Then Marty hoists Rust out of the wheelchair, and the two of them limp toward nothing more than a parking lot. And now Rust speaks the naïve truth of the faith they’ve discovered.

“You’re lookin’ at it wrong,” he says, “the sky thing.”

“How’s that?”

“Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winnin’.’”

Me, too.


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Snowden as the Alien: From Right to Left

Aha, now Edward Snowden is a Russian spy. This charge, levied by Mike Rogers (R-MI) over the weekend, would seem to oppose what Sean Wilentz claimed in the last issue of The New Republic, that Snowden is a right-wing libertarian nut (supporter of Ron Paul, no less) who wants to destroy the legitimacy of government as such.

An uncanny symmetry worthy of any Cold War melodrama resides within this opposition, however, and Snowden himself nails it in this interview at The New Yorker: liberals and conservatives alike view any significant disturbance of consensus on the legitimacy of the post-totalitarian, national security state as an external shock to a healthy system–that is, an “alien” intrusion on American tradition, which must then be narrated as the non-heroic residue of conspiracy.

In short, the paranoid style is the stock in trade of Snowden’s critics, not an explanation of his actions.


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Post-Totalitarian Society, Part II


In claiming that Edward Snowden is a “national hero,” I invoked Vaclav Havel’s notion of a “post-totalitarian society,” which he developed most explicitly in a zamizdat essay of 1978 called “The Power of the Powerless.” In context, I was trying to differentiate between George Orwell’s heavy-handed depiction of totalitarianism (in 1984) and the more insidious state of surveillance revealed by Snowden’s theft of NSA records.

To clarify those televised remarks, I wrote up a summary and refutation of the charges, formal and informal, that Snowden faces, which I posted as “Post-Totalitarian Society, Part I.” In concluding, I declared that Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser were the presiding spirits of Havel’s epochal essay.

I look at that conclusion and I ask myself, “What were you thinking?” Not because Gramsci and Althusser are insignificant figures, but because they’re both results of the intellectual revolution transacted under the sign of pragmatism or pluralism in the early 20th century. How could I, of all people, forget this genealogy? I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to demonstrate that the earthquake we characterize as post-structuralism—-and attribute to European sources—-has its techtonic origins in the published work of William James and John Dewey, ca. 1900-1920.

Who cares? Since when is the genealogy as important as the ideas themselves? My purpose in tracing the roots of the post-structuralist rhizome has been almost parochial-—I’ve been searching for a usable past in the American sources, trying to show that, like socialism or rockabilly, this exotic growth isn’t a foreign import. I’ve been insisting, in other words, that we don’t have to mourn the exceptional absence of an intellectual tradition that equips us to understand, criticize, and transcend post-industrial capitalism. We don’t have to be exiles from our own past, which is to say our own country. So, yes, I’ve been pursuing a political purpose all along.

It’s not as if the pragmatists were the only thinkers to notice that the dispersal of power from state to society—-the signature of what Havel would call post-totalitarian society-—was the most salient feature of their time, the early 20th century. They were, however, the most interesting intellectual registers of this extraordinary shift, because they were fortunate enough to witness events that came earlier and more dramatically to the US than to Europe—-events that were driven by the decomposition of proprietary capitalism and the emergence of corporate capitalism, ca. 1890-1920. (The popular or vernacular version of these events was captured in phrases like “the trust question” or “the rise of big business,” and, in Europe, the advent of “finance” or “monopoly capital.”)

And there’s no way around the fact that the three Europeans who seized on this dispersal of power as the reason to renovate social and political theory-—Georges Sorel, Antonio Gramsci, and Carl Schmitt, precisely the men whom Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have installed as the key figures in articulating the political problematic of “hegemony”-—were also close students of social-intellectual developments in the US. Sorel was obsessed with pragmatism, Gramsci with “Fordism,” Schmitt with pluralism: they plotted their new positions by reference to American coordinates.

Understood in these terms, as intellectual heirs to a Gramscian legacy, Althusser and Havel are distant echoes or late tremors.


A post-totalitarian society is one in which the modern, liberal distinction between state and society (thus public and private) has become a problem rather than an assumption—-a question rather than an answer to every political query-—and in which the slogan “the personal is political” can, therefore, become a commonplace. Totalitarian and/or corporatist states, whether fascist or communist, subsisted on the destruction or erasure of this distinction: civil society shriveled as the state expanded its repressive apparatus, in accordance with the Party’s program of social-economic progress via revolution. In a post-totalitarian phase of development, by contrast, we see the dispersal of power from the state to society.

How then could Havel, the citizen-captive of a Soviet satellite, discern the symptoms of post-totalitarian society in Eastern as well as Western Europe, indeed predict that the state of the East was the future of the West? Was it the experience of the Prague Spring, which, however briefly, asserted the supremacy of society over the state? Havel thought not: “All the transformations [of 1968], first in the general mood, then conceptually, and finally structurally, did not occur under pressure from the kind of parallel structures that are taking shape today. Such structures—which are sharply defined antitheses of the official [state] structures—quite simply did not exist at the time, nor were there any ‘dissidents’ in the present sense of the word.” (‘Power of the Powerless,’ Open Letters, pp. 145, 203)

No, what makes East and West different species of the same genus is “the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society”—Heidegger’s nightmare. (pp. 205-07; not incidentally, Havel also cites Heidegger’s student, Jose Ortega y Gasset)

So conceived, post-totalitarian society, which “has at its disposal a complex mechanism of direct and indirect surveillance that has no equal in history” (183), enables two divergent sensibilities within the hidden, independent, parallel structures that develop, necessarily, outside of the formal political arrangements and languages of state power. On the one hand, the indolent, hedonistic consumer culture that ultimately relies on the state to deliver the goods. On the other, the possibility of “living within the truth,” in opposition to both the idiocies of consumer culture and their sponsor in the omnipresent surveillance state. In 1978, Havel thought this oppositional, dissident sensibility was losing ground to consumer culture, as did his counterparts in the West, most prominently Christopher Lasch and the left-wing academics who were similarly inspired by the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory.” ( pp. 131, 145, 151-53, 183, 206-08)

The political valence of the original conception is clearly unpredictable, as the careers of Sorel, Gramsci, and Schmitt demonstrate. You can acknowledge the dispersal of power from state to society as Sorel did, by attributing hitherto unimaginable capacities to the masses; as Gramsci did, by redefining revolution and the relation between intellectuals and subaltern strata, between philosophy and politics; or as Schmitt did, by declaring that to reinstate its legitimacy, the state had to reassert itself as against the competing claims of society, that is, of cultural and political pluralism. As I said, all three plotted their positions by reference to American coordinates, but what goes missing in each case, with the possible exception of Gramsci, is the modern-liberal tradition that insisted on the supremacy of society over the state and on the value of individualism (as against functional-economic classes or racial-ethnic groups).

The great irony of Havel’s victory is, then, that it came not in spite but as the result of a consumer culture, in the sense that the inhabitants of Eastern European realized in the 1970s and 80s that the state could not deliver the goods obviously enjoyed in worlds elsewhere. Nor could “society” as he conceived it, as a beloved community defined by the limits of personal devotion and connection. (pp. 209-14) He, too, plotted his position by reference to American coordinates—-Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground, Plastic People of the Universe (a Czech band that did covers of the Velvets)-—but he, too, left out the liberal tradition that empowered individualism and, yes, validated consumerism. The pathetic bewilderment of his years in office might be understood as an effect of this absence.

Still, the concept of post-totalitarian society matters, perhaps more now than when Havel gave it new meaning and significance. For it reveals that “living within the truth” is impossible outside of or in opposition to consumer culture, where deliberate, public abstentions from both products and public policies-—in a word, boycotts—-have become the most effective political devices; that electoral triumph and political “reform” are the long-term effects of self-organization “out of doors,” in the “parallel structures” of civil society, not their proximate causes; and that control of the state, by whatever means, is not the prize in the struggle for social justice.


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Here’s the founding statement for POLITICS/LETTERS, which Kurt Newman and I have been crafting for the last six months. You might want to read it backward. You can read it any order you choose, actually, because we wrote it with that unruly possibility in mind.

Comments and questions are welcome, of course, but it would be cooler if you proposed to write or record or film something for us. Like I said, with any luck, we’ll have some fun.

I Error

With this statement, we launch a new magazine that we expect to move from an on-line to a print edition within 12 months.

We’re starting as a quarterly because we all have day jobs we’d like to keep. But we’ll see where the schedule leads us. In any event, our lack of a business model is determined by the historic process we call, in a solemn parody of Marx, “primitive disaccumulation”—-by which we mean the tendency of our time to produce and distribute more and more information without the mediation of markets or the incentives of monetary gain. This tendency toward the de-commodification of post-industrial necessities has already made the “music industry” as obsolete as battleships in war and the “newspaper business” as quaint as powdered wigs in court.

Even so. Why are we doing this? Who needs another publication first planted in some Internet niche which then blossoms into print at 500 newsstand copies, having begged subscribers and patrons (or Kickstarter) for donations? Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1, the new youthful Dissent, the resurrected Baffler, aren’t these enough new magazines for now?

Maybe. Still, a sense of intellectual crisis and intellectual opportunity animates this enterprise, in equal measure. The recent proliferation of websites and journals like Jacobin, and the respectful attention they’ve been paid by mainstream media, tell us that the received tradition has reached a dead end-—it’s an empty parking lot on the right side of town. But resilient green roots are beginning to break up the concrete, according to a desperate demand for new light, new growth, new thinking. The situation reminds us of the formative period 1900-1930, when little magazines like Poetry, The New Review, The Dial, The Crisis, The Whip, The Freeman, The Masses, Fire!, The New Republic, Modern Quarterly, et al., and new scholarly outlets like The American Political Science Review, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, The American Journal of Sociology, and The American Economic Review appeared to reinvent and reorient intellectual life.

We’d like to reproduce the cross-pollination between politics and letters the little magazines once sponsored. Therefore, we’ll happily mix polemic, manifesto, criticism, fiction, video, music, poetry-—we might even sing about architecture—-and we’ll treat every genre or subject, informally at least, as the occasion for experimental writing, even when the topic is a new Supreme Court decision or another White Paper on the NSA’s Bulk Collection of Telephony Metadata. We think the deadly poetry of legal argument, political economy, and administrative utterance represents the “bureaucratization of the imaginative,” as Kenneth Burke put it, so we’ll be digging for the phony, the fictional, and the imaginative in these lacquered piles of bullshit. By the same token, we’ll be looking for buried evidence of bureaucratic inertia in the “political unconscious” of imaginative work.

But unlike the beautiful souls over at The Baffler and The Hedgehog Review, we’re not “debunkers,” Burke’s mortal enemies. In other words, we’re not interested in demonstrating the difference between appearance and reality that translates as hypocrisy, mendacity, or bad faith. We want instead to know how appearance becomes, or just is, reality. So we won’t let the world’s endless supply of error go to waste, as debunkers do when they dismiss what they dislike or don’t understand-—religion, say, or the rise of capitalism, or the corporation—-as instances of ignorance, superstition, or greed. Along with Burke, also Kojeve and Lacan, we think that error, and therefore truth, are possible only where language has abolished any fixed relation between words and things, and therefore has driven us, willy-nilly, to keep remaking the world in the name of things unseen. We think Hegel was right to say that “the false is no longer false as a moment of the true.”

II Comedy

The crisis of our time is a general crisis, to be sure, in which the economic catastrophe of the Great Recession is compounded by what caused it in the first place-—the social crisis of deindustrialization and deepening inequality that began in the 1970s. It’s a political debacle, too, when the Congress plays a budgetary game of chicken while the president, whether conservative or liberal, continues to craft a “unitary executive” from the supposed imperatives of a “war on terror,” seeking ever more power to intrude on the privacy of individuals, and, what amounts to the same thing, to limit their rights of free speech. Together the Congress and the president have constructed what Vaclav Havel-—the man who refused “dissent” as his political vocation—-called a “post-totalitarian society,” an elusive, even ghostly entity that has nonetheless outraced the dispersal of power from state to society by making surveillance of everything its signature.

So yes, the general crisis of our time is more than an intellectual impasse. But for now it can’t be addressed, by us or by anyone else, except as an intellectual problem and a cultural prospect: our question is, what is to be thought? Nor, to borrow again from Kenneth Burke, can this crisis be grasped as the non-heroic residue of tragedy, the narrative form that elevates irony to the highest rhetorical virtue. We intend, therefore, to write comedy according to this axiom: either we recognize our ethical principles (“ought”) as legible in the historical circumstances of our time (“is”), or we relinquish any claim on the future—-any claim on the practical possibility of changing the ways we think about the past, the present, and the future. One of Burke’s favorite thinkers, John Dewey, enunciated that comedic axiom as follows: “An ‘ought’ which does not root in and flower from the ‘is,’ which is not the fuller realization of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better.”

Here is how Burke himself outlined our program:

“Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity. . . . The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. 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. In the tragic plot the deus ex machina [money, power, corruption, fate, or God] is always lurking, to give events a fatalistic turn . . . Comedy [by contrast] must develop logical forensic causality to its highest point, calling not upon some astronomical marvels to help shape the plot, but completing the process of internal organization whereby each event is deduced ‘syllogistically,’ from the premises of the informing situation. Comedy deals with man in society, tragedy with the cosmic man.”

III Capitalism

We sense intellectual opportunity-—great forensic potential—-in these times because we don’t share the Left’s devotion to “dissent” against the mainstream from the margins, as if the ability to speak truth to power requires the will to powerlessness. Or as if that mainstream of political discourse has somehow remained immune to social-democratic idioms and goals. Or as if “dissent” itself isn’t as American as large helpings of violence, apple pie, and alcohol. Since the founding, to be an American has been to disagree about what it means to be an American. The mainstream of political discourse has always been constituted by this disagreement, not by abstention from the arguments that go with it. So to hell with “dissent”—-we gladly acknowledge our ambition, and admit that we want to mix it up in this mainstream. From the standpoint afforded by recent elections, even inside the gerrymandered South, and by Pew Center polls showing that younger Americans favor socialism over capitalism, our will to power looks realistic.

We clearly don’t share the Left’s greatly exaggerated belief in its own demise. We don’t think the project of socialism expired in Eastern Europe 25 years ago because we know that socialism exists, abides, and expands quite apart from states, movements, parties, and cadres dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. On historical grounds, therefore, we think leading left-wing intellectuals are simply wrong to pronounce the Left dead.

These are ways of saying that the choice between capitalism and socialism is not an either/or. Socialism is not the hereafter, as heaven is to earth, it’s an essential component of actually existing capitalism. And vice versa. To accept post-industrial corporate capitalism as the horizon of our expectations is not, then, to exclude socialism from our thinking about the future, but rather to incorporate it. And vice versa.

One of our purposes in refusing the either/or choice between capitalism and socialism is to give the concept of capitalism the kind of specificity and mid-range explanatory scope it now lacks. So we’ll be asking what the development of capitalism, for example, has to do with the production of a perceived crisis in public education, here in the USA—-do private enterprise and free markets actually require the “corporatization” of public universities, and the mechanization of secondary education via standardized testing? We’ll also be asking what capitalism has to do with the solution to an impending crisis in public health, here and elsewhere, in collaboration with states and NGOs—-can business enterprise be a willing partner rather than a sullen servant in the production of public goods? In other words, how do business and reform go together?

Our more fundamental question, so conceived, is how to periodize capitalism as such, as markets devolve and socially necessary labor recedes in the post-industrial societies. We’re convinced by now that prattling on about “deregulation,” the “financialization” of tangible assets, and the rise of a “shadow banking system” is a ritual evasion of the relevant issues, all of which revolve around the problem of surplus capital (the “global savings glut” Ben Bernanke used to talk about). So we’ll be rewriting the history of capitalism by asking practical questions about how it functions.

IV Socialism

By the same token, we will treat socialism as a matter of actually existing social relations, not a theoretical proposition with no purchase on the real world—-we’ll be asking how, for example, the symptoms of socialism present themselves in the unlikely precincts of the all-volunteer armed forces. Or in CIA-funded NGOs, and in the private sector as such, where, without pressure from politicians or legal decisions, corporations are rethinking the question of their social responsibility and political weight.

Notice the premises that permit these statements. In history, as against theory, socialism has no predictable political valence: like capitalism, it can, and has, taken liberal, democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian forms. In history, as against theory, socialism is a cross-class construction rather than the exclusive property of “the” working class, however you define this social stratum: like capitalism, it cannot survive in the absence of active support from all social strata.

As Michael Walzer has observed, socialism has long been “the name of the Left’s desire”-—it has designated what ought to be, not in the political sense of the possible and the necessary but rather in the homely, pedagogical sense of what we should want because it’s good for us. In theory and practice, it has accordingly appeared as the repudiation, indeed the absence or obliteration, of capitalism (and imperialism, etc.). We think it’s time either to rename our desire or to recognize that the object of this desire is not only ultimately obtainable, it’s already measurable as a dimension of post-industrial corporate capitalism. We aim to prove that even in the most neo-liberal renditions of capitalism, even in the USA, socialism abides as historical circumstance as well as ethical principle—-indeed it remains as a normative standard precisely because it’s still legible in the “social relations of production” that constitute what we call capitalism.

On historical grounds, we also think that the pleasure principle residing in consumer culture is worth exploring as the harbinger, perhaps the social-psychological groundwork, of a post-bourgeois civilization—-a civilization, that is, in which the consumption of goods is no longer justified by the production of value through work, in which the delay of gratification (“saving for a rainy day”) is no longer necessary because material abundance has made it pointless, and in which indolence, not achievement, is the goal of education. Unlike most of our friends, relatives, acquaintances, and colleagues from the Left and the Right, we’re uncertain about what the reckless hedonism of consumer culture means. At any rate we want to ask how—-not whether—-the repression of desire in the name of the future has finally become a fetter on those fabled forces of production. But we also need to ask whether, and how, the exfoliation of our desires has had the same deadening effect.

We know that the Protestant work ethic has failed as a reliable index of either character or income: if you have to earn a living, you know that nobody gets ahead by working hard and playing by the rules. So our questions will be why and how, and what follows? After all the cuts in taxes on corporate profits, why hasn’t “job-creating investment” happened-—in other words, why has the discrepancy between retained earnings and business investment been growing since 2000? Why do almost half of employed Americans qualify for food stamps, and a fourth of our children grow up in officially defined poverty? How did transfer payments and “entitlements” become the fastest growing components of household income in the late 20th century, so that by 2012, they represented 20 percent of all such income?

These brute facts suggest that Americans have learned how to detach the receipt of income from the performance of work—-and so they are either prepared to live up to the modern socialist criterion of need (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”), or to reject it on rational grounds. The political stalemate in Washington is the vernacular expression of this great philosophical divide. These same facts also suggest that the end of work as we know it is not a problem to be solved by means of “full employment,” but is instead an incentive to rethink the very idea of necessary labor.

The intellectual opportunity we sense now is not, however, a matter of arguing the world in terms of the inherited isms, including Marxism, or rehabilitating party politics by reassembling the armies that will fight tomorrow night’s war of maneuver—-in other words, by rekindling the class struggle. We have nothing against Marxism or class struggle or political innovation, or even revolution if it comes to that; we merely acknowledge the practical limits of our abilities when we think about calling our fellow citizens to the barricades. We’re not activists, we’re intellectuals. Or rather, we’re writers and artists who hope to have an effect on the way some people think. In this sense, we intend to abide by the unpretentious example of the original Politics & Letters, the “open review” Raymond Williams founded in 1946 as the intellectual antidote to the inane political edicts and ponderous literary criticism issued, ex cathedra, by the Communist Left.

V Crisis

The intellectual opportunity we perceive resides in a crisis that has almost too many dimensions. In the humanities, the breaking point seems imminent when J. Hillis Miller, the Yale School deconstructionist, defends the reading of old-fashioned canonical literature on political grounds, as a hedge against the ideological deformations of rampant neo-liberalism; or when Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri become required reading in literature departments while being totally ignored in history and international relations; or when post-colonialism becomes a universe parallel to every discipline, complete with its own laws of gravity and rules of inquiry.

Of course the sense of an ending has soaked this corner of the curricular gymnasium for an entire generation, as the canon got reshuffled and cultural studies appeared to challenge either the integrity or the centrality of written texts. Still, the “crisis of the humanities” is no mere cliché: its most ardent defenders are incapable of explaining why cultural literacy, or just an English major, is a valuable asset in a digital age. This pathetic situation makes us ask two old-fashioned questions. How do we measure value in a post-industrial society? And, why would anybody want to measure it in terms of labor time, in plain view of the end of work as the social source of character and the economic index of income?

Meanwhile the social sciences also “lose audience,” as we now say. Economists are being driven back toward Keynes, Kalecki, Minsky, and Marx—-or to von Hayek—-because no one else can make sense of the Great Recession. Even Milton Friedman’s once hegemonic explanation of the Great Depression is under siege. Since 2008, every empirical attempt to prove a negative correlation between the scale of public debt and rates of national economic growth has become a joke within months; so we know that whatever the regnant theories were, they’re now perceived as professionally useless, possibly dangerous to careers. Outside of the true believers, economists are now making it up as they go along, and they’re paying very strict attention to historical evidence as against theoretical coherence, to the point where both liberals (Robert Gordon) and conservatives (Tyler Cowen) have convinced themselves that we’ve already used up every available-—read: technological—-source of economic growth, and so are now witness to the twilight of civilization as we knew it.

At the same moment, historians, always as contentious as economists but more polite about stating their differences, have decided after 150 years that they don’t actually know what happened during the big event called the American Civil War. Recent books on this hoary topic, particularly James Oakes’s Freedom National, read as revelations because they foreground the problem of slavery (imagine that!) in narrating the causes and the conduct and the consequences of the American Iliad. Even more recent books on big events like the New Deal, the Popular Front, and the Civil Rights revolution have the same effect because they emphasize the political extremities—-the radical possibilities-—of these times. And then there is the new movement toward a “history of capitalism” which insists that this mode of production is, above all, a cultural phenomenon, so that its students, now rid of any pretensions to knowledge of political economy, are eligible for readmission to the discipline.

In other pilot disciplines, things are no differently precarious. Political science and sociology, for example, remain divided between the quant jocks and the theorists, but political theory has recently acquired an urgent diction, as if re-imagining the body politic is something that can and must be accomplished, right now. In philosophy, too, the intellectual stakes have been raised by a profound skepticism about scientific materialism, even as interest in the so-called New Atheism crests. The rehabilitation of pragmatism and the concurrent rebirth of moral philosophy teach us, of course, that the absence of faith is a mental nullity. But you know the rules of the game have been suspended when Thomas Nagel, the heir apparent to John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, announces that Darwinian theory as it stands is insufficient to the task of explaining consciousness, or anything else worth thinking about. Or when prominent physicists like Lee Smolin declare that time—-history, even—-is the missing dimension in completing, or disputing, the general theory of relativity. Or when Gilles Deleuze begins to look in retrospect like a homely pragmatist inspired by William James’s radical empiricism.

VI Radicalism

If we were describing an academic impasse, it would still be worth remarking, given how central the university has become to intellectual life. But as it happens—-it is no coincidence-—the larger culture is riven by the same existential doubts and epistemic failures that roil academia. Liberals complain, rightly, that conservatives won’t pay attention to “the facts,” appealing, as always, to a correspondence theory of truth that they themselves have put in question. They ask, What’s the matter with Kansas? False consciousness, they say, pure and simple—-the benighted masses don’t know their own interests! Conservatives complain, rightly, about a liberal bias in the mass media (with the possible exception of AM radio), and behave accordingly, as a corrective. They ask, What’s the matter with America? The revolt of the liberal elites, they say, against the interests of the benighted masses!

No wonder liberalism itself has become a dirty word, reviled by radicals on both the Left and the Right. In fact, radicalism is the “new normal” of political discourse. How else to explain that the received constitutional tradition is being shredded by its appointed caretakers at the Supreme Court? Or that Occupy Wall Street’s slogans and sensibilities have been taken up by the mainstream media, for example by Joseph Stiglitz and the New York Times? Or that the two major parties have nothing in common except a commitment to “free markets” and small business? Or that the slaveholders’ strategy of “nullification”-—the aggressive assertion of states’ rights on the grounds that the federalism of the Constitution makes sovereignty debatable-—has become a routine parliamentary procedure in the Congress and a recurrent theme in the deliberations of the Supreme Court?

By our reckoning, these times are a new Machiavellian Moment. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the differences between previous truth and novel fact couldn’t be reconciled by recourse to the received intellectual tradition, which relied on custom (experience), prudence, and providence (faith, prophecy) to explain and justify the actions of monarchs and princes. So thinkers like Machiavelli and Harrington invented a new tradition, adapting what they knew of civic humanism-—what they could gather from Aristotle and Polybius—-to the task of imagining stable republics that didn’t require the imprimatur of the church.

We think we’ve reached a similar verge. We’re all of us historians, more or less, either trained in or respectful of the discipline, but we find ourselves in the strange position of claiming that we’ve reached the point in our development where the usable past—-the received intellectual tradition-—has only a limited utility in our present circumstance. We feel something like James Madison did between the winter of 1786 and the summer of 1787, when, having studied every theorist of republics from Aristotle to Montesquieu (and on toward Jefferson), he decided they were useless in designing a polity that could break out of the Polybian cycle of corruption, degeneration, and collapse. Nothing less than a complete break from this past would permit a “new order of the ages,” that novus ordo seclorum still legible on the flip side of every dollar bill (look under the pyramid, but don’t stare into the eyeball on top, that way conspiracy theory lies).

Against his own cautious, indeed conservative inclinations, Madison became a radical in his year of living studiously. Over the last few years, we have, too. This little magazine is the result of our conversion experience.

VII Pragmatism

And yet we write as pragmatists. In fact, we hope to make this magazine the place where the meanings and significance of pragmatism can be fully explored—-as a philosophical method, to be sure, but more significantly as an “attitude toward history,” to borrow once again from Burke, which treats the impending future as an essential ingredient of the usable past.

We’re perfectly willing to accredit the vernacular definition of pragmatism—-an impatience with ideology and high theory, an emphasis on the consequences (the “cash value”) of ideas, and an urge to avoid moral philosophy of the Kantian kind. But we’re not going to leave it at that.

Practically speaking, our notion of pragmatism is a throwback. By this we mean that it’s more indebted to its early Europeans admirers and critics—-among them, Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Giovanni Papini, Emile Durkheim, Henri Bergson, Georges Sorel, Jean Wahl, and Alexandre Kojeve—-than to the figures on this side of the Atlantic who led the late-20th century revival of pragmatism-—among them, Richard Rorty, Frank Lentricchia, Charlene Haddock-Seigfried, Cornel West, and Louis Menand. The European intellectuals understood pragmatism as a fundamental challenge to every category and every premise of the western philosophical tradition because its founders treated metaphysical problems as social questions. Us, too.

In fact, the original pragmatists insisted that social theory and its worldly cognate in collective action—-social movements—-could replace philosophy as the site of debates about the content of human nature, the possibility of self-consciousness, and the meanings of selfhood. Without citing it, they acted on Thesis 11: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is to change it.” The pragmatists were scientists, in this expansive sense: they believed that the condition of certainty about objects of knowledge was the purposeful manipulation of those objects, as in a controlled experiment conducted in a laboratory. They wanted to test their ideas by changing the world. Us, too.

These are claims that will sound obscure or bizarre unless we can honestly say that Marxism and pragmatism share intellectual origins and imperatives, and can demonstrate, accordingly, that William James, Jane Addams, and John Dewey improved on Karl Marx. For the time being, we’ll simply note that, like Marxism, pragmatism is the effect of intellectual collision, but also collusion, between German idealism and British empiricism—-between Continental and Anglo-American traditions. Karl Marx refused the either/or choice between these traditions. So did William James.

So do we. By now we’re all steeped in the high theory issued from the European continent-—when necessary, we will actually advocate for Irigaray, Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou, Foucault, Ranciere, Balibar, even Zizek—-but our goal is not to validate this or that theoretical position, and thereby to reinstate the logic of metaphysics. We’re here instead to ask disturbing, empirical, pragmatic questions like these: Who cares, so what? Does this idea-—maybe even this sentence-—make a difference in how you think about anything, thus act upon it, sing about it? If not, why bother with it? Why bother us?

We think that the intellectual’s worst sin, more deadly than the familiar seven, is the sneering, principled abstention from the profane world of mass (consumer) culture that enables the Stoic or the Epicurean cultivation of a beautiful soul. As pragmatists, we’re determined, and equipped, to avoid that fate. Among other things, therefore, this little magazine will be the comic record of our souls’ corruption, as we keep making really big mistakes, truly egregious errors, on our way to interpreting, and changing, that world.

VIII Politics/Letters

This statement is not a general guide to our editorial policy, mainly because we don’t have one. Here, too, we’ll be following the lead of Raymond Williams, who, when asked if he aimed for editorial unity and consistency in founding Politics & Letters, said, “No.” He elaborated, uncomfortably, as follows: “We were determined to have an open review. . . . Hence the appearance of incompatibilities and inconsistencies in the journal.”

We, all of us editors, contributing and otherwise, are determined to keep our disagreements—-we hope many “incompatibilities and inconsistencies” appear as we develop our ideas and find new constituents for them. But surely our general political purpose is by now legible. On the assumption that neither Marxism nor socialism has a predictable political valence or institutional articulation-—they can be and have been instruments of dictatorship or democracy-—we want to redefine the scope of the Left and, in doing so, we want to reorient its thinking, our thinking. On the assumption that revolution will never again attain the epic dimensions of the Russian, Mexican, Chinese, and Cuban renditions, as “wars of maneuver” bent on control of the state, we’ll think of our project as a “war of position” bent on cultural hegemony. We want to change the way people experience the world. We’ll do that by changing the meanings of the key words that mediate and determine our experience (words such as liberty, equality, work, pleasure, self, citizen, sex, democracy, and, of course, corporation).

In other words, we assume that the nature of politics has changed fundamentally since the 1950s, with the emergence of post-colonial societies across the globe, most obviously and effectively in the USA, where the decolonization of African-Americans—-what we call the Civil Rights movement-—became the cutting edge of a cultural revolution. As the nature of politics has changed so, too, has the political unconscious of fiction, poetry, film, music, and television, the residents of that centrifugal republic of letters once known as popular culture. But how and why did they change? We don’t have and we don’t want definitive answers to these questions, not yet, anyway. We want to keep our disagreements because without them, our magazine makes no sense.

We have, however, reached consensus on a few fundamentals. We agree that intellectuals on the Left have been too quick to consign the project of socialism to the dustbin of History, and too convinced that an explicitly anti-capitalist movement is the only way to retrieve it; as a result, we think, their programmatic thinking about the origins and effects of the Great Recession has been disfigured by nostalgia for the good old days, when the Communist Party of the Popular Front was the epicenter of intellectual life. We also agree that this same consignment of socialism to the proverbial dustbin has validated the Left’s will to powerlessness—-its urge to stay on the margins, where “dissent” has no costs and no consequences.

And we agree that art of every kind is, or makes sense as, a political act, simply because artists stand at the heart of change, telling us where it can and should lead by depicting what is evident yet unknown—-the “existing beyond,” as William James put it. The world, the scene, or the incident that artists convey in words, sounds, and images may never have happened, but it feels inhabitable (if not familiar) because it’s consistent with both the possibilities and the limits of human intentions—-not just the learned or noble intentions spoken in stately, classical style by the well-born, but all of them, even unto the most mundane and murderous intentions expressed by the rest of us. The promise of literary democracy appears, for example, when vernacular speech becomes the language of character development, not the verbal signal of comic relief.

But we agree above all that we need fresh thinking and good arguments about the relation between politics and letters, and about the verge we’ve reached, this place in time where the disintegrating past looks like state socialism and the impending future looks like neo-liberal capitalism—-as if the transition question of our time reads backward, so that we constantly ask not whether but how we’re regressing.

How to break out of this Polybian attitude toward the vicissitudes of historical time without denying the weight of the past?

That is the question we’re convened to answer.

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Today, January 5, 2014, Kurt Newman and I launch POLITICS/LETTERS, a new magazine that aims to shake up our ideas about capitalism, socialism, and democracy, among other things. With any luck, we’ll some fun.

Here’s the Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/politicsslashletters. Go there and push that “Like” button, unless of course you don’t.
Here’s the elevator pitch:

“We have lived to see the end of capitalism.” That was W. E. B. Du Bois in 1940. We have, too. Or so we’ve been telling ourselves since 2008. By now it’s pretty clear that we don’t know what we’re talking about.

History doesn’t repeat itself. Historians do. We’ve reached the end of our understanding of capitalism, so we keep saying the same old things, mainly “it ‘s bad for us,” or “let’s break up the big banks,” as if Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan still speak to our condition. Meanwhile, we keep saying the same old things about socialism, as in: “it’s the name of our desire.” Meaning that, like the “most luscious peach” Johnny Paycheck sings about, socialism is always just out of reach.

We want to stop repeating ourselves. So we’re starting a new magazine, POLITICS/LETTERS.

In this space, capitalism and socialism will appear as lived social relations in the here and now, not theoretical abstractions or utopian destinations. Capitalism and socialism will be treated as instances of modern market society. Each will be recognized as the necessary condition of the other’s development, rather than as terms of an either/or choice (which is really just another name for a “double bind”).

POLITICS/LETTERS will not promote revolution, at least not a vision of revolution that presumes some dramatic rupture will install a fully-fledged socialism by displacing capitalism.

We have an expansive, pluralist definition of the Left, and we’re here to offer heresies, in keeping with our pragmatist bent. Among them, for example, that the US is a much more liberal place than it was when Ronald Reagan took office; that the Left is alive and well even in the absence of anti-capitalist political formations; that the affirmation of consumer culture provides the best road to environmental reform; that the future is ours.

POLITICS/LETTERS will also promote art—-prose, poetry, music, and video. We think that art of every kind is, or makes sense as, a political act, simply because artists depict what is evident yet unknown, the “existing beyond” as William James called it. We think that the art of politics is a lot less interesting than the politics of art. We know that cultural politics are a lot more important–and fun–than most of the state-centered programmatic battles covered (or, increasingly, ignored) by the newspapers.

We welcome contributions from all artists, writers, intellectuals and others in agreement with these sentiments. We also welcome disagreements. We’re open to any perspective except the God’s-eye view of the world that tells us the Facts and the Truth exist apart from their embodiment in words, images, and sounds.

Next post is the Prospectus, later today!

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