Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
W.B.Yeats The Second Coming
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. Walter Benjamin Theses on the Philosophy of History
Post election blues
Yeats wrote his oft quoted poem with its apocalyptic vision of modernity and its end time in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. It parses history as a recurrent principle of catastrophe in quite a different way to Walter Benjamin. Yeats cannot summon up an angelus novus to provide a messianic motor force, but only a ‘rough beast, slouching towards Bethlehem’ born of ‘twenty centuries of stony sleep, vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle’- an entirely different form of invocation . Yeats’ poem and Benjamin’s counterpoint came to mind in reading the many obituaries of the Labour Party in the wake of its recent election defeat, and with this framing came a set of rather different questions.
How is it possible to live in a society whose dominant values you abhor, but which invade your everyday life and even your dreams ? How is possible to thrive under these conditions without retreating into some kind of private world, or else a nostalgic subculture which insulates you from the very society you are seeking to understand and change? How are we to sustain the courage, resourcefulness, cunning and fortitude to keep on keeping on in pursuit of forms of social justice we know will not be realised in our life time, and without falling back on some utopian/apocalyptic belief system? What is there in our political culture that supports, or hollows out the emotional, moral and intellectual resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration? And to bring the issue closer to home :how far has the Left succeeded in creating a counterculture of commemoration that offers a sustained alternative to the constant celebration of celebrity that marks the new spirit of capitalism, because without it there is no heritage of struggle for a younger generation to accept or reject?
These questions have taken on particular urgency in the wake of what is coming to be seen, perhaps too readily, as a historical turning point in the fortunes of the labour movement and the Left in Britain and symptomatic of a wider crisis of Social Democracy across Europe. How a political movement deals with defeat is a test of its maturity as well as its resilience and so far the signs are not encouraging. There have been plenty of Jeremiads, a lot of back stabbing and settling of old scores, and a few consoling extrapolations from the electoral statistics to suggest that the result was not as bad as it seems. But whether it is the fire next time, or the spectre of the Blair/Brown Phoenix rising from the ashes, commentators are as united in the belief that now is the moment for a profound rethink about where the Labour Party is going as they are divided on what form this should take.
I am going to suggest that one of the reasons why it is so difficult for political activists to come to terms with failure is that we have lived through a profound but subtle shift in our general political culture, a shift which militates against incorporating the work of mourning into the process of sustaining realistic principles of hope. We have moved from a culture of proto-modernism underpinned by a belief in historical progress and a capacity to distinguish clearly between progressive and reactionary forces in society, to one of retro-modernity, in which the fetishism of the present and the ever new is underpinned by a continual recycling of the past and a pseudo-futurism in which everything is magically possible and nothing is realistically predictable or attainable[i]. At the same time there has been a shift from what I am going to call low culture, a culture grounded in an appreciation of the transient and tragic-comic aspects of the human condition, to a high culture which oscillates between states of manic excitement and chronic depression, jubilee and cenotaph, prophecies of doom and the new dawn.
I am currently trying to trace out these shifts by looking at changes in the form and function of the archive, the narrative paradigms of the memoir and the protocols of the obituary[ii]. In this article I want to focus on the impact of these changes on the cultural politics of the Left intelligentsia by revisiting Gramsci’s famous formula for surviving set backs and difficult times: pessimism of the intellect ,optimism of the will[iii].
My argument will be that this formula has undergone a radical inversion. Optimism of the intellect – the belief that critical ideas operating within an intrinsically depoliticised cultural realm can nevertheless by themselves change the world- is flourishing in conditions where pessimism of the will- the feeling that there is little or nothing that can be done to radically transform or create an alternative to global capitalism – is pervasive, especially on the Left, amongst intellectuals and the ‘creative class’ who work in the cultural industries [iv].
Fur Ewig: On Gramsci’s Legacy
One of Gramsci’s great legacies to the Left in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, was that he taught us how to fully recognise the importance of the subjective factor in politics, the centrality of the battle for hearts and minds, which he defined as the struggle to shift the parameters and paradigms of common sense[v]. My political generation – the generation of 68 and all that- grew up with Gramsci. He taught us as budding intellectuals how to engage with the world outside the Academy from a position that was not confined to its disciplinary protocols, how to become scholar activists, embedded in various kinds of political campaign – in my case around squatting and the right to the city[vi].
We interpreted Gramsci’s mantra to mean : analyse the political situation in which we find ourselves as dispassionately as possible , look at the world as it is, not in terms of how you would like it to be, but also identify the weak links in the chains of oppression or exploitation and devise strategies to attack them. Like all mantra’s and political slogans, the very iterability is both a strength and a weakness. The compulsion to repeat ritualises thought into a formulaic article of faith which may sustain ideological commitment in difficult times but unless you are careful there is a risk you start believing in your own propaganda, which is what Antonio Gramsci’s famous adage is supposed to guard against[vii].
What Gramsci actually wrote in his Letter from Prison dated 19 December 1929 was this :
The challenge of modernity is to live without illusion and without becoming disillusioned. I am a pessimist because of intelligence but an optimist because of will’ .
Gramsci attributed the quote to Romain Rolland, who campaigned tirelessly for his release but he gave the maxim a unique inflection related to his personal circumstances.[viii] The tragic dimension of Gramsci’s prison writings comes out especially in the letters. For him the act of writing is a form of molecular resistance against the immediate conditions of imprisonment, and against intellectual and political isolation. The Letters and Notebooks are themselves an expression of optimism of the will – the will to write and through writing to transcend the limitations of his confinement . Mussolini may have wanted to stop this brain from working for twenty years, but Gramsci was determined that in this respect at least fascism would not win. At this time it was easier to imprison bodies than minds and the use of special psychological methods to disorient and break inmates spirit was still in its infancy.
For Gramsci incarceration meant that ‘the boundaries of my freedom shrank until they enclosed only my inner life. My will had been reduced to the will to resist’. Resistance, in the form of writing was his survival strategy. He diagnosed ‘spiritual deformations’ in the character of the other prisoners who had adjusted to their confinement. He regarded their obsessive chewing over the past as a result of the impossibility of making plans for the future: ‘such searching of the past becomes comfortless and unprofitable’ he notes. The real psychology of the prisoner , he explained in a letter to his sister in law reflects his being subject to an administrative machine, an object without subjective personality, just a number, not even a name. ‘I am always afraid of being crushed by the prison routine, a monstrous machine which crushes and grinds with definite method.’
In contrast his studies in prison, his engagement with the past was a means to make something of value for the future. His imprisonment was an opportunity to write something for posterity that he hoped would be of universal value. The phrase ‘fur ewig’ ‘for ever’ crops up throughout his letters. It is a reference to a poem by Goethe, who was one of Gramsci’s heroes, and whose poem with that title argues that viewing life sub specie aeternitatis, as Spinoza recommended , is the only way to transcend the particularities of experience and transform them into a universal idiom, this being the special vocation of the artist and philosopher. Gramsci’s sense of urgency about laying claim to a posthumous existence through his writing was undoubtedly driven by his knowledge that he could expect no public recognition or obituary. L’Ordine Nuovo had been suppressed along with all the other left organisations. At his funeral there were only three people in attendance and one of those was from the secret police.
Gramsci’s health was never good – he was born a hunchback and had numerous medical problems – and deteriorated rapidly in prison, until he was paralysed. He was subject to continual fevers and became preoccupied with the thought that he was going to die in prison and never again see his wife or children. In one acute bout of delirium he records spending a whole night discoursing on immortality, but he adds, hastily, only in a realistic and historical sense, ‘as a survival of all our useful and necessary acts and their incorporation into a historical process, regardless of our own wishes’. He writes as if there was some ineluctable process by which a life was enrolled in an invisible archive that perpetuated it. He insisted that posthumous reputational identity was not dependant on public recognition but on the objective efficacy of actions.
It is against this background that we have to understand Gramsci’s famous adage. His injunction to look at the world as it really is a counsel forged in and against the bitterness of a comprehensive political defeat. After all he had a lot to be pessimistic about : the victory of fascism and the suppression of the communist and labour movements. But this moment is situated within a historical perspective of long duration . So defeat is seen as transient, not final, something that does not have to be repeated, whether as tragedy or farce. He uses an interesting, even shocking, metaphor to describe his legacy to future generations: his life is the ‘manure’ which must be used to fertilise struggles to come. He is not offering an excremental vision of history, he is no Luther or Swift, and there is nothing retentive about his ambition for posterity. Rather, and to update the image, he is suggesting we steam full ahead through the shit, even it flies in formation, because he knows, with Marx, that history proceeds by its bad side, not its good. As an existential statement this is not a counsel of despair, but of resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity. In terms of political discourse, it is a caution against both defeatism and triumphalism, fatalism and voluntarism.
Gramsci’s pessimism owes nothing to Nietzsche’s in The Birth of Tragedy where it is treated as an attribute of wealth and power, a luxury that the poor and truly desperate cannot afford. Yet he was influenced, albeit indirectly, by Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power. This refers primarily to existential strivings and ambitions, drives tied up with self mastery or sublimation, channelling ‘force’ (macht) for creative purposes into purpose (kraft). Foucault draws on this idea in his model of power-as-productive. Freud, of course, distinguishes between Eros, the life instinct or will to survive, and Thanatos, the death instinct[ix].
Gramsci was aware of Freud’s work, though he rarely discusses it directly. He writes ‘One’s real nature can be taken to be the sum of instincts and impulses and their forms of social regulation through which one comes to recognise them. One’s real nature is determined by the struggle to become what one wants to become. We seek to know what we are and can become and discover within what limits we create our own lives and destinies.’ For Gramsci then the human personality, the self, was not just a compromise formation between the competing claims of desire and duty( or id and superego) but was actively forged through acts of will always operating within the framework of a certain mode of historical individuality belonging to a particular class, culture, and society.
Certainly ,for Gramsci, will is a drive, a quasi libidinal force. He speaks of ‘ harnessing ones whole life to a certain end, concentrating towards its achievement the whole sum of one’s energies and will’. And yet he recognises there is a downside to this dedication. As he puts it ‘It can involve a certain egoism, of sacrificing ties of love, obligation, close relationships, of everything that makes someone human for the sake of a political cause which aims at human emancipation’. And then he adds in a sudden ironic recognition of where this is leading him : ‘ I have hopes that in a few more years I’ll be completely mummified’. I think he is not only speaking here of his own possible entombment in prison, but the ossification of the movement to which he has given his life, its internal death drive.
However it was not Freud but the work of the dissident analyst, Alfred Adler, to which his notion of will as a central category of human agency or praxis has most affinity.[x] Adler’s notion of will- to- power is the will to overcome or compensate for weakness, a creative drive to transcend the limitations imposed on individuals by society, and sometimes by themselves ( the so called inferiority complex) in so far as they internalise its forms of inequality. For Adler, as a socialist, psychological well being is linked to social equality and human co-operation. He writes presciently in the 1930’s about the psychopathology of capitalism where the will to power has become the will dominate nature, as well as other people.
As for Gramsci, in his prison cell, he writes about sustaining the will to survive as oneself under the pressure of persecution, fear and hardship. For him the vocation of the politically engaged intellectual was to apply will ‘to the creation of a new equilibrium among forces which really exist , basing oneself on the particular forces one believes to be progressive and strengthening it to help it to victory’. So the ability to identify and distinguish between what is progressive and reactionary is crucial, it is the necessary condition for meeting the challenge of modernity, to neither entertain the illusions created by its dominant form as embedded in capitalist ideology nor become disenchanted with its deeper ambition, deriving from the Enlightenment, to make the world a better place for the mass of humanity. Optimism of the will here rests on a belief in the human capacity to meet new challenges, it is based on the assumption of historical progress and the belief that societies only set themselves problems that they have the means to solve, if there is the political will. It is not, repeat not, a gloss on the Stalinist slogan ‘ever forward, never back’ nor is it underpinned by a teleological model of history which guarantees ultimate victory in a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
Perhaps closest in spirit to the Gramscian sense of ‘optimism of the will’ is to be found in the work of Ernst Bloch, especially in his great compendium Das Prinzip der Hoffnung and yet there are significant differences of emphasis. Bloch sees the utopian drive, the will to hope against hope, in all kinds of popular culture, from folk tales to the evangelical religions of the poor and downtrodden, and in all the democratic struggles for freedom and justice in which he, somewhat hopefully, enrols his version of communism. This imagination of another possible world is for Bloch the warm stream which constitutes the pleasure principle of political activism, contrasted with the cold stream of Marxist analysis – establishing the objective conditions and limits of possibility of these struggles, its reality principles. Bloch looks forward to a new form of socialist humanism in which the tension between these two dimensions will be dialectically resolved.
For Gramsci too, pessimism of the intellect, the objective analysis, and optimism of the will, the subjective factor, must be combined in a new synthesis. But he remains as suspicious of the utopian impulse as he was of popular culture. His aim was always to analyse the conjuncture as it was rather than engage in wishful thinking. He is as hostile to dystopian literature as he is to utopian thought, as offering complimentary but equally one sided views of the world: the first because pessimism of imagination has occluded or overwhelmed any positive aspects of reality, the second because it seeks to escape from the real conjuncture with all its conflicts into some ideal world where they have been magically resolved.
So when he sets out to translate Grimm’s fairy tales from German into Italian, as part of his programme of prison study and also as a way of building a bridge to his young sons, he is also careful to redraft them in a more realist idiom, as allegories of the quasi feudal relations between peasants and aristocracy, and to draw out the historically progressive aspects of all those stories where the weak outwit the powerful.
In his frequent letters to his sons Delio and Julik, who were in Moscow with their mother, Gramsci is careful to allow not a whiff of i pessimism to leak into the optimism that he hopes they will inherit from him. The strength he wishes for his sons, and for himself, is about the capacity to sustain an intense curiosity about the world, including the world of ideas, and, as he writes ‘the courage to go forward resolutely to reach your objective’. And he sees the lure of the imaginary as an obstacle to this. Here is an extract from a letter he writes to his eldest son Delio whose interest in HG Wells, and fantasy literature has inspired to produce a theory of evolution in which he imagines that elephants develop big brains and learn to walk and talk on their hind legs. Most parents would be delighted by this display of inventiveness, but not Gramsci:
I don’t remember in what sense I was referring to imagination, maybe I was referring to the tendency some people have to build castles in the air or sky scrapers on the point of a pin. My own view is that when we study history we shouldn’t indulge in too many flights of fancy about what would have happened if , if, if , it is difficult enough to study history as it was…..
I think you must like history as I liked it when I was your age because it deals with living people and everything that concerns them, all the people in the world as far as they unite together in society and work and struggle and make a bid for a better life, all that can’t fail to please you more than anything else. Isn’t that right?
The appeal is poignant and clearly a piece of wishful thinking . Motivated though he was to analyse the reasons for the failure of the Left to win the hearts and minds of the Italian people in the battle against fascism, Gramsci’s rejection of the counter- factual here suggests that it was just too painful to consider the tactical mistakes made by the Italian Communist party which lead to their defeat, to imagine , for a moment that another outcome might have been possible. In the aftermath of May 6th we can all too keenly appreciate his dilemma.
Part 2 :Politics and the ‘Other Scene’
The relation between pessimism and optimism, considered as libidinal drives and their bearing on the psychological development and ethical stance of adults has been most profoundly addressed in the work of Melanie Klein, most notably in her 1952 paper ‘Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant’ and her book on ‘Envy and Gratitude’. Her model of the paranoid/schizoid and manic/depressive positions is an enduring contribution to understanding the psychodynamics of ambivalence in social identifications and the structures of feeling that are mobilised by different modes of political address. She shows how the manic adoption of positions of omnipotence or omniscience is based on a radical disavowal of constitutive losses or lacks and functions as a pervasive defence against the anxieties which they arouse, generating alternating moods of euphoria and despair. Kleinians argue that the most important goal of psycho-social development is to overcomes these infantile defences and their associated states of mind, to recognise emotional ambivalence, and set in motion reparative processes of recognition and reconciliation. This also means overcoming the manichaen splitting of the world into good and bad objects, idealised and persecutory subjects, which provides a template for all kinds of political narratives, grand and not so grand, from conspiracy theories to chiliastic or messianic fantasies.
However the extrapolation of Kleinian object relations theory to political scenarios tends to simply endorse the liberal position of tolerance: there is good and bad in everyone, seeing both sides of an argument, all conflicts potentially resolvable through therapeutic intervention, mediation and compromise. This takes no account of asymmetric positions of social domination/subordination ( not to mention their perverse internalisation in sado-masochistic phantasies) , and simply pathologises the zero sum games in which many interest groups are routinely engaged. At the same time the Kleinian emphasis on the power of reparation introduces a link to issues of social justice and has been influential in the truth and reconciliation movement in dealing with historical acts of state terrorism . But equally the question of the irreparable , of forms of symbolic and actual violence which cannot easily be named or represented let alone repaired because of their traumatic impact, suggests the limits of this position [xi].
Kleinian theory does, I think, shed some light on the difficulties of treating Gramsci’s formula as a general maxim. Unbending optimism of the will clouds intellectual judgement and leads to wishful or magical thinking, a manic defence against the pain and frustration involved in actual struggles. Can we do it, yes we can!. Equally , unremitting pessimism of the intellect demoralises people and destroys their capacity to act. Anyone who has done time in a Trotskyite groupuscule will be familiar with this phenomenon. Every time the workers raise their banners high a great boot comes down from the sky and crushes their hopes, the said boot usually belonging to a corrupt trade union official or labour party bureaucrat who betrays the workers interests.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the kind of dialectical tension that Gramsci argued for. The Frankfurt school combined the most pessimistic analysis of capitalism’s penetration into every nook and cranny of society and the psyche, with infrequent rhetorical appeals to the emancipatory potential of the masses once they had been freed by revolutionary intellectuals from the grip of popular culture, jazz, and the fetishism of commodities [xii]. In Britain we have had a rather different scenario to contend with, which one commentator summed up as ‘empiricism of the social intellect, reformism of the political will’.
Bi-polar culture and the involution of hope
During the long boom years from the 1990’s onwards there was a pervasive shift in our public culture away from engagement with intransigent complexities of social inequality and towards a facile optimism based on an a head-in-the-sand mentality. The boom years helped create a dream world where things went on getting higher, faster, and stronger all the time, while public hysteria and its crisis management increasingly become the order of the day. Symptomatic of this trend was the growth of a vast apparatus of popular celebration; London, for example, had more than one cultural festival for every week of the year. The emergence of carnival capitalism involved more than the commodification of popular pleasures, and the forging of a new alliance between creative industries and enterprise culture. It was part of a phantasmagoric economy in which house prices were supposed to go on getting higher and higher, everyone would enjoy a higher and higher standard of living, and all this would go on for ever and ever – until of course it all came tumbling down.[xiii]
We might call this a high culture because its undeclared aim was to prolong euphoria indefinitely, so there is never any coming down. ‘High’ culture’ is centred on practices designed to produce oceanic feelings of well-being and oneness with the world, with or without the use of drugs; it promotes a hypomanic, high-energy, can-do ethos, which fetishises the tactile, the incidental, the visceral and the expendable; in this intoxicated state of mind distinctions are either hypervalorised or ‘mashed up’ so that they auto-destruct. High emotionalism goes hand in handkerchief with the compressed codifications of the emotikon while pathos collapses into bathos. High culture in its hedonistic excess can certainly constitute a counter-culture but it is one that is all too easily recuperated , giving fresh impetus to the material dreams manufactured by consumer capitalism. Where it runs up against complexity and contradiction, not to say its own limitations , ‘High’ culture ignores or circumvents the issue with a grandiose display of extravagant gesture or exhibitionistic performance. One of its most sophisticated manifestos, which inspired many counter-cultural activists at the time , was Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus in which the authors promote the idea of the Unconscious as a polymorphic desiring machine pitted against the forces of repression represented by patriarchal capitalism. As one of its many advocates put it ‘ the methodology of Anti-Oedipus is not easy to reconcile with the possibility of delving into depression. It does not know depression; it continuously overcomes, leaping with psychedelic energy over any slowing down, any darkness’.[xiv]
High Culture endlessly recycles itself in an attempt to keep itself high; it mostly iterates on one note, but it can also innovate through the medium of kitsch. Kitsch offers both a point of anchorage in this unstable world – it enables us to know what we like because we like what we know – and also defends us against its implosion, because it shuffles the elements into an ever richer mix. Kitsch in this register not only de-sublimates, but banalises the sublime: it has helped make ‘awesome’ the adjective of choice for almost every occasion. The 2012 Olympics were a prime site of high culture and kitsch in action[xv]. As the campaign posters put it, it was all about ‘Living the dream’ as people in wheel chairs vaulted over Tower Bridge, or dived off the Thames barrier. This dream was materialised in the iconic landmark constructed for the Olympic Park, in which the hubris of London’s mayor joined forces with the arrogance of a plutocrat who made his fortune out of asset stripping industrial plants. Anish Kapoor’s description of his design for the Lakshmi Mittal orbital tower as ‘going up and up and in on oneself’ perfectly describes the psycho-geographical trajectory of this never never land.
Yet underneath all the giddy energy there is high anxiety, a sense that everything is hopeless, things are going from bad to worse, problems are spiralling out of control. No-one can stay high for ever. High culture underwrites a bipolar structure of feeling which continually oscillates between the subjective correlates of boom and bust without ever finding a point of equilibrium between these extremes.
All this is in contrast with what we might call Low Culture, a culture that grounds enjoyment and celebration in an awareness of their transience and fragility, in the bitter sweet recognition that what we are most attached to we must one day lose, transitional objects are indeed transitory, much is contingent, and we cast our bread on always troubled waters. Out of this is fashioned a sense of life that is both tragic and richly comic[xvi]. Grounded culture contains many shades of meaning and feeling, and develops aesthetic idioms for their modulation. Low culture is slow culture, rooted in a gradual unfolding of the plot. It is exploratory, and delights in making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. It is at home in the Uncanny. This corresponds to what psychoanalysis calls the ‘depressive position’ in the sense that it is about integrating different aspects of the psyche, not splitting them off, but it is not all doom and gloom.[xvii] It is present as much in lyric poetry as in the blues; and it cuts across the now obsolescent distinction between elite and popular culture : rappers like Kate Tempest or Kendrick Lamar are as great exponents of the idiom as hermetic poets like Geoffrey Hill. Unlike kitsch low culture deals with shit but does not become mired in it , even at its most Rabelaisian. It provides the low lights that set the excitements of high days and holidays in some kind of relief.
Gramsci’s original formula clearly belongs to low culture. But high culture reverses its terms. Optimism of the intellect becomes institutionalised in the knowledge economy in the form of blue sky thinking. Capitalism has thrown up its own cultural avant garde who push at the boundaries of the real and continually create alternative worlds. Imagination has come to power under the sign of the Commodity and the Consumer fest. At the same time pessimism of the will becomes enshrined as a precautionary principle of the risk society with its penchant for generating worst case scenarios.
On the Left there was also a pervasive pessimism of the will, a sense that globalisation was an irresistible force, and neo-liberal regimes of knowledge/power an immovable object ; for many there was no alternative but to go with the flow. This in turn required an optimism of the intellect which spun auto-poetically around its own vortex of ideas, creating a frictionless space of circulation for intellectual capital as it simulated or dissimulated the spectacle of resistance and revolt. The more sophisticated the critique the more vacuous its political prescriptions.
The New Left produced its own version of positive thinking – it was called ‘New Times’, and though critical of many of New Labour’s policies, it too rejoiced in shedding the ideological baggage of the Old Left. The Thatcher counter revolution and the defeat of the last Miners strike, spelt the end of the historic alliance between the left intelligentsia and a labour movement in which they had, however ambivalently, pinned their hopes. Veterans of ‘class struggle’ faced a choice: they could carry the cross of a now obsolete ideology, proudly bearing the stigmata of political passions that no longer dared to speak their name, or they could exchange that burden of representation for an all consuming interest in the contemporary phenomenology of late capitalism. The younger generation opted for an upbeat first- past- the- post epistemology and discovered that playing the reflexive knowledge/ power games of post modernity could be both fun and intellectually ( and sometimes financially) rewarding. Others became connoisseurs of alienation, exploring the edgelands and drosscapes of the capitalist city with a fascinated attention to detail . Cultural Studies, US style, with its gargantuan appetite for discovering subliminal signs of resistance in the most ephemeral and unlikely kinds of life style played a major role in legitimating this strategy within the Academy. At the same time capitalism’s cultural turn, the growth of cultural industries and cultural quarters to house them in coupled with the emergence of identity politics to offer a new field of ideological endeavour and employment outside both the Academy and the factory gates.
Finally there has been the attempt by a new generation of Academic Marxists to create an ever more refined scholastic apparatus, a platform for High Theory whose power of totalising abstraction aims to rival that of global capital itself [xviii]. Armed with a conceptual toolkit designed to ensure the purity of their critique , while constructing a cartography of the Real carefully insulated from empirical challenge, these mandarins of dialectical reason helped to shore up the position of a dissident intelligentsia whose power base in the university was under attack and which found itself increasingly isolated in the wider polity. A more grounded version of the project traced the global interconnectivity of production, distribution, circulation , and exchange, focussing down on the travelling story of the more fungible commodities: the story of capital told through the analysis of sugar or tomatoes, oil or flip flops, the logistics of containerisation or infrastructure technologies[xix]. Yet the more systemic the model, the more functional – or dysfunctional –capital’s mode of enlarged reproduction was shown to be, the more helpless and hopeless it left the reader feeling about the prospects of any radical transformation. In practice post Marxism’s cold stream of thought left little room for the warm stream of political activism, or alternatively, split it off into a separate hyper-valorised realm of its own. In fact the disconnection of critical theory from the pragmatics of actually existing politics, not to say everyday life, has helped open up a space for a new form of hyper-activism , which reaffirms optimism of the will, but is immune from conceptual challenge .
The Academy was quick to recuperate a movement that might have destabilised its divisions of labour, not to mention its hierarchies of knowledge/power by promoting a discourse of ‘interdisciplinary dialogue’ as a site of intellectual innovation. A new stylistic idiom of social analysis and cultural commentary emerged in which elements of high theory and ‘high’ culture are brought together in a seamless web of interpretation, often in the same sentence. Derrida meets Disneyworld in a roller coaster ride across the aesthetic wastelands of the ‘smart’ city. Increasingly optimism of the intellect has been sustained by an energetic mashup , combining subtle dialectics with crude thoughts .
Even those, like Frederick Jameson , who developed a withering critique of the post modernist ‘trahison des clercs’ continue to subscribe to an optimistic view of intellectual’s role [xx]. For Jameson, the contemporary culture of political dejection and defeatism, the pervasive disenchantment with the public realm, was a function of a lack of critical understanding on the part of the ‘masses’ of the nature of their predicament; their locally situated knowledge could no longer encompass or comprehend their position in the global economy, they lacked the ‘cognitive maps’ on which to chart their increasingly de-territorialised conditions of existence. So it was up to intellectuals to create new ways of representing capital and labour in which these communities could recognise their implication in struggles against globalisation and its local discontents. Optimism of the intellect could overcome pessimism of the will.
We have never been Modern, or have we?
The shift from low to high culture has had a major impact on the different ways there are of articulating past, present and future into a narratable memoryscape, and has also changed our relation to modernity[xxi]. Low culture is correlated with proto-modernism. The past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved by the intervention of some special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle of continuity – the plan or law or higher purpose which governs destinies and the unfolding of lives in historical time. The capacity to identify and distinguish between progressive and reactionary forces relies on this chronotope which ultimately derives from the Enlightenment. ‘Reactionary’ is whatever wishes to restore the status quo ante associated with an ancien regime of privileged entitlement; ‘Progressive’ is whatever wishes to advance towards a more just, enlightened and democratic future. This can yield a Whig interpretation of history which optimistically views the future as an improvement on the present which is itself an improvement on the past. But it also has its negative dialectic in a sense of history as a principle of chronic repetititon, first as tragedy then as farce.
In academic circles this model is pretty much discredited although it is very much alive in popular historiography where it sustains collective aspirations and social movements of every kind. It helps builds intellectual, social and cultural capital, and anchors it in place in specific lieux de memoire, including those little archives of souvenir objects, images and texts which are collected as building blocks of autobiographies that will never be written.
People who have inherited a lot of intellectual capital tend to be rather snooty about this form of popular historicism. Nevertheless I would argue that under favourable circumstances this narrative does help build the internal resources of resilience needed to sustain struggles of long duration, where defeats can be regarded as only temporary setbacks, blips in the onward march to a better future.
The second model might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved, as Gramsci did, but as something that has never quite happened, is basically unachievable and can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit. Here the present is experienced and narrated as a discontinuous series of discrete moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity, split off from a past which never fades but continues to be re-presented and recycled, and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable except as catastrophe. History is de-composed into a series of fragments, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage of fragments. At one level this chrono-topography involves a profound de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which decreases in value over time, and hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the social imaginary, as principles of hope float free from any real embedding, encouraging the projection of, usually dystopian, futures, or sponsoring various kinds of retro-chic culture. Retro-modernism is the preferred paradigm of high culture in which optimism of the intellect is linked to the ability to ceaselessly innovate in the quest for competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy; this is celebrated as the flip side of widespread political apathy or cynicism, withdrawal from civic engagement, in a word, pessimism of the will.
There is nothing new about the fetishism of the new. It is a well known feature of modernity . But the unplanned obsolescence of memory work, via the technologies of the selfie and instagram, and the ever more intense archive fever which attempts to grasp the evanescent present as it flashes past is a relatively recent phenomenon. Retro-modernists are great hoarders of objects and memories. Their do-it-yourself archives, on and off line, create nostalgic evocations of lost worlds of modernity that can always be recycled. In the midst of this flux of images and events, it is no longer necessary or possible to identify progressive or reactionary forces , since everything is hybridised, at one and the same time a creative and destructive force. Contradiction is sublimated in a facile pseudo-dialectics in which everything is both itself and its opposite. This was precisely what Schumpeter predicted and regarded as a general principle of capitalism’s development. But this is no cause for celebration, let along psychic integration. What Schumpeter did not anticipate was that this dynamism, this apparently frictionless acceleration of productivity associated with turbo charged capitalism would engender not only boundless enthusiasm for its boundless possibilities for transforming the world, but a pervasive sense of helplessness and therefore hopelessness amongst large sections of the population, including those who are its supposed beneficiaries[xxii]. The current epidemic of clinical depression is symptomatic; it affects both the success stories who are nightly wracked by the fear of failure, and the losers who daydream of becoming winners by hook or by crook; both are suckered into the same vacuous rhetoric of individual aspirationalism in which neither realistic principles of hope nor rational defences against despair are available. Now that everyone is supposed to be the author of their own lives, we are being lured into a cruel optimism which fans the flames of promise, especially amongst the young, only to extinguish them at the first breath of reality[xxiii].
The working class has always had an ambivalent attitude to modernity[xxiv]. In so far as modernisation of the labour process has meant deskilling, and the displacement of living labour by dead labour, it has been consistently opposed. Modernity here simply spells redundancy. But working class communities and youth cultures have also been enthusiastic consumers of modernity ; adults want all mod cons in their homes, even if they dislike the brutal cut price modernism that shapes so many post war housing estates. The young people who live on them want the latest ipads and smart phones so that they feel plugged in to the ‘network society’, even if they remain socially immobilised and rarely leave their immediate neighbourhood. There is a continuous oscillation between proto and retro modernist positions.
Towards a new principle of hope
We can learn from Gramsci’s life and work how important it is for winning the battle for hearts and minds not to split them apart, not to separate theory from practice, values from policies, politics from economics and the need to engage in the nitty gritty of actual campaigns and struggles,to become in that sense organic intellectuals or scholar activists. There is many a cautionary tale about what happens when academics fail to do that, when they entertain a purely imaginary or phantasmagoric relation to ‘the working class’ ‘the oppressed masses’ ‘the people’ or ‘the multitude’.
The history of the British Left over the past half century has certainly been a story of ups and downs, with alternating phases in which optimism and pessimism prevail and these vicissitudes remain bound up with the fortunes of the Labour party , even if they are not directly correlated with it. Today the Left intelligentsia remains in place within the Academy, the arts, media and cultural industries , and a few sectors of the knowledge economy, although its influence is greatly diminished; it is more disconnected than ever from the labour movement and has only a marginal presence within the Labour Party. But it is being formed in new ways , outside the traditional sites of the professional middle class, in what has been called the precariat[xxv].
This term has been used to refer to all those who are chronically , or structurally, marginalised in and by the neo-liberal economy and who may never have a full time permanent job or secure housing over their life time. But it also includes those who are conjuncturally in a fragile position in the labour and housing markets and for whom it may constitute a transient predicament or phase in the life course. Both instances are present in the notion of ‘generation rent’ which has given a quasi- oedipal edge to falling expectations , and relates to deferred or broken transitions from economic dependence to autonomy, and its subjective correlate , an extended period of ‘adolescence’[xxvi]. As such it conjoins the situation of NEETs who are often following in their parents footsteps into long term unemployment, poor health and unstable living conditions with that of students and young ‘hipster ‘ professionals who find that their career prospects are vanishing along with the possibilities of becoming home owners, at least until their parents die and leave them their property. For generation rent, inheritance has replaced apprenticeship as the key to their life chances, while vocation- life as an unfolding quest for an inner, authentic form of self realisation – has displaced career, the incremental , as the dominant paradigm of the life cycle[xxvii].
‘Precarity’ is now a description of an ever wider spectrum of situations. It affects all those on low wage zero hour contracts, but also the swelling numbers of asset rich pensioners subsisting on low incomes, the army of free lance portfolio workers and self employed in the service and creative industries, the disabled, the mentally ill and all those whose welfare benefits are being eroded or removed. It can also apply to those sections of the managerial and professional class whose jobs have become increasingly stressful and insecure, and who, despite their relative affluence, may also find both life styles and livelihoods at risk. The precariat now spans the pop up and the hidden economies,it brings together young and old, middle class and working class, black and white, those whose aspirations to social mobility have been thwarted , those who have become downwardly mobile and those who are socially immobilised or excluded.
However before we proclaim the formation of a new ‘dangerous’ class a caveat should be entered. It is clear that different but overlapping modes of insecurity are involved here : ontological, emotional, social, cultural, and material. Someone who feels their sense of self determination is being undermined by the impossibility of leaving home is not necessarily coming from the same place as someone who feels their job prospects are threatened by immigrants from Eastern Europe, although, of course it is more than possible for that articulation to be made! The complex configurations of contemporary insecurity can no more be read off from class positioning than they can be tackled through one size fits all policies.
The implications of my argument is that if the Labour Party is to reconstitute itself, to open up new bases of electoral support as well as regaining old ones , it must develop a multi-vocal and multivalent mode of address about precarity that speaks to all these different constituencies, in terms of the insecurities that are specific to them while also making new connections through public debate about what kind of society, what kind of city, and what kind of economy we want to live in. This cannot be done through any conventional top down consultation exercise; it will involve making widespread use of social media and public assemblies to build a new political agenda from the bottom up and bring a new generation into active engagement with politics.
The different groups that comprise the precariat not only occupy widely diverse ideological and structural positions, they are highly opportunistic in their political and personal choices and this volatility is fuelled by the bi-polar mood swings which, I have argued , characterise contemporary politics ‘other scene’. In particular there is a strong pull to respond to frustration and wounded self-esteem by falling back on a narcissism of minor difference. The challenge then is to work through these multiple conflicts and contradictions, rather than foreclose them by appealing rhetorically to some illusory ‘centre ground’. We are in a moment of de-centering, in which centrifugal forces, for so long held in check , have been released . Rather than try to counter this process by asserting some over arching principle of social integration the task is to sponsor new forms of bridging capital which maximise social bonds and minimise the tendency to retreat into entrenched positions. That is exactly what Podemos has done in Spain.
To develop such a mode of political address involves a return to the idioms of low culture, to recognise the diffuse anxieties which underpin popular resentments and to ground personal aspiration in realistic principles of hope, in rational defences against despair, and in the elaboration of what constitutes a good enough life in a good enough society. It means arriving at a new consensus about what is progressive and reactionary , shifting common sense towards a version of Social Democracy re-built on the four pillars of civil society: the trade union, the church or mosque, the neighbourhood and community, the school and University [xxviii].
For this purpose it is important to re-assert the values of moral economy, to affirm and encourage forms of mutual aid that make up what David Graeber has called, rather mischievously, ‘actually existing communism’ against their individualistic appropriation by Tory philanthropy (the so called ‘Big Society’), or the marketised variants that draw new lines, at once moralistic and economistic, between the deserving and undeserving citizen.
We also need to develop a new life course politics , not to return to one-size- fits- all cradle to grave welfarism, but to re-assert the value of apprenticeship and career as biographical trajectories embedded in narratives of collective aspiration and to create new incremental structures of opportunity and support for the precariat based on these life historical paradigms.
It is also important to reconnect issues of alienation and exploitation, to assert the primacy of living labour over dead labour, to recognise and celebrate the value creating capacity of both manual and mental work over against the technological fixes for broken sociality proposed by global capital. Why else call it the Labour party?
As a simple but concrete example of the approach I am suggesting consider how a Living Labour Party might have intervened in the current celebrations of Magna Carta. In contrast to the official approach , which has simply iterated a ‘safe’ message about Law and Property being the foundation of civil liberty, an alternative reading would focus on the struggles for enfranchisement and empowerment that have used Magna Carta as a rhetorical reference point .[xxix] Working in collaboration with local artists, the WEA, schools, youth projects , civil liberties and campaign groups the Co-Operative movement plus a wide range of community organisations the aim would be for each constituency to produce its own pictorial/narrative map of liberties and commons , past, present and future , incorporating local places and events associated with popular democratic struggles. Carta is after all latin for map! Whether in the form of a physical or digital map, a tapestry or banner, each constituency would add its own distinctive features to a deep cartography of Social Democracy. Not only would the project bring together different elements of the precariat in a common project, but it would provide a platform for a nationwide public deliberation about the relation of civil society and the state, creating the grass roots conditions for the formulation of a new constitutional settlement enshrined in a bill of rights. Evidently the Labour party in 2015 is in no state to launch a Great Chartist movement, but there will be other opportunities in the next five years to engage in this kind of activity, and to transform dead labour into Living Labour, without the need for any second coming of Blair/Brown.
In these ‘winter years’ for the Left, when we often find ourselves defending institutions and policies that in a more hopeful climate we critiqued and opposed, the political landscape is shifting under our feet in unpredictable ways. The risk is that Labour party may be too terrified of losing ‘middle England’ to do more than dramatise its radical disconnect from this emergent political geography. Meanwhile the blue collar working class is deserting what it perceives to be a sinking ship that has got rid of its life boats. Fear of the unknown is the great enemy of hope. It has been left to psychoanalysis to remind us that the unknown is constitutive of human curiosity and desire, fundamental to the impulse to experiment and explore[xxx]. Unless the Left can mobilise that will to knowledge, that optimism of the intellect, all its manifestos and analyses will remain so much sound and fury signifying nothing , and only serve to endorse an ever more demoralising pessimism of the will.
[i] In what follows I have been greatly indebted to Paolo Virno’s Déjà vu and the End of History Verso 2015
[ii] See Phil Cohen Archive that,Comrade: Legacy Politics and the ruses of remembrance MayDay Rooms Pamphlet London 2015
[iii] For a rather different take on Gramsci’s formula see Richard Johnson’s recent article in Soundings.
[iv] See for example Slavov Zizek Living in the the End Times Verso 2011
[v] For an application of the Gramscian perspective to a conjunctural analysis of the British political scene see Stuart Hall and Alan OShea ‘Common Sense Neo Liberalism’ in Soundings Num 2013
[vi] See Phil Cohen Reading Room Only:memoir of a radical bibliophile Five Leaves 2013
[vii] See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy :towards a radical democratic politics London Verso 2014
[viii] See Antonio Gramsci Prison Letters,translated and introduced by Hamish Henderson Edinburgh Review 1988 and the article by Gary Elliott in Radical Philosophy 75 1996 . The best biography is Giuseppe Fiori Antonio Gramsci ,Life of a revolutionary NLB 1975. See also Carl Boggs The Two revolutions :Antonio Gramsci and the dilemmas of western Marxism 2003 .
[ix] See Paul Rabinow The Foucault Reader Penguin 1993 and Sigmund Freud Civilisation and its Discontents Penguin 2002
[x] See Jon Carlson et al (ed) Alfred Adler Revisited Routledge 2012
[xi] See Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge, 2010. On violence and the notion of the irreparable see Judith Butler Precarious Life: the power of mourning and violence Verso 2004. For a sophisticated application of Kleinian object relations theory to political issues see Jaqueline Rose Why War? Psychoanalysis,politics and the return to Melanie Klein 1993, and Michael Rustin The Good Society and the Inner world Verso 1998 .
[xii] See Martin Jay The Dialectical Imagination University of California Press 1996
[xiii] See Thomas Frank Conquest of the Cool University of California Press 1996 and Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello The New Spirit of Capitalism.Verso 2005
[xiv] Franco Berardi Felix Guattari :thought, friendship, visionary cartography Palgrave 2008
[xv] See Phil Cohen On the Wrong Side of the Track ? Lawrence and Wishart 2013
[xvi] See Terry Eagleton The Crisis of Culture Oxford 1993
[xviii] See Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkel and Cartographies of the Absolute Zero Books 2015
[xix] See for example Caroline Knowles Flip Flop:a journey through Globalisations Backroads Pluto 2014 and Keller Easterling Extra Statecraft :the power of infrastructure space Verso 2015
[xx] Fredric Jameson Post modernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism Verso 1998
[xxi] See Bruno Latour We Have Never Been Modern Harvard University Press 1993
[xxii] Bruno Latour ‘The Affects of Capitalism’ 2014
[xxiii] Lauren Berlant Cruel Optimism Duke University Press 2011
[xxiv] See the discussion in Mark Fisher and Jeremy Gilbert Reclaim Modernity :Beyond markets and machines Compass 2015
[xxv] See Guy Standing The Precariat – the new dangerous class and Isabel Lorey The State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious Verso 2014
[xxvi] See Ben Little ‘Class and Generation under neoliberalism’ Soundings ; also Pat Ainley and Martin Allen Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education Continuum Books 2010
[xxvii] See Phil Cohen Rethinking the Youth Question Palgrave 2002
[xxviii] For an interesting discussion of the Social Democrat project which distinguishes it from command and control State Socialism see Dick Pountain ‘Connection Lost: the crisis of Social democracy’ Open Democracy May 2015
[xxix] For a discussion of the contemporary relevance of Magna Carta for democratic politics see Peter Linebaugh The Magna Carta Manifesto :Liberties and Commons for All University of California Press 2008
[xxx] See Guy Rosolato La Relation Inconnu Gallimard 1999