A recent exchange got me to thinking – always a bad idea, I know; but I can’t seem to help it.
I opened the bidding by saying mean things about that horrible old money-machine, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an adjunct of the Democratic Party which has always lined its own pockets by getting elderly but well-heeled liberals worried about the Ku Klux Klan. (It might usefully be noted that of the SPLC’s almost 1,000 listed “hate groups”, about a quarter are characterized as “black nationalist”. Nothing like even-handedness to rejoice the liberal heart!)
A friend promptly replied: Okay, which is worse, the SPLC or the Nazis?
Like many questions, this one carries with it a number of unstated and perhaps unexamined presuppositions: for example, the notion that “better” and “worse” have some meaning in a context like this – that one can assign the Nazis and the hate-patrol scammers each a scalar badness score and then compare them. (Which is worse, strychnine or cyanide?)
Then there’s the assumption that this score somehow matters – that it’s important to determine which is “worse”. Underlying this latter idea, I think, is the conviction that in some sense one must choose between them – that bad or good, they are on different “sides”, and that one side or the other must be taken. That’s why the determination of worseness must be made.
None of this really holds water. Say arguendo that the SPLC and its Democratic Party constituency are on one side, and oh, say, the Proud Boys on the other. Where is it written that one must embrace either of these unlovely social formations? Is one not in fact entirely at liberty to wish a plague on both insalubrious houses?
This exchange took place in the context of the current pillorying of Glenn Greenwald. Back when Greenwald was still practicing law, some years ago now, he undertook, on First Amendment grounds, the pro-bono defense of some unsavory groups attacked by the SPLC and other SLAPP suit entrepreneurs. Greenwald’s stance at the time was that lawfare, on the SPLC model, is an abuse of the courts – an attempt to do politics by lawsuit; bankrupt the enemy by making him fee lawyers. I don’t share his respect for the courts or the law, personally, but I think he’s right on the essence of the matter: politics belongs in the street, not in the courts, and the winner should not be the guy with the most lawyers.
The history here is that Greenwald recently got on the liberal shit-list by calling attention to the Biden family’s manifestly corrupt links to the Ukraine, and doing it right before the election. Clearly, they concluded, Greenwald has joined the Other Team. So his past pro-bono work was dredged up as evidence for his Trumpite or perhaps even Nazi sympathies. If he was wrong to do that work – and for the libs, it goes without saying that he was – then the SPLC was right, or at least “better than the Nazis”.
Now my friend, I say more in sorrow than anger, was a Biden supporter, and I suspect that his somewhat sophomoric trick question constituted an attempt to put me alongside Greenwald in the penalty box: a guy who clearly thinks that Nazis are “better” than the SPLC.
The more general moral of this story is perhaps that talk about who’s “better” and “worse”, which is the lesser evil and which the greater, is often manipulative; it seeks to box us into choices and determinations which we are in fact under no obligation to make, and which cloud our thinking more often than clarify it.
And it might be added that the trick-questioner is often coming from the Sitz im Leben of Aesop’s tailless fox; he has lost his own independence in the trap of team spirit, and would like to see the rest of us similarly docked.
New Gallup poll making the rounds, all about who’s straight and who’s not, and how. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of people who are willing to cop to being non-straight, in any of the many-splendored ways one can be so, has inched up again, as it has been doing for quite some time; it now stands at 5.6% population-wide, which is a ludicrous under-estimate, of course; lotta people still unwilling to come clean, obviously. But we can all be glad that more and more people are willing; hard to see any downside to that.
The stats are broken down by “generation” – boomers, zoomers, all that arbitrary horseshit. If identities didn’t exist, we should have to invent them. But I guess it’s a rough proxy for age, so okay. The interesting finding is row Zoomer, column Bi: Up to 12% of the cohort population! For Millennials it was 5%, and Xers 2%. The other consequential columns – “Gay” and “Lesbian” – grow inversely with age, too; but not nearly so fast; It’s the good old Biplane that’s really taken off.
Now this is very good news for me, since as an orthodox God-fearing Freudian I tend to believe that everybody is really Bi at heart, though we may end up specializing and mostly do – a process which deserves better theory than it’s so far got.
But the really nice thing about it is that it’s the least like an “identity”. Which is why for a long time it was a distinctly suspect category. I well remember when many gay activists regarded “bi” people as confused weak sisters at best and fifth-columnists at worst, squishy irresolutes, neither hot nor cold but fit only to be ‘spued out’, as the distinguished Patmian put it. Aisle-crossers! And straight people, curiously, saw it in much the same way, but with the sign reversed – bisexuals were just gay people who couldn’t face or admit the fact.
The study, rather confusingly, lines up a “gender” category (“Trans”) next to the Big Three “orientation” categories (LGB). No doubt the reason for this muddle is that the accepted acronym contains a T. (If the initials were listed by abundance in the population, it would be BGLT – pronounced “boggle-it”, perhaps.)
This mashup of incommensurables has led to the spilling of much virtual ink trying to read the tea-leaf implications for the TERF Wars, but I don’t think the numbers tell us anything about that. In any case, the lede is that the Bi’s are sweeping the field – more than half of all “LGBT” people now.
Whether this is because more people actually are Bi, in an operational sense, or because people are escaping from the identity boxes inside their own heads, is impossible to say. I hope for the latter, myself, though as a friend to pleasure I also like the idea of more people having more kinds of fun.
In the tenebrous Piranesian dungeon of US politics and culture, things which might seem rather ordinary, even obvious, anywhere else, gleam with a dangerously radical luminosity. Consider, for example, the topic of student loan forgiveness.
The staggering burden of student debt – about $1.8 trillion dollars these days – is clearly a social creation. It was encouraged by government policy, and pushed hard by banks at severe moral hazard and universities who got the cash up front, and by relentless propaganda about the benefit, or rather necessity, of a degree, or two, or three. And indeed employers often do have completely arbitrary requirements for these expensive bits of paper, so the prospective student finds himself offered credit without collateral, so he can buy his ticket, and threatened with disaster if he doesn’t take it.
Hence it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the government and the lenders who caused this problem might bear some burden of responsibility for fixing it, even on the plane of analysis in which debt has a moral significance, a questionable proposition to which we shall return.
But the suggestion illuminates some of the darker corners of the American psyche. Those wretched kids should have known better! Why should the taxpayer have to bail them out? And if debt weren’t sacred and inviolate, my God, what would become of us all? And you hear this not just from the usual abominables, like niggardly flint-hearted Joe Biden, the banksters’ old family retainer, but also from enlightened, usually generous people, from whom this sort of Ebenezer Scrooge toad-venom sounds very odd indeed.
Of course as a matter of logic none of this makes any sense. The kids took the money because they were frightened or scammed into it, and the only real beneficiary is the diploma printer that got all the money. And the taxpayers are accustomed to paying to solve social problems – that’s what taxes are for; if the government pays to repair a dam it has built, the people who live downstream benefit, but the people upstream also pay. And, of course, the student is also a taxpayer, and will be for the rest of his life. And of course debt has never been sacred and inviolate, in practice – there’s always been a thing called bankruptcy, though in a curious twist, this recourse is difficult or impossible in the case of student debt, which unaccountably has a privileged status among debts.
Sense, however, flies out the window in the face of the sacred, and the sacredness of debt, its moral significance, is what we’re up against. That, and the bizarre streak of punitiveness and vindictiveness that runs like arterial blood through American culture; but the latter is an unpleasant object of contemplation and one which in any case I find utterly inexplicable.
The sacredness of debt, however, is eminently explicable: it is clearly a direct ideological emanation of the rule of Capital. What is interesting and depressing is how deeply internalized it is, and how it can coexist, like a lurking troll under the soul-bridge, with good sense and a good heart.
And that is why demanding student loan forgiveness, in the abjectly depoliticized and pathetically backward US, where nothing else that’s any good is even being talked about, much, is so surprisingly radical, and upsets people so greatly. It’s a stone hurled down at the troll, and it makes the troll fighting mad.
Debt, of course, is an ancient institution, long antedating capitalism, and it certainly has its uses, not all of them malign. But it’s no more sacred than the power grid. It’s an instrumentality, a machine for oiling the wheels of commerce, and as such, subject to adjustment. Lenders don’t need absolute inviolability and in practice have never had it; what they need is a reasonable overall likelihood of repayment, and of course, like all businessmen, in each individual case they try to assess risk and weigh possible return against it. Every so often they will guess wrong, of course, and then they will take a haircut. Indeed they ought to take a haircut every so often, just to keep them from getting above themselves.
But of course this view of debt is abhorrent to Capital, precisely because it makes clear that debt is not some autonomous, irresistible law of nature, but a thing socially created for certain specific purposes and subject to social control. Now concepts like “socially created” and “subject to social control” are to Capital what garlic is to a vampire.
So although debt forgiveness wouldn’t destroy that mythical beast, “the economy”, and wouldn’t even cost “the taxpayers” much – most of the debt is directly held by the federal government, and could simply be written off the books without cutting anybody a check – it would tend to unveil the mundane reality of the institution beneath its gaudy hieratic vestments, and hence can’t be entertained.
I don’t mind Trump’s pardons one little bit. Of course it’s a rare collection of skallywags, con artists, and third-rate desperate chancers, all thoroughly undeserving, agreed, but as a famous Dane once observed, If we all had our deserts, who’d ‘scape whipping? People escaping punishment does not make me gnash my punitive teeth — in fact, I think my punitive teeth may have been accidentally removed, along with my wisdom teeth, some years ago. Most people in jail, as any public defender would tell you, are more or less guilty of what they were charged with, and I’d like to see more of them go free too. Shake off your inner jailer, friends, and rejoice in the lucky escape, no matter whom it befalls, and applaud his enlargement. As somebody once said, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
As we all know, the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, exhilarating as they were, got crushed pretty quickly, and the years of bipartisan lead followed – Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush again, Obama, and the opera-buffa of Trump. Of course these regnal dates merely constitute mile-markers for the course of events; and it was all, all of piece throughout: rollback and revanche, recuperation and restoration.
But those two lively decades did in fact alter the terrain. Many fewer people now would cop to being racists, though many would cheerfully have done in the 1950s; few would now seriously argue that women aren’t the equals of men. So the 1970s are the last living or transmitted recent memory of anything good happening.
Perhaps that’s why, after the succeeding half-century of defeat after defeat, and certainly without any further progress, anti-racism and feminism and womanism and various kinds of genderism have come back in a rather fevered form. The general defeat has been so complete, the revanche so thorough, that we’re thrown back upon the last hill we took, and find ourselves compulsively re-taking it, like Civil War re-enactors, with a kind of perseverative and increasingly amped-up hysteria.
It’s been said that liberals are the only conservatives left; they hear the long withdrawing roar of the tide going out, and utter plaintive inverse-Canute cries telling it to come back in again. Not that they liked it when it was coming in; all those uncouth kids occupying university officials’ offices – not really the thing at all. And as for the Black Panthers, oh my. But the kids are nostalgia now, law enforcement settled the Panthers’ hash, and the current reality is oafs in MAGA hats, not to mention mismatched furs, occupying the Capitol.
The result is an unmistakable sense of embattlement and defensiveness, which in some cases, especially among younger people, transmutes into a kind of schematized militancy. Its concrete content is ever-more-vehement insistence on matters long since agreed upon, vigilant enforcement of an ever-changing orthodoxy about terminology and turns of phrase, and a squiggly, gingerbready proliferation of oppressed social categories requiring consideration, foregrounding, and deference; the rich, well-manured field of “gender” having borne abundant fruit in this regard. Activism collapses into the zone of discourse and degenerates into entrepreneurial brand-building, careerism, and the accumulation of moral capital, which expand on inverse proportion to an ever-shrinking base of intellectual originality and substantive political salience. Indignant attitudinizing about the mean old Fash goes hand-in-hand with calling the cops (who are, of course, in fact the best-armed, best-organized, most politically powerful and most dangerous element of the Fash).
Marx’s often-cited (perhaps too often-cited) aphorism about tragedy and farce doesn’t apply here, though farce certainly abounds. Marx’s point was that something new has to dress itself up as something old, but what we see around us now is just the opposite: something that purports to be new but is in fact a compulsive repetition of something old. Something that purports to be an advance, but is really a retreat. Something that purports to be radical but is in fact both aggressively and defensively liberal. Something that purports to be critical but is in fact essentialist. Idealism in a materialist costume; moralism impersonating realism; the petit-bourgeois grad student dressed as a sans-culotte, Phrygian cap and all. “Social construction” lies down with “really a woman”, absolute freedom with ineluctable preordained determination, as we are told the lion someday will with the lamb; the part about the little child leading them seems at least partially to have come true, in the person of that lionized little lamb Greta Thunberg.
But you get the idea.
Of course the obvious missing piece is precisely the keystone of the arch, namely Capital reproducing itself by feeding on us. Men and women have a long and variegated history together, as do Europe and Africa, Old World and New, East and West, same-sexers and other-sexers and people who want to jump the fence. But the world we actually live in is a world comprehensively defined by Capital, and to make “class” just one identity among many is to demagnetize one’s compass and wander at random. There is, actually, an axis on which the world spins, and there is a North Pole. The relations of men and women, black and white, in our actual lives, are not defined by some immemorial patriarchy, or some sticky intransigeant ideology, but concretely and immediately by the conditions of our shared existence under the reign of Capital.
This recognition was present at least to some degree during the heady years of the 60s and 70s, though it never really got into the driver’s seat, which may be one of the reasons why so many of the achievements of that period were so easily rolled back by our ancient foes. Now, during the Great Reawokening, it is almost entirely absent. May one suggest that this significant aching absence is the reason for both our silliness and our ineffectuality? For how useless we are – and how boring?
A friend of mine dropped a recent observation about evolutionary theory — I’d share it, but I don’t know how — to the effect that in the latter half of the 19th century, it got applied as a justification for a lot of really bad stuff.
This got me thinking. It cuts both ways, doesn’t it? I mean, every real great glorious insight can be redirected to squalid ends. Newton gives us the Clockwork Universe. Darwin gives us Social Darwinism. Freud gives us the clinical praxis of adjustment. Marx gives us Trotskyites and tedious dogmatists.
But Darwin in particular is a sad case. This guy who noticed and recorded the exuberance and inventiveness of life, how surprising it is and how unpredictable, how transient and yet how jewel-like every species is, becomes exhibit A for a mingy, narrow, zero-sum view of life, a miser’s harsh war of all against all.
It’s there in him too, unfortunately, a guy of his time. But there’s something more joyous and bouncy implicit in it too. As with anybody who really takes the trouble to notice the gorgeous, incomprehensible, absurdly abundant world around him.
The Israel lobby is the illustration par excellence of the single issue. If you really have a single issue, and nothing else matters to you, and you have a fair amount of money to throw around, you can have a very outsized impact on US politics. And of course you have to be absolutely rigid; no negotiating at all, no half a loaf; it’s either unconditional surrender and slavish deference, or you do whatever you can to destroy the insubordinate. Totaler Krieg! And of course it helps if the opposition is weak, poorly-organized, and not as focussed and motivated as you are. The Israel lobby isn’t the only case, but it’s probably the most successful and the most important.
(With apologies to Betjeman, Slough, and John Shade)
The great charade is over now;
What will we do, and whence and how
Bestir ourselves? O, take a bow,
Thou man from Queens!
We’ll miss you, though we won’t know why.
Sharply awake at three, we’ll try
To think: What stirred me? By and by
The lurid scenes
You played for us will come to mind;
Dismayed in wee-hours dark, we’ll find
We needed you; you were the kind
Of loathesome schmuck
We all could hate as one; but now
We’re blued, tattoo’d and screwed, and how!
What’s coming, none could disavow
Would surely suck,
And yet we sought it. Can’t complain,
Luxuriate in shared disdain,
Clutch pearls no more. The squalid train
Of Bidenites –
They’re what we asked for, what we got.
As the man said, they’ve not forgot
Nor learned, it’s clear; nor we, a lot.
Th’ exciting rites –
Campaigning, voting, polls; that crap —
Now show, in retrospect, a trap.
We took the bait, we heard the snap
Too late; the jaws
Closed on our foot, and now we’re caught.
You’d think Experience might have taught
Us better; could we not have thought
The iron laws
Still unsuspended? Lesser evil
(O mortal enemy primeval)
As usual, a venom’d weevil
Gnawing our brain.
So here’s to four lean years, at least
For most of us, though some will feast;
And in the belly of the beast
Still we remain.
Every week or so, I overhear – may even participate in – a conversation about “class”, and it rapidly becomes clear that nobody involved – least of all me – has any very clear idea about who’s working-class, who’s petit-bourgeois, who’s “middle class” whatever the hell that means, who’s haut-bourgeois, who’s ruling class.
Perhaps the problem is that we conceive of classes as categories into which people fall, rather than aspects or “moments” of the relation individuals stand in with respect to the processes of exploitation. For example, a bus driver when he’s driving his bus stands in the relation of “worker” to the Transit Authority, but if he’s invested in a few houses in Queens and rents them out, he stands to his tenants in the relation of small-time landlord, which is surely echt petit-bourgeois.
Similarly, a “knowledge worker” – a computer programmer, say – toiling away in a cubicle maze for Bank of America is distinctly a wage slave as regards his conditions of work and the sadistic brutality with which his boss is apt to treat him. But he’s also making more money than the bus driver, probably, because he knows Tensorflow or what have you. Is this intellectual capital? Is he a capitalist, or at least a rentier? Is he a worker in the cubicle, and a petit-bourgeois on his commute, or at his gym?
Then suppose you got into the carpenter’s union because your cousin was a shop steward, and now you make a union wage at what most people would call a “working-class” job, rather than the exiguous pittance that your non-union counterpart gets? Is your cousinhood a kind of capital?
There’s a certain tendency to treat such cases as if they were liminal – as if these individuals dwelt in some ill-defined no man’s land between the well-mapped trenches of “class”. And there’s another solution, which is the vulgar reliance on income: The bus driver is working-class because his hourly wage is comparatively low, and the computer programmer is petit-bourgeois because he’s making four times that.
The former approach reifies “class”; the latter collapses it into a position on the income curve.
I’d suggest that the best way to view “class” is that it’s an abstraction – a valuable abstraction, like mass or momentum or potential energy or impedance – which reflects the various ways individuals interact with the underlying machinery of exploitation in the society. If you take the view (as I do) that “class” affects “consciousness”, then it follows that each such relation an individual has is apt to have some reflection in his consciousness.
But whatever a “class” may be, it’s not a collection of people.
There used to be a rather lame concept called “reverse racism” – does anybody still deploy that any more? It was popular in the 1970s, when people were pushing back against affirmative action in school admissions and hiring and so on. The idea being that it’s “just as bad” or “just the same” to “discriminate” against white people as against black people. Of course it’s silly, for the obvious reason that the relation between “white people” and “black people”, however you want to theorize it, is in any case not a symmetrical one; sauce for the goose is not, in this case, sauce for the gander.
The same might be said about the relationship between men and women. Clearly it’s not the same as the relationship between white and black, and I would say it’s very different indeed; but it too is not symmetrical, and affirmative action for women in admissions and hiring doesn’t amount to misandry. One might go on to make a similar observation for gay and straight, etc.
But one doesn’t have to postulate symmetry in order to observe that some exercises of asymmetry are, to say the least, misplaced or ill-advised.
For example: it’s clearly impermissible for “white people” to make sweeping blanket statements about black people, and so it should be. But in the present cultural climate, it’s not only permissible but almost obligatory to make such statements about “white people”. Especially for woke white people, who having deplaaared their own whiteness, get credit for wokeness, but go home no less white than they were.
Now I maintain that one doesn’t have to posit symmetry in order to argue that this is a bad idea. It’s bad on the intellectual plane, and it’s downright imbecile on the political plane.
I’ve written a bit elsewhere about how “white people” are the reification of a negative, and thus by definition not a thing, so talking about a non-thing as if it were a thing is apt to create confusion. That’s the intellectual part, and I won’t belabor it further.
The political part is perhaps less abstract and more interesting.
There have always been several ways to approach the matter of black liberation. One is what you might call “Afro-pessimism”, which is perfectly respectable and indeed rather compelling. To summarize, and I hope not to vulgarize, this is the view that there is a great gulf insuperably fixed between white people and black people; the whites, besotted with their whiteness, will never accept the blacks as men and brothers, so the blacks need to circle the wagons and prepare for a more or less permanent state of siege from the whites.
Depressingly enough, there is a lot to be said for this view. But it seems to me like a counsel of despair.
Of course there’s a lot of vulgar integrationism going round – we should all be color-blind, I don’t care what color somebody is, etc. etc. It’s always a lie. The first thing anybody notices in actually existing society, in the US anyway, is what color somebody else is. Even sex is secondary. It’s the first question the cops ask, if you make the mistake of calling the cops; and of course the cops are the blunt but cutting edge of cultural norms, in practice. So color-blindness, for the moment anyway, is a non-starter.
But I would like to think there’s a way open which avoids both the blithe imbecility of post-racialism and the glum hopelessness of Afro-pessimism; and I would like to think that it relies upon the remarkable capacity of human beings to focus on a shared project. And in the process come to value and love each other as comrades and brothers.
Suppose, for example, that the shared project were, quite simply, “equality” – equality in some breathtakingly broad sense, not just racial, not just sexual; a sense inimical to any attempt to re-found inequality on some other, supposedly better basis, like merit or talent or deservingness. Suppose we took the view that Einstein and the village idiot really are equal, and the one deserves as much consideration and respect as the other? And the white guy and the black guy are equal, absolutely radically equal, not just in the abstract qua white and qua black, but any two white and black guys chosen at random, equal as actual living breathing individual human beings? No matter who did better on the SAT, or who went to prison and who didn’t: men and brothers alike, who were born of woman and suffer and rejoice and love and die like human beings.
Okay, it’s a wild idea. Though a good one, I think. But as a by-product, surely it sidelines all these other group-based inequalities? If radical equality is the project and that’s what we’re after, then surely we want all the comrades we can find, black or white, male or female, gay or straight?
The trouble is that any such positive shared project – like radical equality – comes up against some mental reservations and purposes of evasion that even the most woke cherish in their heart of hearts. The identitarian cherishes his own particular grievance; the meritocrat worries what will become of us all if the rabble take over. Suppose my grievance were subsumed in the immense, immemorial grievance of all the dispossessed, the immiserated, the beaten-down, the innumerable host of the slaughtered and the slaves? I don’t seem so special any more. On the other hand, suppose my well-earned eminence, which I have worked so hard to attain, were toppled like a Confederate statue? Then I too don’t seem so special any more.
There is more than one kind of property that needs to be expropriated.